Friday, April 30, 2010

Air's dreamy song "La Femme D'Argent"...

...and a spaceflight video. Because spaceflight should be beautiful.

And just for a sense of contrast, "La Femme D'Argent" and a seven-minute high-quality film shot from the front of a street car traveling down San Francisco's Market Street in 1905. Nice views of people swarming through the streets in an era when it was important to dress up rather than down.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

The evolution of the western United States...

...starting 20 million years after the death of the dinosaurs.

When researching the history of the Yellowstone volcano for "Ashfall" I was floored to learn that Nevada had been a much skinnier region before the volcano's birth.

Around seventeen million years ago something massive struck the continental crust from below and created not only the Yellowstone and Newberry hot spots, and buried much of Oregon and Washington miles deep under basalt flows, but also lifted what is now the Great Basin and Range area to nearly a mile above sea level and stretched out Nevada from east to west. So much so that it nearly tore Nevada in half. The basaltic remains of the resulting rift still bisect the state, running from near the original Yellowstone caldera at McDermitt on the Nevada - Oregon border south to Nevada's midpoint.

This video shows the overall development of the Earth's continents over the past half billion years, and presents an accurate depiction of the western United States essentially being a cluster of micro continents, uplifted ocean floor segments and volcanic arc island chains that gradually fused with the granitic core that underlies the central US and Canada.

A much faster version that extends 250 million years into the future

Metropia: It looks something like....

...Philip K Dick running wild in a near-future dystopia Sweden.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Jan Johansson - Emigrantvisa

My Sunday mornings move at an entirely different musical pace from the rest of the week. While cleaning the apartment I normally have classical, jazz, or oral stories playing on the iPod. As I am preparing to prove my proficiency in Swedish to the university via a foreign language assessment test, this morning was spent listening to Jan Johanson's pair of quintessential 1960s albums, which are comprised of traditional Swedish and Russian folk songs translated into jazz.

On a slightly different tangent of technical reading, leading neurologist Oliver Sacks does a lovely job of describing the relationship between music and the brain in his Musicophillia--some of which I've tried to tap into for my novel-in-editing, Phase Line Escher.

Music is apparently one of the most engaging neurological phenomena, and simultaneously draws on multiple subsystems governing emotion, motorfunctions, cognitive focus, and memory. A German researcher has likened its effects to that of a skin orgasm, a kind of burst of intertwined physical and mental feelings. Additionally, practiced musicians cross-wire their brains (integrate the left and right hemispheres)to such an extent that it can often readily be seen on MRI scans.

There seems to be two broad schools of thought regarding music in an evolutionary context. One is that it is a delicious accident: an intense and unintended synergy that arises from separately evolved subsystems, and that is easily co-opted by the cultures that our brains are built to be molded by. The other is that originally our verbal communications were much more emotive and musical in nature, and that we may have given up some of that musicality in exchange for a greater semantic precision--i.e. more exact meaning in our speech.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

If you have the patience for some technical reading...

...Janet L. Abu-Lugbod's landmark Before European Hegemony: The World System A.D. 1250 - 1350 does a fantastic if slow-going job of describing the regional economic subsystems and trade routes that spanned Eurasia from around the fall of Rome to the disintegration of the Mongol's massive overland empire.

Besides a broader view of this commercial system's enormous influence on the overall development of human societies, Before European Hegemony also gave me an entirely new understanding of Medieval Europe's economic and political order. What this work lacks, however, is a description of the wealthy trading cities of Eastern Africa, as well as the Gold Roads of Africa--a significant source of precious metals and slaves in the Eastern Hemisphere's economy during the time period.

Robert B. Marks' The Origins of the Modern World does a good job of following the expansion of Abu-Lugbod's Afro-Eurasian economy into a global system after 1500 and is written in a more accessible style.

Having said that, I have two complaints about his work. One is that in his attempt to address why the European Imperial powers came to dominate the world, he never discusses Jared Diamond's Gun's Germans and Steel*, a popular work that looms large over this topic. Even if not strictly historiographical, Diamond's listing of explanatory geographical and ecological factors is so pervasive (and persuasive in my view) that Marks' thesis would have benefited a comparison with Diamond's. It's all the more strange as Marks cites Guns Germs and Steel in Origins of the Modern World with regards to revolutions in food production and in defining civilizations in two footnotes.

The second gripe is that Marks works a little too hard at explaining that no merit was involved with Western Europe's economic and military ascent. While I do agree that this global change was in large part contingent upon a number of factors external to Europe, those conditions also formed the context that European political and commercial leaders were making decisions in. If all factors were materially contingent and choice was never a variable, then European domination after A.D. 1500 was truly inevitable--contrary to Marks' thesis. Instead, like Diamond, I see a number of factors as having helped to stack the deck in Northwestern Europe's favor, and I believe that differing choices during a handful of key moments could have led to a very different world order--again for good or for bad.

*If you couldn't slog through Guns Germans and Steel, don't worry, you are in good company. A number of bright and intellectually curious friends of mine had a hard time getting through this detail-oriented book. But if you do want to know why the world turned out as it did after 1500, I warmly recommend the National Geographic television version (available on Netflix). This three episode series efficiently outlines Diamond's major casual factors in an easy to follow visual narrative and introduces supplemental material not covered in the book.

The fact that we still do not have... effective infrastructure for treating and caring for soldiers who have experienced brain trauma or legit PTSD issues nine years into this conflict pisses me off to no end.

G.I.’s Describe Despair and Isolation in Trauma Units -

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Mongol (2007)

Not a historically accurate film concerning the rise of Genghis Kahn, but still a lush depiction of Mongol life with its juxtaposition of beauty, intimacy, and cruelty. That and just listening to the language is a pleasure. The film's major downside is that while it's depictions of period combat starts out realistic, it transitions into full on Hollywood-style warfare toward the end.

Apologies for the campy trailer. It was the best of a bad lot.

It's an epic film, but then again anything having to do with the Mongols during the time of their empire has to be epic in scale. They conquered Song China--a sprawling empire unto itself--and besieged Baghdad in 1258 using steppe horsemen, Chinese infantry and engineers, Christian soldiers from France and Georgia, and Persian artillerist. Their land empire led to a massive surge of activity in the super economy that spanned Eurasia and Africa, and then spread the Black Death from Southwestern China all the way to Scotland and Scandinavia.

Gorgeous photos from Eyjafjallajokull

Volcanoes, they are truly one of nature's most aesthetically pleasing forms of mass destruction.

More from Eyjafjallajokull - The Big Picture -

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

How cool is that!

The seed concept for Dune apparently came from a trip that Frank Herbert took to as a journalist to Florence on the coast here in Oregon. His report was on an attempt to control the drift of some impressively large sand dunes by using imported grasses.

Frank Herbert's 'Dune' holds timely - and timeless - appeal -

The 1984 David Lynch film adaptation remains a favorite of mine. Yes, it is yet more 80s cheese, and it's very compressed plot-wise, but much of imagery remains potent.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Clash of the Titans 2010

I...I actually enjoyed it. Sure it was even cheesier and more of an 80s action movie than the 1981 version, but there is a certain Saturday afternoon charm in that, which is still great fun.

As a word of warning, I saw and enjoyed the 2D version. The 3D release of the film apparently is of horrifically bad quality, which is not surprising as it was originally filmed for 2D and then changed over during post production.

Tales from a Swedish language class...

So, when I was living in Sweden and attending classes with fellow immigrants we had to make numerous in-class speaking presentations. I did two that seemed to leave lasting impressions.

One was a Monday morning description of what we students had been up to over weekend. I had spent a weekend helping some friends move from an apartment into their first house, and I had arrived at an important insight that I wanted to share. While moving furniture and listening to the conversations it had occurred to me that homes, apartments, and furnishings are to Swedes what cars are to Americans--an important cultural object that shows the world who you are and what important characteristics you see yourself as possessing.

That one provoked an animated conversation that even the Swedish class instructor seemed to enjoy. The really fun part, though, was that during subsequent gatherings outside of class significant Swedish others of my classmates would approach me and let me know that they really enjoyed hearing about that comparison. Most felt that the focus on furniture and home as personal signifiers stemmed from the rainy climate and amount of time spent indoors.

The other presentation was one in a series of talks about our homelands. For mine I chose regionalism and tried to describe the foods, attitudes, politics, climate, and lifestyles that characterize regions in the US such as New England and the South, the Southwest and Pacific Northwest, the Midwest and West Coast, and so on.

That one honestly seemed to stump a number of people.

Apparently the widely held external view of the US is monolithic, with a general assumptions that people talk and think the same in Minnesota as in Texas. The idea that each state has its own flag and laws also seemed to come as a surprise. That some of the states predated the US was also news. A widely held belief among both Swedish friends and foreign classmates was that the states are administrative sub-units of the federal government, which in turn legislates laws for the nation at all levels. There were also some Swedes who thought that the states handle misdemeanor level offenses while felonies fall under federal purview.

My best guess is that much of this stems from from individuals applying notions of how their homelands work to the US despite significant differences in size and diversity. The countries that I have lived and worked in have had populations between five and eighty million people, and all of these were much more politically centralized than the United States. Most of my friends in these countries did not seem to realize how little the average US citizen deals with the federal government during their life prior to retirement. Also, there are only a handful of countries large enough to have the extreme variations of climate that mark out regions and drive regional politics within the US.

Friday, April 16, 2010

This article left me wondering...

...if the Marines will end up creating their own version of the Ranger regiment for countering hybrid opponents.

The Incredible Shrinking Marine Air Ground Task Force | Defense Tech

It also makes for an interesting contrast with the next article, in which the lessons learned against a hybrid enemy is a greater emphasis on well-balanced combined arms operations.

Lessons From Hybrid Wars: The IDF in Lebanon and Gaza | Defense Tech

Thursday, April 15, 2010


Volcanic ash from Iceland forces cancellation of flights, disrupts travel for thousands

Watching Iceland's Eyjafjallajokull volcano shutdown air traffic over Northern Europe is sobering. Especially as Eyjafjallajokull often precedes large eruptions at nearby Katla, which has been rumbling for some time now. The thought of Europe not having air traffic for several months or a year is scary.

I'm wishing that I could have gotten "Ashfall" published earlier than this as it addresses the effects of large-scale volcanic activity on industrial and post-industrial society and possible means of coping with it. At sometime in the future a volcano will turn a significant portion of the Earth's surface into a lunar landscape, as has happened many times before. While that prospect is somewhat distant or at least unlikely in a given life time, major regional disasters in industrialized countries and planet-wide climactic effects are very real probabilities.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Transgressing space

Practicing to transgress social space in the Army: In the combat arms part of the Army you learn how to violate off-limit social spaces. This can include blowing, kicking or otherwise forcibly pushing into someone else's home or work place. It can also be done in checkpoint searches when patting down and physical searching another human being. While on deployment, it mean a constant moving in and out of those public and private spaces that society normally forbids transgressing.

The aerial traversal of inter-boulder space, Nevada during the 1980s: As children on the outskirts of the desert and not far from the foot of the mountains, we learned to jump from boulder to boulder over gaps ranging from three to twenty feet deep. The most fun was when heavy equipment operators lined up or clustered boulders in nearby neighborhoods under construction. There was a joy in bounding from rock to rock as quickly as possible, and this aerial traversal of space was not something that neighborhood parents smiled upon.

Also fun: inner tubing in the four-foot deep irrigation ditch that cut through the sage-covered desert not far from home. Two or three miles of drifting under barbed wire and across property lines in the company of friends.

Transgressing private space, Korea: During an exercise out in the countryside on a frozen January day I sneaked through a tiny South Korean village unseen by the people living there. It was the first time that I had ever done anything remotely like that, and it was an utterly foreign experience to be moving through the places of other persons' private lives and having no interactions at all with the physical or social environment.

Just be another patch of air.

Moving through public space: I walk everywhere these days and spend much of my out-of-door weekday time in the public spaces of downtown Portland. That means my internal map of the city is completely different from people who drive. Remembering which streets are one way and which direction these roads run on takes an effort when I am riding in a car. It also means that my life is far less hectic within that same volume. I am entirely and peacefully oblivious to the rhythms of rush hour traffic despite being surrounded by millions of people. Then there are all the personal interchanges that need to be mastered when passing others on the street--how to blow off panhandlers and proselytizers; how to eye flirt politely with well-dressed or pretty girls and evoke a pleased smile or look. For some reason the latter seems to work best with a day or two's worth of beard growth. Also, it takes some effort to make sure I do not walk blindly past acquaintances while on the street: people from the coffee shop around the corner, former co-workers from the Primate Center on the Max, classmates while in the neighborhood grocery store or in Powell's Used Books.

Transgressing cultural space: Germany during the summer of 1992 and I am just out of high school, unable to speak the language, and outside the States for the very first time. What the hell am I doing here, and why the fuck did the travel agent think that this was the shortest way of getting to Sweden? Or standing in Bulgaria three years later. Wait, weren't we supposed to fly into Sofia, a city in the mountains? How did we end up landing on the coast? And the writing is all in Cyrillic, so we can't even read the signs. The next morning at 0430 we find ourselves in a chartered taxi and wonder why we are cutting through farmer's fields in this hour just prior to dawn? A few days later I ponder if  it's really the accepted custom to rent rooms in people's homes on the coast of the Black Sea. Free to come and go into other people's private residences, wandering in through unlocked doors after midnight and trying not to step on the cats underfoot.

Vertical violations at Fort Knox: I never even came close to learning that trick of running headlong into a wall and then somehow be running up it in unholy violation of all the laws of physics. I still get angry thinking about how spontaneously the instructors did it. And they didn't jump either. Apparently that was the whole trick. Don't jump. Just run into the wall then run up it. Well. Fuck.

Heading into void spaces as a kid: Just go out the door with friends and up into the mountains. Sure there had been logging camps inhabited by Italian or Chinese laborers up there seventy five or a hundred years back, but now those long ridges to the west of Reno were a largely abandoned and adult-free space. And so we went, often with no trails or paths to follow. Just cross the open desert and then up the unmarked slopes. Rather than being channeled by the engineering and architecture of grownups, by their sidewalks, hallways, or highway lanes, it was all about allowing your eyes to trace out the route of least resistance. Either that or plow through the rough straight-line route to whichever wind-beaten tree or shiny bauble had caught your imagination while going up the steep draws and spurs.

Lingering: For the first time today I sat on the brick steps of Pioneer Square and nursed a coffee while watching people go by. Now I'm seriously wondering why I never did that before. Why live in the middle of the city if you never linger in all of these beautiful public spaces?

Monday, April 12, 2010

A reminder of people known abroad

An emotional and well-executed French film about the ongoing tragedy that is the Iranian Revolution, as well the difficulties that go with emigrating from the Mideast to Western Europe. Not surprisingly, it's got me thinking of my classmates in the Swedish for Immigrants courses and at Malmö City College, when I was an immigrant in Sweden.

Of course my identity as an immigrant was largely an accidental daytime role, brought about by my tan skin, black hair, and spotty Swedish during the first two years I lived there. When out on my own I was often lumped into the Middle Eastern immigrant category at first glance or with the first spoken word. That could mean anything from aloofness, poorly concealed discomfort, or sympathy mistakenly directed at a fellow westerner. And in the evenings within my then girlfriend's circle of friends or family I was very much a fellow westerner.

Having said that, being an American in Western Europe during the early 2000s brought its own set of difficulties and ugly stereotypes to the table, but those were problems of an entirely lesser magnitude than being an outsider from the Middle East or Africa in a society that holds such immigrants at arms length. Housing was often difficult for them to obtain, service in a restaurant or or coffee shop outside of the immigrants community could be problematic, and job interviews were non-existent for those with non-western names.

I wish now that I had exchanged email addresses or otherwise kept in touch with those classmates. They were fascinating individuals, who ranged from middle-class and upper-class exiles who had been forced from their homes in Iran, Iraq, or Syria because of their political views, to Palestinians who had fled the poverty and discrimination of lives as refugees in Arab-speaking nations. Some were from Eastern Europe or Russia and had come in search of work or because they had family in Sweden. Still others came from the East Asian nations or Africa.

All of them were friendly and pleasant to hangout or study with. They were by-in-large university educated in nations where higher education is a much sought after privilege--and one that apparently also entails a sense of greater responsibilities to society. Nearly all of them were broadminded and possessed a curiosity about the world outside of their homelands.

They had a great many questions about my homeland, and seemed genuinely interested in my attempts to present what was hopefully a nuanced view of the United States. That was quite a contrast to the Western Europeans, who more often than not insisted on trying to instruct me on how things "really are" in my homeland.

To the last my fellow immigrants seemed proud of the cultures they came from, and many insisted that there was no conflict between their traditions and modernity.

On that latter point I have to disagree. Not because I believe that there is anything inherently incompatible between any particular culture or religion and modernity, but rather because modernity has been a rough ride for all of us. The period from 1870s through the 1940s in the United States was a turbulent one with all of the economic upheavals, worker displacements, and challenges to tradition posed by the arrival of industrial society and modern science. With vastly increased mobility came shrunken family and communal ties, and not even Great Britain,  home to the industrial revolution, seems to have gotten off lightly.

During those years immediately after 9/11, class each day with my fellow immigrants was an odd island of tranquility, in which people for counties at war or that had been at war interacted peaceably. This included not only Iraqis and Iranians, but Korean and Japanese students. While opinions among the Iraqi students varied about whether the US invasion during the 2003 school year was good or bad, nearly all of them made a point of explaining that they bore no personal animosity towards me.

That willingness to deal with me as an individual helped to make Swedish for Immigrants a calm place for me. I think I was more myself there than at most other times in Sweden, dealing with Swedish society as an immigrant or with fellow westerners for whom "American" was a term with a lot of negative baggage.

That baggage carried over to some of the teachers at Malmö City College, who often insisted on interjecting their political views into the class. The last straw for me was a history of the Cold War that made no mention of Stalin, the millions he had killed by purge or famine; Mao and the tens of millions killed in China by famine, malnutrition, or the violence of the Cultural Revolution; North Korea and its camps and famines; or even a single word about Cambodia under Pol Pot. When I asked the professor after class why those tragedies had been left out, he told me that those were not important issues.

I suppose you could also teach a class on World War II without the Holocaust, the mass killing Soviet citizens by Nazi occupation forces, the Rape of Nanking or the occupation of China with that kind of criteria.

Whatever, its water under the bridge at this point. And like I said, I wish I had kept in touch with my classmates. As the years go by I find myself more and more curious about their lives and what they have gone on to. Did they find some way into Swedish society and the workplace, or are they still locked out on the fringes? I had the option of going home to a place where I am me, rather than a nationality or an appearance. They did not.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Science fiction in French cinema

Immortel ad Vitam, not for everyone, but fun.

And something odd but fun in the reality-is-a-lie genre that popped up on I09 a few days ago.

Friday, April 09, 2010

Simply the best thing I have seen... science fiction since The Matrix.

Like the first Matrix movie, Ergo Proxy is sexy science fiction. That being said, it's not for everyone. I watched each of the 23 episodes twice, and I am reasonably sure that I understand the plot and most of what its writers meant to imply. The show is densely layered with references to philosophy and previous works of science fiction as well as popular and classical culture. Essentially post-apocalyptic cyberpunk with an understated goth aesthetic, it deals with themes of social engineering, identity, and environmental issues, and none of it is straight forward. Rather it is a web of mysteries and concepts explored in a wonderfully indirect manner and at its own pace.

And it's certainly been awhile since a group of writers made me feel so invested in the wellbeing and personal development of the characters. If you are up for an emotionally rewarding puzzle-solving challenge, this series is for you.

Interesting imagery

Click on the image for the full view.

Monday, April 05, 2010

Thursday, April 01, 2010

At last!

Historians are finally starting to address the biology of human thought via the school of environmental history. Unfortunately it's not the easiest or most succinct article, but hopefully a indicator of more to come on the subject.