A desperate attempt to outrun a nuclear missile

January 17th, 2018

Jason Scott Jones was taking out the trash on Saturday morning when he received the now-infamous warning:

“Ballistic missile threat inbound. Seek immediate shelter. This is not a drill.”

“So it’s today,” I thought. I’m a student of the bloody twentieth century, a hundred years of genocide, democide, and total war. I’ve lived on Oahu for almost 30 years, in sight of Pearl Harbor. It’s still a key target for surprise attack today. I’ve long thought that Oahu could be the spot where the next great tragic war begins — though not where it ends. Decades of thinking on this inspired me to write a book on the subject with John Zmirak, The Race to Save Our Century. I also recently co-authored a white paper outlining a path to abolish city-busting, strategic nuclear weapons.

Whenever someone suggests that I’m some do-gooding humanitarian, I correct them: “No, I’m just trying to save my children.” Oahu is a small island. But it’s one of the most important strategic locations for the projection of U.S. power to the East, confronting both North Korea and China. Knowing that, you come to accept a grim reality: Oahu is one of the most likely flashpoints for the start of World War III.

So when I saw the alert on my iPhone, I faced it with the same realism that wise Midwesterners greet tornado warnings. And like them I had a plan.

I rushed into the house. “Kids, get in the car. Babe, grab the case of water bottles.” They knew the drill, and soon the minivan was fully loaded. I filled water jugs, two mugs of coffee and grabbed my 9mm.

I was rushing to shelter my family behind the Waianae mountain range. That might shield us from whatever was about to hit Pearl Harbor. We had 10 minutes, I calculated, to get there, and hide in the Makua Cave.

[...]

As we made the turn into the shadow of the mountain, I felt we’d won a small victory. The first missile must have been intercepted. Or else the inept North Koreans had dropped a rocket in the middle of the Pacific. Before the next wave of missiles hit, we would make it to Makua Cave.

My hopes that this was a false alarm were fading. “If this were a hack or a hoax, the government would have texted us already.”

[...]

Just as we pulled up to Makua Cave, my cell phone rang and the State of Hawaii finally let us know that this had all been a big mistake.

In 38 minutes I’d gone from rolling out my trash can to loading five of my seven children into our minivan in a desperate attempt to outrun a nuclear missile. I’d heard my oldest daughter’s voice for what I thought was the last time. I’d given her and my mother-in-law a destination I knew offered nothing but hope. And I’d watched a total stranger turn away from safety to go try to save his wife.

(Hat tip to T. Greer.)

General Garcia is dead now, but there are other Garcias

January 17th, 2018

Elbert Hubbard wrote his “literary trifle,” A Message to Garcia, one evening after supper, in a single hour, as an unnamed piece for his magazine, the Philistine:

It was on the Twenty-second of February, Eighteen Hundred Ninety-nine, Washington’s Birthday, and we were just going to press with the March “Philistine.” The thing leaped hot from my heart, written after a trying day, when I had been endeavoring to train some rather delinquent villagers to abjure the comatose state and get radio-active.

The immediate suggestion, though, came from a little argument over the teacups, when my boy Bert suggested that Rowan was the real hero of the Cuban War. Rowan had gone alone and done the thing — carried the message to Garcia.

It came to me like a flash! Yes, the boy is right, the hero is the man who does his work — who carries the message to Garcia. I got up from the table, and wrote “A Message to Garcia.” I thought so little of it that we ran it in the Magazine without a heading. The edition went out, and soon orders began to come for extra copies of the March “Philistine,” a dozen, fifty, a hundred; and when the American News Company ordered a thousand, I asked one of my helpers which article it was that had stirred up the cosmic dust.end-of-paragraph

“It’s the stuff about Garcia,” he said.

I love that 1899 style: get radio-active!

Hubbard goes on to claim that millions of copies have been printed and distributed. The story’s fame has definitely come and gone though:

The phrase “to carry a message to Garcia” was in common use for years to indicate taking initiative when carrying out a difficult assignment. Richard Nixon can be heard using it on the Watergate tapes during conversations with Henry Kissinger and John Ehrlichman. It has also been used as the title of children’s games, dramatized on radio shows, and was tailor-made for the Boy Scouts of America. A passage in the 1917 Boy Scouts Yearbook emphasizes the connection: “If you give [a Boy Scout] a ‘Message to Garcia’ you know that message will be delivered, although the mountains, the wilderness, the desert, the torrents, the broad lagoons or the sea itself, separate him from ‘Garcia.’”

The actual story about Rowan delivering a message to General Garcia is just a short preamble to Hubbard’s diatribe against half-hearted work:

In all this Cuban business there is one man stands out on the horizon of my memory like Mars at perihelion.

When war broke out between Spain and the United States, it was very necessary to communicate quickly with the leader of the Insurgents. Garcia was somewhere in the mountain fastnesses of Cuba — no one knew where. No mail or telegraph message could reach him. The President must secure his co-operation, and quickly. What to do!

Some one said to the President, “There is a fellow by the name of Rowan will find Garcia for you, if anybody can.”

Rowan was sent for and was given a letter to be delivered to Garcia. How “the fellow by the name of Rowan” took the letter, sealed it up in an oilskin pouch, strapped it over his heart, in four days landed by night off the coast of Cuba from an open boat, disappeared into the jungle, and in three weeks came out on the other side of the Island, having traversed a hostile country on foot, and delivered his letter to Garcia — are things I have no special desire now to tell in detail. The point that I wish to make is this: McKinley gave Rowan a letter to be delivered to Garcia; Rowan took the letter and did not ask, “Where is he at?” By the Eternal! there is a man whose form should be cast in deathless bronze and the statue placed in every college of the land. It is not book-learning young men need, nor instruction about this and that, but a stiffening of the vertebrae which will cause them to be loyal to a trust, to act promptly, concentrate their energies: do the thing — “Carry a message to Garcia.”

General Garcia is dead now, but there are other Garcias.

No man who has endeavored to carry out an enterprise where many hands were needed, but has been well-nigh appalled at times by the imbecility of the average man — the inability or unwillingness to concentrate on a thing and do it.

Go ahead and read the whole thing for a dose of old-school American can-do spirit.

Message to Garcia Cover

(Hat tip to our Slovenian guest, who described it as something he expected to find out about on Isegoria.)

Free advertising for mass killers

January 16th, 2018

Tyler Cowen cites a study estimating the value of the media attention given to mass killers:

This study compared perpetrators of seven mass killings during 2013–2017 with more than 600 celebrities over the same time period. Findings indicate that the mass killers received approximately $75 million in media coverage value, and that for extended periods following their attacks they received more coverage than professional athletes and only slightly less than television and film stars. In addition, during their attack months, some mass killers received more highly valued coverage than some of the most famous American celebrities, including Kim Kardashian, Brad Pitt, Tom Cruise, Johnny Depp, and Jennifer Aniston. Finally, most mass killers received more coverage from newspapers and broadcast/cable news than the public interest they generated through online searches and Twitter seems to warrant. Unfortunately, this media attention constitutes free advertising for mass killers that may increase the likelihood of copycats.

The Virginian will live 100 years, if the Bolshevists and the IWW permit civilizations to endure so long as that

January 16th, 2018

Back in 1923 a little newspaper called the Los Angeles Times asked Edgar Rice Burroughs to write a thousand words about his extremely popular but non-literary works:

Mr. Ford suggests that I talk to you about my books — “At the Earth’s Core,” “The Chessmen of Mars” and the “Tarzan” stories. He wants me to talk about them for a thousand words… What I can say of them without outraging modesty can be put in fewer words by far. I think they are bully stories and that they fulfill the purposes for which they were written — to entertain and to sell. They were not written for any other purpose. Sometimes reviewers waste whole columns on them explaining that they are not what I never intended them to be — contributions to classical literature. That is misspent energy. Did a sport writer ever discuss the table manner of Battling Siki as seriously affecting his success in the prize ring? The only standard by which I judge the fiction that I enjoy is whether it has the punch to hold my interest and is able to deliver the k.o. to dull care and worry.

It seems to me that no one who functions properly above the ears can possibly read fiction for purposes of instruction or enlightenment. It is written by men no better, and oftentimes not so well, equipped to think as the reader. Each book contains the personal viewpoint of one man or woman, and even that opinion is usually seriously affected by what he thinks the public will pay $1.50 or $2 for. Occasionally there is a great piece of fiction, once in a hundred years, perhaps, or maybe I had better say a thousand years, that actually molds public opinion; but in the meantime fiction either entertains or it does not entertain, and that is all there is to it. What entertains you may not entertain the other fellow, but God knows there is enough of it written each year so that it is our own fault if we are not all entertained.

The really great purpose of fiction, however, is, as I see it, that it is a stepping stone to other and vastly more entertaining reading. The reading of clean fiction should be encouraged since the reading of anything will form the habit of reading and one day the novitiate, having no fiction on hand, will, perforce, have to read something else, and, lo, a new world will be opened to him — and there are so many wonderful books outside the fiction lists; but gosh! how they do charge for them. My favorites are travel exploration, biography and natural history, but there are others — countless others in which you can find more wonderful things than I or any other writer can invent.
Did you ever read an annual report of the Smithsonian Institute? I recently sat up nearly all night reading one that is ten years old, almost, and when, at dinner the following evening I recounted my adventures of the previous night to my three children they held them spellbound and elicited a thousand questions, 999 of which I could not answer.

And then there are magazines such as the Geographic, Asia and Popular Mechanics. These three constitute an encyclopedia of liberal education for adult or child that arouses a desire for more knowledge and fosters the habit of reading.

I am fond of fiction, too, although I do not read a great deal of it. And I have my favorites — Mary Roberts Reinhart and Booth Tarkington are two of them. When I read one of Mrs. Reinhart’s stories I always wish that I might have been sufficiently gifted to have written it, and then when I read something of Tarkington’s I feel the same way about that. I have read “The Virginian” five or six times, and “The Prince and the Pauper” and “Little Lord Fauntleroy” as many. I believe “The Virginian” to be one of the greatest American novels ever written, and though I have heard that Mr. Wister deplores having written it, I venture that 100 years from now it will constitute his sole link to fame — and I am sure that “The Virginian” will live 100 years, if the Bolshevists and the I.W.W. permit civilizations to endure so long as that.

I’m rather shocked that I’d never even heard of Mary Roberts Reinhart before:

Mary Roberts Rinehart (August 12, 1876 – September 22, 1958) was an American writer, often called the American Agatha Christie, although her first mystery novel was published 14 years before Christie’s first novel in 1922.

Rinehart is considered the source of the phrase “The butler did it” from her novel The Door (1930), although the novel does not use the exact phrase. Rinehart is also considered to have invented the “Had-I-But-Known” school of mystery writing, with the publication of The Circular Staircase (1908).

She also created a costumed super-criminal called “the Bat”, cited by Bob Kane as one of the inspirations for his “Batman”.

Booth Tarkington wrote The Magnificent Ambersons, which I know from the Orson Welles movie.

Having Will Smith as the star is the antidote

January 15th, 2018

Z Man describes Netflix’s new Will Smith movie Bright as Alien Nation with Orcs and Elves instead of space aliens:

The Elves are the Jews of this imaginary world, as they are smart and run everything.The humans are the whites, keeping society running, while the Orcs are the blacks, occupying the underclass and subjected to discrimination.

[...]

The interesting thing about this movie, though, is they don’t present the multicultural future as a paradise of diversity. Instead, it is more like Brazil where the underclass is huge and the middle class is small and fragile. In this context, the Elves live in beautiful gated communities, away from everyone else. The humans and Orcs are mixed up in the squalor, with the humans having a marginally better existence. It is a future where diversity is tolerated out of necessity, but everyone dreams of their own ethnostate.

The other strangely realistic aspect is the gross inequality. The Elves live like royalty, as they are at the top of the social order. They are clean and white and orderly. Everyone else is dirty, dark and disorderly. The implication is that the Elves pit Orcs and humans against one another, in order to exploit them. The result is the world extreme diversity is a world of poverty, for all but the elite. Imagine if the whole country was like New York City, where the elite live in penthouses and everyone else in tiny apartments.

That’s the reality of multiculturalism. The hidden cost of maintaining order inevitably bankrupts the middle-class. The people at the top are always getting their beak wet first and they will do what they must to protect themselves and their position. That means the cost of maintaining order falls on the middle, which quickly disappears. University towns exist in idyllic diversity, because billions are hoovered out of the surrounding economies to support the paradise. The university town scales up to be Brazil.

The movie does not spend much time contemplating the Elf class. All we learn is they live apart, but control society, with the help of human assistants. They do give us a surprisingly frank portrayal of the Orcs. They are physically superior to humans and they have an affinity for hip-hop culture, but most are too dumb to do anything other than menial jobs. The Orcs are so obviously a deliberate analog to modern blacks that I’m shocked they get away with it. I guess having Will Smith as the star is the antidote.

I’m reminded of the original Star Trek and how it could tackle current issues by applying even the slightest patina of sci-fi. For instance, Let That Be Your Last Battlefield features half-black, half-white people who hate the half-white, half-black people who share their planet — so it’s just a silly TV show! Nothing to worry about, sponsors!

Iron does not lie

January 15th, 2018

Oxford asked Sam Fussell to continue and do a doctorate in American Literature, but he felt he had not done well enough on his exams to warrant their offer, so he ended up at a dead-end job in publishing — and then stumbled into bodybuilding, which oddly suited his nature, until it didn’t:

In the gym, I found a world where I would be rewarded for doing 3x amount of work. And it was liberating. I’d found, in the gym, a meritocracy. Where labor had visible, tangible results.

[...]

Specifically, as to bodybuilding, because bodybuilding/powerlifting is so numbers-oriented, among other things, part of that reality is remember how it first felt to bench press 315 (three wheels!), to bench press 405 (four wheels!), to squat 500 (five wheels!), to deadlift 500 (five wheels!). Every single one of those lifts took years (for me) to build up to. They were a kind of concrete sanctification of what I was doing (that pleasure comes from pain, that dreams come true through sheer industry and endless repetition with some minor variation).

[...]

I’m not sure it’s possible to keep your perspective and engage in this kind of physical pursuit. In the same way, I don’t think it’s possible to climb mountain or race bicycles at the highest level and not sacrifice everything to get where you want to go. If, by perspective, one means a kind of balance, I can’t think of anyone who truly excels in their field (and that doesn’t have to be a physical field, it could be writing novels) who is in any way balanced.

[...]

Once I competed, I knew I was on my way out. Because the idea of culminating those years of training by ending up in a bathing suit the size of a child’s watchstrap and flexing on-stage seemed so absurd. It always bothered me that bodybuilders don’t do anything. Okay, if you show us your muscles, let’s see you actually use them and see two things: 1. who has the best body (admittedly, even that’s tough, as Lisa Lyon once wrote: “How can you judge a lily from a rose?)), and 2. who is the strongest and at what lift?

So when I went to bodybuilding shows and saw grown men cavorting on stage without actually testing those muscles for strength, it seemed absurd.

Also, by the time I moved to California and began to run into some of the best bodybuilders in the world, I noticed a gigantic gulf between what the muscle magazines portrayed about their lives and what their lives were actually life. Reality is a bitch – if you’ve been spoon-fed (or injected) fantasy.

The myth sells, not the man. So my education began in distinguishing fact from fantasy. And the facts, once I was out in California, were staring me in the face. The bodybuilder listed at six two, was, in fact, five foot ten. His arms, listed at 22 inches, were, in fact, 20, etc, etc. The rabid heterosexual was, in fact, gay for pay. The ‘all-natural’ bodybuilder, in fact, was a walking advertisement for the pharmaceutical industry.

Eye-openers, all.

And infinitely depressing, because it meant, eventually, all you could believe in was iron — because iron does not lie.

You can either lift it or you can’t.

[...]

So after I competed, I completely stopped for about nine months (which was the time it took me to write the first draft of Muscle).

In that time, I continued to train clients as a personal trainer, but, without lifting, I no longer looked like a personal trainer (one of my clients once said, “When I hired you, you looked like Sam. Now, you look like Santa”).

After that nine month gap, I then started lifting again, without drugs and, sadly, without much passion.

I’d seen enough.

It’s said that if you’ve run a sub-four mile, you probably aren’t going to really enjoy running the mile in five minutes ‘for fun.’

So while I rewrote Muscle two more times, I continued to lift, but no longer with the same drive.

I’d go to the gym a couple of times per week, instead of twice per day, three days on, one day off.

The gym, like any subculture, is a hierarchy. It had taken me years to rise in that hierarchy. When I lost my muscles, I lost rank and privilege within that hierarchy. So going to the gym was painful in that sense. I was no longer who I was. “When will you be you again?” was the standard question I received.

For me to write that book, I very much had to disconnect myself from that world. I couldn’t do it as an insider looking out. Only as an outsider looking in.

I also very much knew the price: success would mean exile.

If I were to be honest, I wouldn’t be welcomed into any hardcore gym for decades.

The book was very much an attempt at self-exile.

He comes across as the Holden Caulfield of lifting.

Do research before taking vengeance

January 14th, 2018

The New York Times interviews Niall Ferguson about books:

Which historians and biographers do you most admire?

Amongst those currently writing, Simon Schama stands out as the Dickens of modern historiography: bewilderingly erudite and prolific, passionate in his enthusiasms and armed with the complete contents of the thesaurus. We agree to disagree about politics. I have also hugely admired Anne Applebaum for her trilogy on the Gulag, the Soviet takeover of Eastern Europe (“Iron Curtain”) and, most recently, the Ukrainian famine (“Red Famine”). Walter Isaacson has established himself as the great American biographer of our time. “Leonardo da Vinci” is his best book, I think. Whereas the earlier books were pure journalism, he is now showing academic scholars how to write accessibly about subtle and even recondite subject matter. I read quite a number of biographies while researching “The Square and the Tower.” My favorite was probably Michael Ignatieff’s on Isaiah Berlin, which led me into the vast, delightful rabbit warren of Berlin’s correspondence.

What book might people be surprised to find on your shelves?

I own books by a number of people who have insulted me in print, but I don’t think it is all that surprising that I do research before taking vengeance.

Of the books you’ve written, which is your favorite or the most personally meaningful?

Volume one of “Kissinger” is the best thing I’ve done. Second prize goes to the first volume of “The House of Rothschild.” Both these books were constructed on a foundation of prodigious research. But I am also very fond of “Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power,” because it so infuriated a certain species of second-rate professor of post-colonial studies — though not so much that they actually read the book.

He mentions many more books.

Mars is like Northern Canada, but worse

January 14th, 2018

Colonizing Venus may be oddly feasible, because its dense atmosphere lends itself to floating cities. Colonizing Mars presents a very different challenge, as Matter Beam explains:

Atmospheric pressure is 1% of that on Earth. It is mostly unbreathable carbon dioxide, and does a poor job of spreading the warmth from half the sunlight we are accustomed to. Temperatures ranges from -135 degrees Celsius to an infrequent 35 degrees Celsius, averaging -55 degrees Celsius to Earth’s 14 degrees. Dust storms sometimes fill the sky, but their main effect seems to be eroding the ancient geological features over a surface area equal to Earth’s landmass.

The planet is also long dead. Most of the core is no longer molten, meaning that it does not spin to generate a magnetic field. Being 15% of Earth’s size, it cooled down to its present state much quicker.

Despite its downsides, Mars is pretty hospitable compared to other planets in the Solar System. It is cold, but no unmanageably so. It has a lot of solid, traversable ground. The polar caps contain billions of tons of water ice covered by a layer of solid carbon dioxide. The soil can be used for agriculture after some preparation.

Martian gravity is 37.6% of that on Earth. It is doubtful whether this is enough to stave off the muscle atrophy and bone loss caused by prolonged living in low or micro-gravity.

The low atmospheric pressure means that most architecture and equipment on Mars will have to be hermetically sealed and pressurized. This imposes structural constraints and a dangerous failure mode if the colony’s walls are pierced. Obtaining breathable gasses might requires energy and time: oxygen can be removed from carbon dioxide by energy-hungry chemical reactions, of through the photosynthesis of plants. Nitrogen is present at a 1.0% concentration in the thin Martian air, so it can eventually be extracted for small colonies to use as fertilizer and breathing mix. Larger colonies would need to find it in the soil, either as NO3 or NO.

The atmosphere actually helps with the cold, as it is so thin that lacks the ability to conduct heat away from the colony. It acts as an insulator. This makes dealing with Mars’s low temperatures easier than on Earth, where a thick atmosphere steals heat away from buildings in Antarctica or Northern Canada much more quickly.

Mars’s greatest assets, Matter Beam explains, may be its two moons: Phobos and Deimos.

Let’s start with Phobos.

The closest description would be a floating pile of rubble, loosely held together by a layer of compacted dust. It is composed mainly of carbonaceous chondrite rock riddled with ices and crevasses that might take up to a third of its volume. What is it good for? Living and lifting.

Phobos has a surface gravity of about 0.0004g. Riding a bicycle on the Mars-facing side is enough to fall off the moon and start orbiting Mars instead. It also means that it is very easy to dig into Phobos and excavate large volumes. These volumes can be filled with orbital habitats. These will have access to large quantities of volatiles and minerals, and the surrounding rock will provide sufficient radiation protection.

At 6000km, Phobos is also close enough to start considering orbital elevators. A cable can be dropped from the moon to an altitude of about 10km. In the simplest version, it passes over the surface at 2662 km/h. A mass-driver launched spacecraft or even a supersonic aircraft can catch up to the cable. The Martian end of the cable experiences nearly no drag, so it doesn’t heat up. Structural requirements are so low that it can be built from existing materials such as Zylon. It only needs to be about 12 times heavier than the payloads it expects to receive.

Once the aircraft or pod is attached, it simply climbs up to Phobos with no propellant required. This is a ‘free’ 4.1km/s of deltaV.

A more advanced version has an equally long cable extending out from Phobos. The two cables rotate in opposite directions to the moon’s orbit, allowing the lower end to nearly cancel its velocity, while the higher end travels at twice the orbital velocity.

The advanced version allows Phobos to ‘pick up’ payloads from the surface, then fling it outwards on the opposite end. At 4km/s, it can impart enough velocity to fling a payload all the way to Earth. In reverse, it can capture a spaceship entering the Martian system, and deposit it gently onto the surface at the other end.

A cable system vastly cheapens travel to and from Mars’s surface, Mars’s moons and extramartian destinations. Mars might end up being an even easier destination than Venus with its aerocapture or Mercury with its beamed solar power. Thanks to low surface gravity and thin atmosphere, the cables can be made from conventional materials and do not require much protection.

Deimos is a more extreme version of Phobos.

It is even smaller and higher than Phobos, but nearly identical in every other way. With a cable system, it can capture interplanetary spacecraft and lower them to Mars’s surface or Phobos’s orbit even more cheaply in terms of deltaV saved, energy required and structural mass involved.

So, by properly exploiting its moons instead of relying only on the surface, Mars becomes a very inviting destination for spacecraft. While it lacks the energy to produce or refine products cheaply, it can compensate by providing rocket fuel and sending off the products to other destinations at greatly reduced deltaV cost.

I was not expecting that.

Too many cypress knees

January 13th, 2018

Swamp Park, in southeastern North Carolina, is at the northern extreme for American alligators, which means it can get a little cold for the cold-blooded reptiles:

At first, [George Howard, the park’s general manager] thought the water had too many cypress knees – woody projections from tree roots that are a common sight in swamps.

Then he saw teeth.

Alligator Snout Poking out of Ice

When it’s cold but not icy, the alligators disappear, sinking to the bottom of the swamp for most of the day or burrowing into the mud, Howard said. “You don’t see them, but they’re under there.”

[...]

Right before the surface freezes, they stick their snouts out of the water so they can continue breathing.

Iguanas, by the way, react somewhat differently to the cold:

And in Florida, where temperatures took a rare dip into the 40s last week, iguanas also slowed their bodily functions. But because many are tree dwellers, some just fell to the ground.

It was a repeat of a cold snap in 2010, when the iguana situation caught people similarly unawares.

“Neighbourhoods resounded with the thud of iguanas dropping from trees onto patios and pool decks, reptilian Popsicles that suggested the species may not be able to retain its claw-hold on South Florida,” the Sun-Sentinel’s David Fleshler wrote.

But the story had a happy ending, Fleshler reported. The iguanas “have rebounded, repopulating South Florida neighbourhoods and resuming their consumption of expensive landscaping.”

By the way, the term brumation was coined in 1965, so reptiles could have their own term for hibernation.

Finishing an academic dissertation was a logistical nightmare

January 13th, 2018

In 18th-century Europe, Linnaeus — I suppose I should call him Carl Linnaeus, using both names — had achieved meteoric success, but he had a problem:

The man who made order from nature’s chaos did not have a good management system for his own work. His methods for sorting and storing information about the natural world couldn’t keep up with the flood of it he was producing.

[...]

He had started out collecting plants in the woods of his native southern Sweden. But as his profile grew, so did his research and writing, and the number of students under his wing. Achieving scientific renown of their own, Linnaeus’s students sent him specimens from their travels in Europe, Russia, the Middle East, West Africa, and China. According to Charmantier and Müller-Wille, most botanists of the era employed a team to manage their affairs that would keep track of correspondence and categorize specimens. But not Linnaeus, “who preferred to work alone.” Starting in the 1750s, he complained in letters to friends of feeling overworked and overwhelmed. Burnout, it turns out, isn’t a modern condition.

Linnaeus’s predicament wasn’t new, either. In her book Too Much to Know: Managing Scholarly Information before the Modern Age, the historian Ann Blair explains that since the Renaissance, “the discovery of new worlds, the recovery of ancient texts, and the proliferation of printed books” unleashed an avalanche of information. The rise of far-flung networks of correspondents only added to this circulation of knowledge. Summarizing, sorting, and searching new material wasn’t easy, especially given the available tools and technologies. Printed books needed buyers. And while notebooks kept information in one place, finding a detail buried inside one was another story. Finishing an academic dissertation wasn’t just a test of erudition or persistence; dealing with the material itself — recording, searching, retrieving it — was a logistical nightmare.

Many scholars, like the 17th-century chemist Robert Boyle, preferred to work on loose sheets of paper that could be collated, rearranged, and reshuffled, says Blair. But others came up with novel solutions. Thomas Harrison, a 17th-century English inventor, devised the “ark of studies,” a small cabinet that allowed scholars to excerpt books and file their notes in a specific order. Readers would attach pieces of paper to metal hooks labeled by subject heading. Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, the German polymath and coinventor of calculus (with Isaac Newton), relied on Harrison’s cumbersome contraption in at least some of his research.

Linnaeus experimented with a few filing systems. In 1752, while cataloging Queen Ludovica Ulrica’s collection of butterflies with his disciple Daniel Solander, he prepared small, uniform sheets of paper for the first time. “That cataloging experience was possibly where the idea for using slips came from,” Charmantier explained to me. Solander took this method with him to England, where he cataloged the Sloane Collection of the British Museum and then Joseph Banks’s collections, using similar slips, Charmantier said. This became the cataloging system of a national collection.

Linnaeus may have drawn inspiration from playing cards. Until the mid-19th century, the backs of playing cards were left blank by manufacturers, offering “a practical writing surface,” where scholars scribbled notes, says Blair. Playing cards “were frequently used as lottery tickets, marriage and death announcements, notepads, or business cards,” explains Markus Krajewski, the author of Paper Machines: About Cards and Catalogs. In 1791, France’s revolutionary government issued the world’s first national cataloging code, calling for playing cards to be used for bibliographical records. And according to Charmantier and Müller-Wille, playing cards were found under the floorboards of the Uppsala home Linnaeus shared with his wife Sara Lisa.

In 1780, two years after Linnaeus’s death, Vienna’s Court Library introduced a card catalog, the first of its kind. Describing all the books on the library’s shelves in one ordered system, it relied on a simple, flexible tool: paper slips. Around the same time that the library catalog appeared, says Krajewski, Europeans adopted banknotes as a universal medium of exchange. He believes this wasn’t a historical coincidence. Banknotes, like bibliographical slips of paper and the books they referred to, were material, representational, and mobile. Perhaps Linnaeus took the same mental leap from “free-floating banknotes” to “little paper slips” (or vice versa). Sweden’s great botanist was also a participant in an emerging capitalist economy.

Yes, dolphins are smart

January 12th, 2018

The more we study dolphins, the brighter they turn out to be:

At the Institute for Marine Mammal Studies in Mississippi, Kelly the dolphin has built up quite a reputation. All the dolphins at the institute are trained to hold onto any litter that falls into their pools until they see a trainer, when they can trade the litter for fish. In this way, the dolphins help to keep their pools clean.

Kelly has taken this task one step further. When people drop paper into the water she hides it under a rock at the bottom of the pool. The next time a trainer passes, she goes down to the rock and tears off a piece of paper to give to the trainer. After a fish reward, she goes back down, tears off another piece of paper, gets another fish, and so on. This behaviour is interesting because it shows that Kelly has a sense of the future and delays gratification. She has realised that a big piece of paper gets the same reward as a small piece and so delivers only small pieces to keep the extra food coming. She has, in effect, trained the humans.

Her cunning has not stopped there. One day, when a gull flew into her pool, she grabbed it, waited for the trainers and then gave it to them. It was a large bird and so the trainers gave her lots of fish. This seemed to give Kelly a new idea. The next time she was fed, instead of eating the last fish, she took it to the bottom of the pool and hid it under the rock where she had been hiding the paper. When no trainers were present, she brought the fish to the surface and used it to lure the gulls, which she would catch to get even more fish. After mastering this lucrative strategy, she taught her calf, who taught other calves, and so gull-baiting has become a hot game among the dolphins.

Dolphins are clever in the wild, too:

In an estuary off the coast of Brazil, tucuxi dolphins are regularly seen capturing fish by “tail whacking”. They flick a fish up to 9 metres with their tail flukes and then pick the stunned prey from the water surface. Peale’s dolphins in the Straits of Magellan off Patagonia forage in kelp beds, use the seaweed to disguise their approach and cut off the fishes’ escape route. In Galveston Bay, Texas, certain female bottlenose dolphins and their young follow shrimp boats. The dolphins swim into the shrimp nets to take live fish and then wriggle out again – a skill requiring expertise to avoid entanglement in the fishing nets.

Dolphins can also use tools to solve problems. Scientists have observed a dolphin coaxing a reluctant moray eel out of its crevice by killing a scorpion fish and using its spiny body to poke at the eel. Off the western coast of Australia, bottlenose dolphins place sponges over their snouts, which protects them from the spines of stonefish and stingrays as they forage over shallow seabeds.

This earns a “wow”:

At a dolphinarium, a person standing by the pool’s window noticed that a dolphin calf was watching him. When he released a puff of smoke from his cigarette, the dolphin immediately swam off to her mother, returned and released a mouthful of milk, causing a similar effect to the cigarette smoke.

Their ability to learn a language is impressive:

By human definition, there is currently no evidence that dolphins have a language. But we’ve barely begun to record all their sounds and body signals let alone try to decipher them. At Kewalo Basin Marine Laboratory in Hawaii, Lou Herman and his team set about testing a dolphin’s ability to comprehend our language. They developed a sign language to communicate with the dolphins, and the results were remarkable. Not only do the dolphins understand the meaning of individual words, they also understand the significance of word order in a sentence. (One of their star dolphins, Akeakamai, has learned a vocabulary of more than 60 words and can understand more than 2,000 sentences.) Particularly impressive is the dolphins’ relaxed attitude when new sentences are introduced. For example, the dolphins generally responded correctly to “touch the frisbee with your tail and then jump over it”. This has the characteristics of true understanding, not rigid training.

I’m reminded of that damn bird, Alex the African Grey parrot, who was no birdbrain, and of Rico the Border Collie.

Most of the content was about cooperation, egalitarianism, and gender equality

January 12th, 2018

Andrea Migliano, an anthropologist at University College London, wanted to know what qualities the Agta — Filipino hunter-gatherers — most value in their peers:

So, her students asked 300 Agta to name the five people they’d most want to live with. They also asked the volunteers to nominate the strongest people they knew; the best hunters, fishers, and foragers; the ones whose opinions are most respected; and the ones with most medical knowledge. And finally, almost as an afterthought, they asked the volunteers to name the best storytellers. That, they assumed, was something relatively unimportant, and would make for an interesting contrast against the other more esteemed skills.

In fact, the Agta seemed to value storytelling above all else. Good storytellers were twice as likely to be named as ideal living companions as more pedestrian tale spinners, and storytelling acumen mattered far more all the other skills. “It was highly valued, twice as much as being a good hunter,” says Migliano. “We were puzzled.”

Fortunately, she had been working with Agta Aid, a nonprofit organization that had been trying to preserve the Agta’s oral stories in written forms. “We asked them if we could have a look at the stories they were collecting, and we realized that most of the content was about cooperation, egalitarianism, and gender equality.” The male sun and female moon divvy up the sky. A pig helps its injured friend — a sea cow — into the ocean so they can race side by side. A winged ant learns that she is not above her other wingless sisters.

These themes aren’t unique to the Agta. They’re also present in around 70 percent of the stories that Migliano compiled from work with other hunter-gatherer groups. “Hunter-gatherers move around a lot and no one has particular power,” she explains. “You need ways of ensuring cooperation in an egalitarian society, and we realized that you could use stories to broadcast the norms that are important to them.” People can use religion to achieve a similar end, enforcing good behavior through fear of a punitive deity. But Migliano points to research suggesting that high gods are a relatively recent invention, which emerged once human societies became large. Small communities like the Agta don’t have them. Instead, they use stories for the same purpose.

Raptors are setting fires on purpose

January 11th, 2018

Raptors — the black kite, whistling kite, and brown falcon — are intentionally spreading grass fires in northern Australia:

Raptors on at least four continents have been observed for decades on the edge of big flames, waiting out scurrying rodents and reptiles or picking through their barbecued remains.

What’s new, at least in the academic literature, is the idea that birds might be intentionally spreading fires themselves. If true, the finding suggests that birds, like humans, have learned to use fire as a tool and as a weapon.

Gosford, a lawyer turned ethno-ornithologist (he studies the relationship between aboriginal peoples and birds), has been chasing the arson hawk story for years. “My interest was first piqued by a report in a book published in 1964 by an Aboriginal man called Phillip Roberts in the Roper River area in the Northern Territory, that gave an account of a thing that he’d seen in the bush, a bird picking up a stick from a fire front and carrying it and dropping it on to unburnt grass,” he told ABC.

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“MJ,” a Kimberley, (Western Australia) cattle station caretaker manager … saw kites working together to move a late dry season fire across a river by picking up, transporting, and dropping small, burning sticks in grass, which immediately ignited in several places,” they write. “The experience resulted in an uncontrollable blaze that destroyed part of the station’s infrastructure.”

Bob White, a firefighter in the Northern Territory saw a small group of raptors, likely black kites, “pick up numerous smouldering sticks and transport them ahead of a fire front, successfully helping the blaze spread up a small valley.”

Nathan Ferguson claims to have observed fire spreading about a dozen times in the Northern Territory since 2001. The long-time firefighter is adamant that the birds he’s observed — picking up twigs and starting new fires — were doing so on purpose.

That jibes with the other research Gosford and Bonta dug up. “Most accounts and traditions unequivocally indicate intentionality on the part of three raptor species,” they wrote.

Even nomads take snow days

January 11th, 2018

Modern nomad Aaron Gulley experiences extreme digital detox in the tundra of Siberia:

Alexey lies in his bed of frost-dusted furs, his breath rising in tendrils like woodsmoke.

In the ashen dawn light inside the chum, a reindeer-hide tepee, I watch slivers of snow slip through crevices at the tent’s apex around the stovepipe. Alexey’s wife, Rosa, clambers up from beside him, rips birch bark from branches stored beneath the stove to coax the embers to flame, then steps outside into a maelstrom of snow.

A storm has blown in overnight, a complication for the Nenets, a tribe of reindeer herders who move their animals across Siberia’s frozen tundra twice a year. The 20-person group, six families known as Brigade 20, have been camped in the same exposed spot for three days with about 3,000 reindeer, and the animals have nearly exhausted the forage. They must cross the Gulf of Ob, a 30-mile-wide ice sheet that separates the Nenets’ winter and summer grounds, before the spring thaw. But March has been unseasonably warm, with temperatures hovering around freezing for the past week, and if conditions persist, the crossing could become perilous. Today’s objective is to close half the 15 miles to the southern gulf, but with the tundra suddenly turned opaque with falling snow, that seems unlikely.

“If you want to know the weather,” Alexey says, exiting, “you have to ask the sky.”

Two days earlier, I, along with 11 other paying tourists and three guides, joined the Nenets on a $4,646, ten-day trip that would take us as far away from the comforts of modern life as possible. Our outfitter, a British tour company called Secret Compass that organizes adventures to some of the planet’s most remote places, presented the journey as both an escape from the relentless grind of the West and an immersion into one of the world’s last nomadic cultures. The landscape, a roadless expanse of central Russia above the Arctic Circle, was daunting, but it was the cold that I found most intimidating. During our first night on the tundra, as we headed into the bleak wilderness with the temperature plummeting below zero, I realized that without the Nenets’ guidance, we’d likely freeze to death within hours.

Inside the chum, a few minutes after Alexey goes out to check the weather, I rise from my bed on the ground, slip the reindeer-fur cloak that I’ve been sleeping beneath over my head, then exit through the flap that serves as the front door. Outside, Alexey battles to keep his cigarette lit amid clots of wet snow blasting sideways. He motions me back inside. We aren’t going anywhere. Following Alexey’s lead, I cozy up under my furs. Even nomads take snow days.

The Quiet American and the Ugly American made one flesh

January 10th, 2018

Max Boot’s The Road Not Taken looks back at Edward Lansdale, the model for both The Quiet American and The Ugly American and the major proponent behind the “hearts and minds” approach to counter-insurgency that the US never quite followed:

Born in 1908, Lansdale had, by the age of thirty-three, lived through a family breakdown, adventured on both coasts, and worked as an adman in San Francisco. Having given up a reserve Army commission before World War II, he found a route back in after the attack on Pearl Harbor through the newly created Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the forerunner to the CIA. Lansdale parlayed wartime assignments researching and gathering intelligence on Asian societies from San Francisco and New York into a 1945 assignment to the Philippines.

His next decade is the stuff of counterinsurgency legend. Lansdale bucks the bureaucracy, ignores protocol, and cultivates a deep understanding of the country, its people, and the grievances igniting the proto-communist Huk rebellion. (He also begins an affair with Filipina Patrocinio “Pat” Yapcinco Kelly, which he and Boot credit as an essential ingredient in his success. Boot has many of their letters, which bring freshness and poignancy to his story.)

The Philippines is where Lansdale first pilots what he calls his “whole of government approach” to countering insurgencies and stabilizing friendly regimes. He identifies and grooms an obscure congressman, Ramon Magsaysay, as the country’s savior and promotes his candidacy in what is ultimately a free and fair — though OSS-funded — campaign.

Magsaysay’s slogan — “All-Out Force or All-Out Friendship” — exactly encapsulates Lansdale’s approach. Lansdale had no problem with military force — though he preferred advisers, infiltration, and subversion to large-scale ground troops — or with bribery and intense outside engagement in a nation’s affairs. He twinned this with insistence on developing broad-based political support for partner governments and urged attention to effective government, apparently clean elections, and stringent avoidance of civilian casualties. Washington could achieve those goals, he repeatedly proposed, by going outside its military, intelligence, and diplomatic bureaucracies to send a “small team of winners,” backed at the highest levels, to identify, promote, and support new leaders in the country under threat.

In the Philippines, this plan works splendidly. Magsaysay is popular, the Huks are defeated, Manila institutions seem to grow stronger. Soon Lansdale is off to Vietnam, where he arrives just as the country has been partitioned, an independent government replaces French rule in the South, Ho Chi Minh’s communists do the same in the North, and massive refugee flows are commencing. For the next two years, Lansdale builds his intimacy with South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh and uses every trick of nation building and skullduggery to advance him at the expense of Viet Cong fighters, warlords, criminal gangs, the French, and, finally, even his own American colleagues. In 1955, when Eisenhower is on the brink of approving a counter-Diem coup, Lansdale successfully reverses these orders.

But the 1955 success is Lansdale’s high-water mark. Vietnam’s Diem doesn’t give Lansdale’s theories of popular legitimacy the same enthusiasm he gives to recruiting warlords. At home, Lansdale gains promotions and extraordinary access to a string of presidents and cabinet officials but suffers a reputation for insubordination and even nuttiness. His career detours into CIA scheming to assassinate Castro, and his later efforts to resuscitate support for Diem fail, with one of his old team members engineering the 1964 coup and Diem’s brutal killing.

When Lansdale finally returns to Vietnam in 1965, he cannot win support for his “hearts and minds” programming either from his American colleagues or the swift succession of military rulers in Saigon. As Marine Philip Caputo explains, “Our mission was not to win terrain or seize positions, but simply to kill: to kill communists and to kill as many of them as possible.”

Ultimately, Lansdale leaves Vietnam in near disgrace and lives half-forgotten in suburban Washington. He resurfaces occasionally — as the target of opprobrium during the Church Committee hearings into CIA misdeeds (including the planned Castro assassination) and as an adviser to Oliver North in the early Reagan years. When Lansdale died, the Nation magazine was one of many to offer intense but mixed eulogies, calling him “the Quiet American and the Ugly American made one flesh.”

Boot argues that heeding Lansdale’s ideas on counterinsurgency, both in specific instances and more broadly in U.S. policy, would have led to better outcomes. Lansdale himself reportedly could not sum up his approach, but Boot’s summary produces three rather simple instructions: Learn (about the society). Like (“identif[y] and cultivat[e] influential individuals sympathetic to American interests”). Listen (instead of lecturing your developing-country counterparts).

Boot marshals sharp, devastating anecdotes to show how Lansdale’s ideas were dismissed or misunderstood by his contemporaries.

[...]

Lansdale himself perfectly exemplifies the core contradictions of the American nation-building project. He sees everything he does as pointed toward democratic institutions and the superiority of representative government — yet his achievements come by hand-selecting personalities and installing them by subverting the rules of democratic governance. While his bureaucratic opponents tend to be skeptical of even the outer forms of representative government in the midst of insurgency, neither he nor they appear to have the plans or the patience to let real local institutions flourish. He castigates his opponents for their failure to perceive the role played by nationalism — but the essence of his successful operations is to reshape governments toward serving American aspirations.