Saturday, April 30, 2011

Z is for ... Zeno of Elea

Herewith a culling from my personal archive - an illustrative fable, borrowing heavily but unwittingly from Lewis Carroll's What the Tortoise Said to Achilles, which I didn't actually encounter until later in a linear-time paradigm. The tortoise in my story advances three of the "immeasurably subtle and profound" (thank you, Bertrand Russell) paradoxes of Zeno of Elea, an ancient Greek philosopher hailed by Aristotle as the inventor of the dialectic. It is perhaps appropriate that this fable takes a dialectical form.

* * *

"Let us race," declaimed the tortoise with a loftiness belying his low center of gravity.

The hare left off appreciating the feel of the wind cool against his long ears and regarded the tortoise with leporine indulgence.

"You want... us... to race?" clarified the hare, not unkindly he thought.

The tortoise nodded, an exercise that took long enough that the hare had time to watch a small cloud scud across the sky overhead. It looked like a nice head of lettuce, he thought. His stomach rumbled: his was an active metabolism.

"Each other?" The hare was a thorough if not a very bright animal.

Again the tortoise nodded, and the hare occupied himself scratching at his flank.

"But I'm much faster than you," explained the hare as sensitively as he could. "You racing me would be just pointless."

"Oh, it doesn't matter how fast we go, you know," remarked the tortoise pleasantly. "It's a question of how far."

This seemed a rather odd view of racing to the hare, who felt that he knew a thing or two about racing after his serial adventures with the farmer's hounds; but he kept his counsel, because he felt rather sorry for the tortoise.

"However," the latter was now saying, "you do make a good point. Would you agree to give me a head start?"

"Hang on," said the hare. "A head start to where? A race has to have a start and a finish."

"It does, does it?" The tortoise seemed amused. "Let's suppose a race goes from some place to some other place that's different. Then to move between those places, we can surely agree that at any moment one would have to be moving either from a spot or to a spot between them. Correct?"

The hare thought about this. His nose twitched as he worked it out, and this time the tortoise had the luxury of observing a cloud scud by overhead.

"I think so," said the hare at length.

"And," continued the tortoise carelessly, "at any moment one would have to be in a spot between the start and finish of the race, yes?"

The hare chewed pensively. His feet were much happier with racing than his brain.

"That seems right," he ventured.

"Well then," said the tortoise, "in that case, no matter where the start and finish are, or when we consider one's position, one has to either be in the place where one is and the place one just came from, or the place where one is and the place one is headed."

The hare's ears drooped.

"That can't be right," he said miserably.

"Oh it can," said the tortoise with placid contentment. "Unless of course movement is continuous and it's the instant that's an illusion. But then there's no reason to suppose that it means anything to say that at any moment anything's in any particular place. One might as well say one starts the race at the finish, since no moment's any more real than any other."

The hare hopped about unhappily in a circle. "You're confusing me," he said.

"Don't worry about it," enjoined the tortoise earnestly. "Let's pretend that it does matter and we actually do occupy some coordinate in spacetime."

The hare's eyes were glazing.

"I'm going to walk over here," said the tortoise, starting out on that journey, "and you can wait there."

He sauntered off, while the hare tried to work out if he had time for a snack and whether he might actually already be having one. The tortoise had upset his delicate sensibilities, and he was sorely in need of a radish.

Some minutes later, the tortoise hailed him, from a distance of some ten feet away.

"That should be enough of a headstart, don't you think?"

The hare looked doubtfully at the space between them.

"It doesn't seem very far," he suggested timidly.

"Oh but quite far enough," returned the tortoise. "Because now to win the race, you'll have to pass me. And to pass me you'll have to reach me."

"Yes..." said the hare, with the uneasy feeling that he was about to get a migraine.

"Of course, to reach me, you'll first have to get halfway here."

The hare thought about this. "Of course," he said, but he didn't sound certain.

"And naturally, to get there you'll have to go halfway first."

"... Naturally ..."

"And to get there you'll have to go halfway as well."

"I suppose so..."

"And in fact no matter how many times we divide that distance up, you'll always be able to divide it up one more time. For you to reach me, you'll have to first travel an infinitely short distance."

The hare extended a paw towards the tortoise, and hesitated, and withdrew it.

"Can't I just -?"

"Not logically," said the tortoise firmly. "In any case, even if you could start out, and even if having started out you could move from place to place... there's still the problem that you'll never catch up with me, let alone get past me."

The hare felt sure there was something badly wrong with this, but he couldn't put his paw on it.

"Because," explained the tortoise patiently, "even though I travel much slower than you, I am travelling at the same time as you are and on the same journey, albeit from a different start point. We're going in the same direction, is what I mean to say."

"But," blurted out the hare, "you're only ten feet away! I can cover that distance in no time!"

"On the contrary," sniffed the tortoise. "You can only cover that distance - or any distance - in some time. And in that time, I can cover some distance too. Oh, not nearly as much of course... but enough."

"You'd only go..." the hare struggled with mental arithmetic, "one foot."

"Correct!" said the tortoise delightedly. "And of course you'd cover that distance easily as well... but I'd have moved on..."

"... a tenth of a foot..." whispered the hare miserably.

"Quite so!" went on the tortoise. "And I know you'd cover that distance even quicker... but I'd have moved on another hundredth of a foot. Oh, you'd get very close," he smiled, "but you'd never catch me."

The hare scratched his other side. The smell of radishes was overwhelming.

"You win," he sighed, and hopped past the tortoise to get some food.

* * *

This concludes, only slightly late depending on how one measures these things, my personal A to Z challenge. I want to reiterate thanks to everyone who helped me along the way, and apologies to all of them, and more besides, for not getting out there and commenting more in return. It is my earnest hope that I'll be redressing that balance in coming days.

I also have a mailbox to compile, which I'll be getting around to hopefully tomorrow. I've been honored with an award, from a blogger I appreciate greatly but haven't done much to show that lately, so that needs to go up as well. Busy, busy, busy! PLUS the inaugural Mojo's Monthly Mindbender (which for May will have a musical and mathematical bent, since I might as well milk the alliteration for all it's worth) and perhaps the first tentative steps towards the Mojofesto, in preparation for November 2012. I eagerly await the inspirations and communications the blogosphere has in store for me over the coming thirty days - thanks for the ride so far, guys and gals!

Friday, April 29, 2011

Y is for ... Yak

As a friend to the children commend me the Yak.
You will find it exactly the thing:
It will carry and fetch, you can ride on its back,
Or lead it about with a string.

The Tartar who dwells on the plains of Thibet
(A desolate region of snow)
Has for centuries made it a nursery pet.
And surely the Tartar should know!

Then tell your papa where the Yak can be got,
And if he is awfully rich
He will buy you the creature - or else he will not.
(I cannot be positive which.)

Hilaire Belloc's 1896 poem ascribes to the yak considerable virtues, without troubling to mention the Himalayan bovine is among the largest species in the family - a wild yak can stand 7 feet tall at the shoulder and weigh over a metric ton - or that they are so well-adapted for the harsh high-altitude environment they call home that they struggle in more human-friendly habitats. In Tibet, domesticated yaks - which are smaller than the wild yak - are used as hardy beasts of burden, and for their milk, their meat, their hides ... even their dung makes valuable fuel, for there is little vegetation in the high Himalayas that can serve this purpose. Yaks even provide a tourist attraction, and are employed in bizarre sports like yak polo.

Another use to which the yak has been put is in substituting for another infamous Himalaya native, also known by a name beginning with Y. Hide from yaks has been claimed in the past, wittingly or otherwise, to be residual evidence of the legendary yeti, the cryptid apeman of the Himalayas. Other specimens have been reliably identified as belonging to Tibetan blue bears, or the serow, a species of mountain goat. Cryptozoologists continue to return, however, drawn by a long history of mysterious footprints in the high snowfields, periodic intriguing finds of partial remains - the Panboche hand, a relic that had Neanderthal features but that was stolen before it could be fully tested, is a classic example - and a wealth of eyewitness reports stretching back into history and persisting to the present day. We shall speak more of the Yeti another time.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

X is for ... Xanth

The Xanth novels of Piers Anthony - he claims the partial eponym is coincidental - are a series of works of comic fantasy, originally conceived as a trilogy, that now spans enough books to qualify as a cubic trilogy with some to spare (the 27th Xanth novel was entitled Cube Route, a punning reference to the fact that 27 is 3 cubed).

Anthony has found a gold mine with his Xanth universe - its magical Talents, its population of centaurs and gargoyles and goblins, its tongue-in-cheek Adult Conspiracy to protect children from knowledge that might scar their youthful minds, and, above all, its pervasive puns have made it hugely popular with a devoted following. The author himself has remarked that Xanth novels are all his publisher wants him to produce these days, and if he sounds a little bitter there it's because even the most successful milieu can become an albatross round an author's neck if he's unable to write about anything else.

Particularly in the fields of humor and fantasy, imaginative creativity is the author's mainstay. When that author has spent around three decades churning out sequels set in the same world, there is a tendency for his well of inspiration to run dry. Indeed, for neutrals at least, Xanth novels, taken as a whole, constitute an uneven set; some are sublime, others simply seem to be extended Feghoots whose sole purpose is to fulfil Anthony's contractual obligations and shoehorn puns, almost at random, into a derivative plot.

That being said, even the worst Xanth novel is entertaining - Anthony is a fine writer, and he's been canny enough to supplement his own inspiration with that of his legion of fans. He receives huge amounts of fan mail incorporating suggestions for plot devices, character twists, new Talents - and puns, of course. I myself have sent him almost a dozen puns in the hope that one would show up in a future Xanth novel.

No pun in ten did.

You may groan now.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

W is for ... Wendigo

The story of the Donner Party contributes an altogether distressing footnote to the history of Western migration in the United States. Great numbers of pioneers set out in the 1800s to colonize the West; many of these subscribed to the doctrine of Manifest Destiny, believing that God had ordained this land for them much as the Bible tells He had ordained Israel for the Jewish people. Of course, these pioneers found that God had already populated the area with humans, just as the first settlers discovered the Algonquian natives already living blameless lives on land they foolishly believed to be as much theirs as anybody else's.

Most of the wagon trains that forged westward from Independence, Missouri, followed the Oregon Trail for a period of several months before reaching safe haven in California, in the vicinity of Sutter's Fort - founded as New Helvetia in 1839. The Donner Party deviated from this trail to take a 'shortcut' through Fort Bridger that took them the long way around the Great Salt Lake and through the Great Salt Lake Desert, an inhospitable and dangerous trek that added a month to their travel time and was to have horrific consequences. This 'shortcut' was proposed to them by an adventurer named Lansford Hastings. The Hastings Cutoff seemed on paper to make good sense as a straighter alternative route to the Oregon Trail; but Hastings advanced it as such without having traveled it, and so the perils of the desert, and of the Wasatch Mountains, were not taken into account.

When the Donner Party, including several other families as well as George Donner, his wife Tamsen, and their five children, arrived at Fort Bridger following after a wagon train led by Hastings, they were assured by Jim Bridger that the route was easy and would cut 350 miles from their journey. This was blatantly untrue, although it encouraged the party to stay at Fort Bridger and enrich its proprietor. One might charitably assume Bridger, not having followed Hastings Cutoff himself, was unaware of how misleading his information was - except that Bridger had been left in possession of letters written by one Edwin Bryant, who had traveled ahead far enough to ascertain that the journey was anything but easy. Bridger never gave these letters to the Donner party, who were hardly survivalists - they were used to comfortable living in Missouri, and included few men with the skills necessary to succeed at an arduous journey through barren terrain. Of the 87 members of the Donner party, only 27 were adult males, and several of these were advanced in years: George Donner himself was 62 years old when the party set out.

The sufferings endured by the Donner Party defy description. They had already lost several members to disease, trauma, and at least one instance of alleged murder when two wagons became entangled and James Reed stabbed a man to death, by the time they came to the Sierra Nevada. The month's delay occasioned by Hastings Cutoff meant the snows arrived at the same time. Riven by dissent, riddled with disease, starving, inexperienced, with the last of their cattle and horses already perished, and trapped by snowdrifts on all sides in bleak mountain country, the Donner Party confronted the horror of their circumstances with a solution no less horrific: they resorted to cannibalism. Efforts were made to keep family members from eating their own relatives, a macabre courtesy to the dead; and there is no unequivocal evidence that anybody was deliberately killed for meat. Certainly, there was no need: the elements did a brutal job of supplying dead bodies to sustain the survivors. Originally trapped on October 20, 1846, the last survivor of the party - Lewis Keseberg, over whom a cloud of suspicion hung for the rest of his life since he admitted sharing a cabin with Tamsen Donner but could not adequately account for her whereabouts - was rescued almost six months later, on April 10, 1847.

Although the desperate plight of the Donner Party renders the desperate measures they resorted to for survival understandable - if still morally murky - to Western minds, the Algonquian people could account for it another way. Hearing how party member Patrick Dolan urged his companions to sacrifice someone so that the others might feed - before this became the inescapable necessity it evidently did become for others - and that when his notion was rejected he tore off his clothes and fled into the wilderness, the Ojibwe Indians would recognize the malign influence of one of the more powerful manitous of their folklore - the ravenous and deceptive Wendigo, a spirit capable of possessing men that hungers constantly for human flesh. According to Algonquian legend, the Wendigo is perpetually emaciated, even when feeding on human meat; some tribes believe that as it feeds, it grows larger, so that it is never sated. Cases of so-called wendigo psychosis - when people become convinced they are possessed by a Wendigo and become ravenous for human flesh - are documented in anthropological research; during times of famine, Algonquian tribes perform Wendigo dances to ward off the spirt. The Oji-Cree shaman Jack Fiddler was imprisoned by Canadian authorities in 1907 as a murderer; he maintained that he was releasing people from the terrible Wendigos that had enslaved them.

It is tempting to bask in our cultural imperialism and deride tales of the Wendigo as superstitious; we can rationalize them as enforcing taboos against cannibalism, and encouraging cooperation during times of hardship and strife. And certainly, the Donner Party were in the direst straits imaginable when they broke that ultimate taboo. But still, the ghoulish fascination with Donner Pass lingers...

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

V is for ... Velikovsky

With the end of the A to Z challenge hoving into view - hoving, moreover, at rather alarming speed, given my somewhat scattershot approach to daily updates in a linear-time paradigm - this seems as good a moment as any to write a blog about an obscure Russian Zionist and revisionist historian.

The obscure Russian Zionist and revisionist historian in question is one Immanuel Velikovsky, a medical man who published in the 1930s the first article advocating the use of encephalography as a diagnostic tool in cases of epilepsy. A disciple of Freud who also authored several papers on psychoanalytic subjects, Velikovsky was a well-traveled man, fluent in several languages and educated in Montpellier, Edinburgh, and Moscow. He obtained his medical degree in 1921, and for much of the next two decades lived in what was then the British Mandate of Palestine, where he worked with other notable Jewish intellectuals - including one Albert Einstein, later to refuse the Presidency of Israel - on the establishment of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. As a practicing Freudian psychoanalyst, Velikovsky was naturally interested in Freud's own output; as future events were to prove, he shared his mentor's somewhat monomaniac habit of shoehorning all manner of data into a pet theory, and, with war looming, Velikovsky decamped with his wife - the violinist Elisheva Kramer - to New York, there to research material for a book about Oedipus.

The 'Oedipus complex' is one of the better-known offshoots of Freud's comprehensive psychosexual theories of human development - it describes a syndrome in which the son's unconscious sexual attraction to his own mother creates a tension eventually resolved by self-identification with his father, and is named for the mythical king of Thebes immortalized by Sophocles in Oedipus Rex. Freud considered this a universal stage in the development of all males - females passed through a similar 'Electra Complex' in which they fixated on the father - which earned him a devoted following at the time as psychoanalysis flourished, but has since equally drawn criticism from more cautious and more pluralist researchers. Part of Freud's basis for universalizing his theories was the support he sought and found in historical contexts. An example of this was his Moses and Monotheism, which rewrote the Bible and argued that Moses and the Pharaoh - identified as Akhnaton, the first Pharaoh to promote monotheistic worship of the Aten - were one and the same. From this revisionist leap, it was a short journey for Freud to postulate the murder of Moses/Akhnaton as the motivation for the Jewish belief in a Messiah, and thence to characterize the importance of religion in the Jewish identity as a shared guilt complex arising out of the Oedipal murder of the father-figure.

Velikovsky took a different but no less bizarre tack - his psychohistoric theory identified the Egyptian pharaoh Akhnaton with the Thebean king Oedipus directly. He was seeking confirmation of his theories in contemporary Egyptian accounts of the Exodus, a task made possible by the discovery of the Rosetta Stone in 1799 but still fraught with difficulty. He found in the Ipuwer Papyrus evidence that seemed to correspond with the Biblical plagues of Egypt; there was a trifling chronological problem with the centuries these events were believed to have happened, but Velikovsky was equal to that and embarked upon a feat of revisionism that left Freud in his shadow: nothing more nor less than a hybridization of Biblical scholarship with Egyptology into a new Velikovskian history of the ancient world, one in which psychoanalytic theories were consistently demonstrated in the events and personages recorded in the resultant mishmash.

The story takes a turn for the even wierder when, in 1950, we catch up with a Velikovsky now deeply embedded in catastrophic cosmology and hawking his Worlds in Collision around various publishing houses. Despite his track record as a published scientist, and despite the erudition and scholarship of his work, he is turned down by eight publishing houses because what he is writing is deemed to be simply too controversial - too "out there" - for the highly conventional world of academic publishing. Part of their reluctance stems from the unifying thesis of Velikovsky's reimagining of the Bible: he ascribes many of the events of Biblical history to an extraordinary astronomical event, the eruption of the planet Venus from the planet Jupiter, and the subsequent near misses as both Venus and Mars swooped past Earth en route to their current celestial positions. The complete lack of any precedent - indeed, any conventional astronomical evidence - for this remarkable cosmic occurence dissuaded Velikovsky not at all, because he was able to compile all the evidence he needed by selectively culling from widely-disparate sources and, where necessary, guessing.

Eventually, Velikovsky's perseverance was rewarded: the textbook division of prestigious publishing house Macmillan agreed to publish Worlds in Collision. It seemed as though Velikovsky's ideas were going to be aired before the public - but there was a problem. During his research for Worlds in Collision, Velikovsky had corresponded with, among others, Harvard astronomer Harlow Shapley - a potential stablemate at Macmillan's scientific division. The problem was that Shapley considered Velikovsky's theory of planetary billards patently absurd, and mounted a vehement, and successful, campaign with the assistance of other scientists contracted to Macmillan to have Velikovsky's book shelved. The success of that campaign demonstrated that Velikovsky's own world was in collision with the monolith of orthodox Science.

Doubleday, a publisher without a textbook division, picked up the book; and the assaults of the scientific community upon it continued. No less a luminary than Carl Sagan used his various bully pulpits, including his PBS show Cosmos, to inveigh against Velikovsky's maverick ideas. He cited the atmospheric composition of Venus, the radioemissions of Jupiter, the physics of celestial orbits, and other established scientific facts to assert that Velikovsky's proposed causal mechanism was junk science - it simply couldn't have happened as Velikovsky asserted it had. Sagan did have the grace to consider Velikovsky's thesis, and reject it on the basis of scientific observations that contradicted it; he criticized others in the scientific community who had simply tried to silence Velikovsky because his proposals were so far outside the mainstream.

This firestorm of criticism came as a surprise to Velikovsky himself, for whom ten years of his life had been devoted to systematically laying out the evidence for something that, to him, had become obvious. In vain, he tried to defend his own claims, pointing out that the vast majority of his evidence was concerned with archaeological and historical matters: what had convinced him of the truth of his assertions was the remarkable concordance between mythologies in places as far-flung as China and Egypt. And he gained a following among the lay public, who were sympathetic to him because of the harshness of the treatment meted out by his fellow scientists. Velikovsky was neither the first nor the last man to have his work ridiculed because its results lay outside the mainstream - Robert Goddard, for example, had been mocked in the New York Times for lacking the knowledge "ladled out daily in high schools" when he proposed the use of rockets in the vacuum of space; a groveling apology was printed when, years later, his theories were employed to put men on the moon.

Science has since moved on from attacking Velikovsky's causal mechanism to attacking the substance of his thesis: the assertion that the miraculous events described in the Holy Bible were actual historical occurences. This transition perhaps illustrates why the reception to his controversial book was so hostile: Science and Religion have always been "worlds in collision." Ironically, the evidence used to undermine the catastrophic theories of Velikovsky was partly compiled to support the catastrophic theories of global warming. Al Gore, a man with no significant scientific background - unless you count his claim to have invented the Internet - earned himself a Nobel Peace Prize, an Emmy, an Oscar, and a Grammy for his advancement of a catastrophic thesis. It's all about who you know, rather than what you know...

Although history will remember Velikovsky as a brilliant but flawed thinker, his years of scholarship did raise questions that remain valid despite his rigorous pummelling at the hands of the scientific community. For example: if there was no Great Flood, as documented in the Book of Genesis... why do the mythologies of Australia, China, Egypt, Greece, Mesopotamia, India, Zimbabwe, and the Americas - cultures that had no contact with one another until well into the period of historic time - agree that there was?

Monday, April 25, 2011

U is for ... Ultima Thule

U is also for Untimely; V, W, X, and Y posts are all due by Friday of this week. Perhaps the stars will align helpfully...

Thule (rhymes with Julie) was, from antiquity and well into medieval times, the name for a geographical region in the far north of Europe. Believed originally to be an island - the Gaelic name for Iceland is Innis Tile, which literally means "Island of Thule" - it is nowadays commonly accepted that the region referred to by ancient texts as Thule was probably Norway.

Thule was first described by the explorer Pytheas, although even ancient historians such as Strabo and Polybius considered his to be an unreliable account. In fact, information on the historical Thule is remarkably vague; one of the few matters on which all sources agree is its location in the distant North. The Latin expression ultima Thule means - more or less - "beyond the known world", or "off the map." In the context that identifies Thule with Iceland specifically, Ultima Thule is identified with Greenland; but the expression is more poetic than literal. Virgil employs "Ultima Thule" as a symbol for an unattainable goal; Poe cites it as a "Dream-land" in his 1844 poem of that name.

One relatively modern mention of Ultima Thule was in the Dutch manuscript known as the Oera Linda, a collection of mythic, historic, and religious writings purported to date back as far as 2000 BC. Almost certainly, its provenance was much more recent, although as with many esoteric texts the intent of its author or authors is as mysterious as his, her, or their identity; whether it represents an earnest attempt at scholarship, an elaborate hoax, a parody, or a work of imaginative fiction comparable with Borges' fictitious history in Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius, is an open question to this day. It was presented to a librarian in Friesland, Holland, in 1867 by one Cornelius Over de Linden, suspected by many of being the book's originator - he claimed to have inherited it from his grandfather, although various evidences support the contention that it was actually a product of the 1850s.

The substance of the Oera Linda manuscript is a remarkable if rather unorthodox revisionist history of the world, in which all the modern races of the world are traced back to an Aryan master race whose Frisian culture, a matriarchal society centered on the worship of the Norse goddess Freya, originated in Northern Europe. It mentions, not only Thule, but also Atlantis as centers of this ancient civilization, which is claimed to have fostered both the Greek and Phoenician alphabets. An inspiration for the Theosophists, and thence Crowley's Thelema - although Crowley was more a crypto-Egyptian than a crypto-Nordic occultist - and the modern revival of neo-pagan Wicca, the Oera Linda was also a favorite among the high command of Nazi Germany: indeed, it was referred to as "Himmler's Bible," and was a focus of study at the Ahnenerbe, a Nazi think tank attempting to vindicate the vile Nazi belief that Aryan peoples were naturally superior to all others.

The consensus that the Oera Linda documents - made available in 1933 in a German translation by Herman Wirth - were forgeries, should have prompted a rethink: instead, it was the prelude to a wide-ranging exercise in self-delusion that took Nazi Nordicists to the Arctic, Tibet, and the Ukraine, among other far-flung destinations. Sketchy reports from early visitors to the Canary Islands of blond-haired and blue-eyed Guanche natives were sufficient to spark talk of an investigative trip there, but Generalissimo Franco's uncooperative attitude towards Nazi Germany dissuaded the eager seekers after truth from following up on this lead.

As with so many manifestations of the Nazi regime, the Ahnenerbe combined the ridiculous with the sublimely evil; among its many projects as the war progressed, it absorbed the Institut fur Wehrwissenschaftliche Zweckforschung - the macabre "Institute for Military Scientific Research" that performed unthinkably depraved experiments on human subjects. Of the many horrifying reflections inspired by any sustained investigation into the deeds of Nazi Germany, perhaps the most chilling is the banal ludicrousness of the hoaxes that provided a threadbare rationale for their monstrous activities. Nazism was a particularly gruesome iteration of the endeavor Virgil characterized in his Georgics: a quest for an unattainable goal. Seekers after truth must learn that it comes to them in a form and at a time of its own choosing; we can no more state a truth we have not found than we can describe a country we have not seen.

Sadly, Nazi Germany was not the last nation state to do great harm in the name of a Big Lie...

Saturday, April 23, 2011

T is for ... Tiananmen

T also stands for Tardiness, and Time Machine - eagle-eyed readers may detect the implementation of the latter in redress of the former here and in the next couple of blogs.

Tiananmen is the Chinese name, roughly translated as "Gate of Heavenly Peace," for a famous monument in the Chinese capital, Beijing.

Often considered the main entrance to the Forbidden City, the Tiananmen is in fact the southern entrance to the Imperial City, within which the Forbidden City is located. The entrance to the Forbidden City is in fact the Meridian Gate, which, like the Tiananmen, is not so much a gate as a fortress.

Although the name Tiananmen is well-known in the West, few here would associate it with the building depicted above. Chances are, when you read the word "Tiananmen" you remembered this image:

Ironically, this iconic still image, taken June 5, 1989, does not depict Tiananmen at all - the full image shows a line of tanks rolling down Changan Avenue in the direction of Tiananmen square, where they were expected to rendezvous with a large gathering of peaceful protestors. As you can see, in this picture they are being held up by a single Chinese citizen. It's not terribly clear, but he's holding two shopping bags. In the video that was taken contemporaneously, the lead tank can be seen attempting clumsily to maneuver round the man, who gesticulates at it with his weapons of mass commercialism and moves to stand in its way each time. There is a pause during which it becomes obvious that the tank commander will have to either kill this civilian or halt his advance.

And then the tank stops its engines, and the ones behind it follow suit. The might of the Chinese army is momentarily stilled by the courageous self-determination of a single individual. The video then shows the young man climb onto the lead tank, and appear to conduct a conversation with its occupants. As he climbs off, the tank attempts to start up again - and once more he resumes his post blocking its path.

If you do remember these events when they happened, you may be surprised to see that, at the end of the video clip above, the protestor is apparently carried off by a small group of fellow citizens - he is not killed, and apparently not arrested. The Chinese government officially claims not to know who he was, or what happened to him. The British Sunday Express identified him as Wang Weilin, but this has never been confirmed. He is commonly known as "Tank Man", or "The Unknown Rebel": Time listed him in 1998 among the 100 Most Important People of the Century, and his act of defiance was broadcast around the world. As I said, I believe he is probably the first thing you think of when you see the word "Tiananmen" - at least, he is unless you are somehow accessing this blog from China.

Within China, the protests of 1989 are veiled from the public by the state-controlled media. Even online reports of the events are kept behind the "Great Firewall of China." Modern Chinese citizens have no idea of the scale of the 1989 protests, their international reception, or even their true character, because the official Communist Party of China (CPC) line is all they've been told. According to this line, the CPC acted to quell a political disturbance in the interests of stabilizing the economy - and of course the Chinese economy has grown like gangbusters since 1989, so clearly whatever they did worked...

The history of the "June Fourth Incident," as it is somewhat euphemistically termed in China, is fascinating. Although this was the first time Western eyes got to witness a large-scale popular protest at Tiananmen Square - the world's media had been invited into Beijing to cover a Sino-Soviet summit meeting in May - it was not the first such protest. The triggering event for the "June Fourth Incident" was the death of former CPC Secretary-General Hu Yaobang, who had been forced to resign his post two years earlier after sympathizing with an earlier wave of protests. The unrest among China's intellectual classes developed from a failure of reform under Deng Xiaoping. Deng's position as Paramount Leader from 1978 to 1992 is interesting politically, since he wielded executive power without holding any of the three offices - President, Premier, Secretary-General - in which such power was theoretically vested. His tenure coincided with an uneasy transition to state capitalism, in a time period when Communism globally was under assault. Particularly towards the latter part of his administration, Deng had to contend with a succession of anti-Communist revolutions in Eastern Europe and the collapse of the Soviet Union under the weight of Mikael Gorbachev's Perestroika reforms.

Secretary-General Hu made a useful scapegoat for the failure of China's early economic reforms to provide opportunities for its burgeoning population of college-educated citizens. This failure actually resulted from the refusal of the CPC to embrace the political reforms upon which free markets thrive - decentralization, liberalization, freedoms of speech and association, and other quintessentially Western notions. Speaking after the "June Fourth Incident," Deng criticized protestors for their attempts to create a "Western-dependent bourgeois republic." This paranoid hostility towards free markets sat incongruously with chiangjuageguan, the policy of implementing market mechanisms for price-setting that Deng himself had championed, and that produced inflation nearing 20% by 1988 because the system was riddled with corruption, hamstrung by centralized government control, and directed by people who viewed market forces as supernatural and alien.

Hu's death of a heart attack on April 15, 1989, was the catalyst for widespread peaceful protests. The CPC's authoritarian response to these, symbolized eloquently by the mismatch between one man and a line of tanks, resulted in as many as 10,000 deaths, although estimates vary widely and, for example, the Tiananmen Mothers - an organization dedicated to promoting the reforms for which protestors died at Tiananmen - names "only" 186 citizens who were killed by their government for daring to suggest they had rights.

This was neither the first nor the last time Tiananmen would host a mismatched conflict between the Chinese government and its people. We'll get around to the others in due course.

Friday, April 22, 2011

S is for ... Shapiro Effect

Before I start in on the Shapiro effect, I want to talk about the origin of the Universe.

This could take a while. I hope you packed a thermos.

Actually, the concept of the thermos flask relates to current theories on the origin of the universe, in this way: both are the result of research into thermodynamics, the branch of physics that deals with energy and work. You may recall that the laws of thermodynamics were invoked, post facto, to discredit Orffyreus' perpetual-motion machine. They state, pretty clearly, that that sort of steady state is impossible in nature. The energy in a closed system is constant; but no machine can possibly be a closed system. Its energy comes from outside itself - even if only in the sense that it is manufactured, and so its component materials pre-exist its functioning self (existence precedes essence, in this case at least; the philosophical implications of that assertion, and its contrapositive, are beyond the scope of this blog, however). In general, any two systems in proximity to one another will undergo a heat exchange, until they reach a thermal equilibrium: an example of this can be seen if you leave a cup of hot coffee and a glass of iced tea out in the environment. After a sufficient period of time, the coffee and the tea will be the same temperature as one another: approximately the temperature of the ambient air around them.

Heat exchange occurs via three spontaneous processes: conduction, which is the transfer of heat down a heat gradient through matter, as when putting one end of a metal bar in a fire causes the whole bar to become hotter; convection, which is the transfer of heat within fluids along so-called convection currents, as evidenced by oceanic currents of warm water circulating from the Equator to the Poles; and radiation, which is the transfer of heat energy in the form of electromagnetic waves, as when the heat from the Sun warms the Earth. The Second Law of Thermodynamics reflects, without particularly explaining, an important aspect of this spontaneous heat exchange: it always travels down a heat gradient, so that hotter things spontaneously become cooler over time - in thermodynamic terms, the entropy of the system increases. Viewing the Universe as a vast closed system, within which the Earth is a smaller system, and a single human being a still smaller system within that, the implication of the Second Law of Thermodynamics is that all things eventually fail and die; their energies are lost to the vastness of empty space, and ultimately the Universe succumbs to "heat death." Draw comfort from the fact that we are likely to be struck by devastating asteroids long before that dreadful moment arrives.

Thermodynamics, therefore, has important consequences for our understanding of Time, and in particular its monodirectional linearity from Past, to Present, to Future. Thermodynamics frames this subjective appreciation of the passing of time as a function of increasing entropy in the systems we observe. Of course, if Orffyreus was able to produce his perpetual motion machine for real - he smashed it when Willem 's-Gravesande, a supporter as it happened, tried to examine it to determine if this were so, so we'll never know now (at least not within a monodirectional linear time paradigm) - that has even more important consequences for thermodynamics, but I'm getting ahead of myself.

A thermos flask maintains the temperature of its contents much longer than usual by interposing a vacuum between them and the system containing the flask. Invented by James Dewar - the original patent was for a "Dewar bottle" - it thereby reduces heat loss via conduction or convection, since the fluid in the flask is insulated from the atmosphere around the flask by a vacuum that contains no matter and so has nothing to flow. Radiation can cross a vacuum, but a thermos flask has a highly reflective interior surface that reduces this. In practice, only the inconvenient fact that you have to be able to open the flask to introduce something into it, or indeed to drink something out of it, allows for any heat loss. Perhaps if the Dewar bottle were a Klein bottle, things might be different...

How does any of this relate to the origin of the Universe? Well, since the Universe hasn't already succumbed to heat death, and since we observe Time passing in accordance with thermodynamic predictions, we can conclude that the Universe isn't infinitely old; it exists within a finite Time (although there's a hidden petitio principii there). It had a Beginning; it will have an End. The prevailing cosmological view is that, something like thirteen billion years ago or so, all the matter and energy in the Universe today was condensed into a singularity, a dimensionless point that was tremendously potent and that exploded - the so-called Big Bang - in order to bring the Universe into being. Scientists are very sketchy about what prompted this Big Bang, and about what preceded it (not least because our notions of causality and linear time really hinge on the acceptance of the Big Bang theory and aren't applicable to anything that pre-existed it), but they do agree that it happened and that its force was sufficient to cause the rapid expansion of the Universe and power the formation of atoms, molecules, and eventually whole galaxies of matter. They even posit that most of the matter in the Universe is so-called "dark matter," invisible to electromagnetic radiation: a thermos flask made out of "dark matter" really would be a steady-state system, as long as nobody went and opened the thing. All of this provides a comforting bedrock underneath the scientific laws we build from everyday observations, and so has validity as a worldview on purely pragmatic grounds; but, science being what it is, harder evidence was required to support the theory when it was first proposed.

That evidence was first produced by Edwin Hubble, after whom the most powerful man-made telescope is named. Hubble's observations of massive and very distant galaxies demonstrated a phenomenon called 'redshift' - light perceived from those galaxies far, far away is redder than it ought to be, because the wavelengths of the light are increased. This corresponds to a decreased frequency of the light, or a reduced photon energy, depending on whether one views light as a wave or a particle (of course, like de Broglie, one can reject the excluded middle there and argue that it's both); Hubble reasoned that this redshift could be accounted for by the Doppler effect, which arises whenever there is relative movement between the source of a wave and some observer - you hear it with sirens from moving emergency vehicles, for example. Hubble's explanation for redshift allowed for calculations both of how far away these galaxies were and how fast they were moving, relatively, away from us; and that allowed an indirect estimate of the age of the universe. Also, theoretically, with enough data, the ability to pinpoint the location of the original Big Bang, although that hasn't been the subject of much scientific curiosity.

You'll have noticed this blog wasn't set up to be about the Doppler effect; and, indeed, there's another explanation for redshift that was proposed by Albert Einstein (who was not a fan of the expanding-universe paradigm). In linking classical Newtonian physics to his own theory of special relativity, Einstein's General Theory of Relativity argued that the velocity of light, commonly accepted as a 'speed limit' for the universe and a scientific constant, was in fact only constant absent gravitational effects: gravity bends light, according to Einstein, which is why the massive gravity of black holes make them invisible. Scientists accept the existence of all this massive invisible gravity in the universe - black holes and dark matter and so on - because otherwise the calculations extrapolated from their scientific laws don't tally with the observed amount of matter there is around. Given the choice between invalidating the assumptions of conventional science, and invalidating the universe it supposedly measures, scientists historically and routinely choose the latter, so it's not surprising that they're far happier with dark matter they can't see than a perpetual-motion machine they can see. Happily for conventional science, there is also other evidence out there that supports the assumptions Einstein made.

One of the more important items of evidence on that list was identified by Irwin R. Shapiro (yes, finally, we're about to discuss the Shapiro Effect). He it was who experimentally confirmed the predictions of Einstein's theory in 1964 by measuring a delay of 200 microseconds in radar signals bounced off the planets Venus and Mercury. This demonstration of the delay in electromagnetic radiation due to gravity provides an alternative explanation for redshift - not that the galaxies viewed are moving away from us, but that the light reaching us from them is being slowed by the gravitational pull of the intervening matter. Shapiro's result has been replicated many times since, for example with the transponders on the Mariner 6 and Mariner 7 space probes. The Viking Mars lander left transponders on the surface of that planet, which have also confirmed the Shapiro effect in operation.

There are, of course, a host of scientists in the mainstream who will explain at even greater length than I took here why the redshift phenomenon is still confirmation of the Big Bang hypothesis, and why the Shapiro effect doesn't discredit this evidence. I don't oppose them; I just find it interesting how the edifice of Science selectively disregards valid interpretations of the evidence its methods uncovers.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

R is for ... Rolling in the Deep

An unusual circumstance attends today's blog; time is short enough that I can't indulge my general tendency to ramble around the perimeter of the subject, admiring the topiary and getting sidetracked by the resemblence of passing clouds to former heads of state, and yet sufficient that I can't in good conscience pretend it were impossible to get my head down and write something. As a compromise, herewith a musical recommendation and review.

Adele Adkins burst onto the British music scene back in 2008, at the tender age of 19. Her debut album, entitled '19' for reasons that astute followers of this blog can probably deduce for themselves, earned her nominations for the 2008 Mercury Prize (previously bestowed upon such luminaries of the Brit music scene as Portishead, Pulp, and Gomez) and a remarkable four Grammys - album track 'Hometown Glory', written by Adele when she was just 16, won her a nomination at the following year's Grammy Awards also.

She describes her genre as "heartbroken soul," and she's not exaggerating. She has a quite simply extraordinary voice - rich, powerful, swooningly expressive. Hailed as the New Amy Whitehouse when she first emerged on the airwaves, Adele has repeatedly demonstrated that she is, in fact, the First Adele Adkins. Here for your listening pleasure is the first US release from her sophomore album '21'; you probably don't need me to tell you how it got its name: click here, and prepare to be amazed.

...In my defense, that does begin with R as well. Here's the real Adele, doing what she does best:

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Q is for ... Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

The phrase, literally translating as "who will watch the watchmen themselves," first found expression in the Satires of the Roman poet Juvenal. The inference is that setting up one group to have authority over another does not make them intrinsically worthy of that power: specifically, the creation of a police state does not, in and of itself, guarantee that the police will not abuse their authority and flout the law.

Societies throughout history have recognized that law must be enforced if it is to be respected, which is the rationale for having police in the first place. This philosophy found its clearest expression under the Greek lawmaker Draco, who produced the first written constitution of the city-state of Athens and whose name is preserved in the eponym "draconian." Even minor infractions against the laws set down by Draco earned the death penalty; Draco himself is said to have remarked that he considered these so-called lesser crimes deserving of such a harsh punishment, and had no greater to offer for crimes of greater severity. In the draconian perspective, the fundamental crime is to break the law - the specifics of which law is broken, how and why, are unimportant. The rule of law itself is paramount, and sufficient justification for even the strictest interpretation of its codes.

Neither is this "zero tolerance" approach an historical aberration. The application of Shar’ia law in modern states such as Saudi Arabia frequently appears in Western eyes to be harsh and barbaric; Singapore treats littering as a major crime; in Maricopa County, AZ, Sheriff Joe Arpaio charges persons unable to verify their American citizenship with the crime of human trafficking - the 'traffic' being themselves, on the assumption they're in his jurisdiction illegally. All of these examples illustrate a philosophy of law in which justice consists of a strict implementation of the fullest penalties possible to all criminal acts; if, in the Platonic sense, law is seen as an instrument of the Platonic Good, then this conception of justice is essentially applying the standards of the Platonic ideal to the imperfect real world. The problem with this approach is that it assumes laws which are finite in scope and fallible in application - because they are created and maintained by imperfect human beings, and not manifestations of some Platonic higher realm - to be infinite and infallible.

What most of us would think of as "justice" applies a more casuistic perspective. Fairness dictates that we consider all factors that contributed to a criminal act, including factors that might mitigate the responsibility of the criminal or the severity of his punishment; further, fairness dictates that we consider the possibility that the law itself, either in its conception or its application, may be at fault. The essential components of a system of justice, as opposed to one of law, are doubt and development. A just system is one that is never certain of its pronouncements, and always willing to revise them.

It is also marked by accountability. There are, broadly speaking, four aspects to a legal system: the legislature that drafts laws, the executive that authorizes them, the judiciary that rules on cases before the law, and the police that enforce the laws. After Montesquieu, we are accustomed to see these as separate - indeed, as citizens of a police state we are accustomed to see the fourth as something separate from the first three - but in fact all four can coexist within one body and still constitute the essence of government. In fact, no government can exist that does not embody these four functions. Governments may exist to provide services under the social contract, but they can only do so if they first serve some corpus of law, even if that law is as primitive as the arbitrary pronouncements of a capricious dictator. It is not too far a stretch to suggest that the fairness of a social contract is predicted by the fairness with which the government conducts its fundamental functions in regard to the law.

This brings us, by a circuitous route, back to Juvenal's question. Plato's resolution, incidentally, was to have the watchmen watch themselves - tell themselves the "noble lie" that they were not as other men, that their duty made them greater, stronger, impervious to temptation and duty-bound to demonstrate their superiority with exhibitions of selfless and even-handed process of law. If one accepts Plato's reasoning here, it seems not unreasonable to ask why only policemen should tell themselves this "noble lie" - can not a whole society lie to themselves in this fashion, and do away with both police and criminals in the process? Further: if everybody is capable of deceiving themselves into accepting a weight of moral duty that does not actually burden them in practice, there seems no more need for any of the other three functions of prosecuting law than there is that of policing it. Then there is no need for government of any kind, and a state of anarchy exists. This chronicler encounters serious difficulty when attempting to reconcile such a state of affairs with a general acceptance of any coherent moral code; it seems, rather, that all we would have accomplished would be to rename what we now call "crimes" as mere "actions," no more reprehensible than kissing a baby or eating an ice-cream.

Moreover, there seems a flaw in Plato's premise that anybody can succeed at telling themselves this "noble lie" indefinitely - especially when they occupy a position of power over others, the temptation must arise to define, rather than simply accept, the rights and wrongs of human conduct. This tendency in the powerful towards overreach and corruption of the highest ideals is thoroughly explored in Alan Moore's seminal graphic novel, Watchmen - the title is, of course, a nod to the ancient Juvenalia, inter alia. The arrogance of Ozymandias; the intolerance of Rorschach; the cynicism of the Comedian; the despair of Nite Owl; the cosmic indifference of Dr. Manhattan; all of these illustrate the perils of power.

And then, of course, there's Silk Spectre, and perils of an entirely different dimension.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

P is for ... Panama

The country of Panama lies on the isthmus connecting the Americas. It is one of several countries that arose from the ruins of the Virreinato de la Nueva Granada, the Spanish colonial jurisdiction established in 1717 and centered at Bogota (in what is now Colombia). Spanish rule in the New World was always problematic: the terrain, the natives, the poverty of the infrastructure and the vast leagues separating the colonists from their Spanish roots all played a role in the turbulence of the period. The Viceroyalty of New Granada was set up in an attempt to bolster the authority of the Viceroyalty of Peru, and in turn was obliged to delegate its own authority to a Captaincy General in Caracas and the Audiencia of Quito - these were to become the centers of Venezuela and Ecuador, respectively. The autonomy of these regions grew over time, not only outliving the conquistadores but also resisting the unifying efforts of Simon Bolivar and others: the internecine politics of Latin America remains a complex and delicate discipline to this day.

Bolivar it was, of course, who led the successful efforts of New Granada against Spain; he was born in Caracas in 1783, four years after it was designated a Captaincy General and three years before it acquired an Audiencia of its own. The Bolivar family were originally Basques: La Puebla de Bolivar, from which the familial name is derived, is a village in the Biscay province, and Bolibar in the Basque tongue Euskera means "valley of the windmill". Bolivar, now known throughout Latin America as El Libertador ( "The Liberator"), was a distant descendant of King Fernando III of Castile, canonized as Saint Ferdinand in 1671. Ferdinand is claimed by the Catholic Church as a holy incorruptible, and was himself regarded as a "liberator", defeating the Moors notably at Cordoba and Seville. It is, perhaps, one of history's ironies that St. Ferdinand's successes during the Reconquista should have laid the ground for the conquest of the New World and the triumphant rebellion of his descendant, Simon Bolivar.

Bolivar was theoretically in line for a position among Spanish nobility: his grandfather had purchased the titles of Marques de San Luis and Vizconde de Cocorote, and although the Spanish Crown had not issued the patent of nobility by the time of New Granada's independence, Bolivar's elder brother would have held those titles if the issue had been resolved. The family's legal dispute with the Spanish authorities, however, was to be dwarfed by El Libertador's crusade against their rule in the Americas. Bolivar himself had completed his education in Spain, and indeed married a Spaniard in 1802. After her untimely death in Gran Colombia of yellow fever, he lived for a few years in Napoleonic France. It is arguable that he would have been content to remain under Spanish rule, had Emperor Napoleon not unwisely attempted to seat his brother Joseph as Spain's Head of State.

Pepe Botella ("Joe Bottle", a soubriquet alluding to Joseph's drunkenness), as King Joseph was derisively known by the Spaniards, was not a popular monarch; his brief reign coincided with the Peninsular War and the expulsion of Napoleonic forces from the Iberian Peninsula. It also coincided with juntas in Latin America, of which Simon Bolivar was an influential leader. The First Republic of Venezuela declared independence from Spain in 1811; Francisco de Miranda (known as El Precursor and arguably a role model for Bolivar) was to become generalissimo of the nascent republic in its fight for self-expression. This fight was, sadly, doomed: an ominous earthquake destroyed the capital of Caracas on the second anniversary of the Caracas junta, a coincidence that badly shook confidence among the Venezuelan people and contributed to Miranda's ignominious surrender in 1812.

Bolivar, more fortunate than Miranda, was able to escape to Cartagena, where he wrote his first public document: the Cartagena Manifesto. This detailed Bolivar's understanding of the fall of the First Republic and its several causes; and he was to demonstrate that he had heeded the lessons of Miranda's failures during the conduct of the so-called "Admirable Campaign" to liberate New Granada. It was during this, ultimately successful, campaign that Bolivar issued another famous decree: the Decreto de Guerra a Muerte, or Decree of War to the Death. This was an explicit exoneration of any crime committed against a Spaniard in the cause of Neogranadian independence, and it led to some truly horrific excesses that were by modern standards anything but "admirable". Less than two months after the Decreto, Bolivar retook Caracas and established the Second Republic. This fared little better than its predecessor: the Royalist sympathies of the rural llaneros (who made up a formidable army in their own right, loosely under the command of Jose Tomas Boves) and the necessity of military rule in the prevailing circumstances of ongoing war against the Spanish peninsulares left Bolivar with a dwindling base of support. Bolivar, along with Santiago Marino, a fellow revolutionary with his own armed forces in the east, was exiled to Cartagena as the Second Republic collapsed.

In March of 1814, Ferdinand VII returned to the Spanish throne; he took a hardline stance, perhaps understandably, abolishing the 1812 Constitucion and sending an expeditionary force captained by Pablo Morillo to settle unrest in the Americas once and for all. In the face of this formidable strengthening of Spain's resolve, Bolivar fought valiantly in the service of the United Provinces but was obliged to retreat to Jamaica in 1815. Here he wrote the "Letter from Jamaica", an appeal to Britain and the English-speaking world to side with the "American" people (Bolivar used the term "American" in its strictly correct sense of "native of the Americas"). It met with an unsatisfying response, but Bolivar did find an ally in the President of newly-liberated Haiti, Alexandre Petion. Despite growing tensions within the ranks of revolutionary leaders (Marino, for example, only accepted Bolivar as head of the new Republic after Bolivar made a brutal example of another disloyal revolutionary, Manuel Piar), Bolivar was able to consolidate his authority and, importantly, secure the services of the llaneros under Jose Antonio Paez (later to become President of Venezuela); Morillo, unwisely as it turned out, had disbanded the army of Boves and the llaneros were now more favorable to Republican persuasion.

In 1819, Bolivar led a brilliant surprise assault on the Spanish stronghold of New Granada, securing famous victories at Boyaca and Bogota and altering the course of South American history. Bolivar returned to the Venezuelan Congress in triumph, and in December 1819 was declared president of Gran Colombia, the new state merging New Granada with the Third Venezuelan Republic. 1820 was a high point for Bolivar: Spain negotiated a peace and he was the head of a liberated nation. Unfortunately, this nation proved too vast and too diverse to remain united under his rule. By 1828, the situation had deteriorated to the point where he was obliged to name himself a dictator; and on September 25 of that year he survived an assassination attempt. Two years later, Gran Colombia dissolved and Bolivar died at the age of 47 - he may well have considered his own death something of a liberation after the privations of war and government. Bolivar's dream of a unified America failed, but he remains a national hero in the several countries that emerged out of Gran Colombia's death throes.

Panama came late to the independence party. It remained a province of Colombia until 1903, and might have remained longer than that, but for a quirk of geographical good fortune. At that time, a vessel traveling from New York to San Francisco faced a 22,500 mile journey around Cape Horn - a treacherous and time-consuming passage. However, with the east and west coasts of Panama separated by a distance of less than 50 miles, the potential existed to create a shipping canal that would cut this journey by more than half. The advantages of such a canal to the United States were obvious; and, indeed, they weren't the first to think of it. Way back in 1529, the Spanish had planned such a venture, although it was beyond their scope at that time; and in 1698 the Scotsman Mark Buke embarked upon the disastrous Darien scheme, which was to have far-reaching consequences for his homeland but very little impact on Panamanian shipping.

The U.S. had the combination of financial and political clout, and technological know-how, to make a practical possibility of the Panama Canal: but it was a formidable enterprise, and they were obliged to buy local cooperation. Panama had unsuccessfully attempted to declare itself a sovereign state repeatedly since Bolivar freed the region from the Spanish yoke; after the failure of the Hay-Herran treaty between the U.S. and Colombia, which would have granted the U.S. a perpetual lease on the land that would become the canal, the government of Theodore Roosevelt lent its support, both financial and political, to Panamanian independence. The Panamanians were in turn very supportive of the proposed canal; they saw it as bringing prestige and prosperity to their country, and the explicit support of the United States gave their claims of sovereignty international legitimacy.

Five days after the U.S. formally recognized Panama, the Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty was signed. Interestingly, no Panamanian was a signatory to this treaty. In the wake of the Abramoff scandal, modern readers may be somewhat alarmed to note that Jean-Phillipe Bunau-Varilla was a French lobbyist and employee - and prominent shareholder - of Ferdinand de Lesseps' Panama Canal Company, who signed the treaty on behalf of Panama (he was serving as its ambassador, although hardly in a selfless spirit) but without the formal consent of its government. The Treaty granted the U.S. control in perpetuity of a Zone - the Panama Canal Zone - extending six miles from each bank of the proposed canal. In return, the government of Panama received a lump sum payment of $10 million, and an annual stipend of $250,000. De Lessep's Panama Canal Company, which had prior concession to build the canal, was also purchased under the terms of the treaty by the U.S. Government: the price negotiated for that by Panama's ambassador was a rather more substantial $40 million.

Not surprisingly, the terms of the Treaty sparked resentment in Panama that never really subsided. Bunau-Varilla's proposed design for the Panamanian flag, which bore a more than passing resemblence to the Stars and Stripes, was rejected in favor of the current design: a divided rectangle in red, white, and blue with two stars displayed in opposite quarters. With the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914, tensions grew higher: Panamanians were obliged to identify themselves to U.S. authorities upon entering the Zone, and U.S. employees within it enjoyed wages more than double those of Panamanians. By 1918, the U.S. was actively interfering in Panamanian affairs of state, revoking a decree of the Panamanian president and occupying Panama City and Colon. With the advent of World War Two, the U.S. was obliged to offer concessions to the Panamanians in return for locating further U.S. military bases outside the Zone; in 1947, the controversial Filos-Hines Treaty, which would have extended the presence of 140 such sites, was defeated in the Panamanian National Assembly after public protests which included a march by students of the Instituto Nacional bearing the Panamanian flag. The Instituto was Panama's premier public high school, and it was to play a prominent role nearly twenty years later in the history of the Canal Zone.

During the 1950s, Panamanians were influenced by numerous events: the CIA-orchestrated ouster of Guatemala's president Jacobo Arbenz; the successes of the U.S. Civil Rights Movement; Castro's revolution in Cuba. As a result of these developments, the U.S. made further concessions to Panama. Eisenhower's administration agreed in principle that the Panamanian flag could fly within the territory of the Zone, which had been de facto American soil since 1903; shortly before his assassination, John F Kennedy agreed that both Panamanian and American flags should fly at non-military sites within the Zone. These orders were overturned by decree of the Canal Zone's Governor, Robert Fleming, a month after Kennedy died: perhaps attempting to appease all parties, he succeeded in inflaming them instead by ordering that no flags should be flown within the Zone at civilian locations. Students at Balboa High School, within the Zone and strongly sympathetic to the U.S., erected a U.S. flag in direct contravention of the decree; when school officials took it down, the students walked out and erected another, this time posting a guard around it. Popular opinion within the Zone supported their stand.

Popular opinion outside it was very different. Incensed by this assertion of American imperialism, the students of the Instituto Nacional once again took up their flag - the same one they had carried in 1947 - and marched it into the Zone to stand proudly alongside its fellow at Balboa High School. Led by one Guillermo Guevara Paz, the delegation had informed Zonian authorities of their intent in advance. They were met on January 9, 1964, by a crowd of Zonian citizens and a nervous phalanx of police, who agreed to allow a half-dozen students to advance to the Balboa High School flagpole. Incensed Zonians surrounded it, singing the Star-Spangled Banner and preventing the Panamanian students from reaching their goal. In the ensuing violence, the flag of Panama was torn - accidentally, according to the Zonians; deliberately, according to the Panamanians.

The Governor, en route to a summit in Washington to address the situation, discovered upon landing that the situation had escalated far beyond his control. Word of the flag-tearing had spread, and Panamanian demonstrators invaded the Zone at several points, bearing their national flag; they were repelled by armed police. Panama's armed forces, the Guardia, rejected Zonian calls to restore the peace, and demonstrators attacked the so-called "Fence of Shame" that separated Zonian from Panamanian soil. By 8:35, the U.S. Army's 193rd Infantry Brigade had deployed in the face of thousands of outraged protestors. Although accounts differ, it is generally accepted that 21 Panamanians lost their lives during the riots: January 9 became known as "Martyr's Day" and remains a national holiday in Panama. Among the "martyrs" were six-year-old Maritza Avila Alabarca, who died of respiratory problems after U.S. troops bombarded her neighborhood with CS tear gas, and 20-year-old Ascanio Arosemena, shot from behind allegedly while helping wounded protestors flee the scene of violence. Six of the dead were burned to death by rioters who destroyed the Pan American Airlines building in the Zone. Four U.S. soldiers were also killed.

The violence of Martyr's Day set the stage for the eventual withdrawal of U.S. forces. President Carter signed the 1977 Treaty that relinquished U.S. control of the Zone, which formally passed to Panama in 1999. The former Balboa High School, now named for the fallen "martyr" Ascanio Arosemena and used as a training center for the Panama Canal Authority, is the site of a memorial upon which the names of the 21 fallen Panamanians are listed. Sadly, this wasn't the last violent episode in Panama's history, and it wasn't the last time U.S. troops would be involved, although the circumstances of Operation "Just Cause" were markedly different, and represent another iteration of that historic irony that linked the destinies of St. Ferdinand and Simon Bolivar.

"A man, a plan, a canal - Panama!" Leigh Mercer's 1948 publication of this famous palindrome brought it to prominence; but although the canal is indisputably identified, inquiring readers may occupy themselves with disquieting consideration of these linked questions: Who is the Man? What is the Plan?

Monday, April 18, 2011

O is for ... Orpheus

Che faro senza Eurydice... (I have lost my Eurydice...)

Orpheus was, according to Pindar, the son of Oeagrus, King of Thrace, and the muse Calliope (of whom more otherwhen). Most sources agree he was a real historical personage. The myths around him ascribe to him an otherworldly facility with music and song, although other gifts are mentioned as well - healing, astrology, agriculture. Legend has it that he was taught by Apollo himself to play the lyre. Aboard the Argo, Orpheus outsang the sirens and saved Jason from the fate that would later threaten the Odyssey.

Most famously of all, Orpheus descended into the underworld to sing for the release of his beloved wife Eurydice - his song was so sweet it charmed even Hades himself, and the deal was struck that Eurydice could accompany him to the surface: on the one condition that he could not look back at her until she was once more upon the Earth. Naturally, he was extremely anxious, and every step of the way out of Hades' dark realm he was tempted to look back; but he was able to resist until he reached the entrance to the Underworld, and as he stepped out he turned - forgetting that his dear Eurydice was still a step inside the gates. Hades reclaimed her, and in his grief Orpheus foreswore all other women.

The surpassing beauty of his music nonetheless made him attractive to many, and they became jealous and vengeful as he continually spurned them. He was eventually torn apart by a gang of women - a fate which Plato, at least, considered fitting punishment for his "cowardice" in not choosing to follow Eurydice into death, rather than seek to bring her back with him to life. Perhaps this, and other unflattering views of Orpheus (Albrecht Durer called him Orfeus der erst puseran, Orfeus the first sodomite), was more of the same jealousy: the human soul is curiously ill-configured to suffer beauty it cannot either own or emulate.

Jealousy may also account for a later, historical figure whose name certainly seems to have been inspired by the Thracian minstrel - Orffyreus, born Johann Bessler in Saxony, Germany, in 1680. Unlike his near-namesake, Orffyreus was not noted for his voice; although, in his own way, he too defied the Gods.

Bessler's infamy stems from a rather remarkable announcement he made at the tender age of 22. Arriving in the town of Gera, he exhibited a "self-moving wheel" - the first of several machines he was to demonstrate before a largely hostile and unbelieving public that purported to be perpetual motion machines. The largest of these was 12m in diameter, and sufficiently impressed Gottfried Liebniz to remark that "there is something extraordinary about Orffyreus' machine."

A perpetual motion machine, of course, contradicts the laws of thermodynamics. It may be worth considering that Orffyreus wrought his wonders nearly two centuries before those laws were elucidated, and nobody, in his time or since, has been able to either replicate or refute his achievements. The laws of thermodynamics, so fundamental to modern science, are predicated on the impossibility of Orffyreus' perpetuum mobile. For those of you inclined to side with Helmholtz and company over an obscure Saxon inventor, I leave you this 1895 statement from Lord Kelvin:

"heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible."

Postscript: One may wonder why Kelvin's assertion never became a scientific law, while Clausius' and Helmholtz' did. I offer this cynical perspective: there's not a lot of money in free energy, is there?

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Mojo's Mailbox #3

The mailbox is having to flex its time-travel muscles ever more strongly in order to appear to appear when it does. I'm also struggling with the commenting side of things; I haven't been getting round the blogs I follow like I'd want to, let alone expanding to new ones. I need to get into a better rhythm, but it's hard to balance this with other commitments. I'm still very new to all this. A work in progress, so to speak.

Despite this, I'm humbled and inspired by the comments you've given me. I promise I'll try to provide the same encouragement in return.

Nancy - a fantasy author whose Treasures of Carmelidrium not only sounds like the sort of book I'd be very interested to read, but actually reminds me of elements in an unpublished work of my own (don't worry, I abhor plagiarism and would never dream of piggybacking on another writer's hard work - in any case, Mozart has us both beat with the magic-flute idea) - picked up another resonance on a blog of mine that had eluded me. I think the movie you're referring to might be Peggy Sue Got Married, and I'm going to have to go review it thanks to your comment. That's a good thing, in case it wasn't clear. Thank you, Nancy. Also, your taste in music rocks. I dig the Sixties: I don't remember them, which apparently means I was there. Or something.

Moving on: Jeremy seems to have made a few commenters think as much as it did me - it's one of those songs that sticks with me, there's something terrible and beautiful in the understatement of "Jeremy spoke..." I like Kelly Rowland's Stole for similar reasons - the implication of "everybody knows his name" chills me. There's something monstrous about fame, something that Andy Warhol and Lady Gaga may not have grasped quite as firmly as they might seem to - but that's going to be another blog sometime. For now, let me take this opportunity to say I appreciate the comments of Lee, without whom I wouldn't be here - well, indirectly anyway; Heather, whose talents impress and delight me and who offered a very valuable perspective in her comment; and, last but not least, Lynn, my very dear wife who went over and above even her usual level of support by not only commenting but crowding my awards shelf with this little beauty:

Thanks, hun!

Lee made a great observation about Hello Kitty - these huge runaway corporate successes all seem to emerge from the simplest things. There's always that "why didn't I think of that?" aspect, waiting in the wings for us. I like to think we all do have something like that, something that could be a runaway success, some expression of ourselves that could change the world - or at least become a part of it recognizable beyond our shores. The main reason I want to get out there commenting and encouraging and soaking up the awesomeness of other blogs is that I want to watch one of those take off. It's like being one of the twenty people at a band's first gig and then screaming for them at Madison Square Gardens twenty years later. Heather - I'm so proud of you, admitting the cult of Hello Kitty has you in its clutches :P It's the first step to recovery, you know...

The NEO post brought a couple of new commenters, so thanks and welcome and all that jazz to Roland - his "About Me" alone confirms him as somebody I want to read - and Karen Walker, who earns my deepest respect by having authored a memoir, which strikes me as one of the bravest and most valuable things a person can do. To not only publicize one's most private memories, but to do so in a form that can provide comfort and support to people you'll never meet, is an example of the best in humanity. Her blog is awesome, too.

Now, I might have some time to go out and spread some comment love. There are so many great writers, and great people, I'm getting to learn some about through this A to Z challenge. Thanks, all of you, for taking part and making it what it is!

I'm seriously considering extending the A to Z format beyond the end of April. X is tapping me on the shoulder and making rude faces, but I find the simultaneous stricture and suggestion of the form a real spur to my creativity. I'd also like to introduce another infrequent addition - my unformed thought at this point is a Monthly Mojo Mindbender, a trivia quiz for readers to have a go at - I'd welcome anybody's suggestions on how to improve this. Erin already suggested I should curb the verbiage, but I don't think that's in my nature, sadly...

Saturday, April 16, 2011

N is for ... NEO

Oops! Not Nemo...

Not you, either. Sheesh!

A NEO is a Near Earth Object. Astronomists define these as any astronomical body within 1.3 Astronomical Units (AU) of Earth, and, even though an AU is really really big - around 150 million kilometers, or about 90 million miles - there are literally thousands of them. They include man-made satellites, obviously, but also a whole bunch of asteroids and such. In some cases, the orbits of these bodies put them on a potential collision course with Earth; others are virtually stationary relative to Earth, or their orbits are out of synch with ours.

An international project called Spaceguard exists to identify the rest, which are officially designated Potentially Hazardous Objects - ones that could conceivably strike the Earth and do some hefty damage in the process. Anybody who's read Greg Bear's Eon, or seen Armageddon, appreciates the idea here.

So far, almost 1000 have been identified. Cheery thought, no?

The Spaceguard initiative still has a considerable amount of sky to examine. Cheery thought, no?

The most recent near-miss happened within the last five years: a fireball over Indonesia in 2009 with an estimated blast energy of 50 kilotons of TNT. That's twice the power of the Nagasaki atom bomb.

Although there were no reported casualties from that event, there has been extensive damage as a result of NEO impacts in the past. In 1908, around 5 miles above Tunguska, Siberia, a NEO detonated with an energy of 10 megatons - that's 200 times the strength of the Indonesia blast of 2009. Even at that height, it is estimated to have felled eight million trees. The shock wave is believed to have been the equivalent of a 5.0 earthquake. Eyewitness accounts were vivid - "the sky split apart" according to one report - but there was little scientific interest at the time.

Predictive computer models indicate the next Tunguska-sized NEO is most likely to impact China or the US. There is considerably more interest in that one...

Friday, April 15, 2011

M is for... Mososaur

Loyal readers who are, like Funes, memorioso, may remember I said something in an earlier blog about returning to discussion of cryptids.

Not yet.

The mososaurs, for any non-paleontologists out there, were large marine lizards - probably snakes are their closest living relatives - that became the dominant marine predator in the late Cretaceous Period. Almost certainly, coelacanths would have formed part of its diet: pretty much everything else did. The mososaurs, as a family, were tremendously large: the smallest species identified grew to be over 3 meters in length, while the largest exceeded 15 meters. Their limbs adapted into flippers, mososaurs had some characteristics in common with fish, and some with crocodiles. There is an interesting story to be traced in the identification of mososaur species, involving one of paleontology's many storied rivalries, which would make a fantastic subject for a blog.

Not yet.

Mososaurs make an interesting subject for paleontological study, for a variety of reasons; it is not surprising that Marcus Ross, a graduate student at the University of Rhode Island, selected them as the subject for his doctoral thesis. As the holder of a Ph.D., it is not surprising that he is recognized as an authority on the evolution, diversity, and extinction of mososaurs some 60 million years ago. You may be suspecting at this point that there is some relatively surprising factoid lying in wait, and if so your suspicion is correct. The surprising aspect of Dr. Ross' career as a paleontologist is that he is also a Young Earth Creationist. As a function of his religious beliefs, Marcus Ross sincerely believes that the Earth, and indeed the entire Universe, is only a few thousand years old. As a function of his professional status, he is an expert on a species that existed millennia before that.

This apparent dichotomy - I say apparent, because that apparition arises only from the assumption of an excluded middle - attracted the attention of New York Times journalist Cornelia Dean, who published an article on Dr. Ross in 2007. As Ross explains it, he is simply "separating the paradigms" between the scientific and religious perspectives of the world. He has been accused of intellectual dishonesty; it has been suggested his "impeccable" doctoral dissertation should have been rejected, since he has used it to argue for creationism as a plausible explanation for the Cambrian Explosion, in defiance of conventional scientific wisdom. The notion that the Earth could simultaneously be only 6,000 years old, and yet host massive predators 60,000,000 years old, is unscientific; in fact, the assumptions supporting that notion are beyond the capacity of science to examine. They have to do with philosophical conceptions of Time; while the question "how long does a second take to pass" may seem alternatively pataphysical and asinine, its implications make it, for this chronicler at least, one meriting consideration.

Rejecting the Aristotelian assumptions underpinning materialist-mechanist empiricism opens one up to a vertiginously uncertain universe; Ross identifies a quintessentially American solution, in pragmatically behaving as if one paradigm or another is "true" in the Aristotelian sense, depending on the situation. Other resolutions to this irrealist situation exist...

Thursday, April 14, 2011

L is for ... Lazarus

- also, Late (which this post is); and Lie (which the timestamp on this post is).

The late Emma Lazarus lies interred in Beth-Olom Cemetery, in Brooklyn, New York. A poet, she is best known for "The New Colossus," which is to be found engraved on a plaque inside the Statue of Liberty, on what is now Liberty Island in New York Harbor (but perhaps not in New York... boundaries are arbitrary and capricious things). The poem contains several memorable but oft-misquoted phrases:

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

The poem is written in a sonnet form famously associated with the Elizabethan poet and playwright known as "Shakespeare." It was Lazarus' contribution to an art auction to support the Bartholdi Pedestal Fund - this fund raised money in the United States for the erection of a pedestal to support the statue being constructed by the French sculptor Frederic Bartholdi to commemorate the ideals of international republicanism, and the American inspiration for the French Revolution. As the poem relates, this collaboration recalls an earlier statuesque harbor guardian: the Colossus of Rhodes. Bartholdi's own title for the statue was La Liberté éclairant le monde, or Liberty Enlightening the World; Lazarus' poem transformed it into a symbol for the great melting pot of American multiculturalism, a welcomer of the world's "tired... poor... huddled masses."

Although the poem was provided to an auction to raise money for the Statue, and was read at the exhibition of artworks contributed to that auction, it was not present in any form at the Statue's official opening in 1886. When Lazarus died a year later, her poem seemed to have died with her. But her friend Georgina Schuyler, a descendant of the founders of New York City, found the poem and embarked on an ultimately successful campaign to have Lazarus immortalized. Her poem was installed in 1903, and the Statue of Liberty became a beacon attracting immigrants from all over the world. Currently administered by the National Parks Authority, the Statue of Liberty was originally the responsibility of the United States Lighthouse Board; incongruously, when Emma Lazarus transformed its character from beyond the grave, it was under the care of the Department of War.

Almost exactly halfway between the opening of the new Colossus and its adornment with "the New Colossus," another poem was authored, this one by Thomas Bailey Aldrich. Almost certainly, Aldrich was not consciously responding to Lazarus, who had by then been dead eight years; but his "Unguarded Gates" takes an altogether more cynical view of those "huddled masses" flooding into New York Harbor:

WIDE open and unguarded stand our gates,
Named of the four winds, North, South, East, and West;
Portals that lead to an enchanted land
Of cities, forests, fields of living gold,
Vast prairies, lordly summits touched with snow,
Majestic rivers sweeping proudly past
The Arab's date-palm and the Norseman's pine
A realm wherein are fruits of every zone,
Airs of all climes, for lo! throughout the year
The red rose blossoms somewhere - a rich land,
A later Eden planted in the wilds,
With not an inch of earth within its bound
But if a slave's foot press it sets him free.
Here, it is written, Toil shall have its wage,
And Honor honor, and the humblest man
Stand level with the highest in the law.
Of such a land have men in dungeons dreamed,
And with the vision brightening in their eyes
Gone smiling to the fagot and the sword.

Wide open and unguarded stand our gates,
And through them presses a wild motley throng
Men from the Volga and the Tartar steppes,
Featureless figures of the Hoang-Ho,
Malayan, Scythian, Teuton, Kelt, and Slav,
Flying the Old World's poverty and scorn;
These bringing with them unknown gods and rites,
Those, tiger passions, here to stretch their claws.
In street and alley what strange tongues are loud,
Accents of menace alien to our air,
Voices that once the Tower of Babel knew!
O Liberty, white Goddess! is it well
To leave the gates unguarded? On thy breast
Fold Sorrow's children, soothe the hurts of fate,
Lift the down-trodden, but with hand of steel
Stay those who to thy sacred portals come
To waste the gifts of freedom. Have a care
Lest from thy brow the clustered stars be torn
And trampled in the dust. For so of old
The thronging Goth and Vandal trampled Rome,
And where the temples of the Caesars stood
The lean wolf unmolested made her lair.

Between them, these two poems give expression to a dialectic that continues to resonate today; one which, fittingly, has several dimensions and one to which I shall return otherwhen.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

K is for ... Kawaii

After yesterday's foray into the darker side of pop culture, something a bit lighter today - although, just as the darkness hid a message of beauty, there are undercurrents here that might be almost sinister... but we'll get to those later.

You may or may not recognize some of the friendly little critters depicted above - there was actually only one I knew straight off, but then I'm not exactly the target demographic here - and, if you do, the executives at Sanrio will be delighted. Those guys, and their chums, net Sanrio a billion dollars or more annually. Hello Kitty, the one I recognized, is one of the world's biggest brands. Nowadays, she is the flagbearer for an army of cuteness - in Japanese, the word is kawaii - and a driver of Japan's economic success. But kawaii wasn't Sanrio's idea, and it didn't originate as a corporate gimmick.

Sanrio was set up in the 1960s by Japanese businessman Shintaro Tsuji as a silk manufacturer. Through his political connections, Tsuji later purchased the rights to the characters Snoopy and Barbie, which proved as popular with the youth of Japan as elsewhere. Tsuji learned the salient lesson: cute animals sell big, and Sanrio's business model was set. However, the market for his kawaii was not primarily the young children of Japan - it was, incongruously, teenagers, of an age we in the West might expect to be ready, in good Paulian fashion, to "put away childish things."

The 1970s were an interesting period in Japan, sociologically speaking. When Hello Kitty debuted in 1974, she was fortunate to find a blossoming market for all things cute. Traditionally, Japanese culture is male-dominated and heavy on the formality - but a movement began in the 1970s among Japan's teenage girls that was, in its own way, revolutionary. It began, as many revolutions do, with written words.

Japanese writing actually encompasses three styles: kanji, which are stylized Chinese ideographs; and the two syllabaries, languages of syllables, respectively hiragana - for native Japanese words - and katakana, for loanwords from other languages. As with Chinese, the precise ordering of the strokes that make up kanji is very important - calligraphy is an art of delicate precision. The quiet revolution of Japanese womanhood began with subtle and not-so-subtle assaults upon this stylistic regimentation. Girls would use mechanical pencils that drew fine lines, rather than the variable thicknesses of 'proper' kanji; and they would employ rounded characters where straight lines were customary, and decorate their kanji with hearts, flowers, smily faces, and so on. All of these affectations seem quite familiar to us in the West as part of an overtly feminine approach to writing; through the prism of Japanese culture, these same affectiations become radical. Kawaii was a mechanism for individualizing expression: an insidious way to undermine the rigidly patriarchal authority pervading their environment. It proved impossible to suppress, but rebellions are peculiar things. It's often easier to fight the power than to keep the power.

Corporate Japan enjoyed the 80s at least as much as corporate America. Men like Shintaro Tsuji understood that if you can find a symbol for what people want, they can be brought to accept that symbol even if it obscures - or obstructs - their original goals. The tremendous brand power of Hello Kitty and friends created immense wealth for Sanrio, wealth that the corporation channeled into diverse media interests including film and publishing. Literally thousands of products today carry Sanrio characters and proliferate their brand. Their power to shape the culture is built on a movement engendered to overthrow that power.

Makeru ga kachi.