june 2008

click here for permalink June 24, 2008

I just finished listening to the last ten hours (out of 44 and a half) of H.G. Wells' encyclopedic Outline of History, written in 1920. It was his exhaustive review of the history of humankind, our miraculous achievements and tragic failures, the worst of which the world was still recovering from when he wrote the book. He felt that we were at a crossroads in those dark, shell-shocked moments after the "war to end wars" (his words) when critical decisions could and should be made about the path to a peaceful and spiritually sound future. The other path, he concluded, would be endless cycles of ever-worstening wars and barbarism the likes of which most people, even following the horros of the Great War, could scarcely imagine — but which he could, only too well.

I was so impressed after listening to the last chapters that I immediately went on a quest to find out more about him. First things first, he was a Virgo. Heh, of course... critical, analytical, intellectually elitist, gripped by a fear that the worst elements of society were leading us into chaos and an evolutionary backslide into a new dark age? What else could he have been? On the other hand, his moon and ascendant were in Aquarius, that futuristic, intuitive, inventive, egalitarian sign.

In the final decade of his life, Wells collaborated in some way to the writing of the United Nations Charter adopted in 1948. Although he isn't officially credited, his contribution to the document is widely acknowledged — and, if you read the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and then the final chapters of Outline of History (as well as, I'm sure, many of his other works), it is more than obvious.

In fact, that's what got me started on this HG Wells kick in the first place, actually; as I listened to the final chapter, entitled "The Next Stage of History," I was struck by how much it sounded like the Declaration of Human Rights (which I printed out a few years ago, upon reading it for the first time — and for anyone who hasn't read it, or who believes that the UN is irrelevant, ineffectual or has outlived its usefulness, I highly recommend reading it. It is one of the most beautiful, idealistic and humbling pieces of political writing I've ever seen. Truly, it could only have been conceived by one of history's most diehard utopians.

Wells was also one of history's most notoriously prescient futurists, with a keenly fatalistic sense of the self-destructive side of human nature; he famously predicted nuclear warfare in his novel The World Set Free in 1913, describing a device that "accelerates the process of radioactive decay, producing bombs that explode with... the force of ordinary high explosive — but which 'continue to explode' for days on end." In one of the eerier cases of life imitating art imitating life that litter the footnotes to Wells' life story, Manhattan project physicist Leó Szilárd had been reading it in 1933 and "acknowledged that the book inspired him to theorize the nuclear chain reaction."

"Certainly it seems now that nothing could have been more obvious to the people of the early twentieth century than the rapidity with which war was becoming impossible. And as certainly they did not see it. They did not see it until the atomic bombs burst in their fumbling hands." [H. G. Wells, The World Set Free, 1913]

He also anticipated the invention of the Internet; or, at the very least, he spoke eloquently about the need for something like it in a collection of essays entitled World Brain: The Idea of a Permanent World Encyclopaedia.

"Few people as yet, outside the world of expert librarians and museum curators and so forth, know how manageable well-ordered facts can be made... once they have been put in place in a well-ordered scheme of reference and reproduction. The American microfilm experts, even now, are making facsimiles of the rarest books, manuscripts, pictures and specimens, which can then be made easily accessible upon the library screen. There is no practical obstacle whatever now to the creation of an efficient index to all human knowledge, ideas and achievements, to the creation, that is, of a complete planetary memory for all mankind.

In the hands of competent editors... these condensations and abstracts... will supply the humanity of the days before us, with a common understanding and the conception of a common purpose... such as now we hardly dare dream of. And its creation is a way to world peace that can be followed without any very grave risk of collision with the warring political forces and the vested institutional interests of today. Quietly and sanely this new encyclopaedia will, not so much overcome these archaic discords, as deprive them, steadily but imperceptibly, of their present reality. A common ideology based on this Permanent World Encyclopaedia is a possible means, to some it seems the only means, of dissolving human conflict into unity." (H. G. Wells, World Brain, 1937)

But my favorite thing that Wells wrote might be the preface to his third edition of "The War In The Air," published at the height of World War II five years before his death:

"Again I ask the reader to note the warnings I gave in that year, twenty years ago. Is there anything to add to that preface now? Nothing except my epitaph. That, when the time comes, will manifestly have to be: 'I told you so. You damned fools.'" [H. G. Wells, The War In The Air, 1941 edition.]

click here for permalink June 19, 2008

Over the last few weeks, I've been reading, watching and listening to an interesting cross-section of stories from Iraq, all of which seem to offer "alternative" perspectives, if only because they're all told from within the country and the people telling them actually know what they're talking about.

My Country, My Country is a documentary by Laura Poitras that follows Dr. Riyadh, a Sunni physician living in Baghdad, during the tumultuous six months leading up to the country's elections in 2005. According to an interview with Poitras, she met Dr. Riyadh outside the chain-link fence perimeter outside of Abu Ghraib, where he was taking a headcount of prisoners and documenting their injuries. She says:

"I met him while he was conducting an inspection of Abu Ghraib. He allowed me to film him and he took me into his house at great risk to himself and his family. The second time I filmed him he was at the free medical clinic he runs in the Adhamiya neighborhood in Baghdad. People come to the clinic and they bring all their physical problems, but they also use it as a place to talk about the occupation and to talk about their problems. Dr. Riyadh hears all this, and so filming him was a fantastic way to capture the bigger picture in the daily life of Iraqis. As a storyteller, I really believe in telling stories through human drama. When we are inundated with casualty statistics and suicide car bombs, the information gets lost on us; I think by following one man and one family over the course of a year, it gives viewers greater understanding of the situation in Iraq." Read more

In the opening scene, we see Dr. Riyadh questioning a soldier about the juvenile prisoners, in particular, one who we have just discovered is nine years old. "He's the most dangerous one of all," the soldier says to the doctor, who struggles to find polite words that won't betray his obvious incredulity and disgust. Moments later, he loses his patience trying to take down the accounts of several prisoners who wave and call out their names and how long they've been imprisoned from behind the fence. "We live in an occupied country, with a puppet government," he says in exasperation, "What do you expect?"

lionessThieves of Baghdad is the account of former Marine and New York State Prosecutor Matthew Bogdanos, who headed up the mission to investigate and retrieve over 8,000 antiquities looted from the Baghdad Museum after the invasion in 2003. I found the audio book at the library just a few days after Bogdanos was in Vancouver giving a presentation; when I brought it to the counter, the librarian apologized and told me it wasn't supposed to be on the shelves because someone had it on hold. She offered to put my name on the next copy that was returned and, luckily, I only had to wait a couple of weeks.

In relating one of the most potentially intriguing side stories of the war, though he is unquestionably a US military "insider," Bogdanos paints a uniquely well-rounded picture of the interactions between cooperating members of the armed forces and the citizens of Iraq, including former Ba'ath Party members, which many of the museum employees were. It's also an interesting detective story that gives a colorful account of the ongoing investigation and many of its small victories, complete with action sequences, CSI moments and a fairly culturally-sensitive depiction of the communications and compromises made between people with common goals but often diametrically-opposed methods.

Babylon's Ark: The Incredible Wartime Rescue of the Baghdad Zoo by Lawrence Anthony is, just as the subtitle suggests, an incredible story from the first days of the Iraq invasion. Lawrence Anthony was watching CNN just like everyone else when he saw a report on the terrible conditions at the Baghdad Zoo, where many of the animals were starving and in need of medical attention. Anthony found his way to Baghdad and then, eventually, to the former palace compound of Uday Hussein.

(Excerpt from NPR.org, March 6, 2007) "IT'S NOT KNOWN when Uday fled his palace, but it was probably around the same time the rapidly advancing American forces took Baghdad's international airport. When the Special Forces stormed the complex a few days later, it was deserted.

Well, almost. Bemused SF soldiers cautiously entering an unkempt patch of garden to the right of a massive entrance hall (where a decapitated statue of Saddam Hussein greeted them) came across a thick steel pen. It was about fifty yards long, thirty yards wide, and the fences were at least a story high. In the cage, crouching together under the shade of a spiky-trunked palm tree, were three lions. And judging by their prolonged snarling, they were not happy." Read more

click here for permalink June 11, 2008

Yeah, baby!! For all the good it will do, Ohio Congressman and former Presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich introduced 35 articles of impeachment into Congress on Monday. It's long overdue and it will almost certainly have no real impact but it's still vital for people in a democracy (still, at least technically, as of 11 am PDT this morning) to do the right thing for the right reasons instead of censoring and second-guessing themselves based on polling or political expediency.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has said that impeachment is "off the table" and John Conyers, who previously advocated impeachment, has recently stated that he would no longer pursue it, probably due to the unlikelihood (bordering-on-unimaginableness) of success, proving once again that Dennis is flying solo in the defense of American democracy. I feel like saluting. Here are some highlights:


Article I
Creating a Secret Propaganda Campaign to Manufacture a False Case for War Against Iraq.

Article II
Falsely, Systematically, and with Criminal Intent Conflating the Attacks of September 11, 2001, With Misrepresentation of Iraq as a Security Threat as Part of Fraudulent Justification for a War of Aggression.

Article V
Illegally Misspending Funds to Secretly Begin a War of Aggression.

Article XV
Providing Immunity from Prosecution for Criminal Contractors in Iraq.

Article XVII
Illegal Detention: Detaining Indefinitely And Without Charge Persons Both U.S. Citizens and Foreign Captives.

Article XVIII
Torture: Secretly Authorizing, and Encouraging the Use of Torture Against Captives in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Other Places, as a Matter of Official Policy.

Article XX
Imprisoning Children.

Article XXV
Directing Telecommunications Companies to Create an Illegal and Unconstitutional Database of the Private Telephone Numbers and Emails of American Citizens.

Article XXVIII
Tampering with Free and Fair Elections, Corruption of the Administration of Justice.

Article XXXI
Katrina: Failure to Plan for the Predicted Disaster of Hurricane Katrina, Failure to Respond to a Civil Emergency.

Article XXXII
Misleading Congress and the American People, Systematically Undermining Efforts to Address Global Climate Change.

Article XXXIV
Obstruction of the Investigation into the Attacks of September 11, 2001.

Article XXXV
Endangering the Health of 911 First Responders.

[Read all 35 articles in detail on Dennis Kucinich's web site.]


click here for permalink June 7, 2008

Here's a fun personality (in the broadest sense of the word) quiz: "What Should Your Superpower Be?" Mine is so cool I had to share:

super power"Your Superpower Should Be Manipulating Electricity
You're highly reactive, energetic, and super charged. If the occasion calls for it, you can go from 0 to 60 in a split second. But you don't harness your energy unless you truly need to. And because of this, people are often surprised by what you are capable of. Why you would be a good superhero: You have the stamina to fight enemies for days. Your biggest problem as a superhero: As with your normal life, people would continue to underestimate you." Take the quiz

Ain't that the truth? Imagine. If your inner 8th grader's wish came true and you had mutant/super powers, you could actually be too polite or morally conflicted or passive-aggressive or afraid of attracting attention — or being captured and locked away in a DARPA lab deep in some mountain complex that's invisible to radar and Google Maps — to actually make the most of them. The irony. All that angst and secrecy and drama, being an outcast and insecure yet totally narcissistic — it would literally be like 8th grade all over again.

That's what I always liked about the X-Men, with all their human flaws and failings and relationship intrigues, they were perfect heroes for the Baby Boomer generation — in the comics, of course, not the movies. Although, as a fan, I have no complaints about the movies. Well, besides the casting of Halle Berry who certainly doesn't ruin them but doesn't add anything either — which is just sad because Storm is such a strong, original, non-generic character in the comics.

If they had started the "franchise" five years earlier, they could have cast Angela Bassett — the perfect Storm (heh) but (unfortunately, my "dream cast" presents a few catch-22s) then the special effects might not have been good enough to pull off characters like Wolverine and Colossus. Then again, the effects in "T2" which came out 10 years earlier would have been more than adequate — but then you would be casting a different Wolverine...

Jean GreyI had always thought Harvey Keitel would make an awesome Wolverine. Of course, it would be a whole 'nother movie with Harvey and Angela running the show... But you could have still cast Famke Janssen as Jean and just about anyone as Scott — or they could have even tried giving him some personality by casting Michael Biehn.

Of course you could have still cast Jean-Luc — er, Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan (who turned out to be such a great Magneto that I would not trade him, even in my head, for my original "dream" Magneto — Rutger Hauer). Actually, if you wanted Rutger Hauer, just throw the Cable character into the mix. (Why not? In the comics, they never let a little thing like continuity — or having "too many captains on the team" — get in the way of a good story.)

Holy crap... that was a whole lot of geeking out that came out of almost nowhere..! Scary, how effortlessly and unselfconsciouslythat particular stream of consciousness operates — paragraph after paragraph writes itself without second-guessing verbs on Thesaurus.com or compulsively fact-checking on Wikipedia (then second-guessing that). Apparently, my inner 8th grader doesn't even need to arrange the perfect keyboard tray before it can compose a thought. Well, I'm jealous. Heh, and my wrist hurts...


click here for permalink June 4, 2008

I haven't seen the new Indiana Jones movie — and I don't know if I will — but when I heard that the plot was going to be based on the real-life mystery of the crystal skulls, one of history's most intriguing archaeological enigmas, I thought, It's about bloody time.

I first heard about them about a year ago, through some long and convoluted, likely late-night session of free-association surfing, the only record of which has long since been cached, emptied and rewritten. I found a few sketchy stories, a lot of new age-y mythologizing and one badly rendered 12-minute segment of an episode of Unsolved Mysteries (or History's Mysteries or the Discovery Channel's Mysterious Made-Up Crap or something) but I couldn't find anything else that seemed to have a mainstream media stamp of "legitimacy" — alright, no laughing out there. I think you all know what I mean...

Well, what a difference a few months makes. I did a search the other night and about half the results came back quoting some BBC report that the most famous of the real-life crystal skulls had been exposed as forgeries, crafted with modern tools — diamond polishers, sanding wheels and the like — some time in the mid-to-late 20th century. How annoying. So there would be no real-world intrigue to parallel the release of the Indiana Jones movie, perfectly if suspiciously timed to thrill a new wave of artifact-hunting fans, whose predictable arc (no pun intended) would be straight from the theaters home to the Internet? Instead, the fans would be greeted by brand-new revelations of a decades-old forgery scheme.

Mitchell-Hedges skullThe most detailed debunking I could find focused mainly on the two skulls exhibited at the British Museum and the Smithsonian, both of which were recently found to have visible tool marks after being examined using modern methods. Even the most famous of all, the life-size Mitchell-Hedges skull, has had its authenticity (if such a word can be used to describe an object whose sole claim is "mysterious origins") called into question and its seemingly seamless origin story contradicted by nothing less than the official auction records of Sotheby's & Co.

Of course, none of that explains why scientists at HP were so astounded by its craftsmanship and complexity they said, not only was it impossible to determine the skull's age or origin, they couldn't figure out how it came to exist at all. Furthermore (unlike the debunked specimens still on display at the Smithsonian and British Museums), no tool marks of any kind were ever found on the Mitchell-Hedges skull, by HP or anyone else. More cool facts from the Official M-H site:

"It is anatomically correct — so scientifically accurate that a face can be reconstructed from it; the face of a beautiful, young Mesoamerican woman. [A] polarized light test proved beyond doubt not only that the main cranium was made from only one piece of crystal, but also that the detachable jaw-bone was carved from exactly the same piece of rock crystal... [a substance] only slightly softer than diamond. This makes rock crystal an incredibly difficult material to carve, particularly given that it is also somewhat brittle and has a tendency to shatter. [T]he team concluded that the crystal skull must have taken several generations of effort to carve.

Other tests showed that the skull was not only made from a single piece of natural quartz, but from 'piezo-electric' silicon dioxide, precisely the type of naturally occurring quartz that is so widely used in modern electronics. The fact that the crystal skull is made from this type of quartz means that it actually has a positive and negative polarity, just like a battery."

Antikythera MechanismSo, there's still something of a mystery here, even if it's eventually revealed to be a relatively modern one.

Fortunately, there are still many other anomalous artifacts scattered throughout the world; objects that have confounded scientists and inspired modern mythologists because their very existence represents an apparent contradiction to the consensus historical record.

A few of these discoveries may actually force us to rewrite or revise that history. Take the Antikythera Mechanism, an ancient technological marvel dating back to the Greek Hellenistic era. The device was discovered in 1902, along with several priceless bronze statues, amid the ruins of an ancient merchant ship off the coast of Greece, having spent the last 2000 years at the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea (photo of reconstruction from BBC News).

"It dates from around the 1st century B.C. and is the most sophisticated mechanism known from the ancient world. Nothing as complex is known for the next thousand years. The Antikythera Mechanism is now understood to be dedicated to astronomical phenomena and operates as a complex mechanical "computer" which tracks the cycles of the Solar System."The Antikythera Mechanism Research Project]

The device was the invention of some unknown genius who many experts believe could have been none other than the great mathematician and engineer Archimedes. For more mind-blowing details, listen to "Unearthing Mysteries" program on the Antikythera Mechanism on BBC Radio 4 (Real Player).

If not for the sudden storm 2000 years ago that sent that ancient ship and its priceless cargo to the bottom of the sea, where it lay relatively protected from the elements all these years, we might never have imagined that humans were capable of such things until very recently. This one object is evidence that our ancient ancestors had incredibly advanced knowledge and lost it only to have to reinvent, rediscover and reimagine it in bits and pieces many generations later.

An episode about the Antikythera Mechanism on Ancient Discoveries ends with some poignant questions. Was this just one of many such devices? Was the knowledge it represents widespread? Were the scientists of antiquity just as determined as ours are today to pass down their hard-won wisdom for the benefit of all future scientists and scholars? Did thousands of years of intellectual evolution go up in flames with the Library at Alexandria — and countless other libraries whose names have disappeared from history along with their edifices?

If only we could shake our heads at such losses and chalk them up to the heat of battles past, knowing we had outgrown such criminal, shortsighted, suicidal stupidity at a species level. But evidence to the contrary was broadcast on CNN in the days following the most recent fall of Baghdad and, while it's nice to know there's a retired marine on the trail of the looted treasures of the cradle of civilization, what we really need to do is construct some kind of UN force field death ray to protect all the world's museums, libraries, universities and laboratories. Then again, I think that's what the ancient Egyptians had in mind to protect their pharaohs (not to mention the misguided aliens on that old episode of Star Trek "A Taste of Armageddon").

One of the theories about the crystal skulls, at least the Mitchell-Hedges with its curious "piezo-electric" silicon dioxide composition, was that they could be some kind of information storage technology, potentially containing vast amounts of data — maybe the entire magical history of a lost civilization, indescribably more advanced than any past or present ancestors we know of. One that humanity could collectively embrace, even before we regained the ability to decode their legacy, understanding on some deep, morphogenetic level that it means we really are more than mere primates whose talent for mass murder is rivaled only by our ability to breed.

moonMaybe the biggest question is, what's the point of amassing all this knowledge, information and history if the evidence of human accomplishment is so easily erased from collective memory and the archaeological record when our greatest societies inevitably collapse? We've learned little from the proven impermanence of ancient artifacts with our modern "innovations" of paper records vs. engraved metal, digital media vs. stone tablets — even the folks at NASA were shocked to discover that their magnetic tapes of the moon landing are degrading faster than anyone expected — after less than 40 years.

Will future humans even know that we went to the moon? Or will they have to imagine a whole new reason to justify their curiosity, the expense, the commissioning of enemy scientists? Will they reach the pinnacle of their achievement only to be greeted by the seemingly impossible but unmistakable evidence of ancient human footprints and one of the few things we thought to engrave in steel, in a place untouched by wind or water? "We came in peace for all mankind."