Spuds Ahoy!

May 31, 2009

(Cross-posted at Upturned Earth)

Many Wendell Berry fans, or at least those who have read the The Gift of Good Land, will understand why I am seriously pumped to read John Reader’s new book, Potato: A History of the Propitious Esculent. Here’s a bit from the WaPo review:

The Spanish transplanted the spud to Europe in the 16th century, by way of the Canary Islands. Growing underground — bulbous, white, and strange — potatoes had image problems on the Continent at first. There was that leprosy smear. As far as millions of peasants were concerned, the subterranean bizarreness of tuberous growth compared unfavorably to the airy, sunlit, wholesomeness of the familiar cereal grains — barley, rye, oats and wheat — that had sustained Europe for centuries.

The spud did not become a staple food in Europe until the 17th and 18th centuries, when warfare was widespread and frequent. Reader argues that this was no coincidence: Disruptions and upheavals inflicted by marauding armies changed the diet and tastes of the Continent, with massive demographic and economic consequences. When grain fields weren’t being torched or requisitioned, armies were camping on them or marching through them. It wasn’t a matter of choice but a lack of options that really dropped the potato onto Europe’s plate around 1700. While cereal grains were exposed to the ravages of war, potatoes were safely hidden in the ground and, when the tides of war receded, could be harvested and stored. This was when Europe discovered that the potato may be monotonous, but it is also extraordinarily nutritious, yielding four times more calories per acre than grain. And if you’ve eaten frites in Brussels or Ulster colcannon, you know the marvelous variety the potato can offer.

Wondrous variety, but also huge problems.  The potato is one of the most under-appreciated factors affecting geo-politics in the modern era.  Almost everywhere it has gone has experienced major surges in population and concurrent political instability.  Europe, China, the Americas: all had their positions in the world radically altered by the introduction of such an efficient and reliable source of calories, something we would do well to consider as we idly tweak the genetic knobs of our food sources in the name of higher yields and better disease resistance.

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Wired’s got some pretty intense NASA time lapse videos up… Check this one from Central Asia’s Aral Sea:

Via NASA’s Earth Observatory:

Beginning in the 1960s, farmers and state offices in Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Central Asian states opened significant diversions from the rivers that supply water to the lake, thus siphoning off millions of gallons to irrigate cotton fields and rice paddies. As recently as 1965, the Aral Sea received about 50 cubic kilometers of fresh water per year—a number that fell to zero by the early 1980s. Consequently, concentrations of salts and minerals began to rise in the shrinking body of water. That change in chemistry has led to staggering alterations in the lake’s ecology, causing precipitous drops in the Aral Sea’s fish population.

Good thing we would never do something that dumb. (Right?)

Fake Plastic Trees

May 29, 2009

If money in the future will be plastic, and money doesn’t normally grow on trees, then does this mean we’re in for a highly inflationary future?

(h/t The Rumpus.)

(Cross-posted at Upturned Earth.)

Given the special kind of hostility I usually reserve for the National Review’s web content, I was surprised by just how good Michael Knox Beran’s piece on the ideology of the National Endowment for the Arts is.  As usual, there’s a nod to the to the standard “lazy artists on public dole” dreck, but the rest of the piece is great. Take a peek:

The NEA, in “bringing,” as it professes to do, “great art to all 50 states, including rural areas, inner cities, and military bases,” is a $155-million-a-year import-export business. It exports art from places where it is made to places where it is not made, much as a businessman might export plastic toys from China to California or Connecticut. This is a palliative. 

The NEA’s import-export approach to the arts derives from its flawed Romantic model of creativity. In the Romantic model the artist is an alienated, Byronic figure. He lives in a kind of artistic industrial zone, typically a bohemian neighborhood in a great city, and he mingles, for the most part, with other artists. He is not part of a larger community in the way Aeschylus and Sophocles were part of Athens; instead, the artist has, ever since the Romantic revolution, been estranged from civic life, his existence a kind of protest. 

By trucking artists from their lofts in Tribeca or their garrets in San Francisco — a disproportionate amount of NEA money goes to California and New York — into “rural areas, inner cities, and military bases,” the NEA perpetuates the Romantic stereotype of the artist as alien, a circus performer who has only the slenderest relation to the non-artistic natives. Such an artist may be on closer terms with his metropolitan patrons: but they patronize him precisely because he is a weirdo, an expensive pet on par with a fancy type of poodle.

I’ve written before about how the decline of localized culture fits into small town brain drain, and Beran’s article highlights one approach to this on the policy front.  The NEA is the largest of a group of institutions whose policies  reinforce the idea of art as a thing undertaken in urban venues, by urban people, and in directions unrelated (if not openly hostile) to the cultures it is exported to.  If localist Front-Porcher types are looking for ways to reverse the decline of Middle American small towns, this might be a feasible starting place, policy-wise: make the NEA’s goal to encourage culture in the places it already exists by shifting funding priorities to localized talent, and away from the export model that Beran describes.  Making smaller towns viable places to launch and maintain a creative career could be an important component in making them viable communities in the long-term, though given the huge economic forces arrayed against them I hesitate to think that this (or any) policy is capable of really reversing their decline. Still, one must try, and the humanities are as good a place as any to start.

(Cross-posted at Upturned Earth)

There are a lot of figures in Roman history who Dick Cheney resembles quite strikingly. Cicero, however is not one of them, despite David Carlin’s argument to the contrary:

Cicero (like Cheney) was faced with a choice: Do I break the law, or do I let Catiline and his friends carry out a coup d’etat? When Cicero saved the republic by breaking the law, he had every reason to believe that he would never face prosecution for his deed. The traditional Roman attitude had been to look the other way when some savior of the city cut legal corners. It was a sign that traditional Roman politics was coming to an end when, a few years after the execution of the Catilinians, a left-wing political enemy of Cicero — a reprobate named Publius Clodius — indicted the ex-consul for the illegal executions and briefly exiled him.
There was a time when Americans were politically savvy enough, like traditional Romans, to look the other way when the nation’s leaders cut legal corners for the good of the republic (think of Lincoln and his unconstitutional suspension of habeas corpus in 1861). But this wisdom has now deserted many of us, in particular those on the American left. Imitating Publius Clodius, they want to prosecute Cheney for protecting America by illegal means.

Cicero (like Cheney) was faced with a choice: Do I break the law, or do I let Catiline and his friends carry out a coup d’etat? When Cicero saved the republic by breaking the law, he had every reason to believe that he would never face prosecution for his deed. The traditional Roman attitude had been to look the other way when some savior of the city cut legal corners. It was a sign that traditional Roman politics was coming to an end when, a few years after the execution of the Catilinians, a left-wing political enemy of Cicero — a reprobate named Publius Clodius — indicted the ex-consul for the illegal executions and briefly exiled him.

There was a time when Americans were politically savvy enough, like traditional Romans, to look the other way when the nation’s leaders cut legal corners for the good of the republic (think of Lincoln and his unconstitutional suspension of habeas corpus in 1861). But this wisdom has now deserted many of us, in particular those on the American left. Imitating Publius Clodius, they want to prosecute Cheney for protecting America by illegal means.

Insofar as Cicero was violating the law in the name of a broader good, I suppose there’s some common ground between him and Cheney, in that they both did illegal things and succeeded in avoiding prosecution.  But that’s a piss poor foundation for a historical analogy, and does little to illustrate the particularities of each case.  Consider, for but one example, the motivations behind their actions.  Cicero’s overarching concern (beyond saving his own skin) was to ensure the continued power of the Senate and to uphold the internal stability of Rome as a sovereign republic.  His opponents were spendthrift profligates with widespread support among the mob and tyrannical undertones to their rhetoric.  By contrast, Cheney’s goal was to expand the power of the executive, to validate himself in a war with a foreign enemy, and to destabilize America’s political culture.  He spent profligately, courted the mob, and utilized the tools of a tyrant.  Eventually, Cicero lost his life (and head) opposing power-hungry would-be emperors. Cheney kept his life. His head now appears on FOX.  Two very different outcomes for two very different men. 

But setting aside what a terrible analogy this is, the real weak point in Carlin’s argument is his claim that the Romans’ willingness to bend the law shows the strength of their political culture.  This gets it completely backwards. That the Senate was willing to grant Cicero exemption was a powerful indicator of their system’s internal weakness, and this lack of legal spine was a key factor in the eventual decline of the Roman Republic.  Not incidentally, this was one of the primary lessons the Founding Fathers took away from the history of Rome: make your central legal provisions tough enough (via a written constitution) that they cannot be flouted by the politics of the moment, particularly by an executive with ambitions to empire.  So when we demand that Cheney face prosecution for authorizing torture, we are not repeating the mistakes of the Roman.  We are recognizing them and correcting them, and in doing so we affirm the best parts of both our histories.

(Cross-posted at Upturned Earth)

Via the Row Boatfurther validation of Bloom’s contention that Mormonism is the American gnosticism:

Increasingly, persons are recognizing parallels and complements between Mormon and Transhumanist views. On the one hand, Mormonism is a religious ideology of the Judeo-Christian tradition that advocates faith in God leading to salvation. On the other hand, Transhumanism is a mostly secular ideology that advocates ethical use of technology to extend human capabilities. However, Mormonism and Transhumanism advocate remarkably similar views of human nature and its future: material beings organized according to law, rapidly advancing knowledge and power, imminent fundamental changes to anatomy and environment, and eventual transcendence of present limitations. Resources available through this site provide details on the relation between Mormon and Transhumanist views.

Of course, this is definitely a fringe deal, but its a fantastic if terrifying illustration of just how thin of a line separates our frontier mythology and our belief in the salvific power of technology.

Levin the Entertainer

May 27, 2009

In the event any readers aren’t already following it, everyone should go read the excellent exchange between Dan Riehl, Conor Friedersdorf, and Mark Levin here, here, here and here.  Friedersdorf’s restraint is a beautiful thing to behold, especially when faced with the grotesque lack of basic decency on Levin’s part.  Being careful ain’t sexy, but its gets to the bottom of things, and is exactly the kind of tone we should strive for in these situations.

On that note, Riehl makes a point I’d like to take up, as its something that I think is really telling about the direction of the Limbaugher side of the party:

Obviously Mark’s rhetoric is hyperbolic. That’s as much a part of his show as are his great many substantive, informative and insightful monologues on everything from our Courts and our government, to the Constitution. There is nothing outrageous in the above from Mark within the context of his show, which is part entertainment.  

There’s more here. One hears this sort of thing from talk radio defends constantly, but this time around it really struck me how precisely contrary this is to what consistent cultural conservatives have argued for the last twenty years. Their contention has been that entertainment is more than just entertainment: it is culture and as such shapes the norms and values that society rests on, a point which applies equally to GWAR and Mark Levin. Historically, its been the cultural left who turn a blind eye to the entertaining, provided it is not meant too seriously or provokes thought, and the culture articulated on this assumption has been the central front of the culture war. (Piss Christ, anybody?) So it is very strange to now hear talk-radio defenders invoking the same maddening non-standards to justify their lack of common decency. It speaks volumes to their outlook, and to our collective outlook, that Levin and his defenders see their status as entertainers as elevating them above such basic standards, and that so many are willing to accept them as viable political actors at the same time they litter the public discorse with suicide jokes and liberal-baiting.

Scientists have now proven that biting faces can give you cancer.

(This means you, Mark Levin.)

The Want for Speed

May 22, 2009

(Cross-posted at Upturned Earth)

As disturbing as cadaver-sex exhibitions may be, sometimes it strikes me that the most insidious ways in which we reject self-limitation are those that seem most innocuous. Unlike intentionally offensive activities, taking normal behavior and pressing it to the absolute boundaries of physical impossibility doesn’t shock. Indeed, it awes. And the more spectacular it becomes, the more we forget the very language of restraint.

This is nowhere more true than in the amusements of the mechanized age. I mean, seriously, who benefits from this?
When long-time Indy revellers Scott Jasek, Joe Kennedy and Jeff Sinden started the company in 2001, people thought they were crazy. “How do I convince a privately run company like the [Indianapolis Motor Speedway] to put these cars with people inside and offer them high-speed rides?” Jasek asks.
“It’s a dangerous experience, but we make it safe.”
An Indy 500 car accelerates from 0 to 100 mph in less than three seconds. I’m pulling G-forces, my face flattens, cheeks flutter backward, saliva dries, my eyes are stuck wide open – and a drunken giddiness takes over.
It isn’t a pursuit of human excellence. It’s the pursuit of excess, plain and simple.

This is nowhere more true than in the amusements of the mechanized age. I mean, seriously,  what does this teach us about ourselves? 

When long-time Indy revellers Scott Jasek, Joe Kennedy and Jeff Sinden started the company in 2001, people thought they were crazy. “How do I convince a privately run company like the [Indianapolis Motor Speedway] to put these cars with people inside and offer them high-speed rides?” Jasek asks.

“It’s a dangerous experience, but we make it safe.”

An Indy 500 car accelerates from 0 to 100 mph in less than three seconds. I’m pulling G-forces, my face flattens, cheeks flutter backward, saliva dries, my eyes are stuck wide open – and a drunken giddiness takes over.

Now in the interest of full disclosure, I have never understood or enjoyed auto-racing. But I can see why it amounts to a sport in so many peoples’ minds. There is a tremendous amount of technical knowledge that goes into making cars go around in circles for hours on end, and if nothing else we can stand back and appreciate the skill of the mechanics and drivers. If it isn’t an art, its at least a craft, and one which takes years to develop.

However, I have a hard time understanding how making auto-racing into a consumable experience preserves any of that value. It transforms the sport from a pursuit of mechanical efficiency to a ritual of pure bodily exhilaration, and yet it does so in a thoroughly normalizing way. One need not partake if one doesn’t wish to, and so the question of the activity’s virtue is completely obscured by the options of the consumer. Yet it simultaneously endorses a vision of humanity that says we operate best when we are at the limits, not just of our ability, but of bare physical sensation. It flattens the eudamonic foundations of our moral discourse at the same time it expands it in unlimited directions. And in this sense, auto-racing-tourism and like-minded pursuits are just as worrisome than Von Hagen’s exhibition. It’s not just that they share a threadbare moral outlook, though that’s part of what’s going on. Rather, it’s that experiential tourism’s spectacle provides a key part of the social background for the more extreme manifestations of consumer excess, and hence ensures their continued presence and intelligibility.

This is an excellent idea:

The festival invites guest to “think/listen/dance/play”, and offers a programme ranging from philosophy seminars to arts and theatre workshops and musical performances. The line-up includes Susan Neiman, Will Hutton, Phillip Blond and Geoff Mulgan, as well as Prospect’s own David Goodhart, who will be discussing market regulation and individual freedoms. Other topics of discussion include religious fundamentalism, utopianism, revolution and the enlightenment

The festival invites guest to “think/listen/dance/play”, and offers a programme ranging from philosophy seminars to arts and theatre workshops and musical performances. The line-up includes Susan Neiman, Will Hutton, Phillip Blond and Geoff Mulgan, as well as Prospect’s own David Goodhart, who will be discussing market regulation and individual freedoms. Other topics of discussion include religious fundamentalism, utopianism, revolution and the enlightenment

Blond addresses the hippies.  This can only end well.