Afghanistan and Central Asia

The Great Game: The Struggle for Empire in Central Asia (Kodansha Globe)

Peter Hopkirk’s book describes the back-and-forth intrigue between Russia and Great Britain in the cold war for Central Asia. The parallels between this 19th century power struggle and the 20th century battle between the Soviet Union and the US are uncanny. In both cases, Afghanistan functions as the “roundabout” of Asia, gating the flow of goods and peoples from Europe and the Middle East to India and China. In both cases, proud superpowers, in their fixation on each other, step on and generally infuriate the natives and nobody seems to win. In both cases, against expectation, the small country of Afghanistan brings down the mighty and sows the seeds of decades of misery.

Beautiful Bloglines

You may never have heard of RSS aggregators before, but someday you will, although eventually I’m sure they’ll have a sweeter name. If you’re the least bit of an information junkie, read on. Bloglines may well be the place for you to jump in and see what the fuss is all about.

I have complained in the past that I don’t care for most of the RSS aggregators I’ve tried. I like Aggie, but it’s old and it seems pretty clear that nobody’s moving it forward. I emailed Aggie author Joe Gregorio, and he confirmed this. As he put it, “The three-paned aggregators really took the wind out of our sails.” But then he went on to recommend Bloglines, which he uses. That was a good enough recommendation for me, so off I went to set up a Bloglines account. And sure enough, I like it. It’s still somewhat like a three-pane aggregator, but has the key features that I’m after. I can sort the blogs however I like, and I can mark them all as read in a single quick button click. And since it’s an online service (rather than a browser that runs only on my machine), I can view from anywhere, and I can show you my reading list. Voila:
Bloglines | Ned’s Blogs.

Nick Denton of Gawker Media has got a similar online blog aggregator experiment going on: It’s a simpler, more stripped-down tool, designed to bring weblogs to the masses. As it says on the site, “Kinja is not aimed at early adopters.” Read: “RSS geekboys need not apply. We don’t need your whiny noise around here.”

The Panama Canal

Path Between The Seas : The Creation of the Panama Canal, 1870-1914

We hear often of the great adventures but not the flawed ones. We know of Shackleton’s astonishing second voyage to the Antarctic but not his fatal, aimless third. The French entrepreneur Ferdinand de Lesseps attempted to build two great canals. He succeeded wildly with Suez and failed utterly with Panama. In this excellent book, David McCullough tells the story of the spanning of the isthmus, starting with de Lesseps. The book is a wonderful characterization of big idea men. Lesseps thought big all the time. His grandiose vision served him well in Suez and ruined him in Panama, where he insisted, against a growing mountain of evidence, that the canal must be cut straight across at sea level. Panama was ultimately conquered by the industrious Teddy Roosevelt and his swarms of well-organized industrious yankees. One interesting observation that comes out in this book: the Panama canal could not be built any faster today than it was back in 1914.

Electric Ptolemy

This is a marvelous thing. Paradigms collide when a Dutch astronomer builds a web page that uses Javascript to calculate the positions of the sun, moon, and planets based on Ptolemaic methods dating back to the second century AD: Almagest Ephemeris Calculator. That is to say, you will get answers as accurate as possible given the knowledge of the universe 1800 years ago. That’s way before Copernicus, way back when epicycles were the order of the day and the Earth was safely fixed at the center of the universe. Ptolemy could have worked out those epicycles much faster with Pentium-based hardware (although the IEEE sexagesimal floating fraction standard is pretty dodgy). Here’s a quote from the site.

When the web page is loaded the ephemeris calculator automatically selects the epoch date for the tables in Ptolemy’s Almagest as the default date. This corresponds with mean noon at the meridian of Alexandria on 1 Thoth 1 Nabonassar (or 26 February 747 BC in the proleptic Julian calendar, around 10h UT).

You will certainly remember that 747 BC is at or about the time that Sargon II conquered the Hittites. Remember? And then they came out with that lame sitcom about it, Sargon’s Heroes? I’m sure you remember.

The twilight of the hydrocarbons

Remember the great whale-oil age? Of course not. It started in the eighteenth century and was over by the end of the nineteenth century. But for a time, whale oil was among the world’s primary lubricants and illuminants. Society’s need for light and lubrication has grown exponentially, but thankfully for the whales a new source of oil appeared just as whale stocks were crashing toward extinction: petroleum. A few hundred years from now, our age will seem just as primitive and remote, because in less time than it took our ancestors to boil down almost all the whales, we will have sucked all the oil out of this planet. Whether you’re an optimist or a pessimist with respect to existing petroleum reserves makes only the difference of 40 years or so between now and a serious supply crash. Exponential growth in demand and finite supply will ultimately bring this terrific free lunch we’re enjoying to a close before this century is out. As Kenneth Deffeyes says (see below) “Fossil fuels are a one-time gift that lifted us up from subsistence agriculture and eventually should lead us to a future based on renewable resources.”

Here is a good National Geographic article on the topic with some fun facts and pretty pictures: The End of Cheap Oil.

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Here’s a book (Hubbert’s Peak) written by oilman and geologist Kenneth Deffeyes that does a good job explaining why even at this very moment we are at the peak of the peak of worldwide oil production. Demand will rise, but supply must inexorably fall. Take-home lesson: if you REALLY want that Hummer, buy it now.

An intemperate man

James Joyce (Oxford Lives)

How could James Joyce have such penetrating insight into the nature of mankind and still be such an insufferable bore? Did his muse require him to throw away money as fast as he got it, keeping his family impoverished, or was that merely an unfortunate coincidence? We always forgive our geniuses, and he was the great genius of the age. But it must have worn thin at times to those around him. A friend in Paris said of him “He had not taste, only genius.” Ellmann tells the often bleak story of Joyce’s Ulysses-like wanderings around Europe, picking fights and drinking away his funds. I was constantly veering between feeling bad for Joyce and wanting to throttle him. Also, I hadn’t realized how important Ezra Pound was in taking him from anonymity to great fame.

Artificial arm wrestling

You have no idea how efficient your muscles are at turning Cheerios into chin-ups. Muscles are silent, smooth, and powerful. All useful machinery humans have built to date are clacking whirring rotating things. IEEE Spectrum has a good article this month (not available for public reading, unfortunately) about artificial muscles. This same topic was recently a cover story in Scientific American (PDF version here). I’m very happy to see interest in this topic taking off, because I’m convinced it’s one of the great enabling technologies of our age if we can make it practical. The author of the Spectrum article, Yoseph Bar-Cohen, has an Artificial Muscle web hub that details a grand challenge for the young field: an armwrestling match between a robotic arm and a human. It looks like this is actually going to happen in March of next year. Let’s hear it for Team Cyborg!