Posted by: Patrick Allen Foster | April 17, 2014

Holy Week Art Blogging

El Greco - The Agony in the Garden - WGA10484

El Greco, The Agony in the Garden, circa 1590.

Note the approaching soldiers on the right.

Compare El Greco’s treatment of this scene (based on Luke 22:43) with another treatment of the same scene, below.

George Richmond - The Agony in the Garden - Google Art Project

George Richmond, The Agony in the Garden, 1858.

(What time of day is it in that painting?)

Happy Easter, y’all.

Images from Wikimedia Commons.

Posted by: Patrick Allen Foster | April 17, 2014

Blast from the Past, Gethsemane Edition

Bundesarchiv Bild 146-2007-0203, Jerusalem, Garten Gethsermane, Ölbaum

The Garden of Gethsemane, Jerusalem, 1914.

Image Credit: Photographer unknown. Photo from the German Federal Archives. Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-2007-0203, used under a CC BY-SA 3.0 (German) license. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Posted by: Patrick Allen Foster | April 16, 2014

Scalia in Tennessee

Justice Antonin Scalia Speaks with Staff at the U.S. Mission in Geneva (2)

“The beginning of wisdom is that a lot of stupid stuff is not unconstitutional.”

At lunchtime on Tuesday, Justice Scalia gave a speech at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. He gave a version of his “stump speech,” as he calls it — a basic defense of originalism as a judicial philosophy and guide for constitutional interpretation. Much of it was pretty familiar to anyone who had a working knowledge of originalism or recent Supreme Court history. (I don’t think there are any transcripts of Tuesday’s speech, but this speech is very similar; see also here.)

Some take-aways and observations from Scalia’s talk:

  • “The beginning of wisdom is that a lot of stupid stuff is not unconstitutional,” he said. Courts should not stretch the meaning of a constitutional provision to invalidate a statute just because they think the statute bad policy or because they dislike the result. Originalism implies a circumscribed role for the judiciary, which should show a great deal of deference to the legislative branch. (Shame Scalia didn’t show more deference to the legislative branch in Shelby County.)
  • Scalia provided the fifth vote for the majority in Texas v. Johnson, the 1989 case that affirmed that the First Amendment protected flag-burning. “That was my understanding of the meaning of the First Amendment. You’re entitled to criticize the government, and you can use words, you can use symbols, you can use telegraph, you can use Morse code, you can burn a flag. It’s all expression, and it’s all covered by the First Amendment.” Supposedly, the morning after that decision was released, Scalia came downstairs and heard his wife humming “It’s a Grand Old Flag” as she prepared breakfast.
  • During his prepared remarks, Scalia said that one of the opinions of which he is proudest is Crawford v. Washington, dealing with hearsay testimony and the confrontation clause. (Scalia apparently thinks that opinions like Crawford should make him a “pin-up” for the criminal defense bar. Whatever.) But during the Q&A session later, when a student asked the justice to identify the decision of which he was most proud, Scalia identified Heller.
  • The one thing Scalia said that surprised me a little was that, in his estimation, he and Justice Thomas are the only “thoroughgoing originalists” on the the Court today. Impliedly, then, Alito and Roberts are not thoroughgoing originalists. That seemed an interesting point to this Court-watcher.

Image Credit: Justice Scalia at the U.S. Mission in Geneva, July 2011. Photo by Eric Bridiers. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Posted by: Patrick Allen Foster | April 13, 2014

The 1815 Volcanic Eruption That Led to a New Cholera Strain

1815 tambora explosion B

Mount Tambora is a stratovolcano on the island of Sumbawa, in the south-central part of the archipelago of mordern Indonesia. The 1815 eruption of Tambora was possibly the most powerful volcanic eruption in recorded history. Some 100,000 people died in the immediate neighborhood of the volcano, but the effects of the thick ash that the eruption hurled into the atmosphere had more widespread and long-lasting consequences. Indeed, the ripple effects were global in scale.

In anticipation of the 200th anniversary of the event, Gillen D’Arcy Wood (Prof. of English, Univ. of Illinois Urbana-Champaign) has an excellent post looking at the cascading effects of the eruption. An excerpt (emphasis added):

… With the help of modern scientific instruments and old-fashioned archival detective work, the Tambora 1815 eruption can be conclusively placed among the greatest environmental disasters ever to befall mankind. The floods, droughts, starvation, and disease in the three years following the eruption stem from the volcano’s effects on weather systems, so Tambora stands today as a harrowing case study of what the human costs and global reach might be from runaway climate change.

Tambora’s greatest claim to infamy lies not in the impact it had on what was then the Dutch East Indies (which were terrible enough), but its indirect effects on the disease ecology of the Bay of Bengal. The enormous cloud of sulfate gases Tambora ejected into the atmosphere slowed the development of the Indian monsoon, the world’s largest weather system, for the following two years.

Drought brought on by the eruption devastated crop yields across the Indian sub-continent, but more disastrously gave rise to a new and deadly strain of cholera. Cholera had always been endemic to Bengal, but the bizarre weather of 1816-17 triggered by Tambora’s eruption – first drought, then late, unseasonal flooding – altered the microbial ecology of the Bay of Bengal. The cholera bacterium, which has an unusually adaptive genetic structure highly sensitive to changes in its aquatic environment, mutated into a new strain. This met with no resistance among the local population, and it spread across Asia and eventually the globe. By century’s end, the death toll from Bengal cholera stood in the tens of millions.

Just as the biological disaster known as the Black Death defined the 14th century in Europe and the Near East, so cholera shaped the nineteenth century like no other calamity. Much of our medical science, and our modern public health institutions, originate in the Victorian-era battle against cholera.

Interesting read.

Image Credit: Map showing the thickness of volcanic ashfall (red areas) from the 1815 Mount Tambora eruption. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Posted by: Patrick Allen Foster | April 13, 2014

Third Circuit Reverses Hacker’s Conviction, Ruling Venue Was Wrong


The Third Circuit has reversed the conviction of hacker Andrew Auernheimer on the grounds that the federal prosecutors brought the case in the wrong venue: “Andrew ‘Weev’ Auernheimer was in Arkansas during the time of the hack, his alleged co-conspirator was in California, and the servers that they accessed were physically located in Dallas, Texas and Atlanta, Georgia. Prosecutors therefore had no justification for bringing the case against Auernheimer in New Jersey…”

You can read the opinion here (pdf, 22 pages).

Orin Kerr, who argued the appeal for Auernheimer, has a post about the decision at the Volokh Conspiracy. As Prof. Kerr notes, since the panel reversed the conviction on venue grounds, the Court of Appeals largely did not address questions of the reach and interpretation of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.

See also this post by Leigh Beadon at Techdirt and this post by David Kravets at Ars Technica.

Here is one key passage from the conclusion of appellate court’s opinion (p. 22):

Venue issues are animated in part by the “danger of allowing the [G]overnment to choose its forum free from any external constraints.” Salinas, 373 F.3d at 169-70 (citing Travis, 364 U.S. at 634). The ever-increasing ubiquity of the Internet only amplifies this concern. As we progress technologically, we must remain mindful that cybercrimes do not happen in some metaphysical location that justifies disregarding constitutional limits on venue. People and computers still exist in identifiable places in the physical world. When people commit crimes, we have the ability and obligation to ensure that they do not stand to account for those crimes in forums in which they performed no “essential conduct element” of the crimes charged. Rodriguez-Moreno, 526 U.S. at 280.

Late last month, shortly after oral arguments before the Third Circuit in the Weev case, seasoned criminal defense attorney Scott Greenfield wrote a post about how the venue question could be crucial in this case:

While the hacker community was far more interested in, and concerned about, the way in which the 3rd Circuit will interpret the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, as the broad interpretation applied in Weev’s case would essentially criminalize what the InfoSec wing does daily, the court spent far more of its time and focus on the question of venue. Arcane and legalistic, this question has even broader implications for all of us.

Weev hacked AT&T while physically in Arkansas. AT&T servers were in California [sic] and Georgia. Gawker, who received the information about AT&T’s security flaw and posted it online, is located in New York. So naturally, the prosecution was brought in New Jersey, with the government arguing that an FBI agent read the Gawker article there.

“I would urge the court to not go narrow on computer crimes,” the prosecutor said. One judge interjected: “[That would mean] every computer crime at every computer in America would be in all 50 states.”

This would suggest that the concept of venue, mentioned twice in the Constitution, would cease to exist for computer crimes. Whether it’s the federal district that is most convenient to the government, or the least convenient to the defendant, any computer crime could be prosecuted in any of the 94 districts of the United States. When is the last time you hung out in Anchorage?

Also (emphasis added):

It strikes me as inconceivable that a smart Assistant United States Attorney can’t comprehend the workings of basic code designed to repeat an internet query, particularly since there were numerous amici briefs dedicated to explaining in the simplest possible terms what was done, how it was done, and why it was little more than what all of us do every day, even if unwittingly because the shiny button performs many of the functions for us automatically. After all, if the buttons work, someone has to know how to program them.

Rather, the government’s argument…is an appeal to ignorance. It’s in the government’s interest to perpetuate the myth that computer technology is some unfathomable magic performed within boxes that mere mortals, judges, can’t possibly understand. This voodoo is done only by shamans, or as Motherboard describes him, ”the notorious internet troll who seems to be equally celebrated and reviled,” Weev.

Fortunately, it seems that the Third Circuit did not fall for the government’s obfuscations.

Image Credit: Self-portrait of Andrew “Weev” Auernheimer, June 2010. Used under a CC BY-SA 3.0 license. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Posted by: Patrick Allen Foster | April 9, 2014

Wednesday Link Encyclopedia, and Thoughts on the Passing Scene

1. The staff of Ars Technica select their least favorite Star Trek: TNG episodes. There’s no surprise that a lot of season 1 episodes make the list — most of the episodes of the first season display a various mixtures of clunkiness, cheesiness, and preachiness. But there were candidates in other seasons too. For example, “Darmok,” the second episode of season 5 (all emphasis in original):

The setup is unexceptional: Picard is captured by a race of aliens that the Federation is unable to communicate with, and he is placed on a hostile planet with the alien captain, Dathon. Normal aliens can be processed by the universal translator, but not these ones. “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra,” Dathon says, leaving Picard nonplussed.

Of course, our esteemed captain realizes that the aliens speak in metaphor and reference. Darmok and Jalad fought a common foe together at Tanagra, just as he and Dathon must fight the monsters on the planet they’re stranded on. Dathon is killed, Picard is rescued, and the communications breakthrough is made. The aliens aren’t necessarily friends… but they’re not enemies either.

So look, here’s the thing. This is just nonsense. It doesn’t work. For an allusion to a story to communicate anything, both parties must know what the story is. And that means telling the story. It means verbs and nouns and adjectives and all the normal words.

You know: all the stuff that the universal translator can cope with. And in fact does cope with, thereby enabling Picard to tell Dathon a brief summary of the epic of Gilgamesh. The entire premise of the episode is complete crap, and we see them undermine it and demonstrate it to be drivel before our very eyes.

I will confess that I have a soft spot for “Darmok” simply because of Patrick Stewart’s recitation of the Epic of Gilgamesh. But I readily agree that the premise of the alien language in this episode was half-baked and does not stand up to even moderate scrutiny.

2. I went to see the new Captain America movie on Saturday. I went into the theater with no especially high expectations, and so I was pleased. It seemed like a good action movie, a decent super-hero flick. They managed to make Falcon not-lame, and the Captain’s use of his shield as a weapon was well done. Most of all, Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow got more screen time, more development, and generally more stuff to do than in The Avengers — Johansson’s portrayal was probably the best part of the film. And I liked the small notebook where Steve Rogers lists the cultural references he needs to learn for living in 21st Century America (e.g., “Nirvana (band),” “Rocky,” etc.).

I’m sure I could list come critiques of the movie as a whole, but not without venturing into spoiler territory. (I never saw the first Captain America film, so I can’t compare; some people have told me the first one was a stronger movie.)

3. I’ve noticed a few different restaurants adding mango to various dishes lately. Is this a new trend, or is it just that I am only now noticing it? (Or maybe it’s just new to East Tennessee, and has been trending for a while elsewhere?) Avocado too, it seems. I like mango and avocado, so I don’t mind — no complaints here — just wondering if this is a recent development.

4. Dana Stevens: why do teens love dystopian fiction like Divergent and The Hunger Games? Because “post-apocalyptic societies governed by remote authoritarian entities and rigidly divided into warring factions” remind them of high school.

See also Laura Hudson in Wired, “The Divergent Movie Is Social Commentary for Simpletons.”

And Ari Laurel looks at the diversity of the heroines in Young Adult dystopian novels.

Political divisions of Mexico 1836-1845 (location map scheme)-en

5. Paul Musgrave: “The Successes of the Failed State of Texas” (emphasis added):

From the vantage point of the United States, the history of territorial expansion is rather boring, even foreordained. The U.S. got rich; it attracted immigrants; and it expanded into lands occupied by Indians and weakly held by the Mexicans after a short and relatively forgettable war. But this omits practically everything interesting in the case. In my dissertation, I focus on the domestic politics of expansion, in particular why the U.S. congress was so loath for so long to support presidents like John Tyler in their expansionist policies. (There’s an even more interesting question about why a great many people–including almost all Northern Whigs–resisted most or almost all expansionist schemes, but that’s a post for another day.) In putting that case together, however, I had to learn something about Mexico. And when we look at the history of North American geopolitics from the standpoint of the other post-colonial federal state on the continent, the history looks rather different.

If we think of the real story of the nineteenth century as the disintegration of Mexico and consequent opportunistic predation by the United States, we are now a little closer to the truth. But still, actually, not quite there. Mexico did disintegrate, and the United States did engage in opportunistic predation. But the story isn’t quite as simple as a nefarious U.S. government deciding to aggrandize its country at the expense of Mexico. The causal chain begins with internal Mexican strife, which led to the Anglo-Texans’ decision to secede. The initial Texan victory was surprising. It’s altogether possible that a slightly luckier Mexican general, or a rather less competent Texan general, would have resulted in a rout of the Texan army and the removal of the American settlers from Coahuila.

The Texas government was brittle, bankrupt, and disordered. But it wasn’t the only potential breakaway republic. The Republic of the Rio Grande and the Yucatan were equally interested in secession and independence. Yet the Republic of the Rio Grande was defeated and the Yucatan eventually reconciled to Mexican rule. Why did Mexico fail to retake Texas? We might think the answer is military. Its militia proved capable of competent defensive operations. But its real defenses against Mexico were diplomatic (the shadow of U.S. intervention and the increasing interest of London and Paris in preserving a bulwark against U.S. expansion) and, even more, the failure of the Mexican federation to create a durable state capable of sustaining popular operations.

Interesting throughout.

6. Joe Hardenbrook on the rationale behind book deselection in academic libraries.

7. Translating Manuel José Arce.

8. Writings in Memory of Seamus Heaney.

Image Credits: (1) Trees, somewhere near Memphis, Tennessee. Photo by Jason Brackin, March 2005. Used under a CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 license. Source: Flickr. (2) Political divisions of Mexico 1836-1845. Map by Giggette. Used under a CC BY-SA 3.0 license. Wikimedia Commons.

Posted by: Patrick Allen Foster | April 8, 2014

Recent Poll Shows Scottish Support for Leaving the UK at 47%

Bla Bheinn - - 744022

In the campaign leading up to the Scottish referendum on independence (scheduled for this coming September), the Yes side is gaining ground. This is surprising: six months ago, it looked like support for the Yes vote had plateaued at around 30%. Now the Yes and No sides are statistically neck-and-neck.

I guess the Tory Party’s carefully crafted campaign strategy of alternately badgering and threatening the Scots has not had the desired results. And now members of the Tory leadership are starting to point fingers at each other to assign blame for the way the situation has developed.

Image Credit: Photo by Iain Lees, September 2007, and used under a CC BY-SA 2.0 license. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Posted by: Patrick Allen Foster | April 8, 2014

Tuesday Art Blogging


Granite sphinx of Pharaoh Taharqo, 25th Dynasty. From a temple at Kawa, Sudan (located between the Third and Fourth Cataracts of the Nile, across the river from the modern city of Dongola). Currently housed in the British Museum, London.

Taharqo was the fourth pharaoh (or fifth according to some lists) of the 25th Dynasty of Egypt, which we might also call the Nubian Dynasty or the Kushite Dynasty, since the pharaohs of this dynasty came from the Nubian Kingdom of Kush, south of the Egyptian heartland and roughly corresponding to the northern part of modern Sudan.

Piye, the founder of the dynasty, conquered Egypt* around 730 BC. Taharqo, Piye’s son and third successor (after a brother and an older son), reigned from 690 to 664 BC. (The dynasty then fell from power in 656, under Taharqo’s nephew Tantamani; the Assyrians and their client Egyptian dynasty cooperated to force the Nubians from Egypt.)

National Geographic had a story about Piye and his dynasty — “The Black Pharaohs” — in its February 2008 issue.

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons.

* Piye’s father had previously conquered much of Upper Egypt (around Thebes); Piye completed his father’s work by conquering Memphis and Lower Egypt. So, some lists of the 25th Dynasty begin with Piye, and some include his father, Kashta.

Posted by: Patrick Allen Foster | April 4, 2014

All Men Must Die, All Men Must Serve

Game of Thrones is back this weekend.

For those in need of a refresher, the video below is a good place to start. (Contains spoilers for seasons 1-3, obviously.)

Read More…

Posted by: Paul A. Forsyth | April 3, 2014

An Ocean on Enceladus

The Cassini spacecraft, in orbit around Saturn, has found evidence of an ocean of liquid water underneath the thick ice of the moon Enceladus.

In 2005, Cassini saw geysers of salty water spewing from the southern polar region of the moon. This evidence of subsurface liquid water led scientists to attempt calculations of the density of different regions of the Enceladus based on small variations in its gravitational pull on Cassini. From Ars Technica:

The data that allow us to understand Enceladus’ internal structure came from measuring changes in Cassini’s speed as it flew close to the moon. When passing the denser parts of the moon, it sped up by a few extra thousandths of a meter per second. That minute change was tracked through recordings of the radio signals that Cassini was sending to NASA’s Deep Space Network station.

The geysers of Saturn’s moon Enceladus are salty, which probably means that …
In making such tiny measurements, scientists had to filter out other factors that could influence Cassini’s speed. These include pressure on the spacecraft from sunlight, the nudge from heat radiating from its nuclear-powered electrical generator, and the drag of the particles it strikes as it passes through the south polar plumes.

[Dr. Luciano] Iess and his colleagues have produced a model of the internal structure of Enceladus using the measurements. They conclude that there is a core that is roughly 200km in diameter; above that lies a 10km-thick layer of liquid water, which is followed by 40km of ice crust.

Cassini detected the ice geysers (shown below) in 2005, but it took the next eight years to make the observations necessary to determine the density of Enceladus. These days, Cassini orbits Saturn about once every 7 days, but the orbiter has a lot of things to study — Saturn itself, the rings, some of Saturn’s other 60+ moons and numerous moonlets — and can only devote so much time to flybys of Enceladus. Also, apparently, when Cassini is making gravitational measurements, “it needs to point its antenna towards Earth, but in doing so all its other instruments face away from Enceladus.” Cassini has made 19 flybys of Enceladus since 2004, only three of which were used to make gravitational measurements.

Enceladus geysers

Wired says that, on at least one other flyby, Cassini flew through one of the water jets to sample the chemical composition of the plumes, finding traces of carbon and nitrogen in the water. More from Wired:

NASA’s philosophy on finding life beyond Earth is “Follow the water,” so all these moons are potential places to explore. Given that it shoots free samples from the interior up into space, some scientists are now saying that Enceladus should get priority for future life-finding missions.

“Enceladus has the most accessible extraterrestrial habitable zone,” said planetary scientist Carolyn Porco, leader of Cassini’s imaging team … . “This place is really where we should be going.”

Cassini was launched in 1997. It’s plutonium power source will likely run out of juice in 2017 (the spacecraft does not have solar panels, since Saturn is so far from the Sun). Before complete loss of power, NASA plans to crash the orbiter into Saturn’s atmosphere, so as to avoid any potential later impact of the spacecraft on one of the moons (which conceivably could lead to biological contamination).

Maybe by then a follow-up mission will have been launched.

Cassini images and artwork courtesy JPL and NASA.

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