Veterans Day with a B-29 crew member

We went to the New England Air Museum today, home of a beautifully restored B-29, and met two former B-29 crew members. One is 92 and one is 94. Both were navigators, which meant a lot of radar work (identifying islands and cities both for navigating and bombing through clouds). Every B-29 crew member endured missions 12-15 hours in length and horrific weather encounters (see “Plowing through the weather in a B-29”).

It is a great museum in general, but it was wonderful to be there on Veterans Day and have a Huey crew chief from Vietnam show us around the Huey, two B-29 crew members show us the B-29, etc.

Sad to think that the World War II veterans will be gone soon.

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Arabia Felix: The Middle East in 1761-1767

Arabia Felix: The Danish Expedition of 1761-1767 moves at a slow (18th century?) pace, but provides some interesting looks at how people were living back then. The expedition from Egypt through to present-day Yemen was motivated by an interest in Biblical times:

Michaelis fancied that the investigators could also study the Arabs’ daily habits and customs, and their architecture. His idea here was that as there were only a few places left on earth where so conservative a people as the Arabs could still be found, there was a good chance of finding in Arabia cultural forms similar to those of ancient Israel—better even than in Palestine itself, which in the intervening centuries had been exposed to numerous foreign influences.

Academia was the place for anyone who wanted to work at a slow pace:

In Rome, too, innumerable difficulties seemed to have conspired against him. On an earlier occasion, Professor Michaelis had emphasised the pointlessness of going to the Italian capital for instruction in Arabic, since nobody there knew the dialect spoken in Arabia Felix. Instead, von Haven’s instructions supposed that he was “to gain practice in the reading and copying of Oriental manuscripts.” Naturally, this could be done only in the Vatican library. But three months after his arrival in Rome he wrote to Bernstorff that he was receiving instruction in Arabic from a Syrian priest every morning and afternoon. Not until four months later did he report that he had been given a letter of recommendation to the Vatican library; and not until five months after that, thanks to the French Ambassador, had this letter of recommendation become a ticket of admission. Six months after arriving in Rome and eighteen months after leaving Denmark, the scholar was more or less able to begin his studies. Then once again fate took a hand. He wrote on 22nd March to Bernstorff that the Vatican library was unfortunately open only from nine until noon. “But,” von Haven continued, “in matters of discussion and learning I prefer the living to the dead; and as I can meet my Syrian priest only in the mornings, I am afraid there is nothing I can do but let others copy the manuscripts at the library.”

They got 43 paragraphs of instructions from the Danish king. Samples:

You will traverse the interior of Arabia as well as journey along the coast. As you are accompanied by a physician, it is expected that this will allow you an opportunity of visiting a number of places where deadly diseases are prevalent without exposing your lives to danger.

The members of the expedition will behave very circumspectly towards the Mohammedans, will respect their religion, and will not behave towards their women with European freedom.

Moreover, you will pay particular attention to the ebb and flow of the Red Sea, to the relations between the living and the dead, to the influence of polygamy on the increase or decline of the people, to the relationship between the sexes, and to the number of women in the towns and in the country.

These folks would not have complained about a Ryanair seat:

The wind freshened once more, and on 26th January the Greenland skimmed north through the Kattegat before a fresh south-westerly breeze. They had passed Skagen and were in hopes of reaching the open sea when the wind veered west and increased to near-hurricane force. In his diary Carsten Niebuhr endeavoured to keep his composure: “All day on 2nd February it was so stormy that we could not even light a fire on board. However, we did not worry too much on that account, for when one is at sea one must learn to disregard such inconveniences. We suffered the loss of only one sailor, who fell from the yard-arm into the sea during the gale and could not be rescued because of the darkness and the tremendous seas.”

It took about six months to reach modern-day Turkey, from which the expedition officially launched.

By 8th September, 1761 all the preparations for the journey were complete. Now the real adventure began. Dressed in their new Oriental clothes, the learned gentlemen took leave of their host von Gähler and went aboard the boat which was to take them to Alexandria. On this ship, a little Turkish vessel from the Adriatic port of Dulcigno, the expedition encountered quite another world from the one they had been accustomed to on the Greenland. The purpose of the ship’s journey was quite simply to take a cargo of young slave girls to the Egyptian markets. It is apparent right from the start how this curious cargo captured the interest of our travellers. Peter Forsskål forgot his jelly-fish and marine plants for a while and noted in his diary: “We find ourselves in the company of a merchant who is going to Cairo with a cargo that would be highly unusual in European ports, namely women. He has taken all the safeguards of jealousy: a special cabin, which lies above our own, has been reserved for the young women, and he alone takes them their food. In addition, he has fastened a blanket inside the door so that the women cannot be seen when he lets himself in and out.” It would appear from this description that Forsskål had lost nothing of his power of exact scholarly observation; and Niebuhr too seems to have made a conscientious study. The young women, he says in his diary,“are generally very well treated, because when they are to be sold in Egypt it is very important for their owners that they should arrive at the market healthy and cheerful.”

There were worse things than Internet/Facebook mobs:

During their stay in Alexandria the members of the expedition lived in the house of the French Consul; and when one late afternoon they went up to the flat roof to enjoy the cool of the evening as the sun sank over the roofs and minarets of the town, they suddenly witnessed a distressing scene in the street below them. A number of Bedouin robbers who had made their way into the town from the desert were discovered by the populace, and those of them who did not succeed in escaping were surrounded in front of the consul’s house and beaten to death by the angry crowd.

Trade was extensive, if not globalized:

Other evenings he visited the caravan that came up from Sennar, deep in the Sudan, which was called the djellabe and was led by coal-black men with yellow, violet or scarlet shawls over their shoulders under their short curly hair. They halted their animals in front of ogelet-ed-djellabe, the inn of the djellabe, and came to fetch coral and amber for jewellery, beads and mirrors, sabres and guns. With them from Africa they brought slaves and slave girls; young boys of about eight who cost only 25 mahbub; young men from twenty to thirty who could be got for between 35 and 40 mahbub; eunuchs that cost up to 110 mahbub; young women costing up to 40 mahbub for virgins, for those who were not virgins up to 30 mahbub, and for those who knew how to prepare food up to 60 mahbub.

Life before photography was slow and sometimes awkward…

Niebuhr came very close in these months to answering the complex questions which the German professor had put concerning the practice of circumcision among the Arabs. This he did partly by talking to Arab scholars, but also by experiences of a more direct nature. One visit to a distinguished Arab which Niebuhr paid together with Forsskål and Baurenfeind became a memorable experience. We may allow Niebuhr himself to report: “Whilst we were one day visiting a rather distinguished Arab of Cairo at his country estate, six or seven miles outside the town, Herr Forsskål and Herr Baurenfeind expressed the wish to see and to draw a young girl who had been circumcised. Our host immediately gave orders that a young peasant girl of eighteen years old should be brought in, and he allowed them to see everything that they wanted to see. In the presence of various Turkish servants, our artists drew the whole thing from nature, but with a trembling hand because he feared unpleasant repercussions from the Mohammedans. But as the master of the house was our friend, none of them dared make any objection.”

There was a tremendous amount of petty theft, grifting by vendors, and official corruption at every stop from Egypt through Yemen. Extra cash was turned into extra wives:

“In that corner of the Faran valley [Suez] there were eight tents full of wives and children. Only the very poorest Arabs had only one wife. The wealthier sheiks had two or three. Two of our guides had two wives each, and the third only one. But they all wanted more money, or at least enough to buy several wives.

Income inequality was an issue back then…

Only four days after the return of von Haven and Niebuhr from the Sinai peninsula the great caravan arrived at Suez with pilgrims on their way to Mecca. Like a swarm of outsize grasshoppers they settled on the little harbour town and overnight made it more densely populated than Cairo itself. Men, women and children were there in confusion; the poor with their bundles and beggars’ crutches, the rich with their servants and heavily armed mercenaries to protect them during the journey; and great numbers of traders, neither rich nor poor, who had learned to use this chance of getting themselves and their goods in safety to Mecca while doing a little business en route. Wherever rich and poor meet you will soon find a trader, so that the rich may become richer and the poor poorer.

The trip to Jeddah was slow:

In the middle of this hectic bustle Forsskål had had to step in. In time he had become well-known among the people in the harbour quarter, and he managed to reserve the topmost cabin in the biggest of the four ships now preparing to sail with all this turmoil to Djidda.

The best cabins were occupied by rich Turks on their way to Mecca with their entire harem; the women were accommodated immediately under the expedition’s cabin,

Finally, each of the four ships had up to three or four smaller vessels in tow. In most of these were horses, goats and sheep; when the animals were to be fed, a sack of straw was thrown overboard and allowed to drift astern to the boat in tow, where the herdsman fished it up with a boathook. With one of the other boats in tow there was a lively traffic of a different kind. It was filled with prostitutes, the so-called Hadsjs of Mecca, who worked hard during their pilgrimage to the Holy City to earn their keep.

While this floating caravan was making its way south, Forsskål and Niebuhr checked their course; and both of them remark in their diaries, with a shake of the head, how because of his fear of losing landmarks the captain always followed the line of the coast among the dangerous coral islands and skerries, where a European skipper would have made for the open sea as quickly as possible. Every evening at sunset they had to heave to, because the captain dared not continue this hazardous coastal journey in the dark. One afternoon Niebuhr found a partial explanation of this when, shaken to the core, he asked permission to remove two enormous lumps of iron which the helmsman had placed under the ship’s compass in the belief that its presence would strengthen the magnetic needle.

They are at the mercy of the winds:

and their stay there eventually lasted over six weeks, rather longer than they had anticipated. The reason was the constant northerly wind; the coffee ships, which were to take them the last stretch southwards along the coast, had been delayed by head-winds on their

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Why did Romans persecute Christians?

SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome:

But to a remarkable and in some ways unexpected degree, the Jews managed to operate within Roman culture. For the Romans, Christianity was far worse. First, it had no ancestral home. In their ordered religious geography, Romans expected deities to be from somewhere: Isis from Egypt, Mithras from Persia, the Jewish god from Judaea. The Christian god was rootless, claimed to be universal and sought more adherents. All kinds of mystical moments of enlightenment might attract new worshippers to (say) the religion of Isis. But Christianity was defined entirely by a process of spiritual conversion that was utterly new. What is more, some Christians were preaching values that threatened to overturn some of the most fundamental Greco-Roman assumptions about the nature of the world and of the people within it: that poverty, for example, was good; or that the body was to be tamed or rejected rather than cared for. All these factors help to explain the worries, confusion and hostility of Pliny and others like him. At the same time, the success of Christianity was rooted in the Roman Empire, in its territorial extent, in the mobility that it promoted, in its towns and its cultural mix. From Pliny’s Bithynia to Perpetua’s Carthage, Christianity spread from its small-scale origins in Judaea largely because of the channels of communication across the Mediterranean world that the Roman Empire had opened up and because of the movement through those channels of people, goods, books and ideas. The irony is that the only religion that the Romans ever attempted to eradicate was the one whose success their empire made possible and which grew up entirely within the Roman world.

More: read SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome

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Great book on the history of the horse

The Horse: The Epic History of Our Noble Companion by Wendy Williams is one of my favorite recent reads. The book is a fascinating mixture of geology, biology, and history. A great gift for anyone who rides, certainly.

Here are some excerpts to inspire you:

Horses are the stars of Ice Age art. Indeed, horses are the most frequently represented animal in the twenty-thousand-year period that preceded the advent of farming and what we call civilization.

contrary to popular belief, science has discovered that they are not “herd” animals. Instead of seeking safety in large numbers, horses live year-round in small groups called bands. Membership in these bands, which may consist of as few as three horses or as many as ten or so, is just as fluid as are the individual bonds, but there’s usually a central core of closely allied mares and their young offspring.

(Because of the stress of constant fighting with other males, stallions often live much shorter lives than mares.)

When I started researching free-roaming horses, I was astonished at their numbers—in the millions. I was also surprised by the variety of ecosystems where the horses not only live, but thrive. There may be more than a million free-ranging horses in the Australian outback alone

All over the American West, free-ranging horses roam in small bands. They even seem to do well in areas around Death Valley, one of the hottest and driest places on Earth. You would think that a species that can live in Death Valley would have trouble living in swamps and wetlands, but it turns out that they don’t. A little south of the Namibian desert, another population of horses lives in the Bot River delta of South Africa.

The book gives multiple examples of evolution in action:

consider the case of the sea-island horses who live on Canada’s Sable Island, a small harborless sandbar of an island located far out in the North Atlantic, about a ninety-minute plane flight east from Halifax, Nova Scotia. This tiny island, shaped like a crescent moon, is about thirty miles long and very narrow. Buffeted constantly by violent North Atlantic storms, this island seems an unlikely home for free-roaming horses, yet as many as 450 graze here, surviving by eating beach grass and sea peas. This sounds like a meager diet, but the horses, abandoned there by a Boston entrepreneur before the American Revolution, have endured for more than 250 years.

The only non-marine mammals on the island, the horses serve as a real-world laboratory of evolution. Over the centuries, they have become unique. Their pasterns are now so short that, from a distance, their lower legs look something like the legs of mountain goats. The pasterns of most horses are long and angled, allowing for plenty of spring in the horse’s step, which in turn allows for greater speed and stamina when a horse gallops at high speeds over an open plain. Long pasterns evolved as a survival strategy. But longer pasterns also carry an important disadvantage: the pastern’s fragile bones and vulnerable tendons can easily break or strain, laming the horse. Many a racehorse has ended his career because of this vulnerability. But on Sable Island, the horse does not have to run fast to escape predators. Instead, their enemy is deep sand and their worst “predators” are steep, treacherous sand dunes, some almost a thousand feet high, which the horses must climb in order to eat. These dunes provide some pretty dangerous footing for horses. On Sable Island a horse is much more likely to injure a leg while descending these steep dunes than by running along the island’s beaches. Still, a hungry horse must ascend and descend these obstacles. Consequently, evolution has made a clear choice, just as in the Camargue region. Sable Island horses have shorter, less vulnerable pasterns, giving them that goatlike look. Over 250 years, natural selection has opted for shorter pasterns, improving the horses’ ability to graze, thus improving the horses’ ability to live longer and produce more offspring. We often think of evolution as complicated, but in this case, the process is pretty easy to grasp.

The author covers some of the dynamism of the Earth’s climate:

Most likely, paleontologists suggest, the truth behind the extinction involves many factors. When the asteroid fell, the world was already changing. The great supercontinent of Pangaea had broken up and North and South America were slowly migrating west, creating an ever-widening Atlantic Ocean—an ocean that would become a major player in the appearance of humans and in the evolution of horses and in the flight paths of birds and in the pulsations of ice and rain and drought for the coming tens of millions of years. These long-term events, the results of our always-convulsive, seething-with-energy planet, were probably more influential in the appearance of horses and humans than the onetime crash of a mere mega-asteroid. … the Yale University paleontologist Chris Norris called the emphasis on disaster as a major evolutionary force “asteroid porn.”

His point is well-taken: the worldwide climate had been changing for 10 million years before the asteroid fell. The dinosaurs were no more enjoying a steady-state world before the asteroid impact than we are today.

It was hot. For a brief period, it was very hot, much hotter than when I visited. In fact, it was as though there was a sudden explosion of heat, as remarkable in its own way as the fall of the asteroid had been 10 million years earlier. Curiously, this explosion of heat also marks the appearance of Polecat Bench’s horses and primates. This was a time when temperatures in some places shot up by 6 or 8 degrees Celsius in a very short time period, lingered at those heights, then, almost as suddenly, dropped back down. The cause of this heat spike remains elusive, but it may have been due to large bursts of methane that bubbled up from the deep ocean. On temperature charts that track the rise and fall of heat throughout our planet’s history, the heat spike looks to me like the outline of the Eiffel Tower. The anomaly is officially called the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum, PETM for short, but I prefer to think of it as the Eiffel Tower of Heat, with its sharp lines of ascent and descent that mimic so closely the graceful lines of the Parisian landmark. It’s a weird event. And it’s doubly weird that both horses and primates may owe their existence, in part, to its existence: the spike marks the beginning of the Eocene, when not just horses and primates, but most modern mammal groups finally came into their own.

Just a few things that surprised me:

  • North America, devoid of horses when the Europeans showed up to trash the place, has a rich fossil record of horses. Horses were here at least as recently as 30,000 years ago.
  • Horse teeth keep pushing out for about 20 years.
  • “The ten thousand or so varieties of grasses that cover Earth today take up an estimated 30 percent of our planet’s land surface.” (and grass is a relatively new plant)

More: Read The Horse: The Epic History of Our Noble Companion.

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Weekend in Gettysburg

Richard and I flew down to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania over the weekend to visit his brother, a professor at Gettysburg College.

On the way down we stopped at the Kingston-Ulster airport and were picked up by Richard’s friend Annie, a flying kinetic whirl of activity whose mass could only be characterized by a probability distribution.  We drove a few miles to Bard College’s new auditorium, designed by Frank Gehry.  From the air this had seemed like a misshapen metal-clad lump.  From the ground it still looked misshapen but not ugly.  It cost $60 million to build.  Running a not-for-profit college would seem to be a very good way to accumulate cash.  Even after spending $60 mil the school had enough money left over to pay lots of security guards.  A performance was in progress in the small theater and every door was locked and guarded.  Annie was not be deterred.  We walked around the back and walked in the stage door with the members of the Charles Mingus Orchestra, unchallenged past the security guard who was reading a book.  Lesson:  never hire a hippie college kid to work security.  The main theater did not impress but the backstage was amazingly huge and intricate.

While the local swells attended a play the students played Frisbee and sang folk music in front of the Student Center.  Posters advertised a show of “Palestinian Art; Four Decades of Response to Oppression” (with the world’s fastest-growing population (5% per year) and most of their money being siphoned off by kleptocratic rulers perhaps the Palestinians are now going to support themselves via indigenous arts and crafts).  We walked past the booths selling tie-dyed clothing and through the campus until we arrived at a mansion on the Hudson River, complete with formal garden.

After a late lunch in Rhinebeck we got back into the DA40, bound for Gettysburg.  We flew up a beautiful river valley that crammed together an enormous open-plan new prison, an enormous fortress-like old prison, a golf course, and a scattering of McMansions around the fairways.  We followed a ridge of uplifted hills, cut through by rivers and highways, then climbed to a more efficient altitude of 6500′.  We passed near Harrisburg and over the Three Mile Island nuclear power plants (two cooling towers dead; two blowing steam) before landing at the Gettysburg Airport.  This airport is right next to a mobile home park in which you could buy a nice trailer for $20,000 then rent a hangar for $200 per month.  All the convenience of an airpark without the expense!

The Gettysburg battlefield park is one of the best-preserved and most interesting among those in the U.S.  This was the pivotal battle of the War of Northern Aggression (know to the victors as the “American Civil War”).  The Southern armies under General Robert E. Lee had come to bring the fight into the North and were briefly in a position to reach the big cities of the Northeast.  After the South went home on July 4, 1863, the outcome was inevitable.  This was the first time that artillery, the rifle, and the digging of trenches came together to give the defense a huge advantage.  The Civil War was thus the first modern war in terms of tactics, in terms of press coverage (photographers were embedded with the troops), and in terms of the total mobilization of industrial civilian economies.  The offense did not gain the upper hand until Hitler’s air power, tank columns, and mechanized infantry conquered Europe in the 1930s and 40s (we’re still in the “offense wins” epoch of war, apparently, if the invasion of Iraq can be considered typical).

[To see what an improvement in political leadership can be achieved via professional speechwriters and Microsoft PowerPoint, check out the Gettysburg Address (original and improved).]

Being a professor at Gettysburg College seemed like a lot of fun.  First of all, even on a professor’s salary you can afford a large newish house on several acres of land, typically part of a recently subdivided farm (subdividing farms is to this decade what day trading was to the 1990s).  Now that you’ve got the big house you can start throwing parties for your colleagues.  Most of them will show up because there isn’t much else to do in Gettysburg.  Thus your life consists of going from one party to another, mixing with academics from every area of inquiry.

[Why doesn’t this happen at MIT?  First, the young fun people who work at MIT can’t afford to live anywhere near the school unless they want to cram themselves into a studio or 1-bedroom apartment, not suitable for parties.  Second there are all kinds of social and entertainment opportunities in a big city like Boston.  Third, there are too many professors in one’s own department to get to know and therefore one is unlikely to be coerced by circumstance into socializing with people from other fields (the EECS department at MIT has more than 150 faculty).]

Having soaked up the scenery and the smell of the apple blossoms it was time to depart this morning.  We were greeted by a dreary mist, clouds hanging on the hills, and a steady rain.  Flight Service said that the warm front was coming through sooner than expected but that the weather was clear to the northeast.  Richard and I departed under instrument flight rules (IFR).  This is a bit tricky at an airport with no control tower and no radio repeater for the air traffic controllers (ATC).  You need to take off and gain altitude before you can talk to ATC but it isn’t safe, prudent, or legal to climb into the clouds unless you’ve already talked to ATC.  We picked up our clearance with a cell phone call to Washington Center from the airplane as we sat on the ground in Gettysburg.  They cleared out the airspace north of Gettysburg for 10 minutes, giving us enough time to depart (if we’d had a problem taking off we would have called them back to cancel).

Despite a headwind, we were on the ground in Boston 2.75 hours later.  We had climbed up to 5500′ and never entered the clouds.

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Biographical Focus: Jeffrey Amherst, the first biowarrior

It’s Sunday, a time for looking at inspiring biographies.  Today we consider Lord Jeffrey Amherst, commander of the British forces in North America during the French & Indian War (1754-1763).   The town of Amherst, Massachusetts is named after this pioneer in the field of biological warfare.  It was Lord Amherst who came up with the idea of giving smallpox-infested blankets to the Indians.  This theme is explored in a bit of detail on this page at UCLA and more profoundly in tonight’s highly recommended episode of South Park (rebroadcast from Wednesday):  “Red Man’s Greed”.

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Saudi Royals, Big Rockets, and Hitler

The May 2003 Atlantic Monthly merits a trip to the library or newsstand.  While the great minds of the Boston Globe fret about Cessna 172s, Robert Baer’s “The Fall of the House of Saud”  points out that a simple terrorist strike at one location in Saudi Arabia could remove from the world markets an amount equal to one third of the U.S.’s oil consumption.  The article is rich with details on the more eccentric princes, such as Abdul Aziz who built a magnificent $4.6 billion palace and Islamic theme park that “includes a scale model of old Mecca, with actors attending mosque and chanting prayers twenty-four hours a day.”  For those who slept through 9/11 and its aftermath, Baer recounts the Saudi funding and manning of Al-Qaeda and its continued obstruction of FBI investigations.

Gregg Easterbrook also has an article in this issue, about the Russian-American Sea Launch company that sails from Long Beach to the equator, fires off huge rockets into space, then sails back to LA.  The cost is 1/10th that of the Space Shuttle for a comparable payload.

Timothy Ryback visits the Library of Congress and discovers the “remnants of the private library of Adolf Hilter, a man better known for burning books than for collecting them.”  In fact Hitler had thousands of books and, even when his means were modest, spent lavishly on books and bookshelves.  Hitler was not a huge fan of novels but enjoyed non-fiction, being motivated to underlining by a nineteenth century writer’s call for “the relocation of the Polish and Austrian Jews to Palestine”.

If you’re soaking in the bathtub and done with New Yorker magazine, give the May Atlantic a whirl.

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Biographical Focus: Idi Amin

Sundays on this blog will be for focusing on one person, ideally someone connected to current events but who has slipped from notice.  Today’s focus is Idi Amin.

Idi Amin might seem like an odd choice because he has not been in the news for more than a decade and in fact many Westerners have the impression that he is dead.

Amin earns his place in this blog today because of the fact that the whole crop of modern Islamic rulers are merely following the trail blazed by Idi Amin. Amin, who ruled Uganda in the 1970s, took on the challenging project of creating a true Islamic nation out of a country that was only about 6 percent Muslims at the time. Amin, accused of murdering hundreds of thousands of Christians, did not get too much good press in the West (like Saddam) but he was a hero to Arabs and Muslims worldwide (like Saddam). Like Saddam, Idi Amin was the victim of a long-distance Israeli air raid (Entebbe 1976).  Like Saddam, Idi Amin was overthrown by a foreign military (in Amin’s case it was the war that he started against neighboring Tanzania that ultimately brought Tanzanian troops back to Kampala, the capital of Uganda).

Idi Amin made and kept friends throughout the Middle East.  For example, Yasser Arafat was Best Man at Amin’s 5th wedding.  After Idi Amin was overthrown he was set up by the Saudis in a magnificent seaside villa in the Red Sea port of Jiddah (i.e., when we fill up our SUVs part of the money goes to pay for Amin’s wives, cars, servants, etc.).

Idi Amin turned 78 years old on January 1 and currently lives in Mecca.

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Happy Friday: the ice pack is breaking up

A wise man once told me that people tended to be unhappy because they focussed on the problems in their life.  Things that were going well did not require attention and therefore did not get it.  Consequently if you asked a person what he or she had been thinking about it was generally an unpleasant and difficult to solve problem.  This blog will try to fight this tendency with a Happy Friday policy.

Yesterday my friend Brad and I took the DA40 out of its hangar and headed out to Williamstown, Massachusetts.  There are three great art museums within 3 miles of the Harriman and West Airport (paved but VFR-only and surrounded by mountains):  Clark, MassMOCA (installation art fueled by approx. $50 million of Massachusetts taxpayer funds; run by New Yorkers who dress and sound like Dieter on Saturday Night Live), and Williams College’s art museum.  We stopped by Williams College and looked at their magnificent 9th century BC Assyrian tablets plus a visiting show of Tibetan art.

The Assyrian tablets remind one that the current conflict in Iraq is not the first one and that the artifacts of ancient civilization in Iraq have nothing to do with its current Arab rulers.  The Assyrians are the heirs to a literary and cultural traditional that goes back to the Epic of Gilgamesh and Sargon’s kingdom circa 2350 B.C.  For some reason it became conventional in Assyrian literature for heroes to be discovered in baskets floating on rivers, washed into the reeds.  This is how Gilgamesh was found and also Sargon.  For those of you going to a Passover Seder this year, a good way to really piss off your hosts is to start asking questions about whether the story of Moses being found in a basket in the Nile wasn’t simply copied from much earlier Assyrian stories.  Suppose that it is true that Moses grew up in an Egyptian royal household but not that he was found in the river.  That would make Moses, the Jewish leader of the Jews, … an Egyptian pure and simple.  (The descendants of Moses’s relatives would therefore be the Coptic Christian minority that survived the Arab invasion of Egypt.)

Assyrians converted to Christianity shortly after the death of Jesus and have been fighting a losing battle with Muslim Arab invaders since the 7th century A.D.  They seem to be a forgotten oppressed minority in an Arab country but they do have a Web site:

From the art museum we walked out into the 50-degree sunshine and along a creek filled with snowmelt.  A young woman came up behind us, smiling, red-faced, and walking briskly with wet hair.  She had been celebrating Spring by taking a swim in the freezing water.

For our return flight to Boston we took off just as the sun was setting in the Berkshires.  The hilly landscape around the Connecticut River was painted with a pinkish light reminiscent of the Hudson River School.  We could distinguish the subtle tones with our eyes but there is no way that film would have captured it so Brad and I just enjoyed it.  In flying over lakes we noticed that the pack ice was broken up and covering less than 50 percent of the surface.  Spring is here.  Brad flies for American Airlines so you’d think that he would have become jaded with aerial scenery but he looked out the window in wonder (and in fear; I did much of the flight with a hood on so that I could see only the instruments while Brad looked for other airplanes and critiqued my performance on 4 instrument approaches).

Now that we New Englanders seem finally to escaped the clutches of Winter it may be worth reflecting that it could have been much worse.  Here’s a note from Marion, an old friend who lives in Alaska:

I am curious whether you heard as far away as Boston about the storm of the century we had here in Anchorage about two weeks ago. 130 mph winds, right off the inlet and onto our poor little condo. The winds and low temperatures also meant there was about a -30 degree F windchill. First the power went out and the car alarms in the neighborhood were going off like crazy. Debris was flying everywhere, trees were going down, and the dust was high. Then the roof flew off next door (from the green house on the corner), up about 15′ and onto our building’s roof, crushing it and breaking a joist. Boards were falling from the ceiling onto Sylvia & Jerry while they were in bed (Jerry tried to dismiss Mom’s complaints about the roof falling in until a board hit him in the ear! That is what he deserved). Then, early in the morning, our downstairs neighbor, Sherman, came flying into my condo announcing that the pipes had burst and water was spraying everywhere. We had to shut off the water. Concurrent with this, we also lost our heat. The water and heat stayed off for about a week. 

Marion lives in Anchorage, the largest city in Alaska and one of the places with the mildest climate. Full post, including comments