Busy couple of weeks, it's been. The fellowship application took me offline for a bit, of course, but that's not the cause of the more recent radio silence. This past week was mostly tied up with preparations for a collaborators' meeting in New York, at which I'll be one of a dozen or so people giving slide shows on various aspects of the EBEX design. Being funded and all, you see, it's come to our attention that we should probably get to work at building something, in which case we should settle on a design before starting to fabricate rather expensive parts. Or at least make sure we're talking about the
So tomorrow it's off to the States again.
But I did promise stories of my recent adventures, sometime long ago. One is that I did make it back into Jerusalem, and have importantly figured out how to do this without the aid of a car. Which was a nice breath of hope that, at least after I get back in a couple of weeks, I won't be quite so confined to Rehovot. Now go be distracted by the pretty picture and thus fail to notice that I don't actually have time for storytelling just now.
It being Hanukkah, I've attended numerous candle-lighting type events, mostly of the menorah-on-kitchen-table variety. But I also helped organize a full-blown Hanukkah bash for the dorm, which featured an odd combination of bad American music, Orthodox Hasidic volunteers bearing a giant menorah, flowing libations, and more jelly donuts than most donut shops. (You had to be there.)
Okay; you're updated. Now just to keep Xylo happy, everyone look around and ask where Poochie is (who?), and I'll go back to making slides.
We've noted in the past that the Moon in the Mideast is said to rise and set at times in a "horns-up" orientation. My efforts to photographically document this arrangement have been foiled, thus far, by the fact that winter is fast approaching. This can be discerned by two observations: first, that long-sleeve shirts are starting to appear after dark; and second, that it is cloudy at night.
However, the good contributors to the APOD site have provided a nice illustration of the phenomenon.
The crescent moon has had considerable significance in the Mideast since ancient times, although I don't know that I necessarily buy this article's claim that lunar supremacy is a general feature of nomadic mythologies. Anyway, Sargon was already a king of cities when he set up Enheduanna as priestess of the Moon at Ur, although there's no denying that nomadic traditions play an important role down to the present day. However, I suspect it's the continuity of Islam (and Judaism), and not a connection to ancient wanderers, that is chiefly responsible for the continued use of the lunar calendar in this part of the world. Notice, though, that the star-and-crescent symbol of Islam might be a distant derivative of the star of Inanna (itself probably Venus), and one begins to realize the essential imprecision of such distinctions.
The major significance of the crescent moon to anyone using a lunar calendar is that this phase marks the passing of the months, as in all such calendars of which I am aware, the new month begins with the new moon. Thus, to tell when the month is ending, one must rise before sunrise and watch the waning crescent moon rise just before the sun; likewise, the new month is known to have begun the first time the crescent moon can be seen in the evening, setting just after the sun. Since this transition is important to, for instance, determine the exact start of Ramadan, such sightings are now coordinated worldwide. Sure, you
So, what about this "horns-up" thing? The short version is, that's approximately what it'll look like whenever the Moon falls near a vertical line drawn from the Sun (which you'll only be able to perceive if the Sun is already below the horizon). Just imagine a lamp illuminating a ball from below (an experiment that you can try, if you're not one of the astronomers in the audience and already sick of demonstrations involving lamps and globes). When will the Moon appear to rise/set almost vertically?
The answer, approximately speaking, is when you're standing sideways in the above picture, whicn can only ever happen exactly if you're within about 23 degrees latitude of the Equator. I recommend a visit to the above-linked Tutorial if you don't see why. The Mideast isn't actually at that low latitude, but it's only off by about ten degrees, so we'll call it close enough. Even when you're close, this only happens once a day -- 12 hours later, you'll be standing as close as you ever get to vertically in the picture. So to be able to see the crescent Moon, it has to be a smidgeon before sunrise or after sunset locally.
Put this all together, and the desired configuration is visible in two broad periods each year. The waning crescent Moon can be seen rising vertically in the early mornings after the September equinox, and the waxing crescent will set vertically in the evenings leading up to the March equinox. If you need a range to go observing, let's say between the equinox and the adjacent cross-quarter day. And, of course, this will work from any location sufficiently close to the equator; there's nothing special about the Mideast's longitude. So those of you in Texas actually can try this at home.
So he's dead. For real, this time.
On days of great calamity, legends tend to report the sky blackening. The Palestinians have taken matters into their own hands on this front, and are burning tires all over Gaza and Ramallah. It is reported to be rather dark. Ick.
No need to worry that I'm going to wander off to the Territories to investigate. They've completely sealed them off. I'll post more when I have some idea of what's going on.
Speculation about the future is running rampant. On the one hand, a leader has been retained; Bush was elected. On the other hand, Arafat is out of the country for the first time in years, and it is widely suspected that he will not recover.
The theme of the month is uncertainty. For instance, today's article on the Arafat situation is typical of the confusion regarding his condition and who's in charge in Palestine. The Israeli government is, for now, maintaining a low profile, although it's unclear what will happen if the Palestinians insist on burying Arafat in East Jerusalem, or if the succession struggle spins out of control. Or, for that matter, if it doesn't, and it begins to look like Hamas is going to come out on top.
Taken for himself, many Israelis were pleased that Bush will remain President in the US, as he is seen as relatively less likely to lean on Israel for concessions. In particular, he has been perfectly content to insist that "terror" end before Israel is obliged to do anything in particular, which is widely regarded as code for never. There has been some speculation that he would change his tune in a second term in an effort to regain favor with Europe, but the conventional wisdom was that Kerry would do the same, and probably more aggressively.
But then Arafat leaves center stage, potentially upsetting a delicate balance. On W's watch, Israel doesn't need to talk to the Palestinians in any official capacity, because Arafat has been declared not to be a "partner" in the peace process. If new leadership enters the picture, it becomes more difficult to maintain such a stance; Bush will have to either offend his Israeli supporters by insisting that the government give the new PA leadership a chance, or else reveal his position for what it is, a carte blanche for Likud to do as it pleases.
At the moment, the government seems to be working on the first theory. As best I can tell, there is some movement in Sharon's administration to make a show of working with whoever winds up in charge of the PA, to head off any intervention on Bush's part. I suspect they guess that, since the disengagement from Gaza buys them several more months during which they can claim to be too busy dealing with the settlers to worry about the Road Map, they have plenty of time to discredit the new Palestinian leadership, too. (For instance, see here in today's paper.)
Handy tip for the traveling astronomer: in Hebrew, the word for "telescope" is
Over the past 36 hours or so, any number of friends and acquaintances have made some crack or other about expatriating, generally to Canada. Seems like a nice place, after all. Their leaders are generally reputed to be intelligent, sane, and not ideological relatives of Sauron. Many of them did the same four years ago, when faced with a far less dire situation. We learned the words to "Oh, Canada!" and everything.
Naturally, they're (you're) all still in America. You don't just quit school or a job and start over in another country because you suspect that the newly elected administration is incompetent or evil. But what if the re-elected administration manages to be both incompetent
It is with this backdrop that I make the following announcement: I will be returning to the United States in the spring, exactly as scheduled.
Now Israel clearly has problems of its own to contend with, but I'd be saying the same thing if my advisor had sent me to Paris. As briefly satisfying as it might be to consider taking my ball and storming off the playground, it's not like the theocrats would miss me. More importantly, it will in the long run be far more gratifying to stand and resist them; the forces of ignorance and greed have declared war on us, and the Enlightenment is at stake. I won't have it said that I sat that out, or that I abandoned my compatriots.
So there are plenty of reasons to return. Vast quantities of ink, especially of the virtual variety, have been spilled to belabor this point already.
Is this young voter the dreaded enemy? Hardly. More like the principal victim. I hope my rather lengthy comment responding to that post demonstrates how simple a case she should be, if only we could reach her and a million like her in Ohio. It's that second trick that is the key. What I can say in a brief essay, a skilled message master can probably condense into a short, catchy slogan. But then that meme has to break through the static and register. I don't know how to do that. Sooner or later, someone will have a really good idea, and we won't know how good it is until someone else gives it a try.
We're looking at four years of trench warfare just to limit the damage; if we hope to put a stop to this madness eventually, we'd also better find a way to sneak a voice of reason behind enemy lines. All this is going to take a lot of hands, a lot of voices. Mine will absolutely be among them.
As promised, I stiched together the panorama photos taken from the Knesset helipad. There's a preview below, and if you click on it, the full image will appear in another window. For reference, the construction cranes in the image are approximately due south, and the Knesset building is in that general direction as well. The Hebrew University is in the west, invisible under the setting sun.
Don't click there unless you're on a reasonably new computer, because it's gigantic. Just be glad I scaled them down first (it started out 22,000 pixels across, which was a bit hard to work with).
One of my major non-work projects is now complete, but I'm not going to talk about that right now. I have some time to post here, though.
Jerusalem. It's a name that evokes any number of associations. As can be seen in numerous medieval maps, it was once regarded as the physical center of the world. The place is steeped in faith and conflict and most of all time. Contradictions abound, and time itself provides the sharpest of them. Although Jerusalem was the ancient royal capitol of a minor kingdom when Rome was founded, and merits a mention in Egyption records centuries before the fall of Troy, the city is on the whole much younger than most old cities of Europe, never mind the Middle East. Waves of civilization and warfare have crashed over this place, and conqueroring armies have razed it to the ground at least three or four times. Perhaps because so few would want to live in such an unstable place, Jerusalem was a fairly small town from Roman times until influx of Jewish settlers that arrived with the Zionist movement.
But so far, we're relying on my knowledge of history. Now I've been there, briefly. Allow me to relate.
My advisor offered to show me around, as he had a short meeting to attend Friday afternoon. The drive from Rehovot to Jerusalem is something I'll have to document another time, when I have a more developed sense of how to get around. It's worth observing, as my advisor repeatedly pointed out, that as the highway winds up into the low dry mountains of the West Bank, the last few miles thread a corridor of Israel proper only a couple of miles wide. During the 1948 war, the Israelis made a special effort to capture the city, driving a wedge deep into Jordanian territory to reach it. As a reminder of the cost, they left various ruined armored vehicles behind to rust along the highway.
A reasonably detailed map of the modern city can be found here; I found it quite helpful to trace out where I'd actually been. Following the "Library" link from that page leads to, among other things, a quite thorough collection of maps relating to Israel. However, I haven't been through the site as a whole, so I make no claims regarding whatever other documentation it might host or claims it might make.
The outskirts of Jerusalem, somewhat depressingly, remind me strongly of El Paso: a modern city trying to look old as it sprawls along the main highways between the feet of arid mountains. However, there are plenty of images like these signs and graffiti to keep me feeling suitably alien. (A side note: I've studied various Romance languages quite a bit, and in the past Spanish has been the major foreign language to which I've been exposed; living in a country where I have
So my professor and I arrived at the Renaissance Hotel for his meeting; he assured me that West Jerusalem is harmless, I told him I'd see him in an hour, and we parted ways. If you're following along on the map I linked to, the hotel is somewhere around Qiryat Moshie, near the main highway in the northwest finger of town. Having only a general notion of my location, I figured I'd need to walk southeast to find anything interesting, which I proceeded to do along the major road that happened to be going that way.
Turns out this road was a fortuitous choice for a quick sightseeing jaunt, for as you can see from the map is winds south between Hebrew University and the government zone. Eventually I hit a sign directing me to the Knesset, which I believe is the name of both the Israeli legislature and the fortress-like building in which it convenes. As it happens, they don't let you get especially close to the building. Actually, I believe the soldier who let me into the parking lot was under the impression that I wanted to see this gigantic menorah, and it seemed easiest not to argue with that. The park behind the fence is a wide green space separating the Knesset from the Supreme Court building; it would be the Washington Mall if only it were a great deal flatter. On my way back to the hotel, I hiked to the top of the hill in the park, where I found what I can only assume is an official helipad, and took a panorama. Once I've stiched it together somewhat, I'll see about posting it, but in the end it isn't terribly interesting.
Night had fallen by the time my advisor's meeting ended, and he was a bit crestfallen that I'd managed to find the Knesset all on my own, but he had a couple of sights to show me, anyway. The first was the building on the University campus that houses the Dead Sea Scrolls -- it looks like a clove of garlic, if you ask me. I can't say that I see the wisdom in housing all manner of irreplacible antiquities in a city as volatile as this one. Strikes me as positively inviting Daniel Hillis's prophecy to come true. But, many relics of ancient times as there are here, perhaps its just not worth the trouble. And there's politics, no doubt.
Driving through the center of town, there's no way to tell when you've crossed into Palestinian East Jerusalem. But when you hit the walls of the Old City, you're there. (Another aside: they're not all that old. The Roman city walls were demolished during the Crusades, and rebuilt by the Ottoman Sultan Suleiman in the 16th century. Check out the handy timeline.) From there, it was up to Mount Scopus in the northeastern corner of the city, from which the central city is laid out before you. From this vantage I took the time exposures above and below. If you count the Western Wall, purported last remnant of the Second Temple (ca. 500 BCE), you have here the result of 2,500 years of construction and roughly continuous habitation.
Two distinct phenomena stood out from my lookout point, as the night began. In the Jewish neighborhoods, cars had vanished from the streets with the beginning of Shabbat (from which we obtain our word, Sabbath). On the other hand, in the Arab neighborhoods bottle rockets were going off and music was breaking out, celebrating the end of the day's Ramadan fast.
We almost got in trouble with the former, actually, on our way out of town. Perhaps overeager to show me where he once lived, my advisor accidentally drove us straight into one of those othodox Jewish neighborhoods. Officially, the road was closed, but since it would be labor to put up a barrier or something, there's not much indication of that fact. Since it was a major artery that had been open just moments before, I think this system could probably use some work. So our first clue that we were out of place was the squeaky sound of young children shouting at us. "Shabbaz! Shabbaz!" -- the Yiddish form of Shabbat. Which means that we were obviously bad Jews for being out on the roads after the sundown. Not being a Jew, this doesn't much bother me, but it's always poor form to flaunt local religious custom, especially since I've heard the older kids will forego the shouting and just throw rocks.
On the short drive back through the central city, I probably saw all of the major forms of traditional orthodox Jewish attire. The Hasidics I recognize from New York, but I'd be hard pressed to come up with the names of any of the others.
My advisor called Jerusalem the heart of a storm, and I find the metaphor apt. The tranquility is deceptive; much of the violence spiralling around the globe these days can be traced back to the invisible lines criss-crossing and dividing this city. Here the tensions are more subtle. The fact that you can pick out Arab and Jewish neighborhoods from the top of a mountain. Or that there are places in Jerusalem where my Israeli advisor is afraid to drive, although he says I'd be fine, just a foreigner and a benign source of income. And perhaps most insidiously, the patchwork of new lights visible from the east-facing side of Mount Scopus, looking into the West Bank. They'd almost all appeared since his last visit, settlements like weeds spreading over the hillsides around Jerusalem in a desperate land grab against the chance that peace does come.
Once upon a time there lived a giant. As such fellows go, he was perfectly amiable, and if anyone nearby considered him a less than ideal neighbor, they could have done worse. Even though he had committed some altogether regrettable deeds as a younger and smaller giant, nobody seemed particularly inclined to hold it against him. After all, the local taverns, thanks to the size of his mug, and the local weavers, thanks to his abundant breeches, all found him a fantastic customer, and business is business.
One lazy afternoon, the giant found that he could not sleep. This annoyed him greatly, as recent times had been tiring. To begin with, he'd finally won a staring contest with another giant who used to live across the duck pond from him, which had stretched on for an interminable span. To make up for lost time, he'd gone on quite the buying spree afterward, and done some drinking worthy of a giant, as well. He now found that nothing seemed so pleasant as to lounge about and wait for his headache to subside. However, the mosquitoes just would not stop biting him.
After some time he'd acquired a goodly number of bites, including a few particularly nasty ones right on the tip of his mountainous nose. Finally awake and itching to confront the pests, the drowsy behemoth lumbered out into the sunny afternoon, and confusedly surveyed the rolling fields he called home. Weeds had grown up and choked some very nice hedgerows in one place, while in another the brick makers by a mud pit seemed to have used up the mud and erected a shop. Moreover, everywhere he looked, paths seemed to have been beaten in the grass that he didn't remember from before. The smaller inhabitants of the green had been busily conducting their affairs during the long wait for someone to blink, a fact he might have noticed if not for his victory binge.
"No matter," he pondered, "how hard can it be to track down mosquitoes?" Already his large ears detected their high pitched whine, and only a short stroll was needed to pinpoint the source. In the midst of the field lay a dell that had obviously seen much traffic on many a day, for paths criss-crossed in every direction, along with muddy ruts from the wagon wheels of giants, and big, boggy footprints. Where this tumult converged was a small stagnant pond, really more of an oversized mud puddle, filled with hatching mosquitoes and more laying their eggs each minute.
"Here, now! This neglect is easily repaired!" exclaimed the giant, leaping with both of his enormous boots into the puddle. It splashed most satisfyingly in every direction, scattering insects, water, and all. The mosquitoes seemed little perturbed by this, but droned all the more merrily as their one big puddle became a hundred scattered ones, dousing the ruts and tracks all about. Those pests not already busy repopulating the waters immediately rose in a swarm, and feasted greedily on the banquet of giant that had so obligingly delivered itself.
Not one to let the bugs off so easily, the giant extracted his boots and proceeded to stomp furiously in ever-larger circles, smashing each rivulet and clod of mud, all the while flapping his arms wildly in an effort to ward off the biting insects. When a giant behaves thus, you can be assured a great deal of noise results, and so all the while the little residents of the fields began to gather, far enough to be safe from trampling, but close enough to see the ruckus. Had he seen things from the perspective of those closer to the ground, he might have changed his strategy. For the onlookers could see what he did not, that his stomping was only squeezing the water from the mud, and that soon he would be standing in a broad little lake, in a waterproof bed of compressed earth.
When at last the giant paused to take stock, he indeed found himself standing in far more water than when he'd begun, and being watched by all manner of little folk from a short distance. "Good giant," called one, "what ever have you been trying to do?"
"I was hoping to get rid of these foul bugs that bite me while I nap," he replied glumly.
"You'll never do it that way," another observed. Still a third complained, "now there will be enough mosquitoes to bother us as well as you!"
His neighbors continued to comment on his sorry plight. If only he'd asked them, the weavers said, they'd have shown him how to make a mosquito net for his cottage. Likewise the tavern-keepers felt sure that with enough ale, the insects could have been rendered too drunk to bite. The brickmakers, it turned out, had been waiting for the right time to dig up the mud all along. And the poor giant, standing in wet boots with bugs swarming about his head, felt altogether foolish.
The moral of this story, for those who feel that all fables should bear one, is a corruption of Mencken's law: for every complex problem, there is a solution that is obvious, satisfying, and wrong.