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King Canute, Imperial Beach, CA, and rising tides

Monday, October 22nd, 2018

[ by Charles Cameron — a coastal California town has learned the lesson King Canute either taught his nobles or learned the hard way himself — but what can anyone do about it? ]
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Okay, here’s the first para of Can a California town move back from the sea? Imperial Beach considers the unthinkable: a retreat from nature:

At the start of each year, Southern California gets a glimpse into a future of rising seas, through an annual event called the king tide. On that day, the sun, moon and Earth align to create a heavy gravitational pull, leading to the highest tides of the year. If “king tide” sounds ominous, that’s because it is, particularly for a city like Imperial Beach, a small coastal town near the Mexican border surrounded by water on three sides: San Diego Bay to the north, the Pacific Ocean to the west and the Tijuana River Delta to the south.

It doesn’t hurt that there’s a king reference there either, from my POV — because?

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Because King Canute.

As a Brit, I was introduced to King Canute at an early age, along with every last one of the other Kings and Queens of England — and their dates — memorize them! Americans, however, have shaken off the dust of kings and queens, and may not know the tale of King Canute and the waves. Was he, as my gold-embossed, colour-plated richly patriotic children’s book had it, an imperious royal who set his chair in the sand before the incoming tide, and not about to lose one inch of English sovereign soil to the waves, dared the Atlantic to encroach on his royal prerogative?

Or was he, as Henry of Huntingdon, the original chronicler of the tale has it, a humble and wise, one might say ecologically sound king, who set his chair in the sand to demonstrate to his fawning and flattering courtiers that look, not even my royal command can overrule the laws of God — or Nature?

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So, back to the humbling question — rising tides?

Currently an anomaly, the king tide is a portent of things to come. Researchers warn that, due to myriad factors including the Earth’s rotation, California will deal with even higher sea-level rise than other locations, as the atmosphere and oceans warm. The oceans are now rising at a faster rate than any time since the last Ice Age, about half an inch or more per decade. While much of this is understood by researchers and informed readers, very little has been done by coastal cities to confront this slow-moving catastrophe.

And Imperial Beach in particular?

That is what makes Imperial Beach so interesting. Here, at the southernmost beach town in California, in an obscure corner of the United States, one small city is asking: What if we just got out of nature’s way?

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Sources and readings:

  • High Country News, Can a California town move back from the sea?
  • The Sun, You Canute be Serious

  • Wikipedia, King Canute and the tide
  • New York Times, Major Climate Report Describes a Strong Risk of Crisis as Early as 2040
  • ipcc, Global Warming of 1.5°C
  • Greed can do it as easily as Religion — or Time Itself

    Sunday, July 22nd, 2018

    [ by Charles Cameron — the passing of time is theft is the passing of all things ]
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    Here’s a quick stop-motion movie of the Temple of Bel, Palmyra, in four powerful frames.

    The Temple was originally gloriously decorated..

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    That’s Palmyra’s divine triad: Baalshamin, with the Moon god Aglibol on his right and the Sun-god Yarhibol at left, discovered at Bir Wereb, near Palmyra, 60 cm high (Louvre, Paris) (photo: Emmanuel PIERRE, CC BY-SA 3.0)

    The Temple was, in fact, until recently, an impressive ruin..

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    That’s the Temple of Bel, Palmyra, Syria, in a photo by Bernard Gagnon, GNU license.

    But then ISIS used explosives for a sacred demolition..

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    Credit for this and the final image goes to Reuters

    …and now there’s not much remaining of the glory..

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    End of film, end of story — setup for the point I want to make.

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    Stuff gets made or born, stuff lives or exists.. stuff dies, fades, crumbles, evaporates.. sometimes stuff is reboorn, salvaged, gets a second life..

    Consider the great temple of Angkor Wat, buit by Khmer artists, partly destroyed by centuries of weather and overgrowth, pock-marked by the bullets of insurgents & army.. now given a second life as a tourist destination.. Consider Tibetan mandalas, chalked out in detail, painstakingly painted in sand, then swept away, proof of impermancence..

    Well?

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    The establishment of monotheism in Egypt was accompanied by royal command with the destruction of what we might now call religious and cultural works —

    In rebellion against the old religion and the powerful priests of Amun, Akhenaten ordered the eradication of all of Egypt’s traditional gods. He sent royal officials to chisel out and destroy every reference to Amun and the names of other deities on tombs, temple walls, and cartouches to instill in the people that the Aten was the one true god.

    — in a manner that calls to mind some of ISIS excesses, their destruction of the Temple of Bel, for a recent and striking instance.

    **

    Indeed, places of worship have not infrequently been torn down:

    Lord what work was here! What clattering of glasses! What beating down of walls! What tearing up of monuments! What pulling down of seats! What wresting out of irons and brass from the windows! What defacing of arms! What demolishing of curious stonework! What tooting and piping upon organ pipes! And what a hideous triumph in the market-place before all the country, when all the mangled organ pipes, vestments, both copes and surplices, together with the leaden cross which had newly been sawn down from the Green-yard pulpit and the service-books and singing books that could be carried to the fire in the public market-place were heaped together.

    That’s from England — which suffered under Cranmer (Reformation) and Cromwell (Civil War), both of them politically influential Puritans.. who between them made ruins of many British abbeys — think Glastonbury, Fountains, Walsingham..

    Well, all that’s background, simply to establish that time’s river allows for the buildup by a wide variety of means and sweeping away of all manner of things animate and ootherwise, in a continual flux, a continual emergence, a continual impermanence..

    **

    But my point, remember?


    Photo credit: via Trib Live

    My point is that the thief of Pittsburg’s unique and valuable book antiquities deprives us of treasures of the mind in much the same way that ISIS does with its explosives in Palmyra. In the latter case: impassioned religion; in the former: simple greed.

    Appraisers discovered missing items and books that had been “cannibalized,” with entire portions removed, according to the affidavit.

    and the alleged thief:

    is charged with theft, receiving stolen property, dealing in proceeds of illegal activity, conspiracy, retail theft, theft by deception, forgery and deceptive business practices.

    Items of high value and greed, idolatry and iconoclasm — the cutting up of books from the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh including a copy of Newton’s Principia is nend ot in the too different from what ISIS’ Kata’ib Taswiyya batallion did to Palmyra.

    Not too different, either, from the activities of Tibetan monks.. or, I suppose, wind, rain, and a thousand years..

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    Percy Bysshe Shelley:

    I met a traveller from an antique land,
    Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
    Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
    Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
    And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
    Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
    Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
    The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
    And on the pedestal, these words appear:
    My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
    Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
    Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
    Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
    The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

    “The Gold Standard of Dictatorships”

    Tuesday, July 10th, 2018

    [mark safranski / “zen“]

    The Hoover Institution interviews historian Stephen Kotkin about Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. Kotkin, a professor of Russian Studies at Princeton University,  is 2/3 of the way through writing his three volume biography of the life and times of Stalin. The first two volumes are each groundbreaking and monumental and if the third is their equal then Kotkin will have written the definitive work in the field.
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    Part I.
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    Part II.
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    Stalin’s only true peers are Hitler and Mao. Kotkin’s second volume – subtitled Waiting For Hitler – does not seek to reprise Alan Bullock’s work or those of Richard Overy or Robert Gellately – Hitler is important not as a direct comparison to the Soviet dictator but as a geopolitical and military threat posed by Nazi Germany with which Stalin was forced to account even as he pursued his internal purges or faced military provocations by Imperial Japan. Stalin feared Hitler and admired him in a backhanded way without really understanding the Fuhrer. In Hitler’s shoes, Stalin never would have gambled so recklessly and most of his brutal policies were bent toward increasing Soviet security as he saw it, even devastatingly counterproductive ones like the purges or the Winter War.

    Hat tip to Scott Shipman

    Stalin: Paradoxes of Power, 1878-1928    Stalin: Waiting for Hitler, 1929-1941

    GeoPol, the White House & Game Theory in the New Yorker

    Wednesday, July 4th, 2018

    [ by Charles Cameron — popularizing game theory as a means of understanding significant currents in world affairs ]
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    You may pick up a few details about the origins of game theory and Prisoners Dilemma, but apart from that, the basic outlines offered by two Bew Yorker articles won’t contain too many surprises. What’s interesting is the role the New Yorker plays as a disseminator of knowledge: game theory, if I may put it this way, is joining the wider conversation.

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    In May this year, the New Yorker carried John Cassidy‘s piece, How Game Theory Explains the Leaks in the Trump White House.

    Here’s the game theoretical background:

    In 1950, Albert Tucker, a mathematician at Princeton, gave a talk to a group of Stanford psychologists about the rapidly developing science known as game theory. To illustrate one of his arguments, he invented a story about two criminals who had been arrested for a crime they had committed jointly.

    In the story, the police interrogate the two prisoners separately. The prisoners have no means of communicating with each other, but they both understand that, if they each deny the crime, they will be charged with a much less serious offense, which carries a short prison sentence (one year, say). If they both confess, they will get a heavier punishment (five years). If one confesses to the crime and the other insists that he is innocent, the one who confesses will be let off, and his accomplice will get an even heavier punishment (ten years). Tucker posed the question: Should the men confess or deny?

    When first confronted with this story, many people think that both criminals should insist on their innocence and escape with a minor conviction. The problem is that mutual denial isn’t consistent with individual self-interest. Take the first prisoner. If he believes that his accomplice is going to deny the crime, he can confess and get off scot-free. If he believes that his accomplice is going to confess, he should certainly confess, too, or he will end up receiving the heaviest punishment of all. In the language of game theory, confessing is a “dominant strategy.” Regardless of which strategy the other players adopt, it is the most rational option to choose. But it ends up producing a bad outcome for both players: five years in prison. If they had both stuck to mutual denial, they would have got just one year.

    Then, the political application:

    What does all this have to do with the Trump White House? Quite a lot, it turns out.

    The issue is White House leaks, and game theory can explain the why of them:

    Ever since Trump became President, the White House has leaked like a sieve. “The leaks come in all shapes and sizes: small leaks, real-time leaks, weaponized leaks, historical leaks,” Jonathan Swan, Axios’s White House correspondent, wrote this week. “Sensitive Oval Office conversations have leaked, and so have talks in cabinet meetings and the Situation Room. You name it, they leak it.” Mike Allen, Swan’s colleague at Axios, says, “we learn more about what’s going on inside the Trump White House in a week than we did in a year of the George W. Bush presidency.”

    That may well be true, and game theory provides one explanation. By deliberately creating a factionalized, dog-eat-dog culture inside the White House, one that mimics how he ran his business and the premise of his reality-television show, Trump has turned the people who work for him into White House versions of the prisoners in Tucker’s story. With this in mind, it is to be expected that so many White House staffers would take actions that are damaging to the Administration, such as leaking explosive information.

    One description of the internal conflicts in the WHite House:

    “You have to realize that working here is kind of like being in a never-ending ‘Mexican Standoff,’ ” a White House official explained to Swan. “Everyone has guns (leaks) pointed at each other and it’s only a matter of time before someone shoots. There’s rarely a peaceful conclusion so you might as well shoot first.”

    The questionably named Mexican standoff, in which several bandits with guns confront each other at close quarters, is just another version of the prisoners’ dilemma. Imagine yourself in the unfortunate position of being a White House official. If you believe your rivals are about to leak some damaging information, getting it out first is a rational form of self-defense. But, even if you don’t think a rival leak is coming, there is an incentive to spread damaging information about your opponents. Just like confessing, leaking is a dominant strategy.

    So, Mexican Standoff, Prisoners Dilemma. The impossible solution?

    In terms of game theory, you need to alter the rewards and punishments that individual staffers perceive to be attached to their actions, so that coöperation, rather than backstabbing, emerges as an equilibrium strategy.

    And Cassidy’s conclusiom:

    The prisoners’ dilemma illustrates how the process works. But, in this case, it could be renamed the Trump dilemma. He created it.

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    Okay, the second New Yorker piece, by Adam Davidson, Is Michael Cohen Turning on Donald Trump? — dated July 2nd, which triggered this post:

    Trump’s former attorney Michael Cohen appears to be playing out the Prisoner’s Dilemma with the President in the most public and consequential way possible.

    The most famous game-theory formula was developed in 1950, by two mathematicians, Melvin Dresher and Merrill Flood. But it was only later that another mathematician gave it the catchy name that made it famous: the Prisoner’s Dilemma. The idea is simple: two accused criminals have been arrested and are being interrogated separately. If they both stay silent, they’ll both get a year in jail. But, if one rats out the other, he could get away scot-free while his accomplice would spend three years in jail. The optimal outcome, in terms of total time served, is for both to remain silent. But, as Drescher and Flood posited, there is enormous likelihood that each will rat out the other. There are endless variations of the formula, tweaking the costs and benefits of silence and confession, but the core insight remains: if two people whose interests are mutually dependent on the actions of the other don’t fully trust each other, and don’t have the opportunity to secretly coördinate, they will end up behaving in ways that hurt both of them.

    President Donald Trump and his former attorney Michael Cohen are currently playing out the Prisoner’s Dilemma in the most public and consequential way possible

    That’s enough to get you started.

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    And my motive for writing this post? As I said in On two, one, seven plus or minus, and ten – towards infinity:

    When I worked as senior analyst in a tiny think-shop, my boss would often ask me for an early indicator of some trend. My brain couldn’t handle that — I always needed two data points to see a pattern, and so I coined the mantra for myself, two is the first number.

    These twin New Yorker articles mark a tidal level in the dissemination of knowledge: political scientists andd strategists already know this stuff, but the New Yorker now feels that bright orchestral musicians, humanities teachers, and media mavens, charity workers and foreign affairs correspondents — a few quick guesses at their readership, which must be large and various — are ready and thirsty to add it to their cconceptual vocabulary. That’s a quietly interesting marker in itself.

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    Oh ah, the New Yorker on July 2 also had a piece titled Will North Korea Play Nuclear Hide-and-Seek with Trump?. I suppose I’d best be on the loookout for other hide-and-seek references. Irony, n’dst ce pas?.

    The Trojan War, revisited

    Saturday, June 30th, 2018

    [ by Charles Cameron — a feminist reading — The Trojan wars resemble ISIS among the Yazidi ]
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    Rebecca Solnit is an acute, insightful writer, who first noted the genre of unlistening overtalk that came to be known as mansplaining — her example being men who praise and explain the brilliance of a book for fifteen or twenty minutes, based on having read a review, without pausing to find out they are addressing the author in question.

    During my research for incels (for an Incels & Rajneeshis post that I still hope to complete one of these days), I ran across her Guardian post, A broken idea of sex is flourishing. Blame capitalism.

    Her key expositional para, IMO, is this one:

    Feminism and capitalism are at odds, if under the one women are people and under the other they are property. Despite half a century of feminist reform and revolution, sex is still often understood through the models capitalism provides. Sex is a transaction; men’s status is enhanced by racking up transactions, as though they were poker chips.

    s

    That struck me, besides its meaning, for its poker chip metaphor. But it was the para immediately precesing it that I wanted to bring here to ZP, since it described the Trojan War in a way I had not seen before:

    The Trojan war begins when Trojan Paris kidnaps Helen and keeps her as a sex slave. During the war to get Helen back, Achilles captures Queen Briseis and keeps her as a sex slave after slaying her husband and brothers (and slaying someone’s whole family is generally pretty anti-aphrodisiac). His comrade in arms Agamemnon has some sex slaves of his own, including the prophetess Cassandra, cursed by Apollo for refusing to have sex with him. Read from the point of view of the women, the Trojan wars resemble ISIS among the Yazidi.

    That really brings things classical and venerable home to us, occupied as we are with the contemporary and terrible:

    The Trojan wars resemble ISIS among the Yazidi.

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    This is one of those posts where I expose my own ignorance, and pray for a lively comments section.

    What say you? Is this a misreading? Truth, already widely known? Or an original and useful, perhaps provocative, insight?


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