Civilization on Repeat


Picture yourself as a tourist visiting the Collosi of Memnon (above) near the city of Luxor in Egypt. The two statues of Pharaoh Amenhotep III tower above you, but lacking their original glory. Wind and sand have weathered the monuments for centuries, and other visitors have carved graffiti into the pedestals and chipped away pieces as souvenirs. Channeling Shelley, you ponder how the creators of these behemoths – an ancient, glorious civilization – could have fallen away so dramatically. But they are long gone and you now live in the greatest global world ever to have existed. Having seen enough, you part ways with the statues and being your trek back home to Classical Rome to catch the big gladiator fight at the Colosseum.

Yes, you could have been looking at the ruins of an ancient civilization as a citizen of the Roman Empire. It’s sort of mind-boggling sometime to think about human civilization’s age and the various iterations we’ve already been through. I know I tend to think that the world we live in today is some linear culmination of thinkers, tinkerers, explorers, poets and leaders who have slowly built us to this time. But it’s obviously not that clean and straight-forward. As The Guardian argued recently, “there’s no such thing as Western Civilization.” That is, our conception of “the west” as shorthand for everything good, just and advanced about the world just doesn’t hold water. While Europe was wandering around in the Dark Ages, librarians in the Middle East served as the curators of Greek though and Andalusian thinkers developed advanced mathematics. We as “the west” lay claim to many ideas and advances that aren’t really ours.

We’re also not especially sophisticated or original when it comes to trade, international relations and globalization, either. David Cline makes this point in his book “1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed.” This book describes the known Bronze-Age world of 3,000 years ago, and it bears many similarities to the world we know today. In the Eastern Mediterranean, the Egyptians, Hittites, Assyrians, Minoans, Mycenaeans and others built and occupied great empires that we now know were intricately intertwined. Heads of state kept in frequent contact, merchants traded freely among well-established routes, and all corners of the world benefited from sharing ideas, goods and labor. Then, right around the 12th century B.C., all of these civilizations declined at once. What happened?

Continue reading

Guantanamo Diary


President Obama, if you are still planning to close the prison camp at Guantanamo, now would be a really good time.

The notorious site, opened by the Bush administration post 9/11 to hold “enemy combatants,” continues to represent a stain on America’s human rights record. Since it opened in January 2002, 779 individuals have been held there, some subject to the worst of the American torture program, including waterboarding, sleep deprivation, stress positions, mock executions and, more recently under the Obama administration, force feeding. Currently, 60 individuals are still imprisoned, 20 of whom were cleared for release and 31 of whom remain uncharged with any crimes and unable to access any legal or justice system. The prisoners have ranged in age from 89 to 13. Yes, 13 years old. In fact, the U.S. has detained 21 child “enemy combatants” since opening. Nine detainees died in custody, and it’s not clear in each case from what causes. Here are more facts from the ACLU (which you should support!)

In the name of security, the U.S. has imprisoned individuals in Guantanamo, some for 14 years or more, without being able to provide evidence of their alleged crimes . Furthermore, little actionable intelligence has been gathered from these individuals that we know of, whether through conventional interrogation or torture (Chicago Tribune):

We now know that, in spring 2002, after months of intensive and “enhanced” interrogations had failed to produce any useful intelligence, the CIA sent its top Arabic specialist to the island prison. He interviewed dozens of the detainees and discovered why we weren’t getting actionable intelligence: We had the wrong guys. He reported that most simply “didn’t belong there.” His report was buried.

By summer 2004, however, it had become generally acknowledged that none of the detainees then at Guantanamo was a significant player. Most had been picked up soon after 9/11 in and around Afghanistan and sold into captivity by local tribes people for bounties. They were not the leaders who were known to have escaped, but at most low-level foot soldiers, as well as a lot of innocent people swept up by mistake.

It’s at best unclear how Guantanamo has kept us safe. In fact, to the contrary, we have pretty solid evidence that Guantanamo has helped produce more terrorists, not fewer.

President Obama promised to close Guantanamo’s prison camp on his second day in office. He has certainly tried, albeit with little cooperation from Congress. However, given the circumstances eight years later, it’s time for him to make good on the promise.

President-elect Trump has stated that he not only wants to keep Guantanamo open, he wants to fill it with “bad dudes.” He has also expressed comfort with detaining and trying suspected terrorist American citizens at the camp, something prohibited by the Constitution. Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas, one of Trump’s finalist for Secretary of Defense, has said every detainee still in Guantanamo should “rot in hell.” It’s possible the 20 individuals cleared for release could remain for another four years just because Trump feels like it. Guantanamo stands as a sordid remnant of a dark chapter in American history that would best be ended before Trump’s administration continues it indefinitely.

Who could better make this case than a Guantanamo detainee?

Continue reading

The Myth of Race


Less than a week after the election of Donald Trump as the 45th president of the United States, hate crimes and hate speech are spiking across the country, much as they did after the Brexit vote earlier this year. Just this week it was announced by the FBI that hate crimes against Muslims are up 67 percent, to the highest levels since the post-9/11 months. And this is data from before Trump’s election. Regardless of the reasons for Trump’s victory – “economic anxiety,” Democratic party incompetence, sexism, bigotry – his win has emboldened those with racist, misogynistic, xenophobic, anti-Semitic views who have interpreted it as a national endorsement of their worldview.

Back around the start of the primaries, when we were all laughing at the idea of a Republican Trump nominee (let alone president), I read through a harrowing book: “The Myth of Race: The Troubling Persistence of an Unscientific Idea” by Robert Wald Sussman. The book is predicated on a fact the author believes needs no further litigation – there is no such thing as race. There are no biological, intellectual, or scientific differences between humans of various skin tones or facial features. This is accepted science worldwide since at least 1950 and the end of the appalling hegemony of the eugenics movement, which sucked in even American presidents (in 1912, three presidential candidates – Roosevelt, Taft and Wilson – all supported the eugenics movement, so, yeah, Trump’s words have presidential precedence).

I already agreed with this premise prior to buying the book. I thought surely anyone exposed to this idea would agree. Yet, even many who don’t consider themselves racist today are slow to accept this truth. Here’s a powerful article from Sussman about how deeply ingrained the idea of race is from our earliest formative days. The myth of race goes unchallenged for most of us during our upbringing, and that its rejection is the anomaly seems very backwards in 2016. However, that’s clearly still our reality.

“The Myth of Race” tells a history of the concept of racism, and of people and organizations that continue to reject and undermine this idea, from the Spanish Inquisition through colonialism and slavery to present day. Even now, the ideas of “scientific racism” persist. Even now, professors at actual universities in the United States are publishing articles within a framework inherited from eugenics, often disguised as research from the “evolutionary perspective.”

“But surely these people represent a fringe of society and a dying ideology?” I thought to myself then. “Surely the vast majority of people would soundly reject bigotry when confronted with it?” Today, I’m reassessing that conclusion. I don’t believe all Trump voters are racists or committing hate crimes. But certainly a lot more people in the United States are willing to look beyond these deplorable acts and beliefs than I once assumed. Sussman’s book lays out a historical case why this has been true in the past and still is today.

In truth, many of the racist and hateful organizations of the past never went away. They went undercover.

Continue reading

One Week in Galapagos

In June of 1831, Charles Darwin arrived in a small archipelago off the coast of Ecuador looking forward to taking some geologic samples and confirming the emerging theories on plate tectonics. When he left, he had collected hundreds of flora and fauna samples; observed strange and wondrous animals such as the giant tortoise, the marine iguana and the blue-footed booby; and had noticed the peculiar, subtle differences between species of animal from island to island. What would follow would literally change scientific knowledge and cement Darwin as one of the greatest minds the world has ever known.

In June of 2016, Taylor and I arrived in that same archipelago, and said, “Holy crap! We’re in the mother-flippin’ Galapagos Islands!”

Ok, so maybe we weren’t as ambitious as Darwin, but we still found ourselves in one of the world’s most unique and storied locations. Galapagos still inspires as a pristine paradise with dramatic implications for science, ecology and the way we think. And it’s beautiful to boot. However, few visit Galapagos because it had a reputation of being remote and inaccessible.

I’m here to tell you it’s accessible, and it’s not as difficult to see as you might think.

There are two ways to see the islands and its treasures. Most people see Galapagos via cruise. You can make brief stops at multiple islands and truly see a large portion of the archipelago. Heck, that’s how Darwin saw the islands, and it was inspiring enough to prompt his theory of evolution and The Origin of Species. Tickets for these trips tend to be fairly expensive, though, especially when you still have to factor in airfare. We opted for a less expensive, but still awe-inspiring, route. After all, whether by boat or by land, you’re still in Galapagos. Seemingly every square inch of the islands have something incredible worth seeing.


We planned to spend a week in Galapagos, visiting two of the major islands, Santa Cruz and Isabela. The only way to get to Galapagos is by plane, and you have to fly from mainland Ecuador. Our plane from Quito flew into Baltra, an old U.S. air base from World War II. We spent three days staying in Puerto Ayora, the largest settlement in Galapagos, before taking a ferry to Isabela’s tiny Puerto Villamil for four more days. From both towns you can take day trips to a great variety of excursions and sites. I’ve outlined the highlights of our trip below.

Continue reading

Machu Picchu


After a day in Cusco, a day hiking the Inca Trail, and a night in Aguas Calientes at the bottom of the Sacred Valley, my wife and I reached the culmination of our Peruvian expedition with a visit to Machu Picchu.

We took one of the first buses up to Machu Picchu, which helped us avoid the massive crowds that come later in the day as the train arrives from Ollantaytambo. As previously mentioned in my post about our Inca Trail hike, we contracted with the Llamapath touring company, so our guide Hever continued on with us for a second day, giving us a two-hour tour of the archaeological site. Frankly, this turned out to be totally not enough time – Machu Picchu is a huge site, and I feel like we barely saw half of it on the tour. Fortunately, we could stay as long as we wanted, and Taylor and I explored the site on our own for about three hours after the tour ended.

Here’s a short (and very amateur) video of our stay in Cusco, or hike on the Inca Trail and our visit to Machu Picchu. All of our footage was shot on our phones and a Canon point-and-shoot – no need for bulky cameras:

The site itself is overwhelming, both in the size and in the history and design. So much of it was built around astronomy. The main temple has two windows – one that aligns with the summer solstice and one for the winter solstice. There’s also a reflecting pool where certain constellations are reflected at specific times of the year. I can’t imagine how many years the city must have taken to build, especially since absolutely everything was made from massive white granite stones.

At the top stands a huge pyramid, on all three sides are gigantic agricultural terraces, and in between all different kinds of two-story houses, store rooms, aqueducts (that are still running, by the way), chambers for nobility and priests, sacred stones and much more. It’s amazing that the side remained hidden until 1911 given its size, and it’s also incredible that a city home to roughly 700 Inca people nearly 500 years ago fell abandoned so quickly. Only one mummy was ever found at the site, and the rest of the human remains found were the very old or very young. No one’s really sure what happened, or even what Machu Picchu is. Three theories exist currently: it was a summer home of Inca emperor Pachacuti, it was an Incan university, or it was some kind of religious site like a monastery or abbey.

However, what really enhanced the experience for me was our guide Hever’s accounts of history that directly challenged many things I had read about Machu Picchu and the Inca.

Continue reading

The City of Dreams


When I was in first grade, I had to create a poster about another country. I chose Mexico, and my poster featured a big photo of an Aztec pyramid near Mexico City. A few years later, in middle school, I convinced my friends to build a model of an Aztec city, complete with a pyramid, for a group project on native American cultures. The mystique of the Aztecs has fascinated me from a young age. Unfortunately my private Catholic, American schooling treated Mexico’s greatest indigenous empire as little more than a speedbump on the road to manifest destiny.

Naturally, I was drawn to Buddy Levy’s “Conquistador: Hernán Cortés, King Montezuma, and the Last Stand of the Aztecs.” Entirely narrative and told chronologically, “Conquistador” follows Cortés through the Valley of Mexico from 1519 through 1521. Spoiler alert – he conquers the Aztecs.

But I won’t spoil anything more, because the astonishing luck Cortés find and the complete misfortune the befalls the Mexica people of the empire – not to mention some of baffling decisions of Montezuma and the valiant resistance of his successors – is a story so unbelievable it couldn’t be anything but true life events, and Levy’s retelling of the story will leap off the pages like an R-rated epic film.

At no point was this more true for me when the Spanish first laid eyes upon Tenochtitlan. The center of the Aztec empire, Tenochtitlan in 1519 was arguably the greatest city in the world. Built in the middle of a massive brackish lake, its planning, architecture, civil engineering and social order were so sophisticated the Spanish nicknamed it “The City of Dreams.” It’s one of those places I wish were still around, because first-hand accounts from Cortés’ expedition read like something out of mythology. In the words of the expedition’s scribe, Bernal Diaz:

Gazing on such wonderful sights, we did not know what to say, or whether what appeared before us was real, for on one side, on the land, there were great cities, and in the lake ever so many more, and the lake itself was crowded with canoes, and in the Causeway were many bridges at intervals, and in front of us stood the great City of Mexico…

Here’s a collection of fun facts I learned from “Conquistador” about Tenochtitlan:

Continue reading

Changing for the Climate


Two years ago, Taylor and I road tripped to Glacier National Park, on the northern U.S. border where cell phone reception doesn’t exist. In early June, the crowds were sparse, the wildlife was abundant, and the views were spectacular. It instantly became one of our favorite destinations.

Yet, in the week we spent hiking up, down and around the mountains, lakes and waterfalls, we saw just one of the park’s eponymous glaciers. To do that, we had stay at a lodge at the heart of the park, boat across a lake, hike a quarter mile to a higher lake, then boat to the other side. After all that, we finally could see through the early summer fog the Salamander Glacier clinging to the backbone of the continent. An incredible sight, undoubtedly, but as our boat captain pointed out, one that was more than  20% larger just twenty years ago and in another twenty may be gone completely.

When Glacier National Park was dedicated in 1910, it featured nearly 150 alpine glaciers, but 2014 estimates now put that number at just 25. Almost assuredly, my children will be visiting a glacierless national park, and much of the plant and animal life dependent on the glaciers to regulate the high climate will have no place left to go.

Since that trip I’ve not thought much about glaciers, humanity’s carbon footprint or the resulting accelerated climate change we’re causing. Every time I read an article or dig out from another massive snow storm, I feel like it’s such a huge problem I can do nothing about. Some people even think our impact is closing in on – or even past – the point of no return. Not to mention, multitudes of people stand to gain from misinforming and obfuscating the seriousness of the issue, and even those who agree on the causes can’t agree on the remedies. But last year’s historic Paris accord, which requires nearly every nation to drastically reduce its carbon emissions, got me interested again. If even the United States government can get in line with the rest of the world to combat climate change, then surely I could do my part. So how do I begin to make smart decisions for mitigating our damage?

Continue reading

When Progressive Wasn’t a Dirty Word


By pure coincidence, I have been reading Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism” throughout the last month of silly season Republican politicking – the Donald Trump Show, the debate circus, and the Iowa State Fair “please-notice-me-I’m-wearing-dad-jeans-and-holding-a-fried-porkchop-on-a-stick” routine of American politics. Sadly, I’ve noticed the only thing unhealthier that what they stick in their mouths seems to be what comes out of them. But as I watch these pitiful bought-out attention-starved fundamentalist egomaniacs prance around trying to deport the most minorities, I can’t help but contrast this laughable state of public discourse with the debates of 100 years ago thoroughly outlined in DKG’s latest. Whatever happened to candidates like Teddy Roosevelt and William Howard Taft?

These guys were the original “progressives”: pro-worker, pro-social welfare, pro-market, pro-conservation, anti-trust, anti-tariff, anti-lobbying, and anti-establishment. Oh, and they advocated all of this as standard bearers of the Republican Party.

Roosevelt and Taft typified a time when the parties were probably closer ideologically than any other time in US history. In 1912, the two of them along with Woodrow Wilson campaigned against each other for president, all on platforms well to the left of any candidate today. It would be like the 2016 field were dominated by three candidates who all shared the politics of Bernie Sanders. We’ve changed a bit in 100 years.

By all accounts, Roosevelt was one of the great presidents of the 20th century. A Republican dynamo who couldn’t sit still for five seconds, he helped break up major railroad and oil trusts, fought for worker’s rights, intervened in labor disputes on behalf of workers, initiated civil service reform, preserved vast areas of the U.S. as National Parks and National Forests, and started the Panama Canal project. He was also a bit of a psychopath – violent, belligerent, thought that the U.S. needed to go to war with somebody every few years because it would keep us healthy and alert. But his Bull Moose spirit is what helped pushed much of the reform he advocated. Few, whether business or machine politicians – dared line up against him.

Taft, on the other hand, is not remembered as a great president, but he did more than most.

Continue reading

The New Broken Arrows


You might be aware that the United States dropped a nuclear weapon on North Carolina. Unintentionally, of course. A B-52 bomber collided with a refueling tanker mid-air, and the plane had to jettison its nuclear payload. Some official reports suggested one of the hydrogen bombs may have been armed. Had it detonated, it would have incinerated most of North Carolina, then dropped radioactive fallout on Washington, D.C. all the way up to Boston. But we’ll never know if it was armed, because the weapon’s nuclear core sank so far into a swamp it was unable to be recovered. It’s still there today.

Of course, maybe you weren’t aware of this. The details of the incident were only declassified in 2013, even though it occurred more than 40 years ago.

It’s one of hundreds of previously undisclosed nuclear “Broken Arrows” that occurred under the watch of US Strategic Air Command (headquartered in good ol’ Omaha, Neb.). These incidents and many more are documented in Eric Schlosser’s “Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety.”

Schlosser’s investigating uncovered a huge list of near-misses with nuclear weapons throughout the Cold War. His narrative is built around another major incident – the explosion of a Titan II long-range missile in rural Arkansas. That blast killed one serviceman and launched a thermonuclear warhead 80 feet into the air before it landed intact in a nearby ditch.

You’d think these incidents would be more well known, but naturally Strategic Air Command was eager to bury details of the reports, in the name of national security and keeping strategic and technical details out of the hands of the Soviet Union. From the book:

Continue reading

The Universe Within


Given enough time, hydrogen starts to wonder where it came from.

It’s the kind of idea you have in the shower or staring out at a starry sky, but it’s also the spirit behind Neil Shubin’s “The Universe Within: The Deep History of the Human Body” – an easy reading pop-science journey on all of the physical, chemical, geological, biological processes and wonders that make us the humans we are today.

“The Universe Within” is a thought-provoking look into the origins of elements, celestial bodies, environments, cells, organs, and societies. Shubin reminds us that our daily lives are shaped in almost every way by the history of the universe extending back 13 billion years. This story evokes a number of curious “shower thoughts” – reminiscent of Carl Sagan or Bill Nye – but it’s also not a surprising or even terribly enlightening story. It’s more of a polite reminder of the basic science we know and tend to forget about while we’re busy breathing, eating, sleeping, driving, walking, synergizing, Snap-Chatting, home-brewing, Netflixing, Apple-watching or whatever else cool people are doing these days.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s a solid pop science book. There’s some cool factoids and interesting observations of the natural world that you won’t run across every day. Shubin certainly is an expert at bringing science to the masses – he’s the provost of Chicago’s Field Museum, a University of Chicago professor and has his own popular PBS miniseries “Your Inner Fish,” based off his eponymous book. We need expert scientists like Shubin who can explain complex topics of archaeology, atmospheric science and human physiology to people like me (a lowly social “scientist,” at best).

However, I often felt like compelling topics were left unexplored, or the subject was changed before an interesting idea had been fully exhausted. The book could have used about 100 more pages to expand on its topics and bring home the “wow” factor. It could easily have done that – it tops out at less than 200, and this includes his anecdotes from a fossil expedition in Greenland (nice and all, but the stories don’t really add anything).

“The Universe Within” is a quick read, very straight-forward, devoid of jargon or scientific complexity. Which is why it both interested and disappointed me. I was hoping for a few more in-depth explanations of human chemistry, physics, etc. But this is a broader, more superficial survey of all kinds of natural science topics. It’s a good starting point if you want to dip into the shallow end of our vast and fascinating universe. I, however, was hoping to do a cannonball off the high-dive.

If you want more depth on astronomy, physics, chemistry, etc., try Bill Bryson’s “A Short History of Nearly Everything.” As for earth science, including geology, biology and evolution, I’d recommend “Life: A Natural History of the First Four Billion Years of Life on Earth” by Richard Fortey. However, if you subscribe to “I fucking love science” on Tumblr and want to read a brief, entertaining reminder of all the things you learned in your university science core, read “The Universe Within.” Or just watch an episode of “The Cosmos” – ’bout the same experience, really.

The Universe Within: The Deep History of the Human Body