Civilization on Repeat

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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?

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Machu Picchu

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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.

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The City of Dreams

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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:

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When Progressive Wasn’t a Dirty Word

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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.

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The New Broken Arrows

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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:

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The Eureka Moment

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Whenever I’m looking for a new book to read, I find that Bill Gates’ blog isn’t a bad place to start. It was there I found his review of “The Most Powerful Idea in the World: A Story of Steam, Industry, and Invention.”

The book is a thorough exploration of the invention of the steam engine beyond the technical details. More so, author William Rosen focuses on the environment of science and philosophy in 17th- and 18th-century England that made the steam engine all but inevitable. The greatest innovation of the Scientific and Industrial Revolutions, Rosen argues, is not the steam engine, but the process of invention itself.

Gates provides a more intriguing summary book’s scope than I could, so I encourage you to read his write-up if you want to learn more (or just read the book!). However, my interest in cognition and the human brain led me to greatly appreciate one particular chapter of Rosen’s work – an exploration of the “eureka moment.”

As the (possibly apocryphal) story goes, James Watt was walking through a green space, thinking about how to build a better steam engine, when suddenly, “the whole thing was arranged in my mind” – meaning the idea hit him to create a separate condenser on his steam engine that exponentially increased the power produced and cut the fuel cost by more than half. Noticing this seemed to happen more often in the Industrial Revolution than any time in history, Rosen examines why we tend to have these eureka moments, or how he puts it, “solving problems without conscious effort, after effort has failed.”

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Confiscating Yellowstone

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If you’re looking for a summer travel destination, I know it’s cliche, but see Yellowstone at least once in your life.

My wife and I traveled through on our road trip up to Glacier National Park in Montana. We were only in Yellowstone for a day, but it was possibly the most spectacular day of the trip. We entered the park after driving the Bear Tooth Highway, and coming down the mountains into the park we were almost immediately greeted by hundreds of bison and calves grazing in freshly green fields. We looped around the entire park in about 10 hours, seeing Tower Falls, the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone, Yellowstone Lake, Old Faithful, the Grand Prismatic Spring, and Mammoth Springs, not to mention all kinds of birds, elk, coyotes, Canadians, and the backside of at least one black bear.

On the way out of the park, we stopped at a gift shop, and being a sucker for nonfiction, I picked up “Empire of Shadows: The Epic Story of Yellowstone.” I wanted to learn more about the history of America’s first national park, and at 600-plus pages, “Empire of Shadows” taught me more than I could ever hope to remember.

What stuck with me most vividly was the history our high school teachers tend to gloss over – the unabashed and egregious taking of Native American land, liberty and lives. Not that this was a surprise to me – obviously the entirety of the United States was taken at one point or another in this fashion. The unsettling fact, as author George Black recounts, is that Yellowstone would not be a national park today without decades of undue violent conflict between Native Americans and white settlers.

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American Nations


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This Thanksgiving, we celebrate that one time when the Pilgrims got together with the Native Americans to have turkey, fill cornucopias, exchange handshakes and celebrate the American values of gratitude, cooperation and generosity upon which this country was founded.

Uh, yeah. Sure.

We often look at other countries and break them down by their demographic, societal and cultural elements – India, China, the UK, Iraq, etc. But we rarely do so for the US, even though it spans across an entire continent and has over 320 million people. I think that’s because of the “melting pot” mythology. It’s true this is a nation of immigrants and most of the European settlers from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries were able to fully assimilate. But they all became “American” in different ways and different places. The cultures, traditions and belief systems they brought with them never fully went away.

Enter American Nations, an argument by author and historian Colin Woodard. There have been other re-examinations of American history, and they differ on how to organize the cultures that came here from Europe and now make up the United States. But they all agree that it’s not one culture, one purpose, one big happy family. And they don’t teach you that in elementary school.

Woodard drives home the idea that the United States is just that – united states with a loose agreement to band together. American history is meaningless without understanding English history of the 1600s and 1700s that brought it about. The United State is one geopolitical entity, but it’s comprised of many nations, as Woodard argues, and they don’t always agree. Quite often, in fact, they inhabit very different worlds. Here’s how America really came to be, through the very shaky pact of 11 nations founded on competing values and identities:

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