Sunday, February 22, 2009

ROM Review - Part 2: Trypillian Culture

So last week I ranted about how I wasn't too impressed with the diamond exhibit. Well, after stopping off at the bat cave and realizing I'm just too old to find it as cool as I once did (and gaining a desire to hide in its darkness and jump out and scare kids) I decided to head up to the top floor to check out the ROM's secondary temporary exhibit, "Ancient Ukraine: Mysteries of the Trypillian Culture". I wasn't really expecting much, but the exhibit turned out to be the highlight of my visit.

The term "Trypillian culture" refers to the culture (inferred from tangible archeological finds) of a neolithic populous living in the Ukraine (what today lies in Ukraine/Moldova/Romania). The term itself comes from "Trypillia", a Ukrainian village near Kiev, where the first indications of this neolithic culture were found. This culture is thought to have flourished between 5500 and 2750 BC, and has several quirks that distinguish it from other neolithic cultures.

While Trypillians had much in common with other neolithic cultures (stone tools, decorated pottery, ceramic totems, wooden and straw houses, a focus on farming), certian aspects of their societies differed from others. Most notably is their tendency (perhaps defining characeristic) to live in large groups of settlements and build houses much larger than is normal for their groups of their population. The exhibit seemed to describe these large enclosed areas as not cities, but rather "giant settlements", wherein Trypillians would dwell for some time, before burning them to the ground and abandoning them, never to return again. This is one of the chief "mysteries" of the Trypillians, which apparently confounds modern archeologists.

The exhibit itself, unlike "The Nature of Diamonds", was well organized. It mostly consisted of pottery, ceramic objects, models of a Trypillian mega-settlement and house, and a few other stone-age objects (such as "venus" figures) thrown in, to give the viewer some chronological context. It also had a short movie, brief, but relatively informative and well-done. The exhibit had no central object, unlike the diamond exhibit, and thus inspecting the objects and reading about them was more accessible, despite the smaller floorspace alloted to the exhibit. I never felt rushed and had plenty of time to find out as much as I wanted about these ancient people and their agricultural practices, farm live, and their magnificent pottery.

Some highlights of the exhibit were the pots crafted by the Trypillians, created without a potter's wheel, and decorated with dark spirals. I was also a huge fan of their ceramic animals, such as the tiny bovies, especially a cow-bowl, a little bowl with legs, a head, and a tail. Archeologists seem unsure of what these were for (as well as the dozens of bovine figures, which the exhibit suggests were perhaps toys), but they're even less certain of the "binoculars" - two hollow cylinders tied together (pictured above) - were intended for.

One downside of the exhibit were the large pictures drawn to exhibit Trypillian life. These were pretty cheezy and seemed a little more like "bible story" pictures from some kid's book than a serious attempt at depicting an ancient people. My favourte remains an image of a Trypillian potter, a tall, slender woman, her primitive clothing barely draped over her breasts, holding her baked "binoculars" high, the moon and the stars shining in the background. I mean, come on. Seriously.

Anyway, the exhibit was pretty good, combing and I'd recommend it to anyone looking to learn a thing or two about a people long since vanished. It's not the bat cave, but the kids might even get a kick out of checking out these old pots. It's not the bat cave, or even the T-Rex, but hey, it's interesting, and, in the long run, a lot more educational.

Friday, February 20, 2009

The credit crises for dummies

I felt like I understood how the whole mess came about for the first time after watching this.

The Crisis of Credit Visualized from Jonathan Jarvis on Vimeo.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

ROM Review - Part 1: The Nature of Diamonds

If you live in Toronto you know all about the ROM - the Royal Ontario Museum - that big 'ol building that looks more like the Fortress of Solitude than Toronto's most eminent museum. If you've ever been to the ROM, especially as a kid, you probably remember one thing: dinosaurs. What child hasn't stood awestruck at the feet of the Great Tyrannosaurus Rex, even if it's all a reconstruction made from casting? Maybe you remember the bat cave with its suspended, stuffed creatures, hung from the ceiling and posed mid-flight? Going back as a adult, it's actually not as cool as when you were a kid, but I digress...

The ROM has a couple of exhibits on now - "The Nature of Diamonds" and "Ancient Ukraine: Mysteries of the Trypillian Culture". I went with my lady-friend because, hey, what's more romantic than going to a museum on Valentine's Day. It turned out that we weren't the only ones who had a little bling in mind - it seemed like everyone decided that Valentine's Day - conveniently a Saturday this year - is a great time to check out the goods they can only afford to look at and dream of. Yes, everybody loves diamonds, but not everybody (well, at least the two of us) loved the exhibit.

"The Nature of Diamonds" stats off innocently enough, with some panels on what diamonds are, how they form, and how to find them. This would be all well and good if there wasn't a massive line up which snaked throughout the majority of the exhibit. Only later did I realize that people weren't actually taking the time to learn about Kimberlite, the Mir Pipe, or how microdiamonds can be created from meteor impacts, but rather that they were stuck in line - forced to pay attention to the underlying science, one might argue - as they stood in the slow-moving queue leading to an apparent "vault" contianing some of the flashiest bling you've ever set eyes on, including the massive Incomparable Diamond, a whopping 4o7 carats (890 pre-cut) - that's pretty chunky, about a thounsand times the size of your average diamond ring diamond.

The Incomparable was flanked with some other high-class bling from some of the finest jewelers, but all these were exhibited inside a tiny vault-like area, which made seeing them sort of annoying. The whole exhibit seemed to funnel people into this little polygon in the middle of the room whose faux security was clearly for show - the walls of the "vault" didn't even go to the ceiling!

Anyway, the rest of the exhibit focused on the history of diamonds, essentially a survey of their historical cultural importance. Like most histories, this tended to be one of those Rome -> Islam/India -> The West narratives I'm getting immensely sick of. Western Europe apparently forgot about diamonds (for the most part) between the ancient world and early modern times, so it becomes necessary to discuss India (where there were tons of diamonds) for a bit. However, as soon The West rediscovers them, everyone else is ignored. This is pretty much the same narrative you frequently get for philosophy, medicine, and knowledge in general, and I'm sick to death of the Rest of the World being ignored or, at best, treated as a place holder for Western knowledge. Also, no mention of the cultural implications of diamonds in Africa, which I'm sure is fascinating in its own right.

Another big missing chunk of history was the economic and political role diamonds played (and still do). Diamonds help understand South African colonialism and the massive diamond industry there (big enough to result in the Big Hole at Kimberly, South Africa), for example, and their present currency for African conflicts (Blood Diamonds). Also, the history of De Beers and the modern diamond industry is fascinating, though I'm not sure De Beers, the company who holds (or at least used to - or so it claims) a worldwide monopoly on diamonds, would, as a sponsor of the show, be too keen on airing it's fair share of dirty laundry.

So much for museum layout and history. The exhibit seemed to finish off with a brief depiction of how diamonds are used in industry, which might have been the most interesting part of the exhibit (with the possible exception of the display on the supposed healing powers of diamonds). It seems that the ROM is getting a new gem hall, or something like that, and their gift shop, which conveniently stands between you and the stairway, seems to be peddling quartz crystals and amethysts in anticipation.

In general, the main problem with "The Nature of Diamonds" was the fact that the exhibit cast its net too wide. If you're going to talk about the physics of the things and their uses in industry, then do so. If you're going to talk about their history, than that's fine too (as long as you get it right, of course). If you want to talk about the history of the diamond industry, fashion, or of a specific diamond, then that's also OK, but it was too much, too disorganized, and too poorly laid out for me to appreciate.

Several hours and two sore feet later I felt a little let down. Is this what the ROM's come to? Are museums really this superficial? Am I being too demanding? Maybe I'm just too old for this kind of stuff, and most likely too overly educated - academia makes cynics of us all.

That's when I decided to visit the top floor (by way of stopping by the dinos and bat cave, of course), and saw an exhibit that changed my mind.

(to be continued)

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Economic Creationism?

This Bloggingheads discussion gives a good summery of how I've been feeling about the debate around the stimulus package and economic crises in general. Not being an economist, I've understood the disagreement on questions as basic as "did the New Deal work," as an unresolved debate between followers of Keynes and followers of Milton Friedman. But you would expect, after all this time, for some consensus to have been reached. Maybe, as Clarke says, it is a difference between real economists and the economics equivalent of creationists. Can you weigh in on this Munir?

Friday, February 13, 2009

Paul Krugman is scaring me

A very surprising picture from the Unofficial Paul Krugman page.

Paul Krugman may be the gloomiest recent Nobel Prize winner. His New York Times pieces on the economic crises have never been very sunny, but his last column is about as scary as it gets. For example, in summarizing his argument that the stimulus package is inadequate (too small) he says:
And I don’t know about you, but I’ve got a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach — a feeling that America just isn’t rising to the greatest economic challenge in 70 years. The best may not lack all conviction, but they seem alarmingly willing to settle for half-measures. And the worst are, as ever, full of passionate intensity, oblivious to the grotesque failure of their doctrine in practice.
If you respect Krugman as an economist and commentator - considering his resume, you should - it's hard not to let that get you down. But I'm hoping there's another explanation for his grimness than that the next Great Depression is obvious in the economic models.

In his book The Conscience of a Liberal, Krugman distinguishes "progressive" from "liberal" by saying a progressive is someone actively working to change society to better reflect liberal values. Needless to say, he considers himself a progressive. He would want to, then, move the debate as far as possible to the left. The need for a large stimulus package is actually a great opportunity for progressives. As Rahm Emanuel said: "we should never let a crisis go to waste." Krugman would want to pick as big a number as possible and say anything less is insufficient. So, in the end, his alarmism might be more of an ideological calculation - an honorable one, in my opinion - than actual economics.

The problem is that Krugman also has an interest in maintaining his credibility as an economics commentator, and being needlessly alarmist too often puts that at risk. In fact, it is likely that he really does believe things are that bad. One can only hope he's wrong.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Telekinesis (for kids!)

The Globe and Mail did an article last week on the best new high-tech toys on the market. They 0nly listed four, and most of them, to be honest, weren't that cool: a couple of robots (an anthropomorph and one that looks like an overhead projector) and a toy car presumably based on the auto industry's response to the economic meltdown.

What was completely awesome, on the other hand, is the Jedi Force Trainer by Uncle Milton, a science-y toy company with apparent ties to Lucas Arts (their website boasts Star Wars and Indiana Jones related projects with alleged "science" tie-ins).

The Jedi Force Trainer basically consists of a ping pong ball, a tube, a high-tech tube stand, and an even higher-tech headband/funny hat. The headpiece is actually an electroencephalography (EEG) device, designed to detect a certain form of brain wave, the electromagnetic activity in your brain which compose your thoughts. The idea is simple: concentrate and you'll activate a tiny fan (I assume), which elevates the ball - yeah, it's not real telekinesis, but what do you want for under 100 bucks?

One-upping the Jedi Force Trainer is Matel's Mind Flex. Remember when we all thought Mattel made hoverboards after seeing them in Back to the Future 2? Well, now they make hover balls, which you can move through an obstacle course using the power of thought (and a dial to move the obstacle course around the ball).

Of course, questions abound. Namely, can I concentrate on anything to get the ball to move, or do I have to think of the ball? Do other thoughts, or mental states/emotions (such as anger, hate, fear... you know, dark side stuff) also work? Does it help if I'm tiny, green, and 900 years old?

The big question, though, is really whether or not this is the shape of toys to come. Are we slowly getting rid of hand-eye coordination (or at least minimizing their use), replacing it with mind-eye coordination? Is this the bold, new future of entertainment (especially gaming and transportation, as Emotive Systems is doing), or is this the "virtual reality" of the 21st century? Only time - and consumer habits and techonological advances - will tell.

Check out Mattel's Mind Flex below:

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Waiting for some good news

There doesn't seem to be much, especially not around speculation about the upcoming election in Israel. I wonder how long "Obama won the election" can stave off the encroaching pessimism.

Thursday, February 5, 2009


There are people with personal stories so compelling that they immediately command your attention. Occasionally, this intersects with some talent or charisma and they stand out in a way that is hard to describe. One obvious example is Barack Obama, who’s autobiography Dream's from my Father would be worth reading even if the boy in the story didn't go on to become president.

Another is K'naan. Born in Somalia, he grew up during the Somali civil war in one of Mogadishu’s worst neighborhoods – the “lake of blood” district. He learned to speak English by reciting the words of American hip-hop albums phonetically. During the peak of the civil war, he and his family were able to escape to New York and then to the Somali community in Toronto.

Like a less cryptic Saul Williams, K’naan’s rhymes often bridge the poetry/hip-hop divide, yet he does it in a way that you can listen to the music as just hip-hop, rather than “music with a message.” As a pop cultural figure, it’s hard to imagine someone more authentic and positive. I love to think of how pampered pseudo-gangsters react to K’naan.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

On Proportionality

Last week, in the wake of rockets being fired from Gaza into Southern Israel, Israeli PM Ehud Olmert promised harsh and "disproportionate" retaliation.

While I'm deeply unimpressed by saber rattling and fear the prospect of a return to violence, there's something about Olmert's claims that actually please me: the shedding of the notion of "proportionality".

As you may remember, one of the critical point of debate over the recent violence was whether or not Israel's actions were "proportionate". This word found itself thrust into the spotlight, as, under international law, a country has a right to proportionate military action in defending itself. The fact that this critical word doesn't actually carry a well-defined meaning led to a massive debate (or rather a PR war) over whether it is proportionate to conduct a full-scale invasion with a high number of civilian casualties in response to dozens, ultimately hundreds, of rocket attacks.

This whole debate is ridiculous for a number reasons, but I'd like to focus on one in particular: the fact that Israel's military policy is founded on the concept of deterrence, which requires disproportional, rather than proportional, response.

Israel's policy goes something like this: you mess with me and there will be hell to pay. It's a basic rejection of the principle of "an eye for an eye" (which no one, especially the West, does anymore anyway) designed to strike fear into the hearts their enemies - cross the line and you've got it coming to you, big time.

Sometimes this works well. It certainly helped Israel hold its own against previous enemies like Egypt, where governments with standing armies and large, unoccupied areas of land have a strong sense of self-preservation. No one's going to mess with you if they know you'll hit them back as hard as you can.

Or so goes the logic.

Where this strategy doesn't work well is against guerrilla fighters, like in Southern Lebanon in 2006, where rocket-launchers have lots of places to run and hide and aren't really worried about their cities being pounded into a pulp.

Also, with regimes like Hamas, and the people of Gaza who aren't doing so hot, having been blockaded for some time now, the calculation of whether or not it's worth the blood of your people to get a global response hopefully in your favour may welcome disproportionate reactions. Again, deterrence with Hamas didn't make sense - and it didn't work, though I suppose one could argue that the threat of disproportionality and the war-torn state of Gaza and the inability of Hamas to best Israel militarily may cause Hamas to think twice before resuming rocket attacks, which is what Israel would be hoping.

The question for Israel is not so much is the legality of deterrence (and subsequent heavy response), an area where Israel hasn't historically cared much, but whether or not it will work. It certainly hasn't worked so far for dealing with Hamas (and other, lesser groups), and I doubt that in this sort of situation it ever will.

Thinking long and hard on what Israel's military policy is and should be a serious question, and it is, as yet, one without a clear answer. What is clear, however, is that the concept of proportionality is, at present, no more than legal and moral term at the centre of a debate far removed from the actual practice of warfare.