December 7, 2010
December 7, 2010
This image has been posted with express written permission. This cartoon was originally published at Town Hall.
December 7, 2010
Imagine, one day, that life shows up on another planet. Moreover, it’s intelligent life. Imagine, too, that we’ve a reasonably swift means of communication. We’d need a common language with which to talk. What might that language be? One candidate would be mathematics.
Mathematics seems to be a universal language. Science presumes as much: it works as a descriptive and predictive tool, both on the small scale and at the very large. Moreover, it works for systems that are very close and quite distant — so distant that they reach back to the earliest moments after the Big Bang. And when you stop to think about it, that’s quite remarkable.
It’s not just the universal nature of mathematics that’s striking; it’s that mathematics works at all. The natural world is a complex place. It’s packed with variations and permutations, random events and patterns so complex they are far from obvious to the eye. And yet, mathematics can capture so much of that intricacy. What kind of alchemy transforms the lead of messy reality into the gold of a simple equation? It’s a question that was famously asked by the physicist Eugene Wigner, in 1960. He wrote an essay with a title that says it all: “The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences.”
Wigner notes the sense that many physicists have: mathematics seems to be discovered, not created. The reason to think this is that discoveries made about the physical world are often, first, discoveries made about mathematics. One of the best known cases concerns Einstein and his work on General Relativity. These equations implied something about the universe that Einstein, at first, refused to believe — that the universe was expanding. It was only later that cosmic expansion was observed by Edwin Hubble. Before then, though, Einstein tried to cancel what the math was implying by adding to his equations what came to be known as the “cosmological constant.” It was designed to cancel out the implication of expansion, though when expansion was shown empirically, Einstein referred to it as “the biggest blunder of my life.”
So, physics is about discovering the laws of nature, and those laws appear to be written in the language of math. Pi really is in the sky. Wigner continues: “It is … a miracle that in spite of the baffling complexity of the world, certain regularities in the events could be discovered… It is hard to believe that our reasoning power was brought, by Darwin’s process of natural selection, to the perfection which it seems to possess…”
On the morning of July 25, 1990, Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein called in the US Ambassador to Iraq, April Glaspie. It was her first meeting with Saddam and it lasted two hours. And will likely go down in history as one of the most controversial incidents in American diplomacy.
That very evening, Glaspie cabled her report about the conversation back to Washington. She summarized it under the headline: ” Saddam’s message of friendship to president bush .”
Just eight days later, war broke out when Saddam’s troops marched into Kuwait. The invasion triggered a conflict that would last for more than 15 years and wouldn’t even end with Saddam Hussein’s death.
It’s every diplomat’s nightmare. What, though, transpired exactly at Glaspie’s meeting with the Iraqi president?
Saddam was under pressure in the summer of 1990. He complained to the US ambassador that eight years of war with Iran had left his country exhausted and heavily indebted. Worse still, neighboring Kuwait was deliberately keeping oil prices low — so low, in fact, that his country had been forced to cut the pensions it paid widows and orphans.
“At this point,” Glaspie’s report stated, “the interpreter and one of the notetakers broke down and wept.”
Saddam then moved on to the issue of Iraq’s disputed border with Kuwait. The conversation became technical, and he began reciting a list of distances in kilometers. “The ambassador,” Glaspie wrote of herself, “said that she had served in Kuwait 20 years before; then, as now, we took no position on these Arab affairs.”
A few weeks later, the Iraqis broke all diplomatic protocol by releasing a shortened transcript of the conversation. Never before had America weighed the words of one of its diplomats so carefully. Never before had a single sentence been discussed as heatedly as that of ambassador Glaspie.
Critics say her answer “confused” Saddam Hussein, that she had been ambiguous and far too vague. Saddam may have thought the US would not intervene if he attacked Kuwait. As such, they assert, Glaspie had played a decisive role in triggering the outbreak of the war. Her defenders say this criticism is unwarranted. They point out that Glaspie had told Saddam what any diplomat in her position would have said.
The controversy persists to this day. However new, previously unreleased diplomatic dispatches, made public by WikiLeaks, now reveal what the US ambassadors in Baghdad cabled back to Washington between 1985 and 1990. They show the political environment in which Glaspie was operating, America’s position on Saddam Hussein at that time, and what led up to her fateful sentence.
The United States broke off diplomatic ties with Iraq after the 1967 Arab-Israeli Conflict. The US Embassy was reopened in 1984, and right from the start, one topic dominated the reports from US diplomats stationed in Baghdad: Iran.
At the time, Saddam’s troops were facing off against those of revolutionary Iran from the mountains of Kurdistan to the Shatt al-Arab River, and it was blatantly obvious where America’s sympathies lay: Washington wanted Saddam to win.
Glaspie arrived in Iraq in the winter of 1987. At the time she was 46 years old, and had extensive experience in Arab countries. Washington certainly hadn’t sent a beginner to Baghdad.
One of her first trips saw her travel to meet Christians in the north, whose situation she found satisfactory. Whatever “resettlement” may have occurred had ceased weeks earlier. She described Saddam’s governor in Mosul province as “unfailingly pleasant,” and his security chief as “helpful and compassionate.” In fact wherever she looked she was amazed how much money the Iraqi government was spending on its Christian minority. A monastery had been renovated, and “a number of spanking new villages” — marked “‘Saddam model village’” — had been built.
That may all have been true, but it presented a deliberately blinkered view of Iraq in early 1988. For while Ambassador Glaspie was visiting Mosul, Saddam’s cousin, Ali Hassan al-Majid (who ultimately came to be known as “Chemical Ali”), had Kurds in northern Iraq, just 250 kilometers (150 miles) away, bombed with poison gas. On March 16 and 17, 1988, 10 weeks after her visit, a similar fate befell the city of Halabja. Some 5,000 people there were killed on these two days alone, and hundreds more died painful deaths later from the aftereffects of the chemical weapons used against them.
It’s not as if the US embassy in Baghdad knew nothing of these attacks. In mid-February, Abd al-Rahman Qassemlu, an Iranian Kurdish leader who had sided with Saddam against Tehran, came to Baghdad. After meeting with the dictator he also dropped in on the US Embassy. He let it be known that he wanted neither money nor weapons. “Of course one always likes more, but we have plenty,” he said, according to an Embassy dispatch.
He then recounted what was taking place in the north. The report said the head of its political department “asked Qassemlu for his reaction to the Iraqi campaign of destroying Kurdish villages. Qassemlu acknowledged that “most” villages have been destroyed but he seemed unemotional on the point,” the report noted.
Qassemlu told the Americans precisely whom he blamed for the murderous attacks in the north: “Saddam. He is in charge of everything.”
Very early on, the American reports began mentioning Iraqi fears that the US would abandon Iraq for closer ties with Tehran. In a cable to Washington, Glaspie wrote: We have reassurad the Iraqis at a high level and through different channels that we do not contemplate “tilting” in either direction…”
December 7, 2010
Kapow! Comic books are no longer just kiddy lit. Far from it. The numbers speak for themselves. In March 2010, Action Comics #1—the first appearance of Superman—sold for $1.5 million on an online auction site, making it the most expensive and valuable comic book of all time. Batman’s first solo title, Detective Comics #27, left Heritage Auctions for more than a million the month before, and just weeks ago, the Caped Crusader again brought in a hefty $492,937.
Six figures for Spider-Man’s first leap? Amazing Fantasy #15 realized $227,000, and that’s just one of many in recent years. Flash Comics #1 (1940, starring Flash and Hawkman) sold for $289,000; Marvel Comics #1, the first comic produced by the company that bore the Hulk, Iron Man, X-Men, and more, achieved $367,000; and All-American Comics #16,the first appearance of the Green Lantern, reached $430,000. Yes comic books have become a hot commodity of late, not just because of their potential investment value in the future, but because people who grew up with Captain Marvel and Archie, Daredevil and Ant Man, Wonder Woman and the Swamp Thing, are taking note of the artistic wonder and importance of comic books as cultural artifacts.
“Comics are such an incredibly unique form of art and literature,” exclaimed Arie Kaplan, Mad Magazinewriter and author of Master of the Comic Book Universe Revealed! “When comics are done right,” he continued, “there really is nothing like them.” Michael Ring, owner of Portland, Oregon’s Bridge City Comics, said, “For a long time comics were considered ‘kid’s stuff.’ But now, especially after the explosion in the late 1980s of more mature fare, adults are realizing that comics have much to offer.”
Drawn in by the rich storytelling, whiz-bang art, and a connection to their childhood, adults with a little more discretionary income than those early days when they bought Fantastic Four comics at the corner drug store for a couple of nickels, have made comic book collecting big.
Barry Sandoval, director of operations of the comics division at Dallas’ Heritage Auctions, saidAmazing Fantasy #15 comes through his auction house every few weeks. He once was involved in the sale of another Detective Comics #27 that sold for $657,250. “Once,” Sandoval recalled, “we got a call from a young guy who had some comics…One of the ones was a Suspense Comics #3, a really rare comic with a weird cover showing a hero saving a girl from Ku Klux Klan Nazis!” Despite its poor condition, it sold at auction from $3,300.
People shouldn’t get into collecting, however, with an eye towards blue-chip comics and high-end investments. The refrain is repeated time and time again by scholars, comic book owners, and comic book creators. “I don’t buy comics as investments,” Kaplan said, “I just buy them to read a good story.” “Read them,” insisted Maggie Thompson, senior editor for Comic Buyer’s Guide, “Enjoy them.” By buying (and reading) inexpensive comics for entertainment alone—discovering characters you enjoy, finding stories, writers, and artists you appreciate—your knowledge for comic books grows. That knowledge will help. Buying comic books as an investment, Thompson warned, “is not a good idea for the beginner. People who know nothing about the field will get burned.”
The field of collecting began in earnest in the 1960s. It was then that two publishers began to exert their dominance in the industry—DC Comics (publisher of Superman, Batman, etc.) and Marvel Comics (Spider-Man, X-Men, etc.). Before then, there were virtually no comic book stores as we know them today, and there were virtually no organizations or groups focusing on comics as collectible art. The Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide, the longest running publication devoted to assigning values to comic books, started publication in 1970…
December 7, 2010