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Here is the Crown of Kazan.  It belonged to Ediger Mahmet, the last ruler of the Tartar state of Kazan.  The Khanate of Kazan encompassed parts of modern Tatarstan, Udmurtia, Bashkortostan, Mari El, Chuvashia, and Mordovia—rich forested lands at the extreme eastern edge of Europe which abutted the great Central Asian steppe (indeed Kazan was one of the last pieces of the Mongol Empire which had briefly ruled most of Eurasia). After the death of Genghis Khan, the empire shattered into successor states such as the Khanate of the Golden Horde.  Kazan emerged from the turmoil as a powerful state between the early 15th and mid 16th centuries AD.

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Although it had a strong beginning, Kazan’s later years were a sad story of Russian meddling, interference, and outright assault.  The noble houses of Kazan were more interested in fighting each other for control of the kingdom–which grew more ossified and derelict as the Turkic nobles fought one another and ignored the needs of their oppressed peasantry. Their stupidity, weakness, and ridiculous inability to understand the profound threat from Moscow strikes one as hard to believe. Initially, a Russian puppet, Shahghali, was placed on the throne, but, as civil wars broke out, he proved unable to keep the population subdued under the yoke of Moscow as civil war. In August 1552, forces of Ivan the Terrible invaded and annexed the kingdom outright.

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(The Kazans Genuflect Before the Tsar)

After Ivan the Terrible took over Kazan, Russian forces slaughtered more than 110,000 of the nobles, soldiers, and peasants.  Pro-Russian traitors who had worked insidiously to ensure the defeat of their country were rewarded by being allowed to keep their lands and towers (and, of course, the gold which Ivan had used to buy them off).

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Today the Crown of Kazan is found inside the Kremlin armory with early Russian crowns like the Cap of Monomakh as well as crowns from other kingdoms swallowed whole by the insatiable Russian Empire. Here is a picture of Gerhard Schroeder looking bored/horrified (borified?) as Vladimir Putin explains this history to him and tells how Russia weakened and annexed its competitors during the Middle Ages.

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I have been deeply dissatisfied by contemporary events…so much so that I am going to look away from our time and gaze back through classical antiquity to the Peloponnesian War…but bear with me. Some say there are lessons in history which pertain to current world. The definitive story of the Peloponnesian War is told by Thucydides, an Athenian general who took part in the proceedings and had the grace to explain why he wrote his history (and what he thought his biases were). Thucydides’ great work is arguably the first real work of history but it is also the first great work of political science. The way that leaders manipulated people and events and news turned out to have strange consequences that the protagonists did not foresee (but, in hindsight, clearly should have).
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The war is the story of a fading power being supplanted by a rival. The fading power, Athens, had unrivaled naval supremacy, but the upstart power, Sparta, had an enormous ever-victorious army. Athens had a league of close allies, the Delian league who supported them and were a great source of their strength (a fact not always appreciated by the proud Athenians). Many American theorists of the Cold War found these principal characters disturbingly familiar—a broad-minded yet imperialistic democracy versus an autocracy where all aspects of life were controlled by the state. Even the style of the nations seemed familiar—a nation based on wealth and trade and webs of friendship (and superior naval technology and prowess) versus a thuggish nation which ham-fistedly squashed its rivals into submission and dominated the battlefield through numbers and pure aggression.

Enough backstory. Let’s get to the central point. At the moral heart of the book is the story of the Siege of Melos.
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Melos (which should be familiar to sculpture fans as the discovery place of the Venus de Milo) was a small yet prosperous island originally colonized by Dorian people, who shared cultural heritage with the Spartans. Despite this cultural background, the Melians remained neutral in the war, until one day the Athenians showed up demanding punitive monetary tribute and other concessions. The Melians argued that they were neutral and Athens was in the wrong. Surely the Spartans (or perhaps the gods) would come to the rescue of Melos if the Athenians abused their military supremacy for a very slight monetary/strategic gain. The Athenians, who had lost some of their famed thoughtfulness through the exigencies of war and political struggle responded by laying siege to Melos. When starvation forced the little city state to surrender, the Athenians executed all of the adult men and took the Melian women and children as slaves. Afterwards, the island was repopulated entirely by Athenian colonists.
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This…lapse…shocked the people of Athens (Euripides’ agonizing “Trojan Women” which came out shortly afterwards is a story of the writer’s own time clothed in a story about a bygone age). The brazen, terrible behavior also shocked the allies of Athens. Perhaps that was actually the point: to remind recalcitrant allies that the Athenians were strong enough to be brutal and act for naked self-interest.
But, despite the ostentatious show of naked power, the conquest of Melos did not help Athens very much. In a world where Athens and Sparta seemed increasingly alike, the old alliances broke apart. Also, Athens was not as good at autocracy or thuggery as the Spartans (who, by the way, DID show up to avenge Melos and kill off the Athenian colonists). Back in Attica, things got worse and worse. The story of the first great democracy became an increasingly dark tale of venal & selfish leaders—demagogues—who were replaced willy-nilly by the fickle mob. Factions fought each other more vehemently than they fought the Spartans.

When China…uh, I mean Sparta! finally won the war it behaved with much greater leniency and restraint than the Athenians showed the Melians. The Spartans installed a crooked counsel of oligarchs (who had maybe been pushing Spartan interests there at the end). The Greek golden age was over.
Political scientists tend to think the Melian story illustrates the principal of “might makes right” (I left out the famous back-and-forth dialogue, which you should definitely read about on your own). Yet perhaps there are larger lessons to the larger story.
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Thoughtful citizens might extrapolate that a nation is only as powerful as its allies and its leaders of the moment…and friendship and admiration can be easily squandered for very little gain. Throughout secondary school I was always taught that democracy is clearly superior in every way to every other system. Thucydides’ history reminds us that there are dark perils inherent within the very nature of group rule. Our classically minded founders knew this story and thought about it a great deal. It is unclear whether today’s legislators (or citizens) have given as much heed to the lessons of how Athens abandoned its principles and treated its friends like underlings and split into antagonistic factions and was swiftly broken to bits like a vase bumped off a plinth.
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Escalation of commitment refers to a behavioral phenomenon whereby a group of people who have embarked upon a decision which is producing increasingly negative outcomes continue forward with their course of action despite the accumulating evidence of bad results.  This sounds ridiculous, but it is a very frequent pattern in human behavior.  It is worth casting our minds back 100 years to 1917 when the First World War ground into its 3rd year despite the deaths of millions of combatants on both sides. In economics, a very similar situation is described as the “sunk cost fallacy’: throwing away more and more resources because the idea of losing the time and money already invested is too painful to bear.  One sees this at casinos all of the time, when a punter keeps grinding tokens into a machine waiting for it to pay out.  One sees it in casino owners who build lavish follies with borrowed money even after the gamblers have all been fleeced or given up.  One sees it in institutional investors which will not give up on certain bankrupt debtors because the banks themselves will lose too much money.

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The reasons for escalation of commitment are manifold, but boil down to certain unpleasant fundamentals about human preferences and decision making. Changing one’s mind is difficult because it involves admitting an error. Additionally, it is more painful to lose something than it is pleasant to gain something (a dreadful dictum which explains so much of human behavior). Leadership norms punish seemingly inconsistent behavior more than bad results; if a leader admits a problematic course of action and changes it, they are more likely to be punished than if they just went ahead with whatever idiotic thing they were going to do anyway.

All of this is to highlight that people have an astonishing ability to lie to themselves when they have done a colossally stupid thing.  They will continue onward with such behavior in the face of rational evidence and will fall into certain tribal behaviors which make it even harder to escape the spiral of collapse.

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These factors make terrible decisions particularly dangerous. Historians are always looking back and exclaiming “How could they have kept on with this course of action?”

And, of course, there are counter examples and arguments. It is Impossible to ever reap the rewards of a risky investment if one abandons a project too hastily. Would Columbus have reached America if he had given in to the terrors of apparently endless ocean? Would Thomas Edison have persevered through all of those hundreds of unsuccessful filament materials to the electric lightbulb?  Yet some of those filaments glimmered or shone brightly for a moment.  The Santa Maria did not fall off a giant waterfall at the edge of the world but instead the sailors saw evidence of land.   Evidence should help us escape the dreadful escalation of commitment.

If a leader is behaving erratically, wickedly, and stupidly is it wise to ignore such behavior, in the belief that he will somehow correct himself?   If there is no coherent plan but merely bombast, corruption, and hollow stage-managed cheers, why would you choose to cheer along?

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Once you have invested enough effort in a bad idea or a terrible leader, it isn’t possible to escape.  Human behavior means you must follow…even if it leads to Changping, Verdun, or a bunker beneath Berlin.   If I learned anything from history class (or from my own failed business with a light-fingered dipsomaniac business partner) it is to be on guard for escalation of commitment early. Don’t go down with somebody else’s leaking ship or drink from their poisoned chalice.  Just because you made one bad choice doesn’t mean you have to make more.

We are reaching the end of the year and now it is time too to reach the end of The Shepheardes Calender.  This year was harder to get through than I expected it to be…and so was this poem!  There was a lot of weird maudlin rustic business going on and a lot of terrifying politics.  The entire thing was nearly impossible to understand–even with help from trained commenters.  Perhaps you will not be entirely surprised that the conclusion of The Shepheardes Calender is sad and unfullfilling–since it ends the same way it started:  it is winter and Colin, the writer’s alter-ego and approximate protagonist of the piece is  lamenting his unhappy lot (and his unrequited love for Rosalind).

Colin compares the four seasons of the year to the four stages of human life, but he concludes that an early winter has blighted the fruits of fall and laments that winter will finish him off (which proved prophetic for Spenser, whose fortunes fell apart utterly which led him to an early death of starvation).  Like the November ecologue, the lament has the full force of conviction behind it and the poetry (my favorite passage of Spenser is the passage in the Fairy Queen, where Despair nearly defeats the RedCrosse knight by whispering syllabant words of negation and defeatism).  The Redcrosse knight is rescued by Una and Arthur…but no such figures hold out hope for shepheardes and poets, so we leave Colin heartbroken saying fairwell to his sheep as the cold settles ineluctably upon him.  Yet the poem is still here…and we are still talking about Spenser…Vivitur ingenio, caetera mortis erunt!

Without further comment, here is the conclusion of

The Shepheardes Calender

December

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Ægloga Duodecima.

 A R G V M E N T.

THis Æglogue (euen as the first beganne) is ended with a complaynte of Colin to God Pan. wherein as weary of his former wayes, he proportioneth his life to the foure seasons of the yeare, comparing hys youthe to the spring time, when he was fresh and free form loues follye. His manhoode to the sommer, which he sayth, was consumed with greate heate and excessiue drouth caused through a Comet or blasinge starre, by which he meaneth loue, which passion is comenly compared to such flames and immoderate heate. His riper yeares hee resembleth to an vnseasonable harueste wherein the fruites fall ere they be rype. His latter age to winters chyll & frostie season, now drawing neare to his last ende.

THe gentle shepheard satte beside a springe,
All in the shadowe of a bushy brere,
That Colin hight, which wel could pype and singe,
For he of Tityrus his songs did lere.
There as he satte in secreate shade alone,
Thus gan he make of loue his piteous mone. O soueraigne Pan thou God of shepheards all,
Which of our tender Lambkins takest keepe:
And when our flocks into mischaunce mought fall,
Doest save from mischeife the vnwary sheepe:
Als of their maisters hast no lesse regarde,
Then of the flocks, which thou doest watch and ward:

 I thee beseche (so be thou deigne to heare,
Rude ditties tund to shepheards Oaten reede,
Or if I euer sonet song so cleare,
As it with pleasaunce mought thy fancie feede)
Hearken awhile from thy greene cabinet,
The rurall song of carefull Colinet.

 Whilome in youth, when flowrd my ioyfull spring,
Like Swallow swift I wandred here and there:
For heate of heedlesse lust me so did sting,
That I of doubted daunger had no feare.
I went the wastefull woodes and forest wyde,
Withouten dreade of Wolues to bene espyed.

 I wont to raunge amydde the mazie thickette,
And gather nuttes to make me Christmas game:
And ioyed oft to chace the trembling Pricket,
Or hunt the hartlesse hare, til shee were tame.
What wreaked I of wintrye ages waste,
Tho deemed I, my spring would euer laste.

 How often haue I scaled the craggie Oke,
All to dislodge the Rauen of her neste:
Howe haue I wearied with many a stroke,
The stately Walnut tree, the while the rest
Vnder the tree fell all for nuts at strife:
For ylike to me was libertee and lyfe.

 And for I was in thilke same looser yeares,
(Whether the Muse so wrought me from my birth,
Or I tomuch beleeued my shepherd peres)
Somedele ybent to song and musicks mirth,
A good olde shephearde, Wrenock was his name,
Made me by arte more cunning in the same.

 Fro thence I durst in derring [doe] compare
With shepheards swayne, what euer fedde in field:
And if that Hobbinol right iudgement bare,
To Pan his owne selfe pype I neede not yield.
For if the flocking Nymphes did folow Pan,
The wiser Muses after Colin ranne.

 But ah such pryde at length was ill repayde,
The shepheards God (perdie God was he none)
My hurtlesse pleasaunce did me ill vpbraide,
My freedome lorne, my life he lefte to mone.
Loue they him called, that gaue me checkmate,
But better mought they haue behote him Hate.

 Tho gan my louely Spring bid me farewel,
And Sommer season sped him to display
(For loue then in the Lyons house did dwell)
The raging fyre, that kindled at his ray.
A comett stird vp that vnkindly heate,
That reigned (as men sayd) in Venus seate.

 Forth was I ledde, not as I wont afore,
When choise I had to choose my wandring waye:
But whether luck and loues vnbridled lore
Would leade me forth on Fancies bitte to playe:
The bush my bedde, the bramble was my bowre,
The Woodes can witnesse many a wofull stowre.

 Where I was wont to seeke the honey Bee,
Working her formall rowmes in Wexen frame:
The grieslie Todestool growne there mought I se
And loathed Paddocks lording on the same.
And where the chaunting birds luld me a sleepe,
The ghastlie Owle her grieuous ynne doth keepe.

 Then as the springe giues place to elder time,
And bringeth forth the fruite of sommers pryde:
Also my age now passed yougthly pryme,
To thinges of ryper reason selfe applyed.
And learnd of lighter timber cotes to frame,
Such as might saue my sheepe and me fro shame.

 To make fine cages for the Nightingale,
And Baskets of bulrushes was my wont:
Who to entrappe the fish in winding sale
Was better seene, or hurtful beastes to hont?
I learned als the signes of heauen to ken,
How Phoebe sayles, where Venus sittes and when.

 And tryed time yet taught me greater thinges,
The sodain rysing of the raging seas:
The soothe of byrds by beating of their wings,
The power of herbs, both which can hurt and ease:
And which be wont tenrage the restlesse sheepe,
And which be wont to worke eternall sleepe.

 But ah vnwise and witlesse Colin cloute,
That kydst the hidden kinds of many a wede:
Yet kydst not ene to cure thy sore hart roote,
Whose ranckling wound as yet does rifely bleede.
Why liuest thou stil, and yet hast thy deathes wound?
Why dyest thou stil, and yet aliue art founde?

 Thus is my sommer worne away and wasted,
Thus is my haruest hastened all to rathe:
The eare that budded faire, is burnt & blasted,
And all my hoped gaine is turned to scathe.
Of all the seede, that in my youth was sowne,
Was nought but brakes and brambles to be mowne.

 My boughes with bloosmes that crowned were at firste,
And promised of timely fruite such store,
Are left both bare and barrein now at erst:
The flattring fruite is fallen to grownd before.
And rotted, ere they were halfe mellow ripe:
My haruest wast, my hope away dyd wipe.

 The fragrant flowres, that in my garden grewe, 
Bene withered, as they had bene gathered long.
Theyr rootes bene dryed vp for lacke of dewe,
Yet dewed with teares they han be euer among.
Ah who has wrought my Ro[s]alind this spight
To spil the flowres, that should her girlond dight,

 And I, that whilome wont to frame my pype,
Vnto the shifting of the shepheards foote:
Sike follies nowe haue gathered as too ripe,
And cast hem out, as rotten an vnsoote.
The loser Lasse I cast to please nomore,
One if I please, enough is me therefore.

 And thus of all my haruest hope I haue 
Nought reaped but a weedye crop of care:
Which, when I thought haue thresht in swelling sheaue,
Cockel for corne, and chaffe for barley bare.
Soone as the chaffe should in the fan be fynd,
All was blowne away of the wauering wynd.

 So now my yeare drawes to his latter terme,
My spring is spent, my sommer burnt vp quite:
My harueste hasts to stirre vp winter sterne,
And bids him clayme with rigorous rage hys right.
So nowe he stormes with many a sturdy stoure,
So now his blustring blast eche coste doth scoure.

 The carefull cold hath nypt my rugged rynde,
And in my face deepe furrowes eld hath pight:
My head besprent with hoary frost I fynd,
And by myne eie the Crow his clawe dooth wright.
Delight is layd abedde, and pleasure past,
No sonne now shines, cloudes han all ouercast.

 Now leaue ye shepheards boyes yo[u]r merry glee,
My Muse is hoarse and weary of thys stounde:
Here will I hang my pype vpon this tree,
Was neuer pype of reede did better sounde.
Winter is come, that blowes the bitter blaste,
And after Winter dreerie death does hast.

 Gather ye together my little flocke,
My little flock, that was to me so liefe:
Let me, ah lette me in your folds ye lock,
Ere the breme Winter breede you greater griefe.
Winter is come, that blowes the balefull breath,
And after Winter commeth timely death.

 Adieu delightes, that lulled me asleepe,
Adieu my deare, whose loue I bought so deare:
Adieu my little Lambes and loued sheepe,
Adieu ye Woodes that oft my witnesse were:
Adieu good Hobbinol, that was so true,
Tell Rosalind, her Colin bids her adieu.

Colins Embleme.[Vivitur ingenio, caetera mortis erunt.]

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As we proceed further into the Halloween season, a long dormant specter has unexpectedly emerged from the past to claim another victim.  In the early era of space exploration a shockingly high number of Mars missions were complete failures.  This led space agencies to talk about the “Galactic Ghoul” a malevolent (and wholly imaginary!) entity which devours Mars probes.  Well, actually the phrase “Galactic Ghoul” was coined in the nineties…before that, this high failure rate was attributed to “the Curse of Mars” which isn’t quite as vivid a personification of failure but which still effectively evokes a malevolent supernatural thing out in the darkness between worlds. The ghoul (or curse) was particularly hard on Soviet craft and a shockingly large number of Soviet missions just vanished into the void for no reason as detailed in this dramatic chart (which is worth looking at for all sorts of reasons).

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The curse even manifested in the late nineties when NASA screwed up the distinction between matric and non-metric units of measurement and fired the Mars Climate Orbiter straight into the Martian atmosphere where it disintegrated (although that seems like it could be chalked up to a different old nemesis: being bad at math).  At any rate, the ghoul has been quiescent for a while as NASA learned to operate on the red planet (and triple check their numbers).

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Today though brings more grim news from the Red Planet. The ESA and the Russian space agency collaborated on ExoMars a joint mission in which the two teams sent an orbiter and a lander to Mars together.  The Trace Gas Orbiter is the real scientific component of the mission.  It will assay Mars for methane sources (we would like to know where the atmospheric methane of Mars comes from since it should be scrubbed from the thin Martian atmosphere faster than it can build up).  The lander was named for Giovanni Schiaparelli, the 19th-century Italian astronomer who popularized the idea of Martian canals (a concept long since disproven but bearing elements of truth).

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 Schiaparelli’s only scientific payload was a small weather station that would have run for a few days before running out of batteries.  It was really a lander designed to test out Martian landing capabilities, however, as of press time, the lander had proceeded into the Martian gravity well and then went ominously and completely silent.  Is the galactic ghoul now sated or will it need to feed on the next charismatic lander headed to the red planet?  Elon Musk may want to do some animal sacrifice and appeasement dances before he launches his colony ship!

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Hey, did I tell you about Akatsuki?  It was one of the thrilling space exploration stories of 2015—and it is just now becoming germane, but it did not get a lot of press attention in the west because of the holidays and because people were busy thinking about stupid trivia (including me).  Akatsuki is a Japanese spacecraft/space mission designed to research and explore the atmosphere of Venus (its other name is Venus Climate Orbiter).  The mission was launched in May of 2010 and the craft was supposed to go into orbit in December of 2010, but a catastrophic failure of the orbital maneuvering engine caused it to fly off into orbit around the sun (this failure was caused by a tiny salt deposit—which quietly says a great deal about the difficulties and dangers of space travel).

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The Japanese space agency turned the probe to hibernation mode to conserve energy and waited…and waited…and waited.  For five years, the craft flew through interplanetary darkness, quietly orbiting the sun as rocket scientists plotted and made corrections.  Then, in December of 2015 the agency tried again.  The combustion chamber throat and nozzle of the orbital maneuvering engine were horribly damaged (such a problem destroyed NASA’s Mars Observer probe in 1993) so JAXA jettisoned the craft’s oxidizing fuel and attempted to enter a strange elliptical orbit by means of four hydrazine attitude control thrusters. The rendezvous between Akatsuki and Venus occurred on 7 December 2015.  Using four tiny thrusters not rated for orbital maneuvering, the spacecraft made a 20 minute burn and entered Venusian orbit!  I wish I could make this sound more dramatic—it was a stupendously precise and superb piece of jerry-rigged rocket science happening around a different world.  It is a miracle this craft is not a splatter on the baking surface of Venus.  Kudos to JAXA!

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The craft was originally slated to orbit Venus every 30 Earth hours, but its wild and bumpy 5 year journey to our sister planet changed the original plans quite a bit.  In March of 2016, JAXA mission control finalized the craft’s elliptical orbit to take 9 days per orbital revolution.  Planetary observations are slated to start in mid-April—right about now! Akatsuki is the only operational human craft currently at Venus.  Its mission is to investigate Venutian meteorology with an infrared camera (we will be talking more about the insane Venutian atmosphere in a follow-up post) and to determine whether lightning and active volcanoes exist on the hot troubled world.  This information may take a while to collate and access (considering that we are only now figuring out what the results of the last Venus mission, the ESA Venus Express, actually denote.

Anyway, stay tuned for more news from Venus!  Maybe Akatsuki will be broadcasting some surprises about the little known planet next door.

Artist's conception of the Kicksat deploying a fleet of tiny microchip satellites (Ben Bishop)

Artist’s conception of the Kicksat deploying a fleet of tiny microchip satellites (Ben Bishop)

Have you ever wanted to have a fleet of numerous extremely tiny micro-satellites in outer space doing your bidding? Well, if so, there is bad news for you: an experimental satellite meant to test out a new paradigm for launching multiple tiny space vehicles ended in failure earlier this month. Microsatellites have become common in low earth-orbit in recent years, but the Kicksat was a special sort of tiny satellite. Within the little 10cm by 10cm by 30cm “mothership” were 104 truly tiny space vehicles which had a flat square shape measuring only 3.5 cm square by 3 mm thick.  Each weighed about 5 grams.  The little satellites (whimsically named “sprites”) were meant to launch from the central satellite in spiral waves. Each sprite included a microprocessor, a solar cell, and a radio system—some of the tiny craft had more elaborate microelectromechanical sensors.

 

The anatomy of a "sprite" satellite

The anatomy of a “sprite” satellite

Aerospace engineers had hoped that the tiny crafts would provide useful data on the behavior of small craft in space since the behavior of materials and systems in space change based on scale (particularly solar sails—which become more efficient and viable). Unfortunately it seems that solar radiation caused the system clock to reset—thus delaying the secondary sprite launch until after the main satellite burned up in reentry. Still, the telemetry of the mothership functioned properly (and also provided a valuable lesson about the need for radiation shielding). The project may evolve into a second iteration based on lessons from the failure of the first attempt and it has provided us with an amazing computer simulation of launch (below).

Faustin-Élie Soulouque

Faustin-Élie Soulouque

Faustin-Élie Soulouque was born as a slave in Haiti in 1782.  He fought as a private during the Haitian revolution and he so distinguished himself as a soldier that he was offered an officer’s commission in the army of the newly formed Republic of Haiti.  Throughout the first half of the nineteenth century he rose up through the ranks to ultimately become a general.  Then, in 1847, Faustin was democratically elected as President of Haïti—his biography is the heroic story of a man who was born as a slave who became the leader of a nation!

Emperor Faustin I

Emperor Faustin I

Unfortunately the rot soon started to set in. Backed by a highly loyal group of military apparatchiks, President Faustin soon began murdering his political enemies.  In 1849 he suspended the Republic and proclaimed himself Emperor Faustin I of Haiti.  His subsequent reign was marked by fanatical crackdowns against real or imaginary opponents within Haiti.  Faustin’s violence became so extreme that he was accused of ritual cannibalism and drinking the blood of his enemies (long before Idi Amin was accused of similar tactics in the twentieth century).   Additionally Emperor Faustin launched a disastrous series of invasions against Spanish-controlled Santo Domingo (which is today the Dominican Republic).  The Haitian army attacked in 1849, 1850, 1855 and 1856 but was soundly defeated each time. Faustin’s dream of a unified Hispaniola never came to fruition.

In order to centralize and legitimize his brutal reign, Faustin created many different orders of nobility to confer upon cronies.  In 1858,  this strategy backfired when General Fabre Geffrard, the “Duc de Tabara” launched a full scale rebellion which pushed Emperor Faustin I from power (President Gerard returned Haiti to democratic rule and proved to be a staunch ally to the anti-slavery United States Union during the American Civil War).  Emperor Faustin tried to seek shelter in his beloved France, but was laughed at and rebuffed.  He ended up living in exile in Jamaica (although he returned to Haiti to die).

The Crown of Faustin I

The Crown of Faustin I

All of this is backstory for this somewhat overbearing crown, “the crown of Faustin I” which was made for the vampire emperor’s coronation in 1849.  The crown was richly ornamented with diamonds, emeralds, and other jewels.  After Faustin’s fall, the crown eventually became a major exhibit in the Musée du Panthéon National Haitien, however even in a museum the crown could not escape the corruption endemic to Haiti.  It was recently discovered that many of the jewels were surreptitiously pilfered from the crown of Faustin at an unknown time.  The entire crown was then removed to an unknown location by unknown entities for safekeeping (which seems to mean that it was stolen entirely)—a fitting legacy for Haiti’s Cannibal Emperor.

An artist's interpretation of what Du Fu might have looked like (there are no original portraits)

An artist’s interpretation of what Du Fu might have looked like (there are no original portraits)

April is poetry month and, to celebrate, here is a poem by the great Tang dynasty poet, Du Fu (712–770).  Du Fu was the son of a minor scholar-official and he dedicated his youth to the rigorous study of Confucian philosophy, history and poetry.  However, when the moment of truth came, Du Fu failed the civil service examination despite his tremendous erudition.  This failure stunned Du Fu (and every subsequent generation of Chinese scholars) to such an extent that many suggest the Tang-era test was crooked.  The rest of Du Fu’s life he moved from place to place trying to find a place to fit in after failing the one thing that mattered.  His final years were spent struggling to survive the cataclysmic events of the An Lushan Rebellion (which devastated China and left huge swaths of the population dead).

Du Fu’s life does not sound like the model of happy success, but history judged him very differently.  Although his work was initially dismissed and garnered little attention even in the era immediately after his death, in remained in circulation and then suddenly began to grow in popularity.  Each generation regarded it more highly than the previous and it became worked into the aesthetic and philosophical framework of Chinese society. Today Du Fu’s works of poetry (from across all classical Chinese genres) are among the most famous works of Chinese literature.  His poetry has had a unique seminal influence on almost all subsequent poetry and he has been canonized as one of the greatest Chinese writers.
Here is a short poem which demonstrates the austere vigor of his pen.  Notice how much longer the English version is than the Chinese original! 
Du Fu

遲日江山麗
春風花草香
泥融飛燕子
沙暖睡鴛鴦

In late sun, the river and hills are beautiful,
The spring breeze bears the fragrance of flowers and grass.
The mud has thawed, and swallows fly around,
On the warm sand, mandarin ducks are sleeping.

(translated by Mark Alexander)

I would like to interrupt the parade of anteaters, crowns, demons, and obscure colors for a brief but important political polemic.  It seems likely that the Federal budget sequester will take place tonight and that is very bad news.

As almost everyone now knows, this artificial crisis was created as an attempt to make America’s hostile and antithetical political parties work together to cut spending and balance the budget.  Unsurprisingly creating (another) arbitrary deadline failed miserably to accomplish this task–so unstructured cuts will hit big parts of the Federal budget.  Defense spending is slated to be cut by 13% and the rest of domestic spending will be trimmed by 9%.  The sequester will not touch entitlements like Medicare and Social Security (which make up the majority of the budget), because doing so would be political suicide for national politicians.

Take this and apply it randomly to existing programs.

Take this and apply it randomly to existing programs.

Some people are ok with this, and argue that the Federal budget is out of control and needs to be reined in by some means.  Nine percent and thirteen percent are not big numbers.  The American military is still the largest in the world…etc…etc… This is the wrong way to think.  As this article outlines, many of the budget cuts insidiously strike at our research budget which will direly impact the future not just of the United States but also of the other nations (and maybe the ecosystems) of the entire world.

The sequester will hurt basic science research.  Greedy Wall Street moguls will be just fine and (most likely) people at the bottom of the economic scale will be ok too, but, in twenty years humankind won’t have nanotechnology, space elevators, immortality potions, or whatever incredible thing today’s research was meant to foster.

Private companies, the Chinese, James Bond villain billionaires…all other entities capable of fundamental research are small potatoes (other than universities—which receive much of their science money from the government).  The US Government is the world’s largest source of funding of basic research money…by a lot.

Fundamental research is the one thing America is good at (well maybe we can still make pizzas, scammy software, and dumb action movies, but we can talk about that another day) and that’s okay because research is the most important thing.  Nations do not become superpowers because of indomitable spirit or cool national symbols, but because of engineering, science, and innovation. Research is the critical underpinning of economic, military, and cultural greatness.  It is also fundamental to humankind’s quest to understand and manipulate the universe (before it kills us and everything we care about).  Social security does nothing to further that objective!

Canceled due to budget cuts.

Canceled due to budget cuts.

The sequester cuts resemble a farm plan which leaves out the seed corn.  And what is the point of even running a farm then?   So, politicians, go ahead and make cuts to the budget.  Raise taxes even.  National leaders, do what you have to do, but please don’t cut the most important part of the budget because it is most abstract and lacks special interest lobbyists.  That is stupid…and it is what we are doing by default.

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