Where were you on 9/11?

September 10, 2021 • 12:00 pm

If you’re old enough to remember the assassination of John F. Kennedy, you surely remember exactly where you were when you heard about it. I was in junior high school, and the incident was announced over the public address system. When I walked home from school, cars were pulled over on the side of the road with the radios on, and people were standing outside those cars listening to the news through the open windows. Everyone was discombobulated for months.

Now all of us lived through 9/11, and I also remember where I was then. We always listened to the radio while doing flies in the lab (the radio was on the lab bench where up to four people had their microscopes), and the news came on that something had happened to one of the World Trade Center towers. I happened to have an old black and white television in the lab, and we quickly set it up on the bench and sat around watching the news.

There was no more thought of flies, because soon thereafter the second tower was hit, as was the Pentagon, and then there were rumors of a plane crashing in Pennsylvania. (Later we found out about the brave people who tried to breach the cockpit and caused the plane to crash.) The news continued for days, and eventually we found out what happened, and that got us into war.

The funny thing is, I can’t remember how I felt after the attacks, except for a pity for those who died (the “jumpers” broke my heart) and a burning desire to know what happened.  Nearly three thousand people died that day, as opposed to one during the JFK assassination, and 9/11 was so much closer to the present than was 1963. But my memories of the atmosphere—of what it was like on the street, or in school—are far more vivid from 1963.

This is, of course, a request that readers recount their own experiences on this day twenty years ago.

Here’s something that conveys both the attacks and what was happening on the street in New York City.

Camus on the plague, and de Botton gets the vector wrong

March 19, 2020 • 12:30 pm

Ah, we have’t heard from Alain de Botton for a while, and I haven’t missed him (see all my posts on him here). He was always a faitheist, an atheist-butter, and an arduous advocate for atheist churches, which I don’t particularly object to but also don’t feel we need. de Botton is also patronizing: the kind of guy who thinks he sees some great truths about the universe that others have missed—and lets us know that (see here).  Now, after a six-year hiatus from the man, he’s back on my site, not because his new New York Times op-ed has anything particularly interesting to say, but because, when writing about Camus’s great Novel The Plague, seems to get the infectious microbe wrong.

La Peste is in vogue again these days because of the coronavirus pandemic, as people read it trying to discern if there any lessons for the present peril.

And so de Botton tries to give us some lessons. His point appears to be that the “absurdity of life” on view in the novel is not that our lives are intrinsically absurd, but that we are susceptible to the vagaries of fate, which supposedly makes our lives meaningless. Here, I think, is de Botton’s gist:

For Camus, when it comes to dying, there is no progress in history, there is no escape from our frailty. Being alive always was and will always remain an emergency; it is truly an inescapable “underlying condition.” Plague or no plague, there is always, as it were, the plague, if what we mean by that is a susceptibility to sudden death, an event that can render our lives instantaneously meaningless.

This is what Camus meant when he talked about the “absurdity” of life. Recognizing this absurdity should lead us not to despair but to a tragicomic redemption, a softening of the heart, a turning away from judgment and moralizing to joy and gratitude.

“The Plague” isn’t trying to panic us, because panic suggests a response to a dangerous but short-term condition from which we can eventually find safety. But there can never be safety — and that is why, for Camus, we need to love our fellow damned humans and work without hope or despair for the amelioration of suffering. Life is a hospice, never a hospital.

At the height of the contagion, when 500 people a week are dying, a Catholic priest called Paneloux gives a sermon that explains the plague as God’s punishment for depravity. But Dr. Rieux has watched a child die and knows better: Suffering is randomly distributed, it makes no sense, it is simply absurd, and that is the kindest thing one can say of it.

Well, I am not a Camus expert, though I have read the novel, but I can’t speak to whether Camus’s view of life’s absurdity is simply that we all die and can never know when.  Whether that makes our lives “instantaneously meaningless” is debatable, because, in the long view, life can be seen as meaningless regardless of whether it ends instantly or in a drawn-out process.  Yes, Camus is right that there’s no sign of God in the depredations of infectious disease, but that’s Camus’s point, not de Botton’s.

In fact, after reading de Botton’s piece twice, I still can’t see why he felt it worth writing, or why the NYT found it worth publishing. I suppose that if you’re out of bogroll in these parlous times, you could use his essay.

What interested me, though, was de Botton’s first paragraph (my emphasis):

In January 1941, Albert Camus began work on a story about a virus that spreads uncontrollably from animals to humans and ends up destroying half the population of “an ordinary town” called Oran, on the Algerian coast. “The Plague,” published in 1947, is frequently described as the greatest European novel of the postwar period.

VIRUS???? If you remember the story, the vector is carried by rats, and although I don’t know if the disease is named as bubonic plague, it’s very clear that Camus was writing about bubonic plague. And bubonic plague is carried not by a virus, but by a bacterium, Yersina pestis. Indeed, in the quote below, Camus explicitly refers to the cause as a bacillus (bacterium).

Some judicious fact-checking by both the author and the NYT would have been useful here. But that’s not the Times‘s forte these days, what with their claim that the American Revolution was fought to defend slavery.

In the meantime, here’s the great ending of Camus’s novel (originally written in French, of course):

And, indeed, as he listened to the cries of joy rising from the town, Rieux remembered that such joy is always imperiled.

He knew what those jubilant crowds did no know but could have learned from books: that the plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good; that it can lie dormant for years and years in furniture and linen chests; that it bides its time in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, and bookshelves; and that perhaps the day would come when, for the bane and enlightening of men, it would rouse up its rats again and send them forth to die in a happy city.

I don’t know who the translator was, but he rendered Camus’s words into wonderful English: I love the alliteration of “rouse up its rats” and “bide”, “bedrooms”, “bookshelves” and “bane”, and the bittersweet last sentence. This is great writing and great translating. de Botton is not great writing.

Readers’ wildlife photos

December 11, 2019 • 7:45 am

Reader Chris Taylor from Canberra sends us some animal pictures, but also some distressing picture of the fires that are destroying Australia’s animals and its forests. His notes are indented:

Earlier this year, to get away from the Canberra winter, I spent six weeks on a working trip to a Bush Heritage Australia nature reserve on the Atherton Tablelands of Far North Queensland.  I have some photos that you might be able to use.

These first ones are of a Lumholtz’s tree kangaroo (Dendrolagus lumholtzi) family that I saw on the Atherton Tablelands. This is one of two species of tree kangaroo found in Australia; the other species are from New Guinea and surrounding islands. It’s odd to think of a kangaroo living in the canopy of the rain forest, but they are quite adept at getting about in the trees.  The Tree Kangaroos probably share a common ancestry with the Rock Wallabies, and have evolved features to help them: long tails for balance, long claws on the front feet (you can see the claws on the female in the first photo) and soft pads on the hind feet to give grip on the branches.

Mother and joey:

Adult male:
Joey on the left, female and male hidden in the leaves:

And the terrible fires:

There’s no wildlife in these, but a few photos of the bushfires in New South Wales.  I am a member of the RFS (Rural Fire Service) and have been out to a few of the fires.  Most of the time I don’t get a chance to take photos, but here are a few.

As of Monday, bushfires have burnt out a total of over 2.7 million hectares (about 10,600 square miles) in New South Wales alone this year, and there are over 100 fires still active, covering over 2 million hectares.  There has been one burning close to home for almost two weeks, so my brigade has been very active in trying to get it under control. The first photo is how it looked from home on 29 November. Two days later, I was out on the fireground helping with logistics. The second and third photos show the extent of the smoke.


Also included two photos from an earlier trip.  A waterbombing helicopter in the smoke at Gum Scrub, and fire in the forest at night near Long Flat.

Media, relieved that Notre Dame relics were saved, acts as if they were real

April 16, 2019 • 9:15 am

The fire at Notre Dame is out, and much of the main building was spared, though it will take years, if ever, to bring it back to where it was before. I’m not sure about the status of its famous stained-glass windows, though one photo seems to show that a big one is gone, for, after all, the glass was held together with easily-melted lead. The cause of the disaster has not been determined, and may never be.

All in all, it’s not the disaster I feared; here’s what it looks like today:

Photo from the NY Times. Thibault Camus/Associated Press

President Macron has pledged that it will be rebuilt, and private donors have already given millions to that purpose, with the LVMH Group having donated 200 million Euros.

While I was watching the news last night, they had a special report from a correspondent who was talking about whether the artwork and relics had been saved. She was especially concerned that Jesus’s crown of thorns had been recovered, and I’d forgotten that that relic was even in the Cathedral. In fact, the Cathedral also contains not only a nail supposedly used to secure Jesus to the cross, but a piece of the True Cross itself. The chances that these are real are miniscule; I suspect that if there was a “True Cross”, the pieces of it preserved in various places would be much larger than any execution cross.

On this morning’s local news, an anchor was especially excited that the cross on the altar had been preserved, clearly implying that this was the work of God. She didn’t discuss why God allowed the Cathedral to burn but saved the cross.

At any rate, here’s how CNN reported on these relics:

The cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris is home to scores of priceless artifacts, artwork and relics collected over the centuries, each with their own story.

As a devastating fire tore through the revered Gothic cathedral on Monday, toppling its spire, many feared these treasures might be lost forever.

The Crown of Thorns, which some believe was placed on the head of Jesus and which the cathedral calls its “most precious and most venerated relic,” was rescued from the fire, according to Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo.

“We managed to protect the most precious treasures in a safe place,” a Paris City Hall spokesperson told CNN.

However it has not been confirmed whether individual items such as a fragment of the True Cross and one of the Holy Nails were saved.

Granted, the Crown of Thorns is qualified by saying that “some believe it was placed on the head of Jesus”, but the fragment of the True Cross and one of the Holy Nails are presented as if they were real relics. And the reporter on NBC Nightly News certainly didn’t qualify these relics.

Even the New York Times didn’t hedge that much:

While one treasure, a relic of the crown of thorns said to have been worn by Jesus during his crucifixion, was saved, the status of other historic items is unclear.

Yes, the crown was “said to have been worn by Jesus”, but the fact of Jesus’s crucifixion (much less the identity of the Jesus person) is not established historically. The “other historic items”, like the nail that went through Jesus, aren’t “historic” in the sense that their provenance is established, but only in that they were historically seen by the credulous as being real.

Perhaps I’m being overly captious, but the chances are very high that these relics are dubious; it’s as if the press reported “It has not been confirmed whether the runner from Santa’s sleigh was saved.” Wikipedia lists over a dozen related relics, either individual thorns from the Crown of Thorns or fragments of the entire crown, preserved at various places.  Like the Shroud of Turin and many other relics of Jesus, these are fakes, products of a Jesus-relic industry in the Middle Ages.

Here’s the supposed Crown preserved in a gold reliquary at Notre Dame:

Another view (could there be Jesus’s DNA on it from bloodstains?):

Reuters: Philippe Wojazer

As for the crucifixion nails, it’s true that nails have been found in tombs in Israel that were driven through bone, and were likely used in crucifixions, but none of these has been identified as a Jesus Nail (and how could it be given that his bones would have gone missing?), and there are at least three separate crucifixions involved.  Here’s a nail that was driven through the hand:

Here’s the “Holy Nail” from Notre Dame:

(Photo by: Godong/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Re the piece of the True Cross, well, let’s start with some carbon dating on that.

Here’s a tweet from a global news agency failing to qualify the “Crown of Thorns” although it does hedge on St. Louis’s tunic. And of course the artefacts are replaceable; you just cobble together another crown out of dried twigs.

I’m not trying to be churlish here, but just reporting how religious myths subtly become reinforced by the press.  (Caveat: some places, including the Guardian, hedges all these relics with an indication that they’re “believed to be real”.) At any rate, the value and beauty of Notre Dame, which are undeniable, are to me completely independent of the truth of Christian mythology, which I see as false. The Rose Windows are infinitely more valuable to our culture than a nail of dubious origin. But such is faith.

Notre Dame severely damaged; roof collapses: cathedral may be forever lost

April 15, 2019 • 3:00 pm

Well, the roof of Notre Dame collapsed in the fire and the damage is horribly severe. There’s a timely report at The New York Times (click on screenshot below):

They still don’t know how the fire started, but here’s what the NYT says:

André Finot, a spokesman for the cathedral, said in a telephone interview that the cause of the fire remained unknown, and there was no immediate indication that anyone had been hurt.

“It’s not about the faith — Notre-Dame is a symbol of France,” said Emmanuel Guary, a 31-year-old actor who was among a huge crowd amassed on the Rue Rivoli, on the Right Bank. Many had tears in their eyes.

After part of the spire collapsed, the fire appeared to spread across the rooftop, where the growing flames licked the sky and projected a yellow smoke over the horizon.

. . . The French police rushed in and started blowing whistles, telling everyone to move back, witnesses said. By then, the flames were towering, spilling out of multiple parts of the cathedral. Tourists and residents alike came to a standstill, pulling out their phones to call their loved ones. Older Parisians began to cry, lamenting how their national treasure was quickly being lost.

. . .Vincent Dunn, a fire consultant and former New York City fire chief, said that fire hose streams could not reach the top of such a cathedral, and that reaching the top on foot was often an arduous climb over winding steps.

“These cathedrals and houses of worship are built to burn,” he said. “If they weren’t houses of worship, they’d be condemned.”

Apparently they couldn’t do a forest-fire-like drop of water from the air, as that, they say, might have caused the entire edifice to collapse. There will be plenty of recriminations in the next week. I’m just unspeakably sad. Yes, it was a religious structure, but that doesn’t detract from its historical significance, its beauty, and the emotional effect it has on many (including me).

The pictures and videos below show the fire in the interior, and that probably means that the stained-glass windows, the choir, and other works of art are destroyed. It will never be the same again.

Some photos:

Credit Charles Platiau/Reuters

This is such a sad picture:

Credit Thibault Camus/Associated Press
Francois Guillot/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images


Paris’s Notre Dame Cathedral is on fire

April 15, 2019 • 12:45 pm

This was just reported, and you can see a scanty report at the BBC. It looks quite serious:

The cause of the blaze was not immediately clear, but officials say that it could be linked to renovation work.

Images on social media show plumes of smoke billowing into the air above the 850-year-old Gothic building.

Last year, the Catholic Church in France launched an urgent appeal for funds to save the cathedral, which was starting to crumble.

A major operation is under way to tackle the blaze, which broke out on Monday afternoon, and an area surrounding the building in central Paris has been cleared, officials said.


Click on the second tweet below to go to a livestream of the fire, or click here.


I’ve spent many hours in the lovely building, and even went to Christmas Mass one year, just to see the celebrations and smell the incense. It looks like it’s mostly the roof that will be damaged, but you can be sure that French firefighters will do their very best to stop the blaze, for this is one of the world’s great religious sites and of course a major tourist draw to Paris.

h/t: Grania

When the Big One hits the U.S.

July 20, 2015 • 11:00 am

Professor Ceiling Cat has an article that he highly recommends you read. It’s in the latest New Yorker, and is called “The really big one” by Kathryn Schulz (subtitle: “An earthquake will destroy a sizable portion of the coastal Northwest. The question is when.”). It’s a superbly researched and written account (also free to access) of what’s going to happen when the Big Earthquake hits not California, but the Pacific Northwest.  The scenario is not pretty, with at least 30,000 deaths and massive destruction of the infrastructure. Here’s a short excerpt:

When the next very big earthquake hits, the northwest edge of the continent, from California to Canada and the continental shelf to the Cascades, will drop by as much as six feet and rebound thirty to a hundred feet to the west—losing, within minutes, all the elevation and compression it has gained over centuries. Some of that shift will take place beneath the ocean, displacing a colossal quantity of seawater. (Watch what your fingertips do when you flatten your hand.) The water will surge upward into a huge hill, then promptly collapse. One side will rush west, toward Japan. The other side will rush east, in a seven-hundred-mile liquid wall that will reach the Northwest coast, on average, fifteen minutes after the earthquake begins. By the time the shaking has ceased and the tsunami has receded, the region will be unrecognizable. Kenneth Murphy, who directs FEMA’s Region X, the division responsible for Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and Alaska, says, “Our operating assumption is that everything west of Interstate 5 will be toast.”

In the Pacific Northwest, everything west of Interstate 5 covers some hundred and forty thousand square miles, including Seattle, Tacoma, Portland, Eugene, Salem (the capital city of Oregon), Olympia (the capital of Washington), and some seven million people. When the next full-margin rupture happens, that region will suffer the worst natural disaster in the history of North America. Roughly three thousand people died in San Francisco’s 1906 earthquake. Almost two thousand died in Hurricane Katrina. Almost three hundred died in Hurricane Sandy. FEMA projects that nearly thirteen thousand people will die in the Cascadia earthquake and tsunami. Another twenty-seven thousand will be injured, and the agency expects that it will need to provide shelter for a million displaced people, and food and water for another two and a half million. “This is one time that I’m hoping all the science is wrong, and it won’t happen for another thousand years,” Murphy says

In fact, the science is robust, and one of the chief scientists behind it is Chris Goldfinger. Thanks to work done by him and his colleagues, we now know that the odds of the big Cascadia earthquake [magnitude 8.0-8.6] happening in the next fifty years are roughly one in three. The odds of the very big one [magnitude 8.7-9.2]  are roughly one in ten.

. . . Together, the sloshing, sliding, and shaking will trigger fires, flooding, pipe failures, dam breaches, and hazardous-material spills. Any one of these second-order disasters could swamp the original earthquake in terms of cost, damage, or casualties—and one of them definitely will. Four to six minutes after the dogs start barking, the shaking will subside. For another few minutes, the region, upended, will continue to fall apart on its own. Then the wave will arrive, and the real destruction will begin.

Don’t miss this article. If you live west of Interstate 5, you may want to move, as the quake is way overdue.

h/t: Diane G.

Did they find the lost plane?

April 5, 2014 • 4:54 am

I just got this on my emailed CNN News bulletin, but can’t find confirmation anywhere else:

Chinese ship discovers pulse signal with frequency of 37.5 kHz in southern Indian Ocean, state news agency Xinhua says.

According to Hydro International, that’s the right frequency for a “black box” (my emphasis):

All commercial air transport (CAT) aircraft are fitted with underwater locator beacons to assist in the relocation of black box flight data recorders (FDRs) and cockpit voice recorders (CVRs). These beacons are free-running pingers transmitting at an acoustic frequency of 37.5kHz with a claimed battery life of at least 30 days.

I hope this doesn’t prove to be one of the many false alarms, for the relatives and friends of those aboard the Malaysia Air flight have had a horribly emotional roller-coaster ride. I suspect, however, that this is indeed the plane.


UPDATE: As one reader noted below, the ABC News said this:

The signal was detected by the Haixun 01 vessel around 25 degrees south latitude and 101 degrees east longitude, the Xinhua agency reports.

However there is no evidence so far that the signal is linked to MH370.

I’d say, however, that since the signals last only 30 days, and there’s no evidence of other planes having gone down in the area in the last year, this is evidence linking the signal to the Malaysia Air flight.