Friday, December 04, 2020

Manhattanhenge, Milankovitch, and Mystical Miscalculations

 Last weekend was the reverse Manhattanhenge in New York City. In order to explain what this is, I must first explain the Manhattanhenge, and in order to explain that, we need to start with the Stonehenge, in England.

Stonehenge is a Neolithic-to-Bronze age stone construction in Southwest England, It’s key feature, for the purposes of this article, is that part of it, the heel stone, is astronomically aligned such that at the summer solstice, the sun rises over it (as seen from the middle of Stonehenge.)

Manhattanhenge, then, is when the sun sets in alignment with the cross streets of Manhattan. This does not happen on the solstice, however; it generally happens about a month before and after the summer solstice. A reverse Manhattanhenge, then, is when the sunRISE is aligned with the cross streets in Manhattan. This generally happens a month before and after the winter solstice. For example, last Monday.

The reason for this is that the streets of Manhattan are aligned 29 degrees north of west, and the sun doesn’t set that far north at New York’s latitude until it reaches a declination of 22 degrees. That is, the sun is straight overhead at noon at a latitude of 22 degrees north. The maximum declination reached by the sun is about 23.2 degrees, which is the axial tilt of the Earth at the present time

Of course, as geologists, we are not bound to the present time. We can, and do explore deep geologic time routinely. And one of the things that changes over geologic time is the magnitude of the Earth’s axial tilt.

Milankovitch cycles are regular changes in the Earth’s orbit that are caused by the gravitational pull of the moon and other planets. One of the parameters which changes is the Earth’s axial tilt. When the tilt is larger, the seasons are more extreme, and when it is smaller, they are less extreme. For most of the Quaternary, from about 2.6 million years ago to about 1 million years ago, this cycle was the dominant influence on the Earth’s ice ages.

In terms of its influence on Manhattanhenge, that is easier to explain. A larger axial tilt would move both the normal and reverse events away from each other, so that the May and July events would both be farther from the Solstice. A smaller axial tile would move these events closer together, and nearer to the solstice. In fact, when the Earth’s axial tilt drops to 22 degrees, then, just like at Stonehenge today, the sunrise and sunset alignment will coincide with the winter and summer solstices.

A common theme in 20th century speculative fiction, which is still sometimes repeated today, is that Earth’s Neolithic to early bronze age edifice-building civilizations worshipped the sky because they had alien patrons which would come to Earth and assist them with the otherwise implausibly large edifices which they built. While this theory has previously been used in science fiction to explain the Egyptian Pyramids or the Stonehenge, I do not know that it has been applied to Manhattan. However, as geologists, we have the tools to do seen if and when this happened.

First, we need a Milankovitch calculator. These can be found on the web, via either NASA or Colorado State University. Then, we can use the Milankovitch cycles to date *when* the aliens came to set up the urban street grid, based on when the Milankovitch cycles last dropped the Earth’s tilt to 22.0 degrees.

Unfortunately, like many science fiction ideas, this one gets less brilliant the longer we look at the numbers.  Any date for the alien founding of Manhattan needs to be less than about 17000 years ago, since before that the island was buried under a glacial ice sheet. This is a problem, because Axial tilt is currently declining; it reached a maximum about 9000 years ago, and hasn’t been lower than the current level for 19,000 years, a time when Manhattan was in the deep freeze. So it seems unlikely that the streets were laid out to align with the solstice. But there’s a more fundamental problem.

The last tilt minimum was 29,000 years ago. But the tilt at that time was 22.2 degrees- in otherwords, the tilt never got low enough to put Manhattanhenge on the Solstice. Now, as it happens, the magnitude of the tilt cycle varies a fair bit from cycle to cycle. The previous minimum, 70,000 years ago, had a tilt of 22.3 degrees (according to the Colorado State University model linked above). In fact, at no time on the past 5 million years does the tilt drop to 22.0 degrees to put Manhattanhenge on the Solstice.

A responsible researcher would give up at this point and conclude that the streets were laid out on the angle decided in 1811, just like all supporting documents state. But because I’m blogging after midnight, I’m going to double down on the crazy:

What if TIME TRAVELLING aliens sent a message back in time to set New York up on this angle to align with a future solstice? After all, it turns out that in 4.77 million years, if New York is still around, the Earth’s tilt will drop to 22.0 degrees, and whoever is still left in the Tri State Area will be able to head into The City and watch the sunset between the skyscrapers on the longest day of the year. I hope they aren’t still in lockdown when that happens.

Sunday, October 25, 2020

A Crisis of Accountability

“With great power comes great responsibility”


In 2002, when this was the tag line for a superhero movie, it was an obvious to everyone. Literal popcorn stuff. How times have changed. Over the past decade, in particular, the world has been suffering from an increasing accountability crisis, where instead of coming with great responsibility, power is increasingly used to avoid responsibility.


This is not a partisan thing- it happens from the most left wing countries to the most reactionary ones. Nor is it restricted to government. Many of the post-financial crisis business models, such as the gig economy and many debt repackaging schemes, involve taking profit while evading the associated risk.


I’m not entirely sure why this is happening now. In government, it may be related to the rise of strongmen in the wake of the Arab Spring failure and the alienation of Putin by the G7 in the earl-to-mid teens. Strongmen, almost by definition, use their power to repress criticism and avoid responsibility, and try to minimize their accountability. If they had actual accomplishments, then they wouldn’t have to use threats and lies to distract from their records.


The transformation of the internet into a disinformation superhighway probably plays a role as well, But disinformation is only a tool, not a payoff. However, it can distract from the rapid movement of ideas and capital, which allow grift to mutiply like never before.


But these aren’t the main problem. The main problem is the mindset that somehow, some one somewhere will clean up the mess left behind. Grifters assume that they can just move on to somewhere they can spend their ill gotten wealth. But even though we live on a big old planet, technology has shrunk it to the point where they can trash and loot all of it before they realize that there is nowhere left to go.

Wednesday, October 07, 2020

Henry VI, part one: The Joan of Arc cut

William Shakespeare’s history plays Henry V and Richard III are two of his, and English-speaking Theatre's, greatest plays. They are also among his best known works. Less famous, however, are the three Henry VI plays- these are basically the historical filler between the death of Henry V and the famous Winter of Discontent. 

The second two Henry VI plays are about the civil strife that hurled England into the War of the Roses; part one is about the loss of French territories, and is rarely performed except in conjunction with the other two parts. In fact, it may only partially be Shakespeare’s work; recent scholarship has suggested that it was co-written by Christopher Marlowe.

The play starts with the funeral of Henry V, and follows the feuding between various English factions as Joan of Arc cuts a swath through the English holdings in France. In fact, Joan is the most interesting character in the play. 

Shakespeare didn’t write a lot of great women roles. Women weren’t even allowed to perform during his career, so there probably wasn’t much demand. Still, his Joan is not too different to a modern heroine. As most Shakespeare plays these days are cut for length anyway, I tried to cut it in a way that highlighted Joan’s story, and not that of the hapless English.

In the full play, the one sympathetic Englishman of substance is Talbot. He’s a bit of a Mary Sue, and is actually quite dull, so most of the cuts relate to other people praising him. This makes him seem more vainglorious (he still praises himself), and heightens the tragedy of his son believing everything he says about his greatness.

The other cuts are extraneous sideplots and foreshadowing of the subsequent plays. This is Joan’s story, not the setup for the War of the Roses. When the Henry VI plays get combined, often those scenes are the only ones kept, so I can lose them. Aside from that, just a few of the more vitriolic jabs at Joan towards the end had to go to make her story consistent and compelling.

Of course, editing a Shakespeare play to highlight the French over their pathetic English adversaries might feel treacherous to the denizens of that island where, as Joan says, “May the glorious sun never reflex his beams.” So I decided to twist the knife by using as my reference the Folger Shakespeare Library version; an American edition of the text. 

So, in their entirety, the cuts to the Folger Shakespeare Library version of Henry VI, part 1, are as follows:

Act 1, scene 1: 

Cut lines 25-27

Cut lines 122-136 (Joan, not Talbot, is the focus of this edit)

Cut lines 141-142

Act 1 scene 2

Cut lines 13-24 

Cut lines 35-36

Act 2, scene 1:

Cut everything (including directions) after line 81

Act 2 scene 2:

Cut entire scene (Not Talbot’s play)

Act 2 scene 3

Cut entire scene (Not Talbot’s play)

Act 2 scene 5

Cut entire scene (setup for sequel plays)

Act 3 scene 3

Cut lines 58-59

Cut lines 78-80

Cut line 85

Act 3 scene 4

Cut entire scene

Act 4 scene 1

Cut everything (including directions) after line 78

Act 4 scene 2

Cut lines 31-34

Act 4 scene 7

Cut lines 40-44

Cut lines 48-51

Act 5 scene 3

Cut lines 10-11

Cut lines 14-22

Cut line 28

Cut “But Suffolk Stay” from line 192

Cut lines 193 to end of scene

Act 5 scene 4

Cut lines 7-8

Cut lines 10-16

Cut lines 18-19

Cut “Now cursed be the time” from line 26

Cut lines 27-34

Cut lines 38-39

Cut “Hath been” from line 50

Cut lines 51-53

Cut lines 61-85

Act 5 scene 5

Cut entire scene (this sets up the next play)

Sunday, September 20, 2020

Geosonnet 65

Speed dating is a scattershot affair
Which blasts the hearts of river zircon grains
No magic mirror can discern the fair
And youngest zircon sediment contains.
If dating based on chemistry is used
The youngest grain is easier to find.
But chemistry is tedious! Abused
Statistics can be questioned and refined.
The youngest kernel density’s a crone
The youngest single grain is way too young,
Statistical young grouping’s in the zone
Though less exacting than the dates Tims’s brung
So settle down, this zircon dating’s docile
Until you try to match it with a fossil.

Geology 47 1044

Other geosonnets: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47 48 49 50 51 52 53 54 55 56 57 58 59 60 61 62 63 64  65 66  67 68 69

Sunday, March 08, 2020

Book Review: Illegal, by Prof Elizabeth F Cohen

      The knock on the door came well before dawn in the eighties, and our train had stopped dead in utter darkness. It was a sleeper train, and it was about to be sealed. We were taking the overnighter from Munich to West Berlin, and the train, which had to traverse East Germany, was being inspected before being sent on its no-stops-allowed run behind the iron curtain to democratic West Berlin.
      The German Democratic Republic, aka East Germany, was a communist regime. For any of you too young to remember the Soviet era, this meant that the Government was essentially unlimited and all-powerful. There was no balance of power between government and corporations because the government owned every business larger than a family store. There was no balance between workers and management because labor unions were banned, There was no balance between church and state because religion was illegal. And there was no balance between political parties because only the Communist party was allowed to exist.
      Among the Eastern Bloc Communist countries, however, East Germany had a reputation as being particularly sadistic. There was a vast secret police force which spied on its own citizens. To prevent East Germans from escaping to the free world, they built walls and fences, laid mines, and gave armed guards orders to shoot to kill. And now we, a bunch of sleepy American high school students, were about to cross that border to transit to West Berlin, a sole island of freedom deep within the repressive East German State. There was just one problem.
      Not all of us were actually Americans. My bunkmate (who shall remain anonymous) was on a green card. His passport was issued by India. 
      Despite the fundamental differences between the Communist countries and the West, by the 80’s the Communist countries were generally happy to have Western tourists. The Communist economies weren’t very efficient, and they were reliant on US dollars or other western currency to keep them financially sound. So having American school kids pass through was fine. Indians were another story, however.
Even though socialist India of the 80’s was much more philosophically aligned with East Germany than the US was, it was also a much poorer country. And although the communists espoused equality among people and the redistribution of wealth, that didn’t extend to letting the “Asian Hordes” stream into the country, live off welfare, disrupt the cultural homogeneity and steal jobs. My bunkmate was supposed to have a visa, but due to a mistake by our teacher, he had arrived at the world’s most heavily controlled border without one. And on that eighties evening, the two uniformed East German Border agents accosting us in our sleeping compartment on that train were telling us all about it in shouty German.
      That was over 30 years ago. That border, and Communist Germany, no longer exist. But there is a darker side to America’s victory of freedom and democracy over the cruel communist state. As Professor Cohen describes in her new book, “Illegal”, since the fall of communism the United States has fortified its own borders, militarized the border force, eroded the rights of its people, and overridden the checks and balances that distinguish the Free World from despotic regimes. 
      “Illegal” briskly tells the story of the last 100+ years of US border policy and law. Starting with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, and proceeding up to the current US administration, Cohen lays out the facts of the laws as they are passed, the intention behind them, and the zeitgeist which called for their formation.
      This is not a detached, theoretical treatise. Although it is rigorously researched and referenced, it is intensely personal and emotional. The introduction starts with the story of Cohen’s mother’s journey to America as a Jewish refugee from post-war Europe. The first chapter, which details the current abuses of the Customs & Border Patrol and Immigration & Customs Enforcement (CPB and ICE) agencies is scathing it its description of the inhumane treatment of suspected illegal immigrants happening right now in the Land of the Free.
      Back on the 80’s train, the shouty border guards gave way to the Very Quiet supervisor. After quickly confirming that our Russian was even worse than our German, he managed, through halting English and slow repetitive German, to explain the situation we were in. And he had a choice to make. Inside of East Germany, the security forces’ power was absolute. But there was a broader picture. 
      The entire Cold War, in a nutshell, was a competition between the Communist and Democratic world over who could build a superior civilization after the ruinous destruction of the Second World War. The fact that Germany was divided into East and West, with a Federal Republican government on one side and a Centralized Communist one on the other, was the very essence of this competition. And a key weapon in this struggle was propaganda. It would be bad publicity to strand or disappear a kid from an American school.
      Of course, publicity requires the ability to discover and propagate knowledge about the actions or events which one wishes to publicize. And one of the key highlights of this book is Cohen’s ability to put all the pieces half-hidden in the shadows together. For example, while it has been obvious to even the most casual observer of government affairs that secrecy has been abused for practically all of the War on Terror, Illegal shows not just the abusive actions which are covered up, but the lobbyists and motivations behind corrupting the security apparatus to persecute peaceful foreigners in the first place.
      The first several chapters of Illegal show that racism has been a central driving force for immigration control ever since it was first practiced with the Chinese Exclusion act. While side issues like labor, “coolieism,” and humanity occasionally played a role, the force driving the main advocates for crueler borders from the 1880’s to today has been to keep America white. 
      This was unsurprising in the days before WWII, when white superiority was common in American society. But the insidious feature of immigration law that Cohen documents is that even as white supremacy has become more of a fringe belief, the few very rich and powerful people who subscribe to it have been able to build stronger and more robust lobby groups to restrict non-white immigrants, so that their racist policies, dressed up in sham excuses, have become bipartisan and been strengthened by all of the last four administrations, including that of the first black President.
      The scope of this stealth white supremacy was astonishing. Particularly surprising to me was that the White Supremacist heiress, Cordelia Scaife May, was behind the infiltration of the Sierra Club by low population growth “environmental” activists. Having worked a little with the Sierra Student Coalition in college,I knew these people existed, and had in fact argued against them, but I had naively assumed that they were arguing in good faith, and were not in fact paid shills.
      Back in the 80’s, the STASI goons eventually waved us through. We were lucky in that the big picture connotations outweighed meeting a quota. But even so, it was a formative experience. And seeing America adopt the lack of due process and cruel and unusual border tactics used by the commies makes me seethe with anger. I’m not saying that borders don’t need to be controlled, but they can be controlled in a way that demonstrates American values instead of eroding them. The last chapter of Illegal makes several specific suggestions as to how this can be done.
      Illegal is much mare fast-paced and accessible that Cohen’s academic books, like The Political Value of Time.  It relies on endnotes and references instead of digressions to fill in the details, making the book a non-fiction page turner in the manner of the 9/11 Commission report. Obviously your’s lived experience will affect what you take away from the book, but for me it was terrifyingly addicive.  I recommend it for anyone who believes in American values.

Disclaimer. Both of you who are longtime readers of this blog and are still here might be wondering how it is that a Gen-X political theory professor from Syracuse features so prominently in the book reviews here at the empirical Lounge. Given the standard topics here, this emphasis in political philosophy may seem somewhat anomalous. And this is a fair call. But it just so happens, Dr Cohen is someone I have known personally since before we liberated Eastern Europe. We went to junior high and high school together, and as relatively few people at our school took German, we had that class together for four years. In fact, although the girls were bunking at the other end of the Carriage and the goons with Kalashnikovs prevented them from seeing our ordeal, she was also on that train. 

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Geosonnet 64

When Perseus, Medusa’s head in hand,
Returned triumphant from the Gorgon’s isle,
He sold himself as hero of the land,
No stony witnesses could cramp his style.
When older larger monsters were destroyed,
No Greek boast twisted dinosaurs’ last stand.
To know the source of mammals’ schadenfreude,
Interrogate the Gorgon Island’s sand.
A spherule bed is present in the rock
Old microtektites still containing glass
The argon age is Chicxulub’s great shock,
American ejecta cumulates en masse.
   Thus impact-based extinction we construe.
   With mythic monsters vanquished, ferns regrew.

Other geosonnets: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47 48 49 50 51 52 53 54 55 56 57 58 59 60 61 62 63 64 

Thursday, February 06, 2020

Geosonnet 63


The Tragomys, like Creagh a desert rat,
Evolving on the hamster wheel of time
Scampered across the desert habitat
Of arid climates close to maritime.
But though they like to sunbathe, they don’t swim.
A beach bum never venturing to sea
Won’t paddle to an island on a whim;
Mallorca Strait stops them assuredly.
But when Mediterranean dries up
By isolation from the global seas
Then rodents which can’t swim can walk or jump
Populating peninsula with ease.
The hamsters, gerbils both confirm the tale
Messinian evaporates regale.

Other geosonnets: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47 48 49 50 51 52 53 54 55 56 57 58 59 60 61 62 63 64