Archive for April, 2010
A new edition of The Intellectual Devotional, this time with a focus on Biographies, will be available online and in stores on May 11. As the release date approaches, “The Devoted Intellect” blog will introduce and expand on material from that book. Today’s entry on “Atatürk” draws from the “Leaders” section of the Biographies edition.
“One day my mortal body will turn to dust, but the Turkish Republic will stand forever.”
- Mustafa Kemal Pasha Atatürk.
Mustafa Kemal Pasha Atatürk (1881-1938) was a Turkish army officer, revolutionary statesman, writer, and both the founder and first President of the Republic of Turkey. A man of superhuman energy and ambition, Atatürk embarked upon a sweeping program of political, economic, and cultural reforms during his presidency. Radically secular in his philosophy, Atatürk relentlessly sought to transform Turkey into a modern, democratic, and secular nation-state, and was remarkably successful considering what he was up against.
In 1927, Atatürk delivered the speech to end all speeches to the Congress of the Cumhuriyet Halk Firkasi (Republican People’s Party). Referred to simply as “Nutuk” (“The Speech”) in Turkey, this was not your everyday, run-of-the-mill political speech. Epic in scope and content, “Nutuk” it was a whopping thirty-six hours and thirty-one minutes long, delivered over the course of six days to a captive Congress. Amongst (MANY) other things, Atatürk went into some detail about the history of the Independence Struggle of Turkey against the Allies (1919-1922). Not one for false modesty, Atatürk also spoke at length about his own heroic military leadership during the Struggle, just in case the audience had forgotten that he was a force to be reckoned with.
Central to Atatürk’s world-view was his belief that Turkey’s history reflected a constant narrative of unrelenting struggle against both external (foreign invaders) and internal (religious fundamentalists) threats to its autonomy and progress. He was convinced that these threats were so powerful and pervasive that they needed to be dealt with swiftly and comprehensively. His Kemalist reforms brought effective social change on education (genuine public education system) and vastly improved the status of Turkish women (he abolished headscarves and granted women genuine level of voting rights), but were less effective (less popular) with respect to wiping out Turkey’s deeply-rooted feudalism, one of only a few targeted “threats” that outlasted the indomitable general. An end-justifies-the-means kinda guy, Atatürk did not balk at the use of brute force in the service of his goals, as progressive as many of them were. As such, his legacy is a complicated one.
As an aside, I must confess that I would probably agree to just about anything after listening to a thirty-six hour speech, if only to make him wrap it up. And I bet he wasn’t even a little bit hoarse afterward. He probably even kicked himself later for leaving this or that point out. All I can say is that I am glad he never became a college professor…
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A new edition of The Intellectual Devotional, this time with a focus on Biographies, will be available online and in stores on May 11. As the release date approaches, “The Devoted Intellect” blog will introduce and expand on material from that book. Today’s entry on “Erwin Rudolf Josef Alexander Schrödinger” draws from the “Innovators” section of the Biographies edition.
Q: Two cats are on a roof. Which slides off first?
A: The one with the smaller mew (mu).
- A popular and extremely lame joke within Physicist circles about the thought experiment known as “Schrödinger’s cat”
Erwin Rudolf Josef Alexander Schrödinger was an Austrian theoretical physicist who became famous for his contributions to quantum mechanics, especially the Schrödinger equation, for which he received the Nobel Prize in 1933. In 1935, after extensive correspondence with his BFF Albert Einstein, he developed the brilliantly quirky thought experiment known as “Schrödinger’s cat”.
“Schrödinger’s cat” is as a paradox that succinctly illustrated the conceptual problems in quantum mechanics. It goes something like this: A cat is placed in a box, together with a radioactive atom. If the atom decays, and the geiger-counter detects an alpha particle, the hammer hits a flask of prussic acid (HCN), killing the cat. The paradox lies in the clever coupling of quantum and classical domains. Before the observer opens the box, the cat’s fate is tied to the wave function of the atom, which is itself in a superposition of decayed and undecayed states. Thus, said Schroedinger, the cat must itself be in a superposition of dead and alive states before the observer opens the box, “observes” the cat, and “collapses” its wave function.
Schrödinger described his cat paradox thusly:
“One can even set up quite ridiculous cases. A cat is penned up in a steel chamber, along with the following diabolical device (which must be secured against direct interference by the cat): in a Geiger counter there is a tiny bit of radioactive substance, so small that perhaps in the course of one hour one of the atoms decays, but also, with equal probability, perhaps none; if it happens, the counter tube discharges and through a relay releases a hammer which shatters a small flask of hydrocyanic acid. If one has left this entire system to itself for an hour, one would say that the cat still lives if meanwhile no atom has decayed. The first atomic decay would have poisoned it. The Psi function for the entire system would express this by having in it the living cat and the dead cat mixed or smeared out in equal parts.”
The philosophical issues raised by Schrödinger’s cat are still hotly debated today and remain his most enduring legacy in popular science. If you still don’t really get it, don’t sweat it: physicists are from Mars, the rest of us must accept the fact that we are merely human.
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A new edition of The Intellectual Devotional, this time with a focus on Biographies, will be available online and in stores on May 11. As the release date approaches, “The Devoted Intellect” blog will introduce and expand on material from that book. Today’s entry on “Ann Lee” draws from the “Preachers and Prophets” section of the Biographies edition.
“Do your work as though you had a thousand years to live and as if you were to die tomorrow.”
“Put your hands to work, and your heart to God.”- Shaker hymn
Ann Lee (1736-1784) was the founder of the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing, or Shakers, in the United States. Born in England, she was baptized and raised in the Anglican faith. Lee was reportedly squeamish about sex from the get-go, and she stalwartly attempted to abstain from marriage and remain single. Unfortunately for Ann, her father was unsympathetic to this position, and he eventually railroaded her into marrying. Unsurprisingly, her marriage was an unmitigated disaster, exacerbated by her loss of eight children (four stillbirths and four living children, none of whom lived past the age of 6).
Suffice it to say, her difficult pregnancies and the loss of EIGHT children did little to thaw her frigidity. In 1758 she left her husband and joined the Wardleys, an English sect founded by Jane and preacher James Wardley (a precursor to the Shaker sect). The Wardleys believed that shaking and trembling during religious services was caused by sin being purged from the body by the power of the Holy Spirit, which purified the worshipper. She began teaching and cultivated a sect of devoted followers who believed that she embodied all of the perfections of God in the female form. Ann thought so too; she believed she was Christ’s female counterpart.
Lee preached that sinfulness could be avoided by not only treating men and women equally, but also by keeping them separated so as to prevent any sort of temptation leading to impure acts. Lee eventually tired of the religious persecution in England, and immigrated to the United States in the early 1770s, accompanied by a select group of her followers. Under Lee’s leadership, her followers became known as the “Shakers,” because they worshiped by ecstatic dancing or “shaking”. The Shakers were best known for their wholesale rejection of sexual relations and their intense work ethic, which they channeled towards making really great furniture. You have to sublimate that id somehow….
Unsurprisingly, the Shakers eventually died out for reasons that need not be mentioned. They left some great end tables though.
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A new edition of The Intellectual Devotional, this time with a focus on Biographies, will be available online and in stores on May 11. As the release date approaches, “The Devoted Intellect” blog will introduce and expand on material from that book. Today’s entry on “Torquemada” draws from the “Villains” section of the Biographies edition.
Tomas de Torquemada (1420-1498) served as the Grand Inquisitor during Spain’s zealous movement to forcefully restore Christianity among its populace in the late fifteenth century. Known for his religious fanaticism and fierce loyalty to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, Torquemada was granted the power to preside over an organization of ecclesiastical courts which imprisoned, tortured, and burned an estimated 2,000 suspected nonbelievers at the stake during his reign of terror. He was also one of the chief supporters of the Alhambra decree, which resulted in the mass expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492. Just your everyday, all around great guy, that Torquemada….
Unsurprisingly, it is now widely believed that Torquemada’s own grandmother was actually a converso; a.k.a. a converted Jew and New Christian. Spain had more converted Jews than any other country, which is unsurprising in light of the relentless persecution and forcefully coerced conversions endured by its non-Christian inhabitants. Some, called Marranos, were only nominally converted, and continued their Jewish customs in secret. Unsurprisingly, Christian fanatics like Torquemada became increasingly obsessed with eradicating these “fake” Christians, which they themselves had created via forced conversions.
Torquemada and his followers felt that the marranos were undermining the teachings of Jesus Christ and that they somehow gravely endangered the Roman Catholic Church. Thus, Catholics were urged to view all converses with suspicion, and were encouraged to spy on their neighbors and snitch on suspected marranos. Torquemada’s office even published a pamphlet, chock full of helpful tips in how to identify covertly practicing Jews in their midst, such as:
“If you see that your neighbors are wearing clean and fancy clothes on Saturdays, they are Jews.”
“If they clean their houses on Fridays and light candles earlier than usual on that night, they are Jews.
“If they eat unleavened bread and begin their meals with celery and lettuce during Holy Week, they are Jews.”
“If they say prayers facing a wall, bowing back and forth, they are Jews.”
Sadly, Torquemada never got his comeuppance during his lifetime; he died of natural causes at the age of 78 in some picaresque monastery where he probably spent his golden years brewing fine crafted beer and aging small batches of artisinal cheeses. However, the Spanish Inquisition went on for another 336 years without its patron saint, until it was finally abolished in 1834.
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A new edition of The Intellectual Devotional, this time with a focus on Biographies, will be available online and in stores on May 11. As the release date approaches, “The Devoted Intellect” blog will introduce and expand on material from that book. Today’s entry on “Vlad the Impaler” draws from the “Villains” section of the Biographies edition.
Long before the popular teen lit series “Twilight” ushered in the era of the painfully sensitive “vegetarian” vampire, Count Dracula reigned supreme as the undisputed alpha male of the undead. Refined, suavely seductive and stubbornly unmoved by the plight of his victims or PETA ad campaigns, Count Dracula’s potent mix of elegance and savagery has captivated the public since the publication of Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” in 1897. While Stoker is credited with making Count Dracula into an icon, he did not invent the character all by himself.
In fact, most literary scholars believe the ever-thirsty Count was based upon the historical figure Vlad Tepes, also known as Vlad III the Impaler, who intermittently ruled an area of the Balkans called Wallachia in the mid 15th century and famously and fiercely resisted the advancing armies of the Ottoman Empire. The word Tepes stands for “impaler” and was so coined because of Vlad’s penchant for brutality. Vlad III’s father, Vlad II Dracul, ascended the throne of Wallachia in 1436 amidst much political turmoil. He was ousted in 1442 by rival factions conspiring with Hungary, but he managed to reclaim his throne by making a truly Faustian bargain with his enemies: he agreed to turn over his two youngest sons, Vlad III and Radu the Handsome, to the Ottoman court as their prisoners in exchange for his crown.
Vlad III was locked up in prison and often whipped and beaten because of his intractable refusal to obey his captors. Ironically, Vlad III was first introduced to impalement, his favorite execution method of choice, while he was a prisoner in Turkey. The years that Vlad spent as an inmate of the hellish Turkish prison system had a great influence on his character and spurred his well-known hatred for the Ottoman Turks. After he was finally released and eventually claimed the throne, he became infamous for executing between 40,000 to 100,000 of his enemies by impaling them on stakes and then displaying them publicly to frighten his enemies and to warn would-be transgressors of his strict moral code. Whatever you might say about his methods, Vlad III inarguably knew the art of psychological warfare.
Interestingly, Vlad III continues to be revered in present-day Romania for his tenacious resistance against the armies of the mighty Ottoman Empire and is generally portrayed as a hero in Romanian folklore and literature. In fact, he is considered one of the greatest leaders in the country’s history, and was voted one of “100 Greatest Romanians” in the “Mari Români” television series aired in 2006. While no one has even tried to describe Vlad III as friendly, many Romanians argue that he has only been portrayed as sadistic by his Anglo-Saxon detractors.
However, the laundry list of atrocities he is said to have committed against his own countrymen for their “moral transgressions” makes it hard to believe that his brutality was solely motivated by patriotic fervor. Interestingly, Vlad III’s most damning characteristic is wholly absent from Count Dracula’s modus operandi; namely, the fact that the man was a hypocrite and his legend is not.
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A new edition of The Intellectual Devotional, this time with a focus on Biographies, will be available online and in stores on May 11. As the release date approaches, “The Devoted Intellect” blog will introduce and expand on material from that book. Today’s entry on “Aeschylus” draws from the “Authors and Artists” section of the Biographies edition.
The earliest of the three Greek tragedians whose plays have survived into modernity, Aeschylus is revered as the “Father of Tragedy” (the others being Sophocles and Euripides). Little is known about his life, but it is believed that he was born into a wealthy family in the small Greek city of Eleusis around the year 525 B.C. His father Euphorion was a member of the Eupatridae, the ancient nobility of Attica. As a youth, he worked at a vineyard until, according to the 2nd-century AD geographer Pausanias, the god Dionysus visited him in a dream and commanded him to turn his attention to the nascent art of tragedy. As soon as he woke from the dream, the young Aeschylus began writing feverishly, and his first play was performed in 499 BC, when he was a mere 26 years old.
The theater was still in its nascent state when Aeschylus first began writing his plays, with little in the way of character or plot development. In fact, most “plays” consisted of a few song and dance acts that might involve short vignettes with a single actor who portrayed one or more characters primarily by the use of masks. Aeschylus pioneered the use of multiple actors and actively incorporated the chorus into the action of the play. Even more impressively, Aeschylus directed many of his own productions, and urban legend has it that one of his performances actually induced a miscarriage in a theatergoer on account of his hyper-realistic and terrifying portrayal of the Furies.
Although historians estimate that Aeschylus wrote over ninety plays during his lifetime, only seven have survived the ravages of time. The most famous of these works, The Oresteia, is a trilogy that traces the bloody end of the curse on the House of Atreus. The trilogy consists of three sequential tragedies- Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers and the Eumenides- and won first prize when it was debuted at the Dionysia festival in Athens in 458 BC. Of its enduring appeal, esteemed German critic, philosopher and linguist William von Humboldt remarked of The Oresteia that, “[A]mong all the products of the Greek stage none can compare with it in tragic power; no other play shows the same intensity and pureness of belief in the divine and good; none can surpass the lessons it teaches, and the wisdom of which it is the mouthpiece.”
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A new edition of The Intellectual Devotional, this time with a focus on Biographies, will be available online and in stores on May 11. As the release date approaches, “The Devoted Intellect” blog will introduce and expand on material from that book. Today’s entry on “Erik the Red” draws from the “Villains” section of the Biographies edition.
Besides his overpoweringly red aura, The Viking explorer Eirikr rauði Þorvaldsson (more commonly known as Erik the Red (950–c. 1003)), is famous for founding the first Nordic settlement in Greenland. According to ancient lore, he was called “The Red” because of his flowing fiery red beard and hair (and perhaps in part because of his notoriously hot-headed and rapacious nature). According to the sagas, Erik’s pugnacious father, Þorvaldr Ásvaldsson, was exiled from Norway in 960 AD as a result of ‘a number of killings’, and Erik’s entire family was forced to relocate to Iceland. Apparently, the apple didn’t fall far from the tree; in 982 Erik was sentenced to exile from Iceland for three years for murder, amongst other things. Fast running out of frigid and sparsely populated Nordic countries where the Red clan was welcome, Erik sailed west in search of a place where his reputation would not precede him. As luck would have it, he discovered Greenland.
Erik was immediately smitten with the stunning fjords and fertile green valleys of this vast and ruggedly beautiful land. Despite his ardor for his new homeland, Erik yearned for a little companionship. So he headed back to Iceland to spread the word of “The green land” that lurked just west of the horizon (false advertising is clearly nothing new- Greenland was indeed “green” at times, but it is also cold enough to make Iceland’s climate feel comparatively tropical). Like many men who possess an unquenchable thirst for power, Erik’s complete lack of moral compunction lent him extraordinary powers of persuasion. By 985 he had managed to convince a fleet of 25 ships, filled to capacity by some 500 men, women, children and domesticated animals, to set sail with him for a “better life” in the land of milk and honey that is NOT Greenland. Sadly, only 14 of the 25 ships that left Iceland actually made it to Greenland. Fortunately, there were enough survivors to start the unenviable task of eking out an existence in a new settlement.
It couldn’t have been easy for Erik the Red’s son, Leif Eriksson, to escape the wide shadow that was cast by his larger-than-life father. However, Leif proved to be a man to be reckoned with in his own right. Leif converted to Christianity while visiting Norway as a young man, and in the 1000 he decided to bring Christian missionaries to spread the word back home with him to Greenland. Soon thereafter, the first Christian church on the North American continent, Tjodhilde’s Church, was built in Brattahlið.
By the year 1000 the Viking societies numbered some 3,000 inhabitants on 300-400 farms, and its inhabitants managed to survive for some 500 years. The reason for the disappearance of this fierce people remains a great mystery. Historians and archaeologists have hypothesized that anything from the difficulties engendered by the often-frigid climate, conflicts with the Inuit people, European pirates, overgrazing and/or bouts of plague could have led to the extinction of the Vikings.
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