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Archive for July, 2008

This is the Antikythera Mechanism, and it’s the oldest computer on Earth, discovered over a century ago in a shipwreck off Crete, and built in the 2nd century BC. We have only now learned about what it is, what it’s for, and what it does through high-resolution computer imagery and three-dimensional X-ray tomography. Reports earlier this year confirmed that it was an astronomical calendar; now we know the full capacities of this machine, perhaps the most sophisticated gear-based mechanism in human history before 18th-century clockworks.

The New York Times reports:

After a closer examination of the Antikythera Mechanism, a surviving marvel of ancient Greek technology, scientists have found that the device not only predicted solar eclipses but also organized the calendar in the four-year cycles of the Olympiad, forerunner of the modern Olympic Games.

Archimedes, who lived in Syracuse and died in 212 B.C., invented a planetarium calculating motions of the Moon and the known planets and wrote a lost manuscript on astronomical mechanisms. Some evidence had previously linked the complex device of gears and dials to the island of Rhodes and the astronomer Hipparchos, who had made a study of irregularities in the Moon’s orbital course.

The new findings, reported Wednesday in the journal Nature, also suggested that the mechanism’s concept originated in the colonies of Corinth, possibly Syracuse, in Sicily. The scientists said this implied a likely connection with the great Archimedes.

Read more from the Times here.

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Granted, it’s not a question that occupies a great deal of attention, but Travel Dynamics International likes to illuminate parts of the world that don’t get a lot of attention. Last April, we were in Freetown (and we will be again, next April). We frequently arrange to have our guests meet local government officials; on this voyage, we were privileged to meet the Deputy Chief of Mission for the US Embassy, Elizabeth Susie Pratt, who gave us this excellent summary of the current political and social issues of Sierra Leone, and that African country’s ties to the United States. The address is featured prominently on the American Embassy’s website.

Good morning ladies and gentlemen. I am pleased to be the first to welcome you to Sierra Leone. I have been the Deputy Chief of Mission at the US Embassy to Sierra Leone for nearly two years now, so I welcome you as I am preparing for my own departure. My time here has been one of exciting changes both in the Embassy and in the country as a whole. Our Embassy moved from our longtime home to a new building up on top of Leicester Peak. Sierra Leone has transitioned from being a country only just emerged from war, with a peace still guarded by a robust UN force, to a reconstructing nation, with a rapidly reducing UN presence, and a democratic election and peaceful civilian to civilian transfer of authority complete.

I think it is important, however, to begin any discussion of U.S.-Sierra Leone relations with a discussion of the historical ties that connect the two countries. The first major contact between America and Sierra Leone was through the slave trade. Captives from this part of Africa were highly sought after for their superior rice-growing abilities. The rice from this part of the world was among the best, and rice was a prime industry in the Carolinas and Georgia. Many Sierra Leoneans found their way to the United States because plantation owners sought them out. Their expertise was invaluable in the southern economy.

Today, there is a population off the coast of South Carolina and Georgia called the Gullah people who trace their roots to the Mende tribe of Sierra Leone. The language they speak is almost identical to the tribal language still spoken here. Their foods, their songs, their dances, and their rituals are all indicative of the African roots many Americans never knew they had. An American scholar by the name of Joseph Opala about 10 years ago was able to connect through DNA testing a woman from that area of the United States to a particular village here in Sierra Leone. That woman’s ancestor, a Sierra Leonean captive named Priscilla, remained in the area of the Southern U.S., and her descendants settled there for generations. When Priscilla’s descendant finally visited the land of her ancestors, it was dubbed “Priscilla’s Homecoming,” and epitomized the strong relationship between our two countries. (more…)

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The Antarctic Peninsula will likely look different when we return to it this December-February, on our cruises aboard Corinthian II.

AFP is reporting that Wilkins Ice Shelf is “hanging by its last thread” to Charcot Island, one of the plate’s key anchors to the Antarctic peninsula.

“Since the connection to the island… helps stabilise the ice shelf, it is likely the breakup of the bridge will put the remainder of the ice shelf at risk,” a press release from the European Space Agency (ESA) said.

Wilkins Ice Shelf had been stable for most of the last century, covering around 16,000 square kilometres (6,000 square miles), or about the size of Northern Ireland, before it began to retreat in the 1990s.

Since then several large areas have broken away, and two big breakoffs this year left only a narrow ice bridge about 2.7 kilometres (1.7 miles) wide to connect the shelf to Charcot and nearby Latady Island.

The latest images, taken by Envisat’s radar, say fractures have now opened up in this bridge and adjacent areas of the plate are disintegrating, creating large icebergs.

Scientists are puzzled and concerned by the event, ESA added.

The Antarctic peninsula — the tongue of land that juts northward from the white continent towards South America — has had one of the highest rates of warming anywhere in the world in recent decades.

But this latest stage of the breakup occurred during the Southern Hemisphere’s winter, when atmospheric temperatures are at their lowest.

One idea is that warmer water from the Southern Ocean is reaching the underside of the ice shelf and thinning it rapidly from underneath.

“Wilkins Ice Shelf is the most recent in a long, and growing, list of ice shelves on the Antarctic Peninsula that are responding to the rapid warming that has occurred in this area over the last fifty years,” researcher David Vaughan of the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) said.

“Current events are showing that we were being too conservative, when we made the prediction in the early 1990s that Wilkins Ice Shelf would be lost within 30 years. The truth is, it is going more quickly than we guessed.”

In the past three decades, six Antarctic ice shelves have collapsed completely — Prince Gustav Channel, Larsen Inlet, Larsen A, Larsen B, Wordie, Muller and the Jones Ice Shelf.
The above images show the partial collapse of Wilkins Ice Shelf in late February/March, 2008; a chunk of ice seven times the size of Manhattan broke off during this event. Considering that Antarctica is now experiencing winter, it is highly unlikely Wilkins will survive in the Antarctic summer.

Sometimes travel brochures are hyperbolic when they say, “A once-in-a-lifetime event” or “see it now before it disappears!”

And sometimes they’re just telling the truth.

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This is Anne.

And this is the House of Green Gables.

The former is a fictional character; the latter is an actual house on Prince Edward Island. We visit it next year on our Canada’s Historic Cities and Waterways and Canada’s Maritime Provinces: A Fall Foliage Cruise. And today, Anne of Green Gables, the wonderful young-adult novel by L.M. Montgomery, is 100 years old. Slate.com has a fantastic retrospective of the book, beginning with Mark Twain’s tremendous comment that Anne is “”the dearest and most lovable child in fiction since the immortal Alice.”

Reporter Meaghan O’Rourke gives us a lovely, succinct account of Anne’s perennial charm. “She enables adults to reconnect with the childish soul within,” O’Rourke writes. She thinks Anne’s hero status stems from “her habit of radical alertness”:

Nearly always, imagination comes first for Anne: before social expectations, before conventional romantic customs, and even before her gender’s storied instinct to please and reassure. Because she is starved for human love, her primary attachment is to the natural world. As she approaches Green Gables for the first time with Matthew, she excitedly renames the landscape around her, dubbing a neighbor’s pond “The Lake of Shining Waters” and transforming a prosaic “avenue” into “The White Way of Delight.” In doing so, she reclaims the great, definitive Adamic prerogative: to name the world.

Nature, as Montgomery portrays it, enables children to experience autonomy and mystery as they can nowhere else. Each nook of shadows in a sun-striated field holds the promise of esoteric knowledge: “Below the garden a green field lush with clover sloped down to the hollow where the brook ran and where scores of white birches grew, upspringing airily out of an undergrowth suggestive of delightful possibilities in ferns and mosses and woodsy things.” In Anne’s eyes, the woods and fields of Avonlea become a half-world of fantasy, fairy tales, and chivalric poetry, where ghosts roam the woods between her house and her friend Diana’s or where a flat can become Elaine’s tragic barge en route to Camelot. Indeed, Anne’s relationship to nature is almost pagan, steeped in the sensual. Anne, for her milieu, is one weird sister.

A weird sister, perhaps, but certainly that’s why her home on PEI remains one of the top tourist attractions in all of Canada. Read the full article here, and come with us to Canada to recapture the romantic imaginations of our childhoods.

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As promised, Conde Nast Traveler is now featuring its superb article on TDI’s Antarctica trip, “Love in a Cold Climate,” on its website. Click above for the full text. Just the thing to chill you out on this steamy New York evening.

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Later this month, Delta Air Lines customers will be able to avoid long security lines at Los Angeles International Airport by enrolling in a national program that provides priority lanes in passenger terminals.

In the first operation of its type at LAX, the Clear fast-pass system — using fingerprint and eye scanners — is designed to identify travelers and get them through Transportation Security Administration checkpoints in a matter of minutes.

“Just to know you can get to the airport at a decent time, go through security and make your flight is something you can’t put a value on,” said Bryan Martinez, 37, of Thousand Oaks, a marketing executive for Amgen Inc. who has used the Clear system for several years at other airports. More from the LA Times here.

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We challenge the coldest heart to remain unwarmed by the above video.

In honor of Independence Day (and faithfully honoring the great American tradition of selling things by linking them to Independence Day) we are delighted to remind you of our marvelous voyage America’s Historic Atlantic Shores in September ’09, which sails to Portland, Newport, Annapolis, Yorktown, Colonial Williamsburg, Charleston, Savannah, and West Palm Beach.

But that, really, is incidental to two remarkable articles we’ve found, which will bring you reflective smiles during your barbeque tomorrow. The first is a book review of The Road to Monticello by Keven Hayes, which considers “Thomas Jefferson, gentleman scholar.” Hayes, a professor at the University of Oklahoma, reminds us that the Declaration of Independence didn’t appear spontaneously from Jefferson’s head like Athena from Zeus’s noggin. Our ginger-haired third President was a bibliomaniac, an astoundingly voracious reader and book collector — a vast, prodigious talent when the art of buying books meant more than a search on Amazon.com.

As a novice lawyer in Williamsburg, Virginia‘s capital, in the 1760s, Jefferson could only obtain books through the local newspaper, the Virginia Gazette, whose owner imported them from Europe. Even in this Colonial backwater, however, he was able to obtain the two-volume folio of Guiccardini’s history of Italy, a masterpiece of Renaissance historiography. It is a vivid demonstration of the international reach of the Republic of Letters. For an educated man with money and the right contacts, the Atlantic Ocean was no barrier to book-buying.

Still, for Jefferson to get the books he wanted, in the right format and at the right price, required work. Whenever he visited a new city, Mr. Hayes shows, Jefferson made a beeline for the bookshops. He knew all the booksellers in Philadelphia and New York, and made contacts with dealers in England, Germany, and France. During his time in Paris, Jefferson recalled, “I devoted every afternoon I was disengaged, for a summer or two, in examining all the principal bookstores, turning over every book with my own hand, and putting by everything which related to America, and indeed whatever was rare and valuable in every science.”

Now this, we attest, is what a real Presidential Library should look like.

…the sheer number and variety of titles that Jefferson devoured. As a law student, he read “Coke upon Littleton,” the classic treatise on English law; as a novice farmer, he studied Jethro Tull’s standard guide, “Horse-Hoeing Husbandry”; in his leisure hours, he read the melancholy poetry of Ossian, which enjoyed a vogue in the 1760s. As a legislator in Virginia, and later at the Continental Congress, Jefferson made use of treatises on natural law — Grotius’s “De Jure Belli ac Pacis,” Pufendorf’s “Law of Nature and Nations” — whose concepts are reflected in the Declaration of Independence. While drafting the Virginia Statue for Religious Freedom, which he considered one of his proudest accomplishments, Jefferson read Milton’s “Reason of Church-Government” and Shaftesbury’s “Letter Concerning Enthusiasm.”

And this doesn’t even scratch the surface: Jefferson read constantly, copiously, in many languages. (He even designed a rotating bookstand that allowed him to consult five books at a time.) Naturally, as an Enlightenment philosophe in good standing, he knew French long before he was posted to France as America’s ambassador. He also read Italian and Spanish, which he taught his daughters using “Don Quixote” as a textbook.

Like most Virginia planters, Jefferson studied Latin and Greek as a boy; unlike most, he actually learned them, and used them for the rest of his life. Studying the marginalia in Jefferson’s law books, Mr. Hayes discovered apposite quotations from Herodotus and Euripides, in the original. Much more unusually, however, Jefferson was also a student of Anglo-Saxon. At a time when the language of “Beowulf” had not yet entered the college curriculum, Mr. Hayes writes, Jefferson’s “sizable collection of Anglo-Saxon books included nearly all of the important studies of the language.” He studied the Bible in polyglot editions that included Hebrew and Aramaic; he read the first translations of Indian and Persian literature, just then appearing in English. To amuse himself in retirement, Jefferson even bought Robert Morison’s “Dialogues and Detached Sentences in the Chinese Language, With a Free and Verbal Translation in English.”

It’s an extraordinary read, and shows us the life of Thomas Jefferson’s mind — his biographia literaria — the vast range of knowledge which informed the mind that formed our country.

Meanwhile, in the Washington Post, George F. Will does a fine job reminding us July 4, 1776 is something of an arbitrary date to define “The American Revolution.” On May 19, 1775, for example, the citizens of Mecklenburg County, North Carolina were up in outrage, if not yet in arms, about the Vestry and Marriage Acts of 1769. These acts levied fines upon Presbyterian ministers who were marrying colonials — because, of course, any deviance from the Anglican Church just wasn’t cricket. The county convention was just about to figure out what do do when the news (FINALLY!) arrived from Lexington and Concord.  On May 20, 1775, Mecklenburg’s convention declared:

We the citizens of Mecklenburg County do hereby dissolve the political bands which have connected us to the mother country. . . . We do hereby declare ourselves a free and independent people . . . to the maintenance of which independence, we solemnly pledge to each other our mutual cooperation, our lives, our fortunes, and our most sacred honor.

Sound familiar? Thomas Jefferson’s voracious reading apparently encompassed this this missive from Mecklenburg, too

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