Sunday, October 29, 2006

No Architects Were Killed or Maimed in the Making of this Masterpiece

I did a long post about the Taj Mahal earlier today but Blogger went down and it got lost. This is the first time that ever happened to me. Anyhow, it's hard to get the energy to type the whole thing again. In a nutshell, I had heard from my kids, who had learned it in their Islamic history classes, that the guy who had the Taj Mahaj built, Shah Jahan, a Moghul emperor, killed the architect after the building was completed so that he could not make anything more beautiful afterwards.

This story always bothered me. It did not seem to match the rest of the story, which is about how much Shah Jahan loved his wife and how he had the Taj Mahal built as her mausoleum because of this love and his abiding grief over her death. I suppose it is possible that a person can be capable of both great love and great cruelty/inhumanity, but it still jarred with me.

After a bit of searching on the internet for information on the building, I found that there are a fair number of legends about the Taj Mahal that seem to be false.

* The Taj Mahal was actually a Hindu temple! (Propagated by some Hindu Indians who are sort of upset about Muslims getting any credit for anything good about India, apparently)
* There was going to be another black building built opposite to the white Taj Mahal! (No, apparently not; there's a preexisting garden in the spot they refer to and there seems to be no evidence that Shah Jahan wanted to do this.)
* An Italian goldsmith actually was the chief architect for the Taj Mahal! (This rumor was started by an Italian priest who apparently went to the trouble of finding a real Italian goldsmith who really did live in India at the time in question - but of course would not have been capable of doing this, since he was not an architect, and since there is absolutely no evidence he was involved at all.)
* Shah Jahan killed/blinded/cut the hands off of the architect(s) who built the Taj Mahal! (All apparently completely false.)

The real story is interesting enough: Shah Jahan did in fact build this mausoleum to house the remains of his late second wife who he had loved very much. His son deposed him shortly after the building was completed. The son had him buried next to his wife, the only detail in the entire shrine that is asymmetrical. The shrine is absolutely gorgeous and there's a fascinating site that allows you to navigate it and see various panoramic views of its interior and grounds (here).

Why did someone invent the story of the punishment of the architect(s)? I wonder who started that legend and how. Unfortunately, it appears to be a complete mystery. (Someone is very welcome, however, to come here and teach me something about it, much like the Air Force in Cyberspace discussion the other day, which was completely fascinating.)

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Air Force Mission Statement

One of the first things I did when moving to Portland was to get a PO box (as I moved here without a job and assumed I would be moving around a fair amount for the next couple of years). The box is in a "Post Net" store in a mall. Next to it is the local recruiting office for the military.

As I was walking by the recruiting office I noticed a sign in the window entitled "Air Force Mission Statement" and read it.

It said, "The mission of the United States Air Force is to deliver sovereign options for the defense of the United States of America and its global interests - to fly and fight in Air, Space, and Cyberspace."

This sign struck me as very funny, particularly because of the following:
* It seems to be modeled on corporate mission statements that use "key words" in sentences in which they don't really make sense but just sound good
* Along the same lines, it reminded me of the "Dilbert Mission Statement Generator"
* The idea of flying and fighting in cyberspace in the defense of the USA struck me as very sci-fi - but not in a good way, rather in a completely laughable way

So today I decided to blog a bit about what makes this statement sound so inane. I decided to research the issue first, and found this press release about the mission statement, which is less than a year old, apparently: Air Force releases new mission statement

The article offered "definitions" for the "two new concepts" of:
* sovereign options
* cyberspace

In their discussion of what they mean about cyberspace, they seem to mean that they have some air force members working to make sure their websites cannot be hacked.

So, everyone who works on network security is flying and fighting in cyberspace?

Look. The problem with mission statements like this (or like the ones created at the Dilbert Generator, which are really quite representative of the genre) is that the SENTENCES don't have any meaning. It is not enough to put a few nouns/adjectives with cool associations together using random verbs that also have cool associations.

Making websites hackproof is a laudable thing (although if I were a military leader, I would hesitate to admit that it is of such overwhelming importance to the Air Force that this pretty normal function needs to be mentioned in the mission statement - unless they mention other equally important functions, such as radar communicator, or payroll accountant, as well). But it is not flying, nor is it fighting (except in a really, really metaphorical sense). (I have to admit that the first thing I thought of is a bunch of Air Force people sitting at their computers playing on-line role-playing games.)

However, the press release made me realize that not only was the mission statement silly, but disturbing as well.

The "sovereign options" phrase was not only meaningless in context (delivering? To whom?) but the definition the article gave for it was creepily imperalistic sounding:

"They said having sovereign options is the essence of being a superpower."

OK, this is pretty damned honest - almost refreshingly so. It brings up a few other questions, though. e.g., why, then, call the entire shebang the "Department of Defense"? It seems to me you should be the Air Force within the "Department of Imperial Offense" if this is truly your aim.

The article also said that the "leaders" [of the Air Force] said that America's "adversaries" would use "any method or venue necessary to contest America".

Contest America? As what? A nation? A concept? A city on a hill? What about America is being contested? What is America anyhow? Don't you have to define that, first?

I realize that the various entities in the Armed Forces have differing purposes in that they use specific methods of "defense" (the Air Force using planes, the Army using ground forces, the Navy using the sea, etc. etc.). However, it seems to me that they have a single goal, which is the goal that all their new members take an oath about:

"I, _____, do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same."
(source: Oaths of Enlistment)

I took that oath once, upon joining the U.S. Foreign Service.

It strikes me as pretty pithy and does not contain any nonsense about flying in cyberspace, yet somehow it gives enough information to help me remember what my job is supposed to be. As an oathtaker, when in doubt, I am supposed to refer to the Constitution for help. For example, if I were ordered to torture someone, I would probably find that this is directly in opposition to the Constitution's eighth amendment and thus I would have to disobey that order to obey my oath.

It is U.S.-centric to argue that the U.S. constitution is the pinnacle of right or justice. And I am not arguing that.

But the U.S. Constitution, however imperfect, is a heck of a lot closer to truth and justice than a mission statement that defines the US project as the essence of being a superpower ("delivering sovereign options"), and that refers to flying through the Internet ("fly and fight in cyberspace") in all seriousness.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Middle East imperial history

I have moved to the US and have been offline for the past several months. I will try to start blogging again.

I found this map program to be really interesting (and educational).

Sunday, October 08, 2006