Friday, October 18, 2019

Links 18 October 2019

Rock crystal ring, Aegean, 1600-1300 BC. Now in the MFA, Boston.

Serbs and Kosovo Albanians brought together by Nimbyism.

The Roman Necropolis of Narbonne.

Pasta grannies become YouTube stars. Honestly I think projects like this are what the internet ought to be: the sharing of knowledge and experience between people who would otherwise never meet.

More Nigerian wedding clothes.

Private property and the origins of agriculture. (Yet another attempt to answer the very puzzling question of why people started farming.)

Why so many sex scandals among enlightened Buddhist teachers?

Contestants on "The Price is Right" have gotten increasingly bad since 1972, "suggesting that individuals have become more inattentive to prices."

Anti-noise crusaders.

Is it rational for westerners to fear the rise of China?

Photographer SebastiĆ£o Salgado has turned his family cattle ranch in Brazil into a 1,754-acre private forest preserve.

WAGs: the war of the British soccer wives. Brits needing distraction from their dysfunctional politics are loving this petty scandal.

Interesting poster comparing the sizes of the world's 100 largest islands.

Review of "Against the Grain," in which anarcho-sociologist James Scott argues that grain farming and the state rose together.

Amazon and Hasidic Jews.

More Ferrara: great photo set by one of our regular readers.

Thursday, October 17, 2019

The Navajo Generating Station Closes

The Navajo Generating Station and the Kayenta Mine that supplied it with coal are both closing next month. This is a plant that Arizona politicians and Navajo tribal leaders fought to keep open, crying a need for jobs in a desperately poor area. With utilities and miners lobbying Republicans, and Indians lobbying Democrats, the plant's defenders won it a reprieve from environmental regulations that was supposed to keep it going until 2044.

But it is closing anyway, because it was losing money. All the lobbying in the world couldn't overcome the cost advantage of natural gas and solar.


Cartoons Magazine, 1921, from  Yesterday's Print.

Monday, October 14, 2019

Larnax from Tanagra

A larnax was a small chest used to hold cremated remains, used throughout the ancient Greek world. The Mycenaean cemetery at Tanagra (a small town near Thebes, nothing to do with a certain awesome Star Trek episode) produced a number of interesting painted specimens, including this one.

From Museums of Greece.

Demography vs. Creativity

One of the new Nobel Prize winners in economics, Michael Kremer, once wrote a paper titled Population Growth and Technological Change: One Million B.C. to 1990. The point was to consider two ways of conceptualizing population growth: the Malthusian view that at any given level of technology, population will rise until people are desperately poor, which makes population growth a bad thing, and a technocratic view that says the higher the population, the more inventions will be made, and therefore the faster the economy will grow.

Kremer found that while the question is complicated, over the long term, population growth is proportional to population; more populous regions grow faster. (See the graph above; the curve has flattened in modern times because we started intentionally limiting our fertility.)  This contradicts Malthus, whose model demands that population growth slow as rising populations lead to more starvation and disease.

Kremer seems to feel that this is an optimistic finding, but I disagree. I see the past 10,000 years of human history as a race between population growth and better technology. This has been a brutal, vicious struggle in which the losers are cast aside and trampled under, and any slackening in the pace of economic growth means thousands starve. Even Kremer admits that there are periods when the positive correlations in his model break down, and we can all name several. In the 1650-1800 period Europe experienced a surge in agricultural productivity driven by potatoes, maize, and improved methods, which made this an optimistic time. But the rapid population growth that resulted meant that by 1800 populations were once again bumping up against the limits, so that cold weather in 1815-1850 led to the return of famine on a scale not seen for more than a century. Everybody knows what happened to the large Irish population when the potato blight struck.

Since 1850 we have mostly been able to race ahead of the Malthusian scissors, but the cost (forests cleared, swamps drained, species exterminated, ancient ways of life wiped out) has been very high. I think modern birth control might turn out to be the most important invention in human history, allowing us to finally step out of that race and create a sustainable world. We'll see.

Saturday, October 12, 2019

Bronze Age Families in Southern Germany

Over the course of the 1980s and 1990s much of Germany's Lech River Valley was overrun by the spreading suburbs of Augsburg. Under German law all of this construction was preceded by archaeological study. Among the sites discovered were several farmsteads or small settlements from the end of the Neolithic to the Bronze Age (c. 2750-1700 BC). Hundreds of graves from this period were dug, with varying degrees of preservation.

Now a team of scientists have extracted DNA from more than 100 of those skeletons, from six sites, and the results of the study were just published in Science. The study also included elemental analysis of the bones, to find out which people grew up locally and which might have been immigrants. In terms of the big questions of migration and language that have gotten so much attention in paleogenetics, the data fit the common pattern; they show a burst of steppes ancestry at the beginning of the period, mainly in the male line; on the other hand they show that the percentage of steppes ancestry declined over time. (Likely because of gene flow from other regions.)

The more interesting results come from the analysis of family relationships:
  • Each farmstead had one high-status lineage that was maintained over time in the male line. The women were outsiders, some from the same region and some from farther away.
  • There was one exception out of 39 possible events, a case where a daughter seems to have inherited the farm.
  • Lower status individuals showed less continuity over time and many of them were immigrants from outside the region. (And remember archaeologists never find enough burials to account for everyone, so many of the lowest status people may not be represented at all.)
  • Several high-status women were identified who were from outside the region and not related to anyone else at their farms; nobody knows what to make of these. If they came as brides, why didn't they have children?
Here's an amazing bit of science for you:
Three of the adult males are exceptional as they exhibit a shift of strontium isotope ratios from their first to their third molars, indicating a movement away from their birthplaces during adolescence, and a return as adults. A similar analysis of early and late developing molars in females suggests that their movements from outside the Lech valley occurred in adolescence or later, as evidenced by non-local isotope ratios in early and late forming teeth.
As with all cutting edge science this will need to be verified by future studies, but if the movements of adolescents can really be studied by comparing the composition of their teeth, what an incredible discovery.

John Crowley, "Ka: Dar Oakley in the Ruin of Ymr"

Until I stumbled on this volume in my public library I knew John Crowley only for one book, Little, Big (1982), which for me holds the top place in the category of Long, Weird, Rambling Book in which You are Rarely Sure if Anything Magical has Happened or Not. I honestly had no idea he had ever written anything else. Checking up on him now I see that he has actually published twelve works of fiction, and I think I will try to find some of them.

One of the themes in Little, Big is aging and the passage of time. The second half of the book focuses on middle-aged characters who look back mournfully toward childhood, when it was so much easier for them to experience magic. It was published when Crowley was 40. Ka: Dar Oakley in the Ruin of Ymr (2017)  was published when Crowley was 75, and it is mostly a meditation on aging and death.

The central characters are the unnamed narrator, an old man living in the near-future ruins of our civilization, and an immortal crow named Dar Oakley. Or at least that is the conceit, although the narrator hints that maybe he never grasped the speech of this crow well enough to fully understand his story. The story as we are told it concerns Dar Oakley's life as an ambassador between the worlds of crows and humans. Beginning in what sounds like the European Neolithic, he befriends a series of humans, all of them experts, as their societies see it, in death and the realms beyond: a Neolithic shamaness, an early medieval monk, a Native American tale-teller, a nineteenth-century spiritualist. Dar Oakley helps all of these people journey beyond death, and in each case the world they encounter is much what their culture taught them to expect.

Through these stories Crowley explores what people think about death, how they feel about it, and whether it is ultimately a good or bad thing. I loved this. It unfolds very slowly and parts of the book drag, but by the end I found it meaningful and moving. There is also much about myth, storytelling, crows, and people of several kinds. I would not recommend it to everyone but if you are in a reflective frame of mind and not averse to some serious thinking about death, consider giving it a try.

And if you like fantasy that draws heavily on the European mythic tradition, you might take a look at the Mythopoetic Society's awards for fantasy literature. Both Little, Big and Ka won their award, along with Neil Gaiman's Anansi Boys, The Djinn in the Nightingale's Eye by A.S. Byatt, and Something Rich and Strange by Patricia A. McKillip. I downloaded the whole list and plan to check out all of them.

Art Nouveau Doors

Art Nouveau architects loved fancy doors. This one is at 29 Avenue Rapp in Paris and you see it posted often with the tag "best door in Paris." It was designed by Jules Lavirotte in 1899.

But not all are so over the top. This is 42 rue Belle Vue, Brussels, by Ernest Blerot.

Ornate or comparatively simple, I love the determination to make a door something other than a utilitarian gateway.

 At the time - mostly 1890-1914 - these seemed "modern," part of the age of automobiles, airplanes, and skyscrapers; what happened to these wonderful impulses that left us with a "modern" style that is so cold and barren?

Actually if you are a millionaire you can buy a door something like one of these for your mansion, so they are coming back for that niche. But public architecture remains sterile.

At least we still have these to admire.

Friday, October 11, 2019

Trade with China

Trade with China wiped out many American factory jobs; highly publicized estimates have ranged from 800,000 to 3.4 million. On the other hand Chinese goods are cheaper. According to this paper, since 2001 American consumers have saved $400,000 for every American job lost to Chinese competition.

A Black Kite

These long cool days at the end of spring
begin with a soundless blaze at sunrise
above the distant rim of the valley
all day clouds gather and clear again
as I remember other cold springtimes here
through the coming and  going of years
the losses the changes the long love come to at last
with the river down there flowing through it all
under the clear moment that never changed
n all that time not asking for anything
still the wren sings and the oriole remembers
and every evening now a black kite
glides low overhead coming from the upland
alone not climbing the thermals not huntins
not calling nor busy about anything
wings and tail scarcely moving as he
slips out above the open valley
filled with the long gold light before sunset
sailing into it only to be there.

--W.S. Merwin

Links 11 October 2019

Glazed brick wall panel from Nimrud, 858-824 BC.

A trip to Erie, Pennsylvania, a town that voted twice for Obama and then for Trump, at least partly because it had lost thousands of jobs. Erie has a great record of welcoming refugees so it's hard to blame simple racism for this one.

The fight over the public library in Clinton, Arkansas as a microcosm of American politics.

Cormac McCarthy on how to write good scientific papers.

Homer called Achilles' companions "Myrmidons," or "ant men." Here's a theory that the name derives from people who built burial mounds.

Scott Ritter says the new Chinese missiles neutralize the US Pacific Fleet.

"Echo chambers" or "media bubbles" do not explain partisanship. Many hyper-partisan people watch the network news.

Against charging teenage criminals as adults.

A Short Trip to the Blue Ridge

When your main client is the National Park Service, you sometimes get to work in extraordinary places.

Tourist trap on the way, possibly fundamentalist propaganda. Sadly I failed to get a photo of the sign that said FIREARM RAFFEL.

Through little Virginia towns.

Down byways.

Mountains looming up.

And views from up on Skyline Drive.

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

The Power of Search Engines

For the past few years Google has been waging what they conceive of as a war against misinformation and lies online, and especially in health claims. The result has been to prioritize "official" sites like the CDC and WebMD even when they are not particularly useful., which some in-the-know people say is the best source for information on how substances from trans fat to Vitamin K supplements affect your health, has seen their traffic fall by 90 percent. Google has mostly pushed Wikipedia to the second page, even though it is generally very strong in biological science.

It seems to me that the problems with Google, and the widespread knowledge of those problems among internet power users, ought to create a real opening for competition. Yet whenever I try other sites they do no better. Often they give me exactly the same results, and when they differ they are less useful. It's time for one of those tech geniuses to step up and give us something truly different.

Monday, October 7, 2019

Etruscan Hut Urns

Many people around the world have thought of tombs as houses for the dead. One of the most charming evocations of that idea is these funerary urns from Tuscany. During the Villanovan Culture of 900 to 700 BC, they mostly looks like these huts. The Etruscans burned their dead thoroughly, so these are not very big, mostly less than a foot (30 cm) tall.

Archaeology shows that at least some houses of that period and earlier were oval, like these urns.

I should say that not everyone thinks these represent houses; some think they are temples. But if so they represent a temple design that was ancient even in 800 BC, since by then Etruscan temples were larger, grander stone things.

Most are ceramic but a few are bronze. These were never very common in this period, and most funerary urns just looked like urns. But more than a hundred are known.

A famous specimen excavated at Castel Gandolfo in 1817, now in the Vatican Museum. The decoration has inspired much commentary; does this mean that Etruscan houses were decorated in this way, or was the decoration special to the urns?

Over time the shape of the urns changed. By 500 BC they were generally rectangular, as, apparently, Etruscan houses had become.

And in classical times they looked like these.

Sunday, October 6, 2019

Today's Place to Daydream about: Ferrara

Today Ferrara is a modest city of 130,000 people in northern Italy's Po Valley.

During the Renaissance it was a place of much more significance, because it was the seat of the d'Este family. The d'Estes became lords of Ferrara in 1264 and retained that title (among many others) down to 1598. They never held much land but they punched well above their weight in Renaissance politics through a strategy that included numerous illustrious marriages and support for the arts on a grand scale. Plus the luck of producing a sufficiency of sane, fertile offspring for 350 years running.

The main sites on any tour of Ferrara are the many d'Este palaces.  This one, dating to the 15th century, later became the town hall.

The Palazzo dei Diamanti (Palace of Diamonds), yet another 15th-century construction. This now holds a branch of the Italian National Gallery, specializing in works by the many painters who benefited from d'Este patronage.

Famous painting of an unidentified woman by Bartolomeo Veneto, traditionally assumed to be Lucrezia Borgia, who was married for a while to Alfonso I d'Este.

Ercole I d'Este by Dosso Dossi.

The Palazzo Bentivoglio, dating to the late 16th century.

In the center of Ferrara is a rather incongruous fortified castle, the Castello Estense. In 1385, after a run of bad years (plague, floods, war, the usual woes) the people of the town revolted against the high taxes imposed by their rulers. The current d'Este lord, Niccolo III, appeared to the people but failed to calm them. So  following ancient tradition he blamed everything on his chief minister, Tommaso da Tortona. Niccolo allowed Tommaso to confess and receive communion, then handed him over to the mob, which tore him to pieces.

This scare convinced Niccolo that he needed a safe refuge in the city, lest the mob come after him again and no minister be on hand to sacrifice. So he built Castello Estense to be a safe refuge in time of trouble, and perhaps also to loom over the people and instill in them a little fear of authority.

Equestrian statue of Niccolo III.

Construction of the cathedral began in the 1260s, but the original Romanesque structure has been overlaid by so much later work the only the facade gets much attention these days. The interior is all Baroque.

The town is said to be a charming, stylish place, with many restaurants serving wonderful food.

The root of my interest in Ferrara has to do with one of my writing projects. Some of you know that I am writing what I call a Historical Fantasy about the England of Edward II, real events plus magic, and I have imagined a whole series of others in the same vein. One might be set in the years around 1500, with a great deal of alchemy, Neoplatonism, and magical ideas concealed in complex allegorical emblems. It struck me that the court of the d'Estes would be a great place to set some of the action, and so I started reading about them.

So when I send my thoughts wandering they sometimes take me to Ferrara, city of palaces, home of artists, poets, and humanists, one of the best places, they say, for imagining the Renaissance world.