Thursday, May 28, 2020

The Beaker Folk and a Different Sort of Genetic History

Much of the history coming from paleogenetics has been rather grim, about how certain groups conquered others and almost completely replaced them. For example, the latest estimate is that 90 to 95% of the people of Britain were replaced after a Bronze Age invasion,  which may have been accompanied by bubonic plague.

But not everywhere. Data from Scandinavia suggests that many hunter-gatherers there survived and interbred with invading farmers, contributing a third of the genes of late Neolithic people. Since farmers generally live at higher populations densities, this implies a fairly equal contribution to future genes and a whole lot of intermixing. 

Distribution of the Bell Beaker Culture

And now there is some interesting data about the formation of the Bell Beaker people, who dominated parts of western Europe between 2700 and 2000 BC. Archaeologists long ago recognized that Beaker culture had two homelands, one in Portugal and one in the low countries about the mouth of the Rhine. Genetic studies showed that the two groups were not closely related. The southern group were mostly descended from neolithic farmers, while the northern group were like the Corded Ware people, who had a lot of genes from steppes invaders. Now new data shows that over time the Bell Beaker people interbred until most of them were a mix of Portuguese and Corded Ware types. Somehow these two groups, with different genetic histories and originating in different ecological zones, established a common culture with much interbreeding. 

The current consensus is that many elements of Bell Beaker culture originated in Portugal. Somehow they spread that culture to northern peoples, who took it up with great enthusiasm, and then intermarried with southern folk, at least at the elite level.

So it wasn't all conquest and replacement.

A Major Reboot for the National Science Foundation?

Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer has re-introduced a bill that has been kicking around Congress in various versions for years, called this time the Endless Frontiers Act.  The basic idea is to dramatically expand the NSF but to refocus its efforts on potentially commercial technology. 

The National Science Foundation (NSF) would get a sweeping remake—including a new name, a huge infusion of cash, and responsibility for maintaining U.S. global leadership in innovation—under bipartisan bills that have just been introduced in both houses of Congress. 
Many scientific leaders are thrilled that the bills call for giving NSF an additional $100 billion over 5 years to carry out its new duties. But some worry the legislation, if enacted, could compromise NSF’s historical mission to explore the frontiers of knowledge without regard to possible commercial applications. 
The Endless Frontiers Act (S. 3832) proposes a major reorganization of NSF, creating a technology directorate that, within 4 years, would grow to more than four times the size of the entire agency’s existing $8 billion budget. NSF would be renamed the National Science and Technology Foundation, and both the science and technology arms would be led by a deputy reporting to the NSF director. 

Since this is the American Congress, you knew there had to be elements of the plan aimed at spreading the wealth around the country:

The bill calls for directing the biggest slice of the additional $100 billion that NSF would get to an unspecified number of university-based technology centers pursuing fundamental research in 10 key areas. The centers would work to develop prototypes of high-tech products and processes that companies could eventually bring to market. 

The legislation also specifies additional investments in education and training activities, facilities to test out all manner of new technologies, and boosting the budgets of other NSF directorates carrying out basic research that would enhance development of those technologies, including a better understanding of their social and ethical implications. Another section of the bill would authorize the Department of Commerce to spend $10 billion on 10 to 15 regional technology hubs. Those hubs are designed to foster innovation in areas outside the country’s current tech hot spots.

One aim of the plan is to make the NSF more like DARPA, the Defense Department agency that has gotten much praise over the years for turning wild ideas into functioning technology. 

Passage of the legislation could significantly alter how NSF operates. In particular, agency officials would have the authority to adopt some of the management practices used by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) within the Department of Defense, known for its agility and focus on tangible, deadline-driven results. “The new [technology] directorate can run like DARPA if NSF wants it to,” says one university lobbyist familiar with Schumer’s thinking.

The politicians who have signed onto this plan talk about China all the time – the challenge of China, the Chinese threat, etc. – so this seems like a return to Cold War thinking about science. But, hey, that got us to the moon. At least a few Republicans are on board, so maybe this new Cold War will get some bipartisan action out of Congress like the old one did.

It also strikes me that this is a product of our collective decision to not care at all about budget deficits any more. I guess some people in Congress have thought, well, as long as we are going to throw billions around like there is no tomorrow, we might as well throw some of it at the technological future.

Monday, May 25, 2020

A Lovely Spring Day, at Last

In the garden.

On a walk.

And in the woods, an attempt to get a photograph of a blooming white fringetree (Chionanthus virginicus) growing in deep shade. There are hundreds of saplings growing along the trails in our woods that I couldn't identify until I saw this grown-up specimen in flower. I suppose they are doing well because deer don't eat them, and do eat a lot of their competition? Any way they are native and lovely, so one can hardly complain. If all those saplings grow up, then our stretch of Patapsco State Park will be amazing at this time of year.

Capybara Social Distancing

The Izu Shabonten Zoo in Shizuoka, Japan is using stuffed capybaras to help maintain social distancing in their cafeteria.

Capybaras are a big draw for the zoo, which provides them with hot tubs in the winter, and people love seeing them cram into the hot tub side by side to keep warm. So that's why they have so many stuffed ones on hand.

Sunday, May 24, 2020

A Crisis for Introverts

As an introvert, I am trying to practice empathy by imagining a crisis that forced me to make small talk with strangers for months.

–John Overholt

School Closures and the Pandemic

Kevin Drum has a round-up of the effect of school closures on pandemic spread. Everybody agrees that people under 25 face very little chance of death or even hospitalization – unless they are immuno-compromised in some way. So if we re-opened the schools more children would die in bus accidents than from the virus.

On the other hand, children do get infected and can spread the infection to others, especially others they live with. e.g., their parents.

On the third hand, if parents have to stay home to care for their children, that may have some effect on rates, although there is no agreement about what this effect might be.

Some studies have found that school closures are associated with more pandemic deaths, which is weird, but that's what they find. Thus the graph above.

Drum thinks that right now the evidence is that we should re-open most schools. I think I agree, assuming we keep in place some kind of distance learning for kids with severe asthma etc.

Some US colleges are going to an abbreviated Fall semester, opening at the normal time but then not coming back after Thanksgiving. This is for two reasons: first, because they are betting that this is a seasonal virus, and second, because colleges always see a bad wave of colds and flu after students go home for Thanksgiving and then come back bringing a nationwide stew of viruses.

Who is Dying in Suburban Washington?

Tyler Cowen lives in Faifax County, Virginia, which has a million inhabitants, making it the largest jurisdiction in the Washington, DC metropolitan area:
Fairfax County Health Department responded to my request for nursing home/longterm care facility deaths from COVID-19. As of May 22, there have been 249 coronavirus deaths in these facilities. That’s **75 percent** of all Fairfax County deaths from coronavirus as of today (330).

Friday, May 22, 2020

The Battle of Tortuga

In yet more bizarre Venezuela news, this item from April 3: Venezuelan navy warship attempts to stop and board a cruise ship in international waters. The cruise ship captain attempts to contact corporate headquarters for guidance, but before he gets an answer the warship fires several shots. The warship then attempts to ram the cruise ship, but the cruise ship is much larger and has a strong hull because it does Arctic tours in the ice, so it is the warship that sinks. There are things that you just can't make up.

You have to love this fake wikipedia graphic about the battle:

The Minecraft Uncensored Library

The Uncensored Library is a Minecraft creation that holds thousands of banned books and articles, accessible from anywhere you can play Minecraft. Which includes, for now, most of the world's oppressive countries. What a delightful idea.


Fascinating Times piece by Alanna Mitchell about geographers' attempts to measure the height of things, which is a fiendishly difficult problem. We measure height from "sea level", but of course the sea goes up and down with the tides, which vary across the month and the year, and it can be swelled when a flood of water rushes in off the land, and so on. Plus, its surface is distorted by the shape of the earth's crust beneath it. Those maps you see of the very bottom of the deep ocean are actually made by mapping the surface, which distorts according to how far it is above solid rock.

And once you have decided on some arbitrary height as "sea level," you then have to project this imaginary line across the land. Older map-makers did this by assuming that the earth was a perfect sphere, but this turned out to be so far off that even nineteenth-century geographers began making corrections for the flattening of the sphere at the poles. But even assuming the earth is a smooth ellipsoid is wrong, because the earth is not a perfectly even anything. Therefore, all our maps are wrong, and they are more wrong the farther you get from our old reference, the north Atlantic Ocean.

The US is currently creating a new model of height from which everything will be measured, based on data from satellites, that promises to be the most accurate ever. Floating in space, satellites are just a lot more stable than the heaving ocean, and thus a lot easier to measure from.

Part of a Cut and Fill Map of the Anacostia River in Washington, DC; red means cut down since 1894, green means built up

I know something about this because archaeologists have long tried to understand what has happened in our cities and other much disturbed locations using something called "cut and fill analysis." Let's say you have a reasonably accurate contour map of your city from 1890. You might think that by comparing the elevations of that map with those on a modern map, you could figure out which locations are now much taller, because they have been built up by fill (which is more than 50 feet thick in some parts of DC and New York), and which are now shorter, which means that the old ground (along with the archaeological sites) has been cut down. This is extremely useful for planning your archaeological dig, and some locales, like DC, have started requiring it as part of preliminary archaeological studies.

Sadly, it often does not work. Washington, DC was one of the best-mapped places in the 19th-century world, but our efforts to do this are regularly off by 10 feet or more. One of my favorite maps ever is the 1892 US Coast & Geodetic Survey Map of the district, so accurate that a small cellar hole I once found in Rock Creek Park, about 2 feet deep and 12 feet across, shows up on the map as a wiggle in a contour line. Yet comparing this with modern maps does not give you the correct depth of fill – in my experience it has in fact never given the depth of fill to within a foot. This is because the standards of elevation, and the methods used to project them across the landscape, have changed so much that it requires detailed local knowledge to convert between the old and the modern systems.

One day maybe some mathematician will work out a formula for comparing maps of this period to modern ones. For now, though, the state of the art is that you make your cut and fill analysis, then go out and do a bunch of mechanical soil cores, and use the cores to correct your map. Even this is difficult because it often happens that Core A will show your model is off by 4 feet, while Core B 200 feet away will be off by 2 feet or 10 feet. As I said, these maps are in some ways wonderful, so I don't think these are just errors; they show that we don't understand how they thought about the globe well enough to compare their maps to ours.

Links 22 May 2020

1938 Dymaxion, designed by Buckminster Fuller

The time the US Army tried to bomb a lava flow. And the results.

Voting by mail gives neither party an advantage, so why are they so divided about it?

Nine historically important seascapes

Coronavirus brings a strange mix of sorrow and baking.

Harta, Hungary: some ordinary-seeming places in Europe have a staggering amount of history.

With no traffic in the way, the US Cannonball Run record has been broken seven times in five weeks.

Paper sculptures of animal heads by Patrick Cabral

The billionaire who dove to the deepest point in all five oceans, New Yorker piece by Ben Taub.

NY Times story on silk making in Tbilisi, Georgia

Is mathematical economics the new astrology?

Your governor's 37-step, 10-year plan to reopen the state.

According to new supercomputer model simulations, only competition between Neanderthals and Homo sapiens can explain the rapid demise of Neanderthals around 43 to 38 thousand years ago.

These economists think the middle class is shrinking.

You have probably heard that Italy and France have been badly hit by the coronavirus, while Germany has not. The same is true of the regions of Switzerland: the German-speaking regions have done well, while the French- and Italian-speaking regions have been badly hit. Nothing to do with government policy, which has been coordinated nationwide.

Thursday, May 21, 2020

We Don't Know

The odd thing about reporting on the coronavirus is that the nonexperts are supremely confident in their predictions, while epidemiologists keep telling me that they don’t really know much at all.

“This is a novel virus, new to humanity, and nobody knows what will happen,” said Anne Rimoin, a professor of epidemiology at U.C.L.A. . . .

Some conservatives scoffed that the coronavirus was like the flu, which was utterly wrong. Some liberals foresaw a disastrous outbreak when Jerry Falwell Jr. kept Liberty University open this spring, and that never happened. . . .

One study reported in Health Affairs found that government restrictions collectively averted some 35 million infections in the United States by the end of April; if that’s true, those restrictions also saved an enormous number of lives.

Yet the same study found that school closures didn’t much help, and we still haven’t figured out the optimal level of restrictions to smother the virus’s spread without stifling citizens’ daily routines.

That’s not surprising, notes Michael Osterholm, an epidemiologist at the University of Minnesota, because we still haven’t figured out the 1918 pandemic. “In 1918, why did the spring wave go away, and then why did it come back in the fall?” Osterholm asked. “We don’t know.”

Epidemiology is full of puzzles. In 2003, the World Health Organization feared that SARS would return in a devastating wave that fall, but instead it was extinguished. In 2009, experts worried that the H1N1 flu would be a lion, but it turned out to be a kitten. Random luck shapes outcomes along with biology; some officials took reckless risks this year and got away with them, but that doesn’t make the actions prudent

“You’ve got to have a lot of humility with these viruses,” Professor Osterholm said. “I know less about viruses than I did 10 years ago.”

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Numbers: Coronavirus in NYC's Jails

Total number of guards:  9680
Number of confirmed infections: 1259
Number of deaths:  6

From the NY Times

Failing Dams

Two dams on the Tittabawassee River in Michigan failed yesterday, resulting in evacuations in Midland and other places.

Which is absolutely no surprise to anyone who has been following the slowly unfolding dam safety crisis over the past 30 years. In America we have pretty much stopped building dams, preferring to let rivers run free and get our power and water in other ways. The turn against dams has also impacted their maintenance, making it harder to spend any money on them. Every such proposal is greeted by opponents who say, "Quit wasting money and just tear the thing down now." So unless the dam is manifestly important, it is hard to get money to fix it. Plus many dams were built by private companies that have disappeared, leaving their old dams stranded. Over the years the problem has built until the US now has thousands of dams the Corps of Engineers considers unsafe. I know about this because cultural resource evaluations are part of most plans to fix or demolish dams, and we regularly hear from our clients about how many dams require treatment. But the rush of business my bosses keep projecting from this line of work never materializes because, again, the money isn't there.

So look for more dams to fail every year for the rest of your life. The good news is that most unsafe dams are not very big, so the damage will be limited and the loss of life small.

The Coronavirus Partisan Divide

Thomas Edsall has a roundup of thoughts about the politics of Covid-19 in the Times. This is from sociologist W. Bradford Wilcox:
Progressives have grown more likely to embrace a culture of “safetyism” in recent years. This safetyism seeks to protect them and those who are deemed the most vulnerable members of our society from threats to their emotional and physical well-being. . . . progressives are willing to embrace the maximal measures to protect themselves, the public, and the most vulnerable among us from this threat. . . . [In contrast} many conservatives are most concerned about protecting the American way of life, a way of life they see as integrally bound up with liberty and the free market.
Because many on the political right see the lockdowns as impinging “on their liberty, the free market’s workings, and their financial well-being,” he continued, “many conservatives want the lockdowns ended as quickly as possible.”

In addition, Wilcox noted, “some (especially male) conservatives see the lockdowns and mask wearing as expressions of cowardice that they reject as unmanly.” . . .

Peter Ditto, a psychologist at the University of California-Irvine, wrote me that "there is good evidence of sex differences in responses to the coronavirus; women are more likely to report favoring and practicing social distance measures than are men."

This, in turn, fits with “the general sense that liberals are the more ‘feminine’ of the two parties,” Ditto argues, which results in the following pattern: "While liberals adopt their nurturant role, bemoaning the climbing infection and death rates and are willing to accept economic carnage in favor of minimizing the loss of human life, conservatives are more likely to, in effect, tell the American people to “walk it off,” increasingly staking out the position that some loss of life must be endured for the greater economic good."
I think much of the tone of 21st-century politics, if not necessarily the content, can be explained by this dichotomy between a masculine/tough/aggressive conservatism and a feminine/care-taking/safety-first liberalism. Many American conservatives love Trump, not because of his policies (which are all over the place) but because he embodies a tough, aggressive, masculine approach to life and politics, with clear winners and no coddling of whiners.

Add in the demographic facts that liberals are more likely to live in crowded cities and use public transit, and conservatives are more likely to live in less crowded areas and drive, and you can see why this was inevitably going to become a partisan issue once the first jolt of fear over the soaring exponential curve of infections was past.

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

The Precise Odor of Empire

King George III inspects the British fleet in 1773:
The king had agreed to dine that June afternoon aboard the ninety-gun Barfleur, and as he clambered to the weather deck, sailors hoisted his royal standard to the main topmast head. . . .

More than two thousand mature oaks had been felled to build a ship like this, the biggest, most complex machine in the eighteenth-century world, the steam engine and spinning jenny be damned. The king admired the massive oak balks, the knees chopped from tree forks, the thick planks wider than a big man's handspan, the gun decks painted bright red to lessen the psychological shock of blood spilled in battle. Twenty or more miles of rope had been rigged in a loom of shrouds, ratlines, stays, braces, and halyards. Masts, yards, spars, tops, and crosstrees rose overhead in geometric elegance. Even at anchor this wooden world sang, as timbers pegged and jointed dovetailed and mortised, emitted creaks, groans, and squeals. Belowdecks, where each sailor got twenty-eight inches of sleeping width for his hammock, the powder monkeys wore felt slippers to avoid creating sparks in the magazine. The smells of tar, hemp, pine pitch, and varnish, mingled with the brine of bilgewater and vinegar fumigant and the hog-lard pomade the sailors used to grease their queues. All in all, it was the precise odor of empire.
–Rick Atkisson, The British are Coming (2019), p. 7.
Besides the 20 miles of rope, the sails of such a ship had a total area of about 6,500 square yards, (5,430 sq m), which is about 4 acres.

The Vindolanda Mouse

Curators at Vindolanda, a Roman fort along Hadrian's Wall, decided to spend some of their coronavirus downtime going through their collection of 7,000 unidentified scraps of leather. One of them turned out to be this toy mouse, dating to the 2nd century AD. Via The History Blog.

From Christie's Online Auction of Rocks and Fossils

Triceratops porsus skull, 68-65 million years old. Estimate £150,000 - £250,000

Extraterrestrial peridot, from the Admire meteorite.

Bison antiquus, c 15,000 years old; this is the native North American bison that went extinct at the end of the Pleistocene, to be replaced by Bison bison.

Bicolor cubic fluorite.

Palm leaves with fish, Eocene, c. 50 million years old. A "composite" formed by placing the fossil fish onto a different layer of the rock with the palm leaf in it. So all real fossils, but arranged by human hands. I wonder what the people who do this call themselves. Fossil artists?

Gogotte, which according to this site 
are formed from quartz crystals and calcium carbonate. They were produced when superheated water extruded through crevices into a basin of extremely fine white silicate sand. The water was saturated with calcium carbonate (Limestone). The swirls and eddies of the water were captured in the gradually concreting stone, forming the most wonderful natural sculptures.
Large ammonite, Jurassic, 2 feet (60 cm) across. Much more here.

Monday, May 18, 2020

Spring Flowers

Late spring took its time arriving this year, but it did finally get here.

Sunday, May 17, 2020

Converting an Old Church into a Modernist Bookshop

In Shanghai, a project by Wutopia Lab architects. Via This is Colassal.

Pictish Rhynie

In Aberdeenshire, Scotland, near the village of Rhynie, is a big hill called Tap O' North, and crowning the hill is an ancient stone fortification. The Tap O' North Hill Fort has drawn the attention of archaeologists for 150 years, and it dates to between 450 and 600 AD.

At the foot of the hill is another Pictish settlement that overlaps with the modern village. This place was long known for its carved Pictish stones, such as the Rhynie Man, which is famous enough that you can order it on a stone or silver pendant.

And the Craw Stane, i.e., Crow Stone.

I wrote back in 2011 about excavations taking place in Rhynie, which identified a settlement surrounded by a wooden palisade, along with glass and pottery imported from the Mediterranean. Oddly, the time periods for the two sites overlap, with the lower town dating to between 500 and 650 AD. It may have been destroyed by fire, maybe more than once.

This week's news is the release of a study done on the hilltop by mapping with laser-equipped drones. Notice on that top photograph that the central fort is surrounded by an outer wall. Within that outer wall archaeologists working on foot had identified about 200 hut sites, but the laser mapping reveals 600 more. A settlement with 800 houses ought to have been pretty big, and the investigators are throwing around numbers like 4,000 people. I feel compelled to point out that this assumes all the huts were occupied at the same time, which is not at all certain. But anyway it is strong evidence that this was a major settlement.

And that tells you something about Scotland in AD 500, because the top of that hill would have been a miserable place to live: howling winds, no water, no soil where you could plant even a single cabbage. You would, if you could, live in the valley, where everybody lives today. And it seems that these Pictish folk did try to live in the valley, but got attacked and burned out. So they kept going back to that inhospitable hilltop, where life might be grim but at least they were safe from being axed in their sleep.

Saturday, May 16, 2020

A Driving Tour of Ammergau

The Ammergau Alps are a lovely range of forested mountains that straddle the boundary of Germany and Austria. Some of the most famous sites in Bavaria are here, and we can reach several of them in one day's drive. This is one place I have actually been, so I have some personal observations to make besides my usual internet discoveries.

We begin at the eastern end of the mountains, in the famous twin villages of Unterammergau and Oberammergau. These two place names spawned an old German tongue twister, which goes
Heut' kommt der Hans zu mir, / freut sich die Lies. / Ob er aber über Oberammergau, / oder aber über Unterammergau, / oder aber überhaupt nicht kommt, / ist nicht gewiß!

Both towns are known for the paintings on their houses, some fairy tales but mostly religious scenes; this is one of the most Catholic places in Europe.

And in the summer for flowers.

Oberammergau is most famous for its Passion Play, performed every decade since 1634. The story is that the town was threatened by the plague and the residents made a vow to perform the play every decade if they were spared; they were, and so the tradition began. Some sources call this a "legend" but actually it is as well attested as most facts about the 17th century. The play was cancelled twice, due to another plague and World War II, and postponed several other times, including this year's, which was put off until 2022.

Bavaria was long a center of lime wood carving, and both towns have famous examples.

From Oberammergau we turn west up the valley of the Ammer River, into a land of beautiful scenery, lovely old farms, and many wild places. Among the things you can do here is walk an 87-kilometer (53-mile) Meditation Trail, along which are "15 diverse stations including lonely chapels, crosses, and natural wonders."

You can do this alone – "a journey into yourself," the government web sites says – or  take a guided pilgrimage with a spiritual leader. I have been told that the guided version comes in two flavors, the Catholic and the New Age.

Or you can just marvel at the beauty of it all.

The Kappelkirch, or Chapel, near Unterammergau where the pilgrimage begins. This was built on a site where a holy man from the Welf family set up a hermitage in the 9th century. The Welfs were one of the top aristocratic families of Carolingian Germany, and Google Translate renders their name "elf," thus, "a hermit from the family of the elves." How the holy hermit would have hated that. Actually the name means "cub," related to "whelp," so how that led to "elf" is something of a mystery. I mean, the German word for elf is "elf."

This fellow appears in the Bavarian state tourist bureau's video, but you may in fact encounter people dressed like this. When I was there I ran into more than a hundred members of a hiking club from Munich, all decked head to toe in Bavarian costume, the women out hiking in those voluminous dresses.

An hour up the valley we come to our first cultural marvel, Schloss Linderhof. This is one of the palaces built by Mad King Ludwig, who reigned from 1864 to 1886.

The palace is faux Baroque in every detail, except for the up-to-date lighting and plumbing, which is my idea of a perfect castle.

From there we cross over the high mountains into Austria

Coming down by the Plansee, a wonderful Tyrolese lake.

From there we cross back into Germany and come to the climax of our journey, Neuschwanstein.

Here is the most perfect of fairytale castles. It awed even my cynical young self; no quantity of pictures you have seen can prepare you for the stunning impression of the real thing. It is one of those wonders that cannot be spoiled. You think, it can't be real, it doesn't really look like that. But it does, only better.,

Sadly there isn't much to see inside, since the furniture was taken and sold to pay for some foolish war. By Ludwig's enemies, who thought the money he spent on palaces was a waste. But really he was one of Bavaria's greatest benefactors, his creations paying for themselves over and over in beauty and tourist revenue, while the Austrian-Prussian War is scarcely remembered even by historians.

But even without furniture the great hall is impressive.

From here we probably head back north toward Munich or some other great modern city, but with memories of peaceful valleys and Mad Ludwig's marvels in our minds.