Friday, October 24, 2014

No Amount of Positive Thinking Will Make You Immortal

When I saw that the Times had published an article titled, "What if Age is Nothing but a Mind-Set?" I thought, that is going to be their most viewed and emailed article all week. Sure enough.

It isn't even a stupid article. It describes the research of Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer, who explores the connections between attitudes and health, and especially between attitudes and the health effects of aging. She has gotten famous for studies like this one:
One day in the fall of 1981, eight men in their 70s stepped out of a van in front of a converted monastery in New Hampshire. They shuffled forward, a few of them arthritically stooped, a couple with canes. Then they passed through the door and entered a time warp. Perry Como crooned on a vintage radio. Ed Sullivan welcomed guests on a black-and-white TV. Everything inside — including the books on the shelves and the magazines lying around — were designed to conjure 1959. . . .

The men in the experimental group were told not merely to reminisce about this earlier era, but to inhabit it — to “make a psychological attempt to be the person they were 22 years ago,” she told me. “We have good reason to believe that if you are successful at this,” Langer told the men, “you will feel as you did in 1959.” From the time they walked through the doors, they were treated as if they were younger. The men were told that they would have to take their belongings upstairs themselves, even if they had to do it one shirt at a time.

Each day, as they discussed sports (Johnny Unitas and Wilt Chamberlain) or “current” events (the first U.S. satellite launch) or dissected the movie they just watched (“Anatomy of a Murder,” with Jimmy Stewart), they spoke about these late-'50s artifacts and events in the present tense — one of Langer’s chief priming strategies. Nothing — no mirrors, no modern-day clothing, no photos except portraits of their much younger selves — spoiled the illusion that they had shaken off 22 years.
After five days in this environment, the men showed improved results on several tests designed to measure debility, and they felt and acted younger.

Which is interesting, and gets at the important truth that how we think and feel (emotionally, that is) have big impacts on our physical health. Everybody knows that rich people live longer than poor people, that successful people live longer than those who perceive themselves as failures, that people who have lost their jobs are much more likely to suffer debilitating back pain than those who are still working. Elderly people with active social lives live years longer than those who feel lonely.

But here's the thing about the 1959 study: it lasted for five days. All of Langer's other studies have also been quite short term. I am perfectly willing to grant that positive thinking (and fun new experiences) can make sick or elderly people feel better for a while. It might even help them feel better for years. And if not, it certainly might help them enjoy their last years a lot more.

Eventually, though, everybody is still going to die. Mentally healthy people with positive attitudes may be less likely to get heart disease and cancer than miserable drug addicts, but very happy people still do get sick. My reaction to this article was, first, an annoyed "there they go again with the living forever thing;" then interest as I learned about Langer's experiments; and then a sort of deeper unease that people will focus too much on Langer's message about optimism and lose sight of much that is random and tragic about human existence. You may be thinking, but what harm can it do for people to feel that their health is under their own control? If optimism helps people be healthy, why not promote optimism? But I think such attitudes are very dangerous. People who really believe that they control their own destinies fall too easily into thinking that others are to blame for their own woes, and many of them become libertarians. When the Affordable Care Act was coming into place I read or heard interview after interview with healthy young people who said, "I'm healthy because I take care of myself and I shouldn't have to subsidize fools who ruin their own health with bad thinking and bad habits."

I think the illusion that we control our own health is as politically dangerous as the belief that we could all be rich if we just worked hard enough. Thinking that sick people and poor people are responsible for their own problems promotes indifference to their fates. Indifference, I think, is bad; what we need is more compassion, always more compassion.

So, by all means, get out, have fun, recapture what was best about your youth. Focus on the positive. But never forget that we live in a fallen world where dangers are everywhere, many of them completely beyond your control.

The Ceilings of Persian Mosques

Wonderful photographs by young Iranian photographer Mohammad Reza Domiri Ganji. This is the Sheikh Lotfollah mosque, Isfahan, Iran.

Seyyed Mosque, Isfahan.

Emam Mosque, Isfahan.

Jameh Mosque, Yazd. Many more here.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Brian Catlos, Infidel Kings and Unholy Warriors

Brian Catlos is a professor of religious studies and an expert on the religions of medieval Spain. For centuries Spaniards were taught that their history was about the Reconquista, the long battle between Christians and Muslims for control of the peninsula that ended in Christian victory and the expulsion of the Muslims and Jews. Catlos does not see things that way. He thinks that medieval Christians and Muslims got along a lot more than they fought, even in the age of the Crusades. He marshals a great deal of evidence for his argument and I mostly agree, and even when I don't I felt that I got a lot out of this fascinating book.

Infidel Kings and Unholy Warriors: Faith, Power and Violence in the Age of Crusade and Jihad (2014) is a history of interactions between Muslims, Christians and Jews around the Mediterranean between about 1050 and 1200. This is the period when, some historians would say, more relaxed attitudes of earlier centuries hardened into violent religious hatred between the faiths. (Catlos disagrees, of course.) Rather than trying to write a continuous narrative he gives us a series of separate stories, each focusing on a famous episode of conflict or cooperation between members of different faiths. He begins in Spain with two tales of usurpers: Yusuf ibn Naghrilla, a Jewish minister who tried but failed to usurp the throne of a Muslim kingdom, and Rodrigo Diaz, the Cid, a Christian knight who succeeded. To understand how these events came about requires a great deal of background, dozens of pages showing how the Muslim lands came to be divided into several independent kingdoms, how they sometimes fought against Christian kingdoms but sometimes allied with them, how Jews and Muslims interacted, why Muslim kings had Jewish ministers, and so on, all of which I found fascinating. These narratives seem designed to show that things were really far too complicated to be captured by saying that Christians fought Muslims, or that Jews were oppressed. Catlos certainly does make everything seem complicated -- after some passages about byzantine intrigues, betrayals, assassination plots, ambushes, staged reconciliations, and more my head was spinning. Worse, Catlos cannot mention a person without giving his name, or say that something was done without saying who did it, and as a result these narrative sections contain hundreds of unfamiliar names. Which is too bad, because Catlos is a pretty good writer and I suspect he was hoping that his book would be assigned to a lot of undergraduates. I would not do so because most of my students would drown in this ocean of names and never figure out the point of what Catlos is saying.

Palace chapel of the Norman kings, Palermo, Sicily

Catlos then moves on to Sicily under the Norman conquerors, a fascinating epoch of cultural mixing and religious tolerance. He treats in detail the tale of how a Sicilian ruler executed one of his ministers for the crime of being secretly a Muslim, which certainly seems like a sign of rising religious tension. Catlos shows how unusual this event was, and raises plenty of suspicions about the actual motives of all the people involved.

From there Catlos moves to Egypt under the Fatimids, a dynasty of Muslim heretics who kept themselves in power partly by playing every religious and ethnic group in their domain off against the others. Here the problem of names re-emerges, and since I had read hardly anything about this period I had to flip madly back and forth to keep straight who was who. Fatimid Egypt was in Catlos' telling a very cosmopolitan place, with thriving communities of Sunni Muslims, Shiite Muslims, Coptic Christians, Orthodox Christians, Armenian Christians, Sudanese mercenaries, Turkish tribesmen, Jewish merchants, and more:
The peoples of Greater Cairo were conscious of the barriers that separated them from one another, but nonetheless transgressed these barriers continuously. They consciously embraced ethno-religious ambiguity and diversity by intermarrying, socializing, and dabbling in one another's rites and rituals. (196)

The Muslim-Christian divide was only one of the ways in which the people of Egypt defined themselves and the nature of their society. Every person belonged to a range of communities -- religious, local, professional, and kin-based -- and membership in any could result in that person crossing religious lines or ignoring religious affiliations. The Christians and Muslims of Egypt were deeply integrated, and it was only because the politics, ethnicities, communities and religions of Egypt were entangled that mundane rivalries could be presented or imagined as epic religious conflicts. (223)
The last section covers the First Crusade and the history of the crusader states down to the conquests of Saladin. Catlos admits that the crusaders sometimes acted like religious warriors bent on exterminating people of other faiths. But he thinks that this was an anomaly, not just within Mediterranean history but even within the history of the crusade itself. He dwells, for example, on the long diplomatic friendship between the Christian Templars and the Muslim Assassins, the numerous other deals, pacts, arrangements between Christian and Muslim kingdoms and lords:
For all the efforts of historians of the past to present the Crusades as a unified spiritual undertaking in he service of a larger calling, the fact is that Crusaders were no less riven by factional conflicts, personal agendas, and ideological inconsistencies than the people they were fighting. . . . Like Samuel ibn Naghrila, the Cid, Roger II of Sicily, and Bahram Pahlavuni (Armenian Christian minister of Fatimid Egypt), they became creatures of a diverse Mediterranean world, even as they set out to remake it. (243)
It is a fascinating period of history, and Catlos' approach is entertaining and enlightening. I would caution, though, that it is not the only possible approach. I don't have any particular problem with the way Catlos presents any of his tales, but other people have told them quite differently. In fact, as Catlos admits on more than one occasion, the sources on which he draws present these tales with much more emphasis on religious conflict. It is certainly possible that the average chronicler, whether a Christian monk or a Muslim religious scholar, cared more about religious purity than the average king or minister in that conniving age. But the slant of those chronicles reminds us that some contemporaries saw the events Catlos narrates as something quite different from sordid palace intrigue. If people habitually interpreted political events in terms of religious conflict, is that not a historical fact in itself, and perhaps one of great importance? After all, we really do not know the details of these events with anything like the certainty that Catlos offers, especially when they concern backstairs intrigues in the courts of paranoid rulers. Maybe Catlos is right, but maybe the monkish writers were closer to the truth than he wants to admit. There are also numerous details that do not really fit Catlos' argument. Catlos does not even mention the finding of the "Holy Lance" during the siege of Antioch, an episode of religious fervor that some Christian chroniclers made out to be the key event of the whole enterprise. In his account of the Cid's constant side-switching Catlos mentions French knights who had come to Spain specifically to fight against Muslims on behalf of Christianity, and if they were not typical they certainly existed. Some people in the eleventh century may have been determined to get along with people of other faiths, or indifferent to the whole question, but plenty of others were belligerent and hostile.

In a longer view, it is also worth noting that who won some of those wars between Christians and Muslims ended up mattering a lot. The difference between Spain and, say, Tunisia has a lot do with the Reconquista -- Spain became part of Christian Europe, while Tunisia remained part of the Muslim world. Catlos sometimes seems to imply that "holy wars" were just politics, no more or less profound than other wars, but that can't be quite right.

"What can we learn," Catlos asks in his conclusion,
from the history of the Crusaders and mujahidin who fought alongside unbelievers and against their own people? Of the kings and caliphs who staffed their administrations with heretics and infidels? And of the opportunists who cloaked their avarice and ambition in piety? Perhaps what they tell us is that for all its inherent chauvinism, righteousness, and moral certitude, we cannot blame religion for the violence of the past. (324)
That I can certainly agree with; after all, the violence between Christians and Muslims was only a tiny part of the violence of the Middle Ages, most of it enacted against neighbors of the same faith. But neither is religious conflict a side issue in history, and it certainly was not to many medieval people. Infidel Kings and Holy Warriors is a very fine book, but it is a book with agendas that go far beyond just trying to understand the past, and the reader should not forget this.

Boar's Head Rhyton

Ceramic, Greek, 4th century BCE. For sale from Artemis Gallery at liveauctioneers, expected price $3500. What a handsome fellow. Below, from the same auction, a Hallstatt (early Celtic) bronze situla, which sounds like something fancy but is just the Latin word for bucket. A bit pricier at around $200,000.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

DNA from the Hungarian Plain

The international team of scientists examined nuclear ancient DNA extracted from thirteen individuals from burials from archaeological sites located in the Great Hungarian Plain, an area known to have been at the crossroads of major cultural transformations that shaped European prehistory. The skeletons sampled date from 5,700 BC (Early Neolithic) to 800 BC (Iron Age).

It took several years of experimentation with different bones of varying density and DNA preservation for the scientists to discover that the inner ear region of the petrous bone in the skull, which is the hardest bone and well protected from damage, is ideal for ancient DNA analysis in humans and any other mammals.

According to Professor Ron Pinhasi from the UCD Earth Institute and UCD School of Archaeology, University College Dublin, the joint senior author on the paper, "the high percentage DNA yield from the petrous bones exceeded those from other bones by up to 183-fold. This gave us anywhere between 12% and almost 90% human DNA in our samples compared to somewhere between 0% and 20% obtained from teeth, fingers and rib bones".
Using this trove of ancient DNA the investigators delved into several different questions. One of those making the news is that Hungarians showed no trace of adult lactose tolerance until the Iron Age, more than 4,000 years after they started dairying. Which is rather odd. Here's an interesting detail:
The Neolithic Hungarians are close to Sardinians (this has been replicated in study after study, so it's no longer a surprise when you find Neolithic Europeans that look like Sardinians). What is surprising is that one Neolithic European, designated KO1, is with the hunter-gatherers. . . . you would expect to find some hunter-gatherers in the earliest Neolithic communities in Europe as Europe wasn't empty land when the early farmers showed up. And KO1 appears one of those guys, "caught in the act" of first contact between the two groups.
So this KO1 person was genetically a native hunter-gatherer, but he was laid to rest in the cemetery of an intrusive neolithic community. Turncoat! Also:
According to Professor Dan Bradley from the Smurfit Institute of Genetics, Trinity College Dublin, co-senior author on the paper, "our results also imply that the great changes in prehistoric technology including the adoption of farming, followed by the first use of the hard metals, bronze and then iron, were each associated with the substantial influx of new people. We can no longer believe these fundamental innovations were simply absorbed by existing populations in a sort of cultural osmosis."
This is a tiny sample on which to base such sweeping claims, but we do have lots of other data now. As I have written here many times, the genetic evidence points to major population shifts throughout the past 10,000 years. No genetic study I am aware of supports the sort of very long term continuity that archaeologists insisted on in the 50 years after the Nazis made theories of invasion and conquest seem politically unacceptable.

This is a graphic from the report with most of the confusing data about alleles taken out; it shows the predicted hair and eye color for the individuals studied.

No Confidence in Anything

A nice summary of the nation's mood:
Polling by Gallup shows that since June 2009, in the heyday of the new Obama presidency, public confidence in virtually every major institution of American life has fallen, including organized religion, the military, the Supreme Court, public schools, newspapers, Congress, television news, the police, the presidency, the medical system, the criminal justice system and small business.

The only institutions that Gallup tested that showed slight improvement from June 2009 to June 2014 were banks, organized labor, big business and health maintenance organizations. Even so, all four of them had the confidence of just roughly a quarter of the population or less.
And where does that leave us? I suppose an optimist might answer, "nowhere to go but up." But I can't see why things are likely to get better soon, because all of these problems undercut each other. I think most American police forces could use major reforms, and the public is coming around to my view, but who will carry out those reforms when people have even less confidence in politicians and judges than they do in the police? Public disgust with political deadlock feeds angry cynicism, which leads to the election of angry obstructionists like Ted Cruz, which leads to yet more deadlock. I think middle class stagnation and ever increasing inequality are at the root of all of this, but I also think that only dramatic government action has a chance of reversing those trends, and I doubt our divided, cynical country will ever find the nerve for dramatic action.

One of the issues I follow most closely is public confidence in science, which is very shaky. This has something to do with big fights over evolution and climate change, but it is also fed by whipsawing advice about diet and health, contradictory theories about obscure entities like dark matter, decades of false promises about fusion and solar power, and so on. All the incentives are for scientists to trumpet their findings with the biggest available microphone, no matter how dubious, but every time those confident pronouncements are called into question, people's confidence in science is sapped.

Maybe this is all overblown and the numbers will turn around when the economy picks up real steam, but I worry that the decay of confidence in our democracy points in very bad directions.

Beth Moon

American photographer Beth Moon -- born in Wisconsin, now living in California -- explores the mythic dimensions of nature. Some of her pictures focus explicitly on shamanistic connections between people and beasts; others have less esoteric subjects but have the same mystical feel. All of these are platinum prints, not digital photos. Above, Kapok, from her series Portraits of Time.

Two pictures from her series Odin's Cove, featuring a pair of ravens she got to know. I love these.

From Diamond Nights.
Above, the Nantglyn Pulpit Yew; below, The Sentinels of St. Edwards. Many more at her web site.

Talk in Baltimore: the Archaeology of Patterson Park

For anybody out there in Baltimore-land, I will be speaking Saturday afternoon about the archaeology we did last spring in Patterson Park. We searched for and found remnants of the earthworks built to defend the city from the British in 1814, which was interesting, and just carrying out this project in the middle of a big city park was also quite an adventure. Talk is at the Anchor Branch Library, Eastern Ave. and S. Conkling St., at 3:00 PM on October 25, 2014.

More details here.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Build Your Own 17th-Century Barn

The 17th-century Acton Hall Tithe Barn was dismantled 25 years ago.

Now the disassembled beams are for sale, I assume with instructions on how to put them back together. Have fun! Via the History Blog.

Smart Young People Still Moving to Cities

According to a new study from City Observatory, the number of young (25-34) college graduates living in city centers is up 37% since 2000, although the overall population of those areas has hardly changed. Dense, urban neighborhoods are the cool place to be. I am fascinated by this development. Is it just fashion? Is it because, as a real estate investor I know says, the affordable suburbs are just too far out now to be livable? (He expects that the next generation of slums will be suburbs an hour's drive from city centers.) Is it renewed environmentalism and a desire to bike to work and otherwise reduce carbon footprint a factor? Certainly there is a lot of evidence that young America's century-long love affair with cars has faded a little. Is it falling crime? Smaller families? A desire for lives that seem interesting rather than comfortable? All of those things?

City Observatory also offers this chart showing which cities are doing the best at recruiting such people. I should note, though, that this chart represents change, and some cities like Minneapolis and Boston don't show up because they had a big growth in the number of college graduates they attracted in the 20 years before this chart begins and so have't seen as much growth since. The usual suspects dominate, but it's interesting to see Buffalo, Baltimore, Pittsburgh and St. Louis showing big growth in this category. As City Observatory notes, the cities that draw the most young talent are often the ones that do best over the next few decades, so all of those once dying places seem primed for renewed growth.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Hazing in Sayreville, or, Suffering and Belonging

Over the past decade Sayreville, New Jersey has consistently had one of the state's top high school football teams. They have also had a locker room culture that borders on the horrific. Everyone seems to agree that the upperclassmen regularly tormented freshmen:
“Hootie hoo,” the older players yelled before their home game that night, flicking the lights on and off and on again. Then they tripped a freshman in a T-shirt and football pants, letting loud music muffle any noise the boy made as he fell. Two pinned the younger boy’s arms, while others punched and kicked him — not viciously, but hard enough to matter, two witnesses said. He curled into the fetal position and was groped by his attackers.
This is all in the news because somebody alleged that some of this went beyond mere assault to actual rape. I will offer no opinion on whether that is true. My interest is in the relationship between intense hazing and the success of all male groups, whether in football, war, or just about anything else.

Hazing is as old as humanity. It used to be called “initiation,” but most of the rituals anthropologists would put in that category have involved the infliction of suffering on the initiate. Some of the tribal rites that cause romantics to get all misty-eyed about the simple lives of hunter-gatherers were violent to a degree that puts the bullies of Sayreville to shame: adult circumcision, scarification, gang rape. Many Indian tribes sent 13-year-old boys out into the woods or the desert to fend for themselves for weeks, hoping that some combination of hunger, thirst, loneliness, and either freezing cold or sunstroke would make them delirious, giving them a glimpse of the spirit realm. Sometimes they were drugged with powerful hallucinogens before they were dumped alone in the wilderness. Across the plains boys were starved and sweated until they were near breakdown, then made to walk in a circle and chant while they were whipped until they collapsed.

Every sort of intense human in-group has practiced initiation rituals, from religious cults to terrorist bands. Modern militaries created something called “basic training” that serves as an initiation for new soldiers, and in many places that his been taken to horrific lengths. Today in the U.S., the Army has eased off on the hazing side of training, while the Marines have tried to keep it tough, and partly as a result you see a lot more bumper stickers for the Marines.

Suffering together creates strong bonds between people. This seems to be a deep fact of human nature that no amount of hand-wringing about abuse can undo. The bond between soldiers who have fought together is famous, and it seems to be stronger among those who went through really tough times and lost comrades than among those who had less violent experiences. Hazing of new members by veterans seems to be a pretty good substitute. If you want to create a group with a really strong sense of togetherness and purpose, make it hard to get in, and be sure to impose lots of pain and suffering on new recruits.

And yet while I recognize this analytically, it turns my stomach. Even if we agree that bullies in these circumstances are playing some sort of positive social role, what they do is still mean and nasty. Picking on those too weak to fight back is despicable. And one of the effects is that it makes some of the abused eager to hand out abuse on their own, as soon as they are strong enough to get the chance. I am not sure how much impact these systems have on the personalities of  those who go through them. But if they really do “mold men,” they make them more confident of their place, tougher in the face of pain, and more willing to deal pain to others: like good warriors, or football players. How you feel about hazing will have a lot to do with whether you want men to be like that.

Silver Diadem from Bronze Age Spain

Very tasteful and simple by the usual standards of the European Bronze Age, when they usually went in for mad headgear. Perhaps this was actually only a support for a vast headdress made of feathers or painted wood.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

The World Champions

At League of Legends, that is. For all you old squares, League of Legends is a hugely popular online game in which teams of five players control fantastic "champions" in 5 v 5 battles, until the winning team destroys the other team's base. Each game takes about half an hour. This is Samsung White, five young Koreans who romped through the world championships and will now divide the $1 million in prize money. My two older sons are really into this game and they are both fans of this team, because of their super-aggressive, super fast style of play. You can watch some snippets of the online telecast here, and the announcers are just in awe of how fast the team decides on strategy and puts it into action. Whenever people roll their eyes at taking video games this seriously, my sons fire back, "No, football is stupid -- League of Legends is all about being smarter and mentally quicker than the other team."

Saturday, October 18, 2014

A Walk to Ellicott City

No soccer today because Ben's league has an odd number of teams, and this is his bye week. Since it was a lovely day, we walked down the Trolley Trail to Ellicott City. Brother and sister clowning by the trail head.

Into the woods to climb some rocks.


Strange giant fungus on a tree off the trail.

Clara races ahead toward the finish.

Passing under what they call the Zoobat Bridge.

The reward.

Matthew Parker, The Sugar Barons

Sometimes humans seem noble, even exalted, with abilities and plans great enough to act alongside angels and demons in the cosmic drama. Other times we seem like particularly vicious lemmings.

I mention this because I have just finished listening to Matthew Parker's The Sugar Barons: Family, Corruption, Empire, and War in the West Indies (2011). This is a quite readable history of the British colonies in the Caribbean, from the first settlements on Barbados around 1620 to the abolition of slavery and the collapse of the plantations. Parker's focus is on a handful of the great sugar families -- Drax, Codrington, Beckford, etc. -- but along the way he gives an entertaining narrative of political and military events in the islands, a good economic history of the sugar plantations and their place in the world economy, and a useful introduction to the social history of the plantations, with enough material on slavery to convey the peculiar brutality of the system.

Sugar was the king of the British and French overseas empires. Viewed from London and Paris, the Caribbean was the great center of imperial endeavor, North America just a sideshow. In 1650 the single island of Barbados had more European settlers than all of North America, and the value of its exports was five times that of Virginia and New England combined. All through the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries it was sugar that drove imperial calculations. It was sugar that made the empire profitable; it was the demands of sugar planters that drove the slave trade with Africa; it was trade with the sugar islands that created the maritime economy of New England. By 1750 sugar was the most valuable traded commodity in the world, surpassing even grain. The vast wealth of the top sugar planters upended the social hierarchy of Britain; in 1770 the three or four wealthiest private citizens in the world were probably sugar planters. By then more than 40 sugar barons had bought their way into Parliament, creating a powerful "sugar interest" that guided imperial policy toward the needs of the planters and shut out the different concerns of New Englanders and Virginians. The story of the sugar colonies is well worth knowing, and The Sugar Barons is a good place to start.

Parker also has a good eye for documentary sources that bring out the weirdness of the West Indies. He has the diary of a plantation overseer who kept a minutely detailed record of his life, including every time he had sex with a slave, and a firsthand account of the 1694 earthquake in Port Royal, Jamaica, a town built on sand that turned liquid during the quake, so that hundreds of people sank into it like water, only to be trapped when the shaking ceased and the ground turned solid again.

But the main impression I took away from The Sugar Barons was the same one I always get from accounts of the Caribbean colonies, a vision of the scrabbling, ratlike quality of human existence. The sugar islands were an empire of cruelty and death. To the old European scourges of smallpox and influenza the tropics added malaria and especially yellow fever, besides rum and general dissipation, and as a result the life expectancy of a European who sailed to the Caribbean was less than five years. Even those who survived the fearful "seasoning" of the first few years rarely lived to old age; a majority of 30-year-olds in the islands were dead by 40, and a majority of 40-year-olds were dead by 50. The death rate for whites in Jamaica over the entire eighteenth century was about the same as what London experienced during the Great Plague year of 1665-1666. Every army or fleet sent out with great plans for conquest melted away in the Caribbean climate; one force sent from England in the 1690s started with 28,000 men but lost 20,000 within months, only a handful to bullets. West Africa was even worse for Europeans. Most people have heard of the horrors of the "middle passage" for enslaved Africans, but the death rate for the ships' white crews was even higher than that of the miserable slaves chained in the holds.

Yet people kept leaving Europe and sailing toward these lands of death, drawn by the dream of great riches and pushed out by the grinding poverty and rigid social hierarchy of the home islands. A few of the survivors did get fabulously rich, and a few more earned respectable livings. But efficient sugar production required large plantations and a great investment in machinery and especially labor, so after the chaos of the first pioneering years very few poor men were able to become sugar planters. I was impressed by how many of Jamaica's great families were founded by men who came in the very first shiploads of British soldiers and settlers. Once the great plantations were up and running, sugar was a rich man's game.

Still, thousands of poor white men went to the islands, where they ended up scrabbling for existence around the margins of the sugar estates. It was these rootless men who supplied the manpower for the other great Caribbean enterprise, piracy and privateering. The colonial powers were almost constantly at war, whether declared or not, and all licensed privateers by the dozens. A successful privateering voyage could earn a common man more in a month than he would earn in a lifetime of labor. No wonder that when peace was made, for example in 1713, the privateers turned to outright piracy. It was only by violence that the average man had any chance of sharing in the wealth of the empire. Piracy was horribly dangerous, but then nobody in the islands expected to live a long life anyway.

And that was just the white people, the ruling elite of the islands. After about 1660 almost all of the labor on the sugar estates was supplied by African slaves. These unfortunates were kidnapped from their homes by armed gangs, dragged to the coast in chains, stacked like cordwood into the dark, stifling holds of small ships and brought across the ocean to the Islands of Death. Africans had some resistance to malaria and yellow fever, but the life expectancy of new arrivals was not much higher than that of Europeans. Underfed, worked near to death, punished savagely for minor infractions -- cutting off a man's hand and forcing him to eat it was a common punishment for refusing to work -- they died in droves. Some committed suicide, a practice encouraged by the belief that they would be reincarnated back in Africa. Few were able to form families, because most planters forbade women from taking time off from labor to nurse children. Only the massive importation of new slaves allowed the numbers to be kept up; between 1650 and 1800 more than four million African slaves were brought to the sugar islands, but when slavery ended in 1838 there were only 400,000 surviving blacks.

Caribbean slavery was shocking even to the hard hearts of eighteenth-century Europeans. Every so often a moralist would notice that the profit of the empire was being whipped out of slaves and demand that something be done -- many of the great minds of the era, from John Locke to John Wesley, denounced the evil of slavery. But nothing ever was done, because the profit was too great. The system was making people rich, filling the treasury, fueling commerce. From Boston to Glasgow to Berlin, the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands depended on sugar, and sugar meant slaves. The slaves formed the large majority of the population on all the islands, and the Europeans believed that only savage cruelty kept them from rebelling.

Given the prominent place of the sugar trade in the rise of the modern world, it is worth thinking a little about the horrors that lay behind it. And about this whole side of human life, the vicious struggle for survival, riches and mastery that we mask with talk of glory and civilization. We are animals, predatory animals, and though we like to speak of the violence and cruelty of wolves or lions or hyenas, we are the true masters in those departments.

Industrial Pottery Production in Fifth Century BCE Sicily

Archaeologists in Sicily have uncovered an industrial pottery works dating to the fifth century BCE:
Stretching for more than 3,200 feet (1000 m), the craft district relied on about 80 kilns for the production of ceramics. “The largest one is 17 feet (5.2 m) in diameter, making it the biggest kiln ever found in a Greek city,” Martin Bentz, an archeologist at the University of Bonn, told Discovery News.

The find was made in the periphery of Selinunte, on the southwest coast of Sicily. The farthest west of the Greek colonies, known for its grand temples, Selinunte enjoyed centuries of prosperity before being reduced to rubble by the Carthaginians during the first Punic War. Located along the river Cottone, now silted up, the industrial quarter operated inside the city walls. “It was separated from the rest of the city by an non-built-up area so to protect the inhabitants from fire danger, smell and noise,” Bentz said. 
Pottery production here began in about 550 BCE and ended in 409, when Selinunte was sacked by the Carthaginians. The workshops were spread out along four artificial terraces cut into sloping ground. At first the main product was small terra cotta statues, but around 450 a huge new was structure (3900 square feet or 360 m2) was built for making roofing tiles and pots.

When you consider how many tile-roofed buildings there were in the ancient Mediterranean, there must have been many such workshops.

Friday, October 17, 2014

What Does an Ebola Czar Do?

Now that we have an Ebola Czar, I find myself wondering, what does an Ebola Czar do?

Set up a nice office, put a flag behind his desk and some portraits of great leaders on the wall? Call a press conference and say the public should stay calm because the government has the problem in hand? Be filmed getting briefed by doctors from the CDC?

I could do that job. I wonder what it pays?

What Breeding has Done to the Plants We Eat

Chemistry teacher James Kennedy created these great graphics that show how much breeding has changed our main crops. Above, peaches, and below, watermelon.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Lockheed's Mini Fusion Reactor

Lockheed Martin claims to have a new way of making a fusion reactor much smaller than existing designs:
The Lockheed Martin Skunk Works team is working on a new compact fusion reactor (CFR) that can be developed and deployed in as little as ten years. Currently, there are several patents pending that cover their approach.

While fusion itself is not new, the Skunk Works has built on more than 60 years of fusion research and investment to develop an approach that offers a significant reduction in size compared to mainstream efforts.

“Our compact fusion concept combines several alternative magnetic confinement approaches, taking the best parts of each, and offers a 90 percent size reduction over previous concepts,” said Tom McGuire, compact fusion lead for the Skunk Works’ Revolutionary Technology Programs. “The smaller size will allow us to design, build and test the CFR in less than a year.”

After completing several of these design-build-test cycles, the team anticipates being able to produce a prototype in five years. As they gain confidence and progress technically with each experiment, they will also be searching for partners to help further the technology.
If this is real, it is hard to imagine a more important development. Many people are skeptical, and Lockheed's own video calls this a "high risk, high payoff" endeavor, but on the other hand the Skunk Works is a legendary engineering operation, so who knows?


David Coward on eighteenth-century France, in the TLS:
As a reaction against such austerities, the nation heaved a sigh of relief when Louis XIV died in 1715. A Regency was declared and Paris was plunged into an orgy of self-indulgence. Political power moved from Versailles back to Paris, which became the new center of economic, social, intellectual and artistic life. In the process, the old formal severity of the baroque was superseded by the rococo, which celebrated pleasure and the senses. Architecture, interior decoration, furniture, porcelain, garden design, all supplied the decor of intimate boudoirs overflowing with the rumps and bosoms of sleeping nudes, and languid exteriors primed with latent voluptuousness; departures for Cythera, the isle of love, or the bal champêtre with its carefully staged indiscretions, involving masks, bosquets and milkmaids surprised by sensuality. (Jean Honoré Fragonard, Girl Sleeping)
François Boucher, Diana Emerging from the Bath.

Fragonard, The Swing.

Boucher, Girl Resting.

Antoine Watteau, The Embarkation for Cythera.

Boucher, Venus Dressing.

Boucher, Pastoral Secrets.

Now I ask you, is Coward's description of this stuff not spot on? Ah, the age of the "libertines," of de Sade, Casanova and Valmont. One of the other amusing things about this culture is that ordinary words were constantly corrupted into sexual meanings. Viz., a "gallantry," which once meant an act of courtesy toward a lady, came to mean a case of veneral disease. One priest complained that "if we keep on like this there will soon be no innocent words left."

Rituals on the Ancient Sea

Archaeologists exploring a shipwreck in the Aeolian Islands off Sicily recovered this thymiaterion, or incense burner, from the bow of the vessel. It would have been used to make offerings to the gods when setting sail or entering port. Sadly, the gods were little help to these mariners, whose ship went down in the first century BCE.