Tuesday, September 2, 2014


Another horrible case of American "justice":
Thirty years after their convictions in the rape and murder of an 11-year-old girl in rural North Carolina, based on confessions that they quickly repudiated and said were coerced, two mentally disabled half-brothers were declared innocent and released Tuesday by a Robeson County court.

The case against the men, always weak, fell apart after DNA evidence implicated another man with a history of rape and murder.

The startling shift in fortunes for the men, Henry Lee McCollum, now 50, who has spent three decades on death row, and Leon Brown, 46, who was serving a life sentence, provided one of the most dramatic examples yet of the potential for false, coerced confessions and also of the power of DNA tests to exonerate the innocent.
It's not like this should have surprised anyone. Activists have been working on this case ever since word first got out about the way the police railroaded two black teenagers picked up more or less at random:
No physical evidence tied the youths, both African-American, as was the victim, to the crime, but someone had apparently cast suspicion on Mr. McCollum. After five hours of questioning with no lawyer present and with his mother weeping in the hallway, not allowed to see him, Mr. McCollum told a story of how he and three other youths attacked and killed the girl.

“I had never been under this much pressure, with a person hollering at me and threatening me,” Mr. McCollum said in a recent videotaped interview with The News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C. “I just made up a story and gave it to them so they would let me go home.”
But the usual suspects refused to give these men a fair trial:
As recently as 2010, the North Carolina Republican Party put Mr. McCollum’s booking photograph on campaign fliers accusing a Democrat of being soft on crime, according to The News & Observer.

In 1994, when the United States Supreme Court turned down a request for review of the case, Justice Antonin Scalia described Mr. McCollum’s crime as so heinous that it would be hard to argue against lethal injection. . . .

Joe Freeman Britt, the original prosecutor, told The News & Observer last week that he still believed the men were guilty.
But will Scalia, Britt and their pals lose any sleep over their attempt to kill an innocent man? Of course not. They have more important things to worry about, like the moral decline of America or the perversion of the Constitution by liberals who care about the poor.

Antebellum Slavery and Contemporary Inequality

This fascinating map shows one measure of the degree of economic mobility in the US, the chance that a child born in the lowest quintile of income will rise into the top quintile. The areas with the lowest mobility are all places that were either dominated by slavery before 1860 or are dominated by reservation Indians today. Race is a big factor, but, says Stephen Mihm in the Globe, the number of blacks in an area today correlates less well with the map than the number of slaves in 1860 does. And, economic mobility in the red areas is also very low for white residents; poor whites in areas with many black residents are more like their black neighbors than they are like whites in the upper Midwest.

Economic historians have been arguing for decades about why this should be. Two of the top figures in the field are economic historians Stanley Engerman and Kenneth Sokoloff, who published a paper in 2002 asking why some parts of the Americas have been so much more economically vibrant others, and less troubled by inequality.
The answer, they argued, lay in the earliest history of each country’s settlement. The political and social institutions put in place then tended to perpetuate the status quo. They concluded that societies that began “with extreme inequality tended to adopt institutions that served to advantage members of the elite and hamper social mobility.” This, they asserted, resulted in economic underdevelopment over the long run.

More specifically, they observed that regions where sugar could be profitably grown invariably gave rise to societies defined by extreme inequality. The reason, they speculated, had to do with the fact that large-scale sugar plantations made intensive use of slave labor, generating institutions that privileged a small elite of white planters over a majority of black slaves. These institutions, their later work suggested, could encompass everything from property rights regimes to tax structures to public schools.
Others disagree
not everyone buys the idea that the past can structure the present in such an enduring, predictable fashion. . . . “The persistence of inequality per se is a myth,” says Stanford economic historian Gavin Wright, pointing to research that highlights the degree to which inequality has ebbed and flowed in Latin America.

Wright counts himself “unconvinced” regarding comparable claims about the United States. “No doubt slavery has played some kind of background role,” he concedes. But he sees the relationship between historical slavery and contemporary inequality as an interesting correlation, not a directly causal one. Correlating one variable with another across the centuries “isn’t the same as writing history,” he notes. “If you don’t connect the dots, you’re just groping.”
If you ask me, what makes this correlation real is the persistence of political traditions and social attitudes over time. A historical thread connects the slave society to segregation to hatred of Obamacare, expressed as resentment of busybody outsiders, respect for local tradition, pride in self-reliance, and acceptance of extreme inequality as a natural expression of the way things are. These patterns have proved very, very difficult to change.

Thomas Herbrich, Smoke

German photographer Thomas Herbrich took 100,000 high-speed photographs of smoke plumes, then searched through them for striking patterns and images. Many more here.

Replication Studies, or, Not Trying Very Hard to Confirm

Matthew Lieberman raises some interesting questions about the movement to replicate published studies in psychology:
Now there's "the replication crisis", which is a replication crisis in science, if it's even a crisis. It's just that we need to be reminded sometimes that when you see the first flashy study published in science or psych science, it's just an anecdote. It's a scientific anecdote, and we should go collect some more. It can be a really exciting one that you want to tell all your friends about, but it's one little tiny piece of data. We've perhaps taken to assuming those things were facts, and then we're shocked when those things don't replicate in study number two.

There's a lot of stuff going on where there's now people making their careers out of trying to take down other people's careers. The replication isn't necessarily an unbiased process, as it's presented. There are camps, and suddenly now failing to replicate someone else is really seen as an indictment, in many people's eyes, of the person who did the original research, rather than saying there's expectancy effects. If I expect not to replicate someone's work, that's going to influence how I design my study, the measures I look at, it's going to influence how I interact with my participants. I've heard stories about participants saying that they've been told, "Oh, you're just in a replication effort, so it doesn't matter if you know more than you should." There are things going on, and it is troubling to me.
I can see this happening in two ways. When people dislike a finding, they may try to make their experiment fail. Or, if they are trying to replicate ten studies in a year, they may not try very hard to get them right. As Lieberman says, the way people approach a study is especially important when it involves human subjects, and people who want to reject a finding can probably make that happen. Lieberman says this is being done most aggressively to studies that bother people because their findings don't fit with the general idea of  how the mind works, and if true that would be troubling.

Late Summer Frolic

Down at the river yesterday with Ben and Clara. It was the first of September but one of the hottest days of the summer, and much fun was had in the cool water.

Monday, September 1, 2014

The Helpful Family

My youngest daughter asked, from the front hallway, "Where is my other shoe?"

The assembled family members in the dining room, father and two brothers, answered,
"Hyenas ate it."
"Gremlins turned it invisible."
But then we knew she would find it in the end.

Anglo-Saxon Treasures

Cavalry mount found at Blakeney, England, depicting Wotan. Dated to around 600 CE.

Anglian sword hilt found at Fetter Lane, London, dating to the eighth century.

Three disc-on-bow brooches, c. 550 to 600. This is a Scandinavian form and the presence of brooches like these in Britain shows close connections between the Anglo-Saxon elite and their homeland. All of these treasures are in the British Museum.

Still Life with Cat-Chewed Flowers

My dining room table workspace, this morning.

Before I Do: Experience, Marriage, and Human Happiness

A new study on marital satisfaction passes on what strikes me as some grim evidence about people, or at least contemporary Americans. The study is based on something called the Relationship Development Study:
Between 2007 and 2008, more than one thousand Americans who were unmarried but in a relationship, and between age 18 and 34, were recruited into the study. Over the course of the next five years, 418 of those individuals got married. We looked closely at those 418 new marriages. We examined the history of the spouses’ relationship, looked at their prior romantic experiences, and asked them about the quality of their marriages. After analyzing the data, we came to three major conclusions that we will discuss in greater depth in this report. . .  Some couples slide through major relationship transitions, while others make intentional decisions about moving through them. The couples in the latter category fare better. Choices about weddings seem to say something important about the quality of marriages. Our first major conclusion challenges what we’ll call the Vegas Fallacy—the idea that what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas. Actually, what people do before marriage appears to matter. Specifically, how they conduct their romantic lives before they tie the knot is linked to their odds of having happy marriages. 
Obviously there are a lot of problems with this study, starting from the tiny sample size and the gigantic bit of question begging at its center: what is a "high quality marriage" anyway, and who gets to say? But let me first review the findings. They all follow what you might call the contemporary conservative paradigm: people who have formal weddings, people who discuss changes in relationship status and make them deliberately, and people who do not have children before marrying are all happier. Second marriages are worse. The finding getting the most attention is the one summarized in the graph at the top of the post: the more sexual partners a woman has before marriage, the less likely she is to be in one of those "high quality marriages." The effect for men is negligible.

The authors interpret this as being all about making decisions and following through:
Making a clear, deliberate decision to commit to one option and reject alternative options strengthens a person’s tendency to follow through on the commitment.
That is, people who are happily married are those who really throw themselves into being married and are determined to make it work and make it good. As the ancient Buddhist saying puts it, First, intention; then, enlightenment.

This ties into how the study's authors explain the finding about promiscuity:
Why would having more experience be associated with worse outcomes? We generally operate under the assumption that people with more experience, in a job, for example, are experts and therefore better than novices or new hires. Shouldn’t having more relationship experience also make people wiser in their love lives?

One reason that more experience could lead to lower marital quality is that more experience may increase one’s awareness of alternative partners. A strong sense of alternatives is believed to make it harder to maintain commitment to, and satisfaction with, what one already has. People who have had many relationships prior to their current one can compare a present partner to their prior partners in many areas — like conflict management, dating style, physical attractiveness, sexual skills, communication ability, and so on. Marriage involves leaving behind other options, which may be harder to do with a lot of experience.
So the problem with too much prior experience is that it lessens your commitment to your current marriage which, in their model, makes you less successful.

But -- and this is a huge qualification -- the only way the authors have of determining who is in a "high quality marriage" is by asking people to evaluate their own circumstances. What they are measuring is not really how good these marriages are, but how likely the people in them are to say they are good. What if all the variables they measure affect, not how good things really are, but how determined people are to put a positive spin on them? Could it be that all their machinery of commitment really only increases people's determination to say things are great?

Here's another thing.This study has only run for five years, so none of these people have bee married for very long. So maybe the ones who say their marriages are great are the ones who are still in that first flush of powerful romantic love. And maybe people with more experience are less likely to report high satisfaction because they have felt those feelings before, and then felt them fade. So maybe more experienced people are just better able to see through the hormonal rush and be realistic about the state of the relationship.

And yet, as I have said many times, I firmly believe that thinking positively helps in life. Certainly I find that it helps me -- when I am down, counting my blessings helps pull me out of it. Thinking about this study I get the sense that happiness can be maintained only by a desperate effort toward cheerfulness -- that things as they are, are really rather grim, and only constantly telling ourselves to be positive can keep us feeling good about them. Sort of like those cartoons in which Wiley Coyote keeps running through the air for a while until he notices he is in the air, at which point he falls to the ground. But then again maybe I just take pop sociology too seriously.

Our New Allies, Iran

The one good thing about our little war against the real monsters of ISIS is that it might get Americans to give up our absurd demonization of Iran:
The fight for Amerli, in northern Iraq, appeared to mark the first time American warplanes and militias backed by Iran were working with a common purpose on the battlefield against militants from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
Those Iraqi Shiite militias were trained and armed by Iran and are still full of Iranian agents. So we are now bombing to support attacks launched by Iranian agents. The Times calls this "strange bedfellows," but really it makes perfect sense. Both the US and Iran want Iraq to be a stable nation ruled by its Shiite majority, with respect for the rights of Sunnis. Obviously there are a lot of issues on which the US disagrees with Iran, but this is equally true of our "allies" in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. So can we please drop the "axis of evil" crap now and treat Iran like the normal nation it is?

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Living through my Children

My eldest daughter is in Scotland to spend her junior year at Glasgow University. Right now she is staying with Scottish friends for a few days before the term begins, and she posted this picture of herself exploring a stream near Loch Lomond.

I am hoping to visit her in the spring so we can go exploring like we did two years ago. Meanwhile, I can daydream.

End of Life Consultations and the Vagaries of American Politics

The last time Medicare proposed paying for doctors to discuss end of life care with patients, Sarah Palin denounced it as "death panels" designed to hurry old people off the planet, and the measure collapsed in an explosion of political insanity. Now they are proposing the same measure again, and it looks like it will pass without anyone much caring.

The Parthenon Frieze and the Sacrifice of Erechtheus

The Parthenon Frieze is one of the standard "Great Works" of western civilization, but what does it really represent? A new book by Joan Breton Connelly, The Parthenon Enigma, asks the question:
Art history and classical civilization courses tend to teach us that the frieze represents the “Panathenaic procession.” The Great Panathenaia occurred, like the Olympics, every four years; it was a festival of athletic games and poetry and music competitions, culminating in a procession to the temple of Athena, goddess of weaving, war, and wisdom. Her statue was then presented with a new peplos, a robe woven by the women of Athens.

Thus, the frieze, with its horses and horsemen, youths and elders, men and women, and animals being led to sacrifice, represents Periclean Athens and a cross-section of 5th-century Athenians. The central panel on the eastern frieze, which depicts three women of assorted heights and a man and a child handling a bundle of cloth, is read as the culmination of the festival. The tallest woman is seen to be Athena’s priestess.
This theory, proposed by a couple of eighteenth-century tourists, has one glaring problem, which is that Greek temple art almost always depicted ancient or mythical events, not contemporary happenings. Cambridge classicist A.W. Lawrence, brother of T.E., wrote that if the frieze did depict the Panathenaia,
“this must have verged on profanation.” There are other difficulties (Wikipedia calls the interpretation “fraught with problems”):
Many of the elements we might expect to see in a typical Panathenaic procession are conspicuously missing. Why so many horses but no hoplites, the backbone of the 5th-century Athenian Army? What’s with the anachronistic chariots, a relic of Bronze Age warfare? Where is the wheeled ship-cart that transported the peplos, which was rigged to it like a sail? Why is a man handling the peplos in the climactic panel? (The peplos was woven by female hands for a virgin goddess.)
Connelly argues that this is all wrong; the frieze does depict an ancient event, the story of King Erechtheus and his daughters:
King Erechtheus sprang directly from the Attic earth. He had a wife, Praxithea, and three daughters. (The Athenian royal houses ran to daughters.) When Eumolpus, king of nearby Eleusis, threatened a siege of the city, King Erechtheus got an unpleasant oracle from Delphi: He must sacrifice one of his daughters to Athena to save the city. The queen, rather than cringing in horror at the idea, embraced it as patriotic duty. . . . Meanwhile, the three girls have vowed that if one dies, they all will—so the two who are not chosen insist either on being sacrificed as well or on killing themselves, possibly by jumping from the Acropolis. Athena then declares that the heroic girls are to be buried in a single tomb and that there should be a sanctuary and sacred rites established in their honor. . . .

Suddenly, upon looking at the “enigmatic peplos incident” of the eastern frieze, Connelly felt that she understood it for the first time: This was a family unit—mother, father, and three daughters of different ages—the family of Erechtheus. The cloth that the father and the youngest child (who must, Connelly decides, be a girl; the gender of the semi-nude child in the frieze is a subject of debate) are handling is not the peplos but a sacrificial robe.
I like this a lot, because I have always disliked the notion that the classical Greeks were particularly calm or rational. Their religion in particular has always struck me as more hysterical than serene. But I do have to say that the child on the right above looks like a boy to me.

Louisiana 2100

If the coastline of Louisiana keeps eroding through the 21st century as it did in the 20th -- at last count, 1,900 square miles has been lost -- and sea level keeps rising in the 21st century at the same rate as it did in the 20th, this is what southern Louisiana might look like in 2100.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Middle School

Robert walks Ben to his first day of middle school Wednesday morning.

Since I was home Thursday morning, this task was assigned to me. At first Ben walked close to me, but about halfway to the school two sixth-grade girls appeared on the other side of the street and he sped up until we were about ten feet apart. I waved goodbye at that point and headed home. Friday Ben went by himself.

Electricity, Yes; Power Lines, No

Another little squabble in the ongoing war over power lines erupted this week at the western end of Prince William County, Virginia, an area that has been transformed from farms to suburbs over the past 25 years. (I helped, in my small way, since I did archaeology on two big developments out there.)
Local opposition is growing in just the two weeks since residents found out about the plan for a 230,000-volt line, which would run for six miles from a north-south line in Gainesville. The line, on 120-foot poles, would run along Interstate 66, cut across a wooded area near Catharpin Road in the Somerset Crossing neighborhood, and then run parallel to the north fork of Broad Run and the Norfolk Southern train tracks behind the Greenhill Crossing neighborhood to an as yet-unbuilt substation in Haymarket.

Residents say the line would cut through protected wetlands, reduce property values of entire neighborhoods and possibly cause health problems. Jim Napoli, president of the Somerset Crossing homeowners association, said a quickly called community meeting last week drew 200 Gainesville residents.

“The community is very upset about the proposal,” Napoli said. “We didn’t sign on for these monstrous towers of 230,000 volts of electricity surging through us.”
Dominion Power spokesman  Chuck Penn responded like this:
Penn said the population of Haymarket “has more than doubled since 2000, and during that same time period, the demand for electricity has roughly tripled.” The 2012 population of Haymarket was estimated to be 1,900; it was about 900 in 2000. “We’re looking at staying ahead of that,” Penn said. “In our business, we cannot wait until we need the power. You have to stay on top of the development.”
And there you have it. Nobody wants to live near high voltage power lines, but nobody wants to go without electricity. If you want to get rich in a big hurry, invent an affordable way to bury high voltage power lines.

The Cammin Casket

The Cammin Casket is an ivory and gold chest, 22 inches (56 cm) long, made in Scandinavia around 1000 CE.

Actually I should say that it was an ivory and gold chest, since the original was destroyed during World War II and all of these pictures are of a replica kept in the Danish National Museum.

Love the wolf and raven heads done in gold.

The carved panels are all different, but four of the panels depict beasts rather like this one, and four depict serpents.

What a marvelous thing, and how fun to imagine one of the saga queens putting her gold combs into it as she plotted the ruin of her enemies.

Our Wisdom is Our Own

We can be knowledgeable with other men’s knowledge, but we can’t be wise with other men’s wisdom.


Bobby Jindal is Making a Fool of Himself

Bobby Jindal has acquired a bad case of what we might call Romney Syndrome, the determination to become President at any cost. His latest stunt is suing the Education Department over the Common Core education reform scheme. This is rich because 1) back when Common Core was popular with conservatives, Jindal was a big supporter, and 2) Jindal has so far been unable to get his own state to give up on its version of Common Core. He has just decided that grandstanding against Common Core will help make him the conservative champion in the primaries, so away he goes.

I find Jindal ridiculous. He has alienated many of his friends in Louisiana by taking stand after stand that has nothing to do with the actual politics of Louisiana and everything to do with his own vision of the 2016 nomination contest. He is hardly the first governor to arrange his time in office as a resume-building exercise, but he is just so crass and obvious about it. He flaunts both his ambition and his emptiness. My favorite example was when Jindal gave a speech to the Republican National Committee and said that Republicans "can't afford to be the stupid party," then went on to embrace all of the positions that led pundits to drag out the "stupid party" label in the first place. (Viz., he said Republicans should not be the party of austerity, then called for a balanced budget.)

I don't really expect very much of politicians. But shouldn't a candidate for President have something to offer beyond the recitation of slogans and relentless catering to the whims of the party base? I hate Ted Cruz but I do believe he means much of what he says. After his epic battle with Wisconsin's unions, I think everybody knows where Scott Walker is coming from. Marco Rubio may be an empty suit, but at least he is handsome and stylish and seems well-informed about important issues. Rand Paul may have shed his most extreme and interesting positions as he gets ready to run, but I still think he would govern very differently from the other candidates. What does Jindal have to offer? The more he talks, the smaller and less significant he seems.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Votive Plaque of St. Simeon Stylites

From the Louvre:
The plaque, dating from the late 6th century, was long thought to be part of a reliquary but recent scholarship suggests it is an ex-voto plaque dedicated to Saint Simeon Stylites, because of the inscription in Greek letters along the bottom of the plaque. The inscription reads "In thanks to God and to Saint Simeon, I have given." Recent research has allowed scholars to site the plaque in its original context and seems to lend support to the hypothesis of its votive function. The plaque was part of the treasure of the church of Ma'arrat an Numan in Syria. The treasure also contained a number of other similar small silver plaques engraved with invocations and dedicatory inscriptions. . . .

Unfortunately, the dedication does not indicate whether the saint in question was Simeon Stylites the Elder, who lived in northern Syria between AD 390 and AD 459, or Simeon Stylites the Younger, inspired by the older saint, whose dates are approximately AD 521-592, and who was worshipped at the Admirable Mountain near Antioch. However, the scene illustrated on the plaque suggests the origins of stylitism (from the Greek stylos, meaning a column), which was a particular form of asceticism whose followers spent their lives sitting atop a pillar. This form of mortification was first practiced in the 5th century by Simeon the Elder, who avoided worldly temptation by living on a high column. The saint is depicted as an elderly, bearded man wearing a loose hooded garment and with a large shell above his head. He is perched atop a column behind a latticed parapet. There is a ladder leaning against the pillar and an opening halfway up it to get in and out. The saint is holding a book and seems plunged in deep thought, calm in the face of the danger of the monstrous serpent that is threatening him. The animal is thought to be a reference to an episode from the life of Saint Simeon the Elder, when a snake came to visit the saint to request his help in treating his sick mate.

Conservative Humanism

Bradley Birzer, the second person to hold the University of Colorado's visiting chair of conservatism, had this to say about his own beliefs:
But, what about that label, “conservative”? Well, let me explain—as I see it—what a conservative is NOT.
  • A real conservative is not a loud, platinized, remade and plastically remolded talking head on Fox.
  • A real conservative is not that guy on the radio who seems to hate everything and everyone.
  • And, a real conservative never wants to bomb another people “back to the stone age.”
My own tradition of conservatism—whether I live up to it or do it justice—is one that is, for all intents and purposes, humanist. I believe there is a line of continuity from Heraclitus to Socrates to Zeno to Cicero to Virgil to St. John to St. Augustine to the Venerable Bede, Alcuin, and the Beowulf poet, to Thomas Aquinas to Petrach to Thomas More to Edmund Burke. The last one hundred years saw a fierce and mighty revival of the humanist tradition, embracing and unifying (more or less) T.E. Hulme, Paul Elmer More, Irving Babbitt, Willa Cather, G.K. Chesterton, Christopher Dawson, Sigrid Unset, Nicholas Berdayeev, Sister Madeleva Wolff, T.S. Eliot, Romano Guardini, Dorothy Day, Gabriel Marcel, Jacques Maritain, Etienne Gilson, J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Leo Strauss, Flannery O’Connor, and Russell Kirk, to name a few.

George Orwell, both shocked and impressed by the movement, noted in December 1943 that it was nothing more than neo-reactionary: a strange mix of traditionalism in poetry and literature, religious orthodoxy in ethics, and anarchy in politics and economics. I must admit, though I have never called myself a neo-reactionary, almost all those who Orwell reluctantly admired are certainly heroes of mine.

But as I see it, the conservative or humanist—or, the conservative humanist, if you will—only possesses one job and one duty, when all is said and done, and she or he performs it to the best of her or his ability: A conservative attempts to conserve what is most humane in all spheres of life: in economics, in education, in the military, in the culture, in faith, in business, in government, and in community. The conservative is, at the most fundamental level, a humanist, reminding each and every one of us what it means to be human.
Interesting, although that omnium gatherum of past intellectuals has some strange bedfellows, with some outright authoritarian monsters thrown in.

My broader critique would be to say that humanism as I understand it —I also consider myself a humanist — requires belief in the possibility of making things better. I obviously do not think that all change is for the better, and I rather dislike change for its own sake. The cult of Revolution, meaning the radical overthrow of the whole social order and its replacement with something completely new, has proved to be one of the worst ideas ever. By all means, let us preserve what is best and most humane about the past. But if you believe in humanity, you must believe in our power to reason and experiment and find new ways of doing things that improve on the old. If you deny this — if you insist the people cannot be trusted to find their own way and must always be guided by tradition — do you really have any faith in humanity? Some of the thinkers on Birzer's list, such as St. Augustine and Leo Strauss, had no faith in the human mass; in fact if I compiled a list of people I consider anti-humanist thinkers they might both be on it. To me, humanism means believing that human reason is profoundly powerful. It may often go astray, but to dismiss its power is to dismiss the potential of the modern world, and that seems to me a grave mistake.

Remembering the Great War

Graves of German soldiers, Hooglede Cemetery, Belgium.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

KDP C for the SLS

Yesterday NASA announced its decision to go ahead with the most powerful rocket ever built, the SLS, like this:
This decision comes after a thorough review known as Key Decision Point C (KDP-C), which provides a development cost baseline for the 70-metric ton version of the SLS of $7.021 billion from February 2014 through the first launch and a launch readiness schedule based on an initial SLS flight no later than November 2018.  
Ah, the poetry of exploring unknown worlds!

Many space enthusiasts think this is a big mistake. Some think it is foolish to invest $7 billion in a new rocket based on 1970s technology, and they want NASA to leap ahead to ion propulsion, space sails, or something else high tech and clever. (Congress actually mandated that NASA re-use parts from the Space Shuttle wherever feasible.) Others think private companies could do the job cheaper; Elon Musk of SpaceX said he could do it for $5 billion. NASA responds that they are under orders from Congress and the President to launch a Mars mission in the 2030s, which means they need to start developing the pieces now, not wait around for new technologies that may or may not be ready in time. And while private companies have been able to do, at a discount, things that NASA has been doing for fifty years, private companies have no track record of going where no one has gone before; to see what can happen when the government asks private companies to build radically new machines, have a look at the F-35 program.

I still have my doubts about this whole Mars mission business, but I would rather we spent our money on new space rockets than more drones or fighter planes.

In Which the Usefulness of Sons is Demonstrated

Our sink was leaking very badly -- actually "flowing" is probably a better verb for what it was doing. I isolated the problem to the faucet and began trying to remove it. But we have a garbage disposal and the space under the sink is very crowded, and I found it utterly miserable to squeeze myself into the tiny space and twist my arms into the pretzel necessary to get pliers on the bolts at the correct angles. As I was cursing my fate, my elder son chose to rouse himself from slumber -- this was 1:45 in the afternoon -- and wander into the kitchen. "Would like to learn some plumbing?" I asked innocently. "Sure," he said. So I pointed to the bolts that had to be undone, handed him the pliers and fled. Since he had never done any plumbing at all before, my hopes were not that high. But ten minutes later he emerged from the kitchen with the old rusty faucet in his hand, saying, "Got it."

Well I'll be.

The Duke of Richmond's Fireworks, 1749

This etching depicts the "A View of the Fire-workes and Illuminations at his Grace the Duke of Richmond's at White-Hall and on the River Thames, on Monday 15 May 1749, Perform'd by the direction of Charles Frederick Esq."

Should you seek it out on the internet, you will find it almost invariably associated with Handel's Music for the Royal Fireworks, also first performed in the spring of 1749. In fact wikipedia transcribes the title of this etching as "Handel's Fireworks Music, performed at his GRACE the Duke of RICHMOND'S at WHITEHALL and on the River Thames on Monday 15 May 1749. Performed by the direction of Charles Fredrick Esq." Which is not at all what the original says.

However, the date on this etching is clearly May 15, and the generally accepted date for Handel's premier is April 27, not to mention that this is not the royal fireworks, but those of the Duke of Richmond.

And, Handel's royal fireworks are said by all the usual sources to have been in Green Park, not Whitehall. So, a mystery; were there two sets of spectacular fireworks in London to celebrate the peace of Aix-la-Chapelle, or just one?

Part of the lore of Handel's first performance is that it went badly because it rained and one of the pavilions caught fire; could this have been a repeat staged a few weeks later in better weather? Any experts in 18th-century Britain out there who might be able to help?


A friend sent me newspaper articles from 1749 that show there were indeed two separate sets of fireworks, so this picture does not show the one for which Handel composed his music.

No More Huge Dams

Huge hydroelectric dams are not cost-effective and we should stop building them. The projected costs of the biggest contemporary dams run into the tens of billions, but even those numbers are inadequate; the average big dam costs 44% more than projected. The money borrowed to build huge dams became a terrible financial burden on Mexico, Turkey, Brazil and other places, partly because of currency fluctuations. And that's before we get into the social cost of uprooting tens of thousands of people from fertile riverbanks and moving them to dry land. Consider the 57,000 Tonga people relocated in 1956 to build a dam on the Zambezi River between Zimbabwe and Zambia:
Construction of the Kariba Dam, which relied on what was then the largest loan in the World Bank’s history, required the Tonga to move from their ancestral homes along the Zambezi River to infertile land downstream. Mr. Scudder has been tracking their disintegration ever since.

Once cohesive and self-sufficient, the Tonga are troubled by intermittent hunger, rampant alcoholism and astronomical unemployment. Desperate for income, some have resorted to illegal drug cultivation and smuggling, elephant poaching, pimping and prostitution. Villagers still lack electricity.
Dams are built because the costs are systematically undercounted and the benefits oversold. (What happened to the electricity the Tonga were promised back in 1956?) International development gurus have been fixated for too long on mega-projects that are supposed to “jump start” the economies of developing nations, but all our experience is that they rarely do. Huge projects like dams or steel mills simply do not generate the broad ripples that their designers envisage. Many small investments, broadly distributed, always work better. Plus, there are now better ways to produce electricity than huge dams:
Instead of building enormous, one-of-a-kind edifices like large dams, the study’s authors recommend “agile energy alternatives” like wind, solar and mini-hydropower facilities. “We’re stuck in a 1950s mode where everything was done in a very bespoke, manual way. . . . We need things that are more easily standardized, things that fit inside a container and can be easily transported.”

The biggest dams look so seductive, so dazzling, that it has taken us generations to notice: They’re brute-force, Industrial Age artifacts that rarely deliver what they promise.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Gut Bacteria and Food Allergies

In our ongoing mission to keep our readers up to date on the exciting world of gut bacteria, we bring you the latest on the possible connection between our heroes and food allergies:
Food allergies have increased about 50% in children since 1997. There are various theories explaining why. One is that the 21st century lifestyle, which includes a diet very different from our ancestors’, lots of antibiotic use, and even a rise in cesarean section deliveries, has profoundly changed the makeup of microbes in the gut of many people in developed countries. . . .

Cathryn Nagler, an immunologist at the University of Chicago in Illinois, has spent years probing links between the immune system, intestinal bacteria, and the onset of allergies. Back in 2004, she and her colleagues reported that wiping out gut bacteria in mice led to food allergies. Since then, Nagler has continued trying to understand which bacteria offer allergy protection and how they accomplish that.

In one of the latest efforts, Nagler’s team first confirmed that mice given antibiotics early in life were far more susceptible to peanut sensitization, a model of human peanut allergy. Then, they introduced a solution containing Clostridia, a common class of bacteria that’s naturally found in the mammalian gut, into the rodents’ mouths and stomachs. The animals’ food allergen sensitization disappeared, the team reports online today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. When the scientists instead introduced another common kind of healthy bacteria, called Bacteroides, into similarly allergy-prone mice, they didn’t see the same effect. Studying the rodents more carefully, the researchers determined that Clostridia were having a surprising effect on the mouse gut: Acting through certain immune cells, the bacteria helped keep peanut proteins that can cause allergic reactions out of the bloodstream. “The bacteria are maintaining the integrity of the [intestinal] barrier,” Nagler says.
When you consider what a huge deal food allergies have become in our society, and how mysterious and alarming their rise has been to scientists, this might turn out to be extremely important.

Home from Charlottesville

Home from three days and two nights in Charlottesville, Virginia, visiting friends. One of those friends gave us a wonderful tour of the University of Virginia campus, of which I present some highlights. Above, the utterly bizarre sculpture honoring World War I airman James Rogers McConnell, known, according to our guide, as the Flying Monkey.

Homer, and a boy sitting at his feet, a pose that would not be chosen today.

One of the adorable animals on the old science building.

The highlight of the tour was the mural in Cabell Hall by American artist Lincoln Perry, born 1949. This is called A Student's Progress, and it follows a red-haired (Jeffersonian?) girl from admission to graduation and beyond.

She enters her first class.

Individually the figures are nothing special, but en masse the effect is quite cool. This is Halloween on the Lawn.

This bacchanal caused, we were told, a bit of controversy -- note the poor guy duck taped to the pillar. But since life at UVA is really like this, how could anyone really object?

More debauchery. So this was fun, and the trip was splendid. But now I am home and need to get back to ordinary life tasks like parenting and blogging.