Monday, December 22, 2014

Christmas at Chartres

The Incarnation Window at Chartres Cathedral

Teaching in a Community College

Ginia Bellafante has an interesting article in the Times on community college, focusing on one professor at a college in Queens. As she says, community colleges are where some of the biggest problems in our educational system crash into each other. The professors have been through graduate school in their academic disciplines, most of them receiving exactly zero instruction in how to teach; they now confront students without the basic skills their professors take for granted and seriously in need of motivation and proper instruction:
One enormous challenge for community college instructors is that many students arrive with the notion that a college education is essential, but remain unconvinced that what they will learn during the course of their studies is equally so. To create a world of young people skilled at analysis you first need to create a world of young people receptive to complexity, and many of Dr. Vianna’s students, he said, “cringe at complexity.”

“There’s a mistrust and antagonism between teachers and students because authority hasn’t traditionally been good to them,” he said. “Their experiences in the education system have been coercive. It’s not really clear to them what the value of academic knowledge actually is. If they come here with the goal of doing something very specific — to become a stewardess, or a makeup artist — they may think, ‘What’s the point?’ ”
It is actually quite difficult to teach anybody something complex, and for people who don't see the point it is all but impossible, yet to do this we assign people with absolutely no training for the task. Nor is it really clear what we actually want to teach these students; words like "complexity" and "analysis" are made to do a lot of work here, as if "the analysis of complex real-world situations" were a recognized field of study with clearly defined benchmarks. We know, or think we know, that the economy demands workers with more education and more skills, so we set up community colleges to impart these things. And this is a noble and important goal. But in fact only a minority of students who enter community colleges ever get a degree or a certificate, and how much they actually learn during their year or two hanging around the campus is an open question.

Looking out the Back Window

Sherry Kempster lives in Los Angeles County, near the 101 Freeway. Last week she heard some crows carrying on and looked out the window into her back yard, thinking she might see a hawk. Instead she saw this mountain lion strolling along the top of her garden wall.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Today' Sentence

Walter Isaacson on Alan Turing, from the December 1 Time:
Having survived a cold upbringing on the fraying fringe of the British gentry, Turing had a lonely intensity about him, reflected in his love of long-distance running.

Denmark and Egypt in the Bronze Age

Analysis of blue glass beads from Bronze Age burials in Denmark shows that they came from Egypt and Mesopotamia. Probably they came north in exchange for Danish amber, which has been found in Egypt. Above, sketch of a burial at Olby with the beads found in it; below, burial from Hesselagergard. These burials date to between 1400 and 1100 BCE. Much more at The History Blog.

Happy Sunreturn

May the lengthening days bring light to your soul.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Samsø, or, It Can Be Done

The little Danish island of Samsø has achieved energy independence. In 1997 the Danish government sponsored a sort of contest, offering a hefty grant to any jurisdiction that would try to become energy independent and carbon neutral within a decade. The 4,000 people of Samsø took up the challenge, and by last year they had pretty much achieved their goal. Their electricity comes from a 20-turbine offshore wind farm. To heat homes in the settlements they burn straw and other farm waste in centfal plants and pump hot water to each house; more isolated houses have solar water heaters and straw burners for sunless days. Vehicles run on rapeseed oil (canola, to Americans).

This was not a great technical feat; all of the technology is over a decade old. It happened because the Samsings (as they call themselves) decided collectively to make it happen. They got excited about taking up this challenge and worked hard to do it. Everything was organized to include as many people as possible; for example, they sold shares in the wind turbines to local people, so people are not only using renewable energy, they are profiting from it.

As a student from Maine who went to study the Samsø example put it,
While many of us came to Samsø expecting a technical story, what we came to realize is that the success of Samsø — and also the biggest impediment to replicating their success — is people.
To achieve this over the objections of angry residents would be all but impossible; but for a community willing to work for it energy independence is within reach. We have the technology to solve our environmental problems; what we lack is the will.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Greg Dunn

Greg Dunn has a Ph.D. in neuroscience but gave up science for art. His images draw on both his time spent staring at slides of neurons and his love of Asian art. He says,
The microscopic world belongs in the world of Asian art, There's no distinction between painting a landscape of a forest and a landscape of the brain.
Above, Cortical Columns, 2014.

Gold Cortex II, 2013.

Basket and Pyramidals, 2013. I like these a lot. To recreate the random branching of nerve cells Dunn developed a semi-random method:
Dunn developed a process that involves blowing ink around on non-absorbent paper. The shape of the paper and the turbulence in the air cause the ink to splatter in a way that perfectly captures the treelike tangles of a neuron.
And for variety's sake, Gnarled Oak, 2013. Lots more at Dunn's web site.

What We Learn From

Television commercials give such a strange view of what life is supposed to be. And a lot of people buy it. Life is not easy and comfortable, with nothing ever going wrong as long as you buy the right product. It’s not true that if you have the right insurance everything is going to be fine. That’s not what it’s really like. Terrible things happen. And those are the things that we learn from.

--Madeleine L'Engle

Quantum Duality and the Uncertainty Principle

News stories out today about a new result in quantum mechanics. You probably know that sometimes electrons and other tiny things act like particles, and sometimes they act like waves. Equations have been developed to describe this puzzling phenomenon. You may also have heard about the uncertainty principle, which sets an absolute limit on how precisely we can know the position and velocity of a sub-atomic particle. In the new work, physicists have shown that the equations describing these two things are actually the same; mathematically, "wave-particle duality" is just another way of saying "uncertainty principle," and vice-versa.

The mathematics we use to describe the physical world is full of these congruences. To mention just one famous example, if you formulate Einstein's general relativity in five dimensions you get Maxwell's equations for electromagnetism. It's rather encouraging, really. It makes me more confident that the math corresponds in a deep way to the nature of the world.

As to why that should be,who can say?

Torture and False Information

Fascinating story in the New Yorker pinning a big share of the CIA's most brutal and idiotic acts on a single agent, one of he leaders of the counter-intelligence branch. Among other things she personally oversaw the torture of Khalid Sheikh Muhammad:
According to the Senate report, she sent a bubbly cable back to C.I.A. headquarters in 2003, anticipating the pain they planned to inflict on K.S.M. in an attempt to get him to confirm a report from another detainee, about a plot to use African-American Muslims training in Afghanistan for future terrorist attacks. “i love the Black American Muslim at AQ camps in Afghanuistan (sic). … Mukie (K.S.M.) is going to be hatin’ life on this one,” she wrote, according to the report. But, as NBC notes, she misconstrued the intelligence gathered from the other detainee. Somehow, the C.I.A. mistakenly believed that African-American Muslim terrorists were already in the United States. The intelligence officials evidently pressed K.S.M. so hard to confirm this, under such physical duress, that he eventually did, even though it was false—leading U.S. officials on a wild-goose chase for black Muslim Al Qaeda operatives in Montana.
Behold how torture actually works. When you torture people, they will tell you what they think you want to hear. Thus all your misconceptions are confirmed, and the truth remains farther away than before you started.

According to NBC and the New Yorker, this woman (if it is a woman) is still a top figure in the CIA. Sickening.

Still No Life on Mars

Lots of chatter this week about the "methane burst" recorded on Mars by the Curiosity rover:
A year after reporting that NASA’s Curiosity rover had found no evidence of methane gas on Mars, all but dashing hopes that organisms might be living there now, scientists reversed themselves on Tuesday. Curiosity has now recorded a burst of methane that lasted at least two months. For now, scientists have just two possible explanations for the methane. One is that it is the waste product of certain living microbes. “It is one of the few hypotheses that we can propose that we must consider as we go forward,” said John P. Grotzinger, the mission’s project scientist.
Bah. Methane is one of the simplest and most common molecules in the universe. It is true that methane cannot exist for more than a few years in the Martian atmosphere, so the methane recorded by the Viking landers and now Curiosity must have been made recently. So what? All sorts of chemical processes can make methane, and I am 99% certain that the methane on Mars was made by one of them.

I simply do not believe that life could have evolved on Mars and then retreated to some cleverly hidden underground refuge. Life as we know it is too powerful and adaptable for that. Of course life on Mars might be completely different from Earth life, in which case it is foolish to look for it using the rules of Terran biology.

Vending Machine

Still sitting in the Japanese field where it was dumped by the devastating tsunami of 2011.

George Dyson, Turing's Cathedral

This strange but ultimately rewarding book chronicles the building of the Institute for Advanced Study computer, conceived by John von Neumann and built by Julian Bigelow and a team of other engineers between 1946 and 1952. But that, honestly, is one of the smaller parts of the book. George Dyson has so much to say about the history and future of computers that his ideas keep bursting out of his narrative structure. His text wanders off on tangents, offers general thoughts that seem unrelated to the particular matter at hand, and loops back on itself so much that I wondered if he had intentionally modeled it on an iterative program. Dyson had particular trouble figuring out how to end his book, and I hit four or five spots in the last quarter that felt to me like conclusions, only to find more chapters of history, speculation and rumination beyond. I am glad I read it, but I wished it had had a better editor.

John von Neumann was one of the great geniuses of the 20th century, the creator of game theory and the co-inventor or midwife of the Monte Carlo method, the hydrogen bomb, and the digital computer. It's an impressive list, and yet it really doesn't do justice to what von Neumann achieved. He knew everybody, had a finger in everything, and even while crisscrossing the country to work on a dozen different military assignments during World War II he still found time to do groundbreaking mathematical work. So a book built around von Neumann has certain innate advantages, and Dyson makes good use of them. He follows von Neumann around America and Britain, giving us a bit of Los Alamos and the bomb, a bit of radar and antiaircraft fire control, a bit of code-breaking. Von Neumann worked directly with many of the age's other great geniuses -- Kurt Gödel, Alan Turing, Stanislaw Ulam, Edward Teller -- and we also get capsule biographies of these people, and accounts of their work insofar as it intersected with von Neumann or the IAS computer. There is also a fairly detailed account of the origins of the Institute for Advanced Study, a tour through philanthropy, the Rockefeller Foundation, various critical assaults on American higher education of the 1920s, and so on.

Dyson has a very clear and somewhat idiosyncratic view of how the digital computer came to be. For Dyson it all started with a challenge issued by German mathematician David Hilbert, to establish mathematics as a system of logical deduction based on a limited set of axioms. (As Euclid tried to do with geometry.) It was while trying to satisfy Hilbert's charge that Kurt Gödel came up with his famous Incompleteness Theorem, which proved that for any logical system complex enough to contain arithmetic
  1. If the system is consistent, it cannot be complete. 
  2. The consistency of the axioms cannot be proven within the system.  
Gödel's proof involved creating a sort of matrix in which logical statements are coded by numbers, the "Gödel numbers." In this matrix, Dyson sees the germ of  the the digital world. When Alan Turing turned his attention to another question formulated by Hilbert, the "decision problem" (whether it is possible to tell whether a statement is provable without actually proving it) he replaced the Gödel matrix with his "Turing Machine." And the Turing Machine, as you probably already know, is the logical model for the universal computer, a machine that can perform any calculation it is possible to perform.

So to Dyson the key steps in computer science were taken by mathematicians before anybody had thought to try building an actual computer. Meanwhile, though, other developments were taking place that would contribute to the computer's eventual construction. War meant calculation. To create a firing table for an artillery piece, showing the gunners what angle to use for any given range and how to set the fuse, took months of hand calculations. As World War II got going two programs in particular needed vast amounts of calculation, the American atomic bomb program and the British codebreaking program. These programs employed teams of "computers," that is, people who sat at desks and performed calculations by hand or with mechanical adding machines. To get useful results from teams of people operating by rote, mathematicians formulated ways of dividing complex problems into simple routines that could be done over and over again until the end of the process was reached, knowledge that would eventually be put to use writing programs for digital computers. As the war went on ever more powerful calculating machines were built, like the electromechanical "bombes" used at Bletchley Park to break the Enigma codes. Toward the end of the war the first digital computers were built, the ENIAC in the U.S. and Colossus in Britain.

These machines, though impressive, were not Turing machines -- they did not have the theoretical power to do any calculation, just the particular ones they were built to do. In 1945 both von Neumann and Turing himself embarked on programs to build actual, digital Turing machines. One characteristic a Turing Machine must have is the ability to modify its own instructions. Therefore, those instructions cannot be wired into the hardware; they must be stored in the machine's digital memory. Software was born.

Dyson absolutely does not believe that Turing or von Neumann or anyone else invented the digital computer. The computer in his telling sprang from the intersection of Gödel and Turing's mathematics with the ever increasing sophistication of electronic adding machines and the wartime need for computation on a heroic scale. Once the math and the hardware were available, people all over the place started imagining computers, including one random guy in Iowa who still sometimes shows up in online articles as the computer's inventor. But computers were organized in various different ways, and the particular architecture we mainly use today goes back to the one von Neumann defined for the IAS machine. (The weak point in the architecture is still known as the von Neumann bottleneck.) Our computers have gotten a million times faster, but they still rely on logical schemes from 1945, a fact remarked on by several computer scientists interviewed by Dyson. The von Neumann architecture is sort of like the internal combustion engine, something that works well enough that we keep using it even though it has grievous flaws and something else would probably work better.

The real purpose of the IAS computer, to the people who paid for it, was to do calculations for the hydrogen bomb. Of course nobody could admit this publicly. Therefore von Neumann was always looking for other ways to use the machine, things it could do that would be reported to the press and thereby distract attention from its military applications. One was weather prediction. People had tried numerical weather prediction before, but it took hand calculators a month to work through the math of a single day's forecast, by which time the forecast was not much use. It was only with digital computers that weather prediction could be put on any sort of scientific basis, and over the past 70 years we have seen enormous progress for forecasts up to 7 days out. Unfortunately we have also discovered that detailed forecasts are pretty much impossible any further out than that, but sometimes that's how science goes.

Dyson spends what felt to me like an inordinate amount of time on the work of Nils Aall Barricelli, who hung around the Institute from 1953 to 1956 making digital models of the origin and early evolution of life. Barricelli comes across as a half-mad prophet of a coming digital age, when life will make the transition from biological to digital forms. Dyson makes portentous parallels between the computer work of Barricelli and the structure of DNA, unraveled around the same time: as the code of life came to be understood, we were also developing living codes. It is along these lines that Turing's Cathedral gets really wild. Maybe, says Dyson, certain computer codes are already alive, already evolving, with the most successful ones using us to create millions of copies of themselves all over the world. Or maybe biological and digital life are merging, and some biological organisms will pass through a developmental stage in digital form (scanning of DNA for flaws and fixing them) before emerging as bodies; maybe the minds of programmers are just a stage in the lives of digital programs.

Turing's Cathedral is many things: history, biography, technical manual, thought experiment. It delves into both the particular social world of the Institute for Advanced Study in the 1940s and the possible future world of living machines. It is weird and occasionally annoying. But it is generally fascinating, and if you have any interest in these things I recommend  it highly.

Welfare and Work, or, Economics is Stupid

The Economics 101 view of the world, which has people responding in simple ways to the incentives of money and time, does not capture human behavior. There is certainly something to it, but not enough to make it a useful tool for managing a modern economy. Consider the ongoing fall in the number of working age Americans (20-59) who actually work. Republican economists will tell you flat out that this is because our welfare system is too generous, but they are wrong:
It is a simple idea supported by both economic theory and most people’s intuition: If welfare benefits are generous and taxes high, fewer people will work. Why bother being industrious, after all, if you can get a check from the government for sitting around — and if your choice to work means that much of your income will end up in the tax collectors’ coffers? Here’s the rub, though: The idea may be backward.
In Scandinavia, they have much higher taxes than we do, and more generous welfare benefits, but more people are working than in America.

Why might that be? I, of course, have a theory. I think millions of Americans have stopped working because their jobs make them feel like cruelly exploited serfs laboring to enrich a few billionaires. They feel that their employers despise them and would move their jobs to China if they could, and that the whole system is rigged in favor of the owners, to make sure that the workers never get ahead no matter how hard they try.

Work is not just about money. Work is about feeling useful; feeling like you have a slot in the system; feeling appreciated; feeling like you belong to something; feeling like you are somebody. In contemporary America, many people are unable to get jobs that promise any such thing. This is one of the prices of ever-increasing inequality: why bother working when you won't earn as much in your whole life as the fired CEO got in his golden parachute? Why commit yourself to an employer who would let you go at the merest twitch of the revenue graph? If you ask me, Americans are giving up work because the system has become so unfair that it makes no sense for them to participate.

Many of the non-working Americans are on disability. I admit that some of this is a scam, but it is actually not easy to be declared disabled in America (just ask somebody who has tried) and I don't think the scamming amounts to more than a few percent. So why is the number of disabled workers increasing as our jobs get easier and less debilitating? I say because work has become psychologically crushing, not giving back nearly enough in the way of pride, satisfaction, and belonging to make up for the loss in time and labor. I'm not saying that people are consciously opting out; the simple fact is that miserable people are much more likely to get sick than happy people. I think that the ever-rising number of disabled people points, not to something wrong with our welfare system, but to something wrong with out jobs.

In many ways we are headed back to the world of the late 1800s, when they same grotesque inequality dominated the economy. Back then, millions of Americans did not work. The unemployed begged or roamed the country or took occasional odd jobs, living in attics or shacks or dugouts; they seldom married and died young. The percentage of Americans working was another one of those things that peaked in the 1950s, along with the marriage rate and the percentage of workers in unions. So I say that the way to keep Americans working is to bring back as much of that economic world as we can, starting with high taxes on the wealthy and decent wages for workers. In a world as rich as ours, we simply are never going to make unemployment painful enough to force many discouraged people back to work. Instead we should focus on making work worth the effort.

(The "effective tax rate" shown on the graph includes both the taxes you pay out of your income and the benefits you lose when taking a job. It shows that the average Dane who leaves the dole for a job gets only an 15% raise.)

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Human Diversity and the Paleo Diet

As I keep saying:
Paleoanthropologists are pretty amused by the faddish Paleo Diet. And now a review of studies on hominid evolution is using environmental and chemical evidence to prove that there was no such thing as "clean eating" during the Stone Age. The research, published in The Quarterly Review of Biology, pretty clearly establishes that early humans didn't have any one eating pattern. Instead, diet in the era of early hominids was catch as catch can -- and, of course, regionally specific. While hunter-gatherer groups in northern climates likely ate a diet heavy in animals, reported the researchers, those in more growth-friendly southern climes were probably plant eaters. Very few had what we might call "optimal" diets and instead ate for survival rather than performance. . . .

"Some earlier workers had suggested that the diets of bears and pigs -- which have an omnivorous, eclectic feeding strategy that varies greatly based on local conditions -- share much in common with those of our early ancestors," Sayers continued. "The data tend to support this view."
As a general rule, you should ignore all arguments that begin "Ancient humans did X." Because whether we are talking about diet or marriage patterns or the degree of mobility or just about anything else, you can bet that ancient humans also did Y, Z, Q, L and probably R, S, K, and D too.

Here's some data on actual African hunter-gatherers, the Hadza of Tanzania. Note that the diet varies a lot from time to time and place to place, and also that these particular people sometimes get more than 20% of their calories from honey and at other times more than 30% from sweet fruit. It's simply bizarre to imagine that our bodies evolved to thrive on meat and greens.

Sean Lynch, or, A Young Irishman Documents his Adventures

Irish artist Sean Lynch (born 1978) combines photography with curiosity, whimsy, history and politics to create interesting "projects." For example, The DeLorean Progress Report documents what happened to various pieces of metal that were left lying around DeLorean's Belfast factory when it closed in 1982. ("At Galway Metal in Oranmore, I saw a large door on a workshop, constructed from stainless steel sheets once destined to become part of a DeLorean.") These pictures are from A Blow by Blow Account of Stonecarving in Oxford (2013-2014), which investigates the lives of Irish carvers John and James O’Shea, who did a lot of work in Dublin and Oxford in the 1850s.

This is from Dear JJ, I read with interest, in which Lynch and friends tried to find out what happened to an unofficial monument that fans of Flann O’Brien put on top of an Irish mountain.

The news story that started the quest. This sort of thing is a little bit like Andy Goldsworthy, whose best work is a cross between art and boys having fun in the woods. It is also a little bit like a blog on which some interesting guys chronicle their adventures. These exhibits consist of mounted photographs, slide shows, and videos, accompanied by brochures or even small books with long textual explanations.

And finally a teaser photo from his new project, which will represent Ireland at the next Venice Biennale. According to the press release, Lynch is exhibiting
a new body of works entitled Adventure: Capital that traces a journey from myth to minimalism around Ireland and Britain. Combining sculptural, video and archival elements, Adventure: Capital will be Lynch’s most ambitious project to date, bringing together banknote rivergods, public art at regional airports, abandoned quarries, a field in Cork and a roundabout in Wexford, on a storytelling journey that explores notions of value and the flow of capital through an anthropological lens.
Intriguing. But is it art? More to the point, is an art gallery the right place to experience it, or would it work better as a blog or a TV show? I would personally love a show in which some creative people wandered around the world looking into obscure news stories and investigating what happened to bits of flotsam like the DeLorean steel. If they wanted to put in weirdly artistic images or video clips, so much the better. But I'm not sure I would go to a gallery to see Lynch's work.

Reinhold Niebuhr Explains Modern Politics

David Gushee looks to theologian Reinhold Niebuhr's Moral Man and Immoral Society (1932) for an explanation of America's ongoing racial troubles:
Written to pierce any surviving liberal optimism as the Roaring ’20s gave way to the disastrous ’30s, Moral Man and Immoral Society concerns the effects of sin on human society and, in particular, on human collectivities or groups. Niebuhr says that all human life is marked by sin, especially in the forms of ignorance and selfishness, but at least the individual sometimes demonstrates the potential to rise above ignorance and selfishness to reach rational analysis and unselfish concern for others. Human groups, on the other hand, are both more stupid and more selfish than individuals. They seem especially impervious either to rational or moral appeal, easily prone to self-deception and demagoguery, and apparently needful of the imposition of a power greater than their own power if they are to accede to any changes that cut against their own self-interest. . . .

Moral appeals to the holders of great economic power and privilege are almost always fruitless, Niebuhr says. Their tremendous power must be countered by the effectively organized collective power of the workers, either in the form of revolution (which has its own dangers) or through political processes that gradually win gains for the proletariat through collective bargaining and government regulation to mitigate inequalities and ensure a measure of worker rights and economic security.

Niebuhr recognized that racial injustice in America could be subjected to the same kind of analysis that he offers of the economic problem. Scattered throughout his book he offers some insightful, though not always satisfactory, commentary on the plight of black Americans in a land of white privilege. Some of this commentary resonates deeply today.

For example, Niebuhr notes that “it has always been the habit of privileged groups to deny the oppressed classes every opportunity for the cultivation of innate capacities and then to accuse them of lacking what they have been denied the right to acquire.” He then applies this insight to white attitudes toward black Americans, at the time the issue being white opposition to full voting rights for blacks based on the claim that they were incompetent to exercise said franchise. . . .

Moreover, privileged groups have an extraordinary ability to “identif[y] [their] interests with the peace and order of society.” Self-deception reigns among the privileged because, among other reasons, to see reality more truly would place an unbearable moral pressure on such groups to resign privilege in favor of greater justice. Instead, privileged groups call in the forces of state power in the purported interests of the “peace and order” of society as a whole, but in fact to suppress movements of the oppressed for social change and greater justice.
I find the analysis spot on. But what to do? Marx called for Revolution, which mainly brought us concentration camps and secret police. Niebuhr called for more religion, but I am dubious of the notion that a more religious society would necessarily be a more just one. (Consider medieval Europe.) As for the “effectively organized collective power of the workers,” that got us a certain distance toward justice but seems incapable of taking us any further. I suppose Niebuhr would have said that our sinful nature sets severe limits on how just a society we could actually build in this world, and while recognizing that this may be true I am not willing to stop trying.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014


When the pain of the world finds words
they sound like joy
and often we follow them
with our feet of earth
and learn them by heart
but when the joy of the world finds words
they are painful
and often we turn away
with our hands of water

--W.S. Merwin

Gondi Pictographs and the Indus Valley Script

The mysterious writing left behind by the Harappan or Indus Valley civilization has frustrated every attempt at translation. In fact it has proved so difficult to extract any meaning from the brief strings of signs that are all we have of the script that some linguists have argued that it can't really be a written language at all.

Which is why people are paying attention to this obscure news item from India.
“On the goddess Kotamma temple woollen market way there is a rocky roof shelter for shepherds and sheep to stay at night up to morning.” This innocuous sounding statement could actually be a revolutionary find linking the adivasi Gond tribe to the Indus Valley civilisation, which flourished between 2500 B.C. and 1750 BC.

The sentence emerged after a set of 19 pictographs from a cave in Hampi were deciphered using root morphemes of Gondi language, considered by many eminent linguists as a proto Dravidian language. Eleven of the Hampi pictographs resemble those of the civilisation, according to Dr. K.M. Metry, Head and Dean, Social Sciences, Kannada University, Hampi; Dr. Motiravan Kangali, a linguist and expert in Gondi language and culture from Nagpur, Maharashtra; and his associate Prakash Salame, also an expert in Gondi.
The Gondi people are scattered around central India, mainly in hilly areas, and were generally considered primitive by their valley and town dwelling neighbors. While those neighbors spoke Hindi or some other Indo-European language, Gondi is a Dravidian language quite close (some say) to the root language from which the many Dravidian tongues of south India derive. One odd thing about this new story is that it says nothing about the age of the Gondi inscription; just based on the photograph I would say it can't be more than a few hundred years old. It would be quite amazing if a system of signs used by seventeenth-century shepherds provided read clues toward the translation of the Indus script, lost since 1700 BCE.

Of course many people have tried before to render the Indus script into proto-Dravidian, without any success. People want the Indus script to be written Dravidian because of Indo-European linguistics. Most languages of northern India derive from Sanskrit, which is an Indo-European language related to Old Persian, and the simplest way to get Sanskrit into India is to imagine a wave of invaders from central Asia sweeping over the Hindu Kush just like the Muslim invaders of medieval times. The most sensible time for this to have happened is the second millennium  BCE, that is, just after the Indus Valley civilization collapsed. If the Indus script was Dravidian, that fits perfectly with this model. On the other hand there is pretty much no archaeological evidence for such an Indo-European invasion, and these days most Indian nationalists hate it.

This may be just another crazy idea cooked up by some overly imaginative professors, but I find myself hoping that this particular crazy idea turns out to have something to it.

Dupont Underground

Dupont Circle is one of the most happening neighborhoods in Washington, DC, so most of the available land is in use for stores, restaurants, etc. But there is one space that is just sitting vacant, the old underground streetcar station. Abandoned since 1963, the station has 75,000 square feet of usable space just waiting for clever people to figure out what to do with it.

Now a coalition calling itself Dupont Underground has just signed a five-year lease with the city to turn the station into performance spaces and retail stores. The rendering above seems to represent their long-term vision; right now they are focusing on opening up the underground space for performances by hip artists, to get people used to going into the old station.

What an awesome idea.

Antwerp Stock Exchange c 1900

Deadly Fruit of Pakistan's Poison Tree

For the past 30 years Pakistan has been playing a crazy game with radical terrorists. They feel that they need these Islamic groups to help them fight against India, and in particular to keep Afghanistan from being taken over by a government that would be friendly to India and thereby surround them with enemies. So their intelligence service has been deeply involved with the Taliban and many similar groups; some people say that the Taliban are actually a Pakistani creation. But Pakistan also covets the support of the U.S., so from time to time they carry out purges of these terrorist groups, arresting a few dozen and handing some international criminals over to the Americans. After the U.S. drove them out of Afghanistan, the Taliban grew so strong in western Pakistan that the government felt obliged to wage a small war against them, to prevent those areas from becoming completely independent. These conflicts are very controversial in Pakistan, since many Pakistanis prefer the Taliban to their own hopelessly corrupt government.

Yesterday's massacre at the school in Peshawar is just the latest horror to emerge from Pakistan's embrace of violent fanatics that it only partially controls. The policy is deranged; India poses no real threat to Pakistan, but the Taliban manifestly do. More, the huge secret infrastructure set up by the military and the intelligence services subverts the Pakistani government at every turn, so that the civilian leaders don't really control key parts of their own country. It is a perfect illustration of what happens to a country that puts its trust in secrecy, violence and lies rather than openness and peace. Let the slaughtered children bear witness: this is the poison fruit of embracing terror as policy, and outsourcing a nation's defense to half-mad fanatics. Other countries should take note.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Curses and Pins

Curse effigy from Egypt, 2nd century CE. Note the careful placement of the 13 pins. Somebody was very angry.

What the Swami Said

Arthur Brooks went to India to consult a famous monk, only to find that the swami was actually born in Texas and made a pile of money in America before giving it up to seek enlightenment in India:
I posed a query nonetheless: “Swami, is economic prosperity a good or bad thing?” I held my breath and waited for his answer.

“It’s good,” he replied. “It has saved millions of people in my country from starvation.”

This was not what I expected. “But you own almost nothing,” I pressed. “I was sure you’d say that money is corrupting.” He laughed at my naïveté. “There is nothing wrong with money, dude. The problem in life is attachment to money.” The formula for a good life, he explained, is simple: abundance without attachment.
This is an old idea but I confess that I have always been suspicious of it. It sounds to me like something rich people tell themselves to soothe their consciences: It's ok that I'm rich, because I'm not attached to it!

How can you hold onto anything without being attached to it?

I suppose there are people who have managed to make a lot of money more or less by accident, but by and large it takes a lot of effort to get rich. To be in business pretty much means spending all your time thinking about how to raise revenue and keep expenses down, which strikes me (and feels to me personally, when I do it) as attachment to money in the crassest sense.

I tend to feel that all desire for material things is in some sense corrupting. This is also an old idea captured in the teachings of Jesus (give all you have to the poor and follow me) and the Buddha (desire is suffering).

But this view of things tends to set up enlightenment as a path incompatible with what we call normal life, a way open only to professional renouncers who end up being cared for by the less enlightened. That, it seems to me, can't be right either.

Religion continues to thrive in our world of science and material abundance because many of us have a nagging sense that all the machines and toys we have built are somehow a mistake. Or maybe better a distraction. The seeking of such things stirs up our restlessness and our desire more than it sates them; and yet what is life without restlessness, without desire?

There is another old idea that intrudes on these conversations: heaven, or nirvana, a state that somehow embodies the best of being alive without any of the pain of living. I distrust this idea, because I think that the pain and corruption of existence are essential to being alive. Without them we could no longer be human. Perfection, I think, is the opposite of humanity, not its culmination.

We make our way through these thickets as best we can, trying to hold onto what feels most vital and not think too much about what feels false. I suppose "wealth without attachment" is a compromise that works for some people, a path that gets them through the jungles of life. And perhaps that is the best most of us can do.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Can't Say that Anymore

Yesterday I made a brief stop at the Princeton Battlefield in New Jersey, scene of a militarily minor but psychologically important American triumph during Revolution. I was struck by this half-dismantled monument. What, dare one think, did the sign here say that made it imperative for us to remove it? What horror of racism, sexism, historical inaccuracy or bad grammar made this official vandalism necessary?

K'wati and the Red Lizard

A fisherman recently discovered a rock  in the Calawah River, Washington state, covered with carvings. They seem to depict a famous legend of the Quileute Indians, the battle of K'wati and the Red Lizard:
The Red Lizard, according to Quileute legend, made his home near the narrowest point of land between the Calawah and Sol Duc rivers and stopped people using it as a shortcut from one to the other. K’wati, a figure of good who was known as the “transformer” and turned the Quileutes from wolves into people, eventually killed the Red Lizard, who had a much poorer reputation.

“He was a very bad monster ... his urine, actually, if you stepped on it, it would kill you,” Quileute Tribal Councilman Justin “Rio” Jaime told those gathered at the ceremony.

The rock will go on display in La Push, as a welcome addition to help tell the tribe’s history. Of this, the Quileute don’t have much — in the late 1880s, a European settler set La Push afire. Along with homes and fishing equipment, the tribe lost almost all its pre-contact artifacts.
One way you can tell there is a fight going on is that  one of the creatures on the rock is sticking out its tongue, the worst possible gesture for these Indians.

Sunday, December 14, 2014


Spent about an hour this morning exploring Princeton University and very much enjoying myself.

For an institution to end up this beautiful it has to be very rich, but that is not enough. It also has to be rich at the right time. Places like Princeton and Yale that were very rich around 1900 ended up with buildings like these. Places that were very rich in the 1960s ended up with ghastly arrays of brutalist horrors.

I especially love courtyards and gates with glimpses into the spaces beyond.

And of course all the sculptural details.

A touch of student whimsy.

If only more of the world looked like this.

Princeton Theological Seminary Library by EYP

Wandering around Princeton this morning, mainly looking for century-old neogothic things, I stumbled across a new building that I like a lot. This is Princeton Theological Seminary's Bicentennial Library, designed by Einhorn Yaffee Prescott architects of Boston.

This is what I look for in a new building: it evokes the past without slavishly copying any past style, and it incorporates some of the worthwhile features of modernism, such as big windows that let in lots of natural light.

 Above and below, pictures from the architects' web site.

I was especially pleased by the twelve carved medallions on the face of the tower, which you can't see in these pictures because it was a very dim day. I was even more pleased when I discovered that they had been saved from the old, now demolished library to be incorporated into the new. More architects should re-use bits of old, beloved buildings. Just as more architects should pay attention to the surroundings of their buildings and design things that will fit in.