Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Holy Women

Although the wind
blows terribly here,
the moonlight also leaks
between the roof planks
of this ruined house.

--Izumi Shikibu


I was passionate,
filled with longing,
I searched
far and wide.

But the day
that the Truthful One
found me,
I was at home.

-- Lal Ded


The great sea
frees me, moves me,
as a strong river carries a weed.
Earth and her strong winds
move me, take me away,
and my soul is swept up in joy.

--Uvavnuk, an Arctic shamaness

All translated by Jane Hirshfield

Scandinavian Pendant, 7th century CE


Trump and Sanders

The news from New England:
Donald J. Trump and Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont harnessed working-class fury on Tuesday to surge to commanding victories in a New Hampshire primary that drew a huge turnout across the state. . . . The two men won significant support from voters who felt betrayed by their parties and were dissatisfied or angry with the federal government. . . .

Mr. Trump also tapped into a deep well of anxiety among Republicans and independents in New Hampshire, according to exit polling data, and he ran strongest among voters who were worried about illegal immigrants, incipient economic turmoil and the threat of a terrorist attack in the United States.
I find this discouraging. Not because Trump won, or because Sanders won, but because both won. We seem to heading farther down the path of angry partisan gridlock that has dominated our politics for the past six years. Nobody is interested in compromise, or working together. Sanders' acceptance speech was all about sending a message:
Together we have sent a message that will echo from Wall Street to Washington, from Maine to California. And that is that the government of our great country belongs to all of the people, and not just a handful of wealthy campaign contributors and their ‘super PACs’.
Which conveniently ignores the message from the Republican side. Trump is also making a big deal out of his independence from wealth campaign contributors, but his policies hardly jibe well with Sanders'. There simply is no evidence that if the wealthy donors pulled out of politics Americans would suddenly all agree.

Tea Party Republicans and Sanders Democrats both believe that they can smash the establishment and govern for the people. But the sad truth is that the people are bitterly divided against themselves. The most likely result of this campaign is more gridlock and more frustration. A majority of energized voters in both parties is angry with the status quo and wants big changes, but since they mostly want opposite changes, and since the country is so evenly divided that we consider it a landslide for one presidential candidate to get even 54 percent of the vote, neither side can get what it wants.

Are there any areas where Trump supporters and Sanders supporters could be persuaded to work together? Maybe shoring up Social Security and a turn against world trade, and just possibly in fighting fewer foreign wars. But I don't get that anybody is working on this right now, because shouting about restoring power to the people from the nefarious forces that have stolen it is too much fun. Eventually, though, somebody has to govern the country, and when I look in the bottom of my tea cup the leaves just form a big ugly mess.

Unemployment vs. Employment

The unemployment rate is now down to 4.9%, which is quite low, and wages are finally starting to rise a little. Great. However, other numbers on the labor market are not so good. Tyler Cowen calls attention to the percentage of people working, which is above. You can see that this number is recovering only slowly from the big drop it took when the recession hit. Nobody really knows what this means. As our society ages, and fewer teenagers work, the number should be trending downward, but it that wouldn't account for a 3.5% drop. It may be that many people responded to the crash by retiring a little earlier than they had planned, and they now have no interest in returning to work. But the loss of workers remains puzzling. Where did they go?

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

The Weird Ways People Decide to Support their Candidates

For a rational person, nothing is more frustrating than listening to ordinary voters explain their political preferences. What isn’t flip, emotional nonsense – e.g., “he’s on my side” – is usually wrong.

Jamelle Bouie undertook the grim task of trying to find out why young, liberal voters dislike Hillary so much. Oy:
“I think a lot of us are starting to realize that Hillary is just part of the establishment,” said Kate, another student from the same group, whose only hesitation on Sanders was his ability to deliver on his promises.

Another group of students—who had come out of curiosity—sounded a similar note. “I get the impression from Hillary that as soon as she gets in office … she wouldn’t be an effective president,” said Michael Hathaway, “and if she was effective, it wouldn’t be for me, it would be for her banker friends who were giving her millions of dollars.”

Sitting next to Michael was Lexis, who had less to say about Clinton’s ties to Wall Street, and more to say about her campaign appeals. “I have a very large problem with the fact that a very large part of her campaign is riding on the fact that she’s a woman, and expects people like me—women—to vote for her,” she said. She continued: “All I have heard so far is ‘I’m a woman vote for me, because we need a woman president.’ We’ll have plenty of time in the future for women to run, for qualified, worthy women to run. We need to get over this concept of immediate gratification that’s driving this campaign.”
Well, yes, Hillary is part of the establishment. So is Bernie Sanders; if being in the Senate doesn’t put you in the establishment, what does? And why does that matter? Sanders’ hero, Franklin Roosevelt, was about as establishment as it is possible for an American to be. Many, many people seem to think that we should choose our leaders according to who they are; but that doesn’t matter nearly as much as what kind of policies they want to pursue.

Effectiveness is a bizarre reason to vote against Hillary, who probably knows how to get things done in Washington better than any other candidate. Way better than Bernie, anyway. And again we have “she is friends with bankers” instead of reading her plans to regulate Wall Street and trying to understand whether they are better or worse than Bernie’s. You can’t just see that somebody has friends on Wall Street and assume that means she will work for their interests. The single most anti-Wall Street person I know, a guy who says at least once a day that everyone on Wall Street should be shot, works for one of the biggest American investment firms.

And then the final insult, “I’m a woman vote for me.” If that’s all this young woman has heard, she hasn’t listened much. Hillary has a very extensive political record, a well-known philosophy of governing, and a long list of detailed policy plans. Some of which I like and some of which I dislike, but it is just silly to say that she is running on her gender alone.

My eldest son just wandered through and offered this explanation of why young Democrats prefer Sanders:
Because it’s a meme.
I don’t mean to pick on young Sanders voters; as I said, this seems to be true of many if not most citizens of democracies. But reading interviews like these never fails to bring me down.

Realism Breaks out in New Hampshire

Notice the guy to the right of Clinton wearing a "Settle for Hillary" T-shirt. Apparently several people wore them to this event.


David Brooks already Misses Obama

Like many people who have conservative temperaments but are not really wedded to the current Republican agenda, David Brooks admires Barack Obama. In his latest column he goes over some of the reasons – personal moral rectitude, no major scandals in his administration, a thoughtful, deliberate approach to decision-making, a refusal to deny reality, an unshakable calm in the face of crises. And then this:
Fifth, a resilient sense of optimism. To hear Sanders or Trump, Cruz and Ben Carson campaign is to wallow in the pornography of pessimism, to conclude that this country is on the verge of complete collapse. That’s simply not true. We have problems, but they are less serious than those faced by just about any other nation on earth.

People are motivated to make wise choices more by hope and opportunity than by fear, cynicism, hatred and despair. Unlike many current candidates, Obama has not appealed to those passions.
I agree with this completely. Our problems are simply not as bad as many American public figures like to make them sound, and I think it is terribly distorting to believe that we face some kind of existential crisis. From fearmongering about terrorism to hysterical cries of racism, we have too much public angst in America and not nearly enough satisfaction about all the things we have achieved, or hope in our ability to achieve still more.

Convergent Evolution, or, That's Not a Butterfly

On the left, a modern butterfly. On the right, a 150-million-year-old insect fossil. Which is not a butterfly – butterflies wouldn't evolve for another 50 million years – but a relative of modern lacewing flies. These insects seems to have lived much like modern butterflies, pollinating long-ago relatives of modern pine trees and cycads. Through the process we call convergent evolution, they ended up looking much like modern butterflies, to the "eye spots" on their wings.

Tolga Girgin's 3-D Calligraphy




More here. I am fascinated that such simple tricks can so completely fool us, like these shadows, or the missing elements in the pattern of a magic eye stereogram.

Humans and Computers in the Hedge Fund

Matt Levine has a hilarious little essay about rivalries at Bridgewater, the world's largest hedge fund. Levine takes a tour through the completely inane internal conflicts at the organization, including one between the founder and the current CEO that seems to concern whether somebody said something wrong about the other while being videotaped. The two executives have demanded a vote of the board over who is right, but nobody can say what the result would be:
And the consequences could be ... nothing? Dalio and Jensen "have called for votes on each other’s conduct." But "the potential impact of the votes isn’t clear." It's just ... a vote? "The vote results and each person’s individual votes will be made available to the rest of Bridgewater."
So this is about prestige; the winner of the vote will be a winner, and the loser will be a loser, and that will matter in the ridiculous but profound way that such things always matter. Levine:
I never understood how Bridgewater gets any investing done, but of course there's a computer that does the investing. ("After honing ideas through debate and discussion, Bridgewater employees write trading algorithms that buy and sell investments automatically, with some oversight.") One stylized model for thinking about Bridgewater is that it is run by the computer with absolute logic and efficiency; in this model, the computer's main problem is keeping the 1,500 human employees busy so that they don't interfere with its perfect rationality. This model might predict that the computer would create a series of distractions for the humans; the distractions would keep the humans busy, but if you examined them closely, there would be telltale signs that the intelligence that designed them was not completely human. "In an iPad app called 'Dot Collector,' employees weigh in on the direction of conversations while they are happening." "Any meeting of at least three people is expected to hold at least one poll." "One former Bridgewater employee recalls debating with other employees for as long as an hour whether a misused apostrophe in one of Mr. Dalio’s research reports was intentional or not." Good ones, computer!
My experience of the corporate world has in many ways been quite similar to this. All sorts of inane things happen, often without anyone being able to specify who, exactly, made them happen. People rise and fall in status for nebulous reasons; whenever anyone can offer a concrete reason why someone is in or out, it seems to me absurdly petty. At Bridgewater, the company has developed a whole arcana of ways to measure status, from the votes and the "Dot Collector" to something called the "Believability Index."
I'm pretty sure that, if I worked at Bridgewater, I would spend the entire two weeks of my career there alternately resentful and terrified. I am not alone: "About 25% of new hires leave Bridgewater within the first 18 months." A "core tenet" of the firm is "Pain + Reflection = Progress," and I gather that a lot of pain goes into the progress. But a key goal of the firm is to get employees to abstract away from their natural human reactions to these status-assigning decisions. "How do you separate yourself from the discussion about you?" asks an employee in a "Culture Video" on Bridgewater's website.
Sometimes you have to wonder how anything ever gets done.

Monday, February 8, 2016

Marc Edwards Thinks Science has Gone Astray

Marc Edward helped to break the story of lead poisoning in Flint, and in this interview with the Chronicle he lays into American academic science:
Q. I just came back from Flint, and it may not come as a surprise to you that you’re something of a folk hero there. What do you think about that?

A. It’s a natural byproduct of science conducted as a public good. Normal people really appreciate good science that’s done in their interest. They stepped forward as citizen scientists to explore what was happening to them and to their community, we provided some funding and the technical and analytical expertise, and they did all the work. I think that work speaks for itself.

Q. Scientific studies by university-affiliated researchers, namely you and Mona Hanna-Attisha, were a big part of what broke this case open. On the other hand, it took a Flint resident writing to a professor in Virginia to start the process of finding out that there was lead in the drinking water. Do you see this as an academic success story or a cautionary tale?

A. I am very concerned about the culture of academia in this country and the perverse incentives that are given to young faculty. The pressures to get funding are just extraordinary. We’re all on this hedonistic treadmill — pursuing funding, pursuing fame, pursuing h-index — and the idea of science as a public good is being lost. This is something that I’m upset about deeply. I’ve kind of dedicated my career to try to raise awareness about this. I’m losing a lot of friends. People don’t want to hear this. But we have to get this fixed, and fixed fast, or else we are going to lose this symbiotic relationship with the public. They will stop supporting us.
Science is expensive. There is very little money around for science in general, so to fund their research scientists have to devote much of their time to formulating research projects and writing grant proposals and the like. As Edwards says, "as a professor, you are your funding network." So who is available to respond to crises as they come up? And who will criticize the bodies that control the grant money when they screw up?

I think what Edward says in response to the first question is very important: people really appreciate science done in their interest. That includes both whistle blowing like what Edward did and work that leads to exciting new technologies. But many people have the sense that most scientists are simply pursuing their own agendas, or those of the people who fund their work; consider, say, pharmaceutical chemists who formulate minimally different versions of old drugs that qualify for new patents. Science in itself is just a method, and whether people support it depends on how it is used. Anti-science populism is not just cranky fundamentalism, but draws on a sense that much science is dangerous to people and the world.

The Ice Princess and her Tattoos

Besides the male warrior whose tattoos I already wrote about, there is another tattooed body from the frozen tombs of the Altai. The body known as the Ice Princess, or Princess Ukok, excavated in 1993, also had preserved tattoos, in a very similar style to those of the warrior. Above, the fantastic deer on the princess's arm, and a drawing.

Rendering of her costume. Silly hats!
From the inside the mummy was filled with herbs and roots. Her head was completely shaved, and she wore a horse hair wig. 'On top of the wig there was a symbol of the tree of life - a stick made from felt, wrapped with black tissue and decorated with small figures of birds in golden foil. 'On the front of the wig, like a cockade, was attached a wooden carving of deer.
Reconstruction of the burial scene. The princess was from the Pazyryk culture, nomads of the central Asian steppes. The Pazyryk were related to the Scythians; the main difference is that while the Scythians had close relations with the Greeks and Persians, the Pazyryk traded with China. The princess was buried in the high mountains of Kazakhstan around 500 BCE, in a log coffin. She was dressed in a Chinese silk shirt and felt-lined boots. She had no weapons, but six horses were buried around her, and she had a variety of other lavish grave goods. There were no other people in the tomb, which is unusual for a high status Pazyryk burial, and Russian archaeologists have speculated that she was a priestess or shaman. She was 25 to 28 when she died.

Much of her skin did not survive, but what did remain was heavily tattooed. Drawing of the tattoos on her fingers.

More tattoos on her arm and shoulder.


For comparison, drawings of the tattoos on the male warrior. When you imagine the distant past, you have to remember that tattooing is very ancient and has been practiced by a majority of the known human societies. So besides dressing everyone in silly hats, you have to give many of them elaborate tattoos.

This is in the news because various indigenous people in Kazakhstan and Siberia have protested that the princess remains in a museum and demanded that she be reburied. One leader quoted in the Siberian Times said that his region is experiencing frequent small earthquakes, which he thinks will continue until the princess receives a proper burial:
She may be a mummy but her soul survives, and they say a shaman communicated with her and she asked to go home. That's what the people want, too. . . . We're having earth tremors two or three times a week. People think this will go on as long as the princess's spirit is not allowed to rest in peace.
But at a recent meeting on the matter, the lead Russian archaeologist wasn't having it:
Drachevsky travelled to Kosh-Agach and told residents that the mummies would not be returned, saying they were serving important scientific purposes, and that he was 'simply uncomfortable hearing about angry spirits, as if we were living in the Middle Ages'.
The Ukok Plateau, where the frozen tombs have been found. More on the amazing finds from this region here and here.

What is the Happiest Place in Russia?

Siberia. Figure that one out.

Cultural Appropriation in Paleolithic Africa

I've never understood why cultural appropriation is a bad thing, because borrowing from other cultures is pretty much what humans do. These South African archaeologists argue that it was key to our progress in the Paleolithic:
This sharing of symbolic material culture and technology also tells us more about Homo sapiens' journey from Africa to Arabia and Europe. Contact between cultures has been vital to the survival and development of our common ancestors. The more contact the groups had, the stronger their technology and culture became.

"Contact across groups, and population dynamics, makes it possible to adopt and adapt new technologies and culture and is what describes Homo sapiens. What we are seeing is the same pattern that shaped the people in Europe who created cave art many years later," Henshilwood says.
The more contact the groups had, the stronger their technology and culture became.

Jared Diamond spent a lot of time wandering around New Guinea with local guides, and in The World Until Yesterday has a wonderful account of how new Guineans interacted with people from other areas. One regular topic of conversation was plants – what do you call this vine? what is it good for? can you eat these berries? how do you prepare that medicine? It shows perfectly how cultural exchange happens, and how fundamental it is to human nature.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Lidar Uncovers a Lost Roman Road in England

The road runs in between the two dashed red lines; you can tell it's Roman because it is so straight. This road ran from Ribchester to Lancaster.

Hellenistic Bronzes at the National Gallery

I just saw the exhibition of Hellenistic Bronzes at the National Gallery in Washington, and I loved it.

It's an amazing collection, dozens of busts, statues, and figurines, all dating to between 330 and 10 BCE.

The ancient world was once full of statues like these, 3,000 at Delphi alone. But almost all were melted down, smashed, or lost. Only a few lucky survivors have been found, most of them from shipwrecks.


To my mind, the Hellenistic era saw the pinnacle of ancient art. Compare the classical marble head of Artemis above, serene and perfect, to the rich character of the Hellenistic bronze.

The great innovator in the transition from Classical to Hellenistic sculpture was Lysippos, who was for a while the personal sculptor to Alexander the Great. This is one of several surviving copies of one of his many famous works, the Apoxyomenos or Oil-Scraper. Lysippos is supposed to have made 1,500 sculptures in his life, but none of the originals survive. On display in the exhibit is one of history's most frustrating archaeological discoveries, a marble statue base, its statue long gone, that says, Lysippos made this.

The Hellenistic Age is little taught or studied these days; probably there are twenty times as many books in English on classical Greece of the fifth century BCE as there are on the whole period from 323 to coming of Rome. The best work that I know on the Hellenistic period is Alexander to Actium by Peter Green (1993). The Hellenistic world saw wonderful art and the heights of ancient science and mathematics (Eratosthenes, Euclid, Archimedes). But the classical experiment in democracy and the self-ruling polis collapsed, and the Hellenstic world was dominated by kings and aristocrats. It was an age when the wheel of fortune spun rapidly, empires rose and fell, and many men rose from the barracks to imperial thrones and then fell by assassination. Warfare was constant, and the inhabitants of so many conquered cities were sold into slavery that a special class of businessmen arose who bought slaves by the thousand and then figured out how to get the greatest profit from each. But the interesting parts of history are usually like that.

Anyway the exhibit is wonderful, and it is in Washington through March 20.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Teaching Manliness in China

Today's news from China:
Worried that a shortage of male teachers has produced a generation of timid, self-centered and effeminate boys, Chinese educators are working to reinforce traditional gender roles and values in the classroom.

In Zhengzhou, a city on the Yellow River, schools have asked boys to sign petitions pledging to act like “real men.” In Shanghai, principals are trying boys-only classes with courses like martial arts, computer repair and physics. In Hangzhou, in eastern China, educators have started a summer camp called “West Point Boys,” complete with taekwondo classes and the motto, “We bring out the men in boys.”
The government is trying to recruit more male teachers to lead these masculinity programs.

Partly this is just the macho culture of the Chinese leadership, which is almost entirely male. But partly it is driven by fear of a generation of lazy, video-gamed obsessed boys, and in yet another part it is a response to the discovery that Chinese boys are lagging behind girls academically, as in most of the world.

Philippe Mohlitz

Philippe Mohlitz is a French engraver born in 1941. He is considered one of the most technically skilled copper-plate engravers in the world, "a true virtuoso of the burin." Sadly the images I can find of his work online are almost all too small to really do justice to his extremely detailed cities and machines. The one above is a large file, worth clicking on.

Along with Gérard Trignac and Érik Desmazières, Mohlitz is part of the French "Fantastic Art" movement. L'art fantastique draws on the European surrealist tradition, and on symbolists like Odilon Redon and Rodolphe Bresdin. But it developed in new directions through involvement with the classic science fiction of the 1960s. I confess that I used to have rather stereotyped views of France, and I was startled to discovered that there is a whole subculture of French techies who reject French intellectual life and admire American and British science fiction, from Ray Bradbury to Star Trek and Star Wars.

Mohlitz has a strong post-apocalyptic theme in his art. He loves ruins and shacks thrown together from flotsam. Which makes it surprising to me that he is not more popular in North America these days.


Mohlitz is far from a happy artist:
His bizarre images of decay, war, and weird deserted lands are drawn from the realms of science fantasy, whilst following firmly in the Surrealist tradition. Rich in detail, his images of strange aviators aboard weird flying machines, balloons, ships, tanks and warfare, set in impossible landscapes, are filled with a pervasive sense of the macabre. Death haunts these visions and nightmares in their peripheral details of gruesome sexual content and morbid eroticism. The grotesque decaying corpses of buildings, machines and people, often overgrown with vegetation, fill these inspired works with horror and macabre delight.
The Minister of Health, another large, detailed image.

The Golden Age, 1966.

Archeologie, 1986

L'atelier, 1989

 December 31, 1982

 Heros Attacked by 36 People

Modern Times, 1972

The People of Tinker's Cave

Tinker's Cave is in the far north of Scotland, on the southern shore of Wick Bay. In 1886 an eminent Scottish physician, Sir Arthur Mitchell, visited the cave to study its peculiar inhabitants. He found about 24 people living there, men, women and children, some of them half dressed and others completely naked. They had a peat fire and slept on beds of straw, grass, and bracken, with a few dirty blankets. Dr. Mitchell wrote:
They received us civilly, perhaps with more than mere civility, after a judicious distribution of pence and tobacco. To our great relief, the dogs, which were numerous and vicious, seemed to understand that we were welcome.
The cave-dwellers were tinkers, that peculiarly British group of native-born gypsies.
The Tinkers of the Wick caves are a mixed breed. There is no Gipsy blood in them. Some of them claim a West Island origin. Others say they are true Caithness men, and others again look for their ancestors among the Southern Scotch. They were not strongly built, nor had they a look of vigorous bodily health. Their heads and faces were usually bad in form.

Broken noses and scars were a common disfigurement, and a revelation at the same time of the brutality of their lives. One girl might have been painted for a rustic beauty of the Norse type, and there was a boy among them with an excellent head.
Some tinkers, including some of the men Mitchell met at Tinker's Cave, were actual tin smiths, repairers of metal pots and pans. Others practiced other trades, or labored at whatever physical work was needed.

Like any civilized Victorian, Mitchell was appalled by these unconventional folk:
These cave-dwellers of Wick were the offscourings of society, such as might be found in any town slum. Virtue and chastity exist feebly among them, and honour and truth more feebly still.
Such "offscorings" lived in caves across Europe, and in abandoned buildings, old lime kilns, shipwrecks, and anywhere else they could find shelter. Their numbers were swelled by the industrial age and the collapse of traditional rural communities. Some of Scotland's cave dwellers might have been driven from their homes during the Highland Clearances. Other tinkers were forced off British estates by enclosure, or when the land was sold for industrial or suburban development. Others lost their jobs during industrial depressions and took the road rather than hang around waiting for the mills to re-open. They were the products of an age that no longer had villages or clans but had not yet developed a welfare system that could help those in need. So they went wherever they could find food, shelter, and peace.

Friday, February 5, 2016

Supply, Demand, and Left-Wing San Francisco

Housing in San Francisco is very expensive:
The median rent for a one-bedroom apartment hit $3,530 in August of last year, a 14 percent increase from the year before (that contrasts to $3,160 for a one-bedroom in New York last August). The median rent for two bedrooms in August was $4,900.
The explanation is pretty straightforward:
The problem can be partly explained by supply and demand. The city has added 45,000 residents since 2010, but has built just 7,500 new housing units.
Housing isn't built in the city because it is basically illegal to build it; most of the city is limited to three units per lot, and even the most innocuous construction meets strong opposition. (See any cranes in that view of the city above?) The city's old waterfront hosts a bunch of derelict warehouses which sit empty because the neighbors won't allow anybody to turn them into condos.

San Francisco has been periodically convulsed for years by protests against high housing prices and the city's treatment of the homeless. But the protesters don't seem to want to build more housing:
Protests aren’t focused on zoning changes or creating more affordability, though. Instead, they’re encouraging the city to ask the NFL for reimbursement for the $5 million San Francisco is spending on city services like police ahead of the Super Bowl, asking the city to divert that money to resources for the homeless population. They’re protesting over alleged police actions that moved homeless residents from the space around Super Bowl City and carrying around signs with swastikas that read iSlave. . . .

At the protest, I talked to a man with a flowing white beard who identified himself as Ron Ron, and who has lived in the Bay Area since the 1970s.
“This is globalization, this is what Obama's brought on, this is what Ed Lee [the mayor] has brought on,” he said. “It’s called capitalism, Darwinism, survival of the fittest.” The city’s newest residents are only concerned about tech and about sports like the Super Bowl, but ignore the homeless who are out on the streets because San Francisco is too expensive, he told me. He disagreed with the idea that building more apartments would help, though. “Everything they build is for rich people,” he said.
Actually San Francisco has a very strict ordinance that requires all new apartment buildings to set aside some units for affordable housing, but since so little is being built, this doesn't help very much.

Hey, if the people of San Francisco want to pretty much halt development and keep their neighborhoods the way they are, as far as I am concerned that is their right. But if they are going to do that, the price of housing will continue to rise. It's not as though anybody has to live in San Francisco; in fact a majority of the people who work there live somewhere else. But simultaneously refusing to allow construction and protesting the high price of housing is just silly.

State Department Emails and the Secret State

News is just out that the use of personal email accounts in the State Department goes back at least to the tenure of Colin Powell, and that he also dealt with "classified" material in emails from his private account. It would not surprise me at all if it went back to whichever Secretary of State sent the first email from his office.

All of these high-level State Department types say they use private email because they don't trust the reliability or security of the government email system. They especially don't trust its internal security, that is, they suspect that far too many people within the State Department can read their stuff. Secretaries of State are also often major political players who deal with all sorts of partisan political subjects, for which they are supposed to use private accounts. For such people the line between official business and party business is often hard to draw. I suspect also that since several previous Secretaries used private email accounts, each new Secretary sets up such an account as a matter of prestige; damned if they won't have every perk their predecessors had.

The real problem here is not the use of private email accounts by State Department officials, it is the government's ridiculous habit of classifying all sorts of public business as "secret." For obvious reason we don't know what is in most of the emails that deal with "classified" material, but we do know in one case. This concerns emails Clinton and some associates exchanged about American drone strikes in Pakistan. Officially, it is a secret that we even have drones in Pakistan, even though the news media report on them all the time. In this case the email exchange started because one of the parties sent along a news account of such a drone strike. Even though the subsequent exchange was all about a media report, the government thinks that since it deals with the "secret" topic of drones in Pakistan, it is ipso facto classified.

Sometimes just thinking about all the crap our government tries to keep secret makes me want to vote for Bernie Sanders.

The Shamaness of Bad Dürrenberg

In 1934, workers excavating a canal in Saxan-Anhalt, Germany, near the town of Bad Dürrenberg, uncovered a remarkable grave. It contained the body of a woman aged 25 to 35, sitting upright, and, between her legs, an infant 4 to 6 months old. The entire grave was covered in red ochre. She was surrounded by a remarkable assortment of artifacts, most them made from the bones and teeth of animals. And not just one or two types of animal, but eight: deer antlers and teeth, wolf teeth, beaver teeth, turtle shells, boar's tusks, mussel shells, aurochs horns, and longbones from cranes.

Everyone agrees that she was a shaman. This somewhat ridiculous reconstruction conveys, I think, how very strange she must have looked dressed up in all these animal parts. She must have been very much respected by her people to have been buried in such an elaborate way. Her neck vertebrae had a peculiar anatomy; according to the doctors who examined the bones, she would have been able to crimp the blood flow into her head by holding her head at a certain angle, which might have helped her enter trances more easily visit the spirit realm.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Money in Politics, or Jeb Bush and the 2.8%

Which candidate spent the most money in Iowa? Jeb Bush, who ended up with 2.8% of the vote. His SuperPac spent millions on ads attacking Marco Rubio, who eventually got eight times as many votes as Bush did. The goal of all that spending was to keep Rubio from earning a strong third-place finish that would allow him to portray himself as the leading establishment candidate, which is exactly what happened.

I would not be such a fool as to argue that money means nothing in politics, but right now it doesn't seem to be helping Bush or Clinton very much. Despite what one sometimes hears from frustrated progressives, it's hard to buy an election in America.

Fresco from Roman London

From a recent excavation at 21 Lime Street, 20 feet (6 m) below the modern ground surface. Dated to the 1st century CE. More here.

Racism as a Zero-Sum Game

Kevin Drum highlights a fascinating bit of research from sociologists by Michael Norton and Samuel Sommers about how whites and blacks perceive the history of racism in America. As you can see, both white and black Americans agree that anti-black racism was pervasive in the 1950s and that things have gotten better on that front. The curves for the history of anti-black bias are not really so different. The huge difference comes in the perception of bias against whites. Black Americans see this as an insignificant problem, although it is interesting that enough respondents recognized that it might exist for the average value to rise to a 2 out of 10. White Americans, meanwhile, think anti-white bias is a real and growing thing; in fact they think it is now a worse problem than anti-black bias. Norton and Samuel did not break down their data by the politics of their respondents, but you can bet that conservative Republicans are much more likely to think this way.

Norton and Sommers call this "zero sum thinking," that is, if blacks are getting more of the pie, then whites must by definition be getting less. They quote Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama, who once said, in a the confirmation hearing for a Supreme Court justice,
Empathy for one party is always prejudice against another.
I think this is pretty much to be expected, given how things are going in America. If white Americans felt that the country were going gangbusters and everyone could look forward to a better future, they would probably worry less about gains made by blacks and Hispanics. But hardly anybody feels that way. People feel besieged, and a majority of whites worry that their children will be worse off than they are. In that circumstance, any help given to someone else feels unfair; where is my help?

Many white Americans look around and see that rich people have all kinds of advantages, and minorities have affirmative action, and they think, we have nothing. Nobody is looking out for us. This attitude has been widespread at least since 1968, when Nixon appealed to the "silent majority." Personally I think it is crazy to believe that nobody is paying attention to the problems of the white middle class, who have been at the focus of every election in my life and no doubt most of them before I was born. But if you feel like you are losing at life, as millions of Americans do, you look around for reasons. You wonder why there is no government program to help people like you. And when somebody like Donald Trump comes along and says that it isn't your fault, that what we need is to take American back to its great days, you may be tempted to listen.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Stellar Nebula M1-67

Souls in Turmoil at the Malheur Wildlife Refuge

Tensions continue in Oregon:
Local residents furious about the armed occupation of a federal wildlife refuge in eastern Oregon faced off in force on Monday against antigovernment protesters who support the occupation, with both sides gathering outside the Harney County Courthouse here in a nonviolent but dramatic confrontation.

With several hundred people screaming at one another, sometimes only inches apart, it was a fierce and visceral display of the emotions raised by the takeover, which began on Jan. 2.

As recently as this weekend, only one demonstration had been expected: Professed patriot groups had issued a call for militia members and others who support the takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge to come here and make their voices heard. . . .

In a surprisingly vocal counterprotest, local residents arrived at the Harney County courthouse first on Monday, and in what seemed to be larger numbers. They shouted, “Go home! Go home!” at the occupation supporters across the sidewalk — many of whom were visibly armed and carried American flags.

The supporters, most of them from out of state, shouted back that freedom for all Americans was under threat no matter where you lived, and that patriotism was on their side. “Where are your flags?” they shouted. “Where are your flags?”
Sign spotted in the crowd:
YOU ARE NOT MY VOICE. GO  HOME.
Here we have, it seems to me, two of the great themes of human life, acted out as if by two choruses on a Greek stage: the longing for some sort of radical, apocalyptic change, and the longing for normal life.

I see this unfolding in the primaries. All the media attention is focused on dissatisfaction, disappointment, anger, the sort of people who want Sanders' "revolution" or Trump's reawakened America. But Trump and Sanders both lost in Iowa, even within a small group of the most politically involved. The desire for dramatic change always wars with the fear of it, and the nagging voice of rationalism pointing out that dramatic change is usually for the worse. Some people come down decisively on one side or the other, although they may change their views as they age. For others, like me, there is always a tension. Anger at injustice has to be weighed against the horror of revenge; disappointment with the current state of things against the realization that it could be much worse; rage against others against the sad truth that we are creatures of the system we sometimes rail against, complicit to one degree or another in its crimes.

Napoleon Chagnon and "Liberal McCarthyism"

From a rather nasty screed against liberal academics in the Spectator, I extract a nugget that I think deserves a response:
Which makes it all the more ironic that McCarthyism is alive and well and being practiced by the liberal intelligentsia. . . . [Consider] the punishment meted out to Napoleon Chagnon, the evolutionary anthropologist whose work on the indigenous population of the Amazonian rain forest challenged liberal pieties about the goodness of man in his prelapsarian state. Chagnon was essentially blacklisted by the people who control the anthropology industry.
It is certainly true, as I have written, that many anthropologists hate Napoleon Chagnon, and one of them actually wrote a nasty book about him full of false accusations. (It also contained several true accusations, of which more in a minute.)

What the Spectator gets wrong is why anthropologists hate Chagnon. Chagnon is not hated because he believes that our ancestry is violent; plenty of respectable tenured anthropologists think that. He is not hated because he thinks violence has been a successful evolutionary strategy for humans; plenty of tenured anthropologists think that, too. To be fair, his evolutionary theories probably haven't helped him, but they are not the main reason he is so controversial.

Anthropologists hate Chagnon because of the way he interacted with the people he studied. Most American anthropologists consider themselves to be, first and foremost, advocates for indigenous or oppressed peoples, and advocates more broadly for the preservation of cultural diversity. Chagnon despised that sort of thing, which he called "fluff." He considered himself an evolutionary scientist, and he made no secret of his dislike for the subjects of his studies. As he famously said,
Real Indians sweat, they smell bad, they take hallucinogenic drugs, they belch after they eat, they covet and at times steal their neighbour’s wife, they fornicate, and they make war.
Most anthropologists want to get to know the people they study on their own terms, to become as much as possible part of their society. Chagnon had no time for that; in pursuit of the information he wanted he routinely violated taboos, exacerbated social tensions, threatened violence, and more. He caused so much trouble that the government of Venezuela eventually banned him from the country. He called the Yanomamö the "fierce people," but many of them feared him.

Over my adult lifetime theory has not really excited academics very much. What matters is politics in a more down-to-earth sense: where do you stand on global inequality, pollution, trans rights, oil exploration in the rain forest, and other particular causes. Your theories about anthropology are much less important, and in fact if you are the right sort of anarchistic leftist you can say whatever you want about human evolution. I personally have no fear of offering any sort of theory about the periods I study, but I could conceivably get in all sorts of trouble for opposing the rights of Indian Tribes to control the treatment of ancient Indian skeletons. That sort of concern for the beliefs and desires of living groups of people is what the left cares about now.

The Prodigal Son

Young man --
Young man --
Your arm's too short to box with God.

But Jesus spake in a parable, and he said:
A certain man had two sons.
Jesus didn't give this man a name,
But his name is God Almighty.
And Jesus didn't call these sons by name,
But ev'ry young man,
Ev'rywhere,
Is one of these two sons.

And the younger son said to his father,
He said: Father, divide up the property,
And give me my portion now.

And the father with tears in his eyes said: Son,
Don't leave your father's house.
But the boy was stubborn in his head,
And haughty in his heart,
And he took his share of his father's goods,
And went into a far-off country.

There comes a time,
There comes a time
When ev'ry young man looks out from his father's house,
Longing for that far-off country.

And the young man journeyed on his way,
And he said to himself as he travelled along:
This sure is an easy road,
Nothing like the rough furrows behind my father's plow.

Young man --
Young man --
Smooth and easy is the road
That leads to hell and destruction.
Down grade all the way,
The further you travel, the faster you go.
No need to trudge and sweat and toil,
Just slip and slide and slip and slide
Till you bang up against hell's iron gate.

And the younger son kept travelling along,
Till at night-time he came to a city.
And the city was bright in the night-time like day,
The streets all crowded with people,
Brass bands and string bands a-playing,
And ev'rywhere the young man turned
There was singing and laughing and dancing.
And he stopped a passer-by and he said:
Tell me what city is this?
And the passer-by laughed and said: Don't you know?
This is Babylon, Babylon,
That great city of Babylon.
Come on, my friend, and go along with me.
And the young man joined the crowd.

Young man --
Young man --
You're never lonesome in Babylon.
You can always join a crowd in Babylon. . . .

And the young man went with his new-found friend,
And bought himself some brand new clothes,
And he spent his days in the drinking dens,
Swallowing the fires of hell.
And he spent his nights in the gambling dens,
Throwing dice with the devil for his soul.

And he met up with the women of Babylon.
Oh, the women of Babylon!
Dressed in yellow and purple and scarlet,
Loaded with rings and earrings and bracelets,
Their lips like a honeycomb dripping with honey,
Perfumed and sweet-smelling like a jasmine flower;
And the jasmine smell of the Babylon women
Got in his nostrils and went to his head,
And he wasted his substance in riotous living,
In the evening, in the black and dark of night,
With the sweet-sinning women of Babylon.
And they stripped him of his money,
And they stripped him of his clothes,
And they left him broke and ragged
In the streets of Babylon.

Then the young man joined another crowd --
The beggars and lepers of Babylon.
And he went to feeding swine,
And he was hungrier than the hogs;
He got down on his belly in the mire and mud
And ate the husks with the hogs.
And not a hog was too low to turn up his nose
At the man in the mire of Babylon.

Then the young man came to himself --
He came to himself and said:
In my father's house are many mansions,
Ev'ry servant in his house has bread to eat,
Ev'ry servant in his house has a place to sleep;
I will arise and go to my father.

And his father saw him afar off,
And he ran up the road to meet him.
He put clean clothes upon his back,
And a golden chain around his neck,
He made a feast and killed the fatted calf,
And invited the neighbors in.

– James Weldon Johnson

from God's Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse, 1927

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Waterfalls Blown Backward


On the Isle of Mull in Scotland, storm winds blew these waterfalls back uphill. Video here.