Tuesday, October 6, 2015

More Fusion Dreams

"For $20 billion in cash, I could build you a working reactor"
Said the physicist, with a mad gleam in his eye.

But I should also note that Jeff Bezos, Peter Thiel and Paul Allen have all invested in fusion companies. So maybe I am being a fool for dismissing this. But these guys just sound so much like the inventors of perpetual motion machines.

How the Cure for Scurvy was Lost

In the 1700s, British Royal Navy worked out how to prevent scurvy, which had been a terrible scourge of men on long sea voyages:
The scheduled allowance for the sailors in the Navy was fixed at 1 oz. lemon juice with 1 + oz. sugar, served daily after 2 weeks at sea, the lemon juice being often called ‘lime juice’ and our sailors ‘lime juicers’. The consequences of this new regulation were startling and by the beginning of the nineteenth century scurvy may be said to have vanished from the British navy. In 1780, the admissions of scurvy cases to the Naval Hospital at Haslar were 1457; in the years from 1806 to 1810, they were two.
In 1810, the Royal Navy understood perfectly well how to treat scurvy. So Maciej Cegłowski of Idle Words was shocked to discover, from reading Apsley Cherry-Garrard's account of Scott's disastrous journey to the South Pole, that by 1911 this knowledge had been lost. Here is Cherry-Garrard's account of a lecture given to the expedition by one of its Royal Navy doctors:
Atkinson inclined to Almroth Wright’s theory that scurvy is due to an acid intoxication of the blood caused by bacteria. . . . There was little scurvy in Nelson’s days; but the reason is not clear, since, according to modern research, lime-juice only helps to prevent it. We had, at Cape Evans, a salt of sodium to be used to alkalize the blood as an experiment, if necessity arose. Darkness, cold, and hard work are in Atkinson’s opinion important causes of scurvy.
Amazing. The leaders of what was supposed to be a scientific expedition in 1911 knew less about one of exploration's greatest curses than ordinary sailors of the Napoleonic era. Cegłowski goes on to explain in a convincing way how this happened.

Part of the trouble has to do with confusing lemons and limes; most people used the words interchangeably. The British Navy of 1800 used lemon juice, mainly from Sicily. In the 1860s they switched to lime juice from British colonies in the Caribbean. Lime juice actually has much less Vitamin C than lemon juice. Plus, the amount of usable Vitamin C declines as the juice is stored, and the lime juice the were using was often pretty old. So in the 1870s the lime juice being given to sailors had little protective value against scurvy.

But that didn't matter, because pretty much all fresh food contains Vitamin C, and the diet of sailors in the 1870s included enough fresh meat and vegetables that they got sufficient Vitamin C for their needs. They therefore didn't notice that the lime juice wasn't working. Based on Dr. Atkinson's lecture, it seems that somebody studied Navy-issue lime juice some time before 1911 and discovered that it had little effect on scurvy. From this doctors drew the incorrect conclusion that the whole citrus juice cure was a mistake and embarked on wild theories about acid in the blood. Not until 1932 was Vitamin C isolated and the actual nature of the disease and the cure finally explained.

It is a remarkable story of forgetting, with grim consequences for Scott's men.

Scythian Treasures from the Hermitage

Since I have something like an obsession with the archaeology of the ancient Scythians, of course when I was searching the Hermitage Museum web site I looked for more Scythian wonders. (Belt plaque with dragons)

I already posted images of Scythian treasures here, here, here, and here. Many of the most famous objects from Scythian tombs were actually made by Greek craftsmen in the cities around the Black Sea, although sometimes obviously for Scythian clients. Today I emphasize things made by Scythians themselves, or at least by craftsmen working more in the steppes tradition than in the Greek. (Golden vessel)

The Scythians were a violent people whose main pleasures, according to our sources, were war, hunting, drunken banquets, and shamanistic rituals involving mind altering drugs. Their fascination with violent struggle comes out in works like this one that depict predatory animals tearing at their prey, or at each other. This is half of a belt buckle; the other half was often but not always a mirror image.

Another dragon belt plaque.

A button.

A golden representation of the shamanic world tree.

Another horrific belt buckle, and detail.

Buckle showing a boar hunt.

A scene from a myth?

And a golden torque.

Why Ben Carson is Obsessed with Political Correctness

Neurosurgeon and presidential candidate Ben Carson loves to talk about political correctness; it may be his main campaign theme. Now Kevin Drum has finally explained it to me. This was Carson last Wednesday:
At a campaign event in New Hampshire, Carson noted that many people believe a situation like what took place in Germany in the 1930's and 1940's could never happen in America. "I beg to differ," Carson said. "If you go back and look at the history of the world, tyranny and despotism and how it starts, it has a lot to do with control of thought and control of speech."
When Donald Trump talks about political correctness, he's using it in the usual throwaway sense we're all familiar with. He wants to be able to talk about immigrants being rapists or women being shrill and ugly without everyone getting on his case. Others have in mind trigger warnings and other campus fads. But when Ben Carson talks about it, he means much, much more. It is the core of his worldview, so it's worth understanding what he means by it. [To Carson] the agents working against this country’s greatness include the political-correctness police, who use “faux hypersensitivity” to take power away from the majority of Americans....Political correctness, Carson says, is used to keep conservatives from invoking slavery or Nazism, both of which he cites freely.
More Ben Carson:
Political correctness is antithetical to our founding principles of freedom of speech and freedom of expression. Its most powerful tool is intimidation. If it is not vigorously opposed, its proponents win by default, because the victims adopt a “go along to get along” attitude. Major allies in the imposition of PC are members of the media, some of whom thrive on controversy and others who are true ideologues.

....The American people must learn to identify and ignore political correctness if we are to escape the bitter ideological grenades that are destroying our unity and strength. Political correctness is impotent if we the people are fearless. Let us emphasize intelligent discussion of issues and leave the smear campaigns to those with no constructive ideas.
To Carson, the main reason liberals are succeeding in getting the country to accept radical ideas like gay marriage is that we bully people so much they are afraid to say what they think:
In fact, Carson believes that liberals are deliberately making it impossible for conservatives to talk about the truly important issues that are destroying America. Keeping everyone cowed and silent is the first step to tyranny, which is why he thinks incipient Hitlerism is something to be taken seriously.
Gay people who have been mercilessly taunted for their identities are not likely to be sympathetic to Carson's arguments.

I am also struck by the way he, like so many other conservatives, continues to believe that the majority agrees with him but has been somehow thwarted. Thus we have imaginary scares about voter fraud and constant complaints that the lamestream media are brainwashing the sheeple. That most Americans might have reasoned for themselves and ended up at a position opposite his own seems inconceivable to him.


I discussed this with my two older sons, and they both agreed that pressure to conform in speech is a big problem in America, and that it is impossible to discuss topics like homosexuality, trans identities, and whether and how men and women are different without being attacked. One of them also offered that Americans have been brainwashed to hate "socialism."

How community standards are established is a hard question, and we have talked here before about the issues surrounding "micro-aggressions" and so on. I think the appeal of Ben Carson's campaign shows that millions of Americans share the sense that they can't say what they really think without being shouted down. Which is something to ponder.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Very, Very Small Transistors

Still no limit in sight to the power of computers:
In the semiconductor business, it is called the “red brick wall” — the limit of the industry’s ability to shrink transistors beyond a certain size.

On Thursday, however, IBM scientists reported that they now believe they see a path around the wall. Writing in the journal Science, a team at the company’s Thomas J. Watson Research Center said it has found a new way to make transistors from parallel rows of carbon nanotubes. [above]

The advance is based on a new way to connect ultrathin metal wires to the nanotubes that will make it possible to continue shrinking the width of the wires without increasing electrical resistance.
And that is key because what is limiting the speed of computers now is that forcing electricity through ever tinier silicon transistors generates lots of heat. The chips we have now could run a lot faster than they do, except that they would get too hot and melt. So they have to run at what is for them a jogging speed.
The report represents a big advance for an exotic semiconductor material that has long held great promise but has also proved maddeningly difficult for scientists to work with. Single-wall carbon nanotubes are strawlike structures that are a composed of a one-atom thick matrix of carbon atoms rolled into an infinitesimally small tube.

The challenge of carbon nanotubes in their typical state is that they form what scientists call a giant “hairball” of interwoven molecules.

However, researchers have found ways to align them closely and in regularly spaced rows and deposit them on silicon wafers with great precision. They then serve the crucial role of a semiconductor, allowing electrical current to be switched on and off in a computer circuit.
Pretty amazing.

On the other hand, I have to wonder what we are going to use all this computing power for. The computer I have now can already load and manipulate a super-detailed aerial photograph of an entire county; it has been years, I think, since I even encountered a problem that my computer simply lacked the calculating power to solve. Games are limited much more these days by the storytelling power of the writers than they are by the quality of the graphics.

But should we ever find a way to use all that power, we will have it in a decade or two.

Big Questions for Environmentalists

Nathanael Johnson has some interesting thoughts about environmentalism in a world of sophisticated science and postmodern philosophy:
We are living in a moment of crisis, both environmental and philosophical. The green philosophy about what to do with land, and how best to feed ourselves, is somewhat up for grabs. There’s a growing acknowledgement that the old ideas about "saving nature" or "returning the land to its original state" are misguided. There is no "original state," just a lot of different landscapes, depending how far you turn back the clock.

Saving nature sounds objectively honorable — above the sway of human desires — but it’s not, because people define what "nature" means. And the land we save almost always ends up being the type of nature that the people with political power happen to like. If we were capable of making non-anthropocentric decisions to preserve biodiversity, we’d be converting habitat to foster a thriving diversity of slime molds and dedicating national parks for bacterial mats.

Without the ideal of pristine nature as our lodestar, many greens are groping awkwardly for a new goal. Should the aim be justice — working with the land in whatever way most effectively reduces inequality and human suffering? Should the aim be beauty — preserving the species and landscapes that inspire us? Or should we double down on trying to find an objective, non-anthropocentric way to define nature — even if that means nurturing landscapes that we find ugly and uncomfortable?
To take a simple example that I have written about before, consider deer in the eastern woodlands. Ecologists think that the high deer populations we have now in some eastern areas have never been seen before in the history of the world. Does that make them unnatural? High deer populations are bad for certain other organisms, including oak trees, possums, and rare plants like the small whorled pogonia. Should we care about that, or by intervening to protect biodiversity are we reshaping nature according to our own ideas of what is natural? Since humans have been the primary predators of deer for the past 13,000 years, by ceasing to hunt are we returning things to nature, or interfering with nature? Since deer hunters mostly come from rural areas, are restrictions on deer hunting a sort of urban imperialism?

How should we manage fires? Should we even try?

Should we be trying to eradicate or restrain invasive species? If so, how far back should we go in defining "invasive"?

If we can, should we try to bring back species that we once exterminated?

All of these questions circle back to the issue Johnson raises, the loss of scientific faith in any single "natural" order. Leaving any particular part of the world alone will not return it to a state of pristine wilderness, if such a thing can be said to exist.

France in the Year 2000

These postcards were produced France by Jean-Marc Côté and other artists in 1899, 1900, 1901 and 1910. They depicted the far future world of the year 2000. The first series was produced for the 1900 World Exhibition in Paris. More at the Public Domain Review.

Old views of the future always mix things that already seem quaint to us with things we haven't yet achieved. Inventive minds have been imagining mechanical tailors for a century, but most sewing is still done in sweatshops by people sitting at sewing machines. Sewing clothes is just so hard for machines that it is still cheaper to pay people in Vietnam or Bangladesh to do it. And yet compare that mechanical orchestra to a synthesizer, or those armored cars to modern tanks.

Strange Path to a Nobel Prize

One of the winners of this year's Noble Prize in medicine was Chinese doctor Youyou Tu, born 1930:
Dr. Tu won a Lasker Award in 2011 for her discovery of Artemisinin. During the Cultural Revolution, in the 1960s, the Chinese government began a project to find a new malaria drug that could replace the standard treatment, chloroquine, which was losing effectiveness as malaria parasites developed resistance.

Dr. Tu and her colleagues pored over the literature on ancient Chinese remedies and collected 380 extracts from 200 herbs that offered promise. One of the plants they studied was sweet wormwood, or Artemisia annua, which was used by Chinese herbalists centuries ago to treat fever. They found a way to extract an active substance from the plant, removed a toxic portion of it and show that it wiped out the malaria-causing parasite in animals. Today, Artemisinin and its derivatives are typically coupled with other therapies as the “first-line treatment” to combat malaria.

Artemisinin, when used in combination therapy, is estimated to reduce mortality from malaria by more than 20 percent over all, and by more than 30 percent in children. In Africa alone, it saves more than 100,000 lives each year.
So somebody actually did find a way to get something good out of the Cultural Revolution. I imagine the command came down from Beijing to cast aside western imperial medicine and rely on the wisdom of the people, or something like that. Youyou Tu and her colleagues took that as a call to get serious about the scientific testing of traditional remedies, with spectacular results.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

A Very Old Hedgehog

According to Christie's, which sold this back in 2011, this is a Syrian Copper Vessel of the Late Uruk Period, Circa 3000 B.C., which had been in a private collection in Switzerland since the 1920s. I guess somebody believed them, since it sold for $385,000.

I honestly don't know what to make of it. It doesn't look like anything else I've seen from 3,000 BC, and Syria is not very well known in that period. But I suppose it could be. And anyway, how wonderful.

Christopher Lasch on the Woes of Meritocracy

Intrigued by something I read about Christopher Lasch (1932-1994) in a post on America's current malaise, I started looking into him and his ideas. My public library has none of his books, so I ordered used paperback copies of three of them: The Culture of Narcissism (1979), The True and Only Heaven: Progress and its Critics (1991), and The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy (1994). I hope eventually to write an essay about his ideas and what they can or cannot contribute to our ongoing national conversation, but there is a lot to digest so that will be a while.

I just finished The Revolt of the Elites, the first to arrive, and the thing that struck me most about it was Lasch's assault on meritocracy. This is an important political point right now, because the economic program of the Republican party boils down to saying that inequality is ok, as long as it is not hereditary. If the route to riches is really open to everyone, regardless of class, race, and sex, then we should celebrate the hard-working people who make it to the top. Jeb Bush calls this the "Right to Rise" and has made it one of his main campaign themes.

Christopher Lasch dismissed all such talk. He hated the worship of "success" that has long been a major strain of American economic thought. As far as he was concerned, "Economic inequality is intrinsically undesirable, even when confined to its proper sphere." Lasch was a history professor with a Columbia Ph.D., and he knew a lot about American intellectual history. He studied especially the long line of American thinkers who attacked great wealth as "morally repugnant and incompatible with democratic ideals."
In the first half of the nineteenth century most people who gave any thought to the matter assumed that democracy had to rest on a broad distribution of property. They understood that extremes of wealth and poverty would be fatal to the democratic experiment. . . . Democratic habits, they thought – self-reliance, responsibility, initiative – were best acquired in the exercise of a trade or the management of a small holding of property. A “competence,” as they called it, referred both to property itself and to the intelligence and enterprise required by its management. It stood to reason, therefore, that democracy worked best when property was distributed as widely as possible among the citizens.
Lasch is thinking both of Jeffersonian Democrats and midwestern Whigs like Abraham Lincoln who pushed for the Homestead Act. To such people, the very existence of wealthy capitalists and impoverished workers was a great danger to the Republic, and everything possible had to be done to prevent the country from evolving in that direction. Of course the country did industrialize, and an emphasis on the right to rise was one of the results:
Historically the concept of social mobility was clearly articulated only when people could no longer deny the existence of a degraded class of wage earners tied to that condition for life – only when the possibility of a classless society, in other words, was decisively abandoned. 
Lasch held to what he considered the true American position, that inequality is bad no matter where the rich come from. Indeed, he thought, a meritocracy is in some ways worse than an aristocracy:
The notion that egalitarian purposes could be served by the “restoration” of upward mobility betrayed a fundamental misunderstanding. High rates of mobility are by no means inconsistent with a system of stratification that concentrates power and privilege in a ruling elite. Indeed, the circulation of elites strengthens the principle of hierarchy, furnishing elites with fresh talent and legitimating their ascendancy a function of merit rather than birth.
As many others have noted, an elite composed of people who have risen by their own efforts may have less interest in helping the poor; I worked my way up, they reason, so why can't you?
An aristocracy of talent – superficially an attractive ideal, which appears to distinguish democracies from societies based on hereditary privilege – turns out to be a contradiction in terms: the talented retain many of the vices of aristocracy without its virtues. Their snobbery lacks any acknowledgment of reciprocal obligations between the favored few and the multitude. 
Furthermore, meritocracy "drains talent away from the lower classes and thus deprives them of effective leadership." This particular point has gotten a lot of attention in two contexts. Many people have noted that when successful blacks began to move out of traditionally all-black neighborhoods they left behind pockets of poverty and pathology. Kentucky farmer/poet Wendell Berry has made the same complaint about small towns, which have been "strip mined" of talent by the pull of big cities.

I was fascinated to learn that the debate we are having now about whether investment in education can reduce inequality and promote social mobility is an old one, going back to the nineteenth century. Lasch thought this was beside the point. People who think education should equip all student to get rich
ignore the real objections to meritocracy and content themselves with dubious argument to the effect that education does not live up to its promise of fostering social mobility. If it did, they seem to imply, no one would presumably have any reason to complain.
To Lasch, inequality in itself is both a moral disaster and a dire threat to democracy: "When money talks, everyone else is condemned to listen."

As I have written before, I am not sure what the alternative to meritocracy would be. But I think it is good to be reminded that all talk of a right to rise is a distraction from the real issue: what sort of society do we want? Most Americans say they want a middle class society, not one divided between rich and poor. Social mobility is in this context irrelevant; it is the class structure of society that matters, not how it got this way. I believe that the experiment in a rawer style of capitalism we have tried over the past 35 years has shown that this approach leads inexorably to ever greater class divisions. Trying to fiddle with the educational system so that we end up with an elite having the proper number of blacks, Hispanics and women will not get us to the world that I and most other Americans want. For that, we need a radically different economic approach.

Some Roman Heads

Images from Flickr's antiquities project; I believe most of these are in the National Museum in Naples. All are stone except for the last, which is ivory.

Maniacs and Guns

The Times has a very depressing feature on the ways recent mass murderers have obtained their guns, full of tragic bits of bureaucratic malfeasance like
Mr. Fryberg applied to buy the Beretta from a gun shop on the Indian reservation where he lived with Jaylen. A background check failed to come up with the protection order because it was never entered into the system.
But really the problem comes down to this: it is very, very hard to accurately diagnose serious mental illness, or to predict which people might become violent. So as long as we treat gun ownership as a right that can only be taken away for probable cause of danger, we will never be able to keep potentially dangerous people from owning guns. Most mass shooters buy their guns legally. To keep this sort of thing from happening, we would have to turn our attitude around and make gun ownership a privilege available only to those who can prove themselves fit. I think that in our democracy this would be impossible; too many law-abiding Americans passionately love their guns. Given that there are already a hundred million guns in America, and that buying one illegally is about as hard as buying pot, I doubt that would make much difference anyway.

Personally, I hate guns, and wish they were as rare here as they are in Britain. But count me as a skeptic that gun control will ever make any difference to crime in America.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Wonders of the Frozen Pazyryk Tombs

I spent hours this week perusing the web site of the Hermitage Museum, which is full of wonders. Among other things the famous treasures from the frozen tombs of the Altai are there, and now they have images up of many things I have never seen before. (Felt appliqué)

The Altai is a desolate mountain region where Kazakhstan, Mongolia and China come together. In those mountains are certain high meadows where the ground is permanently frozen. Those meadows were sacred to nomadic tribes who traveled the nearby steppes, and between about 550 and 250 BCE they buried their royal families in the frozen soil. (Wagon)

The tombs were all looted long ago and archaeologists found little gold in them. But the frozen soil preserved all manner of perishable items made of wood, leather, and cloth. Even some of the bodies were preserved, with their tattoos. So today I post more images of these wonders, emphasizing things I have not posted before.

From these precious items we can form wonderful images of life among the nomadic people who used them. Modern nomads live in tents lined with carpets, and they dress in many layers of clothing against the harsh winters. Without those textiles, our reconstruction of the world of ancient nomads is naked; with the carpets and blankets of the Altai Tombs, we can clothe them again. Here are details of two saddle blankets from the tombs; the top one is felt, made in central Asia, while the bottom one is from Iran.

The culture of these tombs is known as Pazyryk, after the first of these archaeological sites to be excavated. The Pzayryk were related to the Scythians of west Asia; the main difference is that while the Scythians were closely connected to Greek and Persian culture, the Pazyryk had trading ties with China. Wooden plaques from saddles and bridles.

Famous felt rider from a carpet made in central Asia.

A small shield (35 cm tall) made of wood and leather.

Antlered mask for a horse, and a reconstruction of what this horse's finery would have looked like.

More felt: a tiger with antlers, a swan, and a griffin.

More saddle blankets.

And the top of a staff. Here we see one of the great things about life in the modern age. Across the 2,000 years before archaeologists dug into these tombs, nobody on earth had seen these things, and their memory faded. But we can see them with the click of a mouse. For most of human history, most people experienced only a single cultural zone, or a handful. We have access to thousands, living and dead. For a curious person like me, it is a great reason to be alive now.

Ornament showing an eagle and prey. More here, here and here.