Tuesday, August 23, 2016

The Falkirk Hoard

A hoard of 1,925 Roman coins found by workmen in 1933 near Falkirk in Scotland. Now in the National Museum of Scotland. The hoard contains coins from the period 38 BCE to 230 CE, most of them rather evenly distributed across the whole 69 to 230 period. Since coins tended not to circulate within the empire for that long, the general thinking is that this hoard was accumulated in Scotland.

Presumably by some strange family of wealthy Scottish misers who kept all their coins for 150 years.

David Brooks on American Leadership

David Brooks is wondering why, in his words "American leadership fails." Why, he asks, are we not addressing our big problems?

He dismisses corruption as the explanation, and I agree, for reasons I'll get to in a moment. He also dismisses insularity, the common notion that our leaders don't solve our problems because they are too removed from ordinary life to understand them. I also agree with Brooks about this; there may be problems in some communities that our leaders don't understand very well, for example the scandalous way we handle bail bonds. But our elites do understand and have experience of many problems – traffic, housing costs, student loans, credit card debt, drugs, depression, all of which are scourges of upper middle class life – and they aren't solving those, either.

Brooks thinks that people get into politics with a "vocation" to help people,
but over the years, many get swallowed by the system: all the calculating consultants; the ephemeral spin of the media cycle; the endless meetings with supplicants; the constant grind of public criticism; the way campaigning swallows time so they get to spend less time thinking about policy; the way service to a partisan team eclipses service to the cause that brought them into this in the first place.
Certainly many politicians are cynical, and maybe this is a big problem with some political actors. But if what you really want is to be re-elected again and again, solving certain problems would probably help: raising the median income, for example. Or reducing traffic congestion. Plus in America right now the people who want to shut down the government include some of the most committed ideologues.

So I don't think cynicism is the real answer, either.

I think our problem is that 1) our problems are hard to solve, and 2) we don't agree at all on how to go about solving them.

Providing health insurance to all Americans is a fantastically difficult problem, which can be solved only by either doubling the average person's tax bill to pay for a single payer system or creating a mind-boggling bureaucratic maze like Obamacare. Either path requires millions of decisions about what to pay for and how, every one controversial.

Getting the median family income rising again is a problem that no rich nation in the world is solving very well right now. The economic headwinds against this seem to be very strong, and nobody I trust has a clear plan to make things better.

Drug addiction in poor communities is another very tough nut to crack. Traffic is a nightmare; I of course support building more public transit, but this is hugely expensive and every attempt to add new subway or light rail lines is bitterly fought by some coalition of neighbors and other interest groups. Terrorism is a fiendish scourge.

Even a whole Congress full of idealism and vocation would find it hard to solve these or any of our other real problems.

And then there is ideology. One reason we don't "solve our problems" is that we don't agree on what they are. Many American conservatives think the reason people are poor is that they can get by without trying very hard because of welfare, food stamps, disability, etc., and the only way to really help them is to cut off all those subsidies and make them stand on their own. They don't say this because they are cynical or because they have been bought by the Koch brothers; they really believe it.  It is almost impossible to imagine how such a person and I could ever agree on a plan to fight poverty. The same is true for many other issues. Despite what some people seem to think, this is not just a problem of Washington insiders; the whole country is divided on these questions, and the divide is too close for either side to get a real upper hand.

The second part of my explanation depends to some extent on the first. That is, one reason we have these ongoing ideological debates is that we lack clear solutions to our problems. If there were some way to organize public schools that made kids dramatically happier and smarter, it would be adopted around the country regardless of which side dreamed it up. But since the whole field is a muddle, ideology reigns. Sometimes ideologues refuse to believe that the evidence refutes them even when it does, but I think those clear examples are only a small subset of the problems we face.

Here's my answer to Brooks' question: American leadership fails mainly because the problems we have are not susceptible to solutions handed down by leaders, and secondarily because our leaders follow our citizens in being deeply divided in what our problems are and how we should approach them.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Tile, Iran, 17th Century

Geel: Living with the Mentally Ill

Geel is a small town in Belgium with a modern population of about 39,000. In the center of the old town is a medieval church dedicated to St. Dymphna, a protectress of the mentally ill:
According to legend, Dymphna was a 7th-century Irish princess who fled to Geel from a maddened father and devoted her life to serving the mentally disabled. But she became a martyr when her father discovered her location and traveled to Geel to behead her.

The town built St. Dymphna's church in the 14th century to honor the saint and enshrine her supposed remains. It became a popular pilgrimage site for people across Europe, who would bring loved ones to the shrine in the hopes of finding relief from their mental distress.
That tradition continues to this day:
For over 700 years, residents of Geel have been accepting people with mental disorders, often very severe mental disorders, into their homes and caring for them.

It isn't meant to be a treatment or therapy. The people are not called patients, but guests or boarders. They go to Geel and join households to share a life with people who can watch over them. Today, there are about 250 boarders in Geel. One of them is a Flemish man named Luc Ennekans. He's slim and has green eyes, and he's 51 years old. . . . Like all of the guests in the town today, Ennekans first went to a public psychiatric hospital in Geel that manages the boarder program. Ennekans saw medical professionals and received treatment and an evaluation. Then he was paired with a household.
At times there have been many more borders than this, more than 3,000 in the 1930s. There is no treatment as such, just tolerance and acceptance:
That acceptance of mental differences has become something of a tradition in Geel. It's at the heart of the boarder program, and some observers think it's also responsible for the system's success. Around the world, many different experiments have been attempted over the centuries to provide humane care for people with mental illness and mental disabilities. Geel is one that has endured. . . .

The integration of people with mental disorders into Geel society has fascinated scholars for centuries. In 1862, Dr. Louiseau, a visiting French doctor, described it as "the extraordinary phenomenon presented at Geel of 400 insane persons moving freely about in the midst of a population which tolerates them without fear and without emotion." Nearly 100 years after that, an American psychiatrist named Charles D. Aring wrote, "The remarkable aspect of the Gheel experience, for the uninitiated, is the attitude of the citizenry."

Early psychiatrists who observed Geel noticed that the treatment prescribed for mental patients was, in fact, no treatment at all. "To them, treating the insane, meant to simply live with them, share their work, their distractions," Jacques-Joseph Moreau wrote in 1845. He and others advocated for that communion. "In a colony, like in Geel, the crazy people ... have not completely lost their dignity as reasonable human beings." In the next half-century, many would uphold Geel's model as the best standard of practice for mental disorders.
I don't want to be utopian about this. One reason families took in "boarders" was to have help around the farm or the house, and there are tales of abuse. But considering all the horrible ways we have treated the mentally ill over the centuries, how wonderful that this kind medieval model has survived.

Max Hastings, The Secret War

Spies are liars. It is part of the job description, and for most of them it becomes a part of their nature that they don't shed when it comes time to write their memoirs. So if, like me, you have read a stack of books about spying and codebreaking during World War II, you have perhaps wondered how much of them was true. If so, read The Secret War. It's an excellent book and I highly recommend it. Max Hastings works judiciously through the claims that have been made over the years for spying, sabotage, and Ultra, sorting out what really happened and what effect if any it had on the outcome of the war.

Because frankly a lot of intelligence work made no difference whatsoever. All the nations spent huge sums on spies who hatched cloak and dagger schemes in various neutral countries, all to no effect. From 1943 on various German officers came up with scheme after scheme to contact British or American agents with proposals for a separate peace and a joint war against the Soviets, all of which was a waste because the British and Americans were not going to make a separate peace. Of all the combatants only the Soviets got much value from secret agents, because the worldwide appeal of communism gave them a large pool of potential traitors and their own expertise in conspiracy enabled them to make good use of these volunteers.

One of the striking things about the war is that even when the commanders had clear intelligence of their enemies' plans, they sometimes refused to believe it. Stalin's spies delivered to him detailed information about the Germans' coming invasion, but he never took their warnings seriously. Hastings regards the warnings the Americans received about the coming Pearl Harbor attack as definitive, and thinks that George Marshall among others should have been sacked for failing to take appropriate action. Before the 1944 "Market-Garden" airborne landings in the low countries, Ultra revealed that the 2nd SS Panzer Corps had been moved to Arnhem, but Montgomery asserted that this must be a German deception and ordered the operation to go ahead. (In the book and movie A Bridge too Far the discovery of panzers at Arnhem is attributed to aerial reconnaissance, but this seems to be a fabrication designed to protect the Ultra secret.) Japanese decrypts of American merchant ship codes made it clear that the US was about to attack the Marianas and Iwo Jima in 1944, but the high command ignored the intelligence and sent reinforcements to the Philippines. There are many such stories about all the combatants.

At other times commanders provided with good intelligence lost anyway. For example Ultra gave the British detailed plans for the 1941 German airborne assault on Crete days in advance, and the commanders took this seriously. But they were defeated despite this knowledge because the German paratroopers simply outfought British and Greek soldiers. No amount of intelligence could save an overmatched force from a determined assault. At other times perfect intelligence was rendered useless by changes on the battlefield; Ultra decrypts showed that in 1943 the Germans were planning to evacuate southern Italy, all the way past Rome, and this word was passed to the commanders planning the Allied invasion. That didn't happen, but not because the intelligence was wrong; Kesselring, the German commander, simply persuaded Hitler to change his mind. Mark Clark, commander of the US 5th Army, was so put off by this one failure that he never put much stock in Ultra again until near the end of the war.

Another problem with intelligence was that some leaders, especially Hitler and Stalin, ignored intelligence because they already knew what they wanted to do. There are several books about the massive effort the British mounted to deceive the Germans about the planned location of the D-Day invasion. Most of this effort was also wasted, because Hitler had already decided the landing was going to come at the Pas de Calais, and only the most nakedly obvious intelligence would have persuaded him to move troops to Normandy. Some American officers thought the British were wasting far too much effort trying to fool the Germans instead of just beating them. They had a point; Hastings notes that most spies and saboteurs could have served instead as infantry officers, of which the British in particular had a critically short supply.

The most important intelligence of war was signals work, the interception and (if necessary) decoding of enemy radio signals. World War II was the first radio war, in which land, sea and air units were in constant communication with each other via radio. Some communication, for example between pilots on missions or between tank commanders, was in plain speech, with just a few code words for objectives and units. All the belligerents employed teams of men to listen into this chatter and interpret it, and this was very useful. During their 1940 invasion of France the Germans had complete knowledge of French plans and movements from this one source. Rommel attributed much of his success in Africa to his excellent signal corps, which he said always identified the units he was fighting and much about their plans. Communications at a somewhat higher level were guarded by codes, sometimes generated by machines. These were not the most elaborate ciphers and all the combatants (even the Italians) regularly broke the low-level codes that brigade commanders used to message each other. At the highest level were top secret missives, for example from foreign ambassadors to their governments, or from central commands to army or theater commanders. These were protected by high-level codes that at the start of the war were widely considered unbreakable. They were not.

It is amazing, looking back, that governments and armies put so much reliance in their codes that they regularly broadcast their deepest secrets over the airwaves. The trust in these codes was so great that even when told by spies that their signals were being read, leaders refused to believe it. But none of the codes used during the war were entirely unbreakable and some part of the messages in all of them was read by enemies.

Two of the most important intelligence coups of the war were the American cracking of the Japanese naval code and the British breaking of the German Enigma. It was intelligence from code-breaking that made possible the American victory at Midway, which Hastings says is the clearest occasion in the whole war when an intelligence coup led to a military victory.

The breaking of Enigma is of course the most famous intelligence story of the war, how Alan Turing and a band of other geniuses cracked the "unbreakable" German code, built one of the world's first computers, and generally used brain power to somewhat even the odds on the battlefield. This is a hugely complex story, because Enigma was not just one system – the naval version was always harder to crack than the army of especially the Luftwaffe codes – and even at their best the codebreakers at Bletchley Park could only read a portion of intercepts fast enough to do any good. But cracking the Enigma really was a masterstroke; Hastings says that from 1942 on Ultra, as the British called their breakthrough, was their biggest contribution to the allied war effort.

Here's something I did not know. The most important use the British made of Ultra in 1941 was to fight German U-boats in the Atlantic. Using decrypted information about the locations of submarines and their planned movements, they were able to route convoys around ambush points, greatly reducing losses. But for most of 1941 the Germans were also reading the British merchant ship code. This summons up a vision of a weird situation in which the British get information about U-boat locations and re-route their convoys, and then the Germans get information about convoy re-routes and move their submarines accordingly, and so on. Almost incredibly, it took both sides nearly a year of this to realize that their messages were being read. The British eventually changed their code to one the Germans never reliably cracked, and the German navy responded by adding a fifth coding wheel to their Enigmas. This refinement called forth Turing's greatest display of genius, as he and his team broke the new code after nine months of disturbing silence.

As for spies of the regular sort, Hastings asserts that only the Soviets got any real intelligence from secret agents. (Nazi spying, he says, was comically bad.) Communist sympathizers in the US and Britain passed mountains of data to their bosses, so much that less than half of it was ever translated. Philby, Burgess, and the rest of the Cambridge spies kept Stalin well informed about the thinking of the British government and general staff, including much of the intelligence that the British were getting from Ultra. At one crucial point in the war, this actually hurt them; Hastings explains that one reason Stalin did not believe the Germans would attack the Soviet Union in 1941 was that British general staff did not think he would do it, and Stalin trusted the judgment of the British high command more than that of his own agents. On the other hand communist sympathizers kept the Soviets well informed about the British and American nuclear weapons programs, eventually delivering detailed plans of not just the Nagasaki bomb but centrifuges and other devices for enriching uranium.

Intelligence can on occasion be vital, but it has a big problem. The more you have, the more likely it is to contradict itself. It hardly ever happens that all sources tell the same story, and leaders always have to decide what to believe. Historian Hugh Trevor-Roper spent the war as a British intelligence analyst, and Hastings relies heavily on the long-classified report that Trevor-Roper wrote summing up the intelligence efforts of all parties in the war. Trevor-Roper noted that in the three weeks before the allies landed on Sicily in 1943 German intelligence received at least 75 reports of planned landing sites for the armada that was obviously being assembled, which he cataloged as Norway 3, Channel Coast 4, Azores 1, Spanish Morocco 1, Southern France 6, Italy 8, Corsica 7, Sardinia 4, Sicily 6, Dalmatia 9, Greece 7, Crete 8, Dodecanese 8, Cyclades 1, Romania 2. Such "information" can be worse than useless. It requires good judgment to make sense of the flow of intelligence, and then decisive leadership to take advantage of the insights gained. The mere accumulation of secret information does no good at all.

We and They

All good people agree,
And all good people say,
All nice people, like Us, are We
And everyone else is They.

–Rudyard Kipling

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Today in America

The Okunev Culture: Southern Siberia in the Early Bronze Age

The Okunev Culture is the first Bronze Age culture of southern Siberia, specifically the region known as the Minusinsk Basin. It is known primarily from two kinds of archaeological remains: burials and stone monuments.

The carved stone stelae are up to 4 meters (13 feet) tall. Russian archaeologists believe that these faces are all solar symbols.

Similar images have been found on rock cliffs and smaller stones.

This antler figure is also attributed to the Okunev culture.

Since 2008 spectacular finds have been unearthed at a large cemetery known as Itkul II, on the shore of Lake Itkul in the Republic of Khakassia. The cemetery dates to between 2500 and 1800 BCE.

Last year an infant grave was reported, the tiny skeleton half hidden under eight antler figurines. The figurines were carved to represent humanoid figures, birds, elk, boar, and a carnivore. If they were attached together with a thong, as seems likely, they would have made a rattle, such as Siberian shamans still use to drive away dangerous spirits. The baby had a hat made of 11 copper plates sewn to cloth, and it had been buried in a birchbark cradle. Somebody was very upset about this child's death.

And now comes word of another spectacular burial, this one of a mature woman with an accompanying child. The woman wore more than a hundred animal teeth and 1,500 bone and shell beads, probably sewn to her clothing.

Even more exciting was this clay incense burner, because it was decorated with symbols that nail down the hitherto iffy connection between the burials and the carved stones, allowing the stones to be precisely dated.

Amazing stuff.

Death in McCreary County

Depressing article in the Post about a small-town undertaker in McCreary County, Kentucky, where the death rate among women 35 to 59 has increased 75 percent since 2000:
She died alone in the middle of the night, and her body was swiftly autopsied, embalmed and carted 135 miles to a remote Kentucky county where she had been raised. There, Dan Ridener waited. The undertaker watched as the Cadillac Escalade pulled up and the corpse was wheeled inside. Then he removed the blanket covering McCreary County Funeral Home’s newest arrival.

Curly, blond hair. A haggard face. Dark circles under both eyes. Nails bitten and bloodied. A provisional report of death came with the body.

“Name: Lois A. Maxwell.”

“Age: 44.”

“Race: W.”

“Sex: F.”

The document didn’t say anything about a cause of death, but Ridener didn’t need it to know what had happened: Another white woman had died in what should have been the prime of her life. Across America, especially in rural and working-class communities, death rates have been accelerating among middle-aged white women for a generation, and in McCreary County, which is 91 percent white, no one knows this better than the undertaker, who now lifted Maxwell’s body onto an aluminum table.

“She doesn’t look 44,” an assistant said, snapping on blue latex gloves.

“She looks older,” said Ridener, who did the same.

“She looks a lot older than that,” the assistant said. “She looks 60, I’d say.”

Ridener peered down at the body. As with most of the people who end up on his table, he was familiar with Maxwell and the troubled life she had led. In the last decade, Kentucky courts had convicted her of 11 separate drug- and alcohol-related charges. At the time of her death, she was facing four more.
Grim reading. And does anybody know what to do about it? There was recently some scorn on this subject from conservatives who said that first of all people have to leave places where there is no work. But Lois Maxwell did leave. So did most of the characters in J.D. Vance's bestselling memoir, Hillbilly Elegy; the story is built around his family connections with a poor Kentucky county, but his relatives live in Ohio. Travelling to a new place doesn't necessarily change the dynamics of life, especially when the new place has nearly as many problems as the old.

Emeran Myer, "The Mind-Gut Connection"

Humans have long known about the connection between our guts and our emotions. We have gut feelings, butterflies in our stomachs, and feel queasy about strange situations. To this ancient knowledge modern science has added much detail: for example that sometimes a majority of the sensory data reaching your brain is coming from your gut, and that 90 percent of the serotonin in your body actually resides in your intestines. And now, over the past 30 years, the news that much of what happens in your gut is actually controlled by the trillions of microorganisms that reside there. This microbiome is essential for digestion and probably much else; some studies suggest that a majority of the bioactive molecules circulating in your blood (hormones, neurotransmitters, etc.) are produced by bacteria. One of my favorite facts about our physiology is that mother's milk contains proteins that can't be digested by the baby but instead serve to encourage the growth of favorable bacteria species in the baby's gut.

My readers know that I have long been fascinated by this science, so when I saw Emeran Mayer's new book in my library I snapped it up. Mayer is a practicing gastroenterologist who also leads research studies about the connections between the mind and the gut. He knows a lot about the science and also about the troubles of his patients. Unfortunately he is a lousy writer whose idea of crafting a popular book is to give everything a cutesy name, viz, the vagus nerve is the "gut-brain information superhighway," and the nexus of nerves and bacteria in the gut is a "supercomputer." But he still managed to fit a lot of information into this book.

Sadly, there is very little magic here. We are learning about mind-gut-microbiome connections at a remarkable rate, thanks in part to new DNA-based technologies that allow scientists to put whole communities of bacteria into a blender and identify the species present. But this knowledge is not leading to any breakthroughs in treatment, or to clear knowledge about how a surplus of this sort of bacteria causes that psychological or GI symptom. As with so much about our brains and bodies, the systems are so complex, and vary so much from one person to another, that clear statements of any sort are all but impossible. One simple claim Mayer does make is that the basic makeup of our gut microbiomes is determined very early in life and remains very hard to change thereafter, and this makes him dubious of claims that fecal transplants can have a big impact.

To judge from his anecdotes, Mayer's typical patient is suffering from some combination of anxiety and GI symptoms. He treats them with combination therapies aimed at both the mind and the gut: anti-anxiety drugs, anti-depressants, meditation techniques, antacids, probiotics. (He is big on probiotics and seems to recommend them to everybody, although in this book he never says which ones he recommends.) His overall lesson seems to be that if we are worried about our mental health, we should look to our diets. He says all the usual things about avoiding too much fat or sugar, eating more plants instead of processed food, etc. In particular he recommends the "Mediterranean diet."

I have found that my diet and moods seem to track each other pretty well, although I am not sure about the causality. That is, when I am down I tend to binge on cookies, and when I am up I make more salads, so that I am definitely eating better when I am happy. But as with almost everything about the mind, the driving forces remains obscure.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Helping New Students Cope with College

I have several times noted (and here) that poor or minority students who drop out of college complain about feelings and experiences that are widely shared by their middle class white peers. The first official university response I have seen that acknowledges and addresses this issue is described by David Kirp in the Times:
Regardless of their credentials, many freshmen doubt that they have the necessary brainpower or social adeptness to succeed in college. This fear of failing hits poor, minority and first-generation college students especially hard. If they flunk an exam, or a professor doesn’t call on them, their fears about whether they belong may well be confirmed. The cycle of doubt becomes self-reinforcing, and students are more likely to drop out.

The good news is that this dismal script can be rewritten. Several recent research projects show that, with the right nudge, students can acquire ways of thinking that helps them thrive.

In a large-scale experiment at an unnamed school I’ll call Flagship State, incoming freshmen read upperclassmen’s accounts of how they navigated the shoals of university life. The accounts explained that, while the upperclassmen initially felt snubbed by their classmates and intimidated by their professors, their lives started turning around when they reached out to their instructors and began to make friends.

“Part of me thought I had been accepted due to a stroke of luck, and that I would not measure up to the other students,” wrote one upperclassman. “Early on, I bombed a test. It was the worst grade I’d ever received, and I felt terrible and isolated. But then I found out that no one did well on that test. The professor was trying to set a high standard.”
Kirp says this has a measurable impact on whether students finish a full freshman course load, which is a good indicator of whether they will graduate. It seems to me that what students who feel out of place really need is to talk to other students, but maybe exercises like this will help to get those conversations started.

Liberalism, Alcoholism, and Liver Transplants

Tyler Cowen suggests that this abstract of an article in Bioethics is a good reductio of what liberals believe:
Some philosophers and physicians have argued that alcoholic patients, who are responsible for their liver failure by virtue of alcoholism, ought to be given lower priority for a transplant when donated livers are being allocated to patients in need of a liver transplant. The primary argument for this proposal, known as the Responsibility Argument, is based on the more general idea that patients who require scarce medical resources should be given lower priority for those resources when they are responsible for needing them and when they are competing with patients who need the same resources through no fault of their own. Since alcoholic patients are responsible for needing a new liver and are in direct competition with other patients who need a new liver through no fault of their own, it follows that alcoholic patients ought to be given lower priority for a transplant. In this article, I argue against the Responsibility Argument by suggesting that in order for it to avoid the force of plausible counter examples, it must be revised to say that patients who are responsible for needing a scarce medical resource due to engaging in behavior that is not socially valuable ought to be given lower priority. I'll then argue that allocating organs according to social value is inconsistent or in tension with liberal neutrality on the good life. Thus, if one is committed to liberal neutrality, one ought to reject the Responsibility Argument.
I probably would not endorse all the arguments in this piece, but I confess skepticism about the argument that good people ought to get priority over bad people in receiving organ donations. Who makes these rules? What will the rules be? Perhaps a murderer on death row ought to get a lower priority, but what about a former small-time burglar? A former soldier or policeman for a despotic regime like Saddam Hussein's? A former cop who was fired for using excessive force too many times? And what about other considerations, like, should a mother of young children get priority over a single man? Etc.

And this gets indirectly to how I feel about any argument that focuses heavily on individual responsibility: the circumstances of life are just too complicated for us to judge every person and say who does and does not deserve a decent job or decent housing or whatever. (Or to be a billionaire.) I am comfortable with setting up a limited number of clear laws and punishing people who transgress them, but beyond that judgment about who is "deserving" become ever more arbitrary.

Those Perfidious Chemists

News from the wild world of chemistry associations:
Members of the Society of Biological Inorganic Chemistry (SBIC) are reacting with puzzlement and shock after learning that the results of a recent online leadership election have been thrown out because of voting irregularities—raising concerns over possible manipulation.

Counting revealed far more votes than there are members of the organization, according to an internal newsletter sent to SBIC members last week. One candidate received four times the number of votes as there are members of the group, it noted. (SBIC’s total membership was not available as this item went to press.)

The cause of the flawed voting isn’t clear, but “the results appear to have been manipulated,” Michael Hannon, president-elect of SBIC and the chair of chemical biology at the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom, wrote in the 9 August newsletter. “As you might imagine we are all quite shocked by this,” and the “executive officers have concluded (with a heavy heart) that since we can have no confidence in the ‘results’ there will have to be another ballot.”
What will those wicked professors get up to next.

Friday, August 19, 2016

The Ice Man's Clothes

Ötzi the Ice Man died on an Alpine glacier 5,300 years ago, likely fleeing from whoever shot an arrow into him. Study of his frozen body has produced lots of great information about the European late Neolithic. One thing that has resisted analysis is the source of the leather that made up much of his clothing. Scraping of the hides had destroyed the grain that can identify species, and treatment in acid had destroyed most of the DNA. Now some scientists think that by isolating and then "amplifying" the mitochondrial DNA from the clothes (better protected than nuclear DNA, and simpler), they have solved the mystery:
His leggings were goat, his loincloth was sheep and his coat was made of the skins of both species. “The materials derived from both sheep and goats came from multiple individuals,” the researchers wrote. “There were at least four sheep and two goats used in the manufacture.”

Ötzi’s shoelaces, meantime, came from cattle—similar to the leather laces in modern-day hiking boots—and the quiver was roe deer. The hat was the garment the Ice Man likely had to work hardest for: it came from a brown bear, suggesting Ötzi and his friends weren’t afraid to tangle with large carnivores if they had to.
Wonderful, with the usual caveat that this is cutting-edge science and therefore subject to revision.

I would also note that both the hat (above) and parts of the shoes had already been identified as bear hide, so that's not a new discovery.

Loincloth and felt jacket.

Incidentally the nature of the woven grass thing is disputed. The original investigators thought it was a cape, but lately many have argued that it was actually a backpack, on the grounds that a grass cape just makes no sense.

More stuff: the copper ax and quiver.

Birchbark containers, one of which was charred on the inside and was probably used to carry around embers for rekindling fires. When you imagine stone age people wandering, you have to remember that they carried all their possessions around with them, so were likely weighed down with packs, bags, etc.

And the marble amulet.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Fin de siècle

Among the art blogs I follow are two that post lots of European paintings and drawings from the 1870 to 1910 period, Vertigo 1871 and Le Prince Lointain. I have an ambivalent relationship with art of the fin de siècle era. (Franz von Stuck, Head of Medusa, 1892)

Sometimes I like it – the sensuality, the creepiness, the striking images, an approach to art that is experimental without completely abandoning tradition. Most of the works I feature here could plausibly be called Symbolism. (Richard Teschner, Lack of Curiosity, 1913; Jean-Léon Gérôme, Truth Coming Out of Her Well to Shame Mankind, 1896)

But sometimes it seems trite, as if to be shocking were the only way to be interesting; the mood comes across more as bored than erotic or intriguing. (Jakub Schikaneder, Silhouette among the Trees, 1895; Giovanni Martoglio, La Chimera at the Theatre of Marionettes, 1908)

But when I am in the right mood, I love this stuff. (Ernst Moritz, View Toward San Miniato 1890; Ferdinand Keller, Passage, 1901)

Images from a new exhibit of Franz von Stuck's work at the Belvedere in Vienna; the painting is Satan.

Léon Spilliaert, Three Figures, 1904, and The House on the Digue, 1907.

Giovanni Martoglio, The Tryst, 1908.

The Tomb of Han Farong

In 2011 Chinese archaeologists in the city of Datong uncovered the tomb of a noble woman. It dates to around 1,500 years ago.

The epitaph reads, Han Farong, the wife of Magistrate Cui Zhen.

The most remarkable finds were these exquisite earrings.

And this necklace of 5,000 beads, which must have been fun to reconstruct.

Obama's Optimism vs. a Crisis Mentality

Interesting article by Zack Beauchamp at Vox about the worldviews of Obama and Susan Rice, his National Security Adviser. While many Americans seem to worry that the world is falling apart, Obama and Rice believe that things have never been better. Rice:
This is a much more hopeful and positive period in history than we have seen certainly in our lifetimes. I tell my kids this: that they couldn’t be luckier to be living in this world at this time. . . .

We are in an era where, as the president has often said, if you didn’t know who you were going to be, or whether you were going to be male or female; white, black, Asian, Native American, Latino, [or] something else; if you didn’t know if you were going to be straight or gay — if you didn’t know anything about who you were going to be and you had to pick a time in which to be born. . . .

You would pick this time. Because the odds of success for any individual are much higher in the aggregate than they’ve ever been.

More people are free of poverty than ever before, conflict between states is less than ever before, technology is providing extraordinary opportunities for advancement, and health and agriculture and well-being. Compare the era we’re living in today to the losses we suffered in World War II or even in the Vietnam War, or compare the economic challenges we face now to the Great Depression.
As Beauchamp says, the numbers largely support this view:
The number of people living at $1.25 per day or less declined by roughly 1.1 billion people between 1990 and 2015. The number of war deaths per 100,000 people worldwide has increased in the past three years, owing largely to the war in Syria, but is still far lower than it was even 20 years ago. Average global life expectancy worldwide was 48 in 1950; it was 71.4 in 2015.
Since Obama and Rice believe that the world is generally trending in the right direction, their approach to foreign policy has been deeply conservative. Their main goal is to keep the boat from being rocked. They believe that things like the global free trade regime should be protected, because they are doing their job, and that we should not let little things like the terrorist bombings or the civil wars in Libya and Syria distract us from the broader mission of insuring peace and prosperity in the world. Beauchamp:
Contrast this with the Bush administration. After 9/11, the administration concluded the world wasn’t actually trending in a better direction. Jihadism threatened civilization itself, and a radical new approach was necessary to address the threat.

That means the Bush administration was willing try out more high-risk policies, like invading Iraq and attempting to transform it into a democracy at gunpoint. The Obama administration, because it thinks things are generally going well, can afford to be a bit more conservative. They don’t need to try to create utopias, because they think we’re on the road to one.
This can come across as callous, since the civil war in Syria is causing a lot of misery, and terrorists have many people terrified. But to Obama and Rice the main point is to make sure that our responses to those things don't just make things worse.

Violence in the Andes, 897 to 1370 CE

Tiffiny Tung, a bioarchaeologist at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, has studied skeletons from two large cemeteries in Peru. They date to the declining years of the Wari empire and the period of anarchy that came after it fell and before the rise of the Inca. She finds frightening levels of violence:
Even in their heyday, the Wari were no strangers to violence. In earlier work, Tung had studied their practice of decapitating captives from conquered communities to create mummified trophy heads. But as long as the empire was strong, the violence was ritualized and limited. From previous excavations, Tung found that in imperial Huari, only 20% of adult skulls had healed skull fractures, which are evidence of nonlethal head injuries, and barely any had suffered fatal wounds. During and immediately after the collapse, however, nearly 60% of adults of both sexes and 38% of children showed signs of nonlethal head injury.

Centuries later, life in Huari had gone from bad to worse. Rates of nonlethal head trauma hadn't changed much, but fatal injuries had skyrocketed. At the time of the collapse, only 10% of adults had died of a head injury, but now the rate of fatal head injury had risen to 40% among adults and 44% in children. "Violence becomes much more deadly," Tung said in her talk. "These violent deaths aren't from random outbreaks of community brawls. This is much more systematic, lethal violence, but it's unclear at this time if it's from civil war or warfare with those perceived as outsiders."
There was also evidence of malnutrition in the post-collapse period, and for a declining level of ritualistic concern for the dead.

I suppose the general take-away was that while life under a militant empire like the Wari was rough, life without them was even worse.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Individualism and American Life

This is Rod Dreher, reviewing a new book by Yuval Levin about America's contemporary malaise and the partisan gridlock it spawns:
What neither side can see is that they expect the impossible. Generally speaking, liberals want maximal individual liberty in personal life, especially on matters related to sexual expression, but demand more state involvement in the economy for the sake of equality. Conservatives desire maximal economic freedom but lament the social chaos and dysfunction—in particular, the collapse of the family among the poor and working classes—that afflict American society. The uncomfortable truth is that what each side loathes is the shadow side of what it loves.

As Alan Ehrenhalt pointed out in The Lost City, his 1995 book about Chicago in the 1950s and 1960s, contemporary people lie to themselves about what things were like in the Golden Age. The thick social bonds and sense of community Americans enjoyed back then came at a significant cost—including cultural conformity and a lack of personal and consumer choice—that few of us today would tolerate. Ehrenhalt wrote that beginning in the 1960s, however, Americans embraced “the belief in individual choice and suspicion of any authority that might interfere with it.”
I consider this a fair description of what has happened since 1960: increasing personal and economic freedom, increasing inequality, weakened communities, rising alienation. But did it have to happen? And it is really true that we can't have a more equal economic system without recreating some form of tighter social control? That the loosening of repressive communities and the decline of patriarchal families has to lead to loneliness, anger, and the decline of the middle class?

I don't see why it has to. Levin and Dreher share a belief that America is on the whole worse off than it was in 1960, but I don't agree. If the decline of New Deal economics was the inevitable result of ending segregation, empowering women and protecting the environment, it was a price worth paying. It is certainly true that one side effect of increasing freedom has been the rise of libertarianism, but that doesn't mean we have to surrender to the libertarians on everything.

Most of the time I think it should be possible to create a new Democratic coalition built around fairness, using high taxes on the rich and major spending on infrastructure to mitigate the economic impact of globalization while still preserving personal liberty. And if not I still think it is worth trying.

Stubby Squid

Rossia pacifica, the stubby squid, recently photographed off California by a research vessel from the Monterey Aquarium.

Trump and the Rat Pack

John Podheretz locates Trump's personal style in the early 1960s era of the Rat Pack:
The Rat Pack made sleazy mob-run casinos seem glamorous — they danced and sang and gambled and drank and made “Ocean’s 11” in and around them — and what business more than any other drew Trump in during the 1980s? The casino business.

He may be vulgar, but it’s a formal kind of vulgarity. He is “Mr. Trump,” not “Donald.”

But it is the way he acts around women and talks about women that reflects this Rat Pack-ness more than anything else. The failed New York Times hit piece last weekend about his relations with women began with an anecdote about Trump hosting a pool party at his Mar-a-Lago estate resort and asking a 26 year-old model to put on a bikini. “That is a stunning Trump girl, isn’t it?” he declared, thus horrifying the New York Times — and puzzling the woman herself, Rowanne Brewer Lane, who was flattered by his attentions, went on to date him, and did not intend the anecdote she told the Times to be cast in a light disadvantageous to Trump. That pool party sounds like a Sinatra special in Palm Springs — or like a more sedate Playboy Mansion shindig, another favorite Trump locale.
Ross Douthat expands the idea, connecting Trump to JFK and Mad Men, suit-wearing avatars of male sexual liberation:
Much of what seems strange and reactionary about Trump is tied to what was normal to a certain kind of Sinatra and Mad Men-era man — the casual sexism, the odd mix of sleaziness and formality, even the insult-comic style.

But while that male culture was “conservative” in its exploitative attitudes toward women, it was itself in rebellion against bourgeois norms and Middle-American Christianity. And if Hillary is a (partial, given her complicated marriage) avatar of Gloria Steinem-era feminism, her opponent is an heir of the male revolutionary in whose club Steinem once went undercover: Hugh Hefner.

It was Hefner who fully embodied the male sexual revolt. Today he’s just a sleazy oldster, but in the beginning he was a faux philosopher, preaching a gospel cribbed from bohemia and various Freudian enemies of repression, in which the blessed pursuit of promiscuity was the human birthright. But really a male birthright, for a certain kind of man: The sort of hep cat who loved inviting the ladies back to his pad “for a quiet discussion on Picasso, Nietzsche, jazz, sex.”
It's a fascinating notion: that while Hillary's identity was largely fixed in the 70s world of leftish feminism, Trump's is a throwback to an era when he was just a teenager. In 1963 it was not at all surprising to be a suit-wearing rebel, a patriarch at home and a public advocate of women's liberation, a violent nationalist who dismisses most foreign entanglements, and a conservative Republican who stands up for coal, steel, cars, and the men who make them.

These days we tend to equate conservatism with religion, but as Trump's success shows many Americans are not nostalgic for small town virtue. They remember a world when men did what they wanted, moralism and the establishment be damned.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016


Shot from the train last Friday. I see a wolf attacking a ram.

Real Education

Fredrik deBoer explains the difference between real college education and the fantasies of some reformers:
Here’s the model that the constant “online education will replace physical colleges” types advance: education is about gaining knowledge; knowledge is stored in the heads of teachers; schooling is the transfer of that knowledge from the teacher’s head to the student’s head; physical facilities are expensive, but online equivalents are cheap; therefore someone will build an Amazon that cuts out the overhead of the physical campus and connects students to teachers in the online space or, alternatively, cuts teachers out altogether and just transfers the information straight into the brains of the student.

The basic failure here is the basic model of transfer of information, like teachers are merchants who sell discrete products known as knowledge or skills. In fact education is far more a matter of labor, of teachers working to push that information into the heads of students, or more accurately, to compel students to push it into their own heads. And this work is fundamentally social, and requires human accountability, particularly for those who lack prerequisite skills.

I’ve said this before: if education was really about access to information, then anyone with a library card could have skipped college well before the internet. The idea that the internet suddenly made education obsolete because it freed information from being hidden away presumes that information was kept under lock and key. But, you know, books exist and are pretty cheap and they contain information. Yet if you have a class of undergraduates sit in a room for an hour twice a week with some chemistry textbooks, I can tell you that most of them aren’t going to learn a lot of chemistry. The printing press did not make teachers obsolete, and neither has the internet.

Some of those undergrads might learn chemistry. There are small numbers of people in the world who are really self-motivated to learn. I sometimes get people who ask me if they should get into the Great Courses or similar services. And I tend to tell them, well, since you’re self-motivated and you want to learn and you’re willing to invest, sure. The problem is that most people just aren’t built that way. There’s a romantic vision of education that’s very common to reformers – everybody’s an autodidact, deep down inside. But the truth is, most students aren’t self-motivated. Most students learn only under compulsion from society. True, everyone has subjects that they love, but everyone also has subjects that they hate, and the basic premise of a curriculum is that individuals cannot determine for themselves exactly what they need to learn. Meanwhile, many or most students try to escape these obligations, to varying degrees. Truancy law exists for a reason, and even in the ostensibly-voluntary world of the university, most students do what they can to avoid work as much as possible. I’m just trying to be real with you. Most people skip school when they can.

A Poem about Your University's Brand New Institute

The Office of the Provost has approved
A one-year planning grant
To establish the Eudaimonia Institute
For the Study of Human Flourishing
Under Capitalism.
We thought that we would do this while
You professors
Are away for the summer
So maybe you won’t notice.

“Eudaimonia” is Greek for “This university
Is run by corporate stooges
And is doomed.”
The term comes from Aristotle,
Which immediately legitimates the Institute
As totally not a joke.
We will be spending actual, real,
Non-Monopoly money to study “wellbeing,”
Which was a major interest of Aristotle’s
And central to his seminal work The Poetics.

The nature of #wellbeing is
Not yet fully understood,
But our initial research suggests
That it has something to do with
Yoga at sunset, baby koalas, and
Rooms filled with gold coins.
We seek to understand
The meaning of this term
And, in all likelihood,
To actually publish papers
On the subject
On our blog called
Education is Fine,
But Money Is Great.

James Smith, the Presidential Chair
In Business Ethics,
(Yes really)
Will serve as
Executive Director of the Institute
And will continue to serve
As Executive Director of
The university’s Named After A Bank Center
For the Study of Capitalism,
(Stop laughing)
Where students do not read
Whole, complete ancient Greek texts
But only the most important words from them. . . .

– Susan Harlan

More here

Annals of Military Intelligence

Reading a new book on the intelligence services of World War II, on which more to come. Meanwhile, here is this:
After Japan's defeat Col. Shinobu Takayam of the army's Operations Department acknowledged ruefully that it would have been prudent to research America's actual and potential warmaking powers before embarking on a conflict with it.

We're Not Going to Run Out of Fresh Water

Israel now gets 55% of its fresh water from desalination, and it has gone in a decade from a water crisis to a water surplus that it is marketing to neighbors:
In 2008, Israel teetered on the edge of catastrophe. A decade-long drought had scorched the Fertile Crescent, and Israel’s largest source of freshwater, the Sea of Galilee, had dropped to within inches of the “black line” at which irreversible salt infiltration would flood the lake and ruin it forever. Water restrictions were imposed, and many farmers lost a year’s crops. Their counterparts in Syria fared much worse. As the drought intensified and the water table plunged, Syria’s farmers chased it, drilling wells 100, 200, then 500 meters (300, 700, then 1,600 feet) down in a literal race to the bottom. Eventually, the wells ran dry and Syria’s farmland collapsed in an epic dust storm. More than a million farmers joined massive shantytowns on the outskirts of Aleppo, Homs, Damascus and other cities in a futile attempt to find work and purpose.
Some people think this agricultural crisis was the real root of the Syrian uprising.

But the crisis has eased in Israel. Part of the solution was in requiring people to be more efficient about using water, especially farmers:
The Israeli government began by making huge cuts in the annual water quotas for farmers, ending decades of extravagant overuse of heavily subsidized water for agriculture. . . . Israel has, in the meantime, become the world leader in recycling and reusing wastewater for agriculture. It treats 86 percent of its domestic wastewater and recycles it for agricultural use — about 55 percent of the total water used for agriculture. Spain is second to Israel, recycling 17 percent of its effluent, while the United States recycles just 1 percent 
California, are you listening?

But even with all of this rationing and re-use, Israel still did not have enough water for its needs. So Israeli engineers attacked desalination on a broad front, using dozens of innovations and sheer scale to make reverse osmosis desalination far more affordable:
Inside Sorek, 50,000 membranes enclosed in vertical white cylinders, each 4 feet high and 16 inches wide, are whirring like jet engines. The whole thing feels like a throbbing spaceship about to blast off. The cylinders contain sheets of plastic membranes wrapped around a central pipe, and the membranes are stippled with pores less than a hundredth the diameter of a human hair. Water shoots into the cylinders at a pressure of 70 atmospheres and is pushed through the membranes, while the remaining brine is returned to the sea.

Desalination used to be an expensive energy hog, but the kind of advanced technologies being employed at Sorek have been a game changer. Water produced by desalination costs just a third of what it did in the 1990s. Sorek can produce a thousand liters of drinking water for 58 cents. Israeli households pay about US$30 a month for their water — similar to households in most U.S. cities, and far less than Las Vegas (US$47) or Los Angeles (US$58).
The combination of improved desalination and cheap solar power (deserts have lots of sunshine) means that any coastal area can solve its water problems whenever the people decide to.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Post Mortem on the Ellicott City Storm of July 30

The National Weather Service has a page up on the "historic" (their word) storm of July 30. There is an automated rain gauge at the county service building in Ellicott City, and it recorded 6.6 inches of rain that night. 2.04 inches of that rain fell in the first 15 minutes, which is about as fast as rain ever falls, and 4.56 inches in the first hour. It was that extremely intense burst of rain that generated the dangerous flooding; the water simply fell faster than creeks and sewers could carry it away, and since the area is hilly the rest went rampaging downhill in whatever way it could. The map above shows the storm's 40-mile path; dark red represents more than 6 inches of rain.

Data from the flood gauge in the Patapsco at Ellicott City. Even though the rain fell over a small area, just a fraction of the Patapsco's basin, it was still so intense that it generated a severe flood in the river, which rose 13 feet in 90 minutes. This was a thousand-year storm, that is, chance of such a storm striking our area is less then 0.1 percent per year.

My first post on the storm is here.

Javier Eduardo Alvarez, Cypresses at Lake Camécuaro, Mexico

From National Geographic.

Gender and Marriage in the Faroes

Tyler Cowen reports that many young women leave the Faroe Islands to study and never come back:
There are already 2,000 more men than women on the Faroes – which has a total population of just under 50,000 – and some of those men have taken matters into their own hands by importing wives and companions from the Philippines and Thailand.

Filipinos and Thais make up two of the largest groups of foreigners on the Faroe Islands . There are now 200 Thais and Filipinos – mostly women – spread out over the islands. In the tiny hamlet of Klaksvík located in the northern part of the islands, there are already 15 women from Asia.

Bjarni Ziska Dahl, who married his Filipino wife in 2010, said that the foreign women could well be the answer to the issues facing the Faros. “We must recognise that there is a problem, and welcome these strangers with dignity,” Dahl told DR Nyheder. “We need these people.”

Both Dahl and his wife Che said that they have a lot in common: island life, a dedication to family and a longing for simplicity. Dahl said that Asian woman are often willing to take jobs that Faroese women will not do.
We have had local gender disparities for centuries, mostly because of men leaving home to find work. Now many rural areas and small towns are seeing women leave for office jobs in the big city.

The attraction of men and women to different kinds of work, and the different geographic distributions of the work they prefer, is just another of the myriad social problems we are dealing with in the globalized, post-patriarchal age.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Circular Time, or, Alternative Medicine against the Scientific Establishment, Again

I just opened one of the copies of the TLS that I picked up from my mother in Massachusetts last week, and read this:
Practices that are based on the belief that the mind has the power to influence our physical body, its ability to heal and its capacity to guard itself more effectively against disease, have for a long time been dismissed as pseudo-science. Until recently, claims that ancient traditions such as meditation may offer powerful physical and psychological benefits, have been disdained as esoteric nonsense, and shown to be based on false physiological assumptions.

Partly, this dismissal of mind-body relations can be put down to the still powerful Cartesian legacy: in the seventeenth century, Descartes established the mind and the body as radically separate entities, and a dualistic view of matter and spirit has dominated Western philosophy and medicine ever since. . .

Recently, however, as Jo Marchant shows in her thought-provoking book Cure: A Journey into the Science of Mind over Body, a considerable number of medical researchers have begun to investigate the efficacy of a range of mind-body based cures. . . .
At which point I threw up my hands and stopped reading. Those words could have been written at any time during my life, and probably for decades before I was born. I have been reading versions of them since the 1970s, almost identical one to the next.

The ancients liked to think that all of their knowledge was ancient or even eternal; we, by contrast, love to believe that all of our knowledge is new. Anyone who stopped to think about the question for ten seconds ought to realize that of course in the 1960s there were millions of people fascinated by meditation and other Eastern spiritual practices, including hippie doctors and scientists who tried to devise scientific tests of them. And yet every year somebody comes out with another book arguing that this is all new. It's maddening.

One of the few really useful tools I picked up in graduate school was the concept of discourse. Seen in this way, a civilization is not so much a set of beliefs as a conversation, or even an argument. It is not agreement that defines a culture, but the things we like to disagree about.

In the Middle Ages, people who pondered politics in a theoretical way all thought it was crucial to determine whether the political or spiritual power ought to be on top. They had every shade of answer to this question from "the emperor ought to be the pope's errand boy" to "the pope ought to be the emperor's chaplain," but they all considered it a vital and interesting question. Today we think the relationship between the government and the economy is crucial. We hold every sort of opinion from libertarianism to socialism, but you would be hard put to find a modern political thinker who does not consider the question important. These are the conversations, the arguments, that define our civilizations.

Modern medicine is not a belief in science-based practice. Modern medicine is a conversation about the proper roles of science-based physical or chemical interventions vs. a more holistic or spiritual view of health. This conversation has been going on for at least 150 years. Physicians and scientists have taken every possible position within this discourse, from "everything but drugs and surgery is poppycock" to "the medical establishment is out to kill or enslave you." (Thomas Szasz, remember, is a physician.) My impression is that these days the research establishment generally pursues reductive science, but on the other hand many and perhaps most practicing physicians take mind-body interactions very seriously, and they tend to practice more according to what they see in their patients than what they read.

Book like Cure are just sallies in this ongoing debate, and they are "new" only in the sense that the next line in a conversation is new. I understand why authors and publishers try to present them as new, but the editors at the TLS ought to know better.