Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Doesn't it make you wonder?

In the Times today, if you click next to a teaser reading Artisanal baking goes renegade, you are led to a story titled Against the Grain that seems to be about the human capacity to carry anything past the point of absurdity. We meet
a starter culture of obsessive, boundary-pushing bread makers in New York City and around the country. . . . Small independent bakers . . . . who are going to great lengths to approach an ideal of bread that is simultaneously cutting-edge and primordial.
Our “comrades in the revolutionary salt-flour-water brigade” include “a rogue wheat breeder who runs the Bread Lab, a Wonka-esque wonderland for crusty, airy-crumbed experimentation,” a baker who “wages a loving blitz upon the miche dough,” a mystic who managed at his publisher's urging to cut his bread recipe down to 38 pages -- and I suppose those were big cookbook pages, not little paperback pages -- and others who gather to “talk about reclaiming a mythic moment in human history when the staff of life had some genuine funk to it.”

These are people whose idea of heirloom grains is forms like einkorn not seen since the Iron Age, milled by Iron Age methods, allowed to ferment for weeks, cooked for double or triple the normal time, resulting in a loaf that
looks more like something that might have been used as a shield in a Stone Age skirmish.
Truly we are a fascinating species.

Wind Turbines Don't Kill Many Birds

The perception has put down roots among bird-loving people that wind turbines kill birds. Reaction over twitter to the announcement of a new wind-power facility is likely to be, "How many bats and birds will they slaughter this year?" This sort of thinking has consequences, too. The U.S. Interior Department has taken a go-slow approach to wind turbines for decades, largely because of fears about birds. And this:
An expansion of the world's largest offshore wind farm was recently scrapped after the U.K. would have required a three-year bird study.
But it is far from certain that wind turbines really have much impact on bird populations. The latest major study on the impact in the US offered a range of 20,000 to 573,000 birds per year, which might be the widest margin of error I've ever seen in a published study. But by way of comparison, more than a million birds are killed every year by tall buildings in Toronto, Canada alone; the total impact of skyscrapers across North America is in the billions. The chart above presents data from the U.S. Forest Service showing that while wind turbines kill birds, but they don't even compare to cats or high-tension power lines, let alone buildings with glass windows. Birds are also more susceptible than mammals to air pollution and so suffer a disparate impact from coal or oil fired power plants. The ever vigilant Royal Society for the Protection of Birds offers this as their conclusion:
If wind farms are located away from major migration routes and important feeding, breeding and roosting areas of those bird species known or suspected to be at risk, it is likely that they will have minimal impacts.

Peppers and the Connected World

From tobacco in China to potatoes in Ireland, much of what we think of as traditional culture around the world actually derives from the global convergence that began with Columbus' 1492 voyage. One item that has remained puzzling has been chili peppers, so crucial to Asian and African cuisine. Now a new genetic and archaeological study confirms what most eco-historians have long suspected, that all the world's hot peppers derive from Latin America, probably the eastern coast of Mexico.

Public Libraries

Charles Simic:
I don’t know of anything more disheartening than the sight of a shut-down library. No matter how modest its building or its holdings, in many parts of this country a municipal library is often the only place where books in large number on every imaginable subject can be found, where both grownups and children are welcome to sit and read in peace, free of whatever distractions and aggravations await them outside. Like many other Americans of my generation, I owe much of my knowledge to thousands of books I withdrew from public libraries over a lifetime. I remember the sense of awe I felt as a teenager when I realized I could roam among the shelves, take down any book I wanted, examine it at my leisure at one of the library tables, and if it struck my fancy, bring it home.
I am a devotee of public libraries and always have been. I think the public library is one of the great creations of the modern, democratic age. Through the public library, the government uses money from taxation to provide all the people with access to information that in prior ages was limited to the very rich, and the residents of certain fortunate monasteries. No doubt libertarians think it is a crime to steal from the rich to buy books for the poor. To which I can only reply, that is what democracy means.

Top to bottom: Library built by ex-slaves, Allensworth, California; Los Angeles Central Library; Death Valley National Park. All from The Public Library: A Photographic Essay by Robert Dawson. More here.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Back on the Air from Patterson Park

More news video of our Patterson Park project.

And another story in the Baltimore Sun, with video on their web site. Good show Jason!

Gunflint from the trench fill. There's no way to know for certain, but this was quite likely dropped by one of 1814 defenders.

Luttrell Psalter

Today, another gleaning from the British Library's digital collection: the Luttrell Psalter. This is one of the most famous medieval manuscripts, at least among history professors, because of its delightful illustrations from everyday life. The psalter was made for Sir Geoffrey Luttrell (1276 - 1345) of Irnham, Lincolnshire, probably sometime between 1325 and 1335. One scribe did the lettering throughout, but the illumination is by at least five different artists.


These illustrations of plowing and harrowing have been in every slide show I've ever given about peasant life or medieval agriculture.


And there is so much more. The harvest.



A feast.


One of the great wagons used by the women of noble households.


But the semi-realistic is only one of several themes in the psalter's decoration. There are also touches of whimsy.



And a bizarre bestiary of peculiar creatures.

Some of the pages are a riot of color and invention.

It is too much, really; it is hard to imagine how anyone could actually have used it as a prayer book. But how delightful for us that it has survived.

For Profit Education is a Scam, Continued

The numbers on America's for-profit colleges get more dismal the harder you look. The Times:
According to federal data, graduates of two-year, for-profit career training programs average a loan debt of $23,590. By contrast, most community-college graduates owe nothing.

The Department of Education recently reported that, of the thousands of for-profit programs it analyzed, an astonishing 72 percent produced graduates who, on average, earned less than a high school dropout who worked full time. This means that the most debt-ridden students are unlikely to earn enough to ever repay their loans. While students at for-profit colleges are 13 percent of the total higher education enrollment, they account for nearly half of all student loan defaults.
I don't know what we can do about this dismal charade, but if it were up to me we would shut them all down.

Monday, April 21, 2014

A Side Note on Appalachian Poverty

From the latest depressing article about poverty in southern West Virginia, this one by Trip Gabriel in the Times, I take away one illuminating anecdote. It concerns Emalee Short, a teenager who lives with her grandparents in Hensley, taking care of stray dogs and dreaming of being a biologist or veterinarian. (That's her above.) Describing her desire to escape from McDowell County, she said,
I don’t want people to talk about me.
Because in her experience, talking about people means reciting all the bad things that have happened to them: overdoses, injuries, arrests, prison terms. That's what talk is in McDowell County. That talking about people might mean bragging about their accomplishments is something outside of her experience.

Can College Students Plan Ahead?

Tom Friedman has been back talking with Google's hiring manager, Laszlo Bock. He had this to say about the potential value of college:
“My belief is not that one shouldn’t go to college,” said Bock. It is that among 18- to 22-year-olds — or people returning to school years later — “most don’t put enough thought into why they’re going, and what they want to get out of it.” . . . don’t just go to college because you think it is the right thing to do and that any bachelor’s degree will suffice. “The first and most important thing is to be explicit and willful in making the decisions about what you want to get out of this investment in your education.” It’s a huge investment of time, effort and money and people should think “incredibly hard about what they’re getting in return.”
I would file this under good advice that hardly anybody could actually use. How many 19-year-olds have enough notion of what they want in life to draw up such a plan? Or, if they do at 19, really stick with it? Or put a lot of effort into education that they end up not being able to use, like people who spend seven years getting a Ph.D. and then can't get a teaching job? And if you don't have such a plan, should you, like my two older sons, refuse to pursue any education because without clear goals you can't see the point? Many thousands of people drift through college but somehow end up in reasonable demanding and prestigious jobs. I suppose what Friedman is warning is that drifting into management has become thing of the past, but I wonder.

Bock puts a lot of emphasis on taking hard, technical classes, which is fine if you want to do technical things. But most jobs are not very technical; is there really any advantage for future managers and sales reps in studying programming?

Maybe Bock and Friedman are right and the old status hierarchy that put graduates of good colleges into management slots is crumbling. If so, the landscape for young people will only become more chaotic and harder to navigate, with more decisions to make and more places to falter or fall behind. Even more than now, the qualities that matter will be ambition, careerism, and a complete lack of curiosity about things that won't help you get ahead.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Easter 2014

Our two remaining egg hunters, Ben and Clara, had a rousing chase around the yard this morning. In some ways they are getting big, but they still love hunting for candy.




Robert has been hanging around with his friends who work night shifts, so he is sleeping all day and awake all night. I took advantage by asking him to hide the eggs after Ben, Clara and I were all abed.


And then for dinner we had relatives, and there was much mayhem involving cousins and padded weapons. All in all, it was a fine Easter.


The Empty Parts of the Map

From Nik Freeman, a map of all the census blocks with 0 population. About 47% of census blocks are empty.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Archaeology in Patterson Park: first Saturday

We started digging in Patterson Park on Tuesday, but today was the first day I managed to get out to the site. It was a gorgeous day, and everything is going great. Above, Jason, the field director, delivers his orientation speech to the morning volunteers.

To back up a bit: besides the fortification ditch, which I already mentioned, our GPR guy found something else in his data: a building foundation that corresponds with a structure shown on one of our Civil War maps. We think this was the butcher's shop that gave Butchers Hill its name, and that served as the headquarters of this part of the defenses in 1814.

So when we set up our initial excavation units we placed them in three places: along the ditch north of the bastion, along the ditch south of the bastion, and over the butcher's shop. This is the trench south of the bastion, where we can already see the ditch clearly. The Pagoda was built right in the middle of the bastion, probably right over the 1814 magazine. You can see that we put the volunteers right to work.

Emily, one of the professionals from our regular crew, exposes a piece of blue and gray stoneware in the ditch fill.


Eli from Baltimore Heritage (our client) leads a tour by the trench across the butcher's shop.

The trench north of the pagoda, where we have yet to find anything that looks like a fortification ditch. Probably need to dig deeper.


Clara helps volunteers screen.


It got pretty crowded around the butcher's shop trench right before lunch.


Ben and Clara by the duck pond. All in all, it was a great day.

Ready for Easter

A tree.



Karfreitag (Good Friday) procession in Lohr am Main, Germany.


The Britannia Coco-Nut Dancers cross Bacup, Lancashire from boundary to boundary every Easter Saturday.


The Northern Cross Pilgrimage, held every Holy Week, in which pilgrims walk from various points in Britain to the Holy Island of Lindsifarne. The last stretch is across the tidal causeway.



Easter Bonnet Parade, New York City.

Passion Brotherhood procession, Cordoba Spain.


Eggs.