Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Stone Knife

Another prehistoric tool from a historic farm site. Today, in Delaware.


Broken off in the hurricane, but doing well in a vase on our back porch.

Scythian Saddle Blanket

Saddle blanket, 4th century BC, from one of the frozen tombs of the Altai. Click to enlarge.

Floating Forever in the Depths

Many Victorians, including some scientists, believed that the density of sea water increased with depth. (Actually it does not, or only a little.) They therefore believed that things would sink into the sea only to the depth at which their density matched that of the surrounding water. So all objects with the same density -- say, wooden sailing ships, or human bodies -- would sink to about the same depth and hover there. They also believed that life was impossible in the crushing pressure of the deep ocean. So they imagined that things sinking into the depths would float forever in the dark, and that some parts of the ocean would be so crowded with flotsam, especially sunken ships, that this would be a real obstacle to (for example) laying undersea telegraph cables.

I learned this from Simon Winchester's Atlantic, which is a disorganized and at times tedious book but does include the occasional gem.

Today's Statistic

In the US, many major firms pay their CEOs more than they pay in taxes:
Of last year’s 100 highest-paid corporate executives in the United States, 25 earned more in pay than their company recorded as a tax expense in 2010.

Those 25 firms reported average global profits of $1.9 billion. Among the 25 were Verizon, Bank of New York Mellon, General Electric, Boeing and eBay.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

More on Mind Controlling Bacteria

Canadian researchers have
demonstrated that mice fed with Lactobacillus rhamnosus JB-1 showed significantly fewer stress, anxiety and depression-related behaviours than those fed with just broth. Moreover, ingestion of the bacteria resulted in significantly lower levels of the stress-induced hormone, corticosterone.
One of the researchers said,
This study identifies potential brain targets and a pathway through which certain gut organisms can alter mouse brain chemistry and behaviour. These findings highlight the important role that gut bacteria play in the bidirectional communication between the gut and the brain, the gut-brain axis, and opens up the intriguing opportunity of developing unique microbial-based strategies for treatment for stress-related psychiatric disorders such as anxiety and depression. . . .

The researchers also showed that regular feeding with the Lactobacillus strain caused changes in the expression of receptors for the neurotransmitter GABA in the mouse brain. The authors also established that the vagus nerve is the main relay between the microbiome (bacteria in the gut) and the brain. This three way communication system is known as the microbiome-gut-brain axis and these findings highlight the important role of bacteria in the communication between the gut and the brain, and suggest that certain probiotic organisms may prove to be useful adjunct therapies in stress-related psychiatric disorders.
I find the cultural implications of this fascinating -- what if different diets and climates give us different gut bacteria, and change our personalities?

And you just have to love the "microbiome-gut-brain axis."

Llasa, Today

Buddhist monks unroll a giant silk scroll known as a Thangka. Click to enlarge.

University Administration

Why, you ask, is the cost of college going up? One reason is bureaucracy:
Administrators are not only well staffed, they are also well paid. Vice presidents at the University of Maryland, for example, earn well over $200,000, and deans earn nearly as much. Both groups saw their salaries increase as much as 50 percent between 1998 and 2003, a period of financial retrenchment and sharp tuition increases at the university. The University of Maryland at College Park—which employs six vice presidents, six associate vice presidents, five assistant vice presidents, six assistants to the president, and six assistants to the vice presidents—has long been noted for its bloated and extortionate bureaucracy, but it actually does not seem to be much of an exception. Administrative salaries are on the rise everywhere in the nation. By 2007, the median salary paid to the president of a doctoral degree-granting institution was $325,000. Eighty-one presidents earned more than $500,000, and twelve earned over $1 million. Presidents, at least, might perform important services for their schools. Somewhat more difficult to explain is the fact that by 2010 even some of the ubiquitous and largely interchangeable deanlets and deanlings earned six-figure salaries.
The growth of expensive administrators with vague duties is one of the curses of all organizations in our era, afflicting corporations as well as universities and government agencies. This is definitely something that we ought to watch and fight. On the other hand much of the increase in administrative overhead for colleges is for stuff most professors accept as productive, such as IT services and health care. Another driver of costs is marketing, as colleges compete for competent students, and other is the intensive remedial training many incoming freshmen require. And then there is the staff required to cope with the increasing paperwork demanded by governments, grant-giving bodies, and so on in our bureaucratic age.

A Citizen Army

Just started some new Civil War research, related to a property in Langley, Virginia that might have been a camp for soldiers of the Pennsvylania Reserves in the first winter of the war. When Lincoln send out his first call for 75,000 troops, far more Pennsylvanians volunteered than were needed to fill the state's quota. Unwilling to send these eager men home, the governor organized them into 13 regiments of the Pennsylvania Reserves. After the Union defeat at Bull Run, when Lincoln called for 200,000 more men, the Pa Reserves were activated as part of the Federal army and sent to Washington. The Pa Reserves produced several of the Union's most famous officers, including George Gordon Meade, Winfield Scott Hancock, and John F. Reynolds. All officers and NCOs up to the regimental commanders were elected from the ranks. This passage from the official history of the Reserves, written in 1866, gives a feel for what life was like in the first year of the war for these volunteer soldiers:
At Tenallytown, General McCall established his com­mand in pleasant camps, and instructed the field officers to use all possible diligence in familiarizing their regiments with the battalion drill, and to teach the men the manual and the use of arms. The officers organized classes for mutual instruction in military tactics and army regulations. In these, all questions pertaining to military science were freely discussed, and points in doubt were referred to the officers who had graduated in the military academy at West Point, or to the commanding general. The zeal to acquire a knowledge of military duties and movements manifested by the officers, was equalled only by their efforts to instruct their men in the drills, the duties and the conduct of a soldier. Never, perhaps, was there so general a diffusion of intelligence, extending through all the companies of a division of an army, as was the case in the Reserve Corps. A large number of students from colleges, academics, normal and high schools, many teachers in the public schools and in the higher institutions of learning, professional student, physicians, lawyers and preachers, were found, not only as officers, but in the ranks, associated with young men of equal intelligence. There were ser­geants who, but for their uniforms, might have been mis­taken for generals, and privates fit to command brigades. To make soldiers of citizens like these was not a difficult task. To command companies, regiments, brigades and divi­sions composed of men of so much intelligence, required officers possessing much executive ability and a thorough knowledge of the rights, privileges and duties of both officers and privates.

Monday, August 29, 2011

No Higgs Boson

The latest from CERN:
Results from the ATLAS and CMS collaborations, presented at the biennial Lepton-Photon conference in Mumbai, India today, show that the elusive Higgs particle, if it exists, is running out of places to hide. Proving or disproving the existence the Higgs boson, which was postulated in the 1960s as part of a mechanism that would confer mass on fundamental particles, is among the main goals of the LHC scientific programme. ATLAS and CMS have excluded the existence of a Higgs over most of the mass region 145 to 466 GeV with 95 percent certainty.
As of now we seem to be down one theory, and still don't know why things have mass. There are other models, but they are less elegant than the Higgs field and very few physicists like any of them very much. The mystery remains.

Libertarians Savage Sam Harris

Sam Harris, noted atheist writer and sometime ally of libertarians -- he supports the legalization of all drugs, for example -- wrote a blog post a while ago arguing that rich people ought to pay higher taxes. The result, as he chronicles here, was an outpouring of vitriol from his readers. A typical response was something like this:
you are scum sam. unsubscribed
Even Harris, no stranger to controversy, seems startled by the anger he unleashed:

Many readers were enraged that I could support taxation in any form. It was as if I had proposed this mad scheme of confiscation for the first time in history. . . .

Many of my critics imagine that they have no stake in the well-being of others. How could they possibly benefit from other people getting first-rate educations? How could they be harmed if the next generation is hurled into poverty and despair? Why should anyone care about other people’s children? It amazes me that such questions require answers.

Would Steve Ballmer, CEO of Microsoft, rather have $10 billion in a country where the maximum number of people are prepared to do creative work? Or would he rather have $20 billion in a country with the wealth inequality of an African dictatorship and commensurate levels of crime? I’d wager he would pick door number #1. But if he wouldn’t, I maintain that it is only rational and decent for Uncle Sam to pick it for him.

However, many readers view this appeal to State power as a sacrilege. It is difficult to know what to make of this. Either they yearn for mysterious reasons to retreat within walled compounds wreathed in razor wire, or they have no awareness of the societal conditions that could warrant such fear and isolation. And they consider any effort the State could take to prevent the most extreme juxtaposition of wealth and poverty to be indistinguishable from Socialism.

It is difficult to ignore the responsibility that Ayn Rand bears for all of this. I often get emails from people who insist that Rand was a genius—and one who has been unfairly neglected by writers like myself. I also get emails from people who have been “washed in the blood of the Lamb,” or otherwise saved by the “living Christ,” who have decided to pray for my soul. It is hard for me to say which of these sentiments I find less compelling.

As someone who has written and spoken at length about how we might develop a truly “objective” morality, I am often told by followers of Rand that their beloved guru accomplished this task long ago. The result was Objectivism—a view that makes a religious fetish of selfishness and disposes of altruism and compassion as character flaws. If nothing else, this approach to ethics was a triumph of marketing, as Objectivism is basically autism rebranded. . . .

Why do we have laws in the first place? To prevent adults from behaving like dangerous children. All laws are coercive and take the following form: do this, and don’t do that, or else. Or else what? Or else men with guns will arrive at your door and take you away to prison. Yes, it would be wonderful if we did not need to be corralled and threatened in this way. And many uses of State power are both silly and harmful (the “war on drugs” being, perhaps, the ultimate instance). But the moment certain strictures are relaxed, people reliably go berserk. And we seem unable to motivate ourselves to make the kinds of investments we should make to create a future worth living in. . . .

And lurking at the bottom of this morass one finds flagrantly irrational ideas about the human condition. Many of my critics pretend that they have been entirely self-made. They seem to feel responsible for their intellectual gifts, for their freedom from injury and disease, and for the fact that they were born at a specific moment in history. Many appear to have absolutely no awareness of how lucky one must be to succeed at anything in life, no matter how hard one works. One must be lucky to be able to work. One must be lucky to be intelligent, to not have cerebral palsy, or to not have been bankrupted in middle age by the mortal illness of a spouse.

Many of us have been extraordinarily lucky—and we did not earn it. Many good people have been extraordinarily unlucky—and they did not deserve it. And yet I get the distinct sense that if I asked some of my readers why they weren’t born with club feet, or orphaned before the age of five, they would not hesitate to take credit for these accomplishments. There is a stunning lack of insight into the unfolding of human events that passes for moral and economic wisdom in some circles. And it is pernicious. Followers of Rand, in particular, believe that only a blind reliance on market forces and the narrowest conception of self interest can steer us collectively toward the best civilization possible and that any attempt to impose wisdom or compassion from the top—no matter who is at the top and no matter what the need—is necessarily corrupting of the whole enterprise. This conviction is, at the very least, unproven. And there are many reasons to believe that it is dangerously wrong.

I will wager that this attempt at explanation only earns Harris more abuse. Libertarians like to think that all their ideas are based on "reason," but really libertarianism is a cult and most of its ideas indefensible cant.

Today's Stupid Historical Headline

From The Telegraph:
King Arthur's round table may have been found by archaeologists in Scotland
No, it really hasn't. Must we go further?
The King's Knot, a geometrical earthwork in the former royal gardens below Stirling Castle, has been shrouded in mystery for hundreds of years. Though the Knot as it appears today dates from the 1620s, its flat-topped central mound is thought to be much older. Writers going back more than six centuries have linked the landmark to the legend of King Arthur.
Archaeologists from Glasgow University, working with the Stirling Local History Society and Stirling Field and Archaeological Society, conducted the first ever non-invasive survey of the site in May and June in a bid to uncover some of its secrets. Their findings were show there was indeed a round feature on the site that pre-dates the visible earthworks.

Stories have been told about the curious geometrical mound for hundreds of years -- including that it was the Round Table where King Arthur gathered his knights. Around 1375 the Scots poet John Barbour said that "the round table" was south of Stirling Castle, and in 1478 William of Worcester told how "King Arthur kept the Round Table at Stirling Castle". Sir David Lindsay, the 16th century Scottish writer, added to the legend in 1529 when he said that Stirling Castle was home of the "Chapell-royall, park, and Tabyll Round".
Point the First: Arthur, if he existed, which is must disputed, was not a king, but a war leader; the earliest sources specifically say that he was not of royal blood.

The second: If he was a king (which he wasn't), he never had a round table.

The third: William of Worcester lived about a thousand years after the historical Arthur, if there was such a person, which makes him about as reliable a source about Arthur as I am about Sung dynasty China.

The fourth: How various sites around Britain have "come to be associated" with "King Arthur" is a good subject for dissertations in folklore, not archaeological investigations.

Some Chinese Poems from the Tang Dynasty

Boating in Autumn

Away and away I sail in my light boat;
My heart leaps with a great gust of joy.
Through the leafless branches I see the temple in the wood;
Over the dwindling stream the stone bridge towers.
Down the grassy lanes sheep and oxen pass;
In the misty village cranes and magpies cry.
Back in my home I drink a cup of wine
And fear not the hunger of the evening wind.

Lu Yu

(The night wind eats men's souls.)

Tell Me Now

"Tell me now, what should a man want
But to sit alone, sipping his cup of wine?"

I should like to have visitors come and discuss philosophy
And not to have the tax collector knocking for money I cannot pay
My three sons married into good families
And my five daughters wedded to steady husbands.
Then I could jog through a happy five-score years
And, at the end, need no paradise.

Wang Chi

Reading The Book of Hills and Seas

In the month of June the grass grows high
And round my cottage thick-leaved branches sway.
There is not a bird but delights in the place where it rests:
And I, too, love my thatched cottage.
I have done my plowing;
I have sown my seed.
Again I have time to sit and read my books.
In high spirits I pour out my spring wine
And pick the lettuce growing in my garden.
A gentle rain come stealing up from the east
And a sweet wind bears it company.
My thoughts float idly over the story of King Chou
My eyes wander over the pictures of Hills and Seas.
At a single glance I survey the whole universe.
He will never be happy, whom such pleasures fail to please!

Tao Chien

All translated by Arthur Waley

After the Hurricane

Damage in my neighborhood was minimal -- lots of leaves and small branches down, a few larger branches, but only one large tree that I saw in my explorations -- EXCEPT that power went out at my house early Sunday morning and was still out when I left for work this morning. All of Catonsville west of Rolling Road was dark last night, except for houses of the smug hyper-preparers whose generators made a racket that kept this from being a back-in-time experience. It is something of a mystery to me why our power ever went out at all, since I could find no downed lines, and I followed the line I thought carried our power out to Rt. 40 where all the businesses were open and lit. But perhaps I was wrong and we get our power from the other direction. The morning was kind of fun, exploring and cleaning up, and it was a nice lesson for Clara in how much of her world depends on electricity. We cooked on the stove, lighting it with a match and feeling like pioneers. But as the day wore on the kids got bored and I got restless and now it is just dreary and time for the power to come back.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

A Proton Like a Falling Brick

John Walker:
The University of Utah operates a cosmic ray detector called the Fly's Eye II, situated at the Dugway Proving Ground about an hour's drive from Salt Lake City. The Fly's Eye consists of an array of telescopes which stare into the night sky and record the blue flashes which result when very high energy cosmic rays slam into the atmosphere. From the height and intensity of the flash, one can calculate the nature of the particle and its energy. On the night of October 15, 1991, the Fly's Eye detected a proton with an energy of 3.2±0.9×1020 electron volts. . . .
The maximum energy the Large Hadron Collider at CERN can give to a proton is around 7 x 1013 electron volts, 5 million times less. This one proton was carrying enough energy to make a serious impact in the realm of big objects like you and me:
equivalent to 51 joules—enough to light a 40 watt light bulb for more than a second—equivalent, in the words of Utah physicist Pierre Sokolsky, to “a brick falling on your toe.” The particle's energy is equivalent to an American baseball traveling fifty-five miles an hour.
Since the energy of a particle is related to its speed through the formulae of special relativity, we can calculate the speed of this proton as 0.9999999999999999999999951 of the speed of light, or only 1.467×10−15 meters per second slower than light.

Now recall that the faster things are traveling, the more slowly time passes for them. If you could accelerate yourself to this speed, time would pass very slowly for you indeed. Walker calculated perceived travel times from the Earth to various points at this speed.

Object Distance
(light years)
Travel Time
Alpha Centauri 4.36 0.43 milliseconds
Galactic nucleus 32,000 3.2 seconds
Andromeda galaxy 2,180,000 3.5 minutes
Virgo cluster 42,000,000 1.15 hours
Quasar 3C273 2,500,000,000 3 days
Edge of universe 17,000,000,000 19 days

So at the speed of this proton, you would reach the edge of the universe in what seemed like less than three weeks to you.

The universe is strange beyond our imagination.

Here Comes the Storm

It's raining here now, and the wind is picking up from the east as Irene approaches.

Looks Like I was Wrong about Libya

It remains to be seen what sort of government will emerge from the Libyan revolution, but as the rebels consolidate their hold on the country and begin moving their government to Tripoli, I think it is time to reassess my position. So far the rebels have committed no more in the way of atrocities and revenge killings than happen inevitably in every war, so I would say that their conduct has been good, and the odds for some kind of reasonable settlement seem better than 50-50.

I opposed NATO intervention in the war because I thought the main effect would be to drag the fighting out for years, with the combatants on both sides becoming increasingly bloody-minded and the rebels forming factions that would be as likely to fight each other as Gaddafi, leading in the end to far more death and destruction than Gaddafi would have visited on his opponents had we let him win, all in pursuit of a goal (Libyan democracy) that is by no means guaranteed even now and looked much less likely in March.

Things have gone differently than I supposed.

The rebels' surprising (to me, anyway) success has had two parts, political and military. Much of the anti-war commentary from "realists" argued that because Libyans identify mainly as members of tribes, they could never work together well or form a united government without a dictator to lead them. This seems to have been greatly exaggerated, and even if it was true before the war, nothing changes people's identities like working together in a successful rebellion. So far the rebel government has achieved legitimacy in the eyes of many Libyans and in the eyes of the international diplomatic community, including hard-eyed cynics from authoritarian Arab governments. They have managed to keep normal life going on pretty well in the eastern areas they have controlled. They already have much to be proud of, even if the hardest work is ahead of them.

I find the military success of the rebels even more surprising. Amateur soldiers can sometimes fight well on the defensive, but they find it very hard to mount attacks. Thus we have had many wars in modern times, like the one in Bosnia, in which the combatants sit on opposite hills and launch rockets at each other for years, without anything much changing. Somehow the Libyan rebels, after six months of mostly low-level combat, managed to raise their game to a very different level. Instead of grinding slowly toward Tripoli, fighting in twenty places at once, they put together a bold plan that could have come from the Pentagon to bypass most of Gaddafi's forces and attack his "center of gravity" in Tripoli. Thanks to their bravery and the steadily declining morale of Gaddifi's men, it worked, and a war that looked set to last another year at least is now for all practical purposes nearly over. The way this operation was coordinated, with rebels in the capital timing their uprising to meet offensives coming from both the east and the southwest, bodes well for the ability of Libyans to work together after the war is over.

Things could still go badly in Libya, but for now they look very good. I was wrong, and the men who led NATO intervention -- especially Nicolas Sarkozy and David Cameron -- were right. They saw an opportunity to rid the world of a noxious dictator at a reasonable cost and to put the West on the side of freedom in the Arab world, and they took it. Their gamble has paid off. I am still bothered by the dishonesty of the war -- the way Britain and France have pretended to be "protecting civilians" as they bomb Gaddafi's army into oblivion, the way Obama refused to seek Congressional approval for the war because bombing people itsn't really "combat" -- but that just seems to be the way wars are fought these days.

Instead of disaster, or bloody stalemate, NATO intervention in Libya has led to freedom for another of the world's nations, to a great triumph for the Libyan people, and to a huge policy victory for the West. I was wrong to oppose it, and I am very happy about that.


Near the end of a long rant about contemporary politics, Charles Blow expresses rather neatly the liberal project as I understand it:

We have to start this conversation from a different point. We must ask: “What kind of society do we want to build, and what kinds of workers, soldiers and citizens should populate that society?” If we want that society to be prosperous and safe and filled with healthy, well-educated and well-adjusted people, then the policy directions become clear.

They are almost the exact opposite of what we are doing.

Liberalism as I understand it means working toward the goal of a good society, one that works well for all the people. The point is to build the kind of world we want to live in. That means other sorts of goals -- maximizing freedom, for example, or focusing on "rights," or punishing criminals because people who do bad things should suffer, and so on -- must sometimes be sacrificed. Liberalism as I understand it is pragmatic, always focused more on the impact of policies than whether they seem right or wrong. I think the doctrine of "human rights" has been on the whole positive, and by a focus on overall goals I don't mean ignoring the situation of individual people -- the society I want is one in which nobody is ever silenced or imprisoned by the state without very good cause. But the point of politics is to make the world a better place, not to take a stand on abstract principles.

Before the Storm

The garden today, at the end of summer, before any storm damage. I love those many-branched sunflowers, which sprouted late, something that came in the package of mixed sunflowers I scattered around the annual beds.

First the Earthquake, then the Hurricane

It's not every year you get to have an earthquake and a hurricane in the same week. Alas, Irene seems to be tracking away from my house, so we will only get some wind and rain. The current prediction shows the storm bypassing Washington and zeroing in on New York, which I think proves that God is angrier with the tycoons of Wall Street than with politicians in the capital.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton

Richard Francis Burton (1821-1890) lived one the most remarkable of human lives, and in many ways he epitomized the spirit of Victorian imperialism. He spoke, by his own count, 29 languages, and if that includes some he did not know well he certainly spoke fluent French and Italian and passed the very rigorous East India Company exams (which qualified the examinee to serve as a translator in diplomatic meetings) in six others, including Hindustani, Arabic, and Persian. In North America he learned Indian sign language; in Africa he learned Swahili; while posted to Brazil he polished his Portuguese. He wrote more than thirty books, mainly accounts of his travels but also including Falconry in the Valley of the Indus, Etruscan Bologna, and A Complete System of Bayonet Exercise. He translated more than a dozen others, including the Kama Sutra, the Arabian Nights, the Lusiad of Portuguese poet Camoens. Personally I find his most of his writing unbearable, with all the vices of Victorian prose and few of the virtues, and most of his books sold poorly. But this seems a petty grievance to lodge against a man who did so much.

I just finished reading Edward Rice's biography, which is not really a brilliant book but is certainly not bad, and with a life as fascinating as Burton's, that is enough. I enjoyed it very much and highly recommend it.

When he left college, Burton traveled to India as an officer in the private army of the British East India Company. Because of his gift for languages and dark, "gypsy" appearance, he was soon employed as a secret agent, traveling western India in native disguise. We know very little about what he did, beyond the rumors that swirled around him and ended up in some of Kipling's stories. I have been thinking about this lately and have wondered if maybe this is a good thing. Perhaps it is more pleasing for us to imagine Burton's escapades as romantic adventures rather than know what sort of sordid company business he was really up to.

At this time most British officers in India took native "wives," and Burton was no exception. This began his long sexual involvement with the women of the non-western world. Part of his method for learning languages was to seek out prostitutes and make them his instructors. He made himself something of an expert on human sexuality, and besides his numerous translations of erotic works he became a crusader against "female circumcision." Of this practice he wrote,
The feelings, love, and desire of women grow less, while their trickery, cruelty, vices, and insatiable extravagance increase. . . .
You may be thinking, but wasn't this the Victorian era? And it was, but by burying such observations in the vast mass of ethnographic material he generated, often in the footnotes, Burton was able to get them into print. His translations of the Kama Sutra and other erotic works were issued in small print runs and marketed as suitable only for "scholars," bearing the imprint of an imaginary Indian publisher in Benares. Thus Burton managed the difficult trick of becoming known as a great sexual adventurer while remaining respectable enough to earn a knighthood.

Burton was also a spiritual quester, searching across all religions for the "gnosis" or secret knowledge that would open up the universe to him. In India he was initiated into a semi-secret tantric order that encouraged making music with human bones as a way to cure the disciple of excessive devotion to the body. From there he passed on to Islam, developing a lifelong interest in the religion. He was initiated into Sufi sects, memorized much of the Koran, and debated theology with learned imams. When he died his torso was found to be covered with dozens of small scars, like knife wounds. At the time this was played up as evidence of many battles, but since Burton was never in a battle, Edward Rice's explanation is more convincing: he had joined a sect of Sufis who danced with sharp swords, naked from the waist up, regularly wounding each other in their frenzy.

Burton also had an outsized personality, and was given to towering rages, sulky silences that lasted for months, intense hatreds, and powerful loves. He spoke forcefully for his opinions one week and then changed them the next. He crusaded all his life against slavery, and often criticized the East India Company and the British government for poor treatment of natives, but he flew into a rage when he encountered a black man in the first class lounge of a steamer bound for West Africa. ("No way for a ruling race to act," he said.) He had many enemies and never shrank from criticizing the powerful, which explains why his army rank never rose above Captain and he never achieved the other honors one might have expected for such a famous imperialist. He was also short of money his whole life and hatched many schemes for riches, mostly involving gold or diamonds, none of which worked out. He died in Trieste, a minor diplomatic post where he had been sent largely to keep him out of the way, working on as many as eleven books at once and dreaming of the wealth he would never have.

Burton's most famous adventure was his journey to Mecca, made in 1853. He traveled in disguise, posing as an Indian Muslim to explain the minor imperfections in his Arabic. He was not the first westerner to do this, but he probably was the first Englishman, and the book he wrote about his pilgrimage became a best seller. Some accounts I have seen of this journey speak of Burton as one of the first "non-Muslims" to visit Mecca, but as Edward Rice shows, that may not be an accurate statement. Burton traveled as a Muslim, making all the requisite prayers and ablutions, and many who knew him at the time thought he was a Muslim. He certainly had himself formally converted, reciting the necessary formula ("there is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is his prophet") in front of an imam. He wrote several times about the superiority of Islam over Christianity. And yet, while he was in Britain he attended Protestant services, and he was buried as a Catholic. The one work of theology he published is a nearly incomprehensible mystical mishmash, but it is based more on Sufism than on Christianity. It seems likely that Burton journeyed at Mecca as a haji, taking the spiritual side of the journey as seriously as the ethnographic exploration. What he actually believed about god and about Islam is impossible to say.

Later on Burton explored Somalia and then joined a famous expedition to central Africa, searching for the source of the Nile. The accounts of the Nile expeditions are gruesome narratives of suffering, as Burton and his companion Speke were laid low by one African disease after another. When they were too sick to walk, their African servants carried them; but sometimes the Africans from the coast were also sickened by the diseases of the interior, and there were whole weeks when the expedition did nothing but lie around and hope to get better. Speke was blinded by infections, and then deafened in one ear after he tried to dig out a beetle that had lodged in it with his knife -- this small beetle was part of a swarm that covered everything inside Speke's tent one night, including his whole body. Under these conditions Burton not only endured, but managed to make fairly accurate maps and fill several notebooks with ethnographic and linguistic observations.

Burton then became a diplomat, serving in West Africa, Brazil, Damascus and Trieste, publishing multi-volume books about all these places and searching for gold. It is an extraordinary story, and long before I reached the end of Rice's book I was finding it hard to believe that one man had done so much. But he did.

Many of Burton's works have been placed online at As an introduction to his writing I recommend Vikram and the Vampire, a collection of Indian folk tales.

Human Evolution is Accelerating

According to statistical studies of the human genome, the rate of evolution among humans -- measured as the rate at which new gene alleles become prevalent in the population -- is now about 100 times what it was during most of the past 6 million years. The biggest driver of the acceleration is growing population; bigger population equals more mutations and thus more chance for a very good one to appear.

Hacking Cars

Imagine how scary it would be to be inside a car that was under the control of someone outside the vehicle, who could make it do whatever he wanted, even drive you off a cliff. Nervous yet?
An interesting viral Web video making the rounds since the Black Hat cybersecurity conference earlier this month depicts two researchers from iSEC Partners (a San Francisco-based security firm) breaking into a 1998 Subaru Outback via their PC. In less than 60 seconds, they wirelessly find the car’s security system module, bypass it and start the engine remotely.

iSEC researchers Don Bailey and Mat Solnik claim to be able to hack their way into a securely locked car because its alarm relies on a cell phone or satellite network that can receive commands via text messaging. Devices connecting via a cellular or satellite network are assigned the equivalent of a phone number or Web address. If hackers can figure out the number or address for a particular car, they could use a PC to send commands via text messages that instruct the car to disarm, unlock and start. . . .

The researchers acknowledge that stealing a particular car would be difficult because you would have to know that car’s number or address, neither of which are easy to find. What bothers them more is that wireless-enabled systems are showing up not just in cars but also in Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition systems that control and secure power plants, water-treatment facilities and other components of the nation’s critical infrastructure.

At the very least this ought to make a great scary movie scene.

The Two Faces of Eve

Prayerful and playful. From the Ludovisi Throne, probably Greek, probably 5th century BC.

Rick Perry's Higher Education Agenda

Kevin Carey of TNR likes Rick Perry's core initiative for reforming Texas higher education, the "Seven Breakthrough Solutions":
Taken together, the seven solutions are remarkably student-friendly. Four of them focus on improving the quality of university teaching by developing new methods of evaluating teaching performance, tying tenure to success in the classroom, separating the teaching and research functions within university budgets, and using teaching budgets to reward professors who excel at helping students learn. The fifth solution would give prospective students choosing colleges more information about things like class size, graduation rates, and earnings in the job market after graduation. The sixth would make state higher education subsidies more student-focused, and the seventh would shift university accreditation toward measures of academic outcomes.
Yes, great, better teaching, more accountability, blah, blah. But how is this going to be done in practice? In elementary and high schools, a focus on teacher effectiveness has mutated into an obsession with standardized tests, because these are the only way we have to measure what students are learning. How would that work at the university level? Isn't "higher" education supposed to be about imparting skills that are hard to measure? Are Perry and his allies really going to push for the development of a vast new set of standardized tests for college students? If not, how are they going to measure teacher effectiveness?

Carey provides some thoughts of his own on the research side, and you can immediately see the dire outcomes that might arise from this "reform":
Last year, the Texas A&M system published a report comparing the salaries of individual professors to their teaching loads and their success in garnering external research funding. Most professors were pulling their weight. But some were enjoying fat, publicly-funded salaries while doing little work in return. At UT-Austin, one group of 1,748 mostly-tenured professors, representing 44 percent of the faculty, generated 54 percent of institutional costs, taught only 27 percent of students, and brought in no external research funding whatsoever.

Like bad teaching, the reality of freeloading professors is openly acknowledged on college campuses. And like bad teaching, it is confirmed by research from within the academy itself. Lawrence Martin, Dean of the Graduate School at SUNY-Stony Brook, has compiled a database of scholarly productivity—including books, journal articles, citations, research grants, and awards—for every tenure-track professor in America. He found that while the top 20 percent of professors are producing a remarkable amount of work, “in most fields for which journal publishing would be expected, fully 20 percent of the faculty associated in Ph.D. training programs have not authored or co-authored a single publication in one of the 16,000 journals indexed” in the previous three years. The fact that some of these laggards simultaneously enjoy light teaching loads is galling.

So we are going to judge intellectual productivity by the twin pillars of bogus scholarship, outside funding and the number of publications. If you ask me, universities already put far too much emphasis on these two numbers, which bear a weak relationship to what anyone is actually producing.

Yes, it also galls me that terrible teachers with no publications to speak of occupy tenured seats that I could have had instead. But if the alternative is a move toward quantitative evaluation of professors, using the sorts of numbers universities find it easy to collect -- numbers of students taught, papers published, grants won, awards accumulated -- then sign me up as a defender of the status quo.

The Eastern Gate

I drive my chariot toward the Eastern Gate;
From afar I see the graveyard north of the wall.
The white aspens, how they murmur, murmur;
Pines and cypresses flank the broad paths.
Beneath lie men who died long ago --
Black, black is the long night that holds them.
Deep down beneath the Yellow Springs
Thousands of years they lie without waking.
Light and darkness alternate in infinite pattern,
And years vanish like morning dew.
Man's life is a brief visit,
Without the endurance of stone and bronze.
Mourners turn are mourned,
Saint and sage -- all alike are trapped.
Many have been the dupes of strange drugs,
Seeking immortality in food and drink.
Better far to enjoy good wine,
And clothe our bodies in satin and silk.
The dead are gone and with them we cannot converse.
The living, though, are here, and ought to have our love.

Leaving the city gate I look ahead
And see before me only mountains and tombs.
The old graves are forgotten and plowed up,
The pines and cypresses are cut for timber.
I want to go home, to ride to my village gate.
I want to go back, but there is no road.

From Nineteen Poems, a Chinese collection of the Han Dynasty, translated by Arthur Whaley.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Back in the Field

I've been back in the field in Delaware this week, testing a small, 18th-century tenant farm site in a soybean field. It took me this long to post about it because my camera died, so I took these pictures with my phone, and it took me three days to figure out how to get the pictures from the phone to my computer. Who would design a phone that comes with both a camera and a USB cable but hides the pictures in a folder that cannot be made, in any way, to communicate through the USB port? I had to put the pictures on a micro disk, take the disk out, and put it in my wife's phone, which was perfectly happy to send the files directly to a pc hard drive. (No, I didn't pick the phone, my employers supplied it to me.)

Anyway, it's a pretty interesting site. The old part probably had a short occupation period around 1750, but this overlaps with a later site (maybe 1800 to 1850) close by, and sorting out these occupations is a challenge. We already found one pit feature in the older part, containing artifacts and animal bones.

Roman Shield from Dura-Europos

Third Century AD, make of wood and leather. H. 105.5 cm, W. 41.0 cm. More artifacts from Dura-Europos here.

Does Pot Make you Stupid?

In the short term, yes, but the best study yet finds no long term effect on cognitive abilities. The researchers say that previous studies finding an effect on verbal ability failed to control for the social profile of pot smokers, who are largely lower-class men. Lower-class men perform worse than women and the well-educated on tests of verbal ability, and once this correction is applied, the alleged long-term effect of marijuana use disappears.

Can Animals Sense Earthquakes Coming?

Our cats and dog did not anticipate Tuesday's tremor, my family reports. But at the National Zoo, lots of weird things happened:

Her name is Iris, and with her straight, elegant, red-orange hair she is beyond dispute the prettiest orangutan at the National Zoo. She’s calm, quiet, unflappable. “Iris lives the life of a queen,” says great-ape keeper Amanda Bania.

On Tuesday afternoon, the queen lost her cool.

It happened a little before 2 p.m. Primate keeper K.C. Braesch was standing just a few feet away when Iris emitted a loud, guttural cry, known to scientists as belch-vocalizing. Iris then scrambled to the top of her enclosure.

Braesch stepped back and scanned the enclosure to see what might have agitated the ape. Was it Kiko, the male? Although generally a lump, Kiko can turn into a hothead and throw things. But no, Kiko was lounging.

Then — all this had happened within about five seconds — Braesch felt the earthquake.

“Animals seem to know,” she said Wednesday. “You always hear it anecdotally, but this is the first time I’ve seen it.”

Orangutans, gorillas, flamingos and red-ruffed lemurs acted strangely before humans detected the magnitude-5.8 earthquake. Now the question hovering over the zoo is: What did the animals know, and when did they know it?

Five seconds is not enough to represent anything magical, since the earth may actually be moving strangely up to a minute before any person feels the quake. But animals predicting earthquakes is one of those questions that has hovered around the boundary of science and folklore for a century, and still hovers there.

Eye Witness Testimony is Not Reliable

And this has just been acknowledged by the New Jersey Supreme Court, which yesterday issued new guidelines on how judges should deal with alleged eye-witness identifications:

The New Jersey Supreme Court, acknowledging a “troubling lack of reliability in eyewitness identifications,” issued sweeping new rules on Wednesday making it easier for defendants to challenge such evidence in criminal cases. The court said that whenever a defendant presents evidence that a witness’s identification of a suspect was influenced, by the police, for instance, a judge must hold a hearing to consider a broad range of issues. These could include police behavior, but also factors like lighting, the time that had elapsed since the crime or whether the victim felt stress at the time of the identification. . . .

The State Supreme Court’s ruling was based in part on an exhaustive study of the scientific research on eyewitness identification, led by a special master, a retired judge, who held hearings and led a review of the literature on the issue. The special master, Geoffrey Gaulkin, estimated that more than 2,000 studies related to the subject had been published since the Supreme Court’s original 1977 decision.

“Study after study revealed a troubling lack of reliability in eyewitness identifications,” Chief Justice Rabner wrote. “From social science research to the review of actual police lineups, from laboratory experiments to DNA exonerations, the record proves that the possibility of mistaken identification is real. “Indeed, it is now widely known that eyewitness misidentification is the leading cause of wrongful convictions across the country.”

As an aside, I think "Special Master" is the coolest title available in the current American political system.

Late Roman Basilica, Instanbul

Incorporating, as you can see, pieces of earlier structures.

A Thought About Scientific History

The concept of objectivity which underlies the division between historian and myth-maker is undemonstrable. . . . By trying too hard to be objective, scientific, and truthful, we are allowing the real to escape us.

--Jean Markale

(I have posted this, I hasten to explain, to provoke thinking about history rather than to denounce careful textual analysis. Markale was a French scholar of the ancient Celtic world and a nut who managed to combine doctrinaire Marxism with new age mysticism. I do not recommend his books to anyone not already well informed about Celtic myth and history. But if you have the background to understand what about his arguments is well-supported and what is not, I do recommend him. Reading him has greatly changed my appreciation of the Celtic world and indeed of all ancient thought. I think Markale understood better what the druids were all about than any fundamentally rational person could, because he shared their faith in a world of the spirit and their belief that real understanding is not something that can be written down in prose. I find the archaeological details of sacred sites and the analysis of Irish law codes very interesting, but when you have documented everything for which we have solid evidence you are still missing a huge amount of ancient Celtic culture. (And any other culture.) I assign Caesar's little discourse on Gaulish culture to my students, but I don't think Caesar understood the druids very well, either. The ancient Celts were obviously deeply religious people who saw the world much in terms of eternal patterns. Since they did not write down their theology in simple terms, we can only access it by reading their literary texts and trying to get a feel for what sort of world-view might be behind them. Like Markale, I doubt that this approach can ever by "objective" or "scientific" in that way that dating charters can be, but without it or something like it we just miss what life used to be like.)

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

A Glimpse of My Daughter's Early Life

We adopted my daughter Clara when she was about 22 months old. She spent more than a year of her earlier life in foster care in Jingdezhen, a small city in Jiangxi province, China. Her foster mother took in several orphan girls over the years. Just recently the family of one of these girls visited her, and we were able to get these pictures. Clara's foster mother is in the center of the picture above; on the right are two officials from the orphanage who also worked with us.

This is the house where Clara spent much of the first two years of her life. It looks like thousands of other houses in that part of China.

The neighborhood.

Despite the obvious poverty, Clara was wonderfully cared for, and when we met her she was a happy little girl used to being sung to, fussed over and having ribbons tied in her hair. This picture was taken the day we met her, at the Civil Affairs office in Nanchang.

But since this is China, change is not far away, even in Jingdezhen.

My narrative of the adoption and our trip to China is here.

We will celebrate in Bab al-Aziziya!

That would be Gaddafi's compound in Tripoli, and today Libya's rebels made good on that oft-repeated boast. An interesting detail:
The conquest was spearheaded by hundreds of experienced fighters from the port city of Misurata, who developed into some of the rebels’ best organized and most effective units after months of bitter fighting with elite loyalist forces.
This sets me wondering who will rise to the top of the post-Gaddafi government: the reluctant warriors who have been the public face of the rebellion, or hardened men from the front lines?

Of course this is a bit premature, since Gaddafi is still at large and has many followers, who are reported to still control two neighborhoods in the capital as well as several outlying towns. But at the moment he seems to have been decisively defeated, and the rebels are in charge.

Peter Thiel's Egomaniacal "Freedom"

Paypal Founder and libertarian billionaire Peter Thiel has given up on his fellow humans:

I remain committed to the faith of my teenage years: to authentic human freedom as a precondition for the highest good. I stand against confiscatory taxes, totalitarian collectives, and the ideology of the inevitability of the death of every individual. For all these reasons, I still call myself “libertarian.”

But I must confess that over the last two decades, I have changed radically on the question of how to achieve these goals. Most importantly, I no longer believe that freedom and democracy are compatible.
Thus his interest in "sea steading," setting up communities of little floating islands where like-minded people can do whatever they want.

Welcome to fantasy island. I'll say Thiel still clings to the faith of his teenage years -- and the moral sensibilities of an adolescent jerk, too. It's all about him doing whatever he wants. And living forever, I suppose in digital form. He recognizes no moral responsibility to his fellow humans, and sees nothing worthwhile about people coming together to decide democratically how they want to be ruled. He does not recognize how greatly governments and the economic system they oversee have contributed to his own success. Despite his brilliance he is desperately short-sighted and narrow-minded, and when I read his essay I kept seeing myself at 13, denouncing humanity as a bunch of idiots. I may not be rich, but at least I have grown up.

Gaddafi's Compound Falls

Libyan opposition forces poured into Muammar Gaddafi's compound in Tripoli on Tuesday and were seen firing in the air in celebration, reporters on the scene said.

An Earthquake in Washington?

My building just shook gently for about a minute, and my wife called to say that our house 35 miles away did the same. Wild.

UPDATE: Magnitude 5.9, according to the US Geological Survey, centered near Louisa, Virginia.

Race and Nostalgia

Lots of online chatter this week about what John Boehner meant when he said that Barack Obama was "snuffing out the America that I grew up in." That would be the 1950s and 1960s, since Boehner was born in 1949. Reihan Salam started off the current debate by arguing that there is nothing racist about the sentiment:
For at least some whites, particularly those over the age of 50, there is a sense that the country they grew up in is fading away, and that Americans with ancestors from Mexico or, as in my case, Bangladesh don't share their religious, cultural and economic values. These white voters are looking for champions, for people who are unafraid to fight for the America they remember and love. It's unfair to call this sentiment racist.
Which led Matt Yglesias to ask:
Does [Boehner] feel nostalgic for the higher marginal tax rates of the America he grew up in? For the much larger labor union share of the workforce? The threat of global nuclear war? It’s difficult for me to evade the conclusion that on an emotional level, conservative nostalgics like Boehner are primarily driven by regret at the loss of social privilege by white men.
I think Boehner's statement was stupid but not inherently racist. First of all, most old people are nostalgic about the era they grew up in. People who grew up in the Depression are nostalgic for old radio and making do. Even ex-slaves, interviewed in old age in the early 1900s, sometimes said that things were better when they were children. So to ask what, exactly, people are nostalgic about is to miss the point of nostalgia.

Second, the world really has been changing at a rapid pace since 1949, and that scares many people. The world of 1949 really is "fading away," so it is hard to fault anyone for believing that it is. Our unease at the rapid pace of real change is heightened by the enormous fearmongering industry, which tells Americans every day about environmental degradation, out-of-control population growth, insidious terrorist plots, violent criminal gangs, poisons in our food and water, and so on.

Third, Boehner grew up in an era of rapid economic growth and US global economic dominance, when men with high school diplomas could get family-supporting factory jobs and women could afford to stay home with their young children. Is it racist to miss that? No, stop, you don't have to tell me about all the things that were wrong with America in the 1950s, from racism to the Red Scare to the great era of ugly architecture. Nostalgia works by blurring out the ugly scenes and tinting the good ones rosy, and since this is a human frailty that almost all of us share, it little behooves us to beat up John Boehner about it.

So I see no reason to assume that Boehner is any more racist or sexist than any other American man. But he is stupid to indulge his nostalgia so flagrantly. Nostalgia is psychologically dangerous because it creates a false contrast between a wonderful past and a miserable present, encouraging us to bemoan our fates instead of counting our blessings. It is also politically dangerous, because it encourages us to oversimplify, to look backward for solutions to novel problems, and to set up some imagined past as the standard by which to judge events of the very real present. Barack Obama and the Democratic Party are not doing much to change America, and neither is government spending or debt. By focusing on those ephemera, Boehner and his colleagues are missing the real forces at work in America, from globalization to online entertainment, and sacrificing any chance they might have had of altering our direction.

The Very Weird Mummies of Cladh Hallan

Back in 2001, archaeologists digging under some Bronze Age round houses at Cladh Hallan on South Uist, in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland, found three mummified bodies, one an infant and two adults.

What was discovered about them at the time was strange enough:
Several months of detailed scientific tests followed, including radio carbon dating of the bones and of other materials from the site. The first suggestion that the skeletons had actually come from mummified bodies arose when the radio carbon dates came back from the laboratory.

To the astonishment of the archaeologists, they saw that one individual (a male) had died in around 1,600 BC - but had been buried a full six centuries later, in around 1,000 BC. What is more, a second individual (a female) had died in around 1,300 BC - and had had to wait 300 years before being interred.

The archaeologists thought this strange. They had never encountered anything like it before. If the skeletons had been left unburied for 600 or 300 years they would have ended up as just a pile of bones. It seemed that perhaps in some way the sinews and skin had been deliberately preserved, to permanently hold the skeletons together. The researchers began to wonder whether they had come across Britain's first mummies.

Next came the second piece of startling evidence. If indeed the uncovered bones had once belonged to mummified bodies, then how had the mummification been carried out?
Apparently, the bodies were mummified by placing them in a peat bog, probably for around a year and perhaps for exactly a year. Of course we have long known that Bronze age people put bodies in bogs from time to time, but it has never before been documented that they did so as a means of mummification.
Now the story has just gotten even stranger:
Recent tests on the remains, carried out by the University of Manchester, show that the "female burial", previously identified as such because of the pelvis of the skeleton, was in fact a composite. It was made up of three different people, and some parts, such as the skull, were male. Radiocarbon dating and stable isotope analysis showed that the male mummy was also a composite.
One of the excavators, Mike Parker Pearson, had this explanation:
"These could be kinship components, they are putting lineages together, the mixing up of different people's body parts seems to be a deliberate act," he said. "I don't believe these 'mummies' were buried immediately, but played an active part in society, as they do in some tribal societies in other parts of the world." He said as part of ancestral worship, the mummies probably would have been asked for spiritual advice to help the community make decisions.
I suppose it is possible that the mummies just decayed over time, and so the rotten bits were replaced, but I think Parker Pearson is pointing in the right direction. We suspect that Neolithic and Bronze Age Britons were much into using burial practices to express lineage and community, hence their enormous investment in large, communal tombs. The people at Cladh Hallan used Beaker pottery and seem to have been related to that culture, which was somewhat different from the more communal societies of the Neolithic -- they practiced individual, cremation burial, among other things. They still had a great focus on communal, religious activity, though, expressed through building stone circles (there is one near Cladh Hallan), complex earthworks, and so on.
We also know that many people around the world had ongoing, complex relationships with their dead ancestors' bodies. Many people mummified their important ancestors and placed the bodies in special temples where they could be consulted as needed. One of the themes of Ian Hodder's work at Catal Hoyuk has been the concealment of spiritually powerful objects, including dead bodies, in certain houses where (we suppose) clan elders or cult initiates would know how to access them for consultation or ritual purposes. People around the world have also messed with dead bodies in various ways, for example burying the heads in one place and the bodies in another, or even making drinking cups from the skulls and tools from the long bones. We tend to think of this being done to enemies, as the Germanic barbarians did, but among some people this was done with their own closest relations.

Wherever the cult of dead bodies was practiced, the ancestors eventually moved on from this active role and were given permanent burial. At Catal Hoyuk, the houses full of graves and bulls' skulls were knocked down and built over like all the other houses, and new spiritual sites were established. Among American Indians, the chiefs and shamans whose mummified bodies were so important were eventually put in the ground, sometimes with elaborate ceremony, and sometimes with very little, apparently on the understanding that their occupants' spirits had finally moved on, and the spiritless husks left behind had no particular value.

The special treatment of the Cladh Hallan mummies fits into this pattern. These composite people, assembled from mighty ancestors, were kept on hand for use in ritual or to answer questions as needed. On the other hand they endured for an exceptionally long time. Perhaps they endured because most of the bodies in the community were cremated, cutting off the supply of replacement mummies. That change may represent other cultural shifts, so that the mummies were relics of the past, and perhaps represented a link to an earlier time that came to be seen as a period of greater wisdom or even spiritual danger.
Eventually, of course, the mummies outlived their usefulness and were buried beneath the floors of a row of impressive roundhouses (above and below) built on carefully prepared stone and earth terraces. This act of building may represent another major cultural change for the community, one that rendered the mummies more useful and magical supports for the new buildings than as active participants in communal life.

Monday, August 22, 2011

MLK Memorial Opens in Washington

I will write about the new King memorial again after I make my way over, but for now I wanted to mark its opening. I like the statue of King emerging from the stone, but I have to say that if I had been on the committee I might have suggested bronze so he wouldn't have ended up so white. I also would have built the monument around text, like the Lincoln Memorial. (Interpretation professionals insist that text is wasted because nobody ever reads, but I read all the words of both the Second Inaugural and the Gettysburg Address every I go.) There is also a lot of the allegorical stuff that has been such a big part of many recent monuments.

From the memorial's web site:

At the entry portal, two stones are parted and a single stone wedge is pushed forward toward the horizon; the missing piece of what was once a single boulder. The smooth insides of the portal contrast the rough outer surfaces of the boulder. Beyond this portal, the stone appears to have been thrust into the plaza, wrested from the boulder and pushed forward – it bears signs of a great monolithic struggle.

On the visible side of the stone, the theme of hope is presented, with the text from King's famed 1963 speech cut sharply into the stone: "Out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope." On the other side are inscribed these words: "I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness”, a statement suggested by Dr. King himself when describing how he would like to be remembered.

The boulder is the Mountain of Despair, through which every visitor will enter, moving through the struggle as Dr. King did during his life, and then be released into the open freedom of the plaza. The solitary stone is the Stone of Hope, from which Dr. King’s image emerges, gazing over the Tidal Basin toward the horizon, seeing a future society of justice and equality for which he encouraged all citizens to strive.

Given all the controversy and the pressure, I think this doesn't look bad.

Mental Energy

Everyone knows, in a general way, that thinking is hard work. Our brains can only do so much of this work in a day before they get groggy and stupid. Freud understood this, and called the wearing down of the mind by overwork "ego depletion." In recent decades some psychologists have found ways to measure this effect, and they have shown that doing mental work tires us out and leads to sloppy thinking and poor decisions. The first really convincing experiments involved self control, and they showed that resisting temptation is a grueling mental task that eventually wears out our willpower:
there is a finite store of mental energy for exerting self-control. When people fended off the temptation to scarf down M&M’s or freshly baked chocolate-chip cookies, they were then less able to resist other temptations. When they forced themselves to remain stoic during a tearjerker movie, afterward they gave up more quickly on lab tasks requiring self-discipline, like working on a geometry puzzle or squeezing a hand-grip exerciser. Willpower turned out to be more than a folk concept or a metaphor. It really was a form of mental energy that could be exhausted. The experiments confirmed the 19th-century notion of willpower being like a muscle that was fatigued with use, a force that could be conserved by avoiding temptation.
Now there is good evidence of what is being called "decision fatigue":
No matter how rational and high-minded you try to be, you can’t make decision after decision without paying a biological price. It’s different from ordinary physical fatigue — you’re not consciously aware of being tired — but you’re low on mental energy. The more choices you make throughout the day, the harder each one becomes for your brain, and eventually it looks for shortcuts, usually in either of two very different ways. One shortcut is to become reckless: to act impulsively instead of expending the energy to first think through the consequences. (Sure, tweet that photo! What could go wrong?) The other shortcut is the ultimate energy saver: do nothing. Instead of agonizing over decisions, avoid any choice. Ducking a decision often creates bigger problems in the long run, but for the moment, it eases the mental strain.
So only make important decisions when your mind is fresh. And if there are temptations you need to resist -- donuts, dubious women -- try to stay far away from them instead of relying on your conscience to always be strong for you, because it gets tired, too.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Rebel Victory in Libya?

Big doings in Libya, where Gaddafi's regime is teetering:

By late Sunday, rebel fighters had converged on the capital from four directions, and opposition flags were fluttering over buildings across the city. Thousands of people poured onto the streets in areas under rebel control to celebrate, stomping on posters of Gaddafi, setting off fireworks and honking horns, even in the symbolically significant Green Square in the heart of the city, previously the scene of near-daily pro-Gaddafi rallies.

With communications to the capital sporadic and some journalists confined to their hotel, reports of opposition gains within Tripoli could not be independently confirmed, and some experts cautioned that a tough urban battle may yet lie ahead between the lightly armed and untrained rebels and the elite government forces kept in reserve for the defense of the capital.

But reporters traveling with rebel forces said Gaddafi’s defenses were melting away faster than had been expected, with reports of entire units fleeing as rebels entered the capital from the south, east and west, and his supporters inside the city tearing off their uniforms, throwing down their weapons and attempting to blend into the population.

A Tripoli-based activist said the rebels had secured the seaport, where several hundred reinforcements for the opposition had arrived by boat, and were in the process of evicting Gaddafi loyalists from the Mitiga air base on the eastern edge of the city.

“The Gaddafi regime is clearly crumbling,” said a statement issued by NATO, whose five-month-old aerial bombing campaign, ostensibly launched to protect civilians, contributed enormously to the erosion of government defenses. A U.S. official in Washington who was monitoring the intelligence from Libya said that the situation in Tripoli was fluid but that Gaddafi and his hard-core loyalists did not appear likely to give up easily.

At the moment it appears that this may end without great massacres or years of stalemate, and that would be grand.

Wood Pile

"Wood Pile" by J.C.M. Hayward, 1912. From an exhibit of photographs of Canada's industrial landscape. That is one seriously big pile of logs.

Clara is 6

In Richmond, yesterday, princess for a day.

Ben and his cousin Zoey being a bit rowdy.

And a "reenactment," of what I am not sure.

A modest sub-set of my Richmond relations assembled to mark the birthdays of the five kinfolk born in August.

Clara, Zoey, and Grandma with the cake.

Learning to use her new roller skates.