Friday, April 28, 2017

Random Flowers

All taken this week in Georgetown.

Islamic Art at Sotheby's

Some highlights from this week's London sale. Umayyad brass astrolabe, signed by Muhammad ibn al-Saffar, Spain, Cordoba, dated in Western Abjad 411 AH/1020 AD, with later Ottoman Turkish rete, 16th/17th century

Ottoman voided silk velvet and metal-thread panel (çatma), with çintamani and tiger-stripe design, Turkey, late 16th/early 17th century, 162 x 120 cm

Detail of an illuminated Hajj scroll, North India or Mecca, 18th /19th century

Imperial Mughal spinel, inscribed with the names of emperors Jahangir, Prince Khurram and ‘Alamgir (Aurangzeb), India, dated 1024 AH/1615 AD and 1070 AH/1659 AD, sold for $350,000.

A gem-set and enamelled gold necklace, North India, 19th century

In France, the Geography of Globalization

In France these days one of the hottest intellectuals is a geographer who studies urban real estate markets. Christophe Guilluy has published three books in the past five years, and been consulted by all the major candidates for president. A summary of his work:
At the heart of Guilluy’s inquiry is globalization. Internationalizing the division of labor has brought significant economic efficiencies. But it has also brought inequalities unseen for a century, demographic upheaval, and cultural disruption. Now we face the question of what—if anything—we should do about it.

A process that Guilluy calls métropolisation has cut French society in two. In 16 dynamic urban areas (Paris, Lyon, Marseille, Aix-en-Provence, Toulouse, Lille, Bordeaux, Nice, Nantes, Strasbourg, Grenoble, Rennes, Rouen, Toulon, Douai-Lens, and Montpellier), the world’s resources have proved a profitable complement to those found in France. These urban areas are home to all the country’s educational and financial institutions, as well as almost all its corporations and the many well-paying jobs that go with them. Here, too, are the individuals—the entrepreneurs and engineers and CEOs, the fashion designers and models, the film directors and chefs and other “symbolic analysts,” as Robert Reich once called them—who shape the country’s tastes, form its opinions, and renew its prestige. Cheap labor, tariff-free consumer goods, and new markets of billions of people have made globalization a windfall for such prosperous places. But globalization has had no such galvanizing effect on the rest of France. Cities that were lively for hundreds of years—Tarbes, Agen, Albi, Béziers—are now, to use Guilluy’s word, “desertified,” haunted by the empty storefronts and blighted downtowns that Rust Belt Americans know well.

Guilluy doubts that anyplace exists in France’s new economy for working people as we’ve traditionally understood them. Paris offers the most striking case. As it has prospered, the City of Light has stratified, resembling, in this regard, London or American cities such as New York and San Francisco. It’s a place for millionaires, immigrants, tourists, and the young, with no room for the median Frenchman. Paris now drives out the people once thought of as synonymous with the city.

Yet economic opportunities for those unable to prosper in Paris are lacking elsewhere in France. Journalists and politicians assume that the stratification of France’s flourishing metropoles results from a glitch in the workings of globalization. Somehow, the rich parts of France have failed to impart their magical formula to the poor ones. Fixing the problem, at least for certain politicians and policy experts, involves coming up with a clever shortcut: perhaps, say, if Romorantin had free wireless, its citizens would soon find themselves wealthy, too. Guilluy disagrees. For him, there’s no reason to expect that Paris (and France’s other dynamic spots) will generate a new middle class or to assume that broad-based prosperity will develop elsewhere in the country (which happens to be where the majority of the population live). If he is right, we can understand why every major Western country has seen the rise of political movements taking aim at the present system.
The same problem looms over all the rich nations: where will middle class jobs come from in the future? And how can the prosperity of thriving urban centers be spread across the nation?

Thursday, April 27, 2017

The Wise Men Tell Us

The wise men tell us that the world is growing happier – that we live longer than did our fathers, have more of comfort and less of toil, fewer wars and discords, and higher hopes and aspirations. So say the wise men; but deep in our own hearts we know they are wrong. For were not we, too, born in Arcadia, and have we not – each one of us – in that May of life when the world was young, started out lightly and airily along the path that led through green meadows to the blue mountains on the distant horizon, beyond which lay the great world we were to conquer? And though others dropped behind, have we not gone on through morning brightness and noonday heat, with eyes always steadily forward, until the fresh grass began to be parched and withered, and the way grew hard and stony, and the blue mountains resolved into gray rocks and thorny cliffs? And when at last we reached the toilsome summits, we found that the glory that had lured us onward was only the sunset glow that fades into darkness while we look, and leaves us at the very goal to sink down, tired in body and sick at heart, with strength and courage gone, to close our eyes and dream again, not of the fame and fortune that were to be ours, but only of the old-time happiness that we have left so far behind.

As with men, so it is with nations. The lost paradise is the world's dreamland of youth. What tribe or people has not had its golden age, before Pandora's box was loosed, when women were nymphs and dryads and men were gods and heroes? And when the race lies crushed and groaning beneath an alien yoke, how natural is the dream of a redeemer, an Arthur, who shall return from exile or awake from some long sleep to drive out the usurper and win back for his people what they have lost. The hope becomes a faith and the faith becomes the creed of priests and prophets, until the hero is a god and the dream a religion, looking to some great miracle of nature for its culmination and accomplishment. The doctrines of the Hindu avatar, the Hebrew Messiah, the Christian millennium and the Hesunanin of the Indian Ghost Dance are essentially the same, and have their origin in a hope and longing common to all humanity.

–James Mooney, The Ghost Dance Religion and the Sioux Outbreak of 1890, 1896


A new salvo was fired yesterday in the ongoing debate over when humans reached the Americas. Across most of North America the first human culture that everyone accepts is called Clovis, after the site where its distinctive spear points were first found with the bones of extinct animals. Clovis spread very rapidly across the whole continent between 13,500 and 13,000 years ago, and then an offshoot did the same in South America. But across both continents a number of archaeological sites have been reported that are older than 13,500 years. This raises all sorts of questions. If there were already people in the Americas, how did Clovis spread so quickly, more quickly than Europeans did when they arrived in the New World with guns, steel and horses? And where did those earlier people go? The genetic evidence says that most American Indians are descended from a single small group of people who lived around 15,000 years ago, and the study of the DNA from a Clovis burial at Anzick in Washington state showed that the Clovis people were almost certainly that group. An invading group can come to genetically dominate the future population of an area, but it never happens that the genes of the original inhabitants completely disappear.

Which is what makes this such a great problem to argue about.

Several of the archaeological finds that are supposed to be older than 14,000 years ago are mammoth or mastodon butchering sites. What they yield is elephant bones that have been smashed open in the way that humans do, bearing scratch marks that look like the ones made by the knives of human butchers. Archaeologists use this sort of evidence all the time, for example in arguing about cannibalism. And these ancient bones do indeed look butchered. But on the other hand most of these sites have not produced any other good evidence of humans, which is puzzling. When people butcher a large animal like a mastodon they have to sharpen their tools repeatedly, whether those tools are steel or stone. Sharpening stone tools means knocking off little flakes to restore the edge. Butchering sites like the famous buffalo jumps of the American west are full of stone flakes and discarded tools that had gotten too small to be worth sharpening again. So many archaeologists (like me) have always been skeptical of these mammoth sites, without rejecting them out of hand because, as I said, the bones really look butchered.

But the latest claim from the Cerutti Site in California involves bones that are 130,000 years old. And to that I say, phooey. If there were people in the Americas from 130,000 years ago, where is the evidence? It ought to be all over, in every decent cave or rock shelter, along hundreds of rivers. Just like it is in Europe or Africa or India. So to me this claim invalidates all those other elephant butchering sites without stone tools. I cannot explain how the bones came to look like they were butchered by humans, but I find it so unlikely that there have been humans in the Americas for more than 100,000 years that I reject human butchering as the cause. There has to be some other explanation.

Actually the excavators of the Cerutti Site did offer a couple of "stone tools" from their site; they look like this, and they are said to be hammerstones. Count me skeptical. Hammerstones are a real thing, a very common tool type in all stone age societies, and they generally look something like this. But except in rare cases they are almost impossible to tell from accidentally battered rocks, and I have personally never found even the ones from my own sites to be very convincing.

It's going to take a lot more than scratches on bones and battered rocks to convince me that there were people in California 130,000 years ago.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Quarantana, Widow Of Carnevale

One of Rod Dreher's readers spent Holy Week in Bari in southern Italy, where he took these pictures. He writes:
I asked a local what it was. And he called her a ‘Quarantana’. Apparently she’s Carnevale’s widow…they have a ‘funeral’ for Carnevale (represented as a fat man) on Ash Wednesday and the black-clad Widow (symbol of Lenten deprivation) gets hung up, carrying a spindle of thread (to represent the brevity of life), a fish (as traditionally no eating meat during Lent) and a piece of fruit (representing the coming spring) with feathers stuck in it (6 black ones for each week of Lent and one white one for Easter; one black feather gets plucked out each week).

The Problem with Trump's Tax Cut Plan

George Callas, who is Paul Ryan's senior tax counsel, had this to say about Trump's plan to cut corporate taxes without any equivalent increases in other taxes:
It’s a very, very important point here. A plan of business tax cuts that has no offsets, to use some very esoteric language, is not a thing. It’s not a real thing. And people can come up with whatever plans they want. Not only can that not pass Congress, it cannot even begin to move through Congress day one. And there are political reasons for that. Number one, members wouldn’t vote for it. But there are also procedural, statutory procedural, legal reasons why that can’t happen. Doug and Mark were both talking about reconciliation. I want to pick up on that and flesh that out a little bit because it’s very, very important.

There is, I call it a magic unicorn running around, and I think one of the biggest threats to the timeline on tax reform is the continued survival of magic unicorns. People saying “Well why don’t we do this instead?” when this is actually something that cannot be done. As long as that exists , it’s hard to move forward by getting people to go through with what the Speaker refers to as the stages of grief of tax reform where you have to come to the realization that there are tough choices that have to be made and you cannot escape those tough choices.

What the reconciliation rules say—they don’t say that tax cuts have to sunset in ten years. They say that you cannot have a deficit increase beyond the 10-year window. . . . If you have legislation that has no offsets, no base broadening, so it’s just tax cuts, you either have to get Democrats to support it, which they will not, or you have to do it through reconciliation so that you can do it on a partisan basis with only Republican votes. Again, reconciliation says you cannot increase the deficit after 10 years. Here is a data point for folks. A corporate rate cut that is sunset after three years will increase the deficit in the second decade. We know this. Not 10 years. Three years. You could not do a straight up, unoffset, three-year corporate rate cut in reconciliation. The rules prohibit it. You might be able to do two years. A two year corporate rate cut—I’ll defer to the economists on the panel—would have virtually no economic effect. It would not alter business decisions. It would not cause anyone to build a factory. It would not stop any inversions or acquisitions of U.S. companies by foreign companies. It would not cause anyone to restructure their supply chain. It would just be dropping cash out of helicopters onto corporate headquarters.
Pretty strong language for a Congressional staffer to use about a plan put out by a president of his own party. And incidentally the rules he is talking about are not Senate rules that could be easily be overturned but have been written into Federal law.

Julio Lozano Brea, the Hunt

A flock of pelicans scramble after one very scared fish. From National Geographic.

We Live in a Cruel Universe, Body Mass Edition

Scott Alexander reviews Stephan Guyenet's The Hungry Brain, a sophisticated look a the new science of why we get fat:
In the 1970s, scientists wanted to develop new rat models of obesity. This was harder than it sounded; rats ate only as much as they needed and never got fat. Various groups tried to design various new forms of rat chow with extra fat, extra sugar, et cetera, with only moderate success – sometimes they could get the rats to eat a little too much and gradually become sort of obese, but it was a hard process. Then, almost by accident, someone tried feeding the rats human snack food, and they ballooned up to be as fat as, well, humans. The book:

Palatable human food is the most effective way to cause a normal rat to spontaneously overeat and become obese, and its fattening effect cannot be attributed solely to its fat or sugar content.

So what does cause this fattening effect? I think the book’s answer is “no single factor, but that doesn’t matter, because capitalism is an optimization process that designs foods to be as rewarding as possible, so however many different factors there are, every single one of them will be present in your bag of Doritos”. But to be more scientific about it, the specific things involved are some combination of sweet/salty/umami tastes, certain ratios of fat and sugar, and reinforced preferences for certain flavors.

Modern food isn’t just unusually rewarding, it’s also unusually bad at making us full. The brain has some pretty sophisticated mechanisms to determine when we’ve eaten enough; these usually involve estimating food’s calorie load from its mass and fiber level. But modern food is calorically dense – it contains many more calories than predicted per unit mass – and fiber-poor. This fools the brain into thinking that we’re eating less than we really are, and shuts down the system that would normally make us feel full once we’ve had enough. Simultaneously, the extremely high level of food reward tricks the brain into thinking that this food is especially nutritionally valuable and that it should relax its normal constraints.
Variety is another factor;  one reason the !Kung are thin is that most of their calories come from meat and mongongo nuts. The more variety available to you, the more you eat.

So the basic reason we have gotten  fatter since 1980 is that our food tastes better and is more varied. Plus, the main reason some people are fat and others are thin is genetics. So the best ways to stay thin are 1) be born with the right genes and 2) eat the most boring diet you can think of.

Have a nice day.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

An Eye

From a Hellenistic bronze statue, made of obsidian, glass, and copper. In the Getty.

College and the Dating "Crisis"

I'm going to send this to my sons to see if it will get them more interested in college:
Multiple studies show that college-educated Americans are increasingly reluctant to marry those lacking a college degree. This bias is having a devastating impact on the dating market for college-educated women. Why? According to 2012 population estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, there are 5.5 million college-educated women in the U.S. between the ages of 22 and 29 versus 4.1 million such men. That’s four women for every three men. Among college grads age 30 to 39, there are 7.4 million women versus 6.0 million men—five women for every four men.
It is widely claimed that this mismatch drives society toward looser sexual mores:
Lopsided gender ratios don’t just make it statistically harder for college-educated women to find a match. They change behavior too. According to sociologists, economists and psychologists who have studied sex ratios throughout history, the culture is less likely to emphasize courtship and monogamy when women are in oversupply. Heterosexual men are more likely to play the field, and heterosexual women must compete for men’s attention.
On the other hand there ought to be a shortage of women among the non-college educated set, and I haven't noticed that they have moved toward courtship and monogamy.

The Mystery of Steve

Of all the weird things to show up in the newspapers, I give you the mysterious atmospheric phenomenon known as "Steve":
If you happen to be in Canada on a clear night, look to the stars and maybe you’ll see it: a strip of light stretching from east to west, all the way from the banks of Hudson Bay to the fjords of British Columbia.

Is it a wayward piece of the aurora borealis? Or maybe a plane’s contrail? A rarely seen strip of a proton aurora? Or is it a comet’s tail?

Actually, it’s none of the above. Scientists are still working to figure out exactly what they’re dealing with.

And until that day, they’re going to call it Steve.
Steve has actually been observed now by satellites that study the earth magnetically, which is how we learned this about it:
Steve is a strip of ionized gas moving through the air at about four miles per second, with temperatures as high as 10,800 degrees Fahrenheit — as hot as the earth’s core. It is about 16 miles wide and thousands of miles long, flowing from east to west across Canada.

Photographs of the phenomenon, most of which show Steve as a glowing ribbon of neon light, have captivated aurora borealis enthusiasts in Canada and far beyond.
The name comes from a scene in the animated movie Over the Hedge in which a bunch of forest animals, terrified by a hedge partly because they have no name for it, decide to call it "Steve." This was adopted in a Facebook group of Canadian aurora watchers and for now it seems to have stuck.

I considered the possibility that this is an elaborate joke, but it seems to be appearing in all the media outlets I trust the most.

Energy Jobs

From the Times front page, the latest count of jobs in energy generation. This includes jobs in production (mining, drilling), construction, and running power plants. Note that the solar industry generates a lot less electricity than coal; it has more jobs partly because of all the new construction and partly because some of that construction is in the labor intensive business of putting panels on people's roofs.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Neile Cooper's Stained Glass Cabin

Stained glass artist Neile Cooper built this cabin behind her home in the New Jersey woods. More at This is Colossal and the artist's Instagram.

A Quick Note on Back Surgery

I have mentioned before my puzzlement over the issue of surgery for back pain. The statistical studies show that on the whole it does little or no good, but on the other hand I have two friends who swear up and down that back surgery transformed their lives, freeing them from years of pain.

Part of the answer came to me this weekend, through the story of Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr. Kerr missed his team's playoff victory Saturday because he was in too much pain to sit on the bench, and he does not know if he will be able to attend any playoff games this year. He also missed about half of last season. He blames his troubles on what the sports press all refer to as his "botched back surgery" of two years ago:
On Sunday, Kerr announced his absence was related to lasting pain from back surgery he had in 2015, shortly after the Warriors' championship win over the Cleveland Cavaliers.

"This past week, for whatever reason, things got worse, my symptoms got worse, and I was not able to coach" said Kerr, who missed the start of the 2015-16 season due to chronic pain as a result of the surgery. "The last few days have been difficult ... I was uncomfortable at practice the other day, and with things getting worse, I just made the decision I couldn't coach." . . .

While Kerr wouldn't specify the recent afflictions, saying only that he felt "discomfort and pain," he did say that he would tell anyone suffering from back pain not to get back surgery.
So I suppose the reason the overall numbers are a wash, despite the many success stories, is that for some people back surgery is a disaster. Surgery is always dangerous, and more and more studies have lately shown that the harm done by some kinds of surgery (heart bypass for angina, arthroscopic knee surgery for torn cartilage) balances out the benefit. So I'm with Kerr: if you can get by without it, don't let them cut you open.

A Big Study of the Psychological Differences between Men and Women

Since some of y'all seem to enjoy discussing sex and gender, how about this sophisticated study, based on tests taken by a fairly random sample of 10,000 Americans, showing large differences in personality between men and women, The test measures personality differences along 15 axes:
Warmth (reserved vs. warm), Emotional Stability (reactive vs. emotionally stable), Dominance (deferential vs. dominant), Liveliness (serious vs. lively), Rule-Consciousness (expedient vs. rule-conscious), Social Boldness (shy vs. socially bold), Sensitivity (utilitarian vs. sensitive), Vigilance (trusting vs. vigilant), Abstractness (grounded vs. abstracted), Privateness (forthright vs. private), Apprehension (self-assured vs. apprehensive), Openness to Change (traditional vs. open to change), Self-Reliance (group-oriented vs. self-reliant), Perfectionism (tolerates disorder vs. perfectionistic), and Tension (relaxed vs. tense).
The overall result:
We found a global effect size D = 2.71, corresponding to an overlap of only 10% between the male and female distributions.
Which is a huge difference, dwarfing any that have been found between nations or ethnic groups. Note that is a test of personality and has nothing to do with intelligence, ability, etc.

The biggest difference is along the "utilitarian vs. sensitive" axis, which was so large that they thought it might be messing up the whole study and so reran their numbers without it; they found that most of the overall difference survived even without that one axis. (Women are more sensitive, men more utilitarian, in case you wondered.)

I'm not going to get into defending this particular test as accurate or this particular analysis as correct. But in general over the past 20 years psychology has moved more and more in this direction, finding major sex differences in all sorts of studies. This is probably because the modernist generation that gave us 1970s feminism has aged out of power and been replaced by my generation, and we are just a lot more into genetics than they were. Plus a string of legal victories for women's rights has made it less important to insist, for political reasons, that men and women are the same.

Anyway this is what the best data we have shows, and it confirms what I have found out about life; on average, men and women are different. That by itself says nothing about any particular person you happen to meet, since there are also big differences among men and among women, and the distribution of the two sexes overlaps on every axis. Nor does it say anything about why men and women are different, and much of what is being measured might be caused by socialization. Not all, since some of the differences are found in all human societies – for example that men are more violent – but anyway I think that for most purposes this just doesn't matter very much.

The challenge – and I see this as one of the biggest challenges facing humanity, bigger than economic inequality or climate change – is to create a social and political order that accommodates sex differences while maintaining a very high degree of equality. Because it is probably true that many, many people can't think in this way. Many people can't imagine that two things can be different but of the same value; the idea that "if men and women are different on average, then men must be better leaders and we should always vote for the man" seems to be widespread, entrenched at a deep psychological level. Likewise many people are bad at distinguishing between groups and individuals, thus "eight of the ten people in my 8th-grade programming camp were guys and the five best programmers I know are guys therefore no woman can program."

So I understand the impulse to claim that there are no fundamental differences between men and women, as the simplest way to create equality. But that is not what the data says. And more important, it is not what many people experience in life. Again, I don't think it matters whether these differences are biological or social in origin, because we in fact live in a world in which men and women are different, and whatever plan you come up with to reduce those differences over time is not going to change anything very quickly. There is also the practical fact that women have the babies and therefore bear much of the cost of reproduction. Right now we are faced with creating equality between two different groups of people, and that is just hard.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

"Girls" and the Post-Patriarchal World

Ross Douthat is both a Catholic conservative writer and a huge television fan, and he has written a few times about the HBO series "Girls." Now that the show is over he reflects that while the show was billed as a feminist work, it was not exactly a great argument for feminism:
Meanwhile the girls themselves were all, to varying degrees, antiheroic: as self-destructive and narcissistic in their way as the embattled patriarchs familiar from other HBO productions. (Though, yes, rather less murderous.)

From the beginning, the unattractiveness of their behavior inspired some queasy responses to the show from liberal and feminist critics, and some celebratory rejoinders about how the freedom to make a mess — sexually and otherwise — is the central freedom that feminism sought to win.

Probably the latter interpretation was closer to the showrunners’ conscious intent. But successful art has a way of slipping its ideological leash, and the striking thing about “Girls” is how the mess it portrayed made a mockery of the official narrative of social liberalism, in which prophylactics and graduate degrees and gender equality are supposed to lead smoothly to health, wealth and high-functioning relationships.

In large ways and small the show deconstructed those assumptions. The characters’ sex lives were not remotely “safe”; they were porn-haunted and self-destructive, a mess of S.T.D. fears and dubiously consensual incidents and sudden marriages and stupid infidelities. (Abortion was sort-of normalized but also linked to narcissism: The only character to actually have an abortion was extraordinarily blasé about it, and then over subsequent episodes revealed as a monster of self-involvement.) Meanwhile the professional world was mostly a series of dead ends and failed experiments, and the idea that sisterhood would conquer all even if relationships with men didn’t work out dissolved as the show continued and its core foursome gradually came apart.
This connects so something I have thought and written about a lot. I am dubious of the ability of most people to make in through life on their own, without guidance from society or tradition. Like the characters in "Girls," they seem to make rather a mess of it. On the other hand I find that many of the traditions we received from our ancestors are too sexist, racist and so on to be worth following. So the imperative is to create new traditions, like the modern model of the equal marriage, to serve as guides for life in a post-patriarchal, post-colonial, post-segregation world.


Here's one for the libertarians, a city forming in Haiti's mountains with very little in the way of government:
The earthquake displaced 1.5 million people from cities in the southern portion of the country, including Jacmel, Léogâne, and Port-au-Prince. In an effort to find space for shelters, President René Préval declared about three square miles of land north of the capital public domain. Within weeks, Haiti’s government, the US Central Command, the United Nations, and an NGO founded by actor Sean Penn began constructing about 2,000 temporary shelters on approximately a hundred acres that came to be known as Corail, and encouraged people who’d been squatting in tents in Port-au-Prince to move in.

To many in Haiti, this idea of public land meant it was theirs for the taking, to possess and to own, to farm and to raise a family. No land titles were given, and there was no guarantee of how long people would be allowed to stay. Nonetheless, desperate for space, tens of thousands of Haitians flocked to the area, arriving from the camps that had erupted throughout the capital-. Some came from places that were hardly affected by the earthquake at all but who’d been living indebted to landlords, paying hundreds of dollars in rent each year, in a country where most people live on less than $2.50 a day. Establishing a foothold here was a way to become homeowners for the first time, and to finally escape the noise and hustle and violence of the cities they found so suffocating.

Among the exodus, leaders emerged with a vision for a do-it-yourself city, while neighborhood committees took shape to help plan an informal infrastructure with the hope that the Haitian government or an NGO or some sympathetic benefactor would soon step in to help. On one occasion, residents set about buliding a road by forming a konbit, or team of volunteers, to clear rocks from a chosen route, passing them down the line. After months of fruitless waiting for the government to provide electricity, some neighborhood committees launched crowdfunding campaigns to buy materials to create an electrical grid of their own.
Thousands of permanent houses have been built, and hundreds of businesses are functioning. It's fascinating, and another part of the mysterious tragedy of Haiti. I have read dozens of stories about the creativity and energy of Haitians, and how they throw themselves into solving problems, and yet the country remains famously poor and dysfunctional.

Mrs. Frizzle

According to the Huffington Post, at least a dozen people dressed as everyone's favorite cartoon science teacher for yesterday's science marches.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

A Federalist Copy of the Declaration of Independence

Archivists in Britain recently stumbled on a hand-written parchment copy of the American Declaration of Independence. They have presented evidence that it was made in America in the 1780s, perhaps during the debate over the Constitution. It differs from other copies of the Declaration in one important way: the order of the signatures. On the official Declaration the signatures are grouped by state, but on this copy they are not. The order seems random, and in fact it may have been generated using a common 18th-century cipher to randomize the names.

These archivists think this copy was made for Pennsylvania lawyer James Wilson, one of only six men to sign both the Declaration and the Constitution. If you've heard of him before it was probably as the poor schlub in "1776" who can't make up his mind how to vote. He was indeed ambivalent about independence, but during the debate over the Constitution he took a very strong position for national sovereignty:
Can we forget for whom we are forming a government? Is it for men, or for the imaginary beings called states?
So he had his copyist mix up the order of the signatures to show the signers as Americans rather than New Yorkers or Virginians.


Friday, April 21, 2017

Inside the Rainbow

The weather here today was unsettled, clouds alternating with sun, and in the afternoon some of those clouds dropped showers of rain. Around 5 PM I was driving down the highway following one of those little storms. Ahead of me was a huge white-topped cloud, dark with rain underneath; behind me was the sun. The road was wet. I started to see a faint rainbow, stretching up from the ground to the bottom of the clouds. As I got closer to the storm the spray from other cars grew more intense, and suddenly I started to see rainbows in the spray. They shifted in intensity with the direction I was driving and angle of the sun, but when it was just right I was surrounded by rainbows. There was one around each car, and still one hanging in the sky ahead of me. For a few minutes it was like I had achieved the impossible and reached the rainbow, and I was driving along inside it.

Wan Dinu's Looms

A few years ago Chinese archaeologists excavated a noblewoman's tomb Chengdu found something amazing: tiny models of four complex looms.

The tomb dates to the 2nd century BCE, in the Han Dynasty. The occupant was a 50-year-old woman; according to a seal atop her coffin her name was Wan Dinu.

Reconstructed model and plan of the largest loom. As you can see, this is a complex machine, called a pattern loom. A pattern loom could be "programmed" to produce complex geometric patterns. This is the oldest such loom known. Experts have long debated where these looms came from, and China has been one option; this find seems to solidify the Chinese case.

Geoengineering to Fight Climate Change

Pretty good article by Jon Gertner in the Times on the scientific and ethical questions that surround climate manipulation. If our equations are right, it ought to be fairly simple to cool the planet:
Ten Gulfstream jets, outfitted with special engines that allow them to fly safely around the stratosphere at an altitude of 70,000 feet, take off from a runway near the Equator. Their cargo includes thousands of pounds of a chemical compound — liquid sulfur, let’s suppose — that can be sprayed as a gas from the aircraft. It is not a one-time event; the flights take place throughout the year, dispersing a load that amounts to 25,000 tons. If things go right, the gas converts to an aerosol of particles that remain aloft and scatter sunlight for two years. The payoff? A slowing of the earth’s warming — for as long as the Gulfstream flights continue.
Dumping iron into the Pacific Ocean is another scheme some have suggested, and there are many other plans. One or another of these schemes really ought to work. And honestly I just don't take seriously people who say it is somehow immoral to try to engineer the planet, considering all the ways we have already engineered it. If we are warming the planet, we really ought to cool it back.

Every serious person involved in this and other geoengineering efforts agrees that for now what we need is a lot more research. and even then we may never know if it will really work until we try it on a large scale:
David Battisti, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Washington, told me, “It’s not obvious to me that we can reduce the uncertainty to anywhere near a tolerable level — that is, to the level that there won’t be unintended consequences that are really serious.”
But what if we do the research and find that this stuff works?
What then? The world would need to agree where to set the global thermostat. If there is no consensus, could developed nations impose a geoengineering regimen on poorer nations? On the second point, if this technology works, it would arguably be unethical not to use it, because the world’s poorest populations, facing drought and rising seas, may suffer the worst effects of a changing climate.
Honestly if the planet gets much warmer somebody is going to do this; there are too many nations, and corporations and even individuals who could afford to fund it. If the US and the UN have not approved, what are we going to do? Shoot down the planes?

If I were a science fiction writer I think I might get to work right now on a story about a war between some tropical dictator who wants to dramatically cool the planet and northern countries who want to keep it warm.

The Ferryland Iceberg

This iceberg ran aground just off  the small Newfoundland town of Ferryland, and many folks have come to get a good look at something seldom seen away from the poles.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

California's "Superbloom"

Drenched with rain this winter after years of drought, California's wildflowers have put on a spectacular show this spring. More at the Washington Post.

The Terrorist Crow

From a charming little life of Simona Kossak, a Polish eco-fanatic who lived in a cabin in the forest surrounded by tamed animals:
People called the crow a tamed villain and a thief. He terrorised half of the Białowieża area. He stole cigarette cases, hair brushes, scissors, cutters, mouse traps and notepads. He attacked people. (…) He tore up bicycle seats. He stole documents, he stole the lumberjacks’ sausage in the woods, and made holes in grocery bags. He clung at the pant legs of men, pulled at the skirts of women, and pricked the legs. People thought that Korasek – because that’s what he was called – was some kind of a punishment for sins. Stanisław Myśliński, who has scars from the bird to this day, recalls "He would even steal the workers’ pay in the woods. He once stole my permit for entering the woods. He pulled it out of my pocket and notoriously tore it apart. He loved to attack people who rode bicycles, especially girls. It was very impressive, he would attack the rider’s head with his beak, the person would fall off, and he then sat on the seat triumphantly, looking the at the spinning wheel”.

Simona’s friend says, "Once he stole my car keys. And Lech [Wilczek] said "Don’t worry, he’ll bring them back.” He took a metal rod and scared the crow "You sonofabitch, you took keys from a friend?!” He and I said to Korasek that if he brings them back, he’ll get an egg, and if he doesn’t he’ll get a blow with the rod. And the crow perhaps understood this, because after a moment, he flew up to me, furious, with the keys in his beak and threw them onto a table!”

Bożena Wajda recalls, "Once, I was walking around the reserve without a permit, and the guard saw me, he followed me to Dziedzinka and started to fill in a fine penalty. When he was handing the print to me, the crow appeared. He took the paper in his beak, flew onto the roof of Dziedzinka with it, and tore it up with his leg, on top of that roof. I had such a laughing attack that, that I couldn’t control myself, the guard didn’t know what to do, and finally just shrugged his shoulders at the whole thing. When I told this story to Simona, I thought she would die of laughter.”

The Long-Term Impact of Roman Roads

Some economists ran the statistics comparing the distribution of major Roman roads with city populations 1200-1850 and with the amount of light you see across Europe in a satellite image.

They find a strong correlation between Roman roads and population density even today.

Which is interesting, but I am not sure it says much about Roman roads. It does say something rather dramatic about the population structure of western Europe over the past 2,000 years: most of the great Roman cities are still great cities, and within the empire few new places have appeared to rival them.

To test for the impact of Roman roads in particular you would have to somehow identify territories that are very similar except for the presence or absence of a road, and I am not sure how that would be done. Anyway these guys did not do it.

Interesting Trump Administration Announcement about Iran

Without fanfare, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson just sent a letter to House Speaker Paul Ryan certifying that Iran is complying with the terms of the nuclear deal.

Trump and many other Republicans have denounced the deal as little short of  treason, but in power they are finding that they have to live with it. The sanctions on Iran only worked because they were supported by Europe, China and Japan, and none of those countries would put their sanctions back in place unless definitive evidence emerged of Iranian cheating. So until the Iranians do something flagrant on the nuclear front, the US has little choice but to stick with the deal. Which anyway seems to be working, in the sense that it makes it much harder for Iran to accumulate enriched uranium.

Of course we have lots of other issues with Iran – Syria, Yemen, terrorism, anti-Israel rhetoric – so the political conflict will go on, and the chance of a shooting war remains. But the situation is much less dangerous than before the Obama administration's deal was made.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Siberian Dragon Belt Buckles

Back in the 1970s a Soviet tractor driver, innocently plowing a field in the central Siberian Republic of  Khakassia, pulled up a hoard of 271 Iron age relics buried in a cauldron. They date to around 200 BCE.

These included belt buckles with a dragon motif.

Which made it into the Siberian Times because a Russian archaeologist has studied these forms and determined that they are Siberian originals, not copied from Chinese models. Which is a big deal in Siberia because so much Siberian art is copied from China that anything truly home grown is news. And they're so cool.