Sunday, July 15, 2018

Irish Henge Revealed by Drought

Archaeologists love droughts. Because once people have disturbed the soil by digging pits, that soil holds water a little better than the undisturbed soil around it. The difference is not enough to show during most years, but in a drought that severely stresses the plants, the old pits just may show up as spots where the crops are healthier. And in evening or morning light, an aerial photograph just might show you things never seen before. Like this Neolithic henge in Ireland, just found using a drone. It's in the Brú na Bóinne archaeological landscape around Newgrange, a place with many Neolithic monuments, once probably the spiritual center for one of Ireland's tribes.

Friday, July 13, 2018

Artemisia Gentileschi

Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1656) had an interesting life and has lately embarked on an equally interesting afterlife. She was one of the seventeenth century's most prominent female artists, and perhaps the first woman admitted to the Accademia di Arte del Disegno in Florence. After her death she was pretty much forgotten, dismissed by most conoisseurs as a minor figure and reviled by a few as a foolish slut. (Self Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria (ca. 1615-1617), recently sold to London’s National Gallery for £3.6 million or about $5 million.)

Then came feminism, and suddenly in the late twentieth century Gentileschi was famous and acclaimed in a way she had never been before. Not only was she a female artist, she was a rape victim whose personal testimony, preserved in the legal records of the Governor of Rome, still has the power to move and even shock us centuries later. Two generations of feminist critics, among them Germain Greer, have seen in Artemisia a woman struggling against male power, whose paintings encode resistance and a call to sisterhood. (Susannah and the Elders, 1610, completed when Artemisia was 17.)

But this of course only embroils us in other questions; given that her story can be made into exactly what millions of our contemporaries want in a heroine, what was she really like? And with that background she could be getting major shows now without much talent to speak of; is she any good? After all, as Elisabeth Cohen wrote in the best account I have found of the rape trial, "Between her death and the twentieth century she received little written coverage." (Self Portrait as an Allegory of Painting)

Artemisia was the daughter of Roman painter Orazio Gentileschi, a friend of the great Caravaggio -- one of the witnesses in the rape trial mentioned a day when Caravaggio dropped by the Gentileschi home to borrow a set of angel's wings. Her mother died when she was a child, and she grew up in a house full of male painters. When she approached puberty her father brought a chaperone into the household, a neighbor women named Tuzia who seems to have spent more of her time conversing with the artists than watching over her young charge. Artemisia was trained by her father – a sentence that could be written about all the female painters I know of who lived before about 1850. She learned very quickly and only three years after she first picked up a brush she was assisting with her father's commissions and producing her own works for sale. (Self Portrait as Lute Player, 1615-1617)

In 1612, according to her account, one of her father's associates, a regular house guest named Agostino Tassi, forcibly raped her while her chaperone looked away. He then molified her by promising to marry her. Nine months later her father brought suit against Tassi for struprum, a technical legal term which meant "forcible deflowering." The record does not tell us why Gentileschi waited so long, but most historians guess that he thought the couple were going to marry, and that what triggered the suit was Tassi's refusal to go through with the wedding. (Sleeping Venus, 1625-1630)

Eventually the court found Tassi guilty and sentenced him to five years banishment from Rome. This was a lenient sentence; a more usual punishment would have added a fine large enough to pay a dowery for Artemisia and cover all Gentileschi's legal costs. Plus, even the light sentence was not carried out, and Tassi remained in Rome completing a commission for the Pope. The Pope, Paul V, usually gets the blame for Tassi's getting off Scot free, and he now regularly appears in history and historical fiction as the celibate scowling face of rape culture. But notoriety is nothing new for him; in a papacy that spanned 1605-1623 he achieved several sorts. As the rumored sponsor of the Gunpowder Plot in England he ended up burned in effigy on Guy Fawkes Day by generations of Englishmen; as the Pope who ordered Galileo not to teach or publish about heliocentric astronomy he became the great enemy of science. (The Nymph Corsica and the Satyr)

Artemisia, meanwhile, her honor upheld by the court, found another husband and got on with her life. Sadly that husband proved to be an unreliable loser, and after a few years we find Artemisia traveling alone, raising at least one daughter by herself. Modern accounts sometimes make it out that the rape was the key event in her life and art, setting the tone for everything thereafter. These critics often point to this work, Judith and Holofernes, which they say her the painter herself as Judith and her rapist as Holofernes.

Others say that projects modern attitudes about rape into the past and furthermore turns Artemisia into a one-deminsional artist, and they prefer to put the emphasis on how hard she found it to win commissions as a woman working in a very masculine world. (Allegory of Fame, 1625-1630)

So, my gentle readers, how good was she? Is her art worth all the attention it is getting now, or is the whole business just politics? Is there such a thing as artistic quality independent of the identity and biography of the artist? I, of course, believe that there is. I would say that while Gentileschi was hardly Caravaggio, that is no crime; not everyone can be the best. I like her art just fine, and would take any of these over everything by Jackson Pollack, Willem de Kooning, and Jasper Johns put together, and they get big name museum shows. So why not her?  (Clio)

Race and Bourgeois Norms

David Brooks reviews the evidence that movement toward racial equality has essentially stopped, and then says,
I’d say the correct response to all this is an attitude I encounter a lot among people who are working in these communities, which you might call left on structural racism and right on cultural accountability.

That is to say, the left-wingers have it correct when they point to the systems of oppression that pervade society: the legacy of residential segregation; the racist attitudes in the workplace that demonstrably make it much harder for African-American men to get jobs; the prejudices — in the schools, in the streets and in the judicial system — that make it much more likely that African-American males will be punished, incarcerated and marginalized.

But conservatives are right to point to the importance of bourgeois norms. Three institutions do an impressive job of reducing racial disparity: the military, marriage and church. As the A.E.I. study shows, black men who served in the military are more likely to be in the middle class than those who did not. Black men who attended religious services are 76 percent more likely to attain at least middle-class status than those who did not. As Chetty’s research shows, the general presence of fathers — not just one’s own — in the community is a powerful determinant of whether young men will be able to rise and thrive.
There is a critique of the 60s which says that all the personal freedom worked out great for those at the top of society, but has been a complete disaster for the less fortunate. Sometimes I think there is something to it.

More Nonsense about the Number 13

Jonah Goldberg provides a sad roundup of false theories about why the number 13 is unlucky:
Dossey traces the fear of 13 to a Norse myth about 12 gods having a dinner party at Valhalla, their heaven. In walked the uninvited 13th guest, the mischievous Loki. Once there, Loki arranged for Hoder, the blind god of darkness, to shoot Balder the Beautiful, the god of joy and gladness, with a mistletoe-tipped arrow.

"Balder died and the whole Earth got dark. The whole Earth mourned. It was a bad, unlucky day," said Dossey. From that moment on, the number 13 has been considered ominous and foreboding.

There is also a biblical reference to the unlucky number 13. Judas, the apostle who betrayed Jesus, was the 13th guest to the Last Supper.

Meanwhile, in ancient Rome, witches reportedly gathered in groups of 12. The 13th was believed to be the devil.

Thomas Fernsler, an associate policy scientist in the Mathematics and Science Education Resource Center at the University of Delaware in Newark, said the number 13 suffers because of its position after 12.

According to Fernsler, numerologists consider 12 a "complete" number. There are 12 months in a year, 12 signs of the zodiac, 12 gods of Olympus, 12 labors of Hercules, 12 tribes of Israel, and 12 apostles of Jesus.

In exceeding 12 by 1, Fernsler said 13's association with bad luck "has to do with just being a little beyond completeness. The number becomes restless or squirmy."
No, really, it does not. Jonah, I thought better of you than this. The real explanation is not hard to find. Heck, it's on wikipedia.

Goldberg compounds the problem by linking to that awful Mental Floss "Thirteen reasons people think the number 13 is unlucky" article, which has 13 more incorrect explanations.

Sigh. I suppose I'm going to be fighting this one for the rest of my life, just like pepper and rotten food.

Mind-Boggling Medicine

We have the tools to edit genes; we can, in the proper controlled circumstances, edit any genome pretty much any way we want. But to fight disease this way you need to do the editing reliably for thousands of cells inside a living organism, and that we are still just learning. Most of the techniques involve modified viruses and they are sloppy, slow, and have a poor record in actually saving lives. So this is big news:
Researchers now say they have a found a way to use electrical fields, not viruses, to deliver both gene-editing tools and new genetic material into the cell. By speeding the process, in theory a treatment could be available to patients with almost any type of cancer. “What takes months or even a year may now take a couple weeks using this new technology,” said Fred Ramsdell, vice president of research at the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy in San Francisco. “If you are a cancer patient, weeks versus months could make a huge difference.” . . .

In the new study, Dr. Marson and his colleagues engineered T-cells to recognize human melanoma cells. In mice carrying the human cancer cells, the modified T-cells went right to the cancer, attacking it.
This has long been shown to work in a lab, so if the new technique can really produce enough of the altered T cells to be effective, it ought to work in people. And more:
The researchers also corrected — in the lab — the T-cells of three children with a rare mutation that caused autoimmune diseases. The plan now is to return these corrected cells to the children, where they should function normally and suppress the defective immune cells, curing the children.

The technique may also hold great promise for treating H.I.V., Dr. Wherry said.

The H.I.V. virus infects T-cells. If they can be engineered so that the virus cannot enter the T-cells, a person infected with H.I.V. should not progress to AIDS. Those T-cells already infected would die, and the engineered cells would replace them.

Previous research has shown it might be possible to treat H.I.V. in this way. “But now there is a really efficient strategy to do this,” Dr. Wherry said.
The engineering here involves putting the cells in a bath containing the new gene you want and the CRISPR tool for cutting the genome at the right point, then using electiic fields to make cell membranes permeable enough for the right amount of the tools and genes flow in. Rather than trying to reason out the right conditions to make this happen, they just assigned a graduate student to keep trying it until he got it right:
It required a herculean effort by a graduate student, Theo Roth, to finally figure out the right molecular mixture of genes, gene-editing tools and electrical fields to modify T-cells without a virus. “He tested thousands of conditions,” Dr. Marson said.
The progress in our understanding and control of molecular genetics may end up being the most important development of my lifetime. But of course the techniques used for manipulating genes for therapeutic purposes, altering bacteria to make chemicals on demand, or to bring back mammoths can also be used to create custom diseases or engineer super babies. So when I say "most important," I don't just mean most beneficial.


Twice a year the sun sets in line with New York's street grid, a phenomenon dubbed Manhattanhenge. This weekend is one of those times.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

The First Vikings in Iceland

Written accounts tell us that the first Viking to live in Iceland was Ingólfur Arnarson, who settled in Reykjavík in the year 874. But obviously Arnarson can't have been the first Viking to set foot in Iceland; you don't pack up your whole family and move to an island that has only been sighted from afar. Plus Arnarson already knew enough about Iceland to pick what may be the best spot on the island for his home, even though it was on the opposite side from Scandinavia.

Now there is archaeological evidence of Vikings on the island decades before Arnarson and his family staked their claim:
Archeologists who have been excavating a site at the farm Stöð in Stöðvarfjörður in East Iceland unearthed two large Viking Age longhouses. The two longhouses are very large compared to other Viking Age structures excavated in Iceland and Scandinavia.

Bjarni Einarsson, the archeologist in charge of the dig told the local TV station Stöð 2 that the younger of the two houses was built on the ruins of the older structure, which measures as much as 40 meters (130 ft). Both structures are located beneath the "settlement layer", a layer of volcanic tephra that fell sometime in the years 869-73, making both older than the "official" time of settlement. . . .

Bjarni told Stöð 2 that C-14 dating indicates the older structure was built shortly after the year 800, suggesting settlement in the Eastfjords 70 years before Ingólfur Arnarson arrived in Reykjavík.
Einarsson thinks he has unearthed the site of a fishing camp, which were common in Scandinavia:
Local chiefs would send out teams of workers to establish camps in remote uninhabited areas during summer, where they hunted, fished and produced various goods. The camp in Stöðvarfjörður could have been used to fish, hunt seabirds and seals, as well as to produce oil from whale blubber and iron from bog ore. Most Viking era iron was smelted from bog iron.

Such seasonal camps could have been used for decades before permanent settlement began. Bjarni believes they played a key role in the settlement of Iceland:

"People would have come here to work part of the year, producing goods during summer to take home in the fall. They would have taken these goods home, as well as information about this new land. Based on this information people would then have been able to make an informed decision to settle here permanently."
Plus, much of Iceland's history is preseved in place names
The very name of the farm Stöð and the fjord Stöðvarfjörður seem to support this theory: Stöð translates as camp, station or base.

The Ethology of Politics

Interesting article by Thomas Edsall about the political gender gap in America, which right now is historically very large. Conservative Alex Castellanos and liberal Steven Pinker have the same take on Trump's basic appeal. Castellanos:
We are in the middle of an unprecedented political and cultural gender war. On one side of this war, we have Trump, alpha males and the women who love them. On the other side are beta males and the women who want to be them. . . . [the Trump side] flies the flag of manliness and strength which it sees as necessary to hold the world together and keep it from continuing to unravel in uncertain and perilous times. It is fighting to preserve not just manly strength but gender itself, the cultural differences between male and female. The other side is seeking to overthrow the patriarchal hierarchy that has run the world since we lived in caves. It seeks to create a sexually egalitarian world by extinguishing gender and its differences.

Trump is the last hope of those, like me, who would preserve the old patriarchal hierarchy. That’s why white college educated suburban women hate him: he is the political embodiment of the regressive threat to the evolution of postmodern female identity. Simply put, Trump’s alpha dog manliness and strength are a threat to the evolving independence and power of women. He “would take women back.” He represents the world as it was, where women were kept “in their place.”
Trump is almost a caricature of a contestant to be Alpha baboon: aggressive, hypersensitive to perceived threats to his dominance, boastful of his status and physical attributes (including his genitals), even the physical display of colorful big hair and a phallic red tie. Men may identify with such displays. . . .

The latest battle of the sexes has the media, educational, and workplace establishments sympathizing with women and demonizing men. Much of this is justified and long overdue, given how women are exploited and discriminated against, but it may leave some men feeling defensive, belittled, and eager for a champion. This may especially affect lower-status men. High-status women may justifiably protest their treatment at the hands of high-status men, but lower-status men may feel less sympathy for them, particularly if they feel demeaned and disenfranchised.
Edsall concludes:
Men’s commitment to protecting their status — their dominant position in the social order — cannot be counted out in 2018 or 2020. Elections have become a sexualized battlefield, and men have repeatedly demonstrated their determination to win no matter the social cost. The outcome of the next two elections will show whether women are equally determined to fight tooth and nail.
I would add that one does not have to see this as naked self-interest in men; many Trump voters have equal marriages on the modern model and they may be perfectly happy with that. What drives much of our politics is a desire to make the world feel right. Trump taps into a sense that the world runs better with aggressive manly men in charge; he fits a mental template of the strong leader that goes far back in mammalian evolution. People who have no clue about foreign policy admire Trump's approach because it is all about projecting strength, after interminable, unwinnable wars have sapped our sense that America is strong.

One of the deep problems with the modern world is that most of us feel powerless and ignored. Trump, by acting out ancient images of power, gives his followers a vicarious sense of strength; and by speaking directly to them in language they relate to, he makes them feel that someone understands. Those are powerful political weapons, and it remains to be seen if the Democrats have anything to offer with the same appeal.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Fields of Flowers

Amazing collection of photographs at the Atlantic, showing the fields of flowers in the plain of Castelluccio, Italy.

Inequality and Political Power

To those that have, more shall be given:
This article investigates the effects of economic inequality on legislative agendas. It considers two competing hypotheses: (1) that policymakers will act to counter rising inequality by renewing their focus on redistributive social policies, and (2) that rising inequality makes legislative agendas especially vulnerable to the influence of economic elites, and that these elites will attempt to keep redistributive social policies off the agenda. Empirical tests, which are designed to arbitrate between these hypotheses, use data on public laws and parliamentary bills introduced in the legislatures of nine European countries between 1941 and 2014. The evidence is supportive of the second hypothesis: as inequality becomes more acute, European legislative agendas become systematically less diverse and this narrowing of attention is driven by a migration away from social safety-net issues toward issues relating to law enforcement, immigration, and national defense. . . .

Thus, our findings are consistent with theories that economic inequality is a particularly difficult problem for democratic governments to solve.
From what I can tell the effect is not very large, but it seems to be real and robust. I do wonder if the effect is mainly driven by the extraordinary period after World War II, when welfare states were built in countries that were highly equal mainly from the effects of the war; I couldn't tease that out from the data.

Via Marginal Revolutions

The Visconti "Semideus"

Among the most remarkable illuminated manuscripts to survive from the fourteenth century is a copy of the Semideus or Demigod, a tract on military matters by the humanist Catone Sacco. It's one of the works featured in Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts by Christopher de Hamel. Sacco presented this copy to Duke Filippo Maria Visconti of Milan in 1438. That's the duke above, watched over by the Virgin.

The text is half military history, half flattery of the "Semideus," that is, the Demigod, who of course in the Duke himself. The point seems to have been to convince the Duke to go on crusade and save Constantinople from the Turkish hordes.

The charming illustrations show historical battles, half taken from ancient authors and the rest from chronicles of the crusades. That's our old friend the ship casting post full of snakes at its enemies, a story which Sacco of course accepted without reservation, as any good humanist would.

Interesting way to batter down a fortress. Leonardo wasn't the only Renaissance Italian hatching wild military schemes.

I find these paintings delightful and original. I've never seen anything else quite like them, and they form a great picture of how a humanist scholar imagined the world of war.

45 Things Varlam Shalamov learned in the Gulag

Varlam Shalamov (1907-1982) spent more than a decade in Stalin's gulag, mostly in the Arctic gold mining camps of Kolyma. My post on his poetry is here.

While he was alive Shalamov always refused to say anything about any lessons he might have learned from his experiences, but after he died a list of 45 things he learned was found in his papers. It dates to around 1961, a decade after his release. Full list here. A sample:
1. The extreme fragility of human culture, civilization. A man becomes a beast in three weeks, given heavy labor, cold, hunger, and beatings.

2. The main means for depraving the soul is the cold. Presumably in Central Asian camps people held out longer, for it was warmer there.

3. I realized that friendship, comradeship, would never arise in really difficult, life-threatening conditions. Friendship arises in difficult but bearable conditions (in the hospital, but not at the pit face).

4. I realized that the feeling a man preserves longest is anger. There is only enough flesh on a hungry man for anger: everything else leaves him indifferent.

6. I realized that humans were human because they were physically stronger and clung to life more than any other animal: no horse can survive work in the Far North.

7. I saw that the only group of people able to preserve a minimum of humanity in conditions of starvation and abuse were the religious believers.

8. Party workers and the military are the first to fall apart and do so most easily.

9. I saw what a weighty argument for the intellectual is the most ordinary slap in the face.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Placebo News

Not only do placebos sometimes work as well as "real" drugs, they sometimes cause just as many side effects.

Monday, July 9, 2018

Today's Place to Daydream about: Ljubljana

Ljubljana is the capital of Slovenia, a nation of two million people nestled into the foothills of the Alps where Italy, Switzerland, and the Adriatic Sea meet.

Ljubljana has about 290,000 people itself. It came to my attention because National Geographic suggested visiting, partly because it is "the most sustainable city in the world." The Times praises its "car-free center, historic architecture, lots of green space and riverbanks lined with cafes, pubs and boutiques."

The architecture in the city center is a mix of Renaissance, neoclassical, and Art Nouveau.

One of the highlights is the famous Dragon Bridge, completed in 1901.

There are many parks.

The University.

The independence Slovenia achieved in 1991 was its first. It was ruled over by the Romans, the Ostrogoths, Charlemagne, the Bavarians, and various German emperors, ending up on the front lines of the long war between the Christians and the Turks. When the Austro-Hungarian Empire was split up it became part of the failed experiment known as Yugoslavia. And then when Yugoslavia fell apart, Slovenia achieved independence easily, since it was more geographically compact and ethnically unified than the other states. Above, detail from a 1689 panorama of Ljubljana.

Ljubljana is an ancient place, perhaps founded around a Roman fort; Roman baths turned up in excavations for a new university a few years ago. It was a significant place in the later Middle Ages; the sources usually call it by a German name, Laibach.

These days it is a great combination of laid back and efficient, and I would love to explore it.

If you're bored with the city you can head out into the Alpine countryside, past the vineyards where they make excellent wine

to the famous Like Bled with its island monastery, one of the most photographed places in Europe.

With a famous cliff-top castle besides, all only 30 miles (50 km) from the city. You can row around on a boat, or just sit and absorb the beauty. What a place to think of on this hot July day in Maryland.

Theodor von Holst, The Wish, 1841

We're All Individuals

Amusing essay by Steve Lagerfeld about one of the perennial paradoxes of the modern age, our insistence that we are all outsiders who hate the mainstream. He begins with a Satanic church event at a nighclub, where
ten speakers lined up to spell out the issues in a series of bullet-point pronouncements. “To invoke Satan is to invoke rebellion, and also to question authority,” declared the first. It is to invoke “the struggle for equal justice and equal rights for everyone,” said another. Others announced the temple’s support for science, the right to “claim your body as your own,” and free inquiry. One spoke of “satanic revolution.” The last speaker sounded the evening’s big theme: “We have each embraced the life of a pariah, cast out for being different. Yet here we are together, hundreds of us gathered in one place. Insiders upending the old paradigms.”

It was a shrewd piece of marketing. Somebody in the Satanic Temple brain trust had plucked the signal from the noise of the American scene. The thing to be today is an outsider, an underdog, a moral outlier and exemplar, a defier and disrupter of the established order. It’s an identity that has never been far from the surface in American society, and it is now reasserting itself in a new form. It doesn’t matter if, like the Los Angeles Satanists, you have thoroughly conventional ideas. Or if, like the nation’s Trump supporters, you number in the tens of millions and have put your man in the White House. One of the more compelling claims you can make in America today is that you are proudly and defiantly outside the mainstream. That you are a contrarian. It’s the claim not just of populists but of professors who style themselves as iconoclasts, climate change deniers, radical environmental groups, libertarian seasteaders bent on creating autonomous floating cities, countless alternative-values and lifestyle groups, and many others. The farther you position yourself from the mainstream, the better. Conservative Christians and their rationalist-humanist adversaries in groups like the Satanic Temple seem to vie for the distinction of being the most unwelcome group in American society.
Once upon a time, Lagerfeld says, you had to actually be somehow different from the mass of Americans to claim this status, for example by refusing to take a corporate job. But now "outsiderness has been democratized," and millions of ordinary-looking suburbanites with ordinary jobs proudly proclaim themselves outsiders.

And why do we do this?
The contrarian’s great temptation is moral vanity, and what a sweet one it is. . . . For some of us, there is nothing like the joy of being a pariah.
Right. To be superior to the herd is one of the most pleasant and powerful fantasies.

I've been wondering for some time we moderns are so obsessed with our petty rebellions. Maybe our society is just so huge that it's very hard for people to identify with. Maybe it's the absence of neighboring tribes bent on carrying off our cattle. Maybe it is the degree of difference within the culture, in terms of tastes and opinions. Maybe we're just bored.

I write about this from time to time mostly because it is the mass social tendency I feel most powerfully in myself. I am aware of how foolish it is for me to feel great superiority over the masses, but I can't help myself; nothing makes me feel smug and happy like thinking I am different from and closer to being right than the mass. Which just proves all the more what a typical citizen of our age I really am.

Sunday, July 8, 2018

Spring Grove Hospital

During a Pokemon Go event yesterday Ben and I were led to Spring Grove Hospital, a psychiatric institution that dates back to 1797. As at many of these places, some of the newer buildings are still in use, but the older ones are boarded up and mouldering.

The oldest buildings were all torn down in the 1960s, so the older standing ones date to the early 1900s.

Notice the bush sprouting from the chimney.

This 200-acre property is the subject of a long-running local dispute over what should happen to it. UMBC wants part to add to its campus. Part might become a park. There is a developer who wants part for a shopping/residential/office complex he calls The Promenade, which has some of my neighbors up in arms; PromeNOT signs sprouted in lawns all around here when it was last before the County Council. Those signs also said "Save Spring Grove," but in the long term nothing will save Spring Grove except a massively expensive restoration that I don't think anyone wants to pay for. So while people fight over its future, the whole complex moulders away.

I've just seen these buildings from the outside, but here is a nice set by one of those ruin explorers with a lot of interior shots.

It made my day to end up here by these creepy old buildings, which I had never seen despite living only five miles away.

Media Dictatorship

New paper by Sergei M. Guriev and Daniel Treisman:
In recent decades, dictatorships based on mass repression have largely given way to a new model based on the manipulation of information. Instead of terrorizing citizens into submission, “informational autocrats” artificially boost their popularity by convincing the public they are competent. To do so, they use propaganda and silence informed members of the elite by co-optation or censorship. Using several sources–including a newly created dataset of authoritarian control techniques–we document a range of trends in recent autocracies that fit the theory: a decline in violence, efforts to conceal state repression, rejection of official ideologies, imitation of democracy, a perceptions gap between masses and elite, and the adoption by leaders of a rhetoric of performance rather than one aimed at inspiring fear.
The notion that the internet would make dictatorial information control impossible has been throughly refuted by Russia and China. In the future dictatorial violence will mainly take the form of deniable assassination of rogue journalists.

Via Marginal Revolutions. 

Saturday, July 7, 2018

The Individual vs. the Group

Whenever you use statistical averages to speak about individuals, you run the risk of obscuring more than you reveal. When the data is all over the place, the average can be a meaningless number, and even when there is a normal distribution the outliers may violate all your conclusions.

When it comes to human psychology, things are even worse. This new study found that not only did the averaging statistics hide a lot of variation between individuals, it also masked a lot of variation within individuals, that is, in how they tested from one day to the next.

This study was about depression and anxiety, and it was supposed to measure things like how strongly the two are correlated. What it found was that the standard deviation for individuals, from one day to the next, was eight times greater than the standard deviation for the data set as a whole.

The mean values may still be useful for something, but doing those statistics actually obscures the most fascinating finding of the study, which is about variation: not only do our moods vary a lot, but the correlations between different parts of our moods vary a lot, too. For example, the study tried to determine if brooding is correlated with depression, and the answer was that if you average the data from all 1043 participants, yes, but for you it will depend on what day it is.

For describing human societies, averages are essential, but for getting to know any particular person they are worse than useless. Even the average of one person's behavior may not tell you anything about how he or she will act on any given day.

Friday, July 6, 2018

How Spiders Fly

Great piece by Ed Yong in the Atlantic:
On October 31, 1832, a young naturalist named Charles Darwin walked onto the deck of the HMS Beagle and realized that the ship had been boarded by thousands of intruders. Tiny red spiders, each a millimeter wide, were everywhere. The ship was 60 miles offshore, so the creatures must have floated over from the Argentinian mainland. “All the ropes were coated and fringed with gossamer web,” Darwin wrote.

Spiders have no wings, but they can take to the air nonetheless. They’ll climb to an exposed point, raise their abdomens to the sky, extrude strands of silk, and float away. This behavior is called ballooning. It might carry spiders away from predators and competitors, or toward new lands with abundant resources. But whatever the reason for it, it’s clearly an effective means of travel. Spiders have been found two-and-a-half miles up in the air, and 1,000 miles out to sea.
You might think they do this because their silk threads catch the wind, but no; after all they are just threads, not sails, and the math doesn't work out. So, a mystery.
Erica Morley and Daniel Robert have an explanation. The duo, who work at the University of Bristol, has shown that spiders can sense the Earth’s electric field, and use it to launch themselves into the air.

Every day, around 40,000 thunderstorms crackle around the world, collectively turning Earth’s atmosphere into a giant electrical circuit. The upper reaches of the atmosphere have a positive charge, and the planet’s surface has a negative one. Even on sunny days with cloudless skies, the air carries a voltage of around 100 volts for every meter above the ground. In foggy or stormy conditions, that gradient might increase to tens of thousands of volts per meter.

Ballooning spiders operate within this planetary electric field. When their silk leaves their bodies, it typically picks up a negative charge. This repels the similar negative charges on the surfaces on which the spiders sit, creating enough force to lift them into the air. And spiders can increase those forces by climbing onto twigs, leaves, or blades of grass. Plants, being earthed, have the same negative charge as the ground that they grow upon, but they protrude into the positively charged air. This creates substantial electric fields between the air around them and the tips of their leaves and branches—and the spiders ballooning from those tips.
Cool. And another great example of how different the world is at different scales; a giant spider just would not be able to do this, or in fact any of the other things spiders do.


Simple and deep is always better than shallow and complex.

– Fred Rogers

Thursday, July 5, 2018


We moderns all know the story of Pandora and her box. As we get it from the poet Hesiod, Pandora was a divine punishment. Incensed by Prometheus' theft of fire, Zeus sent to earth a poisoned gift: woman.
he made an evil thing for men as the price of fire.
Haephestus made her from clay, lovely and gentle; Athena dressed her in gleaming clothes; on her head was a crown of gold. The gods gasped when they saw her, so beautiful, but underneath nothing but deceit:
From her is the race of women and female kind:
of her is the deadly race and tribe of women who
live amongst mortal men to their great trouble,
no helpmates in hateful poverty, but only in wealth.
That version, from the Theogony, says nothing about a box of troubles. For that we must turn to another text by Hesoid, the Works and Days:
But when he had finished the sheer, hopeless snare, the Father sent glorious Hermes, the swift messenger of the gods, to take it to Epimetheus as a gift. And Epimetheus did not think on what Prometheus had said to him, bidding him never take a gift of Olympian Zeus, but to send it back for fear it might prove to be something harmful to men. But he took the gift, and afterwards, when the evil thing was already his, he understood. For ere this the tribes of men lived on earth remote and free from ills and hard toil and heavy sicknesses which bring the Fates upon men; for in misery men grow old quickly. But the woman took off the great lid of the jar with her hands  and scattered, all these and her thought caused sorrow and mischief to men. Only Hope remained there in an unbreakable home within under the rim of the great jar, and did not fly out at the door; for ere that, the lid of the jar stopped her, by the will of Aegis-holding Zeus who gathers the clouds. But the rest, countless plagues, wander amongst men; for earth is full of evils, and the sea is full. 
Note that the original is a jar (pithos), not a box; the error seems to go back to the 16th-century humanist Erasums, who made a Latin version of the Works and Days from a Greek text that seems to have contained quite a few errors. Incidentally nobody knows why hope stayed in the jar or what it means, indeed it is so obscure that some people think Hesiod must have confused two unrelated myths here, or even that our texts are corrupt.

Anyway, that is Hesiod's deeply misogynistic version. There is, however, quite a bit of evidence that his was not the only version of the story. This starts with the name, which is usually translated "all gifted," with the idea that this is ironic. Other experts think it means "all giving," and they think it was not ironic at all. Above is a damaged white-ground kylix, c 460 BCE, now in the British Museum. In this painting the central figure is named both Pandora and Anesidora, a word usually applied to goddesses that means "she who brings up gifts." Back when scholars thought there was a matriarchal age somewhere back before the patriarchy that dominates in our earliest texts, they speculated that a formerly boon-bestowing goddess had been transformed by Hesiod and others into a cursed mortal woman.

These days belief in the age of matriarchy is under attack from many directions, and you won't get many scholars to defend it. Yet the ambivalence of Pandora remains a problem. One source mentions a cult of Pandora, giver of the gifts that make life possible, and in art the most common image seems to be Pandora emerging from the earth, not being sent down from heaven. (Like the one above, which some authorities say is Pandora and others say is Gaia, a confusion that makes Pandor something quite different from a cursed trouble-maker.)

And the reason we have so much trouble figuring out how Pandora fits into Greek religion broadly speaking is that so far as we can tell she was just not very important. You would think that if most people accepted Hesiod's version, that Pandora was the first woman and the source of most of our miseries, she would have been all over ancient art and literature. But she just isn't. Plus, ancient literature has several other candidates for the first woman and numerous explanations for our mortality and other woes, like this one from the Iliad:
There are two urns (pithoi) that stand on the door-sill of Zeus. They are unlike for the gifts they bestow: an urn of evils, an urn of blessings. If Zeus who delights in thunder mingles these and bestows them on man, he shifts, and moves now in evil, again in good fortune. But when Zeus bestows from the urn of sorrows, he makes a failure of man, and the evil hunger drives him over the shining earth, and he wanders resepected neither of gods nor mortals.

Which brings me to the observation that started me researching Pandora: her real prominence in art and myth dates to the nineteenth century. If you don't believe me, try your own searches – other than Hesiod what you will find is paintings, sculptures, plays, poems and operas dating to after 1860. In the years around 1900, an age mysteriously obsessed with the femme fatale, Pandora was everywhere. There are a few earlier examples, which are rooted in a Christian theological trope that equated Pandora with Eve; above is a sixteenth-century French painting titled Eve the Original Pandora.

Obviously knowledge of Pandora endured through medieval and early modern times, since Hesiod is one of our key sources for Greek mythology. But she was a minor figure; I suspect many ancient Greeks had never heard of her.

No, her real hour is now. She surged to fame as a metaphor for the risks that surrounded female liberation and sexual license, two things that very much went together in the minds of moralists. She became the danger of women, and the danger of sex, for two generations of male artists.

The first wave of Pandora obsession faded with World War I. When the atomic bombs went off and we confronted our power to destroy ourselves, Pandora acquired a new meaning as a metaphor for technology. Searching for information this week I have stumbled on half a dozen articles that call Artificial Intelligence a "Pandora's Box." Sadly this does not seem to have led to any very interesting art.

Pandora and her box/jar seem to be useful metaphors for the fear that dominates our age: that our progress is our own undoing.

Images: John William Waterhouse, 1886; Swedish soprano Christine Nilsson as Pandora by Alexandre Cabanel, 1873; Thomas Kenning, 1908; Attic white-ground kylix, c. 460 BCE; Attic red-figure vase showing Pandora or Gaia, 5th century BCE; Attic red figure vase showing Pandora and Epimetheus; Jean Cousin the Elder, Eva Prima Pandora, 1550; one of at least depictions of Jane Morris as Pandora by Dante Gabriel Rossetti; Yvonne Gregory, 1919; Odilon Redon, 1914; John Dickson Batten, The Creation of Pandora, 1913.