Wednesday, February 28, 2018


Dunadd is a hill fort in western Scotland, perched atop a rock that rises dramatically from a boggy plain. It was occupied in the Bronze and Iron Ages, but its glory days came in the early Middle Ages when it was the capital of Dal Riada, the Kingdom of the Scots.

Scots, you know, came from Ireland; until they showed up around 400 AD the place was part of Pictland. Behold a nice map of Britain around 550 AD that shows the Pictish kingdoms in purplish, the Welsh in reddish, the Saxons in greenish, and the Scots in orange.

So Dal Riada was an Irish kingdom in western Scotland, with close ties to Ulster. Written sources tell us that at times in the 7th and 8th centuries its capital was at Dunadd, and most scholars think that Dunadd was the place that still bears the name.

Dunadd is a site chosen for defense. It is not convenient to much of anything by land, and the best road from the site to into central Scotland is a causeway across miles of bogs.

The approach by sea takes you past the famous Corryvreckan whirlpool, where the hag of winter was said to do her laundry, a death trap for sailors without local expertise.

This tells you something about the kings of Dal Riada; despite their golden jewelry and gold-tongued bards, they clung rather precariously to the shores of Scotland. Chronicles tell us that Dunadd was twice taken and sacked by Pictish warlords, and for long stretches Dal Riada was dominated by the Saxon kings of Northumbria.

Besides the foreigners, the Scots had problems with each other. Two powerful clans competed for lordship, the Cenél nGabráin and the Cenél Loairn, and Dunadd was pretty much on the boundary. They passed the capital and the kingship back and forth between them.

Reconstruction of Dunadd at its height.

And another. Note the long-standing problem of whether certain stone constructions (like the round citadel at the top of Dunadd) had roofs or not.

Well, on one of the lower terraces.

4th-5th centuries

Dunadd has been excavated three times: in 1904-5, in 1929, and in 1980-1. The most recent excavations were the most interesting. They established the sequence of construction of the features and rough dates for the phases. They also found lots of pottery imported from France, which presumably arrived full of wine, an interesting look into overseas trade in the Dark Ages.

6th-7th centuries

8th-9th centuries

The most recent archaeologists dug only four trenches, two of which were pretty much empty. But one landed on top of a metal-working shop of the 7th century and produced wonderful things: more than 200 crucibles, hundreds of molds and mold fragments, and numerous pieces of bronze, silver, and gold. I would love to show you pictures, but so far as I can tell there just aren't any. Grrrrrr. One day British archaeology will enter the internet age. I hope this happens before I die but I am not counting on it.

The most famous thing about Dunadd is the footprint (size 8) carved into the rock. This is not the original but a concrete cast that sits on top of the real thing to preserve it. It is supposed to be an exact recreation, and from what I can tell most folks who visit the site don't even realize the substitution.

Many people think this foot print was used in the ritual that made Dalriadan kings: you put your foot in this and said whatever one said and got blessed by some important abbot and presto, you were king. The Irish had lots of such traditions, and the famous Stone of Scone was used in making kings of Scotland until Edward I stole it and put it under his throne. But now we have democracy so anybody who hikes up to the top of Dunadd can put his or her foot on the (concrete cast of the) royal footprint and be king for a minute or so.

Seems like a wonderful place to imagine long-ago worlds.


A Tumblr user who went by swanjolras:
gosh but like we spent hundreds of years looking up at the stars and wondering “is there anybody out there” and hoping and guessing and imagining

because we as a species were so lonely and we wanted friends so bad, we wanted to meet other species and we wanted to talk to them and we wanted to learn from them and to stop being the only people in the universe

and we started realizing that things were maybe not going so good for us– we got scared that we were going to blow each other up, we got scared that we were going to break our planet permanently, we got scared that in a hundred years we were all going to be dead and gone and even if there were other people out there, we’d never get to meet them

and then

we built robots?

and we gave them names and we gave them brains made out of silicon and we pretended they were people and we told them hey you wanna go exploring, and of course they did, because we had made them in our own image

and maybe in a hundred years we won’t be around any more, maybe yeah the planet will be a mess and we’ll all be dead, and if other people come from the stars we won’t be around to meet them and say hi! how are you! we’re people, too! you’re not alone any more!, maybe we’ll be gone

but we built robots, who have beat-up hulls and metal brains, and who have names; and if the other people come and say, who were these people? what were they like?

the robots can say, when they made us, they called us discovery; they called us curiosity; they called us explorer; they called us spirit. they must have thought that was important.

and they told us to tell you hello.

The Two Faces of Corporate America

Ross Douthat:
Here are two stories about corporate America’s current role in our politics and common life. In one, the country’s biggest companies are growing a conscience, prodded along by shifts in public opinion and Donald Trump’s depredations and their own idealistic young employees, and becoming a vanguard force for social change — with the recent disassociations from the N.R.A. by major airlines and rental car companies just the latest example in a trend that also includes recent high-profile corporate interventions on immigration and gay and transgender rights.

In the other story, corporate America just performed another bait and switch at the common good’s expense — making a show of paying bonuses and raising wages after the passage of the corporate-friendly Republican tax bill, but actually reserving most of the tax savings for big stock buybacks, enriching shareholders rather than employees in an economy where wage growth still disappoints.

These are not two stories, though; they’re different aspects of the same one. Corporate activism on social issues isn’t in tension with corporate self-interest on tax policy and corporate stinginess in paychecks. Rather, the activism increasingly exists to protect the self-interest and the stinginess — to justify the ways of C.E.O.s to cultural power brokers, so that those same power brokers will leave them alone (and forgive their support for Trump’s economic agenda) in realms that matter more to the corporate bottom line.
I wonder how much longer this will work. Yes, guns and gay rights remain important for liberals, but I have a sense that a renewed emphasis on wages is coming.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

The Interpretation of Dreams

The Compleat Book of Knowledge, 1698, says this about various dreams:

Have your Arm dried up, is very unfortunate.
Have a little Beard, shews Suits at Law.
Go over a Ditch upon a small Plank, signifies deceit by Lawyers.
See Dragons, signifies Gain.
Are Drunk, signifies sickness.
See a Gyant, or a large siz'd Person, is a good sign.
Have a new Girdle, signifies Honour.
Have two Heads, signifies Company.
Lose your Keys, signifies Anger.
Are Kiss'd by Men of great Quality, signifies Consolation.
See the Meat you have Eaten, signifies Loss.
Are stark Naked, signifies Loss and Damage in your Estate.
Take hold of ones Nose, signifies Fornication.
See Old Folks, is a bad Sign.
Write on, or read in Paper, signifies News.
Have Rods in your Hands is Jollity.
Eat a Sallad, signifies Evil or Sickness that will happen.
Study the Sciences, signifies Chearfulness.
Drink stinking Water, signifies a Violent Distemper.
Drink Sophisticated Wine, is an extraordinary good Sign.
Piss against a Wall, signifies Assistance in Business.

Via Ask the Past.

Willy Kriegel

Willy Kriegel (1901-1966) was a German artist who is best known these days for four paintings, a series of the times of day done in 1942-1943. Above, Night.




But during his lifetime he was best known for his "small" works – Hermann Goering's wife was one of his fans, which probably explains why he made it through the Nazi era ok despite being listed among the "degenerate" artists. These paintings were small both in size and in subject; most focused on plants or bits of woodland.

I find these rather charming, and they speak to me as the work of a man who wanted nothing to with the storms of war and politics raging around him. So he went out to the woods and painted ferns.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Day 0 of the Gardening Year

It was very warm here this week and rained almost every day, a combination that has plants shooting up and buds ripening. So I went out in the muddy drizzle this morning to start my year's work in the garden. I cut down the dead plants I had left to provide a bit of winter interest and raked out a winter's worth of leaves and other trash.

The daffodils are coming up everywhere, more every year; eventually I'm going to have to start throwing some away.

Irises. Normally I would have applied my first spraying of DeerOff but since it rained all day and is supposed to rain all night I put that off.

I came in damp and coated with mud from the knees down but it was still nice to get out and enjoy growing things and rich earth.

Friday, February 23, 2018

Kids These Days

The political gap between young voters (18 to 33) and people over 50 is bigger today than it ever was in the 1960s. (Based on data from here.) The Millennial generation is the most liberal in the history of polling, by a substantial margin.

Jorge Méndez Blake, "The Castle"

Brick wall distorted by a single book, a copy of Kafka's The Castle. Via My Modern Met.

Ground Broken for the World's Most Dangerous Pipeline

The world's latest experiment in "pipeline diplomacy" is finally underway in Afghanistan, more than twenty years after it was first proposed. Groundbreaking took place this morning in Herat for the TAPI gas pipeline, so-called because it crosses Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. This route was originally envisioned because Russia kept cutting off shipments of gas from Turkmenistan through its pipelines, and the obvious route across Iran had its own share of political difficulties. (Especially that it would open a big hole in the sanctions then in place against Iran because of its nuclear program.)

But if you're wondering how a pipeline across Afghanistan and Pakistan's tribal areas could possibly be safer and more reliable than any other imaginable route anywhere, well, a lot of people agree with you. Pressure has continued to build this line because the world would really like Afghanistan to have some economic alternative to opium poppies, because people would really like to do something for Afghanistan besides drop bombs on it, because peace factions in Pakistan and India really like the idea, because Turkmenistan really hates depending on Russia, and because India's potential demand for natural gas is enormous. Whether all of this will be enough to see the line through to completion remains to be seen.

And if it is built, what will happen to the $400 million a year in transit fees this is expected to earn for Afghanistan? Seems likely to me it will disappear into a nexus of corrupt dealing. But maybe that would actually help; I mean, it seems better to me for Kabul and the Taliban to make a back room deal dividing that money than to keep shooting and bombing each other. In the longer term this could lead to the development of smaller gas fields in Afghanistan itself, since both the proximity of the pipeline and the evidence that the warring factions can be bribed into partial peace would encourage investment.

I'm not especially hopeful, but when it comes to Afghanistan anything positive is worth cheering.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Ekaterina Lukasheva: Kusudamas

Ekaterina Lukasheva is a Russian paper artist with a math degree. She designs kusudamas, folded paper constructions with a long tradition in the country. More at This is Colossal.

Cock Fight Mosaic from Pompeii

Cryptocurrencies, Religion, States, and Corporations

Investment guru Paul Singer of Elliott Management recently wrote this about Bitcoin
FOMO (fear of missing out) has solidly trumped WTHIT (what the hell is this??). When the history is written, cryptocurrencies will likely be described as one of the most brilliant scams in history. . . .

We all laugh at primitive tribes which used large stones (or pigs) as currency. Well, laugh as you will, but a stone or a healthy pig is something. Cryptocurrencies are nothing except the marketing power of inventors, financiers and others who love the idea of buying a black box (which is obviously empty) for the price of a Kia and dreaming that it will turn into a Mercedes. There have been times recently when this dream has materialized within hours. This is not just a bubble. It is not just a fraud. It is perhaps the outer limit, the ultimate expression, of the ability of humans to seize upon ether and hope to ride it to the stars.
Which led Matt Levine to write this:
I mean look. If I told you "X is a scam," you probably wouldn't buy X, because you are a savvy Money Stuff reader and you don't buy into scams. But maybe you should! What if I told you "X is a really good scam, and it's just getting started"? The stereotypical pump-and-dump scheme starts with some fraudster hyping a stock, and ends with a bunch of retail investors holding the bag when that stock crashes. But in between there are usually savvy people who buy the stock on the hype, knowing that it's a scam, but believing correctly that they'll be able to sell it to someone else on the way up and get out before the crash. Sometimes the right trade is to short a scam, but often it's to go along with the scam for a while.

But cryptocurrencies, in Elliott's telling, are not just a scam, or a good scam. They are "one of the most brilliant scams in history." What else is on that list? I like Yuval Noah Harari's argument, in "Sapiens," that Homo sapiens's major advantage as a species is our ability to generate collective fictions . . .

Harari argues that fiction "has enabled us not merely to imagine things, but to do so collectively," and thus given us "the unprecedented ability to cooperate flexibly in large numbers." Harari's list of powerful fictions includes religion, nation-states, human rights, money and the limited liability corporation. Laugh as you will, but the limited liability corporation is not a stone, or a healthy pig. It is just an example of the ability of humans to generate abstract concepts and use them to coordinate action, "to seize upon ether and hope to ride it to the stars." Viewed in a certain light the corporation, or money, or nation-states, or religion, are some "of the most brilliant scams in history." Being on that list augurs well for a scam's longevity, and for its real value. If Bitcoin lasts for 10,000 years and facilitates a freer and more productive economy, then it really will be one of the most brilliant scams in history. And you'll be glad you bought Bitcoins.

That doesn't mean that Elliott is right! What do I know? Maybe cryptocurrency is not one of the most brilliant scams in history, but just a regular scam. This is not investing advice. My point is only that it is not a good objection, to an innovation in human culture, to say that it has no basis in physical reality. That's the whole point of culture, the defining feature of humanity.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Systematic review of publication bias in studies on publication bias

Publication bias is a well known phenomenon in clinical literature, in which positive results have a better chance of being published, are published earlier, and are published in journals with higher impact factors. Conclusions exclusively based on published studies, therefore, can be misleading. Selective under-reporting of research might be more widespread and more likely to have adverse consequences for patients than publication of deliberately falsified data. We investigated whether there is preferential publication of positive papers on publication bias.
We found no evidence of publication bias in reports on publication bias.
Well, that's a relief.

Ancient Whale Hunts in Chilean Rock Art

Painted in the Atacama Desert, miles from the sea, are hundreds of paintings that show marine life. They are thought to be about 1500 years old. Most striking are the images of whale hunts. So far as we know these people actually hunted only small whales (those are the bones archaeologists find), so they have exaggerated the size of the whales to make the enterprise seem even more dangerous.


Since I had so much fun at Portsmouth on Friday despite the miserable weather, I opted on Saturday to do more exploration of colonial New England. I ended up in Marblehead, a seaside town with 200 colonial houses.

They just go on and on, each with a little sign bearing the date, many from before 1730. It should be said that many were enlarged later, so you can't tell how much of what you see is original, but in Marblehead "later" usually means 1760 or maybe 1810. Not much has happened there lately.

Town hall.

Charming folly built in the 1920s.

Amazing graveyard on a hill overlooking the town, with views of the harbor in the distance.

Four children of Captain Richard and Mrs. Elizabeth Stevens.

Monument to a famous privateer of the Revolution. Sailors were in the forefront of conflict between Britain and its colonies because many of the issues in dispute (such as impressment) touched them personally. Plus, they were just a cantankerous lot. So Marblehead, one of the foremost sailing towns in New England, sent many of its men to the Revolution both at sea and on land. Marblehead men rowed George Washington's army across the Delaware to attack Trenton, and Marblehead privateers were so active the town claimed to be the "birthplace of the US navy." The cost was high; by the end of the war there were 459 widows and 865 orphans in a population of less than 5,000.

Up the Revolution!

A delightful place.