Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Alison Pollack's Fungi

Retired environmental consultant and avid photographer Alison Pollack has a thing for fungi and slime molds. She takes these during walks in Northern California. More at her Instagram. Above, Physarum viride, a slime mold.

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Why Are You a Spinster?

In 1889, a British magazine called Tit-Bits sponsored a contest for the best explanation of why a woman was a spinster. Note that the numbers after the names are part of the address, not ages. Via Dr. Bob Nicholson.

Professors on Airplanes

Seth Wynnes:
Flying comes at a huge environmental cost, and yet many researchers view it as crucial to their success. Using the University of British Columbia as a case study, we investigated whether the faculty at our institution who flew the most were also the most successful. We found that beyond a small threshold there was no relationship between scholarly output and how much an individual academic flies.
Professors go to conferences because they enjoy interacting with their peers. Nothing wrong with that; the reason we have built this fabulous technological economy is so we can do things we enjoy. But like many other cranky moralists I am skeptical of big name academics who spend half their time jetting around the world to conferences where they can stay in nice hotels and chat with other big name academics. Those people are not doing more or more interesting work than people who stay home and think. In fact in many fields people do their best work when they are young and don't have the time or money to fly around much.

And here's another reason why so many people don't take climate science seriously:
We certainly did find evidence that researchers fly more than is likely necessary. In the portion of our sample composed of only fulltime faculty, we categorized 10% of trips as “easily avoidable”. These were trips like going to your destination and flying back in the same day or flying a short distance trip that could have been replaced by ground travel. Interestingly, green academics (those studying subjects like climate change or sustainability) not only had the same level of emissions from air travel as their peers, but they were indistinguishable in the category of “easily avoidable” trips as well.
It's hard to believe we are really in a climate crisis when the people promoting the crisis viewpoint don't act like they believe it, either.

Monday, June 24, 2019

Russ Roberts on Scientific Modesty

Tyler Cowen recently interviewed economist Russ Roberts. My favorite parts were Roberts' expressions of intellectual modesty. The first came after Cowen asked him what changes he would make if he were czar of American science:
ROBERTS: Well, I’ll cheat for a minute and say what I’ll change is for people to be more willing to accept the possibility that they’re wrong, which is not a policy lever that we actually have control of. I’m a big fan of Richard Feynman’s quote: “The first thing is not to fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.”

We romanticize science a great deal, and I think we romanticize the objectivity of academics and scientific researchers. They have their own pet theories, their own fads, their own reputations. It’s very hard to do science. It’s very hard to do good science.
And in response to a question about how his views have changed over the past twenty years:
I’ve become disenchanted with economics in general in the following sense: We have this idea, which is a very strange idea when you go deeply into it, which we teach our students, something called utility theory.

We developed utility theory in economics to explain why people buy what they buy. We’re trying to generate demand curves and explain why, when a price of some good goes up, you buy more of a different type of good. We call that a substitute. There might be you buy less of it. We call that a complement.

We were very focused on what I could call commercial behavior — what people do with their money. Then somehow, we made a bizarre leap from that narrow focus to arguing that we have something to say about people’s well-being. You think about how strange that is.

Now, if I said to you, “Does what people buy contribute to their well-being?” Of course it does. We want to buy things that add more to our well-being than things that add less. That’s reasonable. Most people would agree with that. Would you then jump to the conclusion that what people consume determines how happy they are? Now, that would be ludicrous. Adam Smith understood in 1759 that that isn’t the case.

If you asked economists, “Is that true?” “Well, of course not. No, when I mean utility, I mean everything. I mean the nonmonetary aspects of a job, for example, and the nonmonetary aspects of the steak you cook at night for the romantic dinner. It’s the romance that’s more important than the consumption of the steak, of course. We all know that.”

Yet, somehow, we’ve become the arbiters of how policy translates into well-being. I find that really deeply disturbing.

Friday, June 21, 2019

The Frescoes of the House at Sorgues

Sorgues is a town near Avignon that was part of the papal state during the "Babylonian Captivity" of 1309-1376. Some time during that period a person associated with the papal court built a large house in Sorgues and decorated it frescoes. They were removed in the 18th century and taken to the Louvre; now they are in the Petit Palais Museum in Avignon.

The frescoes come from two rooms. In the first, larger room they show a hunting scene in a forest.

In the smaller room they show a "scene of intrigue." Frescoes like these once adorned the homes of thousands of nobles and wealthy merchants across Europe, but almost all have disappeared. Which makes these quite special.

Violence at Çatalhöyük

The neolithic settlement of Çatalhöyük in southern Turkey has fascinated the world since it was first discovered. It was quite large, 32 acres, and so densely packed with houses that people had to enter their homes through holes in the roof; streets, one supposes, had not been invented yet. There were occasional "courtyards", roofless spaces within the mass of buildings, but they could also only be entered from above and most seem to have filled up fairly quickly with refuse. The population of the town at its peak may have been as much as 8,000, enough that some call it the first city.

Which raises a lot of questions. Why, in such an empty world, would some of the first farmers in that region choose to live in such a dense mass?

If you try to imagine what that was like, you will immediately see the problems. What happened to the trash and waste? A lot of it seems to have been dumped into those courtyards or any other available space, and what was put in baskets for removal may have just been carried across the roofs to the edge of the town and tossed off. The place was full of shit, examination of which has shown that the residents all suffered from worms and other intestinal parasites. And another question: how did people get along? Didn't they drive each other crazy and people living in such close quarters usually do?

A new study of burials from the 7100 B.C. to 5950 B.C. period confirms these problems. According to the analysts, their data show that Çatalhöyük was "a highly stressful environment."
Recently, archaeologists compiled 25 years of data gathered from the remains of 742 individuals at Çatalhöyük. In the preserved evidence of more than 1,000 years of Neolithic life, the scientists discovered "a compelling record of elevated levels of interpersonal violence" triggered by the stress of city living, the researchers wrote in the study.

The scientists found that the number of injuries, evident in skeletons, increased when the community was at its largest, suggesting that as Çatalhöyük's population boomed, violence became more frequent. About 25% of the 95 examined skulls showed healed injuries made by small spherical projectiles, probably a clay ball flung by a slingshot. Many of these clay spheres were also preserved around the site, according to the study.

The majority of the victims were women, and they appeared to have been struck from behind; 12 of the skulls had been fractured more than once, the scientists reported.

Disease was also rampant in Çatalhöyük when the city was at its most crowded, with around 33% of the human skeletons showing signs that hinted at bacterial infection. During that same period, approximately 13% of the women's teeth and 10% of the men's teeth were riddled with cavities — the result of a diet rich in grains.
The investigators also found that the amount of heavy work the inhabitants did started out as greater than that of hunter-gatherers and only increased over time, so that after a millennium the people of Çatalhöyük were worn down by their labors and suffering from arthritis and the like as a result.

There are a lot of problems with these numbers, and the biggest is that we know the burials at Çatalhöyük were not a random sample. There are not nearly enough of them to represent the whole large population; consider that for a period of a thousand years in a community of at least 5,000 people they only have 742 bodies to study. Since we don't know why some people were carefully buried within the settlement and why others have vanished, we can't really say who these people were.

I would also question the assumption that the violence shown by these skeletons represents conflict within the community. What about attacks from outsiders? Because the most obvious answer to the question of why they lived piled on top of each other like that is, "for defense." If they were regularly being attacked by outsiders, who (say) used sling stones to attack women who went out to get water or work in the fields, that could explain a lot. The usual objection to this is to point out that the iconography of these people never shows war, and few weapons have been found. They do not seem to have been very warlike. But maybe that was the point; by living together in such a large community they were able to achieve safety without militarization.

Here's another thought: if those women with head injuries were killed by their neighbors, could these have been stonings, carried out by this close-knit community against those who violated its norms?

The cost  of that density to their way of life was high no matter how you look at it: disease from overcrowding, tooth decay from a grain-heavy diet, many injuries from violence. Why didn't they simply spread out across the landscape into smaller, more manageable settlements, where they might have had more access to wild foods and thus a more diverse diet?

As I said, I think the threat of violence from outsiders is one reason. The other may be the social and spiritual attractions of life within a large community. Çatalhöyük got famous because of the density of religious art in certain buildings that the site's original excavator, James Mellaart, called "shrines." The more convincing interpretation, put forward by Ian Hodder, is that these are houses that had become the central places for family cults within which the elders preserved secret knowledge and shared it as needed with younger non-initiates. I imagine that the people of these settlements were obsessed with secret cults and the level of their initiation within them; I imagine that their social and spiritual lives revolved around initiations and other semi-secret rituals enacted in these small, dark house-shrines. Perhaps they devoted their lives to achieving higher and higher ranks in more and more cults, to learning more and more secrets, as certain aboriginal Australians still do.

Their identities, we can assume, were wrapped up in their home: in its cults, its art, its ritual, its families and clans. They stayed within its disease-ridden, violence-plagued walls because moving away to some smaller, more open community meant giving up everything they cared about.

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Han van Meegeren and the Toulouse Caravaggio

This painting, known as the Toulouse Caravaggio, is to be auctioned off next week in France; whether it will fetch the $100 million price the sellers are hoping for depends on whether anyone with that much money believes it is a real Caravaggio.

The sellers think that this is a known but lost painting, of which a copy survives painted in the 17th century by one of Carvaggio's acquaintances. That lost painting was done in Naples around 1607. The Toulouse painting does have the look of a Caravaggio, and Judith is obviously his favorite female model, the courtesan Fillide Melandroni.

Compare Caravaggio's other painting of the same scene, done in Rome in 1598.

Caravaggio had a thing for red drapery, and the drapery in the Toulouse Caravaggio looks like his.

So does the detail on this cuff.

But I am skeptical. I am skeptical because the people proclaiming this as a lost Caravaggio say things like:
“Look at the execution of the lips, the way the chin and eyelids are painted,” said Mr. Turquin, pointing at the face of Judith, challenging the viewer with her gaze as she coolly decapitates Holofernes with his own sword. “It belongs to Caravaggio. How could it be by anyone else?”
And to that I say, balderdash. To see why you have only to consider the career of the famous forger Han van Meegeren. Van Meegeren was a Dutch painter who in the 1920s and 1930s created dozens of fake old master paintings, most spectacularly ten fake Vermeers. Experts, some of them extremely well educated and sophisticated, proclaimed these to be authentic masterpieces. In fact when Van Meegeren, in prison facing charges of collaborating with the Nazis, revealed the fraud, some of the curators who had bought his paintings refused to believe him. Van Meegeren actually did collaborate with the Nazis, but he got off by revealing that he had sold one of his fake Vermeers to Goering for a huge sum, which made him a Dutch folk hero for a while. (He still is a folk here in some corners of the internet, but he was both a Nazi and a crook.)

Actually the weird thing to me about van Meegeren's career is that his fake Vermeers don't look anything like real ones to me; consider the comparison above, Vermeer on the left and van Meegeren on the right. The van Meegeren looks to me like a painting from the 1930s.

And there were people who spotted this, but enough experts were taken in that van Meegeren became a very wealthy man. Connoisseurship simply cannot be trusted.

The experts who are most skeptical about the Toulouse Caravaggio point to the face of the servant. This is both clumsy and anatomically dubious, and Caravaggio, like most Italian painters of the 16th and 17th centuries, was obsessed with showing how faces actually convey emotion. Of course it might be that the master did most of the painting but left some details to an assistant, but this face seems prominent to me.

So I'm against. But then my Connoisseurship isn't reliable either.

The Three Body Exam Problem

Jiayang Fan on Liu Cixin, China's most famous science fiction writer:
Liu’s tomes—they tend to be tomes—have been translated into more than twenty languages, and the trilogy has sold some eight million copies worldwide. He has won China’s highest honor for science-fiction writing, the Galaxy Award, nine times, and in 2015 he became the first Asian writer to win the Hugo Award, the most prestigious international science-fiction prize. In China, one of his stories has been a set text in the gao kao—the notoriously competitive college-entrance exams that determine the fate of ten million pupils annually; another has appeared in the national seventh-grade-curriculum textbook. When a reporter recently challenged Liu to answer the middle-school questions about the “meaning” and the “central themes” of his story, he didn’t get a single one right. “I’m a writer,” he told me, with a shrug. “I don’t begin with some conceit in mind. I’m just trying to tell a good story.”

Suicide Rates Still Rising, Especially among the Young

Charts from Kevin Drum, using CDC data. The rates for men area much higher than those for women, and so far as we can tell this has always been true. (Numbers represents deaths per year per 100,000 people). But women are catching up; since 1999 the rate for women is up 58%, vs. 34% for men.

The dramatic rise in suicide among men 15-24 seems particularly noteworthy. People sometimes call the rising death rate among middle aged people, mostly suicide and drug overdoses, "deaths of despair." But what business do 18- or 22-year-old men have despairing?

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Hans Holbein, Thomas More's Family

This is a preparatory sketch for Holbein's life-sized portrait of the family of Thomas More, now lost. The finished version, done in 1527, must have been quite something.

The astronomer Nicholas Kratzer (1487–1550), a friend of Holbein and More, and the tutor of More's children, added the names and ages of the sitters in Latin. Wikipedia:
On the left is Elizabeth Dauncy, More's second daughter; beside her is his adopted daughter, Margaret Giggs, explaining a point to Thomas More's father, John More; Thomas More himself sits in the centre, with the engaged couple Anne Cresacre and his only son, John More, on either side of him; beside John More is the household fool, Henry Patenson; on the right of the picture are More's youngest daughter, Cecily Heron, and his eldest daughter, Margaret Roper; More's second wife, Alice, is kneeling on the extreme right.
You have to love that the fool is standing while the wife kneels on the floor.

You can get an idea of what the colors were from this 1593 copy (of a sort) by Rowland Lockey.

The Resistance Witches

What is one supposed to make of this?
In March, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez shared her birth time with the astrologer Arthur Lipp-Bonewits, who then shared her birth chart with the world, creating an online sensation. “AOC’s Aries Moon indicates that she’s emotionally fed by a certain amount of independence, self-determination, and spontaneity,” Jeanna Kadlec wrote in Allure.

During the Kavanaugh hearings, 13,000 “resistance witches” cast a hex on Brett Kavanaugh. There is now a plethora of guidebooks for how to use astrology and witchcraft to advance left-wing causes. They have names like Magic for Resistance: Rituals and Spells for Change and The New Aradia: A Witch’s Handbook to Magical Resistance.
It's always hard to know what people believe, but the boom in astrology and tarot card reading among the young, and the rise of witchcraft, inspire me to ask anyway. What attracts so many young people in North America and Europe to these light forms of the occult?

Faddism and boredom, for sure. But what else?

I think one attraction is the desire of people who live their lives on social media to have something to share with others and discuss. If not much is happening in your life, you can always post an amusing horoscope, along with a joke about Leos, or turn over a tarot card and write about how it might relate to your life.

For astrology in particular the desire to categorize and stereotype others seems relevant. The young and woke have forbidden themselves from offering even the most innocuous statements about the races or genders, and a generalization about people from California or people who work in fast food could get you into a nasty fight. So they use astrological signs; so far, anyway, nobody thinks you're a racist if you say Leos are tempermental.

The Myers-Briggs works in the same way; you can't tell jokes about Poles or Jewish mothers any more, but you can still tell jokes about INFPs.

Astrology also provides as escape hatch of sorts for people whose lives are very heavily political, a way to get into a different mindset than the guilt and rage that defines political thinking for so many young people interested in social justice. You can enjoy it without taking it seriously, and without feeling any guilt about not taking it seriously. And unlike dancing, you can do it from home, through your computer screen.

The association of witchcraft with political protest also strikes me as interesting. The problem with political protest is that once you get everyone to the protest, you have to do something. The old rituals of protest seem played out, especially among the post-ironic young. Chant slogans? Really? Some people (including David Brooks, who wrote the passage I started from) think the absence of rituals from our lives is a major problem. I disagree, but there do some to be people who enjoy ritualistic acts. If you do, and your deepest beliefs are defined by politics and a rejection of Dead White Maleness, then casting a hex on Brett Kavanaugh might have a certain appeal. To me the most striking thing about modern Wicca is how many people enjoy the practice while not having a clue what they believe. I think this was a common characteristic of old paganism as well, but over the past millennium we have gotten used to religions that have some sort of agreed theology, which Wicca absolutely does not.

I absolutely do not think that the attraction of young leftists says anything interesting about current left-wing politics. Almost everybody believes in or at least enjoys something silly and untrue.

Monday, June 17, 2019

The Votive Figurines of Ayia Irini

Ayia Irini is a sanctuary on the island of Cyprus in use from about 1,000 to 500 BC. The sanctuary was excavated during the Swedish Cyprus Expedition of 1927-1931. The most impressive discovery was 2,000 clay votive figurines that had been left as offerings to the goddess of the place. These are now on display in the Medelshavmuseet in Stockholm.

Under the terms of their agreement, the Swedes left all the gold and silver they found behind in Cyprus; that was all the Cypriot authorities were really concerned about. These figurines were cataloged but nobody thought to display the until 1982, when some curator finally found them and realized their potential.

Sunday, June 16, 2019

Paul Manship, The Four Elements





These bronze panels were commissioned by architect William Welles Bosworth for the new headquarters of the American Telephone and Telegraph Company at the corner of Broadway and Fulton Streets in New York. Up until this time Manship had focused on neoclassical work, but here he also employed imagery from Chinese and Indian art. Now in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Geoengineering and Climate Change

Lots of people say, over and over, that climate change presents humanity with an existential crisis. Some of them think we need to take drastic action now, or else we're doomed; others think the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere means we are already doomed.

I have trouble taking all this doom-mongering seriously. Not that atmospheric CO2 might not end up creating a crisis; it certainly might. That is what the best science we have on the subject says, and the logic is pretty straightforward.

The reason I am puzzled by all the howls of anguish is that we know, or think we know, how to cool the planet. Lots of ideas have been proposed. Two of the best thought-out involve dumping minerals into the ocean to create giant algal blooms, which would soak up CO2 and transport much of it to the sea bottom, and spraying reflective particles into the upper atmosphere. Honestly we don't really know how well either of these would work, but the science that says they would cool the planet is exactly the same science that says CO2 is warming it.

It seems to me that if we are really facing a climate catastrophe, as I read almost every day, we ought to be trying everything we can think of. But we are not, and this is the puzzle I want to write about.

Nature recently published a little essay on this topic by two scientists who chaired a UN working group on geoengineering. Their task was to assess the state of the field and propose a framework for how geoengineering efforts should be regulated. The found that so little work has been done that there was nothing to assess, and since no work seems to be ongoing there isn't anything to regulate.
Storing carbon in the oceans sounds promising to some. The oceans are vast, and there could be fewer political trade-offs to deal with than on land. For example, fertilizing the water with iron would speed up the growth of phytoplankton and thus take up CO2, some of which would sink into the deep ocean as carbon when the organisms die. Another proposal is to spray seawater into the air to help form clouds that reflect sunlight and cool the planet.

Techniques such as these would need to be used on a massive scale to cap global warming at safe levels. For example, to mop up CO2 chemically, the entire Pacific Ocean would have to be sprinkled with one billion tonnes of powdered minerals similar to chalk. . . .

Little is known about the consequences. Scant research has been carried out for a range of reasons. The controversial nature of geoengineering divides researchers. And some research trials that have been funded have subsequently been abandoned, owing to a lack of rules for performing them and to conflicts of interest, such as patent applications. Even basic tests of equipment haven’t been done. . . .

This dearth of information is hampering the development of a global framework for regulating geoengineering research, despite more than a decade of debate. Researchers and policymakers need to know which negative-emissions technologies are worth investigating, and which will never work or are too damaging to pursue. The potential benefits and risks of the technologies need to be established before country leaders or companies decide to implement them prematurely.
Again, it's very puzzling. Are we in a crisis or not? If we are, why aren't we doing anything about it? It's a complicated question, but a big part of the reason is that research into geoengineering is strongly opposed by the same environmentalists who think climate change presents us with an existential crisis. The position statement of the Environmental Defense Fund, for example, says
Deliberate climate interventions such as albedo modification should not be undertaken for the foreseeable future as they present serious ecological, moral and geopolitical concerns.
I agree! Geoengineering presents all those questions. But if climate change is a catastrophe that is already upon us and may kill (as some say) a billion people this century, wouldn't that outweigh a quite a few ecological, moral and geopolitical concerns?

(For an example of a research project stopped by such objections, see here.)

Why would you both believe that atmospheric CO2 threatens the existence of humanity and oppose efforts to do anything about it? I think it is because for many environmentalists atmospheric CO2 is not really the problem. It is more like a symbol of the problem, or perhaps a single case of a very broad phenomenon that is the deeper problem. That broad phenomenon is humans messing with the planet. Environmentalists as a group are worried, not so much about the level of CO2 in the atmosphere and how that might affect the climate, but by all the ways we are changing our home and all the ways that might be bad. Even if geoengineering worked, in that sense that it might undo the warming caused by all the CO2 we have pumped into the air, it would in the broader sense only be another way we are messing with the planet, which is the thing they want to put a stop to.

I think this is short-sighted. If the models are right and the planet is going to warm dramatically, we don't have time to prevent that by limiting our future CO2 emissions. Those are coming down as fast as I think will ever be feasible; despite what some environmentalists want, we are not going to junk our cars and turn off our air conditioners because of a vague future threat that nobody really understands. If atmospheric CO2 is an existential problem, geoengineering is the only feasible solution.

Climate change remains, as I have always said, a serious potential threat to humanity and earth's other residents. But I will believe we are in actual crisis when people who worry about this issue start acting like we are.

Friday, June 14, 2019

Ancient Stoners

In 2013 Chinese archaeologists excavated a cemetery on the Pamir Plateau of western China that dates to around 500 BC. This is a dry, desert area and much wood was preserved.

Ten of the skeletons were buried with incense burners on a common pattern. These were wooden blocks, with a hollow dug into them that had been filled with rocks.

The braziers contained a burned residue that intrigued the archaeologists, so they submitted samples for analysis by gas chromatography to figure out what it was. The results came back with a high level of cannabinol (CBN), cannabidiol (CBD) and cannabicyclol (CBL), all of which come from cannabis.

THC, the active ingredient, does not survive for any length of time, but in modern plants the level of THC is closely correlated with the level of CBN. The level of CBN in these samples was highly elevated compared to what you would find in ordinary hemp being grown for fiber. So it looks like these folks had specially bred their plants to increase the THC yield. So they could get high more easily.

Based on what we know from Scythians at the western end of the Eurasian plain, at about the same time, cannabis was used ritually, both for funeral rites and to help induce shamanistic trance. But the line between ritual and fun has always been a blurry one.