Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Anna Burns, "Milkman"

Anna Burns' Milkman (2018) is a remarkable book, and I loved it. I think it is my favorite book I have read this year. Not because it is perfect or has anything of perfection about it; on the contrary it takes many, many risks, in both style and subject matter, and some of them fall flat. But enough work wonderfully to make it a sheer delight. I listened to the version narrated by Brid Brennan, whose wonderful Irish accent may have contributed a lot to my pleasure.

The narrator of Milkman is an 18-year-old woman living in Northern Ireland during the Troubles. We never learn her name; in fact we never learn anyone's name, knowing all the characters by titles like ma and eldest sister and maybe-boyfriend. She is Catholic and her neighborhood is a bastion of the IRA, the sort of place where the police would never go without a convoy of armored cars; members of her own family and those of most of her neighbors have died in the fighting. (Actually the IRA is not named either, but referred to as the renouncers of the state, or just the renouncers.) The most impressive thing about the book is how Burns creates the atmosphere of this place and shows how it weighs on the mind of a bookish, imaginative teenager who wants nothing to do with either religion or war. This is a tight-knit, working class neighborhood with a chip on its shoulder, the sort of place where you would never admit to admiring a sunset lest you be mocked as a sissy and maybe stuck with the nickname Sunsets for the rest of your life. (See the cover of the book above.) To this already closed-in world is added the war, which means that any nonconforming behavior might be interpreted, not just as oddness, but as treason. Everything can be political:
The right butter. The wrong butter. The tea of allegiance. The tea of betrayal.
Burns, 56, grew up in just such a neighborhood, and although she denies that the narrator is her you have to imagine that she felt some of what the narrator feels; certainly she recreates it with remarkable power and precision.

The neighborhood is of course a great place for gossip, again, adding the already rampant rumor-mongering of a tight-knit small community to the obsessive atmosphere of the secret war. It is rumor that drives the plot forward. As the narrator walks down the street, her nose in a book, a van pulls up beside her and an older man starts talking to her. Over the following days and weeks he stalks her, letting her know that he knows everything about her and her family. This is seen, of course, and gossip has her in a hot affair with this man before she has even convinced herself that anything is happening. This man, she learns, is a notorious IRA operative known only as milkman, and this becomes more fodder for the mill: other young women involved with IRA men take her aside and talk to her about the joys and sorrows of being a warrior's woman, her mother warns her that she she will end up either at her husband's funeral or monitoring his hunger strike, etc., nobody paying any attention to her protestations that nothing is happening between her and this man.

The plot and the setting create a lot of interest, but the wonder of the book is the narrator's voice. Here she is on what her mother calls "black days:"
She meant depressions, for da had had them: big, massive, scudding, whopping, black-cloud, infectious, crow, raven, jackdaw, coffin-upon-coffin, catacomb-upon-catacomb, skeletons-upon-skulls-upon-bones crawling along the ground to the grave type of depressions.
Sometimes the words pile up to a baffling degree, but mostly I found them to be an irresistible torrent that I was happy to have sweep me away.

The Meeting of Strangers at Lepenski Vir

Lepenski Vir is a wonderful archaeological site on the Danube at the Iron Gates, where great rapids used to be one of the world's best sites for fishing. Now this whole stretch of the river has been drowned by dams, but that led to the site being thoroughly excavated in 1965-1970.

The site is remarkable in many ways. For one there are the many stone sculptures of what many archaeologists think of as fish-men, unique in the region and possibly related to old ideas about shamanism and death as a passage into a watery afterlife.

The site also had very strange, trapezoidal houses, also unique in this region, and it seemed to mark the very first arrival of Middle Eastern farmers in the area.

The Times has a story on the site today, written by a reporter who visited the local museum and was blown away by what he saw. He reports on the new discoveries about the site, made through studying ancient DNA from four skeletons:
Two were identifiable as Near Eastern farmers. And studies of the chemistry of their bones show that they had not grown up at Lepenski Vir, but were migrants from elsewhere. Another had a mixed hunter-gatherer/farmer heritage and had eaten a diet of fish. Another had hunter-gatherer heritage.

The dating of the skeletons showed a range. The one with mixed heritage was from 6070 B.C.E., or about 8,000 years ago. The farmers were dated as 6200-5600 B.C.E. And the hunter-gatherer probably earlier than the others.
Wonderful to imagine that this unique site emerged from the meeting of farmers and hunters on a cultural frontier.

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Today's Big Number

The mass of the Milky Way Galaxy is about 1.5 trillion solar masses. It contains about 100 billion stars. The matter we can see accounts for only 16 percent of the mass, with the rest being "dark matter."

Parasite Hacking and the Crazy Complexity of Mammalian Physiology

Lots of animals get hacked by parasites that influence their behavior, like those fungi that make infected ants climb up high to spread the spores farther, or rabies making animals bite each other.

Psychologist Marco del Giudice has written a paper arguing that the arms race between parasites and hosts has driven our biological systems and especially our brains toward ever great complexity. Scott Alexander explains:
So if you’re an animal at constant risk of having your behavior hijacked by parasites, what do you do?

First, you make your biological signaling cascades more complicated. You have multiple redundant systems controlling every part of behavior, and have them interact in ways too complicated for any attacker to figure out. You have them sometimes do the opposite of what it looks like they should do, just to keep enemies on their toes. This situation should sound very familiar to anyone who’s ever studied biology.

Del Giudice compares the neurosignaling of the shrimp-like gammarids (small, simple, frequently hijacked by parasites) to rats (large, complex, hard to hijack). Gammarids have very simple signaling: high serotonin means “slow down”, low serotonin means “speed up”. The helminths that parasitize gammarids secrete serotonin, and the gammarids slow down and get eaten, transferring the parasite to a new host. Biologists can replicate this process; if they inject serotonin into a gammarid, the gammarid will slow down in the same way.

Toxoplasma hijacks rats and makes them fearless enough to approach cats. Dopamine seems to be involved somehow. But researchers injecting dopamine into rats don’t get the same result; in fact, this seems to make rats avoid cats more. Maybe toxoplasma started by increasing dopamine, rats evolved a more complicated signaling code, and toxoplasma cracked the code and now increases dopamine plus other things we don’t understand yet.

Aside from the brain, the immune system is the most important target to secure, so this theory should predict that immune signaling will also be unusually inscrutable. Again, this situation should sound very familiar to anyone who’s ever studied biology.

Second, you have a bunch of feedback loops and flexibility ready to deploy at any kind of trouble. If something makes dopamine levels go up, you decrease the number of dopamine receptors, so that overall dopaminergic neurotransmission is the same as always. If something is making you calmer than normal, you have some other system ready to react by making you more anxious again. . . .
If this is true, it would explain a lot about us. On the other hand, evolution seems to do a lot of things by crazily complicated systems, even extremely fundamental actions like cellular respiration. I have always thought that this is what happens when you build a system one random change at a time. So while this idea is interesting it will take a lot to convince me that it is true.

John Locke

The discovery of a new John Locke manuscript lying in a library cupboard, apparently a very early version of what became his famous Letter on Toleration, provides me an excuse to explain why I like him so much despite his being (sometimes) such a narrow-minded wighead. He wrote a lot, some of it heated political arguments, and he regularly fell back on conventional-sounding biolerplate about order and property and what all. His imagination was limited, and by "humanity" he often seemed to mean property-owning Englishmen. He considered the divinity of Jesus to be Manifest and Reasonable, and his idea of toleration seems to us remarkable intolerant. But sometimes he did much better, and reached much farther, and I think he really tried both to understand how we can learn about the world, and how we can set up a government that will work best for everyone.

Locke's whole philosophy of knowledge revolved around uncertainty. Against the Christian Platonists who thought that Truth was God and accessible through religion, and against the Aristotelians who thought it could be derived with logic, Locke always argued that the truth was hard to find and very easy to get wrong:
No man's knowledge can go beyond his experience.

For where is the man that has incontestable evidence of the truth of all that he holds, or of the falsehood of all he condemns; or can say that he has examined to the bottom all his own, or other men's opinions? The necessity of believing without knowledge, nay often upon very slight grounds, in this fleeting state of action and blindness we are in, should make us more busy and careful to inform ourselves than constrain others.

I attribute the little I know to my not having been ashamed to ask.
I have always liked this line, which I think concerns the usefulness of our limited human understanding:
It is of great use to the sailor to know the length of his line, though he cannot with it fathom all the depths of the ocean.
In politics Locke was a pioneer of a kind of thinking that has been influential ever since. He believed that the goal of our politics ought to be maximizing human freedom, but at the same time he believed that the biggest threat to freedom was chaos. So he thought that to protect freedom we need a state strong enough to preserve order:
The end of law is not to abolish or restrain, but to preserve and enlarge freedom. For in all the states of created beings capable of law, where there is no law, there is no freedom.
The interesting part of his political theory, which had such a big influence on the authors of our constitution, was about how to design a state strong enough to maintain order that would not immediately use that power to destroy freedom. Maybe his ideas (separation of powers, enumerated rights) have not worked perfectly, but what has?

And these:
Wherever violence is used, and injury done, though by hands appointed to administer Justice, it is still violence and injury, however colour'd with the Name.
I have always thought the actions of men the best interpreters of their thoughts.

He that will have his son have a respect for him and his orders, must himself have a great reverence for his son.

Monday, August 19, 2019

Kathryn Engberg

Kathryn Engberg is an American artist born in 1994; both her mother and grandmother are painters and she grew up with art, which may explain something of her precocity. She lives in New York. Above is Sandra, 2014, so done when the artist was 19 or 20. Many more at her web site.

Jamaal, cropped.

Self portrait, cropped.


Fatima in Pink

Madeleine in Velvet. I plan to check back on her every once in a while to see how she develops; will she keep working in this traditional European vein or launch into something radically different?

Sunday, August 18, 2019

How Laboratory Biology Works

Long, interesting piece by Alexey Guzey summing up the results of a year-long investigation of bioscience laboratories. He finds that progress remains rapid and reports of a crisis are much overblown. A few points:

1) Critics are always complaining that the major funding bodies, especially the National Institutes of Health, are "risk averse" and don't fund enough wild ideas or enough young scientists. Guzey says that is wrong, that there are plenty of funders looking for offbeat ideas and possible home runs; he personally failed to find a single example of a potential breakthrough idea nobody was willing to fund. As for not funding young scientists, he says this misunderstands the structure of science. The grant recipient is almost always an administrator who leaves the actual work to graduate students and post docs, and the last thing we want is to take young, super-productive scientists and make them grant recipients, forcing them into the administrative role. He says ambitious, smart scientists can find spots in labs if they try hard enough, even if their backgrounds are unusual and their ideas off the wall.

2) Guzey wonders why most biological labs are led by a single person, given that research on tech start-ups has shown that those led by two to four founders do much better. Insisting on a single lab leader, he says, is "sub optimal."

3) There is a problem with the best scientists always being promoted to principal investigator, that is, lab manager:
Many people who always wanted to become scientists do not pursue or leave academia because they see how PIs work and think that they do no want to just manage people and fundraise/write grants. This is a great tragedy. Very few labs have permanent Research Scientist positions and for some reason there’s a path “PhD–Postdoc–PI” that is almost impossible to avoid (there are institutions that experiment with permanent pure researcher positions but there seem to be very few of them).
This is of course one of the banes of our whole civilization, so it seems unlikely that biology will solve the problem on its own. Personally I have been trying for years to refuse raises, on the grounds that the more money I make the more of my time I have to spend on administration to justify my salary and therefore the less time I can devote to archaeology. I have never succeeded, because, my bosses explain, the belief that good performance is rewarded by promotion and higher pay is so entrenched that if I fail to move up I will be considered a problem employee and possibly targeted for dismissal. I suspect the kind of people who do avoid promotion in a major lab come to be seen as antisocial weirdos, grumbling away in their tiny offices.

4) Everyone thinks peer review is a disaster, because so many peer reviewers are out to advance their own agendas. But nobody knows what to do instead.

5) "Large parts of modern scientific literature are wrong," because of fraud and systemic problems with the way some research is done, of the sorts that have been exposed in the replication crisis.

Anyway if you are curious about how the world looks from bioscience labs, read Guzey.

Saturday, August 17, 2019

Twenty-Five History Posts

All that makes earlier times seem simpler is our ignorance of their complexities.

--Thomas Sowell

A Primer on Alchemy. For 1500 years people tried to transmute lead gold, without ever once succeeding. Why did they keep at it?

When and Why Gods Came to Punish Evildoers

Gay Renaissance Artists, Worldly Churchmen, Corruption, Tolerance, Aristocracy, Populism, Art, and Life

Aminidab Seekright v. Ferdinando Dreadnought. It helps to know something about the law before using legal sources in your historical work.

Mongols and Massacres. The truly awful events of the Mongol conquest.

Shamanism, Daoism, and the Kargaly Diadem. A wonderful artifact from central Asia opens a window into the weirder aspects of ancient Chinese religion.

Ethics, Expertise, and Judgment. What matters more, technical know-how or moral rectitude? What should the victorious Allies have done about German and Japanese experts (engineers, technicians, bankers) with needed skills but dubious politics? Plus more here on the particular role in postwar Japan and Korea of economic planners who trained in Manchuria.

Were there female warriors in the Viking Age?

Nalanda. Once great Buddhist university refounded in northeastern India.

The Socialist Tragedy of Eleanor Marx. Some people, including Karl Marx's daughter, thought socialism would, besides fixing economic life, solve all the problems of love and marriage.

Swedish Rune Stones and the Spirit of the Viking Age.

The Estate Sale, or, Race in America, 1864. A mixed-race estate sale in rural Delaware opens a small window into the past.

Bronze in 4700 BCE; or, the Metalsmiths of Plo─Źnik, Technology, and Social Change.  Just because something has been invented does not mean it will be widely used.

Nelson Mandela, George Washington, and Timothy McVeigh. What divides freedom fighters from terrorists?

Why No Empires after Rome?

Who was Lambert Simnel? And what do we really know about Medieval history?

The Battle of the Harzhorn, c. 235 CE: reconstructing an ancient battle from archaeological finds.

Ma Shumou and the Grand Canal. The peasant's eye view of Chinese history.

New Smyrna and Florida's First Boom. The great land rush of the 1760s.

Napoloeon's Soldiers and the Power of Experience. What do people really want in life?

No Blitz: a Counterfactual Exercise about 1940. After conquering France, what should Hitler have done?

Trauma and History

Professor, how historically accurate is Game of Thrones?

Wotan id est furor. What sort of god was Odin?

Merlin. Merlin actually has a better claim to having been a real person than Arthur; if he did live, who was he?

Transition House

Long, interesting article in the New Yorker by Louise MacFarquar about Transition House in Cambridge, Massachusetts, one of the nation's first shelters for battered women. The shelter still exists but it has changed in many ways since its beginning. The article is interesting not just about this particular issue but as a look at radical political action of any kind.

MacFarquar covers how the theories the activists worked under changed over the years and how that influenced what the shelter did, and I found this fascinating. For example, in the beginning everyone saw battering as a form of patriarchal dominance that would end only when the patriarchy was broken; they refused to involve psychologists because they saw their mission as political. But then women began showing up who had been beaten by their female partners, and eventually they had to rethink and adopt new theories about what was going on. In general I found this essay one of the clearest statements I have read about the role of theory in political action. Another interesting element looks at how the shelter was organized. From the beginning they had allowed everyone to participate in decision making, and they tried to erase any distinction between women being helped and women helping. Everything had to be done by consensus, which meant that some things were never done. Now they have a formal board and an executive director with a corner office, and the transition happened after intellectuals within the movement began to criticize consensus meetings on a theoretical plane, pointing out that some voices were always louder and more powerful than others, and that bullies could use the very lack of structure to wear others down and get their way.

Another theme is how on-the-ground feminism has always been entangled with the fight against racism. About the early days in the 1970s:
Many volunteers had been activists in the civil-rights and antiwar movements but had got sick of being ignored and making coffee. Gail Sullivan had just come back from a stint at the Wounded Knee defense committee, in South Dakota. “The movement was dominated by men who were actively hostile to feminism, which they termed ‘white feminism,’ ” Sullivan says. “Most were very invested in traditional gender roles, which they defended as Native American traditions. This stuff was very common, men using racial oppression as an excuse to oppress women.”
But then later on, when they tried to involve more black and Latina volunteers, they ended up having to question their attitudes toward involving the police in domestic disputes. Feminists had fought hard to make spouse abuse a crime and to force the police to respond, but many non-white women disagreed:
By the late eighties, several states had passed laws requiring police to make an arrest when a domestic assault appeared to have taken place, but this change brought its own problems. For one thing, a lot of women genuinely did not want their husbands to be arrested—they just wanted the beating to stop—so the laws took away their option of calling the police altogether. Fairly often, the police, unable to determine which partner was to blame for the violence, arrested both. And, while the mostly white feminists at Transition House welcomed the imprisonment of batterers, to women of color at Casa Myrna the issue felt more complicated. “The feminist movement never really dealt with what it meant that black men were also oppressed by white men,” Curdina Hill, Casa Myrna’s first executive director, says. “It never dealt with women who were being abused but who still wanted to support their men on a political level. It wasn’t that they were not aware of it—they didn’t deal with it.”
If you have any interest in radical politics and how that part of the world has changed since the 1970s, I highly recommend MacFarquar's piece.

Friday, August 16, 2019

Links 16 August 2019

Careful inspection of the sword pommel from Sutton Hoo suggests the king buried there was left handed. And more on Anglo-Saxon swords with the same curator here.

Her teacher affectionately groaned, “She’s becoming Americanized.

Meet the feminists law professors who have crusaded against Title IX enforcement and on behalf of the rights of accused rapists.

Using engineering to fight climate change: some ideas.

The Right rises in Tuscany: "The right at the moment has a strong storytelling, the left has none," he says. "The right knows how to talk to the heart of the people: 'I know that you are insecure, you have fear.' "

Good long article on Lyme Disease.

Things are look bad again in Kashmir, where the Indian government has abolished the special status of this almost entirely Muslim region.

Why was the bicycle not invented until the late 1800s, two thousand years after the wheelbarrow?

Review of Secular Cycles, a book that says the history of the world goes in 300-year Malthusian cycles.

Politico story shows how Elizabeth Warren won debt forgiveness for students defrauded by a failed for-profit college. People are playing this up as a sign of what a great leader she can be but honestly it feeds my sense that she is too detail-oriented to be a good president. I think she should stay where she is and keep being a great legislator.

A plan for place-based visas.

Thursday, August 15, 2019

A Chest Full of Amulets from Pompeii

Remarkable discovery from Pompeii, a chest full of amulets and gems. The remains of the chest were unearthed some time ago in the House of the Garden but have only now emerged from the conservation lab. Ten victims of the eruption were found in this house, so it may be that this collection was assembled to ward off disaster during the early stages of the eruption. These objects are all from the female realm and would have belonged to women.

Stingray Skeleton

Did any Hollywood alien ever look stranger than this?

Cordelia Scaife May, Environmentalist to Nativist

The most stridently anti-immigrant person I ever met was an activist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, who at the time was working to restore sea grass in the Nansemond River. She told me that we should have a register of all the families in the country, and nobody should be allowed to breed unless somebody else in their family had died, and nobody allowed to enter the country until somebody else left. The places she cared about were being destroyed by population growth, and the only way she could imagine to save those places was to wall the people out.

I was reminded of her by this Times story about Cordelia Scaife May, a millionaire heiress who went from birth control activist to environmentalist to the world's biggest funder of anti-immigrant groups. This trajectory feels predictable to me, and honestly I am surprised that more people have not moved along it.

Listening to people like Trump talk about immigrants, the main emotion I hear is disgust: disgust at  unwashed masses of nonwhite people dirtying up the world. This revulsion at the dirtiness of humanity is an old sentiment, common among medieval monks. Cordelia Scaife May for a while made it her cause to prevent, not just unwanted births, but all births:
The unwanted child is not the problem, but, rather, the wanted one that society, for diverse cultural reasons, demands.
Ever since steamships and world wars began moving masses of people around the globe this disgust has commonly been attached to immigrants and perhaps especially to refugees, who arrive damaged and forlorn from someplace that didn't want them.

Pondering why more people have not made these connections, I come up with two thoughts. The environmental movement has become more global, more concerned about deforestation in southeast Asia than about sea grass in the local river. This renders immigration irrelevant or even positive, since people who move from poor nations to rich ones see their birth rates fall. And, over the past thirty years the dominant strain of thought on the left has become anti-racism. To avoid seeming racist or colonialist, environmentalists have mostly stopped talking about population growth, leaving those who still obsess over the sheer number of humans to drift toward the right.

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

What is One to Believe about Jeffrey Epstein?

Two people I generally respect and consider sane have said to me that Jeffrey Epstein was obviously assassinated. From what I read, millions of Americans agree.

What's going on?

I have always dismissed stories about pedophile rings among the powerful because they fit too perfectly into our moral/political ecosystem: let's take the worst sin we can think of and accuse our enemies of practicing it on a grand scale, tossing in a vast network of shadowy influence to explain how it has been covered up. And when these theories involve facts that can be checked, like the basement of a certain DC pizza parlor, they turn out to be wrong. But consider this from Ross Douthat, a conservative Catholic who writes often about the church:
When I was starting my career as a journalist I sometimes brushed up against people peddling a story about a network of predators in the Catholic hierarchy — not just pedophile priests, but a self-protecting cabal above them — that seemed like a classic case of the paranoid style, a wild overstatement of the scandal’s scope. I dismissed them then as conspiracy theorists, and indeed they had many of conspiracism’s vices — above all, a desire to believe that the scandal they were describing could be laid entirely at the door of their theological enemies, liberal or traditional.

But on many important points and important names, they were simply right.

Likewise with the secular world’s predators. Imagine being told the scope of Harvey Weinstein’s alleged operation before it all came crashing down — not just the ex-Mossad black ops element but the possibility that his entire production company also acted as a procurement-and-protection operation for one of its founders. A conspiracy theory, surely! Imagine being told all we know about the late, unlamented Epstein — that he wasn’t just a louche billionaire (wasn’t, indeed, a proper billionaire at all) but a man mysteriously made and mysteriously protected who ran a pedophile island with a temple to an unknown god and plotted his own “Boys From Brazil” endgame in plain sight of his Harvard-D.C.-House of Windsor pals. Too wild to be believed!

And yet.

Where networks of predation and blackmail are concerned, then, the distinction I’m drawing between conspiracy theories and underlying realities weakens just a bit. No, you still don’t want to listen to QAnon, or to our disgraceful president when he retweets rants about the #ClintonBodyCount. But just as Cardinal Theodore McCarrick’s network of clerical allies and enablers hasn’t been rolled up, and the fall of Bryan Singer probably didn’t get us near the rancid depths of Hollywood’s youth-exploitation racket, we clearly haven’t gotten to the bottom of what was going on with Epstein.
Many years ago I spent several months trying to get to the bottom of the Kennedy assassination, reading whatever I could get my hands on. I ended up thinking that any big event could become an intellectual and psychological trap. There are always more connections to trace in more directions, always dead ends you run into because of things still kept secret (like CIA operations in Cuba), always more coincidences that beg explanation. The basic tools of the modern intellectual – research, weighing of evidence, careful reasoning about what is possible or probable – seemed to fail in the face of such a mountain of data and pseudo data. The longing grows for a key that would unlock everything, usually in the form of a smoking gun document or a the confession of an insider who knows what really happened; for surely there must be such people, somewhere?

There are certain facts out there about Epstein that I think we can agree on. First, a lot of men seem to think that women reach their height of attractiveness at 15 or 16, and although we have made acting on these desires seriously illegal many of them either don't see anything wrong with this or find that the forbidden quality just adds to the allure. Second, Jeffrey Epstein lived a lifestyle that his known sources of income could not have supported. Third, he was acquainted with a lot of powerful people, including both Bill Clinton and Donald Trump. Fourth, he got disgracefully lenient treatment from the legal system after his previous conviction on sex trafficking charges.

Maybe Epstein's story will one day be unraveled. Maybe all the details about where his money came from and who visited his island will be laid bare; maybe we will find out who he was blackmailing and how his easy treatment after his previous conviction was arranged.

But I have to say that I doubt it. I believe the great incentives coming from so many directions to lie, obfuscate, misdirect, and obscure will overwhelm our ability to sort through the mass of contradictory statements and claims. Anybody who knows anything will surely lie about it.

In our world a lot of power is wielded indirectly, with a nod or a nudge and a vague promise of friendship. Conspiracy theorists often get this wrong and imagine that something like relaxing the rules on prescribing opiates must have happened because drug companies delivered wads of cash to key Congressmen and bureaucrats, who swore under oath to undertake certain particular acts. Sometimes the world works that way, but much more often it's that friends take each other's side and help each other out. Did prosecutors go easy on Epstein before because they were directly blackmailed, or was it that they knew he was friends with some friends of theirs and had contributed to campaigns of people whose support they wanted? I would bet on the latter. And if I am right, how could we ever know for sure which friends were the ones whose influence mattered the most?

I am puzzled about these events and wish to know more. I doubt, however, that I ever will.

Monday, August 12, 2019

Science Isn't Perfect. But it Works Better than Most Systems

Scott Alexander:
Scientific consensus hasn’t just been accurate, it’s been unreasonably accurate. Humans are fallible beings. They are not known for their ability the change their mind, to willingly accept new information, or to put truth-seeking above political squabbles. And our modern society is not exactly known for being an apolitical philosopher-kingdom with strong truth-seeking institutions completely immune from partisan pressure. I feel a deep temptation to sympathize with global warming denialists who worry that the climatological consensus is biased politicized crap, because that is exactly the sort of thing which I would expect to come out of our biased politicized crappy society. Yet again and again I have seen examples of scientific fields that have maintained strong commitments to the truth in the face of pressure that would shatter any lesser institution. I’ve seen fields where people believe incredibly-bizarre sounding things that will get them mocked at cocktail parties just because those things seem to be backed by the majority of the evidence. I’ve even seen people change their minds, in spite of all the incentives to the contrary. I can’t explain this. The idea that scientific consensus is almost always an accurate reflection of the best knowledge we have at the time seems even more flabbergasting than any particular idea that scientists might or might not believe. But it seems to be true.

Derek Parfitt in Venice

British philosopher Derek Parfit (1942-2017) used to visit Venice every winter, where he repeatedly photographed the same scenes in different weathers and at different times of day. I find some of these remarkable, and quite different from most images of the city.

Saturday, August 10, 2019

Lorenzo Quinn

Italian sculptor, born 1966. Above, Force of Nature I, which he imagined after experiencing two hurricanes.

Building Bridges.

Force of Nature II.

Stop Playing.

Hand of God. More at his web site.

Friday, August 9, 2019

Links 9 August 2019

Chinese tomb relief depicting a monster, Northern Qi Dynasty, 550 to 577 AD.

Spacetime might emerge from quantum entanglement. On the other hand this attempt to explain the idea confirms my suspicion that we are simply not smart enough to understand the universe.

A review of several different Universal Basic Income plans find that none of them add up.

Was John Keats a grave robber?

The Silicon Tribesman visits the Bronze Age monuments of Dartmoor

According to this study, Millennials (now age 23-38) are the loneliest generation.

Ross Douthat on Trump's nihilism, and our nation's.

Times quiz predicts your political party based on your ethnicity, gender, education, religion, and where you live. My fundamentals place me at +48 Democrat.

The opioid crisis in Scotland, on part with the worst parts of the US. I wonder: could there be a genetic link between Scotland and the Appalachians on this, or is it all cultural and economic?

Thursday, August 8, 2019

C&O Canal Ribbon Cutting and Ground Breaking

Today I went up to Williamsport, Maryland for a double ceremony on the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal. This was a big deal: the governor was there, along with both senators, the local Congressman, the Deputy Director of the Park Service, and assorted local bigwigs.

The ceremony marked two events. First was the ribbon cutting for the restored Conococheague Aqueduct, which carries the canal over Conococheague Creek. I did the archaeology for that back in 2010.

Then they did the symbolic ground-breaking for the new park Headquarters, the project I have been working on all this year.

As I watched all this I was thinking about the people who complain we don't have enough rituals any more. But here was a ritual, carefully scripted, full of rote words and striking gestures backed by centuries of tradition.

A few hundred people showed up. I'm glad I went, and I enjoyed having much made of projects that  I have worked on. (Senator Ben Cardin in the tent, reminding everyone that he wrote the funding bill that made all this possible.)

View as I arrived, with the festivities already under way in the background. In the foreground is the railroad lift bridge from c. 1920. Since rewatering the canal cut off the old walking route across it, they needed a bridge, and since this whole area is a historic district it has been hard to find a way to build a new one. So they decided that as a temporary measure they would build this wooden structure that allows people to cross via the lift bridge without damaging it.

And now you can ride boats on the canal again.

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Trump's Tax Increase

According to the Wall Street Journal, the Trump administration has raised tariffs by $70 billion per year. As Kevin Drum points out, that works out to about $500 for each American household. Tariffs on Chinese goods in particular are regressive, falling most heavily on working folks. I am not a free-trader by nature, but I think you have to recognize that the costs of Trump's trade policy might end up being quite high.

Plus, the Chinese just suspended all imports of US farm products. That's going to hurt a few people.

The Burning of Bahlam Jol

Lidar map of Bahlam Jol

Dr. David Wahl is a geographer who has been trying to understand the environmental changes that accompanied the rise and fall of Maya civilization in the lowlands of central America. His method has been to study the sediments left in lakes, which vary according to how much soil is eroding from nearby fields and other factors. Somebody told him that a small lake by the Guatemalan site of  Witzna might be a good research target.
It was. In lakes, he said, the rate of sediment accumulation varies greatly, so that one centimeter (about four-tenths of an inch) of a drilled lake bed core could represent the passage of anywhere from a decade to several centuries. But in the lake near Witzna, sediment had been deposited so rapidly that a centimeter represented less than a decade, perhaps close to one year. That meant it was an extraordinarily detailed record that could be tied closely to dates and records.

In the cores he drilled, he found a layer of charcoal three centimeters thick (about 1.2 inches), with chunks of charcoal almost a half inch on a side. Another author on the paper, Lysanna Anderson, a specialist in evidence of ancient fires, studied the layer. They concluded that it indicated a massive fire and had been deposited very quickly — all at once it seemed, although some might have been from runoff a season after the burning.

In addition, other chemical indications of human activity dropped off rapidly right after the event, he said, indicating that the human population itself had suddenly decreased. The fire had happened, they judged, between 690 and 700.
So it seems that the city was abandoned after a great fire.

Then another stroke of luck: archaeologist Francisco Estrada-Belli, excavating in the ruins of Witzna, found a stela (above) that gave the Maya name of the site: Bahlam Jol.

Then another archaeologist, Alexandre Tokovinine, searched a database of Maya inscriptions and found this item, under the year 697: Bahlam Jol burned for the second time.

It's a remarkable series of connections, and shows how the sheer quantity of data that archaeologists have built up about the classic Maya can lead to surprising advances.

Another interesting detail about the study is that the city of Bahlam Jol seems to have been destroyed in warfare. The classic Maya fought wars all the time, but they generally seems to have been kept within limits, like those between Greek city states in the 5th century BC, or European kingdoms in the 1700s. Armies marched out, fought, the winners claimed certain spoils (including victims for sacrifice), but most of the losers went home and life went on. Not until the crisis that marked the collapse of classic civilization in this area were many cities outright destroyed like Bahlam Jol was. But it is not the only such case known, so it seems that sometimes people just got really mad and the rules limiting violence went out the window.