Monday, January 20, 2020

Larry David and the MAGA Hat

Kyle Smith at The Corner:
David’s character “Larry David” is, famously, an inveterate curmudgeon who is constantly getting in brouhahas over minor questions of etiquette or misunderstandings. On the new episode, Larry finds himself unable to avoid having lunch with a disliked colleague in the comedy world (Phil Rosenthal, also playing himself). He knows that his usual tricks won’t work on Rosenthal, so he can’t escape by having a friend call during the lunch to say he’s needed back at the office. So Larry hits on a brilliant idea: He wears a red MAGA cap to the lunch. Rosenthal immediately blanches, looks around the restaurant, and discovers he’s getting dirty looks from black customers and other diners. Horrified that people might associate him with Trumpism, he hastily makes his excuses and exits. Larry is triumphant. He even finds other uses for the MAGA cap; sitting at a sushi bar in close quarters, he puts on the cap and finds that the people who were going to squeeze in next to him instead flee in horror. He brags that the hat is a useful “people repellent.” But in a potentially dicey traffic situation with an angry biker, Larry puts on the hat and defuses the situation because the hat signals to the biker that he’s a kindred spirit. . . .

The MAGA hat has many meanings, does it not? It doesn’t really mean “Make America Great Again.” It’s more like a badge of defiance, of apartness. It says, “You’re all annoying.” It says, “I want no part of this.” It says, “Things used to be better.” It says, “Buzz off.” It says, “I’m deplorable.”
I think this nails one major strain of Trumpism.

Cynicism and Disrespect

Via Marginal Revolutions, a new paper on cynicism and respect:
We tested how cynicism emerges and what maintains it. Cynicism is the tendency to believe that people are morally bankrupt and behave treacherously to maximize self-interest. Drawing on literatures on norms of respectful treatment, we proposed that being the target of disrespect gives rise to cynical views, which predisposes people to further disrespect. The end result is a vicious cycle: cynicism and disrespect fuel one another. Study 1’s nationally representative survey showed that disrespect and cynicism are positively related to each other in 28 of 29 countries studied, and that cynicism’s associations with disrespect were independent of (and stronger than) associations with lacking social support. Study 2 used a nationally representative longitudinal dataset, spanning 4 years. In line with the vicious cycle hypothesis, feeling disrespected and holding cynical views gave rise to each other over time. Five preregistered experiments (including 2 in the online supplemental materials) provided causal evidence. Study 3 showed that bringing to mind previous experiences of being disrespected heightened cynical beliefs subsequently. Studies 4 and 5 showed that to the extent that people endorsed cynical beliefs, others were inclined to treat them disrespectfully. Study 6’s weeklong daily diary study replicated the vicious cycle pattern. Everyday experiences of disrespect elevated cynical beliefs and vice versa. Moreover, cynical individuals tended to treat others with disrespect, which in turn predicted more disrespectful treatment by others. In short, experiencing disrespect gives rise to cynicism and cynicism elicits disrespect from others, thereby reinforcing the worldview that caused these negative reactions in the first place.
It seems obvious how being treated badly could fuel cynicism, but notice that the study also finds cynical people are treated more disrespectfully. This seems in line with Scott Alexander's essay on "nothing makes sense except in light of inter-individual variation" I linked to last month.

Sunday, January 19, 2020

Francis Bacon's Studio, 1998

By Perry Ogden and Annie Wright. Quite a mess.

It had looked like that for a long time; from Bacon's face I would say this was taken in the 1960s.

Malacosoma disstria

The tent caterpillar with penguins on its back.

Saturday, January 18, 2020

Thinking about Prohibition

It's the 100th anniversary of nationwide prohibition in the US, so I am seeing essays all over marking that peculiar event. Pause to consider this: Prohibition was one of the most widely supported, easiest to pass amendments to our constitution since the original ten. On the first vote it was supported by 68% of the House and 76% of the Senate and was then ratified by 46 of the 48 states. The tide of support overwhelmed the many huge obstacles our system throws up to block change, sweeping the opposition away. Support was equally strong in New England and the Deep South, among Democrats and Republicans. In fact in most of the country the Federal laws that followed the amendment had no effect, because 32 states had already enacted their own bans on the sale of alcohol. Note that most of the prohibition-era laws applied to selling alcohol, not drinking it, so making your own and drinking it or giving it away remained a gray area mostly ignored by law enforcement.

And then fifteen years later the amendment was quietly repealed without much more opposition than it had met being enacted, and it was soon remembered as nothing more than a failure and a joke. What was that about?

As to why people opposed the sale of liquor, that seems obvious to me: because it has killed millions of people and impoverished millions more. None of the other drugs that we have at various times tried to ban has ever come close to the level of harm inflicted by alcohol. Of course it has also led to a a great deal of happiness, fun, and so on, but that is true of any drug people take for pleasure. Why, then, does banning alcohol seem ridiculous? And what does that say about the whole enterprise of government, and of all our attempts at moral reform?

Historically the supporters of prohibition came from two camps: religious fundamentalists and progressives bent on bettering the lot of humanity. It was strongest where the two converged, that is, among the religious do-gooders who also created Abolitionism. Most of the leading abolitionists were in the Temperance camp: Lyman Beecher, William Lloyd Garrison, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Frederick Douglass, who once wrote, "if we could but make the world sober, we would have no slavery." Abraham Lincoln was for temperance. But so was Teddy Roosevelt, coming from a very different tradition of "muscular Christianity" and an obsession with good health.

My eldest son was puzzled by this list of prohibitionists and asked, "Are they for freedom or against it?" Well, both, in certain circumstances. Just as they opposed the freedom to own slaves, they also opposed the freedom to profit from exploiting the addiction of alcoholics and impoverishing working families. In the world today the most active temperance movement is in rural India, where groups of women have been smashing up the unlicensed saloons where their husbands get drunk. Which rights are more important, those of the men to get drunk and the saloon keepers to sell to them, or those of the women and children to food and shelter?

But while I very much understand the impulses that drive prohibition, I don't support and doubt it could ever be made to work.

This takes my thoughts toward what humans are and what we can and cannot do. We cannot, it seems to me, be all that good. Some level of sin is essential to us. For many people, happiness depends on some sort of chemical that changes what it feels like to be alive. If we try to take that way we will likely fail, and the costs of that attempt will be high.

That is what the US found during Prohibition. At first the nation's consumption of alcohol declined quite a bit, but it didn't take long for gangsters and speakeasys to fill the void left by legal saloons. By the time Prohibition was repealed, consumption was higher than ever, or at least that's what FDR and other advocates for repeal claimed. Moonshine and bathtub gin also poisoned many people, more than 10,000 fatally. Al Capone was only the most famous of a whole army of rum runners whose violence led to a rise in the murder rate and a spreading feeling of danger.

It just didn't work.

One of the greatest challenges we face in organizing our societies is finding the line between what we can try to ban and what we have to accept. Because any attempt to reform us beyond what our weak hearts can stand will only fail and probably leave things worse than before.

Beware Years Ending in 9

Jiayang Fan:
There’s a saying in Chinese politics—Fengjiu biluan (“Encounter nine: turmoil for sure”)—reflecting a belief that the country often experiences its worst turbulence in years that end in 9. (Since the fall of the Nationalists, in 1949, years ending in 9 have brought, successively, the Great Famine, an armed conflict with the Soviet Union, another with Vietnam, the Tiananmen Square protests, and the Falun Gong crisis.)
This is from a long, excellent piece on the Hong Kong protests at The New Yorker. One thing that comes clear from this account is that while outsiders often imagine the conflict as between Hong Kong and Beijing, the people of Hong Kong are severely divided against each other. Fan portrays this as largely a generational divide, with young protesters against older people who want order and think that living with China is inevitable, but of course it isn't that simple.

I have been wondering lately where this could go. Independence for Hong Kong is hardly an option, and close cooperation with Beijing is essential for economic and other reasons, so what sort of viable solution can be reached? Fan admits to not knowing, and she portrays many people in Hong Kong as equally confused.

Friday, January 17, 2020

Burj Al Babas

Burj Al Babas is a luxury housing development in central Turkey where the builders completed 587 identical "villas" before going bankrupt.

Something about this place creeps me out. Drone video here.

Gaston Leroux, The Phantom of the Opera

I've just finished Gaston Leroux's 1910 novel, The Phantom of the Opera, and I enjoyed it. It is, as my elder daughter put it, an archetypal Gothic tale. Like Casablanca or the first Star Wars, it succeeds by touching on absolutely every relevant cliché. It has a monstrous, tragic antihero, a beautiful, innocent heroine, a mysterious oriental, a clueless young man trying to stop a chain of events he does not understand, secret passages, rivalry among divas, trap doors, poisons, strangulations, even a torture chamber called "the torture chamber." If you are seeking something diverting and escapist to read or listen to I highly recommend it.

The tale is presented by a narrator who claims to have worked out these events by dogged investigation, and some of what you read is extracts from documents he discovered during his research. Leroux spent some years as a reporter, after he gambled away his inheritance and suddenly had to work for a living, and the structure works well. I have been intrigued by the ways this story incorporates bits of fact, not so much because I believe Leroux's reported insistence that the whole thing might be true as for what it says about how writers are inspired. The tale is set in the Paris Opera (top), which was built from 1861 to 1875. Part of the reason it took so long was that the workers dug down into an underground pool of water that they somehow had to control; they ended up taming it into a sort of lake in the bottom of the structure. This lake is still there and was long used to train rescue workers to swim in the dark. To contain the lake they built double foundations, one as it were facing to the water and one toward the outside, and from an early date there were rumors about what was in between those walls. (Officially and most likely, rock fill, but still.)

The building was still under construction when France was humiliated in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. In the aftermath of that defeat the workers of Paris rose in a revolt and formed a government they called the Commune that only lasted two months but still looms large in the Marxist imagination. Leroux has it that the deep basement of the Opera was used by communards as a prison, and why not? They certainly did imprison more people than the jails could hold, and records of their reign are extremely sketchy, and even if it did not happen you can certainly believe that people who worked in the Opera said it had.

And of course the Opera was said to be haunted -- what grand old building is not said to be haunted? -- and Leroux said he heard Opera workers blaming mishaps on the ghost. While the great chandelier itself did not really fall onto the audience as it does in the book, one of its massive counterweights did, killing a patron, and Leroux said he was told this was the work of the ghost.

So here is my formula for crafting a Gothic tale: take a great old building or site that has dramatic events in its past and is already rumored to be haunted, preferably one that your audience knows well. Play up the mysteries of the building, the forgotten rooms sealed off in past restorations, the dark basements, the high roof. Insert a tragic antihero and an innocent, beautiful woman and surround them with other stereotypical characters: bluff policemen, flamboyant opera directors, gossiping fans, fools in love. Run everyone through a very basic, old-fashioned plot with at least one sad death. Insist that everything might be true. Behold! If your evocations of the place and the pitiable damnation of your antihero ring true enough, you might have a hit on your hands.

Links 17 January 2020

Erlend Haarberg, Crow

David Bentley Hart on the theology and psychology of Hell.

A Crackpot Index for novel scientific theories.

The guy who sculpts really realistic-looking pillows from marble.

A surge of books about kindness. If you ask me, a kindness movement is exactly what America needs.

Violinist Hillary Hahn talks about what goes on her mind while she practices.

Aboriginal fire management in Australia; essentially, set lots of small fires every year so big ones don't develop.

Winners of the 2019 Ocean Art photography contest.

The Kindness of Parrots.

A major study of death certificates says the number of Americans dying from alcohol-related causes increased from 35,914 deaths 1999 to 72,558 in 2017.

The liberal case for restricting emigration.

Thursday, January 16, 2020

The Royal Family and the Conflict over Modernity

Freddie Sayers thinks the fight in the royal family is about much more than the average celebrity blow-up:
The almighty row about Harry and Meghan isn’t just about the behaviour of the junior prince and his American bride. Bigger, harder to define feelings are afoot — and I don’t mean racism, or snobbery, or misogyny, none of which is really driving this disaster. . . .

Today, we are told, in a drawing room at Sandringham, a showdown is taking place between Meghan, the unhappy American princess dialing in from Canada, and the 93-year-old Queen — mediated by their various princes. It would be hard to find two more suitable representatives than these two women of the clashing philosophies that, in different ways, have dominated British and European politics for the past decade. Tradition versus progress, duty versus self-actualisation, community versus commerce, nation versus globalisation.
Polls show that most Britons think the Sussexes have the right to go off on their own if they want to, but on the other hand they also many people want to strip them of their titles and all their income if they do so. Go if you want, people seem to be saying, but don't look for help from us.

This is the part that really interested me:
On one level, the British public have become liberals with amazing completeness in just over a generation. From the ‘Red Wall’ in the North to affluent London, from young to old, we have accepted and grown fond of a world of individual rights, self-realisation and freedom from judgment. By the logic of this world-view, there can be no doubt: of course the Sussexes must be free to do as they please and shake off the constraints of their elders. Who would stand in the way of a young family’s search for happiness?

But on another level, there is a growing fear that this same logic, in its relentless ratchet towards ‘progress’, will inadvertently destroy the things we hold most dear. It’s an uneven conflict because where the liberal world view is coherent, defensible and ostensibly virtuous, many of the things it threatens are hard to defend in the same terms. This mismatch makes people defensive and angry, as the Sussexes are now discovering.
I think this is exactly right and has been since the 1700s at least. The program of the liberal Enlightenment can be expressed logically and defined in plain prose: freedom, legal equality, economic growth. The conservative program is often ultimately about things that are hard to put into words. Most British monarchists could not explain very well why they want a royal family, which Thomas Paine long ago pointed out is an absurd notion:
How a race of men came into the world so exalted above the rest, and distinguished like some new species, is worth inquiring into.
But people know that having one just feels right.

I'm not saying that all conservatism is emotional; much of it is based on a justified skepticism about grand ideas for making things better, a reluctance to trust outsiders with your own security, and a determination to hold onto what you have. But I do believe that much of it is about wanting things to feel the way they always have. To many people, tradition makes life feel better and safer, and none of your arguments about economic growth or individual rights will make much headway against that.

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

A Point about Polling

If you had a truly, truly random sample of US voters, how many would you have to poll to get as good an estimate as a you get from a pretty good sample of 2.3 million voters?


If you knew your sample was truly random, you could do very well just polling 401 voters. Even a tiny deviation from true randomness makes a sample of millions less accurate than a perfectly random sample of 401. All the effort pollsters put into trying to contact thousands and thousands of people is necessary because getting a truly random sample is all but impossible.

Monday, January 13, 2020

The Woman without Pain

Fascinating piece by Ariel Levy in The New Yorker about Jo Cameron, a Scottish woman who feels no pain or anxiety. She has at least two mutations that affect her brain circuitry, one of which has been documented before but one of which is unique.
“I said to her, ‘Are you worried about what’s going to happen today?’ Because she was meeting our clinicians to have a skin biopsy and do quantitative sensory testing—pain-threshold tests. She said, ‘No. I’m never worried about anything.’ ”
She is also friendly, charming, sweet, and never has any troubles, leaving the scientists studying her genes to wonder how much is her mutations and how much is just her:
One complicating question is how much of Cameron’s Cameronness is really a consequence of her FAAH mutation and FAAH OUT deletion. She has plenty of other genes, after all, and her upbringing and her early environment also played a role in making her who she is. Since the paper was published, Matthew Hill has heard from half a dozen people with pain insensitivity, and he told me that many of them seemed nuts. “If you had this phenotype and weren’t a generally pleasant person like Jo—maybe you’re, like, a douche-y frat boy—the way that you would process this might be entirely different. Our whole perception of this phenotype is explicitly based on the fact that it was Jo who presented it.”

Srivastava is intent on solving the scientific riddles that Cameron poses. But, in a wistful moment, he suggested that the work also raised profound social questions. “Spending time with her, you realize that if we only had more people like Jo—who are genuinely nice, pleasant, do not give in to anger . . . well,” he said, “you know.”

Misery may not be all it’s cracked up to be. Paul Bloom, who is writing a book about suffering, told me, “There’s a big movement in psychology to say, ‘What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.’ People talk about ‘post-traumatic growth.’ I think a lot of it is bullshit. Look at the data: bad things are bad.” You aren’t healthier after you have cancer or fall down a flight of steps. And it’s only in the movies that getting hit by a bolt of lightning turns you into a superhero; in life, it turns you into a fritter.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

The Death of Literary Studies

The Chronicle of Higher Education has posted a package of essays titled Endgame on the situation of literary studies in the US:
The academic study of literature is no longer on the verge of field collapse. It’s in the midst of it. Preliminary data suggest that hiring is at an all-time low. Entire subfields (modernism, Victorian poetry) have essentially ceased to exist. In some years, top-tier departments are failing to place a single student in a tenure-track job. Aspirants to the field have almost no professorial prospects; practitioners, especially those who advise graduate students, must face the uneasy possibility that their professional function has evaporated. Befuddled and without purpose, they are, as one professor put it recently, like the Last Dinosaur described in an Italo Calvino story: “The world had changed: I couldn’t recognize the mountain any more, or the rivers, or the trees.”
The essays collected by the Chronicle deal with this crisis in a variety of ways. Andrew Kay, in "Academe's Extinction Event," recounts his experience at last spring's meeting of the Modern Language Association:
How can I conjure MLA 2019 for you? Have you ever seen that viral picture from 2017 of a party of Oregon golfers calmly putting while, in the near distance, a wildfire consumes the landscape? Trees blacken; smoke, pinkish-gray, shrouds everything in impasto blots; nature itself seems to creak, groan, and at last give way. But the golfers go blithely on. The conversion of this Edenic place into Dantean incandescence won’t interfere with the genteel game they know and love — or, if it will, they are determined to get in one last round before the region is razed. “Eye on the ball, Chet!” one can hear them saying. “Not on the cataclysm!” Thus MLA 2019.
I guess the reason the Chronicle put the package together was to fight this kind of complacency, and force professors to realize that if nothing changes most of them may soon be looking for other kinds of work. Enrollments in many humanities programs are down by half since 2008, and the number of majors in some English programs is down by 80 or even 90 percent.

Some academics have responded by reprising old arguments. The Chronicle has an essay by Michael Clune, who thinks part of the problem is that professors have lost the courage of their taste and are unwilling to say that some books are better than others.
The paradoxical effect of a total commitment to equality is to imprison value within the boundaries of the market.  There’s a basic problem with the capitulation of cultural education to consumer preference. Dogmatic equality tells us: There’s nothing wrong with your taste. If you prefer a steady diet of young adult novels or reality TV shows, so what? No one has the authority to make you feel bad about your desires, to make you think you should want something else. . . . if the academy assimilates this view — as it largely has over the past three decades — then a possibility central to humanistic education has been lost. The prospect that you might be transformed, that you might discover new modes of thought, perception, and desire, has been foreclosed.  
And then another essay by people who think such talk is just a roundabout way of defending the canon of dead white men, and you know how we have to feel about that.

The most discussed essay is by Simon During, who thinks our loss of faith in the humanities parallels the decline of religion.
I want to propose that such big thinking might begin with the idea that, in the West, secularization has happened not once but twice. It happened first in relation to religion, and second, more recently, in relation to culture and the humanities. . . .  Faith has been lost across two different zones: first, religion; then, high culture. The process that we associate with thinkers like Friedrich Schiller, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Matthew Arnold, in which culture was consecrated in religion’s place, and that in more modest forms survived until quite recently, has finally been undone. We now live in a doubly secularized age, post-religious and post-canonical. The humanities have become merely a (rather eccentric) option for a small fraction of the population.
I find During's essay interesting, but to me it misses the real point.

This is my model of the history of higher education in the US: before World War II, only a small percentage of young people went to college. Most of them were rich or upper middle class, with a few super bright scholarship kids. The point of college was to train people for membership in the elite class. You studied things like Latin and Shakespeare because those were the sorts of things rich people knew about. The basic college curriculum was entirely built around the aspirations and interests of the elite class.

After World War II, the universities were massively expanded as a way to bring millions more people into the wealthy class. If rich people were the ones who went to college, the theory went, then if we sent more people to college then we would have more rich people. Right? And to some extent this worked; the upper middle class has expanded enormously, and most of them have been to college. But it didn't work entirely. By the 1960s there were already more college graduates than there were slots in the elite, and the long process began that has ended up with employers demanding a college diploma to manage a MacDonald's. Plus, the more diverse student body began to rebel against the old-style curriculum. Some students wanted material more relevant to their politics or their ethnicity, while others just wanted things that would help them get jobs. Thus the huge expansion of the undergraduate business degree and similar programs, and the creation of ethnic studies. What is happening now is just the gradual working out of the contradiction between an educational model built around the class prejudices of the early 20th century in a world where those prejudices no longer have much meaning. As Simon During put it,
Quite suddenly, having a detailed knowledge of and love for Bach’s music, say, stopped being a marker of a “cultured” or “civilized” person and became just a matter of opinion and personal interest.
Since a humanistic education is no longer an important passport to wealth and status, why should anyone pursue it? Except for those of us who love it, I mean. Which is not to say that you can't learn a lot of useful stuff studying the humanities, like careful reading and good writing. But you could learn them in a lot of other ways, too.

To me the irony of the situation is that professors are constantly denouncing capitalism, neoliberalism and careerism, while they are absolutely obsessed with their own job market. Half the pieces in the Endgame collection deal with the job market in the humanities, and it seems clear that to many professors the crisis is plain and simple the inability of new Ph.D.s to find tenure track jobs. I don't think they are wrong to care so much; in our world you need a job to lead any kind of life, and to lead a good life it really helps to have a good job. But if professors can understand the power of the job market in their own lives, why are they so troubled that their students respond to the same pressures?

Actually I think students may be making a mistake to pursue narrow professional training, since so far as I can tell people with humanistic educations still end up with middle class jobs eventually.  But it isn't as if the non-careerist students are all that interested in the old canon anyway; sometimes I think that the only young people who really care about the history that most fascinates me are white supremacists.

I simply can't imagine that humanities education will survive in anything like its current form. The pressures against it, from changing ideas about class to changing student interests, are too great, and honestly nobody much cares to take up its defense. We don't share any common idea of what education is for, beyond equipping us for work, and I doubt our fractious nation will ever agree on questions like that again.

Archaeology in the 2010s: the Paleogenetics Revolution

In the past decade, by far the most important development in archaeology has been the technology of paleogenetics, which is allowing us to answer questions I thought would be debated forever.

The technology works like this: DNA is chemically extracted from bone or other human remains and run through a sequencer. Powerful computers then read the various DNA sequences that emerge and discard all those not related to the problem at hand, such as viruses or bacteria, which are often the vast majority of the sample. The human DNA -- or sometimes other species, if that is what is being studied -- is then compared to databases of human genomes. It is rare for a nearly complete genome to be discovered; a genome is considered "high quality" if it is more than 5% complete. But a 5% sample of the 3 billion base pairs in the human genome is usually enough for high quality statistics. The differences between different human populations are small, on the order of 0.1%. Again, with 3 billion base pairs to work with the differences still stand out.

But I want to emphasize that all of this statistical, and it depends on assumptions made about which mutations represent important forking points in our genealogies and so on. I think this is great science but it is still very new and some of what I write below may turn out to be wrong. Most of it may turn out to be oversimplified.

I would summarize the main discoveries of paleogenetics so far as follows:
1) Humans interbred with other hominid species such as Neanderthals and Denisovans. Outside of Africa, humans are 1% to 1.5% Neanderthal. Certain key genes, such as those that help Tibetans survive at high altitude, may have come from other species. Neanderthals and Denisovans also interbred with each other.

2) Native Americans almost all descend from a single migration of people from Asia that took place on the order of 15,000 years ago.

3) Agriculture was spread into Europe by a mass migration of farmers from Anatolia, who genetically replaced most of the native foragers. Those farmers contributed the largest share of the genes of modern Europeans. The data for Asia is not as good but so far it looks like the major ethnic groups of East Asia, including Han Chinese, Koreans, and Japanese, are descended from early farmers who spread out from the Yangtze Valley.

4) Modern races formed from the great shake-up spawned by the discovery and spread of agriculture; in the Mesolithic the racial composition of Eurasia was completely different. Around 15,000 years ago the Neolithic farmers of Anatolia and the Neolithic farmers of Iran were as different from each other as Chinese and Welsh are today.

5) In the Bronze Age, the people of the Black Sea steppes spread very widely across Eurasia, making major contributions to the gene pool from Ireland to India. These people presumably spread the Indo-European languages. The details of this process are still not certain, but the fact of population disruptions between 3300 and 2500 BCE is clear. There is a simple statistical test that can show if one population could be the product of two others, and it shows that medieval Europeans could not be descended just from native foragers and Middle Eastern farmers; a third major contribution is needed.

6) European history after the Bronze Age continued to see migration on a large scale. The Bell Beaker invasion of Britain and Ireland around 2200 BCE may have resulted in the replacement of 80% of the population.

7) Genetic studies in Rome suggest that the population was changed by a migrants from the eastern Mediterranean in the late Republic and early empire, then changed again in the late empire by migrants from north of the Alps.

8) Historians have been arguing about how many Anglo-Saxons came to Britain for 200 years, with no result. Was there a mass migration, or just a coup by elite warriors? But now genetics suggest that about 25% of the genes in Britain come from Anglo-Saxon invaders. Even if they were genetically more successful than the natives, this still requires tens of thousands of migrants, and probably more than a hundred thousand.
The discoveries continue to pour in and the science is still getting better by leaps and bounds. We now have the technology to study family relationships as well as group connections, and this will also be a fruitful avenue of research moving forward.

My mind is still blown every time I think about these discoveries, which have opened a huge new window into the past.

The Kids on the No. 6 Bus

In the 1970s, Nick Kristoff rode the bus to school with a bunch of working class neighbors in Yamhill, Oregon:
Chaos reigned daily on the No. 6 school bus, with working-class boys and girls flirting and gossiping and dreaming, brimming with mischief, bravado and optimism. Nick rode it every day in the 1970s with neighbors here in rural Oregon, neighbors like Farlan, Zealan, Rogena, Nathan and Keylan Knapp.

They were bright, rambunctious, upwardly mobile youngsters whose father had a good job installing pipes. The Knapps were thrilled to have just bought their own home, and everyone oohed and aahed when Farlan received a Ford Mustang for his 16th birthday.

Yet today about one-quarter of the children on that No. 6 bus are dead, mostly from drugs, suicide, alcohol or reckless accidents. Of the five Knapp kids who had once been so cheery, Farlan died of liver failure from drink and drugs, Zealan burned to death in a house fire while passed out drunk, Rogena died from hepatitis linked to drug use and Nathan blew himself up cooking meth. Keylan survived partly because he spent 13 years in a state penitentiary.

Among other kids on the bus, Mike died from suicide, Steve from the aftermath of a motorcycle accident, Cindy from depression and a heart attack, Jeff from a daredevil car crash, Billy from diabetes in prison, Kevin from obesity-related ailments, Tim from a construction accident, Sue from undetermined causes. And then there’s Chris, who is presumed dead after years of alcoholism and homelessness. At least one more is in prison, and another is homeless.
Nick Kristoff blames the disappearance of good working class jobs, and I agree that this is the immediate and maybe the most important cause. But I would extend that by saying that the cause was the disappearance of jobs in a culture where working and supporting yourself and your family was the supreme value -- "standing on your own two feet" -- leaving nothing on which people could rely when their jobs were gone.

Saturday, January 11, 2020

A Decade in an Archaeologist's LIfe

Reading over a couple of scientists' thoughts on what they had learned in a decade, I thought I might put together a post on the most interesting work I have done since 2010. As the decade began I was finishing up one of my greatest projects, a nine-year archaeological survey of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park. (You can find links to the public versions of our reports here.) Near Oldtown, Maryland, we found the site of Thomas Cresap's frontier fort, 1744-1770, a spot visited by George Washington, Daniel Boone, and many other famous characters.  However we failed to pin down the location of the Shawnee settlement known as King Opessa's town, which stood nearby from around 1715 to 1730, and I have been scheming ever since to get back and look for it.

Also in 2010 I was finishing up a four-year archaeological survey of Catoctin Mountain Park in Maryland, and in 2012 I recorded a series of videos about that project. That was really fun and I have been trying ever since to make more.

At the same I was directing a series of projects for the Delaware Department of Transportation, which culminated in 2012 with the excavation of two tenant farm sites. One dated to c. 1740 to 1765, the other to c. 1775-1920. The pictures show two porringers from the colonial site and a wooden well built around 1800 using a technology that goes back to the Neolithic.

In 2013 I was helping the Marines expand a busy road along Chopawamsic Creek in the Quantico base, excavating part of a marvelous precontact Indian site. The place had been occupied from around 9,000 BCE to contact but was most intensively used by a culture we call Halifax, c. 4000 to 3500 BCE. We found many artifacts of that period and obtained the best set of radiocarbon dates yet for a Halifax site. I hope to publishing those results this year.

The next year I did some test excavations at a naval base along the Potomac near Washington. This was an area where maps and aerial photographs showed a nineteenth-century house, a set of barracks built during World War I, and townhouses built for military families in the 1970s. When I first saw the site the townhouses had just been bulldozed away, leaving bare earth, as unpromising a location as I ever tested. But one small part of the site turned out to be miraculously intact, and in that small area we found a pit about three feet (0.9 m) across and deep that was full of pottery dating to Early Woodland times. The pit was radiocarbon dates to around 750 BCE. Mending done later in the lab (above) showed that these sherds came from five vessels, each made in a slightly different way. Native  potters were usually highly consistent in how they worked, so we think five different potters were involved. That makes us suspect that this pit resulted from an annual get-together in which five different bands of Indians who spent much of the year apart assembled at this spot, perhaps timed to coincide with the great runs of shad and herring up the river. That is how archaeologists think people of the time lived (we call it "fission-fusion") but actual evidence is pretty scarce.

Also in 2014 we dug in Patterson Park in Baltimore, looking for the earthworks built to defend the city from British attack in 1814. (You know, the rockets' red glare and the bombs bursting in air and all.) And we did find them, stretching for more than 200 feet across the park, which I thought was a real triumph. We also did a major public outreach effort that involved dozens of volunteers, hundreds of school kids, and appearances on radio and television, and I got to hear the head of the American Battlefield Protection Program call our project "a model of how to do public archaeology." Because that was such a public project I posted about it here as it happened.

In 2015 I dug on a Navy base near here on the site of a major 17th- to 20th-century plantation. We found a series of eight artifact concentrations on either side of an old farm lane, some with the foundations of small houses, that we interpret as slave cabins. Each was occupied for 25 to 75 years, then abandoned and replaced by another nearby. The oldest was built around 1740, and the last two remained in use after the Civil War, down into the 20th century. One of the fun things about this project was that three different groups of archaeologists had worked on parts of this plantation before, so we had to sort through their notes to figure out what they had done and where.

In 2016 we found and excavated a burial pit on the Manassas Battlefield, which I wrote about here when it was finally made public. The pit contained the complete skeletons of two Union soldiers and seven amputated legs.

Sadly I haven't done anything especially cool since then, but this still makes for a pretty respectable decade's work.

Friday, January 10, 2020

Links 10 January 2020

Sword, wood and sharks' teeth, New Guinea, c 1900

Awesome headline: Headless Body in Cave Is Identified as 1916 Ax Murder Suspect.

Video of an eagle trying over and over to nab a duck that just keeps diving under the water. Honestly one of the strangest nature films I have ever seen.

Roman-period garum factory found 2 km outside the city of Ashkelon, necessary because nobody wants to live next door to so much rotting fish guts. With recipes!

A cemetery of the Yotvingians, a pagan warrior tribe of medieval Poland I never heard of before.

So far, the cost of Trump's new tariffs has been born mostly by US consumers. However, that may change in the future as firms reorganize their supply chains.

Rabbits are not native to Britain; they were driven out by the glaciers and had to be re-introduced by people later. But when? Historians used to say this happened in the Norman period, but in 2017 an archaeologist re-examining old animal bones from the Fishbourne Roman Palace realized that one was from a rabbit. That means at least one rabbit lived in Britain in the 1st century CE, although it may have been a pampered pet rather than part of an agricultural or hunting scheme.

The US military bans TikTok, part of its ongoing effort to keep soldiers from revealing everything about their missions via their phones.

Elizabeth Warren's plan for bankruptcy reform, the single best proposal I have seen from any of the candidates so far. It even looks doable.

Excitement about very thin materials (e.g. graphene)

Counting the squirrels in Central Park.

The NY Tiimes' 52 Places to Visit in 2020

In the "rich getting richer" category, Rolls Royce just had its record year.

Betelgeuse is going to explode. Sometime.

The average body temperature of Americans seems to have declined over time.

Thursday, January 9, 2020

Trump Money

In 2019, the federal government delivered an extraordinary financial aid package to America's farmers. Farm subsidies jumped to their highest level in 14 years, most of them paid out without any action by Congress.

The money flowed to farmers like Robert Henry. When I visited in early July, many of his fields near New Madrid, Mo., had been flooded for months, preventing him from working in them. The soybeans that he did manage to grow had fallen in value; China wasn't buying them, in retaliation for the Trump administration's tariffs.

That's when the government stepped in. Some of the aid came from long-familiar programs. Government-subsidized crop insurance covered some of the losses from flooding. Other payments were unprecedented. The U.S. Department of Agriculture simply sent him a check to compensate him for the low prices resulting from the trade war.

" 'Trump money' is what we call it," Henry said. "It helped a lot. And it's my understanding, they're going to do it again."

Indeed, a few weeks later, the USDA announced another $16 billion in trade-related aid to farmers. It came on top of the previous year's $12 billion package, for a grand total of $28 billion in two years. About $19 billion of that money had been paid out by the end of 2019, and the rest will be paid in 2020.
$28 billion is rather a lot of money, more than the auto bailout cost in 2009. The auto bailout was hotly debated and many Republicans spoke against it, saying that companies that can't stay afloat on their own should disappear. None of those guys have said a word about this farm bailout.

I am ambivalent about farm subsidies; maybe this is a good idea and maybe it is not. But the Trump administration did this under an old law, without going through Congress, so there was no debate and very few Americans even know this is happening.

The Perils of Loving a Scientist

Scott Alexander sums up the 2010s:
Discovering this area of research may be the best thing that happened to me the second half of this decade (sorry, everyone I dated, you were pretty good too).

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

Physicists and Biologists Trying to Coexist

Nature is running two parallel stories,
Thirteen tips for engaging with physicists, as told by a biologist
Twelve tips for engaging with biologists, as told by a physicist
This struck me at first as very strange. Reading on, the underlying issue seems to be that all the biologists and physicists who work together in fields like medical imaging drive each other crazy.

The biologist thinks physicists are restless scientific children who are always asking some sideways question instead of sticking to the topic at hand:
When physicists say they do not understand something that you have said about biology, it’s possible that you do not understand that topic either. ‘Understanding’ operates at different planes in different disciplines . . . When physicists say they do not understand an aspect of biology, they are not requesting a ‘Biology 101’ explanation. In my experience, when physicists ask a biology question, they want to apply the thinking of physics to biology; specifically, they are searching for universal, mathematical explanations.

Physicists move away from settled questions. In biology, much less seems settled. Emphasizing what you know is less interesting than saying what you need to learn.
And this:
In discussing their own work, physicists will often reach for a formula. After they write the equation and stare at it as if pondering a Mark Rothko painting, they might proffer an explanation.
The physicist also seem to worry that physicists are making trouble and gives her fellows advice like,
Build synergy . . . Learn the language . . . Get comfortable being uncomfortable . . . . . . Ask questions . . . Embrace uncertainty . . . Learn statistics . . . Don’t lose touch with your roots
But on the other hand:
Don’t forget that you bring unique skills . . . Do not blindly accept dogma.
After reading both articles I started to get the picture that this is hard. The whole point of bringing physicists into biological labs is that they know different things and might ask different questions, but having ignorant outsiders ask questions is annoying and must get exhausting after a while. Every few years a physicist with limited biological knowledge might have an insight that biologists missed, but in between those moments of insight there is a whole lot of explaining and feeling criticized by the cold stares of equation-mad physics nerds.

And remember to laugh:
Physicists laugh a lot. Not only is the humour of physicists arcane, but almost anything unexpected can provide a jocular moment. Theirs are the ultimate inside jokes, which are often not obviously funny. But laugh along anyway — even if you don’t find the humour, they won’t know the difference.

Modern Warfare

After the missile launch, the action moved to social media. . . .

–Josuha Keating on Slate

Old Tractors and Too Much Technology

Instead of buying new tractors, many US farmers are scouring estate sales for older models without the GPS units and other high tech:
Tractors manufactured in the late 1970s and 1980s are some of the hottest items in farm auctions across the Midwest these days — and it’s not because they’re antiques.

Cost-conscious farmers are looking for bargains, and tractors from that era are well-built and totally functional, and aren’t as complicated or expensive to repair as more recent models that run on sophisticated software.

“It’s a trend that’s been building. It’s been interesting in the last couple years, which have been difficult for ag, to see the trend accelerate,” said Greg Peterson, the founder of Machinery Pete, a farm equipment data company in Rochester with a website and TV show.

“There’s an affinity factor if you grew up around these tractors, but it goes way beyond that,” Peterson said. “These things, they’re basically bulletproof. You can put 15,000 hours on it and if something breaks you can just replace it.” . . .

The other big draw of the older tractors is their lack of complex technology. Farmers prefer to fix what they can on the spot, or take it to their mechanic and not have to spend tens of thousands of dollars.

“The newer machines, any time something breaks, you’ve got to have a computer to fix it,” Stock said.

There are some good things about the software in newer machines, said Peterson. The dealer will get a warning if something is about to break and can contact the farmer ahead of time to nip the problem in the bud. But if something does break, the farmer is powerless, stuck in the field waiting for a service truck from the dealership to come out to their farm and charge up to $150 per hour for labor.

“That goes against the pride of ownership, plus your lifetime of skills you’ve built up being able to fix things,” Peterson said.
Whenever I read about one of these disconnects between what companies are selling and what buyers want, I wonder what is behind it. I suspect in this case that the market the manufacturers want is the high-end one, where they probably make ten times the profit per machine they do on basic models. Enough buyers want the cutting edge to make that a decent strategy. A basic machine, after all, would just be in competition with all the used ones out there, a supply that has probably been jacked up by ongoing consolidation.

I am no Luddite, but I have myself wished dozens of times for the old, simpler technology rather than the latest buggy version. Why can't I buy it?

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

Joe Reimer

Paintings by Joe Reimer, the greatest living Canadian Impressionist. More at his web site.

Sunday, January 5, 2020

Thomas Friedman on the Assassination of Qassim Suleimani

Qassim Suleimani has been a hugely prominent figure in all of Iran's proxy wars across the Middle East, but that does not mean his policies have been wise or successful:
On Nov. 27, Iraqi Shiites — yes, Iraqi Shiites — burned down the Iranian consulate in Najaf, Iraq, removing the Iranian flag from the building and putting an Iraqi flag in its place. That was after Iraqi Shiites, in September 2018, set the Iranian consulate in Basra ablaze, shouting condemnations of Iran’s interference in Iraqi politics.

The whole “protest” against the United States Embassy compound in Baghdad last week was almost certainly a Suleimani-staged operation to make it look as if Iraqis wanted America out when in fact it was the other way around. The protesters were paid pro-Iranian militiamen. No one in Baghdad was fooled by this.

In a way, it’s what got Suleimani killed. He so wanted to cover his failures in Iraq he decided to start provoking the Americans there by shelling their forces, hoping they would overreact, kill Iraqis and turn them against the United States. Trump, rather than taking the bait, killed Suleimani instead.

I have no idea whether this was wise or what will be the long-term implications. But here are two things I do know about the Middle East.

First, often in the Middle East the opposite of “bad” is not “good.” The opposite of bad often turns out to be “disorder.” Just because you take out a really bad actor like Suleimani doesn’t mean a good actor, or a good change in policy, comes in his wake. Suleimani is part of a system called the Islamic Revolution in Iran. That revolution has managed to use oil money and violence to stay in power since 1979 — and that is Iran’s tragedy, a tragedy that the death of one Iranian general will not change.

Today’s Iran is the heir to a great civilization and the home of an enormously talented people and significant culture. Wherever Iranians go in the world today, they thrive as scientists, doctors, artists, writers and filmmakers — except in the Islamic Republic of Iran, whose most famous exports are suicide bombing, cyberterrorism and proxy militia leaders. The very fact that Suleimani was probably the most famous Iranian in the region speaks to the utter emptiness of this regime, and how it has wasted the lives of two generations of Iranians by looking for dignity in all the wrong places and in all the wrong ways.

The other thing I know is that in the Middle East all important politics happens the morning after the morning after.

Yes, in the coming days there will be noisy protests in Iran, the burning of American flags and much crying for the “martyr.” The morning after the morning after? There will be a thousand quiet conversations inside Iran that won’t get reported. They will be about the travesty that is their own government and how it has squandered so much of Iran’s wealth and talent on an imperial project that has made Iran hated in the Middle East.

And yes, the morning after, America’s Sunni Arab allies will quietly celebrate Suleimani’s death, but we must never forget that it is the dysfunction of many of the Sunni Arab regimes — their lack of freedom, modern education and women’s empowerment — that made them so weak that Iran was able to take them over from the inside with its proxies.
The real tragedy of four decades of US-Iran conflict is that none of it was much wanted by the citizens of either county. There is no reason for the US and Iran to fight, except that intense mutual suspicion has made peace impossible, leaving various opportunists on both sides to advance their careers by stirring up trouble.

As for Suleimani himself, I think he is best remembered by some of his own words:
The battlefield is mankind's lost paradise – the paradise in which morality and human conduct are at their highest. One type of paradise that men imagine is about streams, beautiful maidens, and lush landscape. But there is another kind of paradise – the battlefield.

Saturday, January 4, 2020

The Oseberg Tapestries

In about 834 CE, a Viking queen was buried in Norway. She was laid to rest with an astonishing array of goods, including the amazingly beautiful ship, four carved animal-head posts, three beds, a cart or wagon, and much more. The femininity of the queen was acknowledged with a huge array of objects related to womens' work: several looms and a whole suite of tools for working cloth, from shears to spindles to needles.

One end of the cart was decorated with cats, sacred to the goddess Freya.

And what I want to write about today, an amazing array of textiles. The textiles included everything from raw materials – skeins of thread, bundles of silk ribbon – to complete and highly elaborate tapestries. Some of the material had almost completely disappeared, especially that woven of flax. But some survived well enough that we can puzzle out what it depicts. Note that I am interested in what these tapestries depict; if you want to read about how they were made, see here.

More than 900 fragments were recovered from the burial. These images are watercolors by Sofie Kraft, who drew and painted many of the fragments in the 1910s.

The central character here is usually interpreted as a human in bird costume.

This one includes two famous figures, The Horned Man with Crossed Spears Confronts the Man in a Bear Skin.

Besides all these fragments, substantial parts were found of two large tapestries. One is called The Wagon Procession.

Many pieces survive, so the reproductions one sees all over the place (you can buy a replica in the museum gift shop) are fairly authentic. These paintings were done by Mary Storm in 1940. Notice the figure in the upper left of the top image wearing a horned helmet. So the next time somebody says to you, "Vikings never wore horned helmets!" casually mention that while the figure from the Oseberg tapestries is thought to represent Odin, it is wearing a horned helmet.

Then there is this work.

It is thought to depict a sacrificial tree, hung with corpses, as in this interpretation. Notice that the tops of the large branches have been carved into horses' heads; does that make the tree a representation of the world tree Yggdrasil, Odin's Steed? Adam of Bremen's chronicle describes something like this practice:
It is customary also to solemnize in Uppsala, at nine-year intervals, a general feast of all the provinces of Sweden. From attendance at this festival no one is exempted Kings and people all and singly send their gifts to Uppsala and, what is more distressing than any kind of punishment, those who have already adopted Christianity redeem themselves through these ceremonies. The sacrifice is of this nature: of every living thing that is male, they offer nine heads with the blood of which it is customary to placate gods of this sort. The bodies they hang in the sacred grove that adjoins the temple. Now this grove is so sacred in the eyes of the heathen that each and every tree in it is believed divine because of the death or putrefaction of the victims. Even dogs and horses hang there with men. A Christian told me that he had seen 72 bodies suspended promiscuously. Furthermore, the incantations customarily chanted in the ritual of a sacrifice of this kind are manifold and unseemly; therefore, it is better to keep silent about them.
The overall impression is that most of the works depict ritual scenes: processions of wagons, processions of costumed figures, stylized combats, sacrifices. Since the tapestries from this grave are most of those that survive from 9th-century Scandinavia, we don't know if this was the usual subject matter of Viking tapestries, or if it was considered appropriate for funerals, or if it was the particular taste of this queen. But they are a wonderful source for imagining Viking religious life.

Burnt Norton

What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibility
Only in a world of speculation.
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden. My words echo
Thus, in your mind.

–T.S. Eliot, thought by some scholars to be a reflection on his relationship with Emily Hale.

Thomas and Emily: a Love Story

Emily Hale and T.S. Eliot in 1946

T.S. Eliot, one of the greatest poets ever to write in English, lived a singularly unhappy life, built around a miserable marriage to Vivienne Haigh-Wood. But before he met Haigh-Wood, he spent two years in the US taking a doctorate in philosophy at Harvard. In 1912 he met and began a relationship with Emily Hale, then an undergraduate at Smith College. She thought they had, as they said, an understanding, but after his return to England he quickly met and married Haigh-Wood.

Yet Eliot never lost touch with Hale, and as the boundless impossibility of his marriage grew ever clearer he reached out to her more and more. They exchanged hundreds of loving letters, which have now, fifty years after Eliot's death, finally been released to the public. After seeing Hale in 1930 he wrote,
You have made me perfectly happy: that is, happier than I have ever been in my life; the only kind of happiness now possible for the rest of my life is now with me; and though it is the kind of happiness which is identical with my deepest loss and sorrow, it is a kind of supernatural ecstasy. . . . I tried to pretend that my love for you was dead, though I could only do so by pretending myself that my heart was dead; at any rate, I resigned myself to celibate old age.
Haigh-wood died in a mental institution in 1947. Hale thought that with the marriage finally over, she and Eliot would get together. But no; Eliot told her, he wrote later, that after his wife's death he realized that he had only been in love with “the memory” of Hale, and he had no interest in resuming a relationship with her as they now were.

In 1956 Hale donated 1,100 letters she had received from Eliot to Princeton with the proviso that they not be opened until 50 years after hers and Eliot's deaths. Eliot was enraged by the news and issued a statement that pretty much denied everything. Among other things he wrote that is he had married Hale when he was young,  he most likely would have become a mediocre philosophy professor.
Emily Hale would have killed the poet in me. Vivienne nearly was the death of me, but she kept the poet alive.
Which may even be true; certainly Eliot's poetry seems to spring from a very unhappy place, or perhaps from a desperate struggle against sadness. It's as if he were saying,
Sorry, but being married to you would have made me too happy and killed my art.
Of course it also might not be true; one of the Eliot scholars contacted by the Times said,
My theory is that he couldn’t bear the thought of being happy. I think he really did love Emily, but he was too scared of developing a relationship.
I give the last word to my eldest son, who said, "that's why you never get involved with poets."

Friday, January 3, 2020

Mental Illness in America

The news is full of crazy people. Grafton Thomas, the man who attacked a house full of Hasidic Jews with a machete, has been charged with “Hate Crimes,” but evidence is mounting that he is insane:
But on Sunday afternoon, a family friend, Taleea Collins, and Mr. Thomas’s pastor, the Rev. Wendy Paige, said that he had struggled with mental illness for two decades and had repeatedly sought help over the years. . . . Ms. Paige said Mr. Thomas had been diagnosed with schizophrenia.
I have written before that the intersection of mental illness with extreme ideology is a major threat to our safety, and here is another example.

But what should we do about it? The Rev. Paige says she
had struggled for years to understand why Thomas wasn’t institutionalized. “There hasn’t been anyone who has given a real solution to deal with a grown man who is dealing with schizophrenia, other than ‘Go home and call us if something happens.’” 
Mitchell Silber, a former director of intelligence for the NYC police who has lately made himself an expert on antisemitic hate crimes, writes that
Failing to treat individuals with documented mental health issues is not an acceptable solution.
But what would an “acceptable solution” be? Our laws do not allow locking up mentally ill people unless they present a clear danger to themselves or others, and many people who knew Grafton Thomas thought he was mild-mannered and anything but violent; before this attack, could a case have been made that he was a danger to society? He did once have a tense confrontation with the police, which led to his being charged with “second-degree reckless endangerment and menacing a police or peace officer,” but those sorts of confrontations happen every day. Are we going to lock up all the homeless people who have ever had a run in with the cops?

Meanwhile there has been lots of news about the ongoing homelessness crisis in California, with everyone from Donald Trump to the NY Times weighing in. The problem of shit, needles and trash on the streets of San Francisco is so bad that big tech conferences that used to be held there are moving elsewhere.

The Times rather predictably takes the tone that this is an economic problem, and they explicitly address it under the heading of inequality:
The path to becoming homeless can start with a large medical bill that causes someone to fall behind on their rent payments, which leads to eventual eviction. More than half of the people surveyed in Los Angeles cited economic hardship as the primary reason that they fell into homelessness. In San Francisco, 26 percent of the homeless surveyed cited the loss of a job as the primary cause.

But really in California as everywhere else homelessness is very much enmeshed with mental illness. Statistics on homelessness are a mess because there are two kinds of homeless people: the kind who lose their homes through eviction or fleeing from abuse and then very quickly find new housing (the median length of stay in a US homeless shelter is one night), and the long-term homeless. The statistics above, from Kevin Drum at Mother Jones and therefore not likely to be a conservative hack job, show that most long-term homeless people have serious non-economic problems. Fully 78% have diagnosed mental health problems, and 75% have substance abuse problems; 50% have the trifecta of physical health problems, mental health problems, and substance abuse. Notice that alcoholics and drug abusers are especially unlikely to be found in shelters, because in a shelter they have a hard time getting high.

Take a look at the Times photo essay on a miserable homeless camp in Oakland; tell me that seems like a gathering of sane people.

This is not to say that economics does not play a role here; we have probably all known people with mental health or drug problems that might well have landed them on  the street if they did not have middle class families and other resources. I certainly have. It may well be true that some people end up homeless after losing a job; losing a job is traumatic for anyone, but for mentally ill people just holding it together it might be the shove that sends them over the edge. Housing costs and the shortage of subsidized housing may also be factors; again, struggles that people with good mental health might be able to manage might be too much for the mentally ill.

But to write about homelessness without mentioning mental health is just absurd.

That being said, what can we do about it? Better community health care is obviously thing one, and it might be enough to make a big dent in the problem. If you've ever tried to find good mental health providers who are taking new patients and your insurance, you know what a problem that can be even for middle class people. It must be ten times worse for poor people. California has spent billions over the past decade “fighting homelessness,” but I think they would have done better to invest in mental health care. My only hesitation is that since the need is so vast, it is hard to imagine how much money we might need to spend to provide decent mental health care for everyone.

And what about people who refuse care? Because this is a serious problem. “He was on medication for a while but didn't like it and stopped taking it” is a line in many mental health tragedies, including that of Grafton Thomas. Is there a solution to this beyond “Go home and call us if something happens”?

Some people have talked about re-opening state mental hospitals for long-term care, but that is very expensive and the last time we tried it the system was full of brutality and neglect. Several commentators have mentioned the number of mentally ill people in prison, with the idea, stated or not, that maybe they would be better off in mental hospitals. Maybe so, but most mentally ill people have not committed crimes that would get them long prison sentences, and we are a long way from being able to predict which ones are likely to. Scott Alexander, a psychiatrist, has written a long piece about why putting the mentally ill homeless in hospitals is a bad idea, and I recommend it for the curious.

So what is the answer? I honestly don't know. But it seems to me that if we want a world in which everyone who wants one has a home, we first need to invest in mental health care, and if we want to protect our public spaces from being overrun by crazy people who yell at us, we may need to violate a few rights.