Friday, May 14, 2021

The Collapse of China's Rust Belt, or, Some Phenomena are Global

In northeastern China is a "Rust Belt" of provinces (Liaoning, Jilin, Heilongjiang) with old heavy industries based on iron and coal. The Japanese invested heavily here and the Communists continued to do in the 1950s and 1960s. However, since the beginning of economic reform this region has stagnated. Since 2014 the troubles have worsened and analysts suspected that the population was declining steeply; the news was full of stories about empty schools and abandoned neighborhoods. 

The latest Chinese census reveals that population in these provinces is down by 11 million people, or roughly 10 percent. Most of that decline has probably taken place since 2014, so that's a very rapid contraction.

Asked about this, the head of China's National Statistics Bureau said,

The population decline in the Northeast is influenced by a variety of factors including the natural environment, geography, population fertility levels, and economic and social development. The Northeast is located at a high latitude with relatively long and cold winters, and some Northeastern people are migrating to the warmer south. This is a trend of population movements in many countries around the world: both Europe and the US have seen this kind of phenomenon. In addition, the natural population growth rate in the Northeast has been lower than the national average for a long time, because of fertility-related values and behavior. It is also important to see that the economy of the Northeast is in a period of structural adjustment. The economically developed coastal provinces and cities offer diverse opportunities and employment prospects, which are very attractive to people in other regions including the Northeast.

What strikes me about this is how universal some phenomena are in our civilization. National policy may influence these trends by a few percent one way or another, but the main drivers of economic change are largely outside political control: the collapse of population growth as rural people move to cities, the rise and then fall of heavy industry, etc.

Beaver Trouble

As beavers return across North America, they are becoming pests in much the same way deer have. Some recent examples from Canada:

At first, the theft of wooden fence posts seemed like a crime of opportunity – amid soaring lumber costs, stacks of wood have gone missing from construction sites across North America.

But officers in the Canadian prairie community of Porcupine Plain, Saskatchewan, soon identified the culprit: local beavers had stolen the posts to build their dam.

The semiaquatic rodents were also recently blamed for an internet outage in British Columbia, which left an entire town with access to the web after beavers chewed through a cable. Adding insult to injury, the animals had also pilfered the telecom company’s marking tape to line their dam.

Another beaver recently wandered into a Toronto Metro station, and while beavers aren't very aggressive they will bite if cornered and you don't want to be bitten by an animal that chews down trees.

In many small towns playing fields are placed on stream floodplains, and hundreds of baseball, soccer, and lacrosse fields have been flooded by beaver dams. When I lived in Williamsburg, Virginia one beaver pair built their dam in the culvert under a road, leveraging the road berm to turn a 6-foot-long dam into a 200-foot barrier, creating a huge pond and flooding numerous yards; the beavers then swam up and chewed down people's dogwood and redbud trees. They were trapped and driven a fifty miles away, but they were back in a week. (They know a good spot when they see one.) So they were trapped again and flown to West Virginia. 

In 1999 another beaver pair tried to set up in Washington, DC's Tidal Basin but after they chewed down one of the city's prize Japanese cherry trees they were also trapped and moved to West Virginia; some people actually protested this move on the grounds that they would be strangers in West Virginia and might get a hostile reception from local beavers. Of course breeding beavers are intensely territorial and are hostile to all other beavers, out of town or local, so this was a moot point, plus West Virginia now has so many beavers that I'm sure they don't want any more flown in.

Just as with deer, the only answer is going to be to kill beavers, and lots of them. Because I work with the National Park Service I know several wildlife biologists who are active in the DC area, and they were outraged that the government spent so much money moving the Tidal Basin beavers when they feel like they can never get enough money for protecting actual endangered species and actual threatened environments. I heard pretty much the same thing from three of them: "Why didn't they just shoot the beavers? Wouldn't those Secret Service guys enjoy the practice."

When I went searching for a link to the 1999 Tidal Basin beaver incident I remembered, I discovered that another beaver just did the same thing; behold the damaged cherry tree above.

Links 14 May 2021

Enameled bowl, Venice, c. 1500. Bottom of the same bowl is below.

Study of modern genomes suggests that Polynesians have genes from coastal peoples in South America, and that the mixing happened around 1200 AD. Interesting if true but only ancient DNA can confirm, and so far it has not.

Because of a conspiracy theory that says vaccinated people shed poisons that can do harm to others, some anti-vaxers are talking about wearing masks and social distancing to protect themselves from the vaccinated, which they refused to do for the disease.

Small hoard of Bronze Age jewelry found by Swedish hiker. Makes me want to look under boulders more often.

Some good news: over the past 20 years forests have regrown in area equal in size to France –59 million hectares, or 227,000 square miles. Mostly that's in Europe and North America but also including major areas in Mongolia and Brazil. That's just forests that have regrown naturally, nothing to do with planting trees as is going on in China, Ethiopia, etc.. Unfortunately, even more has been cleared, but when you read about rain forest clear-cutting in the Amazon you should remember that the loss is partly balanced by gains elsewhere.

Ross Douthat asks what conservatives are actually trying to conserve, since family life, small town life, and organized religion are all disappearing. (New York Times) Seems to me what Trump's biggest fans want to conserve is a tough-guy attitude toward life, which they see as a violent free-for-all in which the best and toughest should emerge on top while losers sink. 

According to this study the reopening of schools in Texas led to 43,000 additional Covid-19 cases and 800 deaths, mainly because parents left the house more once their kids were gone.

Bronze Age Europeans carried pieces of bronze scrap that approximately match certain standard weights, suggesting that they formed a sort of currency.

Nathan Robinson hates modern architecture, is looking for alternatives: Poundbury, "Gothic Futurism," buildings covered with plants.

Bones of Viking prince, excavated in 1868 and missing for a century, found in mislabeled box on shelf at Danish National Museum.

Earmarks, banned by a reforming Republican caucus in the early 2000s, are back in the House, and lawmakers from both parties have asked for $21 billion for their districts and pet projects (Washington Post)

Strange NY Times piece on a team of scientists trying to figure out why people feed animals: scattering bread for pigeons and ducks in parks, tossing meat into the air for black kites in Delhi, etc. It's a fascinating question; I regard our habit of keeping completely useless pets as one of the strangest things about us. However, these scientists have so far figured out exactly nothing, so I don't understand why their study is newsworthy.

According to this study, administrative costs in US healthcare could be reduced 27-63% just by requiring a single type of contract and single billing method. In this model that's essentially all the savings we would get by moving to a single-payer system. People have been talking about this for 50 years but somehow it never happens. I suppose the requirements of all the different states are part of the reason.

Hyenas gnawed on Neanderthal bones.

Obscure Libyan militia group reigned in terror over the town of Tarhuna for three years; 120 bodies of their victims have now been exhumed from mass graves, and there may be more since local families report 350 people missing. So glad we supported that revolution. (Washington Post)

Old school pest control: Animal Rescue Has Released 1,000 Feral Cats into Chicago's Streets to Combat City's Rat Problem.

Scott Siskind investigates the mystery of apps (as in computer applications) you can only get with a prescription.

Israel says its Iron Dome defense system is shooting down around 90% of the rockets fired in the recent conflict, but they have been using that 90% number so consistently for so long that many analysts are suspicious. Even if it does work that well, each interceptor costs around $40,000, more than ten times as much as the missiles they are shooting down. (Yahoo, Jerusalem Post, Washington Post)

Melting Alpine glacier reveals cave used by World War I soldiers, full of artifacts preserved in ice. Which means some of the ice now melting in the Alps has formed since 1918.

German priests defy the Vatican, issue mass blessing of homosexual relationships. The German church is rich, liberal, and has been moving aggressively on questions like gay relationships and married priests, which, says Ross Douthat in the Times, has some people talking about the threat of schism.

Voter turnout was way up in 2020, in every age and ethnic category, probably because 83% of Americans told pollsters it "really matters who wins the election." So the way to increase political engagement is to put a hugely divisive figure on the ballot. (Washington Post)

Thursday, May 13, 2021

Aliens and Us

The news swirling around US military reports of strange aircraft has a lot of people wondering what we will do if those objects do turn out to be alien spaceships. These days most people assume the craft will be drones with no squishy alien life forms on board, which is in itself interesting: our speculation about alien technology always tracks our own. But then if we are really talking about a civilization capable of exploring interstellar space, who knows what level of consciousness might be embedded in their machines?

I am of course highly skeptical because that's just the way I am, plus I just don't get why aliens would carry on a decades-long tease with us. If they can cross interstellar space they can presumably hide from all of our sensors. And if they didn't want to hide, why are they so elusive? Plus I think the leap to "space aliens" shows a great lack of imagination. I have seen numerous articles along the lines of, "these anomalies have to be one of these three things." (Like, say, "sensor glitches, aliens, or time travelers.") But we should be less certain that we know all the possibilities about things so far beyond our understanding.

Anyway Ezra Klein has an interesting essay in the Times today mulling over what would happen on Earth if we were certain alien spacecraft were visiting us. Excerpts:

One immediate effect, I suspect, would be a collapse in public trust. Decades of U.F.O. reports and conspiracies would take on a different cast. Governments would be seen as having withheld a profound truth from the public, whether or not they actually did. We already live in an age of conspiracy theories. Now the guardrails would truly shatter, because if U.F.O.s were real, despite decades of dismissals, who would remain trusted to say anything else was false? . . .

One lesson of the pandemic is that humanity’s desire for normalcy is an underrated force, and there is no single mistake as common to political analysis as the constant belief that this or that event will finally change everything. If so many can deny or downplay a disease that’s killed millions, dismissing some unusual debris would be trivial. “An awful lot of people would basically shrug and it’d be in the news for three days,” Adrian Tchaikovsky, the science fiction writer, told me. “You can’t just say, ‘still no understanding of alien thing!’ every day. An awful lot of people would be very keen on continuing with their lives and routines no matter what.”

There is a thick literature on how evidence of alien life would shake the world’s religions, but I think Brother Guy Consolmagno, director of the Vatican Observatory, is quite likely right when he suggests that many people would simply say, “of course.” The materialist worldview that positions humanity as an island of intelligence in a potentially empty cosmos — my worldview, in other words — is the aberration. Most people believe, and have always believed, that we share both the earth and the cosmos with other beings — gods, spirits, angels, ghosts, ancestors. The norm throughout human history has been a crowded universe where other intelligences are interested in our comings and goings, and even shape them. The whole of human civilization is testament to the fact that we can believe we are not alone and still obsess over earthly concerns.

This has even been true with aliens. The science fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson reminded me that in the early 1900s it was widely but mistakenly believed that we had visual evidence of canals on Mars. “The scientific community seemed to have validated that finding, even though it was mainly Percival Lowell, but it’s hard to recapture now how general the assumption was,” he wrote in an email. “There being no chance of passage across space, it was assumed to be a philosophical point only, of interest but not world-changing for anyone.”

Monday, May 10, 2021

The Marion Collection at Auction

The collection of Mrs. John L. Marion is up for auction at Sotheby's, including big works by Warhol, Clyfford Still, Roy Lichtenstein, etc. Just looking over these 20 works provides a nice history of American art in the second half of the 20th century. I was going to put this on the weekly link post but I see the auction will be over by Friday and this page gone. Above is my personal favorite, Neopha by Susan Rothenberg.

Sunday, May 9, 2021

David Hume, or, Skeptical Conservatism

Is skepticism a progressive or conservative force? It depends on what your are skeptical about.

Skepticism about the virtue of inherited social and economic arrangements has been very much part of the modern revolution. I'm thinking of someone like Tom Paine asking what weird power made people born kings so much better than people born peasants. Hostility to established churches and their influence was another major part of the radical worldview in the 18th and 19th centuries.

That is one level of skepticism; if you doubt the wisdom of the world you see around you, you may end up as a radical or even a revolutionary. But the most skeptical people, the ones who are skeptical of everything, often end up as conservatives. To people of this mindset, the current system may be bad, but at least it functions in a minimal way, which is more than can be said for whatever you dream up out of your weak human head. This is the conservatism associated with people like Edmund Burke, Disraeli, or Warren Harding.

To believe that revolution, or even reform, is going to make things better requires a sort of faith. Many people who lack that faith end up as a conservatives.

I was moved to write about this by reading a weird article titled "The Hume Paradox," written by a philosophy professor named Julian Baggini. Baggini asks, in a dozen different ways, how David Hume (1711-1776) could have been so smart in philosophy but so stupid about politics. What he means is, how could Hume have been so skeptical about received philosophical views, but so accepting of traditional social and political arrangements?

Honestly it is a bit embarrassing to have to point this out to a professor, but there is no mystery here: Hume is just a great example of the skeptical conservative type. Hume got famous for his high-level philosophical attacks on Christianity, and his attempt to reconstruct ethics on a non-religious basis. He could be completely and witheringly skeptical about some matters. Most works of philosophy, he wrote, consist of

Principles taken upon trust, consequences lamely deduced from them, want of coherence in the parts, and of evidence in the whole.

Hume's relationship to progressive political and social ideas was complex. He was hostile to slavery, and refused to worship the ancient Romans (as many of his contemporaries did) partly because their economy was based on slavery. On the other hand he was, tentatively, a racist. Looking around the world he saw that the civilizations of Europe, Africa, and East Asia were very different, and he was "inclined to the view" that this was rooted in inherent differences between the races. (Notice the lack of commitment.) In both cases he was looking at such evidence as he could find. What he knew about European colonies in the Caribbean, and ancient Rome, was to his mind sufficient evidence that slavery was awful; but the only evidence he had about the capabilities of the races (not knowing any actual Africans) was the level of their civilizations, which seemed to him to show that Europeans were somehow superior.

In Hume's time there was a great deal of agitation in Britain for radical political reform, and (except on the issue of slavery) Hume was mostly opposed. He was perfectly aware that Britain's system was unjust, but the prospect of revolution did not enthuse him. Baggini:

Another striking example comes when he astutely articulates the harms caused by inequality: “Nature is so liberal to mankind, that, were all her presents equally divided among the species, and improved by art and industry, every individual would enjoy all the necessaries, and even most of the comforts of life… It must also be confessed, that, wherever we depart from this equality, we rob the poor of more satisfaction than we add to the rich, and that the slight gratification of a frivolous vanity, in one individual, frequently costs more than bread to many families, and even provinces.”

Yet, once again, conservative doubts prevented him from advocating anything to set this straight. Creating such equality would require too much force and violence, giving the authority behind it so much power that it “must soon degenerate into tyranny.” “Perfect equality of possessions” would destroy “all subordination, weakens extremely the authority of magistracy, and must reduce all power nearly to a level.” He didn’t seem to consider that this might be a good thing, nor notice the mismatch between his alarmism about the postulated might of an egalitarian order and his indulgence of the established inegalitarian magistracy.

Baggini thinks that Hume was obviously wrong about politics, but I am not sure. If you compare the experience of Britain and the US over the time from Hume's death in 1776 to 1900, do you see much practical difference? The revolutionary US was ahead in abolishing the established church and electing a head of state, but Britain, despite its monarchy and powerful House of Lords, was much faster to abolish slavery. The two nations got to votes for all adult men and votes for women at around the same time. That's before we even get to the results of the Latin American revolutions, or the ones in Russia and China. 

There is nothing absurd about Hume's politics. He was not some kind of obscure reactionary; he supported numerous minor reforms and improvements, and at least one major one, the abolition of slavery. But his age had no example of a successful egalitarian democracy that anyone could point to and say "Look, it works." So it made perfect sense that a man who was intensely skeptical of all the philosophical systems he had ever encountered would be dubious of a supposedly better system he had never seen, and that nobody knew how to make work.

In our age we like to accuse our political opponents of being insufficiently skeptical. They, we say, believe obvious nonsense, whereas we are skeptical enough to recognize nonsense when we see it. But all the major political systems depend on belief in things that are hard to prove. Skepticism can, depending on how you wield it, drive you toward revolution, reform, or the status quo, and there is nothing strange about a skeptical conservative.

Saturday, May 8, 2021

Sickles, Scythes, and the Conundrum of Slow Technological Change

When humans started harvesting wheat on a large scale the tool everybody used was the sickle. The earliest sickles had cutting edges made of stone blades or just a row of small flakes.

When bronze came along, people immediately started making metal sickles; these were such important tools for people who lived on grain that the cost was worth it.

And then iron. In Europe and the Middle East people kept using sickles to cut wheat until the Middle Ages, and they continued to do so in parts of Africa and South Asia until modern times.

But honestly a sickle is a terrible tool for harvesting wheat. It swings horizontally, so to cut the wheat near the bottom you have to swing it along the ground, which means working on your knees or in a squat. It's horrible for your body. It's also slow. There is a much better tool for this task, which Europeans have known for the past 1500 years: the scythe. With a modern scythe, a skilled harvester can work about three to five times as fast as someone using a sickle. (See video here for a side-by-side comparison.) And there is nothing very complicated about a modern scythe, which is just a longer, angled blade attached to a longer, curved handle, with a little side grip stuck on.

Which brings me to today's question: when was the scythe invented and why did it take so long for it to replace the sickle?

Carolingian scythe, c. 850 AD

Wikipedia has this about the history of the scythe:

The scythe may have dated back as far as c. 5000 BC, and seems to have been used since Cucuteni–Trypillia settlements, becoming widespread with agricultural developments.[citation needed] Initially used mostly for mowing hay, it had replaced the sickle for reaping crops by the 16th century, as the scythe was better ergonomically and consequently more efficient.

That's quite a leap, from the middle Neolithic to the 16th century, with no data in between.

This Neolithic rock art is said to depict scythes 5,000 years ago, but I am not convinced.

Britannica has this:

The exact origin of the scythe is unknown, but it was little used in the ancient world. It came into wide use only with agricultural developments of the Carolingian era (8th century AD) in Europe, when the harvesting and storing of hay became important to support livestock through winters.

The question of whether people had scythes in Roman times is much debated, but anyway there are about 10,000 Roman sickles in European museums and not one object that everyone agrees is a Roman scythe. So if they did have them, they didn't use them very much.

So here is a puzzle. A scythe, which is not a very complex tool, is vastly superior to a sickle for cutting grass. Wheat and barley are grasses, and the scythe works better for them, too. So why is there next to no evidence for the use of scythes before 500 AD? 

And why was it first used only for cutting grass for hay, with some people going on cutting wheat with sickles for centuries? This images is from the Luttrell Psalter, c. 1330, and it can stand for hundreds of medieval images of people harvesting wheat with sickles. And these are people who already knew about and possibly owned scythes, which are, remember, 3 to 5 times as fast.

I have no idea, and so far as I can tell, nobody else knows, either. 

It is possible that sickles had some advantage we are missing. I wonder if maybe using a sickle led to less wastage of grain, which would have been a lot more important to ancient peasants than it was to 19th-century farmers. But if that is true, nobody I can find has documented it.

So I am left with thinking that people used sickles because they had always used sickles, and had invested years of their lives in getting skilled with sickles, and considered harvesting grain such a vital task, or even such a sacred task, that no risky innovations could even be attempted. Not until we crazy moderns came along, constantly obsessing about speeding everything up, willing to try a hundred experiments on the chance that one might work, did the scythe replace the sickle as the grain harvester's tool of choice.

Friday, May 7, 2021

Lithium: A Glimpse into the Biden Administration's New School/Old School Democratic Politics

Silver Peak Lithium Mine, Nevada

If we're going to move to an electrified future, we need a lot of batteries. Making batteries takes a lot of metal, especially Lithium and Cobalt. Modern metal mining is a hugely destructive process, involving blasting away whole mountains. This creates a serious environmental trade-off problem. 

Environmental activists have spent decades fighting the opening of new mines and the like, because, well, there isn't much you can do to a mountain worse than blasting it away and digging a gigantic pit where it used to be.

(There is an alternative to batteries, hydrogen-powered fuel cells, but this comes with two big problems: it requires us to create a vast new infrastructure for making and distributing hydrogen, and, for reasons I don't fully understand, the technology seems to be at least a decade behind batteries. So over the next 20 years it's batteries or oil.)

Which brings me to an interesting article in today's New York Times about Lithium mining in America. There is currently only one Lithium mine in the US, and it produces only about 10% of what we use. The Trump administration was determined to change that and as one of its last acts approved a new mine on Federal land in Nevada, called Lithium Americas. And this is another Trump policy Biden's people seem determined to push forward:

Most of the raw lithium used domestically comes from Latin America or Australia, and most of it is processed and turned into battery cells in China and other Asian countries.

“China just put out its next five-year plan,” Mr. Biden’s energy secretary, Jennifer Granholm, said in a recent interview. “They want to be the go-to place for the guts of the batteries, yet we have these minerals in the United States. We have not taken advantage of them, to mine them.”

In March, she announced grants to increase production of crucial minerals. “This is a race to the future that America is going to win,” she said.

So far, the Biden administration has not moved to help push more environmentally friendly options — like lithium brine extraction, instead of open pit mines. The Interior Department declined to say whether it would shift its stand on the Lithium Americas permit, which it is defending in court.

There is even a proposal out there to invest $10 billion of the infrastructure bill into Lithium extraction and processing.

Biden and his people do seem to be serious about climate change, but they are also serious about putting America first, and about creating blue collar jobs. Biden is the sort of Democrat more comfortable touring a factory with Union reps than communing with the mountains. His climate change policy is all about building things: more solar farms, more wind farms, more lithium mines, more battery factories. Other approaches are possible, for example getting more serious about recycling –hundreds of tons of Lithium end up in landfills every year – and reducing our energy consumption. But "build more stuff" is probably the most realistic approach over the next few decades. We're going to lose a few dozen more mountains, but to me that seems better than the risk of frying the planet.

Links 7 May 2021

Abandoned family cemetery, Virginia

Free range children: pushed by parents worried they could get arrested for letting their kids wander free, as has happened in a handful of widely publicized cases, Utah, Oklahoma, Texas, and Nevada have all passed "Reasonable Childhood Independence" bills that shield parents from such accusations.

Great xkcd comic on scientific papers.

Today's intersectional politics: in south Texas, a Republican resurgence is being led by Hispanic women. (New York Times)

Ingenuity: 3-minute video of its 4th flight, with footage from the rover and the helicopter. 

That video of the Mars helicopter calls attention to dust swirling on the surface, I suppose to rebut claims that it's all fake. But if you can fake a helicopter, why can't you also fake dust? Do you doubt the far-reaching sinister capabilities of the Deep State/Illuminati/Democrat Conspiracy? If they can digitally manufacture 50,000 votes in Georgia, surely they could digitally manufacture a little dust cloud!

Mitt Romney to an audience of Utah Republican who booed him for criticizing Trump's character: "Aren't you embarrassed?" (Washington Post

I find it amusing that some of the rowdies in the crowd at the Utah Republican convention shouted "Communist!" at Romney. You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

Testing Magnus Carlsen to see if he can recognize situations from past chess games (he can).

The price of lumber is soaring in North America, from around $300/board foot a few years ago to more than $1,000 now. Credit home building and the pandemic-related renovation craze, plus the expectation of suppliers that demand would be down, not up. We are seeing all sorts of stories about rising prices, and the common thread is that many suppliers did not anticipate that demand would come roaring back this spring. Makes me wonder once again about American businessmen.

William Galston on resentment: "Resentment is one of the most powerful forces in human life. Unleashing it is like splitting the atom; it creates enormous energy."

According to one study of Ohio, sending a family member to prison has on average positive effects on the rest of the family. Just one study, but it's interesting to speculate why: removal of a big troublemaker? Reduction in family conflict?

US birth rate down again last year. Since 2007, the birth rate among American women aged 20-24 is down 40%. (New York Times)

The fate of the 93,000 Koreans who moved from Japan to North Korea between 1959 and 1984. The Japanese government promoted this, even screening North Korean propaganda films in elementary schools with many Korean students.

Arizona's bizarre "audit" of the ballots from Maricopa County. And the added mystery of checking for bamboo fibers that might prove thousands of ballots were flown in from China.

Remembering Josquin de Prez (c. 1450-1521), the first "superstar" of western music, and the first composer whose musical scores were printed in widely sold books. (New York Times) Josquin's famous Ave Maria here.

In the mind of Philip Hoare, Albrecht Dürer's trip to see a beached whale echoes through history. (Washington Post)

Mike Olbinksi's time-lapse storm videos, remarkable.

Student's writing  board from Egypt, c. 2000 BC, with instructor's corrections in red. 

Scandinavian archaeologists have found numerous buried gold offerings from the mid 500s AD, which was a period of repeated volcanic eruptions, lousy weather, and a European plague.

Ephemeral beach art by Jon Foreman.

Thursday, May 6, 2021

Sylvie Mangaud

Sylvie Mangaud is a French sculptor, born 1961.

I was immediately struck by these works, which is interesting because this style has been around since the 1910s. Art students have been making works that look much like these for decades. But these are just better. More at her web site.

Wednesday, May 5, 2021

Asperitas Clouds over Lake Ontario

May 4, 2021, photo by James Montanus

TMS, Autism, and Depression

In an interview at The Cut, John Elder Robinson claims that transcranial magnetic stimulation, or TMS, caused him to "wake up" from autism; among other things he was suddenly able to feel, viscerally, the power of angry insults, and the beauty of a pair of eyes. 

I left the hospital figuring nothing had happened: I was thinking to myself, What kind of crazy fool was I to think that I was gonna do this TMS and suddenly the world was gonna change? But then I got in the car to go home, and I turned on my iPod and it just hit me that the music was real and alive. It had a power and clarity I hadn’t experienced before, and I started thinking about who the song was written for and what it was about. . . . The next day at work I looked at one of my colleagues and I thought to myself: He has the most beautiful brown eyes. That’s the type of thought I simply do not have. I don’t usually have any comment on your eyes because I don’t look in anyone’s eyes. For me to look in your eyes and say that they are beautiful is totally out of character. When I got to work I walked into the waiting room, as I usually do, and I looked at everyone and there was this flood of emotion. I could see it all: They were scared and anxious and eager, and never in my life had I seen something like that. I had to step out of the room because I didn’t know how to cope. It felt like ESP.

The interview is impressive enough that I spent some time reading about TMS. Here's a quick description:

TMS is a noninvasive procedure that uses magnetic pulses to stimulate nerve cells in the brain. During treatment, a coil is placed against the patient’s scalp and the TMS energy passes through the skull into the outermost layer of the brain. While the idea of electrical brain stimulation has been around for centuries, early techniques involved inserting actual wires — a dangerous and risky procedure. Noninvasive stimulation via electromagnetic energy is much newer — the first successful experimental use took place in the ‘80s. Since then, it’s evolved into a powerful tool for neuroscientists. It’s also a therapeutic tool for stroke recovery, depression, and anxiety relief.

Various claims have been made over the past few years that it can "cure" autism. Better studies, alas, have not confirmed this. What is really driving interest in the therapy is not a desire to eliminate autism, but to treat depression in autistic patients. I did not know until yesterday that high-functioning autistic people suffer much more depression than others, with some studies finding rates as high as 50%. SSRIs don't seem to work very well, because they mainly to make autistic people irritable.

Here's a summary of a recent major study:

In a pilot study in adults with autism and depression, transcranial magnetic stimulation, or TMS, was effective in reducing depressive symptoms and had some effects on autistic symptoms, report researchers at the Medical University of South Carolina in Autism Research. This study suggests that TMS warrants further study as a potential treatment for adults with both depression and autism.

This has me wondering about how autism and depression might be connected; both seem to flatten the emotional world. Since the medical literature I can find isn't very encouraging about TMS as a "cure" for autism, could it be that what really happened to Robinson was a lifting of depression? On the other hand his description of being suddenly overwhelmed by other people's emotions doesn't fit that very well.

Fascinating, whatever is really going on.


This is from an review of The Sensitives by Oliver Broudy in the January 29 TLS:

Brian Welsh is the sort of American who, in his previous life, could have stood in for a great many people. Growing up in the American Midwest, he was a well-liked extrovert in high school. He worked in a lumber yard, and then as a medical technician. He married. He lived in a modest house. He was full of easy raillery. Later, he would say that he hadn't been a particularly empathetic sort of person – other people's suffering didn't touch him – but at the time it didn't much matter. His life worked – until it didn't. From one day to the next, or so it seemed in retrospect, he was blown out of that life by the onset of incomprehensible symptoms. It started with paint fumes fogging his brain and perfume setting his heart racing. Soon after, he could no longer tolerate certain foods and the list kept getting longer. He was perpetually fatigued, and he felt himself disappearing into a rabbit hole full of invisible toxic threats. He had, in a sense, become allergic to the flesh of the modern world – to its solvents, powders, solutions, fuels, and fumes. he became fearful, even eccentric. His wife divorced him.

In his new book, Oliver Broudy describes Brian's "merciless humbling." Sensitivity to synthetic chemicals "stripped away everything" . . . now Brian lives alone in a high-altitude forest in Arizona, which as the most unadulterated air he could find.  

According to surveys, millions of people suffer from similar complaints, although mostly not as extreme as Brian's.

What are we to make of this?

These people are suffering, some of them horribly; many have lost their jobs, their marriages, their friends. But of what are they suffering?

"Synthetic chemicals" is just two words, not a real category. There is no conceivable mechanism that could make our immune systems respond to all human-made organic molecules, or even all complex hydrocarbons. The actual molecules have too little in common with each other for our exquisitely sensitive immune systems to be fooled in that way. Whatever is going on, I don't see how it could be what some of these people think it is.

And yet here we have people whose lives have been overthrown. Some of them seem like flakey hypochondriacs, but many do not. Many seem like ordinary enough people, no crazier than the rest of us, except for the debilitating reactions that are ruining their lives.

It seems to me that this has to have a psychological component; I can't imagine any biochemistry that could explain such a wide range of allergic responses. But I wonder if there is some sort of physical reaction that underlies many cases. Maybe some people become allergic to one chemical, or one class of chemicals, and since they can't pin down the exact cause they become suspicious of all chemicals, and so on in a self-destructive spiral.

I fear this sort of problem is becoming one of the hard realities of the modern world. We suffer much less from bacteria and viruses than our ancestors, and we can keep our hearts healthy enough that most of us live into our 80s. But millions of people suffer from vague immune-related complaints that we can't explain or treat, and thousands of lives have been ruined in ways that leave us baffled.

Monday, May 3, 2021

Street Urchins and Revolutionaries

Sherlock Holmes had a regular force of detectives he once said could "find out anything". They were the Baker Street Irregulars, boys who spent their days hanging around on the streets of London, observing, who could be persuaded to follow people or look out for them for just a few cents. A splendid literary device, I thought, but not real. 

But I am now listening to Young Stalin by Simon Sebag Montefiore (2008), a wonderful book about Josef Stalin before the Revolution. During the early 1900s Stalin headed the Bolshevik Party in Georgia, organizing demonstrations, strikes, terrorist acts, and bank robberies. And according to Montefiore, Stalin organized the boys of both Tbilisi and Batumi into gangs that spied for him; among other things he used the boys to keep watch on the adult Bolsheviks to make sure they were not secretly meeting with the police or skimming money from their criminal activities.

I guess cities used to be full of boys with not much to do and a lot of energy to burn off, who could be hired for spying and the like for a few cents of ice cream money. Too young to be sentenced to serious prison time, they were not likely to get any punishment from the police beyond a smack on the side of the head. 

Come to think of it, some neighborhoods still are full of such boys who are still used that way by drug dealers, although I think these days they are a little older than the Philadelphia toughs in the picture at the top.

Saturday, May 1, 2021

Inji Efflatoun

The New York Times has been running a long series called "Overlooked No More" that provides belated obituaries for people whose deaths the newspaper did not mark at the time. The conceit is that they were ignored because they were women, or black, or toiled in third world obscurity, but in our more enlightened time we can now recognize their importance. I have found them to be a mixed bag. Some strike me as unremarkable people no more deserving of a Times obituary than millions of others. A few, I think, deserve to be forgotten, like the woman whose only claim to fame was having shot Andy Warhol. My favorite so far appeared today, commemorating the life and art of Egyptian painter and activist Inji Efflatoun (1924-1989). (Weaver in Akmim, 1971)

Efflatoun was born into a French-speaking bourgeois family in Cairo; her father was a biologist who founded the first department of entomology in Egypt, at the University of Cairo. Her mother divorced her father and founded a fashion boutique catering to Cairo's elite, westernizing women, earning enough to keep her family in bourgeois style. Inji's talent was recognized by her parents, who encouraged her to study art. In fact they hired one of Egypt's most famous modernists, Kamel El-Telmissany, to be her tutor. El-Telmissany was among the founders of a radical group called Art et Liberté, one of those modernist cabals devoted to Revolution in everything: art, politics, personal relations. In 1942 the 18-year-old Efflatoun was invited to exhibit at their annual show. As the work above (Girl and Monster, 1942) shows, at that time her painting was very much of the Surrealist 1930s, nothing yet very distinctive about it.

After the war she developed as both a painter and an activist. She actually stopped painting for nearly two years in 1946-1948, but resumed after taking several trips to upper Egypt. In 1948 she married a radical lawyer also involved in political agitation; he died in 1956. She devoted a lot of time to the status of Egyptian women, and to the poor. (The Dye Workers, c. 1955)

In 1945 she attended the First Women's International in Paris. As a young cynic I always thought those conferences sounded like a big waste of time, lots of empty slogans and tedious manifestos about Brotherhood and Sisterhood and Revolution. But if you read the biographies of activists in that time, especially from Africa, you see that being able to attend such international meetings was huge for them. Most mention in their memoirs how energized they were by meeting people from around the world working on the same issues.

(I have to insert a pedantic note here about a sentence I have now seen in half a dozen biographies, to the effect that Efflatoun "turned her back on the aristocracy to work for the welfare of the poor." First, she was not an aristocrat, just rich. Second, being an aristocrat does not mean being conservative or even being wealthy, but it does mean believing that you are extremely special and your actions have great importance. Since the days of Washington and Jefferson there has been nothing more aristocratic than leading a revolution.)

When Efflatoun started her work Egypt was a semi-colony dominated by Britain, but as it achieved its full independence under Nasser things did not get much better for women or the poor. Efflatoun continued her activist work and in 1959 she was arrested. (Prisoners, 1957)

During the five years she spent in prison she painted her most famous works. Which is on the one hand a testimony to her resilience, but on the other shows how class-bound the world's prisons were and in general still are: the poor get hard labor, the rich get to paint. Anyway it is her paintings of prison life that dominate the contemporary appreciation of her work. (In the Women's Prison, 1960)

Two painting titled Prisoner, both dated 1960.

Motherhood, one of Efflatoun's most famous works, depicting a woman who death sentence was deferred for a year to allow her to breastfeed her baby.

After she got out of prison Efflatoun changed her style again and painted mostly landscapes and scenes of the Nile, in an impressionist vein. I can't find out much about her life in this period, but judging from the work you have to think that she withdrew from politics into a more pure sort of art, and a more generalized appreciation for her homeland. I find it typical of our age that all the scholarship about Efflatoun focuses on the 1948-1965 period, lots of articles with titles like "The Fusion of Feminism, Socialism, and Art." Neither the Times obituary writer nor anybody else seems to care what she was up to when she painted these scenes.

I just love this one, White Gold, 1967, which sold at auction in 2015 for $68,750. I would take this over a roomful of $100 million Basquiats.

Welcoming the South Lebanon Bride, 1971

Discovering a new artist I love always puts me in a good mood, so now I can head out to face the day with a smile. (Cow between Palm Trees, 1966)

Friday, April 30, 2021

Living Things as Numbers

New scientific estimate of the biomass of the earth:

The sum of the biomass across all taxa on Earth is ≈550 Gt C, of which ≈80% are plants, dominated by land plants. The second major biomass component is bacteria (≈70 Gt C), constituting ≈15% of the global biomass. Other groups, in descending order, are fungi, archaea, protists, animals, and viruses, which together account for the remaining remaining less than 10%. Despite the large uncertainty associated with the total biomass of bacteria, we estimate that plants are the dominant kingdom in terms of biomass at an ≈90% probability. Aboveground biomass (≈320 Gt C) represents ≈60% of global biomass, with belowground biomass composed mainly of plant roots (≈130 Gt C) and microbes residing in the soil and deep subsurface (≈100 Gt C). Plant biomass includes ≈70% stems and tree trunks, which are mostly woody, and thus relatively metabolically inert. Bacteria include about 90% deep subsurface biomass (mostly in aquifers and below the seafloor), which have very slow metabolic activity and associated turnover times of several months to thousands of years. Excluding these contributions, global biomass is still dominated by plants, mostly consisting of ≈150 Gt C of plant roots and leaves and ≈9 Gt C of terrestrial and marine bacteria whose contribution is on par with the ≈12 Gt C of fungi.

According to this estimate, most of the mass of living things is relatively inert woody plants. Of course mass is a limited way to understand life. In the ocean, the mass of plants is relatively low, but they reproduce at a fantastic rate, so they process a vast amount of energy. Fascinating that fungi weigh six times as much as animals.

Notice how much more mass of livestock there is than wild mammals. The same is true for birds; domesticated chickens weigh more than twice as much as all wild birds.


My kids all went to the same preschool. It was an idyllic sort of place, like an advertisement for suburban parenthood: patient teachers (all women), happy children, lots of different activities, and no schoolwork to speak of. Some of the 4-year-olds did a little reading, but nobody was forced to. I thought it was great, and my kids seemed to like it very much.

But I am not at all convinced that public pre-K is a solution to any national problem, unless you count boredom among 3-year-olds. There was once a lot of evidence that Head Start and similar programs improved later school performance, but it has not replicated very well, and most studies now find that any improvement is gone by the third grade. 

So I have always been ambivalent about liberal proposals for universal pre-K. I don't really oppose it, I mean, my kids liked preschool. But I do not think it is a panacea for our educational problems, or inequality, or anything else I can think of, and I wonder if it is the best way to spend billions of dollars.

One thing I dislike about many of these proposals is that they require 3- and 4-year olds to be in school all day. My kids went for half a day, and I feel certain that was enough time for them to get whatever benefit they got out of it. 

Much of this is about providing a place for kids to go while their parents work. Ok, fine. But this often comes with the idea that if this were provided then more parents would work and the economy would grow. That is an explicit goal of the Biden administration's plan: 

“We want parents to be in the work force, especially mothers,” said Susan Rice, head of the Domestic Policy Council.

Me, I think “making the economy grow” is a bad choice for a general theory of existence. I would prefer the model of just giving parents the money, so they could spend it on preschool or not. If what you want is to improve kids' future school performance, cash works better than preschool:

It turns out that putting money directly into the pockets of low-income parents, as many other countries do, produces substantially larger gains in children’s school achievement per dollar of expenditure than does a year of preschool or participation in Head Start.

Americans are ambivalent about work and parenthood. Some polls show that a majority of Americans still think kids are better off if one parent is at home, and the poorer people are, the more they believe this. It's upper middle class people with "careers" who think both parents should be working. And as long as we are divided about this issue, I think the government should be empowering parents to make these decisions rather than making them for us.

Links 30 April 2021

Bust of Niccolo da Uzzano by Donatello ca. 1430-1432

Old stories retold: young woman tries to get her kind but lazy boyfriend to be more like her dynamic, hard-working father. Advice columnist responds: no. (Washington Post)

Police reform in action: the police in Newark, New Jersey did not fire a single bullet in 2020, which was the first year on record they did not pay a single cent to settle claims of police brutality. It can be done.

Hoard of Iron Age weapons found on German mountaintop.

Hans Holbein the Younger, best known for his portraits of Henry VIII's court, liked to paint his children into Nativity scenes and the like.

A new Supreme Court case asks us to consider what freedom of association – the First Amendment actually says "the right of the people peaceably to assemble" – really means. The case considers whether groups that participate in politics can be forced to disclose their donor lists, and it is opposed by organizations from NARAL to the NRA.

Study shows human activity has raised biodiversity in many parts of the world.

Lovely botanical ceramics by Hessa al Ajmani.

Brian Scalabrine was a bad NBA basketball player, rode the bench his whole career. Now he's retired. A high schooler recently challenged him to a game of one-on-one for their shoes, lost 11-0. So long shoes. A reminder that even bad professional athletes are way, way better than you.

Clare Grogan, who starred as a teenager in Gregory's Girl (1981), says people still come up to her every day and tell her how much they loved it, or ask her to dance lying on the grass.

A bunch of guys named Josh fight for the right to be the one true Josh.

Things have gotten so bad in some remote parts of Venezuela that people welcomed the arrival of militant drug-smuggling rebels from Colombia. (New York Times)

Today's thing that has become problematic: the gentrification of thrift stores.

The Supreme Court ponders whether a school can punish a cheerleader for a profane snapchat rant posted from off campus over the weekend. (Vox, NPRNew York Times). When, if ever, can a school sanction off-campus speech? One of the old rules is that schools can punish "disruptive" behavior, but what if the disruption is that the whole school spends Monday passing a snapchat post around and arguing about it? What about abusive bullying? Racist taunting? Or should we just say that that the school's authority ends at the public sidewalk and be done?

Verses Written on the Occasion of Getting the COVID Vaccine (Scott Siskind)

Thursday, April 29, 2021

The New Globalization: the French Tacos

The French tacos – always with the audible "s", even when it's only one – is the latest new food thrown up by the worldwide blending of cultures. Dismissed by French culinary authorities as un sandwich diététiquement incorrect, they have nonetheless swept the nation. And unlike the previous big new food in France, kebabs, they have no particular point of origin and therefore no special association with any ethnic group. Lauren Collins explains:

Technically, the French tacos is a sandwich: a flour tortilla, slathered with condiments, piled with meat (usually halal) and other things (usually French fries), doused in cheese sauce, folded into a rectangular packet, and then toasted on a grill. “In short, a rather successful marriage between panini, kebab, and burrito,” according to the municipal newsletter of Vaulx-en-Velin, a suburb of Lyon in which the French tacos may or may not have been born. . . . 
According to the municipal newsletter, the French tacos, as a dish with a Mexican name and a Greco-Turkish influence, “embellished with fries as in Belgium, shakshuka as in the Maghreb, and French cheese,” amounts to “the culinary portrait of a global city like Vaulx-en-Velin.”
Emerging from the banlieues of southern cities, they have swept the nation, which now has thousands of tacos restaurants. Besides the usual French snobs, this is also offensive to some Mexicans, who regard these non-tacos as sacrilege.

I say, of course, eat what you want, and may a thousand flowers of cultural appropriation bloom across the globe.

Wednesday, April 28, 2021

RIP Ole Anthony, God's Abusive Scold

The death of Ole Anthony gives me a chance to ask again what it means to be a good person. Christianity Today:

When it came down to it, Ole Anthony would admit to a lot of the bad things people said about him. “My own grandiose bull— can get in the way,” he told a reporter in 2004. “I was a schemer and a promoter. That’s just the way my mind works.”

Anthony needed to believe he was special, and he convinced those around him they were part of a spiritual elite. He was at times a huckster. He never stopped being a hustler. He exaggerated and lied about his life to impress people. He dreamed up grand plans to feed his ego and confirm his unmistakable charisma, never letting anything be reined in by humility or other people’s good sense.

But in the process he preached a message of God’s grace to those who wouldn’t have heard it otherwise. He founded a radical community of Christians committed to recreating the first-century church. And he took on the work of exposing televangelists who perverted the name of Christ for financial gain as cheap frauds.

According to the small church he founded in Dallas, Anthony was “more like an Old Testament prophet” than anything else. “Any conversation with him left you pondering your relationship with God,” said Gary Bucker, an elder at Community on Columbia.

Anthony's most notable achievement was bringing down the empire of televangelist Robert Tilton, after hearing from a man who said he was bankrupt after giving all his money to Tilton in exchange for prayers. He rooted through Tilton's trash and found that prayer requests had been thrown away unread, with only the cash removed. Tilton claimed on his next broadcast that he was so full of God that the prayer requests magicked their way directly into his brain, but he lost most of his followers and went bankrupt.

Anthony took on more than a dozen other televangelists over the years and got one sent to prison on tax fraud. He once said, “There’s more fraud in the name of God than any other kind of fraud in the world. That’s just heartbreaking.” And he also pursued philanthropic projects. The Times:

Not all of Trinity’s endeavors were so successful. In the late 1980s, Mr. Anthony started the Dallas Project, which proposed that homelessness could be eradicated if every church in America took in one or two people. He promoted the idea heavily, but only a few churches in Dallas participated.

In 1995, the foundation took out millions of dollars in bonds to buy 13 low-income apartment buildings in Oklahoma City. But the cost to run them was higher than anticipated, and Trinity defaulted in 2000.
Some of Anthony's former followers called his church, Trinity, a cult, and described practices like putting one member on the “hot seat” for hours of abuse. Which sounds cult-like for sure, but on the other hand they were trying to recreate the atmosphere of the early Christian church, which was also in our terms a cult. And it's hard to argue with Anthony's commitment to refocusing Christianity on Jesus and the poor rather than grandstanding tv preachers.

Ole Anthony: liar, braggart, abrasive jerk, cult leader, friend to the homeless, bitter enemy of divine fraud, prophet of a tough God. Who will judge him, and say which way the scales tilt?

Tuesday, April 27, 2021

Anarchism and History

Oregon Historical Society in Portland after the riot of April 17, 2021

Life Expectancy

Interesting article by Steven Johnson in the New York Times about human life expectancy. Up until around 1750, average human life expectancy seems never to have cracked about 35 years. It often fell below that figure, due to disease or famine, but never rose above it. This was true for all classes of society; so far as we can tell (obviously the data sets are small) aristocrats had about the same life expectancy as peasants or slaves. That's because disease did not care about your status:

During the outbreak of 1711 alone, smallpox killed the Holy Roman emperor Joseph I; three siblings of the future Holy Roman emperor Francis I; and the heir to the French throne, the grand dauphin Louis.

Modern statisticians have noticed that this began to change in the 1700s. It changed first with aristocrats; historian T.H. Hollingsworth showed that by 1770 the life expectancy of British aristocrats had risen to 45 years. This change pointed the way to the modern demographic regime, in which everyone lives much longer but the rich live significantly longer than the poor. One factor singled out by Johnson is variolation, a sort of primitive inoculation that was used in many parts of Asia and brought to Britain from the Ottoman Empire in the 1720s. But since life expectancies in the Ottoman Empire and India were not above 35 and probably much less I'm not convinced; maybe variolation worked much better when administered by skilled and therefore expensive physicians. Jenner's vaccination technique, introduced in the 1790s, worked much better.

Anyway life expectancies in rural Europe continued to rise through the nineteenth century; one British statistician found that by 1843 it had reached 50 in mostly rural Surrey. But the overall life expectancy of Europeans rose more slowly, because of the dire situation in industrial cities. In 1843, again, life expectancy in Liverpool had fallen to 25. This had many causes, including pollution, cholera, and gin, but one singled out by contemporaries was bad food. Before refrigeration it was just very hard to get massive quantities of fresh food into dense urban neighborhoods without spoilage, so poor urban people were regularly eating dubious meat, cheese, fish, and especially milk. That's why Louis Pasteur got so famous; not for disproving the spontaneous generation of microbes but for making milk safer at a time when spoiled milk was sickening millions. If the poor tried to avoid such dangerous foods they ended up living on fried potatoes and beer, which is unhealthy in other ways.

And here we get to the part of the story that really interests Johnson. What reversed this trend and got urban life expectancies rising was not so much scientific advances, although those were important, but the great reforming social movements of the day. The crusade to make life healthier had many prongs: Temperance, regulation of the food chain, dietary guidelines, exercise (spread through the "muscular Christianity" Teddy Roosevelt espoused), the City Beautiful movement with its parks and tree plantings,  the construction of sewers, chlorination of drinking water, the paving of streets, the draining of swamps, the banning of dubious patent medicines: in a word, Progressivism. Taken together it worked, and by 1900 life expectancy was up to 50 for all the rich western nations and has continued to rise. 

The same is true for more recent health advances; penicillin was a fantastic discovery, but antibiotics only had an impact on our health because the US and then other governments spent billions to develop them, and the spread of health insurance made them affordable. The safety movement with its "intrusive" regulations has made cars, trains, and factory work much, much safer.

Johnson's article seems to be arguing against the straw man view that "science" made things better by itself, but nobody who knows any history thinks that. Modernity was always as much about organization as it was about science and technology. Steam locomotives were technologically amazing but they weren't much good without railroads, which were built using primitive hand-labor methods but made possible by modern political and business changes. Nineteenth-century sewers were no better than Roman sewers – in fact they were often worse – but they were built by the thousands of miles in every city, by politicians who cared about the health of their working class voters.

I sometimes say that modern Republicans are trying to bring back the Gilded Age, but it is important to remember that even the Gilded Age benefitted from a century of crusades for public improvement. Real Libertarians, and many Anarchists, want to go much farther back and strip away the protections our societies built up across the 1800s. They, and all the other people who want to smash things, should think harder about the precious legacy of caring for each other that we have built up, and on the fact that taken together these measures have doubled the length of our lives.

Monday, April 26, 2021

Vikings, an Icelandic Cave named Surtshellir, and Ragnarök

Surtshellir Entrance

The news from Iceland:

Archaeologists have discovered the remains of rare artifacts from the Middle East in an Icelandic cave that the Vikings associated with Ragnarök, an end-times event in which the gods would be killed and the world engulfed in flames.

The cave is located by a volcano that erupted almost 1,100 years ago. At the time of that eruption, the Vikings had recently colonized Iceland. "The impacts of this eruption must have been unsettling, posing existential challenges for Iceland's newly arrived settlers," a team of researchers wrote in a paper published recently in the Journal of Archaeological Science.

Archaeological work shows that after the lava cooled, the Vikings entered the cave and constructed a boat-shaped structure made out of rocks. Within this structure, the Vikings burned animal bones, including those of sheep, goat, cattle, horses and pigs, at high temperatures as a sacrifice. This may have been done in an effort to avert Ragnarök.  

This is an extremely cool find. The abstract to this article adds that the ritual site was more than 300 m (1,000 feet) from the cave's mouth, and that the ritual activity inside went on for at least 80 years. The cave (a lava tube, technically; photo above shows part of the passage) is more than 1,000 m long. It was definitely known in medieval times, since it is mentioned in the Book of Settlements. After the island converted to Christianity the cave was mostly avoided as a cursed spot until the mid 1700s. The name connects it to the fire giant Surt, whose flaming sword was supposed to burn up the earth at the end of this age.

Imagine hearing that story told a thousand feet underground in a dark volcanic cave, the poetry echoing off the black basalt walls.

But given that this is the Vikings we are talking about, how do we know that the sacrifices in the cave were intend to avert Ragnarök? Seems to me they could just as well have been intended to bring it on. Plenty of people have longed for the end of the world, and the craziest Christian apocalypticists were not the least bit crazier than a lot of Vikings.