Monday, September 16, 2019

Ranbow Falls

Yosemite Falls in just the right light, from a video shot by Greg Harlow.

Today's Place to Daydream about: The Orkneys

The Orkneys are a rainy, windswept, sea-lashed chain of about seventy islands, home to millions of seabirds, hundreds of dolphins and whales, myriad wildflowers, and amazing monuments that mark 5,000 years of human history.

The southernmost islands about 10 miles off the north coast of Scotland. Only 20 islands are inhabited by humans, the rest being left to terns, gulls, majestic sea eagles, puffins, and feral sheep that feed on seaweed.


Parts of the islands are rocky, with spectacular cliffs and scenery like the west Highlands.


Other parts are low and sandy.




Wildlife: a puffin, feral sheep, a gray seal, a white-tailed sea eagle.

The biggest town is Kirkwall on Mainland, the biggest island; this is the old harbor. Kirkwall was founded by Vikings who took over the islands in t he ninth century, holding them until 1468, when they became part of Scotland as the dowry of a Norwegian princess.

Kirkwall is home to St. Magnus Cathedral, built by the Viking Jarls. Construction began in 1137 and it was essentially complete by 1400.


The most famous monuments of the islands are Neolithic. These include the wonderful little village of Skara Brae, c. 3200-2200 BC, buried in sand and then partially exposed by a great storm in 1850. Love the stone furniture.

There are several great tombs, most notably Maeshowe on Mainland and the Tomb of Eagles.


There is a famous stone circle, the Ring of Brodgar.

And two great Brochs built by Picts in the 1st millennium AD.

I especially like the layering of history one can find. For example, some Vikings dug their way into Maeshowe, probably in the 12th century, and left about twenty runic inscriptions. Most are just graffiti --  Haermund Hardaxe carved these runes, Ingebjork is a fair widow -- but one records that in 1153 the men of Jarl Harald broke into the mound in search of treasure to fund their Crusade to the Holy Land.

Some Viking also made the famous little carving known as the Maeshowe Dragon, the model for thousands of pieces of jewelry.

Seems like a wonderful place to be on this slow Sunday afternoon.

Sunday, September 15, 2019

The Perdigões Archaeological Complex

One of the most interesting ongoing digs in Europe is at the Perdigões Archaeological Complex in Portugal. This site was discovered in 1996 during the planting of a new vineyard and has been very intensely dug.

The site was occupied from around 3500 to 2000 BC, from the late Neolithic to the early Bronze Age. This spans the period of the Bell Beaker culture, which seems to have originated in Portugal. (Smashed pot.)

In form the site is a series of concentric circles, here shown as defined by magnetometry. The diameter of the largest circle is 450 m, or 1500 feet. It began as a ceremonial enclosure defined by a ditch and bank, along with some standing stones. The first burials were outside the ceremonial core, but over time the site expanded and the burials were included within the enclosure.

Aerial vew of the site at the end of the last field season, with the older core of the site at the bottom and later structures at the top.


The burials are of many types: single, group, intact skeletons, and dismembered skeletons. During the Bell Beaker period in particular (2800-2300 BC) the residents liked to cut skeletons up and arrange the body parts in various ways.

During the Beaker period the site may have been re-oriented to face the winter solstice sunrise.

There were structures in the enclosure, but it is not known whether this was any kind of settlement; most of the animal bones recovered seem to relate to ritual feasting rather than everyday life.

The site has produced a wonderful array of artifacts, like this copper blade that may be an axe head.


And numerous figurines, some made of elephant ivory.

It's a truly amazing site, and ongoing analysis of the bones (DNA, chemical elements) will add even more to our knowledge of this distant time. The project has all sorts of social media presence, including a terrific blog, so you can find lots of information about the ongoing project online.

Good Husbands in Short Supply

Interesting study that used data from the American Community Survey to investigate why women complain that there is a shortage of marriageable men. The investigators created "synthetic husbands" from an average of the actual husbands of women of any given age and ethnicity, then compared them to the single men such women might marry:
These synthetic husbands have an average income that is about 58% higher than the actual unmarried men that are currently available to unmarried women. They also are 30% more likely to be employed (90% vs. 70%) and 19% more likely to have a college degree (30% vs. 25%). Racial and ethnic minorities, especially Black women, face serious shortages of potential marital partners, as do low socioeconomic status and high socioeconomic status unmarried women, both at the national and subnational levels.

Houthi Drones Strike Saudi Oil Refineries

Yemen's Houthi regime has been engaged in a campaign of long-distance harassment against the Saudi oil industry for more than a year, as part of their ongoing war. This week they achieved their first significant success:
Drone attacks claimed by Yemen’s Houthi rebels struck two key oil installations inside Saudi Arabia on Saturday, damaging facilities that process the vast majority of the country’s crude output and raising the risk of a disruption in world oil supplies.

The targeted oil facilities can process 8.45 million barrels of crude oil a day between them, the bulk of production in Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest oil exporter. Saudi Aramco, the state-owned oil giant, said production of 5.7 million barrels a day — well over half of the nation’s overall daily output — was suspended.
Armed drones are so cheap now that any self-respecting terrorist force can use them, and Yemen has used them to launch a damaging strike across 500 miles. I mention this because it is a sign of changing military realities around the world, giving weak states another means of harassing stronger enemies and raising the cost of warfare. This reality is part of why the US military is so nervous about a war with Iran, since Iran can launch enough drones and missiles to shut down the Persian Gulf oil industry and make big trouble for US ships and bases.

Fear of this kind of warfare -- attacks by swarms of drones and cheap missiles -- is driving US military research and development, and is why we are spending billions developing laser weapons. Lasers are lousy weapons for killing people but they can disable drones and damage missiles, and they can fire very fast, perhaps (nobody really knows) protecting US assets from these new threats.

Meanwhile the immediate response of the Trump administration to this attack was to blame Iran, no surprise since they are always looking for things they can be mad at Iran about. And it is probably true that Iran supplied either the weapons themselves or the technical knowhow to make them. But the real cause is the disastrous Saudi war in Yemen, and the way to end this threat is for the Saudis and the Houthis to negotiate a peace.

Saturday, September 14, 2019

Robert Caro's Thoughts on Truth

Biographer Robert Caro has published a memoir about his life as a researcher and writer, in which he wrote this:
While I am aware that there is no Truth, no objective truth, no single truth, no truth simple or unsimple, either; no verity, eternal or otherwise; no Truth about anything, there are Facts, objective facts, discernible and verifiable. And the more facts you accumulate, the closer you come to whatever truth there is. And finding facts -- through reading documents or through interviewing and re-interviewing -- can't be rushed; it takes time. Truth takes time.

How Democratic is Your World?

Robin Hanson read a book called 10% Less Democracy, an argument against populism, and this inspired him to ask how democratic our society really is:
In a 100% democracy, all citizens have an equal say and can vote directly on all government choices, and government can control all other choices. In a 0% democracy, citizens can only vote on own self/property and organizations they are in, which doesn't include government. What do you guess is ideal % democracy? 
I'm going to go for 80% percent.

And my own question: where are we now?

I say 70%.

Thoughts? I'm more interested in quick reactions than long arguments.

Friday, September 13, 2019

Embroidered Italian Bed Hanging, c 1700







In the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. 

Links 13 September 2019

Jasper face from Thebes, Egypt, 1400-1300 BC

In 1620 astronomer Johannes Kepler had to spend a year of his life defending his mother against a charge of witchcraft. (And here.) There is an opera about this trial.

Great NY Times map of this year's flooding along the Missouri and lower Mississippi.

Against student evaluations of their professors. This study claims that the more work you assign, and the more you ask students to step out of their comfort zone and try new things, the worse your evaluations.

The weird negative view Americans have of their country: 90 percent think the divorce rate is increasing, when it actually hasn't gone up since 1975 and has been declining for a decade. I suppose they really just mean "too high." You see the same thing with teenage pregnancy, and nearly half the country thinks the violent crime rate is going up, when is has fallen by nearly half since it peaked in the 1980s. Some Americans are determined to think the place is going to hell, evidence to the contrary be damned.

Los Angeles signs a deal to buy power from a complex of solar plants and giant batteries at 3.3 cents per kilowatt-hour, one of the cheapest such deals ever; remember, coal-generated power costs about 6 cents per k-h. This deal has been controversial mainly because it will close three natural gas-fired plants and throw hundreds of union workers out of their jobs, but the city went ahead despite protests.

Reprise for Friday the 13th: Why the Number 13 is Unlucky.

The Trump administration emails the captains of tankers suspected of carrying Iranian oil and offers them millions of dollars to pilot the ships to a port where the oil can be impounded. So far none have accepted, possibly because the emails look too much like Nigerian Prince scams. "I'm the US Representative for Iran, and I have a million dollars for you!"

Rudy Giuliani's divorce: as operatic, over-the-top, nasty, vicious, and public as everything else about his life.

Review of The Atlas of Ancient Rome, with sample maps and illustrations; looks amazing.

Omar Aziz reflects on being a young Muslim boy in America when the towers fell.

Tanks are highly vulnerable on the modern battlefield, where even terrorists have missiles:
Iraqi M1 Abrams tanks not only failed to prevent he capture of Mosul in 2014, they were captured and turned against their owners. In Yemen, numerous Saudi M1s were knocked out by Houthi rebels. Turkey, which had lost a number of M60 Pattons and upgrade M60T Sabra tanks to Kurdish and ISIS fighters eventually deployed its fearsome German-built Leopard 2A4 tanks. ISIS destroyed eight in a matter of days.

Thursday, September 12, 2019

The Belt Buckles of Alta-Tey

In 2016, Russian archaeologists excavated a spectacular cemetery at the site of Alta-Tey in the Russian Republic of Tuva, in southern Siberia. The site was in the process of being drowned by a reservoir behind a new dam. The results of the dig have just been published.

One woman was buried with this huge belt buckle made of a plate of jet inlaid with turquoise and carnelian.

The belt was also decorated with Chinese coins, which allowed the grave to be dated to after 140 BC.

Nor was that a unique item; this burial had a similar buckle. In this cemetery all the elaborate burials were women; the men had strictly utilitarian items.

Another woman had this open work bronze buckle showing horses fighting.

And there were more burials besides, with jewelry, pots, and tools associated with women's work, such as spindles and loom weights. Amazing.