Thursday, December 31, 2009

Happy New Year

Ring Out, Wild Bells

By Alfred Tennyson

Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,
The flying cloud, the frosty light:
The year is dying in the night;
Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.

Ring out the old, ring in the new,
Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.

Ring out the grief that saps the mind,
For those that here we see no more;
Ring out the feud of rich and poor,
Ring in redress to all mankind.

Ring out a slowly dying cause,
And ancient forms of party strife;
Ring in the nobler modes of life,
With sweeter manners, purer laws.

Ring out the want, the care, the sin,
The faithless coldness of the times;
Ring out, ring out my mournful rhymes,
But ring the fuller minstrel in.

Ring out false pride in place and blood,
The civic slander and the spite;
Ring in the love of truth and right,
Ring in the common love of good.

Ring out old shapes of foul disease;
Ring out the narrowing lust of gold;
Ring out the thousand wars of old,
Ring in the thousand years of peace.

Ring in the valiant man and free,
The larger heart, the kindlier hand;
Ring out the darkness of the land,
Ring in the Christ that is to be.


Our national security bureaucracy seems to be completely hopeless:
In interviews Wednesday, government officials and others provided an account of how various agencies had gleaned bits and pieces of information about the young Nigerian, but failed to pull them together to disrupt his plot. Most of the officials spoke only on the condition that they not be quoted by name.

The first sign of a threat came in August, when the National Security Agency, responsible for electronic eavesdropping around the world, intercepted the Qaeda conversations about the mysterious, unidentified Nigerian. That same month, Mr. Abdulmutallab arrived in Yemen and apparently soon began preparing for the Christmas Day attack.

Three months later, in November, Mr. Abdulmutallab’s father, a former senior Nigerian government official and a prominent banker, became panicked about his son’s turn to radicalism, according to an interview with a family cousin. The father beseeched Nigerian and American officials to intervene before his son did harm, said the cousin.
I mean, how common is it for "prominent" Muslim officials to approach the US government warning that their sons might be terrorists? Shouldn't a tip like this be referred to someone who could check it against the NSA's warnings of upcoming attacks? Despite all the work that has been done since 9-11, our ability to prioritize information remains dismal, and communication between agencies is awful. The system still discourages cooperation and rewards fief-building, and these habits are so ingrained that I can't see any way to make the existing agencies work. I think we should abolish the CIA and distribute its elements among the State Department, the FBI, and a new, smaller agency for covert operations. I can't see what good all the secret analysts actually do.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The Bedells in Action

Nice photo by my sister-in-law Marni of my family posing for a family portrait on Christmas Eve. That's Marni's dog blocking Clara's face.

A Line over their Land

The Corps of Engineers is trying to find a way to protect the cities of Fargo, North Dakota and Moorhead, Minnesota from flooding. They want to divert the water away from the cities, but nobody else wants it, either. Again our country is paralyzed by our inability to flood a few hundred people to protect 150,000. The best part of the story is this line from a Corps engineer: “Nobody likes seeing a plan with a line over their land." Indeed, nobody does.

This reminds of another recent good example of American public spirit. The Post quoted a pundit as saying that Obama needs to tell Americans what his health bill will do and why it will be good for them personally.

Witch Hunter Sues for Freedom of Religion

In much of Sub-Saharan Africa it is widely believed that misfortunes are caused by witches. Anyone might be a witch, but as always suspicion often falls on people incapable of wielding power in other ways. But whereas in Western Europe it was old widows who were most likely to be accused of witchcraft, in Africa it is often children.

The Center for Inquiry, an American skeptical organization, has for years been combating witch beliefs in Africa. Their Nigerian representative has now been sued by a witch hunter who claims that CFI's campaign against witchcraft persecution is interfering with her freedom of religion:
Witch hunter Helen Ukpabio, head of the Liberty Gospel Church in Nigeria and a frequent target of criticism by CFI, has filed a lawsuit in Nigerian federal court against Leo Igwe, CFI's representative in Nigeria. . . .

The complaint filed by Ukpabio essentially alleges religious discrimination on the part of Igwe, who has been a tireless, vocal critic of Ukpabio’s claim that many of Nigeria's children and women are witches. “Ukpabio has repeatedly targeted and persecuted the most vulnerable members of society. She is the one who should face justice and answer for her crimes,” said Igwe. “She should be ready to pay damages to the thousands of children who have been tortured, traumatized, abused and abandoned as a result of her misguided ministry.” Igwe said that many homes and households across Nigeria have been damaged by Ukpabio’s witchcraft schemes and other questionable activities.

The suit, scheduled for a hearing on Dec.17, is seeking an injunction preventing Igwe and other humanist groups from holding seminars or workshops aimed at raising consciousness about the dangers associated with the religious belief in witchcraft. The suit aims to erect a legal barrier against rationalist or humanist groups who might criticize, denounce or otherwise interfere with their practice of Christianity and their “deliverance” of people supposedly suffering from possession of an “evil or witchcraft spirit.” The suit also seeks to prevent law enforcement from arresting or detaining any member of the Liberty Gospel Church for performing or engaging in what they say are constitutionally protected religious activities. These activities include the burning of three children, ages 3 through 6, with fire and hot water, as reported by James Ibor of the Basic Rights Counsel in Nigeria on August 24, 2009. The parents believed their children were witches.

The weird irony of this lawsuit led me to the bizarre tragedy of African children branded witches by their own families and either abandoned or subjected to exorcism rituals that include frightening brutality. The picture above appeared as part of a feature on Nigerian child witches in the Guardian with the caption, "Twin boys Itohowo and Kufre stand surrounded by angry villagers who believe they are bringing evil to their lives." According to the Guardian, the boys were abandoned by their mother at the age of five when she was convinced that they were agents of the devil.

Stepping Stones Nigeria is an NGO which has been working to help and house abandoned children in the Niger delta, including those accused of witchcraft. According to their web site, belief in child witches is increasing across the region, because of competition among witch-baiting Pentacostal preachers and economic insecurity.

Rolfe Horn

Interesting photographer who turns landscapes and cityscapes into nearly abstract images.

The Danger of Excessive Sex Appeal for Females

From National Geographic:
There is a price to beauty: "Sexier" female fruit flies suffer more than unattractive ones, according to a new study. The most fetching female fruit flies—that is, the biggest females, which can produce the most eggs—were inundated with suitors and hatched fewer babies than less desirable flies, said study leader Tristan Long, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Toronto. The reason is twofold: The repeated advances hindered the females' ability to find food, and too much sex left the females overloaded with toxic semen, Long said.

Sherlock Holmes 2009

Lisa and I saw Sherlock Holmes last night, and we both loved it. I thought it was the most fun movie I've seen in years. Downey and Law were both terrific.

Some of my daughter's friends from the high school Literary Arts program are boycotting the movie because it does so much violence to the original stories. I have been a fan of the original stories since my mother gave me a lovely annotated volume for my 16th birthday, and I think this is silly. I think one of the greatest things a writer can achieve is to create a character who lives on and on in many stories and many versions, like Sherlock Holmes or Batman. It is inevitable that such a character will change over time and be shown differently by different writers and directors, and I think that is great. Besides, the characters of both Holmes and Watson vary somewhat across the original stories, which were written in two groups separated by an 8-year hiatus. Holmes is said to be a champion boxer and fencer and he gets into several fistfights, besides all the sneaking around he does in disguise. Watson generally appears as a stupid fellow whose main contribution is to say "Holmes! That's extraordinary!" but in a few stories he is resourceful and useful, especially The Hound of the Baskervilles. On the subject of authenticity I should point out that the Hound is the only story in which I can recall Holmes wearing a deerstalker cap; as a proper Victorian gentleman he would never have worn a hunting cap in the city.

So, anyway, I didn't mind in the least that director Guy Ritchie turned this Holmes story into an action-adventure thrill ride. If the overall tone is not very Holmesian, many of the details of the plot are exactly Arthur Conan Doyle's sort of thing, like the obscure poisons derived from strange eastern plants and the analysis of mud from various parts of London. So this Sherlock Holmes joins the pantheon of my favorite light movies, along with another that does just as much violence to the Holmes legend: The Seven Percent Solution, in which Holmes is lured to Vienna to be treated for cocaine addiction by Sigmund Freud. (1976, directed by Herbert Ross, based on the novel by Nicholas Meyer)

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Loneliness and "Friends"

Umar Farouk Abdulmutalla, the accused Detroit underwear bomber, complained in many online posts about his loneliness. He had 287 Facebook friends.

Winter Archaeology

My crew, suited up for shovel testing at Quantico this morning.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Andrew Sullivan on Events in Iran

According to opposition sources, the government has seized the body of a prominent dissident killed yesterday to keep his family from holding a funeral that might become the locus of more protests. Sullivan writes:

With each violation of basic Muslim norms, the regime is revealing itself as a military junta, using religion purely as a means to retain power. Which is what always happens in theocracy. Total power does not feed faith; it destroys it. And then that corrupted faith wages war on its enemies.

There is more at stake here than simply one country. We are seeing the two great forces of our time - fundamentalism and freedom - fight for humanity's soul.

The Peter Principle

From New Scientist:

The idea that high-level incompetence is inevitable was formulated in the 1969 best-selling book The Peter Principle: Why things always go wrong. Its authors, psychologist Laurence Peter and playwright Raymond Hull, started from the observation that while jobs generally get more difficult the higher up any ladder you climb, most people only come equipped with a more or less fixed level of talent that corresponds to their intelligence, knowledge and energy. At some point, then, they will be promoted into a job they can't quite handle. They will, as Peter and Hull put it, "reach the level of their own incompetence". And there they will stay, fouling up operations until they either retire or some egregiously inept act gets them fired.

The problem is what they get up to in the meantime. "They end up distracting us from their crummy work with giant desks," says Robert Sutton of the Stanford Graduate School of Business in California. "They replace action with incomprehensible acronyms, blame others for failure, and cheat to create the illusion of progress." Meanwhile, Peter and Hull concluded, the actual work gets done by those who have not yet scaled the summit of their own incompetence. That would be you and me, then.

As it happens, The Peter Principle was the first book I ever read about business, back when I was about 15. I can't remember where I found it, perhaps left lying around by a relative or in the 25 cent bin at the used bookstore where I bought all my fantasy novels. It made a great impression on me that still lingers. As the New Scientist piece points out, academic research since 1969 supports the basic finding that many managers are incompetent. They get promoted because they are good at the jobs they used to do, which may have very little to do with managing. My first summer jobs were as a groundsman at a series of apartment complexes, and I observed several times that being a good maintenance man has little to do with being a good manager of a big complex. I also met one guy whose career had been a yo yo of promotion and failure, because he just wanted to be a maintenance man and yet he was so good at it that people kept promoting him to manager, something he hated. By the time I met him he was vowing never to accept any promotion ever again.

The problem as I see it is not just that the work gets harder as you rise up the ladder, but that it changes. Being a manager is just different than being a maintenance man, or an archaeologist, engineer, electrician, waiter, or any number of other fields within which managers are generally promoted from within. Motivating people, allocating resources, planning for the long term, and other functions of management are special skills, and there is no reason to assume that they will be distributed in the same way as creative talent or an ability to fix things. Running a whole company in an intelligent way seems to be such a rare skill that almost nobody has it. When a field is dominated by ever-changing fads, nonsensical slogans, and slick consultants, you can tell that we don't really know anything about it, and this is more true of management than anything else.

The Egyptian Menagerie

Among Archaeology Magazine's "Top Ten Discoveries of 2009" was one I missed:
Strange animal burials at the ancient Egyptian capital of Hierakonpolis point to the existence of a large, exotic menagerie around 3500 B.C. The 2009 field season produced 10 dogs, a baby hippo, a hartebeest, a cow and calf, and an elephant. The tally for this Predynastic period zoo now stands at 112 critters, including 2 elephants, 3 hippos, 11 baboons (one is in the picture), and 6 wildcats.
The animals show no signs of death by violence; on the contrary some have healed bone fractures that would probably have killed them in the wild. Perhaps they were captured after being wounded during the hunt, or found after they had been injured naturally; either way they healed in a protected environment. The late Neolithic settlement at Hierakonpolis was the largest in Egypt and the seat of powerful kings and substantial temples.

People like to have animals around. This seems to be one of the constants of our history, at least over the past 15,000 years. We put some animals to work, we eat some, and we play with others. Underlying this variety of behavior is a remarkable constant, the degree of comfort we feel around animals of other species. This strikes me as noteworthy, and so far as I know it is unique among primates. I wonder if this trait was somehow selected for, or if it was just another strange product of our growing brains. I also wonder when we started on this path. The first evidence is our domestication of dogs about 15,000 years ago, but I bet that was just a more-or-less accidental byproduct of a relationship with animals that goes back much further.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

In Iran, a Test of Popular Sovereignty

Another day of violence and demonstrations in Iran. The NY Times is reporting at least 10 demonstrators killed, and opposition supporters report that one dissident leader was assassinated. Andrew Sullivan has an extensive collection of videos and firsthand reports.

The willingness of Iran's people to stand up against a fraudulent election and a despotic regime is remarkable and I admire their stand greatly, but I suspect that in the end they will be defeated. I think that a government does not need the support of a majority to stay in power, just a committed minority. I suspect 20% might even be enough, if they are sufficiently bold and firmly in control of the state. Events in Iran are putting this suspicion to the test. Iran's young population has suffered a long, slow disenchantment from their government, fed by high unemployment and rampant corruption. The stolen election provided a spark that set all this accumulated discontent alight. The protesters seem committed and bold, and there are several videos in circulation today that show them overwhelming the police and the regime's Baseej thugs. So we shall see.

People Really do Believe this Hooey

Here's a review of another book that claims to "explain" religion in evolutionary terms:
According to Wade, a New York Times science writer, religions are machines for manufacturing social solidarity. They bind us into groups. Long ago, codes requiring altruistic behavior, and the gods who enforced them, helped human society expand from families to bands of people who were not necessarily related. We didn’t become religious creatures because we became social; we became social creatures because we became religious. Or, to put it in Darwinian terms, being willing to live and die for their coreligionists gave our ancestors an advantage in the struggle for resources.
The wrong-headedness of this utterly un-original "explanation" makes me crazy. The problems:

1) If the point of religion is to unite us, why does it so spectacularly fail to do so? Christians have been in conflict with other Christians since Jesus died, sometimes very bloody conflicts.

2) You don't need a common religion to get people to work together, as the Roman, Chinese and Mongol empires all show. If you actually talk to people who belong to violent tribes, like Napoleon Chagnon did with the Yanomamo, you find out that they don't speak in religious terms about their identities. Their solidarity is tribal, not religious. And in fact their religion is so similar to the religions of all their traditional enemies that it would make no sense to see their conflicts in those terms.

3) If the point of religion is social solidarity, why does it include so much else that has nothing to do with society, from abstruse theology to origin myths to systems of divination?

4) On a more epistemological note, how does this "explanation" explain anything? If dancing together for the same god really makes people more willing to fight and die together, why is that so? To say that religion developed because shared rituals enhance solidarity is not really a biological or neuroscientific explanation, it simply changes the question to "how did we evolve a tendency to express or develop shared identities through rituals?"

Religion is not just a social system, it is first and foremost a psychological system. It exists inside people's heads. People believe in God because it makes them feel better to do so. Religion is a response to psychic events. Weston La Barre's The Ghost Dance: The Origins of Religion makes this perfectly clear. As La Barre says,

Man lives in two worlds, a matter-of-fact one of common public experience, the other of mysteriously “supernatural” and compelling private dream or trance. More precisely, these two “worlds” of man are really two modes of psychic experience in the individual.... Thus material culture, technology and science are adaptations to the outside world; religion, to the inner world of man, his unsolved problems and unmet needs.

We have minds and we live to a great extent within them. What we think and feel matters. Any "evolutionary" explanation that fails to recognize the importance to us of completely mental events cannot explain anything about the way we think, including our religions.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

The Messiah and the Problem of Spiritual Art

Algis Valiunus on Handel:
But it is of course Messiah that remains Handel's nonpareil work. Here the secular and the sacred are joined, as Handel constructs a monument to everlasting truth on a pedestal of familiar, worldly beauty. In Handel's sound-world, biblical grandeur requires an admixture of joyous levity to portray fully the surpassing love of the God who suffered and died for human salvation. . . . Messiah is the voice of an earthly ecstasy that has no need of mysticism, but is available to all in their ordinary lives thanks to the sacrifice of Jesus. It is fitting that this oratorio has become the consummate Christmas musical staple: It exemplifies the community at glad-hearted worship, in a world that fulfills its spiritual needs.
I wrote before about the problem of spiritualism without specific religious content. Karen Armstrong is among the many modern thinkers who want to liberate religion from any specific set of beliefs, using ritual to connect us to the divine without haggling over the details of theology. And many of my nonbelieving friends find The Messiah to be a deeply spiritual experience. The thing is, The Messiah is a Christian work, full of detailed theology. And without it, what would the singers be saying?

The Rains of Boxing Day

When we went to bed last night the yard was white, with at least six inches of snow everywhere. Then the rains came, and by 10:30 this morning it looked like this.

Soot and Health

The latest New Yorker includes a long article by Burkhard Bilger on engineers trying to build more fuel efficient, less smoky stoves for use by the world's poor. The stove builders are fascinating characters, but what interested me most was the account of how bad for you it is to live in a smoky house:
Clean air, according to the E.P.A., contains less than fifteen micrograms of fine particles per cubic metre. Five times that amount will set off a smoke alarm. Three hundred times as much -- roughly what an open fire produces -- will slowly kill you. Wood smoke, as sweet as it smells, is a caustic swirl of chemical agents, including benzene, butadiene, styrene, formaldehyde, dioxin, and methylene chloride. Every leaf or husk adds its own compunds to the fire, producing a fume so corrosive that it can consume a piece of untreated steel in less than a year. The effect on the body is similar. Indoor smoke kills a million and a half people annually, according to the World Health Organization. It causes or compounds a long list of debilities -- pneumonia, bronchitis, emphysema, cataracts, cancers, heart disease, high blood pressure, and low birth weight -- and has been implicated in a number of others, including tuberculosis, low I.Q., and cleft palate, among other deformities.
The million and a half figure is just an estimate, of course. Other parts of the article (which you can't read without a subscription) describe the miserable pulmonary health of peasants living in smoky houses in ways that make it seem like the toll could be higher. This leaves me wondering about the dramatic decline in death rates that began around 1750 in the western world. That decline puzzles historians, because it comes before there had been many important medical advances or much else we can point to that might help people live longer. Could better stoves have been a big contributor? Were, maybe, Benjamin Franklin and his fellow stove tinkerers (stoves were a focus of much effort and ingenuity at the time) the unsung heroes of falling death rates? Our ancestors used to spend five months a year or so cooped up in smoky houses, huts, or yurts, with effects on their lungs and hearts that must have been terrible. Was central heating as important a contributor to long modern lives as municipal sewers and the smallpox vaccine?

How the Other Half Lives

When you are, like me, a careful, bourgeois sort of person who worries all the time about how other people feel, you sometimes have to wonder what it is like to be the other sort of person: recklessly daring and not giving a damn about anyone else. Like Marion Barry, the three-term mayor of Washington, DC. Barry has always taken chances, from joining the SNCC when it meant being jailed and beaten by southern cops to smoking crack in a hotel room when he knew he was being investigated by the FBI. He has been married four times and had dozens of lovers besides, and was for a time, his friends say, a heavy user of numerous drugs. Through all of it he has been a regular church goer, the loudest voice in the amen corner, and he tells everyone that he could not have made it through his trials without Jesus. This "sinner with faith" approach to life is more foreign to me than just about any other way of living. But what fascinates me even more is Barry's political career. He has never troubled about telling flagrant lies in public if he thought it would help him or his causes -- I remember a description of one of his press conferences that had him "playing the race card, the class card, the blame the media card, and any other card that came to hand." He serves quite well as a definition for "shameless." He set up the DC government as a machine to take money from rich white people and funnel it to his mostly black supporters, not really caring whether this would in the long term be good for his constituents or the city. He allowed the city's permitting authorities to become swamps of ineptitude because this served his own purposes: when it became nearly impossible to get a permit for building anything in the city through the usual channels, the only way was to become a good friend of the mayor or a major contributor to his campaigns, so that he his staff would help you bypass the whole system. The schools in particular became a patronage scheme, with hundreds of cushy bureaucratic jobs for Barry supporters and no particular interest in educating children.

These days Barry serves as councilman for the poorest ward in the city, and Matt Labash wrote a great description of the way he does business in the Weekly Standard. Barry is always out in the neighborhoods, talking to people, letting them see him, showing them that he cares and is on their side.

But here at the Temple of Praise, people don't break out the scales and stack Barry's good deeds versus his bad ones. His popularity here transcends such minutiae. Supporting him, in spite of his struggles--even because of them--is almost a symbolic sacrament. Plus, he does something few other politicians in the District, even the city's later black mayors, do: He shows up.

Over the course of my time with him, he shows up to senior centers, where he gives 20 bucks to the oldest doll in attendance, which often takes some sorting out, what with senility. He shows up to the planning of the Labor Day picnic that he throws out of his own budget, overseeing details down to the hot dogs and what Go-Go bands are hired. The fact that he regularly gets raked over the coals by newspapers--which Barry tells me Ward 8ers largely don't read--for tax evasion and traffic arrests and addiction issues and many of the pathologies that plague their community in such numbers might help him rather than hurt him. . . . As James Coates, senior minister of Bethlehem Baptist Church, says, "He understands our path--stony the road we trod. So when someone attacks Mr. Barry, they attack all of us."

I think the virtue people admire most, in their hearts, is courage. People like Barry earn forgiveness for their sins because they live without fear. A politician who combines courage with some sort of ability to connect with ordinary people can get away with almost anything. He is "one of us," but with the guts to compete for the greatest prizes.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Christmas 2009

Robert with his new bass.

Mary's new ear cuff.

Thomas with the greatest T-Shirt ever. (HARBINGER OF DOOM)

Ben with his cool toy guitar.

Ben and Clara, with Thomas still asleep where he collapsed sometime in the middle of the night after shaking all of his own presents.

And Ben whispers something in my ear.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Scrooge and Wall Street

Watching A Christmas Carol last night, I found myself thinking, if only evil businessmen were lonely, twisted and unhappy like Scrooge! Actually the world's evil businessmen have wives and families, live in lavish townhouses, and spend their vacations hiking in the Patagonian mountains and sailing off the Hamptons. The men who did things like bundle bad mortgages into securities that they sold as highly secure investments to pension funds, then bet against them, so that they both made money on the first sales and then really raked it in when the investments tanked and their clients went broke (see here), are probably cheerful fellows who like to drink with the boys and donate lavishly to their old prep schools and other favorite charities. In a just world they would now be sentenced to several years of working as garbage men in Gary, Indiana, but we don't live in such a world. One of the main architects of the scheme I just described has become a managing director of Goldman Sachs.

Before Scotland

I just finished another book by Alistair Moffat, Before Scotland: the Story of Scotland before History (2005). This covers the place now known as Scotland from the retreat of the glaciers down to the ascension of Kenneth MacAlpin, the first King of Scotland, in 840 AD. It is a fascinating book and it made me long to visit the Orkneys and the Western Isles, to hike the high moors and see crumbling castles and ancient standing stones. There is lots of fascinating archaeology in northern Britain, and Moffat does a good job both of explaining its significance and calling attention to the really cool bits: the Tomb of the Eagles, the megaliths, Pictish Symbol Stones, Runic scripts, the way memories of Roman engineering lingered among the tribesmen after the Romans were gone.

My complaint is not really that Moffat has made mistakes, which he has, but that his mistakes all tend in the same direction: toward exaggerating the degree of continuity across the millennia. He starts by taking too seriously the results of the first genetic studies of the British population, which said that most British people today are descended from the Mesolithic inhabitants of the islands. This is no longer the majority view among geneticists, and even the more recent studies are to my mind highly speculative. By Moffat seizes on the provisional results and assumes they are true, because they confirm his desire for a blood connection to the ancient inhabitants of his land. He pretty much glosses over the problem of how the Britons came to speak Indo-European languages. It has long been assumed that the Gaels of western Scotland immigrated from Ireland in the centuries around 500 AD -- that's what they wrote in their in their own histories, and their language is related to Irish rather than Welsh -- but Moffat waves this away, citing unspecified evidence that Gaelic speakers had been in Scotland for much longer. The identification gets really weird when he comes to the wars between the Caledonians of North Britain and the Romans -- "us", he calls the northern tribesmen. I suppose this is not really any weirder than the habit of identifying with the Romans and their civilization indulged in by most British intellectuals, but it really is stretching things to imagine an identity that stretches across 2000 years of invasion, war, and every other sort of upheaval, not to mention vast social and technological changes.

My review of Moffat's The Sea Peoples is here.

The Pebble Mosaics of Jeffrey Bale

At the NY Times, a wonderful slide show on the work of Jeffrey Bale, who installs pebble mosaics in the gardens of California's rich and famous, along with an interesting article about how he works.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Some Old Names Fade Away

I was just scanning the list of the most common baby names of 2000-2009, and noticed that David is 43, John is 44, and Thomas is 50. Of the most popular names from my boyhood, only Matthew (4) and Michael (8) are still common. William is 24, James 31. Even bigger change on the girl's side, where the highest ranked name I remember from elementary school is Sarah (11). Lisa, Laura, Anne and Michelle didn't even make the top 50, Elizabeth is 28 and Katherine is 41.

But I suppose that one day the wheel of fortune will turn again, Aiden and Emma will come to seem old-fashioned and silly, and the world will once again be full of young Johns and Lisas.

Tetrodotoxin and Evolution

Interesting article by Sean Carroll of the NY Times about tetrodotoxin, the poison that makes puffer fish (fugu) and several other species of unrelated animals deadly. The puffer fish, newts, and toads don't make the poison, but rather concentrate in their organs bacteria that make it. They can do this because they have evolved resistance to the poison, and biologists have now identified the precise chemical mechanism of the resistance and the exact gene mutations responsible for it.

Losing the War on Drugs

The news from Mexico gets more disturbing every day:

Ensign Melquisedet Angulo C√≥rdova, a special forces sailor killed last week during the government’s most successful raid on a top drug lord in years, received a stirring public tribute in which the secretary of the navy presented his mother with the flag that covered her son’s coffin.

Then, only hours after the grieving family had finished burying him in his hometown the next day, gunmen burst into the family’s house and sprayed the rooms with gunfire, killing his mother and three other relatives, officials said Tuesday.

As Mexico trembles on the brink of chaos, US police and border patrol agents are corrupted, and half a million drug offenders sit in US prisons, I wonder if the "war on drugs" is worth it. I have seen the ravages of cocaine and methamphetamine, and it would be foolish to think that they won't claim more lives if they are made legal. But the cost of our failed attempt to suppress them has mounted to levels that I find unsupportable. I don't see any way out of the madness but some form of controlled legalization.

Baboon Reveries

Primatologist Barbara Smuts observed something strange one day:

Smuts was following a small group of Gombe baboons on the eastern edge of Kenya. She'd been with them seven days a week for weeks and weeks, joining them before dawn, spending 10 hours a day just following, watching and taking notes. One day the whole noisy group was ambling back to its "sleeping trees" along the shore of a stream. "I followed them walking along this stream many, many times before and many times after," she says, "but this time was different."

All of a sudden, Smuts says, "without any signal perceptible to me," every one of the baboons, the adults, the little ones, all of them, stopped walking and sat down on the edge of a pool of water. They not only stopped walking; they stopped talking. "Even the little kids, and you know kids are always making noises, but even they got quiet."

The quiet was total. "I really wondered what was going on," says Smuts. The baboons didn't focus on any one thing. They all, or most of them, gazed down into the little pool right below them and hardly moved. There was no fidgeting, no touching or grooming, no discernible activity, just a communal "almost sacramental" contemplation. Smuts calls it a "sacred" quiet.

Then, after a short period of time, "again with no perceptible signal," the troop came alive and resumed its noisy walk down the stream.

The possibility that larger-brained mammals have experiences we would describe as "spiritual" is one of the oddball questions hanging out there in the wilds of zoology. Elephants and chimpanzees in particular seem to do things that strike us as ritualistic or reverential, but it is very hard to know what those acts mean to the animals performing them. Despite what dog and cat owners are always telling me, I believe we have very little idea what happens in the brains of other species. What does it feel like to be a baboon? Does the world seem full of mystery to them, or just food, danger, and allies?

Tuesday, December 22, 2009


Broad, but not deep, along his rock-chafed bed,
In many a sparkling eddy winds the flood.
Clasped by a margin of green underwood:
A castled crag, with ivy garlanded,
Sheer, o'er the torrent frowns: above the mead
De Burgho's towers, crumbling o'er many a rood,
Stand gauntly out in airy solitude
Backed by yon furrowed mountain's tinted head.
Sounds of far people, mingling with the fall
Of waters, and the busy hum of bees,
And larks in air, and throstles in the trees,
Thrill the moist air with murmurs musical.
While cottage smoke goes drifting on the breeze,
And sunny clouds are floating over all.

--Aubrey de Vere (1786-1846)

More Crime Lab Shenanigans

From the NY Times:
The New York State Police’s supervision of a major crime laboratory was so poor that it overlooked evidence of pervasively shoddy forensics work, allowing an analyst to go undetected for 15 years as he falsified test results and compromised nearly one-third of his cases, an investigation by the state’s inspector general has found.

The analyst’s training was so substandard that at one point last year, investigators discovered he could not properly operate a microscope essential to performing his job, the report released on Thursday said.

And when the State Police became aware of the analyst’s misconduct, an internal review by superiors in the Albany lab deliberately omitted information implicating other analysts and suggesting systemic problems with the way evidence was handled, the report said. Instead, the review focused blame mostly on the analyst, Garry Veeder, who committed suicide in May 2008 during the internal inquiry.

This sort of thing goes on all the time and will continue until we get serious about testing these labs. The only reform that could stop this kind of abuse is rigorous, regular testing by an outside body. All the talk about the "highest standards" is meaningless without blind tests.

How Science Really Happens

Great article by Jonah Lehrer of Wired on the role of failure in scientific progress. Much of it is based on the work of Kevin Dunbar, who spent years in the 1990s hanging around biochemistry labs observing scientists at work. Dunbar's first finding was that many, many experiments produce unexpected results. Overall the number of "anomalous" results was more than 50 percent. (So much for "normal" science.) Once these anomalies appeared, the scientists tried to figure out what they meant. They usually started by assuming there was a problem with the experimental apparatus, so they would check that and run the experiment again. Often the anomaly disappeared, but often it did not. Then they passed onto the most crucial step, which was discussing the strange result with their colleagues:
While the scientific process is typically seen as a lonely pursuit — researchers solve problems by themselves — Dunbar found that most new scientific ideas emerged from lab meetings, those weekly sessions in which people publicly present their data. Interestingly, the most important element of the lab meeting wasn’t the presentation — it was the debate that followed. Dunbar observed that the skeptical (and sometimes heated) questions asked during a group session frequently triggered breakthroughs, as the scientists were forced to reconsider data they’d previously ignored. The new theory was a product of spontaneous conversation, not solitude.
This is certainly what works for me. When I encounter something unusual, I call somebody to talk about it. Since it is an inevitable part of cultural resource management that I often work in areas on which I am not an expert, sometimes a real expert can tell me right off what is going on. Sometimes I discover that I have landed in the midst of an old problem or even an ongoing controversy. But more often I have simply strayed into one of archaeology's vast gray areas, and conversation is always the best way to shed light.

A Walk in the Snow

Georgetown and Rock Creek Park today.


Nice essay today by Ross Douthat on pantheism, apropos of its salience in the movies:

The question is whether Nature actually deserves a religious response. Traditional theism has to wrestle with the problem of evil: if God is good, why does he allow suffering and death? But Nature is suffering and death. Its harmonies require violence. Its “circle of life” is really a cycle of mortality. And the human societies that hew closest to the natural order aren’t the shining Edens of James Cameron’s fond imaginings. They’re places where existence tends to be nasty, brutish and short.

Religion exists, in part, precisely because humans aren’t at home amid these cruel rhythms. We stand half inside the natural world and half outside it. We’re beasts with self-consciousness, predators with ethics, mortal creatures who yearn for immortality.

The "we" here is a bit tendentious, but certainly many people have these strong longings for something beyond the world we can see and touch: for ultimate answers, for an escape from death, for moral laws backed by divine anger. For nonbelievers, the existence of the "god-shaped hole" in the souls of many humans is one of the greatest puzzles. It seems a cruel trick for the universe to equip us with longings for what does not exist.

I would observe, though, that if life among hunter-gatherers is often short, it is not necessarily more brutish or nasty than any other sort of human life. Nor does belief in God do anything to lengthen it; the medieval world was every bit as nasty and brutish as the Mesolithic, and life might even have been shorter. And that is how I also feel about our spiritual situation. For me, religion doesn't really explain anything about the place we find ourselves in. It simply changes the questions. The fact of my existence on this world at this time, born with certain strong inclinations, surrounded by the others beings I have fallen in with, remains an absolute mystery to me no matter how I think about it. The "answers" offered by the religions I know seem to me either evasive or unhelpful. I don't expect any "answers" from science, either, not about the really hard questions.

What I feel is that I can only respond as the person I am to the world I see around me. I was born with curiosity and wonder, in a time when human knowledge is vast and ever-expanding, in a place where I am free to follow my mind wherever it will go. I also have a love of life as I see it. I love to dig my fingers into rich dirt, to watch the trees bud every spring, to see babies born, to watch children grow, to know people in all their madness and complexity. So I marvel at the universe and live the life I have, among the people I love. For me, that is faith.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Republican Intransigence Backfires

Jonathan Chait explains the failure of Republican tactics in the health care debate:

At the outset of this debate, moderate Democrats were desperate for a bipartisan bill. They were willing to do almost anything to get it, including negotiate fruitlessly for months on end. We can't know for sure, but Democrats appeared willing to make enormous substantive concessions to win the assent of even a few Republicans. A few GOP defectors could have lured a chunk of Democrats to sign something far more limited than what President Obama is going to sign. And remember, it would have taken only one Democrat to agree to partial reform in order to kill comprehensive reform. I can easily imagine a scenario where Ben Nelson refused to vote for anything larger than, say, a $400 billion bill that Chuck Grassley and a couple other Republicans were offering.

But Republicans wouldn't make that deal. . . . The Republicans eschewed a halfway compromise and put all their chips on an all or nothing campaign to defeat health care and Obama's presidency. It was an audacious gamble. They lost. In the end, they'll walk away with nothing. The Republicans may gain some more seats in 2010 by their total obstruction, but the substantive policy defeat they've been dealt will last for decades.

Getting Serious

My sons Thomas and Ben get ready to try out their new dart guns Sunday.

The Year in Corrections

Regret the Error wraps up the best media corrections and retractions of the year.

My favorites:

British Medical Journal:

During the editing of this Review of the Week by Richard Smith (BMJ 2008;337:a2719,doi:10.1136/bmj.a2719), the author’s term “pisshouse” was changed to “pub” in the sentence: “Then, in true British and male style, Hammond met Ian Hislop, editor of Private Eye, in the pub and did a deal.” However, a pisshouse is apparently a gentleman’s toilet, and (in the author’s social circle at least) the phrase “pisshouse deal” is well known. (It alludes to the tendency of men to make deals while standing side by side and urinating.) In the more genteel confines of the BMJ Editorial Office, however, this term was unknown and a mistake was made in translating it into more standard English. We apologise for any misunderstanding this may have caused.

Los Angeles Times:

Bear sighting: An item in the National Briefing in Sunday’s Section A said a bear wandered into a grocery story in Hayward, Wis., on Friday and headed for the beer cooler. It was Thursday.

Denying Evolution and Climate Change

I suppose I ought to have thought before of one reason so many American conservatives deny that our carbon dioxide emissions could change the climate: because this is science, and since science supports evolution, they reject the whole enterprise. This comes to my attention from Orac at Respectful Insolence, protesting an essay by "Intelligent Design" proponent Senator Rick Santorum, who wrote:
Given this uncertainty, I think most Americans find the experts' cocksureness unsettling. Despite the bravado and billions of dollars in media hype supporting the climate alarmists, only 37 percent of respondents agreed that man is causing global warming in a recent Rasmussen poll. Why? Well, maybe because Americans don't like being told what to believe. Maybe because we have learned to be skeptical of "scientific" claims, particularly those at war with our common sense - like the Darwinists' telling us for decades that we are just a slightly higher form of life than a bacterium that is here purely by chance. . . .
To my mind this is the real danger of the debate over evolution. It really doesn't matter very much if most Americans accept evolution or not. But because our understanding of evolution is in many ways the pinnacle of our scientific achievement, anyone who looks at the matter seriously can only reject it by rejecting science as a way of learning about the world. Anti-scientific populism has all sorts of unfortunate real-world effects, from anti-vaccine hysteria to the crazed opposition to any restraints on carbon emissions. People who reject the scientific project are capable of believing just about anything, and when they vote their prejudices they can do real damage to the world. One reason to sweep the whole evolution vs. creation debate under the rug is that once people understand how good the science of evolution is they will have to make a choice between science and fundamentalism, and many of them will decide that science is bogus.

Happy Sunreturn

The shortest day of the year finds us digging out of the foot and more of snow that fell over the weekend, with the schools and even the Federal government closed. It is a good time for quiet reflection, and for thinking about the time to come.

Best wishes to all, and may the growing light of the year bless you with joy.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Autism up Again

According to the US Centers for Disease Control, 1 in 110 American 8-year-olds has been diagnosed as autistic. (One in 70 boys and 1 in 315 girls.) This is up from another count made just a few years before that had the rate at 1 in 150.

Most of the increase is probably due to the expanding range of "autism spectrum disorder" and increasing awareness of autism. But at least some statisticians in the CDC seem to be worried that the prevalence of the disease may be increasing, too, and that would indeed be disturbing.

Early Humans ate Grain

Most archaeologists have assumed that people first lived on a grain-based diet in the neolithic, after we discovered farming, or perhaps for a few thousand years before that in a sort of transitional period, 12,000 to 10,000 years ago. I remember one eminent fellow telling me that before farming our diet was "Atkins." Now there is good evidence of a human group in East Africa that ate a lot of sorghum and tubers 100,000 years ago. The evidence, from a cave near Lake Niassa, includes grinding stones from which ancient starch grains have been recovered. This evidence does not tell us how much of these people's diet was grains and tubers, but it must have been significant, at least during one part of the year.

Blizzard of 09 (II)

The snow has been blowing around, so it's hard to know the exact total, but there is at least 12 inches of snow in our yard, and it's still falling. These pictures were taken around 2 PM.

Halloween, 1796

From a survey of the Scottish church compiled in 1796:
A sort of secret society of Guisers made itself notorious in several of the neighboring villages, mean dressed as women, women dressed as men, dancing together in a very unseemly way.
We suspect that these clubs of single people and their costumed holiday frolics are very ancient, but there isn't much evidence before the 1700s. "Guisers" is of course related to "disguise."

Oh My Darling, My Cattle. . .

After describing the great importance of cattle in the culture of Iron Age Britain, Alistair Moffat writes,
A faint, surprising Hebridean echo of the exaggerated value of cattle can still be heard in the Gaelic language. On the Isle of Lewis and elsewhere in the west the most effusive term of endearment available is m'eudail. Literally it means "my cattle."

Arab "Moderates" Hate the US, Too

From Greg Scoblete at Real Clear World:
But the second dynamic is even less favorable to the U.S. and that's the extent to which the moderates don't much like the U.S. either. A recent poll from the University of Maryland illustrates the point: while there is a disgust of al Qaeda's methods (and thus, of radicalism) there's a basic agreement on al Qaeda's political objectives of forcing a change in U.S. foreign policy:
A study of public opinion in predominantly Muslim countries reveals that very large majorities continue to renounce the use of attacks on civilians as a means of pursuing political goals. At the same time large majorities agree with al Qaeda's goal of pushing the United States to remove its military forces from all Muslim countries and substantial numbers, in some cases majorities, approve of attacks on US troops in Muslim countries.

Your run of the mill moderate may be disgusted by al Qaeda attacks against America and may find the idea of slaughtering infidels abhorrent, but he may also think that we're getting what's coming to us and so isn't very motivated to get himself killed purging the radicals from his midst.

It seems to me that Americans who advocate fighting wars in the Middle East, including the President, miss the importance of this. Hardly anybody in the Middle East believes that we have their best interests at heart. The more Muslims we kill, regardless of who they are, the more people there hate us and want us to leave. We cannot fight our way out of this situation. The only way we can end the hatred against us is to stop killing Muslims and pull almost all of our forces out.

The Blizzard of 09

The view at 8 AM with four inches on the ground and more falling fast. I am supposed to be on my way to Richmond today for Christmas at my father's house, but at the moment that seems unlikely.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Nostalgia about Childhood

From a review on Spiked of a BBC program about the history of children's play:

If you depended for all your information on tabloid newspapers and late-night Sky 3 programmes, you could be forgiven for thinking that territorial teenage gangs are a recent phenomenon, but Hop, Skip and Jump demonstrated otherwise. Another Glaswegian, Tommy Smith, remembers the city’s clearly delineated gangland borders in the late 1950s and early 1960s, talking of the relief at returning home after venturing into a fierce rival gang’s territory. Colin MacFarlane saw a man get his throat cut, after which the killer approached him and threatened: ‘If you tell anyone about this, there’ll be trouble.’ A few days later, the mark drawn around the body by the police had been covered by that icon of childhood innocence: a chalked hopscotch court.

These accounts suggest we should regard childhoods of yesterday with ambivalence – and sometimes even appreciate the often paradoxical nature of society’s nostalgia. A frequent lament by those who grew up in the 1940s and 1950s is that back then there were so many wonderful bombsites and ruined houses to explore, which is tantamount to thanking the Luftwaffe – who possibly killed these children’s parents – for a happy childhood.

Another puzzling phenomenon is that today’s nostalgia was foreseen at an early age, as many folklorists in the 1960s began tape-recording traditional playground songs, fearing they would be killed off by 45s and cheap transistor radios disseminating commercial pop music, much as recorded pop music was indeed helping to kill off much English regional folk music. Yet, as Hop, Skip and Jump illustrated, these traditional songs have survived into the twenty-first century. Many songs sung in playgrounds today would be recognised by our children’s great-grandparents. And, to add yet another twist to this tale of misleading nostalgia, because these songs have been transmitted laterally to second- and third-generation immigrants, such songs would be utterly unfamiliar to the grandparents of these children.

Preserve Auschwitz?

Here's a historic preservation dilemma for you: should we renovate Auschwitz? The question has been debated for years, as the camps slowly deteriorate. On the one hand, there is something obscene about spending millions of dollars to lovingly restore a death camp. On the other, there is a strong imperative to preserve the sites to preserve the memory of those who died there.

This morning's news story was about the theft of the famous "Arbeit Macht Frei" sign that hangs over the gate, which it strikes me is one of the strangest thefts in history. But from the story I learned that the debate over restoration has finally been settled, and the EU is putting up $90 million for a thorough restoration of Auschwitz and Birkenau.

I have my doubts about the wisdom of this. Every restoration brings with it questions of authenticity. Nothing can be made precisely as it was, and the whole enterprise is always fraught with questions of "Disneyfication" and the like. Every restoration is guided by a vision of the experience that the restorers want the visitor to have. As long as the camps just were as they were, nobody could really be accused of exploiting their memory. But once restoration begins, this question becomes inescapable. The camps will not just be leftovers from the Holocaust, but a museum shaped around somebody's idea of what death camps were like.

I myself would have left them alone to slowly rot away to nothing. That would have been a different kind of memorial, a memorial to change and impermanence. The Nazis are gone, and perhaps we should let the camps fade away to nothing, too.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Better in France

Libertarian Matt Welch on how much better the health care system is in France.

The only people who think the American system is best are the ones who've never lived anywhere else. It's a case of ignorance, plain and simple.

Water World

One of the most earthlike planets yet discovered is known by the euphonious title GJ 1214b. This planet, only 40 light years away, is about 2.7 times larger than the earth and 6.5 times more massive. The latest observations suggest that its bulk is 3/4 liquid water, surrounding an iron-nickel core.

Imagine the life that might roam that enormous warm ocean, thousands of times bigger than all the seas on earth!


Interesting post from Julian Sanchez on the resentment and anger so many conservatives feel toward "elites," whoever they are. As he notes, when the Republicans controlled the White House and both houses of congress they still spent the 2004 convention fulminating against "elites." Instead of reveling in their own success, they obsess over "the idea that somewhere, someone who went to Harvard might be snickering at them."

Things one didn't know

Every once in a while I learn about a bit of local culture that survives amidst the overarching sameness of America. From today's NY Times, a piece on a peculiarity of Pittsburgh weddings, the cookie table:
For as long as anyone here can remember, wedding receptions in Pittsburgh have featured cookie tables, laden with dozens of homemade old-fashioned offerings like lady locks, pizzelles and buckeyes. For weeks ahead — sometimes months — mothers and aunts and grandmas and in-laws hunker down in the kitchen baking and freezing. Then, on the big day, hungry guests ravage the buffet, piling plates high and packing more in takeout containers so they can have them for breakfast the next day. . . . But even amid the increasing professionalization of the wedding, with florists mimicking slick arrangements ripped from Martha Stewart's magazines and wedding planners scheduling each event down to the minute, the descendants of those Pittsburgh settlers continue to haul their homemade cookies into the fanciest hotels and wedding venues around the city. For many families today, it would be bordering on sacrilege to do without the table.
A tradition worth preserving, I would say.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Protesting the Climate Summit

In Copenhagen, a slew of "world leaders" are trying to meet to do something about our ongoing experiment with the atmosphere, and thousands of protesters are trying to stop them.


I mean, really. The same people used to protest the World Bank, which for all its faults was set up to help poor countries and sometimes really did try. Now they are protesting an effort to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. I assume they think this is a good idea. So why try to block the meeting?

Some people just make no sense.


Archaeologists in Scotland have found meadowsweet flowers in a bronze-age grave, the first good evidence of prehistoric people placing flowers in a burial. (If you thought pollen from a Neanderthal grave showed they did this, sorry, that has been discredited.) The corpse had been placed in a birchwood coffin.

Meadowsweet is a common herb favoring damp meadows, which bears small white flowers in the summer. Because of its pleasant smell, it was commonly used among the rushes that medieval and earlier people spread across the dirt or stone floors of their homes. It was also used to flavor beer.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

More Octopus Love

Another great octopus trick: using coconuts as mobile fortresses. There's a video I can't seem to embed here. And note that this has to be a fairly recent development, in evolutionary terms; since octopi can't split coconuts themselves, they use coconut halves discarded by their human neighbors.

Health Care Reform

Health care reform seems really to be happening. I think we could do a lot better, but look on the bright side: if we get health insurance to 85% of the people who lack it, we will save 20,000 to 35,000 lives a year, depending on whose estimate you prefer. The Senate bill includes numerous cost containment measures that cost containment wonks are excited about. Despite all the wrangling and compromises, the senate bill will still be a major achievement.

Ezra Klein:

The core of this legislation is as it always was: $900 billion, give or take, so people who can't afford health-care insurance suddenly can. Insurance regulations paired with the individual mandate, so insurers can't discriminate against the sick and the healthy can't make insurance unaffordable by hanging back until the moment they need medical care. The construction of health insurance exchanges so the people currently left out of the employer-based market are better served, and the many who will join them as the employer system continues to erode will have somewhere to go. . . .

A lot of progressives woke up this morning feeling like they lost. They didn't. The public option and its compromised iterations were a battle that came to seem like a war. But they weren't the war. The bill itself was. When liberals talked about the dream of universal health-care insurance 10, 20 and 30 years ago, they talked about the plight of the uninsured, not the necessity of a limited public option in competition with private insurers.

"This is a good bill," Sen. Sherrod Brown said on Countdown last night. "Not a great bill, but a good bill." That's about right. But the other piece to remember is that more than it's a good bill, it's a good start. With $900 billion in subsidies already in place, it's easier to add another hundred billion later, if we need it, than it would be to pass $1 trillion in subsidies in 2011. With the exchanges built and private insurers unable to hold down costs, it's easier to argue for adding a strong public option to the market than it was before we'd tried regulation and a new competitive structure. With 95 percent of the country covered, it's easier to go the final 5 percent. And with a health-care reform bill actually passed, it's easier to convince legislators that passing such bills is possible.

On its own terms, the bill is the most important social policy achievement since the Great Society.
Honestly, I am simply amazed that America is capable of doing anything major to help poor people lead better lives.

The Spirituality of Casinos

The New York Times reported today's important Indian news like this:
The Obama administration said Tuesday that the Shinnecock Indian Nation of Long Island had met the necessary criteria for federal recognition, signaling the end of a more than 30-year court battle and clearing a path for the tribe to build a casino in New York City or its suburbs.
Ah, the spiritual native peoples, maintaining their ancient ways. Like video slots.

But then, who can blame them? Thanks to the hypocrisy of New Yorkers, who want to gamble but for some reason don't want to make it legal, the Shinnecocks are now going to get rich. Since they can't really recover their native ways within their 800 acres of Long Island, they might as well cash in on the opportunities they do have.

Monday, December 14, 2009


I have a new essay up at Bensozia explaining why, although I don't expect a population-driven world crisis, I still think Thomas Malthus was right.

Basic Chemistry

While the hi-tech end of chemistry has made progress by leaps and bounds of late, a lot of industrial chemistry still depends on processes developed back around 1900. For example, the Haber process -- that's the same Haber who was the father of gas warfare in WW I -- is still the main way we extract nitrogen from the atmosphere and put it to chemical use. This week chemists have announced a new, more efficient method of fixing nitrogen that can be employed at industrial scales.

About 78 percent of the Earth’s atmosphere is nitrogen, but harnessing it isn’t easy. Atmospheric nitrogen atoms live like inseparable twins, in the form of N2, strongly linked by a triple bond and relatively inert. This dinitrogen will react with oxygen and rain to Earth, where various microbes “fix” it — separate the twins, making them available to bond with other molecules, such as carbon.

To get that carbon-nitrogen bond in the lab, Cornell University chemist Paul Chirik and colleagues attacked the N2 bond with metal and carbon monoxide. The scientists started with a complex of the metal hafnium and dinitrogen in solution and then added carbon monoxide gas. Electrons from the hafnium and carbon “rip the triple bond,” says Chirik. As part of the reaction, the carbon from the carbon monoxide then bonds to the nitrogen atoms, creating a useful carbon-nitrogen bond.

I suspect that we probably devote too much brainpower to exciting things like sub-atomic physics and nanotechnology, while there are still vast improvements to be made in low-tech areas like fixing nitrogen, making steel, ventilating houses and the like.

From Today's Fortune Cookie

You will be showered with good luch.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

An Underground House

Bizarre and kind of cool underground house in the Swiss Alps, by SeARCH and Christian Muller Architects. More pictures at the link.

Stanley Fish and the Banality of Civilization's End

Stanley Fish is a bizarre character, approaching the end of a very distinguished academic career in a state of rage against the liberal establishment. His review of Sarah Palin's Going Rogue is one of the most bizarre things ever to appear in the New York Times; he obviously saw this as an opportunity not to engage with the book, but to spit in the eye of the establishment liberals who have somehow done him such vast, unspecified harm.

But Va at Whiskey Fire saw something deeper:
From time to time, we are confronted with events that confirm dark suspicions we have entertained as at a distance, but never grasped as true or necessary. . . . I confess I anticipated the possibility that Fish would review Going Rogue, but I hoped it wouldn't be quite like this. But now, there it is, indelibly posted on Stanley Fish's blog forever, daring me to believe that there is any point in going on, that there is any amount of success and eminence you can achieve that can't be hopelessly shat away. I make my living, such as it is, reading books and teaching other people how to read them, so I take Fish's embarrassing review as a personal affront. But it's more than personal; it's existential. Not only is Fish's review an object lesson is just how inane it is possible for a person to be and still mean it, it implicates all human endeavor in its inanity. It says: the only context in which it makes sense for you to be reading this is in a rocking chair, slowly rocking, on the front porch of civilization, rocking slowly as the sun sets, rocking slower, and ever slower, until you and everything there is expires.

Why I Hate Concept Art

Mexican "artist" Gabriel Orozco has a major retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art right now. One of the works included is this magisterial creation, titled "Empty Shoe Box." Words fail me. The centerpiece of the show is a whale skeleton that actually looks very cool, but it strikes me that the work was really done by the whale. All that diving and eating and hiding from whalers it did to grow huge and strong, and here is some artist taking credit for its skeleton?

On the other hand I think the creation below, put up at Burning Man in 2008, is really cool.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Christmas Tree

Oh Tannenbaum. . . .

Wolves in Scotland?

The "Wolf Trust" is working to lay the groundwork for re-introducing wolves into Scotland, where they have not lived in 250 years. Part of the motivation is that ever-growing deer herds are changing the landscape by their overgrazing -- in some areas the alder trees they like to eat have disappeared and there is nothing left but evergreens. The problem, of course, is that while wolves like to eat deer they like to eat sheep even more.

One Child Policy Ending

As predicted, the drastically falling birthrate in China is leading the government to abandon its one child policy and encourage urban couples to have two children.

Religion in America

Americans are a little nutty about religion. From the latest Pew survey:
Though the U.S. is an overwhelmingly Christian country, significant minorities profess belief in a variety of Eastern or New Age beliefs. For instance, 24% of the public overall and 22% of Christians say they believe in reincarnation -- that people will be reborn in this world again and again. And similar numbers (25% of the public overall, 23% of Christians) believe in astrology. Nearly three-in-ten Americans say they have felt in touch with someone who has already died, almost one-in-five say they have seen or been in the presence of ghosts, and 15% have consulted a fortuneteller or a psychic.
Not to mention that 16% believe in the use of the evil eye to cast curses and 26% believe that there is spiritual energy in crystals, trees, or other objects. The number of people saying they have been in the presence of a ghost is up from 9% in the 1990s to 18% in the latest poll, and I have to wonder if that has something to do with all those ghost hunting shows on tv.

Friday, December 11, 2009


What will Americans do? Dog fighting has come back to Kabul, after being banned by the Taliban as un-Islamic.

Sullivan and Greenwald Debate Obama

Is Obama's war policy wise or just rhetorically impressive?

Andrew Sullivan:

When I have been asked why I, as a conservative, support this man the way I do, I can only answer: listen to him. What is the philosophy that most affirms "the imperfections of man and the limits of reason"? What philosophy sadly demurs when told that peace is possible on earth, that history is leading to utopia, that war is over, that "freedom is on the march"? And this is the critical distinction between Bush and Obama: Obama is far more conservative than his predecessor. He sees that the profound flaws in human nature affect us as well as them; that we "face the world as it is," not as we would like it to be; that the decision to go to war is a moral and a pragmatic one; that ends have to be balanced by a shrewd and sometimes cold-eyed assessment of means.

For peace to exist, there must sometimes be war. A statesman will sometimes have to bargain with evil men. A statesman will also sometimes have to let evil flourish because he simply does not have the proportionate means to counter it. Human nature is alloyed between good and evil, and evil often wins.

Glenn Greenwald:

Obama puts a pretty, intellectual, liberal face on some ugly and decidedly illiberal polices. Just as George Bush's Christian-based moralizing let conservatives feel good about America regardless of what it does, Obama's complex and elegiac rhetoric lets many liberals do the same. To red state Republicans, war and its accompanying instruments (secrecy, executive power, indefinite detention) felt so good and right when justified by swaggering, unapologetic toughness and divinely-mandated purpose; to blue state Democrats, all of that feels just as good when justified by academic meditations on "just war" doctrine and when accompanied by poetic expressions of sorrow and reluctance. When you combine the two rhetorical approaches, what you get is what you saw yesterday: a bipartisan embrace of the same policies and ideologies among people with supposedly irreconcilable views of the world.


Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope.

Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith.

Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we are saved by love.

No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our own standpoint.

Therefore we must be saved by the final form of love which is forgiveness.

--Reinhold Niebuhr

Yarrow Mamout

Today I met James Johnston, who is writing a book about Yarrow Mamout and his family. Yarrow Mamout was a man from the Senegambia area of west Africa who was captured by slavers, shipped to America and sold in Maryland in 1752. He belonged for decades to Samuel Beall of Georgetown, who owned a mill in Rock Creek Park where I did some excavations. It is possible that Yarrow worked there. Yarrow may also have worked at the Antietam Ironworks, of which Samuel Beall was part owner, and where I have also done excavations. Yarrow was freed in 1797. According to Yarrow, his master freed him because he thought Yarrow was used up. But Yarrow had plenty of work left in him, and he earned enough money as a free man to buy a small house and enough bank stock to retire on:
Olda massa been tink he got all de work out of a Yaro bone. He tell a Yaro, go free Yaro; you been work nuff for me, go work for you now . . . Yaro work a soon -- a late -- a hot -- a cold. Sometime he sweat -- sometime he blow a finger.
We know about Yarrow from a sort of gossipy guide to Washington published in 1816, from which the above comes, and because Charles Willson Peale painted his portrait in 1820. Peale also interviewed both Yarrow and the daughter of his former owner, and wrote an account of these conversations in his diary. Peale painted Yarrow partly because he was interested in longevity, and by that time Yarrow was claiming to be 140 years old. Actually, he was about 84, but since he had outlived all the people who had enslaved and owned him, perhaps he can be forgiven a little gloating exaggeration. Yarrow was by then a modestly famous character, known for his old age, his long life of hard work, and his practice of Islam. Peale wrote of him:
Yarrow owns a House & lotts and is known by most of the Inhabitants of Georgetown & particularly by the Boys who are often teazing him which he takes in good humour. It appears to me that the good temper of the man has contributed considerably to longevity. Yarrow has been noted for sobriety & a chearfull conduct, he professes to be a mahometan, and is often seen & heard in the Streets singing Praises to God -- and conversing with him he said man is no good unless his religion comes from the heart . . . The acquaintance of him often banter him about eating Bacon and drinking Whiskey -- but Yarrow says it is no good to eat Hog -- & drink whiskey is very bad. I retouched his Portrait the morning after his first setting to mark what rinkles & lines to characterise better his Portrait.
Some people lead amazing lives. James Johnston published a nice account of Yarrow and his researches in the Washington Post, which you can read here.