Sunday, May 31, 2009

In the Garden

The peonies were beaten down by the huge thunderstorms we had this week:

But the roses still look great. This is bonica, a rose I highly recommend. It blooms all summer, it has a lovely shape, and it is resistant to black spot and many other plagues:

Sebastiao Salgado

Sebastiao Salgado, my favorite photographer, has a new touring exhibit, and the NY Times has a slide show of some of his new work. This is one of the new images, titled "Iceberg":

And here are some of his classics. A gold mine in Brazil:

And an African cattle camp:

Friday, May 29, 2009

the future of work

Robert Reich has a column out on why trying to save GM's assembly-line jobs is a waste of time. He goes over the numbers for how many manufacturing jobs have disappeared worldwide -- even China is losing manufacturing jobs -- and explains how work is changing:
Any job that's even slightly routine is disappearing from the U.S. But this doesn't mean we are left with fewer jobs. It means only that we have fewer routine jobs, including traditional manufacturing. When the U.S. economy gets back on track, many routine jobs won't be returning--but new jobs will take their place. A quarter of all Americans now work in jobs that weren't listed in the Census Bureau's occupation codes in 1967. Technophobes, neo-Luddites and anti-globalists be warned: You're on the wrong side of history. You see only the loss of old jobs. You're overlooking all the new ones.

The reason they're so easy to overlook is that so much of the new value added is invisible. A growing percent of every consumer dollar goes to people who analyze, manipulate, innovate and create. These people are responsible for research and development, design and engineering. Or for high-level sales, marketing and advertising. They're composers, writers and producers. They're lawyers, journalists, doctors and management consultants. I call this "symbolic analytic" work because most of it has to do with analyzing, manipulating and communicating through numbers, shapes, words, ideas.

Symbolic-analytic work can't be directly touched or held in your hands, as goods that come out of factories can be. In fact, many of these tasks are officially classified as services rather than manufacturing. Yet almost whatever consumers buy these days, they're paying more for these sorts of tasks than for the physical material or its assemblage. On the back of every iPod is the notice "Designed by Apple in California, Assembled in China." You can bet iPod's design garners a bigger share of the iPod's purchase price than its assembly.
At the risk of standing on the "wrong side of history," I would like to express grave doubts about a civilization in which most people do "symbolic analytic" work. I think that the farther any job is from making something or helping someone, the less satisfying it will be for most people. Sure, the people who design iPods have valuable jobs that probably satisfy them, but that is a few hundred people making something used by tens of millions. Not many jobs there. Anyone who has ever worked in the average design shop knows that most design -- along with most advertising, public relations, and half a dozen other fields -- is a tedious exercise in continually reinventing the wheel, clotted with jargon and silly fads, in which trying to seem impressive and "sharp" wars with a deep cynicism. In my experience, few people who design things like tissue paper boxes and corporate publicity campaigns feel very good about what they do. Reich doesn't mention bureaucrats, another major growing field full of cynicism and siege mentality. Research science sounds like an exciting field, but I know several people who have dropped out of scientific work because what they did was so bureaucratic, repetitive, and irrelevant. One of them loves steam railroads and longs for the days when high technology was what the boys could hammer together down in the shop. And one of the fastest growing fields is legal services, which is, as far as I am concerned, much more of a drain on our civilization than a benefit.

I was very impressed by this essay, by a man who gave up work in a think tank to open a motorcycle repair shop. I would personally rather work in a think tank, but there are millions of people who want to do something that feels real to them. How many designers, marketers, or assistant vice presidents feel the kind of pride and sense of identity that thousands of steel mill workers used to get from being "men of steel"? Yes, I know their work killed them and poisoned the planet, but it still had a reality and solidity that "symbolic" work will never have from most people.

I have ended up complaining a lot on the blog about modern work. And not, as I have said, because I hate my own job. I rather like my job. But much about our current work culture feels poisonous to me, and I think we should be trying harder to fix that instead of just letting things run along in their current rut until we wake up hating our world.

politics and morality

A lot of interesting work has been done over the past few decades on the psychological roots of our politics. Nicholas Kristof has a post on this today, from which I found the thinks to this organization and its online tests.

I took a their "moral foundations" test which correlates your stated politics with your feelings about authority, purity, fairness, and other things. Here is my result:

I am green, the average of liberals is blue, the average of conservatives is red. When it comes to valuing fairness over loyalty and not being squicked by unnatural, impure things, I am a typical liberal. I think my in-between score on attitudes to authority is a quirk of the questions asked, because in most ways I don't give a damn about authority. But there was a question about whether children need to learn to respect authority, and anybody who has ever raised a one-year-old knows that learning to pay attention when a grown-up says "don't touch that" is an absolutely essential life skill. So I think my answer to that one had more to do with being an experienced parent than being a conservative.

The other puzzling question was about whether soldiers should obey orders they "disagree with." Only someone who knows nothing about war would say no; an army in which soldiers did not reflexively obey orders would lose every battle in short order. But that doesn't mean a soldier shouldn't disobey when told, say, to shoot a prisoner or bomb a civilian target. There was an incident recorded by an embedded reported early in the invasion of Iraq that I thought was very interesting. An order came to the tank commander the reporter was riding with that sniper fire was coming from a certain building and he should shell the building. The tank commander took a look, saw that the building was an apartment house full of civilians and said to the reporter, "no way I'm obeying that order."

Being a soldier doesn't mean abandoning judgment. This tank commander knew that the invasion was going very well, that one or two Iraqi snipers posed no threat to the Americans, and so there was no real reason to risk killing dozens of civilians to remove the snipers, if they even existed. I would like to think that I would have done the same. But that doesn't mean the commander wouldn't obey the order in a different situation, say if his whole battalion was pinned down by fire and taking heavy casualities. Surely he obeys 98% or more of the orders he receives. That doesn't make him an authoritarian, just a realist who knows how armies work.

I think my score on "harm" is also interesting. I know too much about politics and history to ever say that avoiding harm to everyone is important. Everything harms somebody. And sometimes things that seem on the surface to be great harms turn out to be blessings. The invention of mechanical looms destroyed the livelihoods of millions of hand-loom weavers all across the world, which is a pretty serious harm, but on the other hand does anybody want to go back to a world in which ordinary cloth is a luxury item?

Update: here are my results from another, similar quiz on the same site, which I think better captures my attitude toward authority:

Wednesday, May 27, 2009


Four-leaf clovers I found in Rose Park today:

I was once sitting at an outdoor Quaker meeting when a woman said, "Oh, I just found a four-leaf clover, and I never would have found it if I had been looking for it. Happiness is like that -- you find it while you are doing something else. . . ."

I thought (but did not say -- this was after I got over the worst of my adolescent snarkiness), That's all wrong! If you have a basic understanding of the genetic mechanism behind four-leaf-cloverism, and use that to formulate a search strategy that you apply on a large scale, you can find hundreds of four-leaf clovers. And that's how I feel about happiness. If you don't know what you want and have a plan for getting it that you are willing to work at, it is unlikely to fall into your lap.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Vaccines and Doctors

A study out today says that unvaccinated children are 23 times more likely to contract pertussis (whooping cough) than those who have been vaccinated. Last year, cases of pertussis and measles rose across the US. Anti-vaccine hysteria is becoming a serious health threat in America.

Now the Baltimore Sun reports that one doctor is trying to get the message across in a dramatic way:
When an unvaccinated child in Dr. Daniel Levy's practice came down with whooping cough this year, the Owings Mills pediatrician made a decision: He would no longer see patients whose parents refused to have them immunized against that disease or others, such as measles and meningitis.

The risks posed to his other patients were too great, Levy reasoned. And he felt he couldn't give adequate care to children whose parents rejected some of his most basic advice: That routine childhood vaccines are safe and are the key to preventing diseases that used to kill many before they could reach adulthood.
The prospect of doctors refusing to treat patients because of their kooky beliefs, or because of their parents' kooky beliefs, has to be a little bit chilling to anyone who thinks about the implications. The pressure to conform in every way is powerful enough in America without doctors adding to it by refusing to treat weirdos. But I think the threat posed by the anti-vaccine movement is so great that such drastic measures are warranted, and I say, good for Dr. Levy. One doctor who spoke to the Sun said that the anti-vaccine movement will only be defeated when enough children have died. I hope he is wrong, but I doubt it.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

downloading ourselves

With a new Terminator movie in the theaters, essays on machine intelligence are popping up all over. I think we are still a long, long way from computers that have a human-like intelligence. So far, Artificial Intelligence has been a colossal failure, although we have certainly learned a lot about ourselves in the process. Example: until we tried to program computers to do it, philosophers had never even considered what we now call the "framing problem." When we face a problem, how do we know what set of our memories and thought routines to consult in answering it? We obviously can't review the problem in the light of everything we know, but how do we go about defining what we should consider? It is, it turns out, a very hard problem, and it is one of many, many problems we have to solve before we can make a machine that thinks like we do.

That being said, it seems to me that it is only a matter of time before we create machines that can do a lot of the things we do. I am usually skeptical of using science fiction as a guide to what really might happen, but I think that limits on the development or construction of intelligent computers might well be on the horizon. This could well be one of the most important political questions fifty years from now. Another possibility is that instead of considering machines as rivals, we will use them to augment ourselves, wiring extra memory capacity and calculation power into our own. This, however, might lead to further political battles, since with such additions the rich might become much smarter than the poor.

So I see many unknowns in the future of our relationship with computers. But there is one thing I feel quite certain about: we will never be able to download our personalities into computers and live extended digital lives. This is just a high tech version of the old dream of immortality. We are biological entities, rooted in our bodies. We might be able to create some digital simulacrum of ourselves that would be something like us, but it would not be us. How we think and feel is a product of our bodies. We feel different after exercising, to take a simple example. Who we are is also defined as much as anything else, by our mortality. Without bodies that can get sick and suffer pain and die, we would not be ourselves. We would be something other than human.

To be human is to live on a trajectory from life to death, in a body made of flesh and bone. Anything else is an illusion.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Baltimore Herb Festival

Today Lisa and I took Ben and Clara to the Baltimore Herb Festival, where we met Lisa's sister Marni, her husband Dave, and their toddler Augie. We used to go to the festival every year, when Robert and Mary were little, but we haven't been in three or four years. We did the herb festival things: sucked on lemon sticks, wandered around looking at beautiful plants, bought a few herbs and flowers, listened to bluegrass music, and looked at the rescued animals they bring out for the occasion: this year, a red-tailed hawk and a barn owl, plus an assortment of snakes and turtles. Ben was fascinated by the carnivorous plants for sale, and I will have to read him a book from the library.

Clara in the wagon with our purchases.

Ben, Clara and me resting under a tree.

Then we rode the little steam trains around Leakin Park. These are operated by a bunch of amateur railroad buffs who call themselves the Chesapeake and Allegheny Steam Preservation Society. All men, of course, and Lisa and I cracked up when we say half a dozen women sitting around together under a tree: train widows. Ben and Clara loved the train ride, and I liked it, too.

Garden at the end of May

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Irish reform schools, the CIA, and George Bush

The Irish government has finally released a shocking report on the sexual and other abuse of children in boarding schools operated by the Christian Brothers and the Sisters of Mercy. I won't bother to go over the horrid details of this, which you can read about all over.

I have to say that I am not shocked. I am not shocked because the schools were based on an authoritarian organizational model, that is, one in which just questioning a superior is a serious violation of the rules, and because they acted in secrecy. In my mind those circumstances are very likely to produce immoralities and crimes of one sort or another. Power, as we know, corrupts, and the best way we have found to limit corruption is publicity. People are much more likely to do horrible things when they think nobody will find out. Even Stalin and Hitler tried to keep their worst crimes secret.

Which brings me to American foreign and defense policy. Yes, there are things we have to keep secret, and in any kind of military situation people have to follow orders. But if we care about freedom, we must resist everywhere we can the temptation of secrecy, because what is kept secret cannot be either approved or rejected by the people. When an organization is both secret and authoritarian, like the CIA, the temptation to criminal excess will from time to time overwhelm morality. After all, this is hardly the first time the CIA has tortured people, or the first time the government has spied on citizens for no good reason. And it will keep happening until we change the culture of the government in ways that limit secrecy and encourage subordinates to denounce their superiors when those superiors demand illegal things.

new fossils and extraordinary claims

An amazing fossil find was revealed this week, a complete skeleton of an early primate the discoverers call Ida. The fossil even includes the impressions of some soft tissue, and the contents of the stomach. Wonderful.

But the discoverers can't let it go at that, they have to announce that their fossil represents a crucial stage in the evolution of humans:

Scientists have discovered an exquisitely preserved ancient primate fossil that they believe forms a crucial "missing link" between our own evolutionary branch of life and the rest of the animal kingdom.

The 47m-year-old primate – named Ida – has been hailed as the fossil equivalent of a "Rosetta Stone" for understanding the critical early stages of primate evolution.

Why are the early stages of primate evolution more "critical" than the later stages? Why is the group consisting of monkeys, apes, and humans "our evolutionary branch of life"? Why isn't our branch primates, or mammals, or hominids? Of course, those are all "our branch," and every step in evolution is equally critical. But nobody ever got a research grant or a BBC documentary by playing down his discovery.

This is an amazing fossil in part because we have so few primate fossils from the Eocene; but that also means that we can't really assess how close Ida was to this or that evolutionary branching.

Why can't people just say this is an amazing fossil without loading it with a bunch of unsupportable claims for its importance?

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

the nest is empty

The rest of the robins fledged today. One flew to Thomas' head and sat there for several minutes.

Komodo Dragons are Venomous

After reading four children books that said the prey of Komodo dragons sometimes died after a bite because the dragons' mouths are so full of bacteria, I now discover that the dragons are in fact venomous.

Thinking on this, I remembered one of the reasons I am skeptical about all "knowledge." I had a science text book in the third grade that said Mercury always keeps one face toward the sun. It does not, and this had been discovered around the time I was born. I never trusted a textbook again.

Let Iran get the Bomb

If Iran wants the bomb, they are going to get it. The only thing we could do that might stop them would be an oil embargo, and since the Europeans and Chinese have already said that is not an option, there is really nothing we can do.

We could bomb their known nuclear facilities, or let the Israelis do it. But everyone who has thought seriously about this option has said that it won't work and will in the long run only make Iran more determined to get the bomb. The Atlantic staged a fascinating war game of various scenarios in 2004, which you can read about here. The bottom line of those experts was that by bombing known facilities we could slow the Iranian program by forcing them to disperse into smaller, more secret sites, but not stop them. They also highlight the many ways Iran could strike back, e.g., by using suicide bombers against US assets in Iraq and Afghanistan. The situation in Afghanistan is especially critical now, and Afghanistan is a place where the US and Iran have in fact worked together; Iran and the Taliban hate each other, because the Taliban are fanatical Sunnis who oppressed Afghanitstan's Shi'ite minority. But if we bomb Iran, that could easily change. Now there is a new assessment from the CSIS of the possibility of an Israeli strike, and it is equally sobering; James Fallows has a summary here. Key line from the study: "The more there is an Israeli threat to the survival of the regime in Iran, the more Iran will be determined to acquire nuclear weapons."

I think the Israelis are being foolish to get so upset about an Iranian bomb. Yes, some members of the Iranian leadership believe in a future apocalypse, but so do many members of the US leadership. That is quite a different thing from starting a nuclear war. Our experience with nuclear standoffs is that they tend toward stability and can deter conventional war, and that is what I think would happen between Israel and Iran. No doubt a nervous Israeli would here say, "easy for you to say, you are not threatened with nuclear annihilation," but to that I respond, yes, but I was until 1989, and I lived with it just fine.

I don't find the prospect of an Iranian bomb nearly as scare as the Pakistani bomb, which already exists, or the North Korean bomb, which sort-of exists (their test was mostly a failure). Nuclear weapons will only disappear when we find a way to put an end to wars between states. As long as there is the threat of war between states, states will develop nuclear weapons, and by making so many threats the Israelis and their US "friends" are only bringing the Iranian bomb closer.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Fledging day

The biggest baby robin just hopped out of the nest and headed out into the world.

women and happiness

According to this weighty review of the available data, women in the western world have gotten less happy since the 1970s. In the 1970s women reported being happier than men, but that is no longer true.

The authors of this study offer no explanation for their finding. Now I have to say that I am dubious of this kind of research, which I think records changes in what people think they should say instead of how happy they really are. But to the extent that it is true, I think the explanation is given on page 1 of this study: "Female labor force participation has risen to record levels both absolutely and relative to that of men."

Working more doesn't make most people happier. As the working world becomes more and more a sort of racket in which underlings toil harder for minimal gains while their bosses get obscenely rich, in which employers have no loyalty to their employees or their communities, and in which more and more people do abstract bureaucratic tasks instead of making something, work will more and more become a source of unhappiness.

Manifesto of the Liberal Nerd

Still arguing god with Stanley Fish

Stanley Fish wrote an annoying essay about religion, which I complained about last week. This week he is back at it, responding to what must be a tiny sample of the comments he received. He has fun with this by picking shrill atheists who confirm, by their shrillness, everything he said about shallow atheism. But instead of responding seriously to the issues they raise, he tosses out further obfuscation.

He goes back again to the notion that scientific knowledge rests on a kind of faith:
Thought itself — the consideration of problems with a view to arriving at their solutions — requires chains, requires stipulated definitions, requires limits it did not choose but which enable and structure its operations....

If there is no thought without constraints (chains) and if the constraints cannot be the object of thought because they mark out the space in which thought will go on, what is noticed and perspicuous will always be a function of what cannot be noticed because it cannot be seen. The theological formulation of this insight is well known: Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen (Hebrews 11). Once the act of simply reporting or simply observing is exposed as a fiction — as something that just can’t be done — the facile opposition between faith-thinking and thinking grounded in independent evidence cannot be maintained.

Pking gets it right. “To torpedo faith is to destroy the roots of . . . any system of knowledge . . . I challenge anyone to construct an argument proving reason’s legitimacy without presupposing it . . . Faith is the base, completely unavoidable. Get used to it. It’s the human condition.” (All of us, not just believers, see through a glass darkly.) Religious thought may be vulnerable on any number of fronts, but it is not vulnerable to the criticism that in contrast to scientific or empirical thought, it rests on mere faith.
Yes, science depends on all sorts of assumptions, from cause and effect to the "unreasonable effectiveness" of mathematics in describing the world. But Wittgenstein demolished the facile equation of religious faith with a scientist's assumptions more than 70 years ago, saying "the house of science supports its foundation." Using the assumptions of science, you can launch a probe to Saturn and it will end up in exactly the orbit you predicted, and while this proves nothing it is strong evidence that cause and effect are real things. There is no equivalent evidence for the existence of god.

In his first piece, Fish offered this description from Terry Eagleton of the kingdom of God:
a condition of justice, fellowship, and self-fulfillment far beyond anything that might normally be considered possible or even desirable in the more well-heeled quarters of Oxford and Washington.
Yet when readers complain that Fish's religion is "Polyanna-like, happy-days optimism", he protests. Certainly there is much darkness in a Christian view of the world, but if Eagleton's notion of the kingdom of God is not wildly optimistic, what is? Is not the Christian promise of eternal life in paradise not the most optimistic possible idea? What could go beyond it as something to be hoped for?

Fish likes being a Christian, and finds life without theological underpinnings empty. Which is ok by me. But as an intellectual, he feels that he has to be able to defend his faith intellectually, using the kind of arguments he regularly deploys in his essays. I wonder if he can even see how weak his arguments appear to someone who lacks his vision.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Civil War Ending in Sir Lanka?

This would be kind of amazing, if true, since the war has lasted 26 years:
COLOMBO, Sri Lanka – The Tamil Tigers admitted defeat Sunday in their fierce quarter-century war for a separate homeland as government forces raced to clear the last pockets of rebel resistance from the war zone in the north.

Far from the battlefield, thousands of Sri Lankans danced in the streets of Colombo, celebrating the stunning collapse of one of the world's most sophisticated insurgencies. But with rebel leader Velupillai Prabhakaran still at large, the threat of renewed guerrilla warfare remained.

Several rebel fighters committed suicide when they were surrounded, but it wasn't clear whether Prabhakaran or other leaders were among them.

The Tamil Tigers once controlled a shadow state complete with courts, police and a tax system across a wide swath of the north. By Sunday, troops had surrounded the remaining rebels in a 0.4-square-mile (1-square-kilometer) patch of land and were fighting off suicide bombs and other attacks, the military said....

The rebels have been fighting since 1983 for a separate state for Sri Lanka's ethnic Tamil minority after years of marginalization at the hands of the Sinhalese majority. More than 70,000 people have been killed in the fighting.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa has said that after defeating the rebels, his government will begin talks toward power sharing and political reconciliation between the two communities. But many Tamils are skeptical that the victorious government will be willing to make real concessions.

At their height, the rebels controlled 5,400 square miles (14,000 square kilometers), nearly one-fifth of this Indian Ocean island nation.

They had a conventional army complete with artillery batteries, a large navy and even a nascent air force, funded by an estimated $200 million to $300 million a year they made from smuggling, fraud and appeals to Tamil expatriates. They also carried out hundreds of suicide attacks — including the 1991 assassination of former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi — and were listed as a terror group by the U.S., European Union and India.

One of the reasons it has been so hard to achieve peace in this conflict is that both sides feel like embattled minorities. The Sinhalese are the majority in Sir Lanka, but they are vastly outnumbered by the Tamils of India. Indian Tamils funded the Tamil Tigers and supplied them with a safe refuge in exile. Tamil Tiger supporters were so powerful in India that when the government tried to shut down the flow of arms and money to the rebels they assassinated the Prime Minister. I wonder if events in India were somehow behind the change of battlefield fortunes in Sri Lanka. If not, I suppose the rebels must have simply gotten tired and given up.


It's getting crowded in the robins' nest. While I was working in the yard yesterday I watched the mother and father robins working with hardly a pause all day long to catch bugs for their babies. Raising four must be very hard for them.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Star Trek

I saw the new Star Trek movie Thursday night. It was entertaining, and I was surprised by the way it ended. But I kept thinking that I had seen everything before. Some of that was because I have seen all the other Star Trek movies, and this movie made allusions to them. But I was more struck by a sense that every action sequence looked like a dozen or a hundred similar scenes from other movies: fight scenes on platforms so the characters can end up hanging from the edge by their fingers, cars that go off cliffs, sparking control panels. Perhaps this is one of the disadvantages of aging, that I have simply seen more movies than there are new ideas for filming them.

Garden, May 16, 2009

The front garden, with the Zephirine Drouhin rose in full bloom.

The south garden, irises and peonies just starting to bloom.

Iris and a pink shrub rose.

Clara with the clematis in the herb garden.

Kepler update

NASA's Kepler satellite is online, and has begun its search for earth-like planets.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Renzo Piano in Chicago

Renzo Piano's addition to the Chicago Art Institute is open, and the NY Times has a slide show.

I am intrigued. A building for the display of modern art ought, I think, to be modern in style, and given that constraint -- which of course guarantees that I won't love the result -- it looks like Piano has done a good job. The building seems to be full of natural light, even though it must be filtered to protect the art works. And instead of creating some kind of monstrous sculpture that dominates its site, relegating the art to the background (I.M Pei in Washington, Gehry in Bilbao), he has built a gallery designed to display works of art. I find such modesty very becoming in a famous architect.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Tuesday, May 12, 2009


Joy and woe are woven fine.

--William Blake

Knowing Doesn't Help

Great little piece by David Brooks on the ongoing longitudinal study of 268 men who entered Harvard in the late 1930s, a reaction to this longer essay in the Atlantic. The study's long-time director, George Vaillant, says that relationships are key to long-term happiness: "happiness is love," he says. But he has been divorced twice and has troubled relationships with his children: "There was a civil war in the family," says one of his daughters.

Knowing what would make you happy doesn't necessarily make it easy to do.

Many of these men served in World War II, and I was struck by the finding that the more combat they saw, the more likely they were to suffer from mental illness later. Even the best of good wars was a horror for many who survived it.

The Body is a Strange and Complex Thing

Exercise seems to help the body manage glucose, so doctors routinely tell everyone at risk of diabetes to get more exercise.

Exercise causes the cells to release oxidants, which do lots of molecular damage and may (or may not) be one of the main causes of aging.

So maybe the way to get the best outcome would be to exercise more but also take lots of anti-oxidants, like Vitamin C and E, to curb the damage caused by oxidants.

Alas, a new study seems to show that if you take lots of anti-oxidants, exercise no longer has any effect on your body's ability to handle glucose. The potentially harmful release of oxidants seems to be key to the healthful effects of exercise on diabetes.

Whenever I read that this or that (anti-oxidants, say) is the key to health, I roll my eyes, because our bodies are machines of a complexity far beyond anything we can really understand. Tinkering with one system may cause a whole cascade of changes to others. Better, I think, just to focus on the things we understand from millennia of experience: that an active life, a moderate diet, and a positive attitude all correlate with health and long life.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Life in the Iron Age

Interesting study of ten skeletons from central Asia, dating to around 500 BC:
Skeletal remains of Pazyryk warriors unearthed in a recent archaeological excavation in the Mongolian Altai offer a unique opportunity for verifying ancient histories of warfare and violence given by Herodotus in the fifth century BC. The Pazyryks were Iron Age nomadic groups associated with the eastern Scythians and known from burial site discoveries on the high steppes of the Altai (Central Asia). The aim of this paper is to analyze the evidence for bone trauma provided by the skeletal remains of these Pazyryk warriors with a particular focus on violence-related injuries. The sample consists of 10 individuals, comprising seven adult males, one adult female and two children. Seven individuals exhibited a total of 14 traumatic injuries. Six of these injuries (43%) showed evidence of bone remodelling and eight injuries (57%) were morphologically compatible with a perimortem origin. Twelve injuries (86%) were related to interpersonal violence, most likely caused by weapons similar to those found in Pazyryk tombs (battle-axes, daggers and arrowheads). Five individuals, including the female and one child, exhibited evidence of violent death. Furthermore, one individual also exhibited evidence of scalping. Despite the small number of Pazyryk skeletons analyzed, the pattern of traumatic injuries observed appears to be in agreement with that documented in conflicts related to raids or surprise attacks, and not a result of routinized or ritualized violence. These findings contribute new data to osteological evidence from Scythian burial sites.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

First Roses

It's a perfect day today.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

hungry baby

The eggs are hatching!

A Poem

Rhetorical Figures
Tom Christopher

When a sentence is composed of two independent
clauses, the second being weaker than the first,
it is called One-Legged Man Standing. If it
purposefully obscures meaning, it’s called
Dropped in Muddy Creek,
or if elegantly composed,
Wasp Fucking Orchid. There are words behind words,
and half the time our thought spraying out like water
from a hose, half the time banging inside our heads
like a wren in a house. When a sentence ends
unexpectedly because someone has punched
the speaker in the face, its Avalanche Sudden.
When instead the speaker is stopped with sloppy
kisses, it’s Dripping Cloud. Not to be confused
with Dripping Cone, when someone overturns
the table, or Bird Pecking the Mountain, when
the sentence goes on for an hour and a half and ends
in a shaking death. If the speaker lies in the driveway
so drunk on cheap wine that one listening cannot
get close to the meaning and thus runs away again,
claiming, “For the last time,” it’s
Pregnant Dog
Cooked in Sun
. If the speaker sells everything for
an old convertible and drives out into the desert
with unintelligible shouting to the pissed-off stars:
Aching Stones Laughing. Forced incongruent words
are Fishes on Fire, and are beautiful but bring us
no closer to the Truth or the Cosmos or the All,
so either we tour Europe looking for the bodies
of saints or drink all night playing Johnny Cash LPs.
Everything we have said, we have said all our lives.
Same for what we haven’t said. Learning the terms
doesn’t help, we’re still filled over the rim with longing.
Already in this room there is
Clamshell Moon, Barn
House Burning, Cow Lowing the Field, One Hundred
Village Bells, Moth Flurry.
Somewhere above, a
, a Peasant Girl Crying, a
Baby Dropped Through
Smoke to Voices Shouting.
Not much further a
in Heat,
a Wailing Street, and in the end
Tree Frogs
Blazing Reeds with Sound.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Homo Floriensis

For anyone curious about the "hobbit" skeletons from Flores in Indonesia, there's a good write-up at the NY Times. It's a very mysterious problem: how did such a primitive hominid, apparently more closely related to the Australopithecenes than to Home Erectus, get to Indonesia, and are the skeletons associated with the very sophisticated stone tools found nearby?

Monday, May 4, 2009

Rainy Day

It rained Thursday night, Friday night, Saturday night, and all day Sunday, and it has been raining off and on all day today. I have been sick with a miserable cold, so the world and I have been in much the same mood. It has been cozy, but I am ready for my cold to be gone and the sun to come back out. Alas, I don't think I will be well for a few more days yet, and the five day forecast shows a good chance of rain every day.

Second Spring

One of the delights of living in this part of the world is that we have two Springs, each with its own personality and delights. First comes the spring of forsythia, daffodils, magnolias and cherry trees, with a chill in the air and the threat that a late frost might cut off the blossoms in their prime. Then, a week or so after the last cherries are gone, comes a second burst of color led by the dogwoods, azaleas, tulips, and crabapples. The threat of frost is long gone in this season, and the coming humid heat of summer can be felt on some afternoons. Second Spring was well under way in Georgetown last week when I took these pictures.

What religion doesn't do

Annoying little essay from Stanley Fish, in the form of a review of a book by Terry Eagleton, poking fun at atheists for being shallow. Atheists are shallow because they don't consider really deep questions, have a pseudo-faith in progress and science, and don't understand the beauty of the New Testament.
By theological questions, Eagleton means questions like, “Why is there anything in the first place?”, “Why what we do have is actually intelligible to us?” and “Where do our notions of explanation, regularity and intelligibility come from?” The fact that science, liberal rationalism and economic calculation can not ask — never mind answer — such questions should not be held against them, for that is not what they do.
I might quibble with the notion that items two and three on that list are not susceptible to scientific analysis, because people try all the time, but I grant that nobody has succeeded in giving a rational answer to any of them. The thing is, religion doesn't answer them, either. "The universe exists because God made it" does not answer any questions, it just changes the question to, "Why is there God and why did he make the universe?" I don't see how anything is gained by that. The substitution of one mystery for another is not understanding.

I agree with Fish and Eagleton that some atheists have a shallow faith in reason and science. But that, I say, is not a fair criticism of reason or science, but simply follows from the fact that most people are shallow. Certainly science by itself does not make a better world, just one with better medicines and bigger bombs. But Fish and Eagleton seem to have an equally peculiar faith in the transformative power of religion:
Religion, Eagleton is saying, is . . . after something else. After what? Eagleton, of course, does not tell us, except in the most general terms: “The coming kingdom of God, a condition of justice, fellowship, and self-fulfillment far beyond anything that might normally be considered possible or even desirable in the more well-heeled quarters of Oxford and Washington.” Such a condition would not be desirable in Oxford and Washington because, according to Eagleton, the inhabitants of those places are complacently in bondage to the false idols of wealth, power and progress. That is, they feel little of the tragedy and pain of the human condition, but instead “adopt some bright-eyed superstition such as the dream of untrammeled human progress” and put their baseless “trust in the efficacy of a spot of social engineering here and a dose of liberal enlightenment there.”
Whoa. Now, I grant you, modern liberal thought has moved back from trying to create paradise. Yes, we deal in partial ameliorations of the pain and injustice of life, not a transformation that would end them. That is because we deal in reality, not fantasy. The kingdom of God is a nice fantasy, but it isn't coming. We made it up, and it will never exist outside our own heads. The point of human thought and effort ought to be, it seems to me, to deal with the world as it is, not the world we imagine. To Eagleton, we reject the possibility of a perfect kingdom because we are distracted by false idols of progress and materialism. I think we reject such a possibility because it is in fact impossible.

Eagleton's annoyance with atheists is crystalized by his view of Christ's sacrifice. To Eagleton, atheists are blind to “the kind of commitment made manifest by a human being at the end of his tether, foundering in darkness, pain, and bewilderment, who nevertheless remains faithful to the promise of a transformative love.” I don't know, I always found Jesus very interesting and his story quite moving. But if you want to talk about transformation, I don't see it. Before the eighteenth century the world trundled along pretty much as it had since the invention of agriculture, with very little in the way of fundamental change. Since 1700 the world has been transformed by science, technology, capitalism and bureaucracy. Maybe not for the better, but it has actually changed a great deal. I fail to see how religion ever changed much of anything.

But the reason I wanted to write about this essay was the question of hubris. Believers and atheists are always accusing each other of excessive pride, and I think the dispute is an interesting one. Here is Eagleton, via Fish:
“The language of enlightenment has been hijacked in the name of corporate greed, the police state, a politically compromised science, and a permanent war economy,” all in the service, Eagleton contends, of an empty suburbanism that produces ever more things without any care as to whether or not the things produced have true value. And as for the vaunted triumph of liberalism, what about “the misery wreaked by racism and sexism, the sordid history of colonialism and imperialism, the generation of poverty and famine”? Only by ignoring all this and much more can the claim of human progress at the end of history be maintained: “If ever there was a pious myth and a piece of credulous superstition, it is the liberal-rationalist belief that, a few hiccups apart, we are all steadily en route to a finer world.”
So atheists are proud because they think they can solve all the worlds problems without divine aid, that they can understand the mysteries of the universe using their own minds, and that they can make up their own sources of value and meaning as they go along. But a secular humanist might respond that it is the religious who are proud, because they think that God made them in his image, giving them some special status in the scheme of the universe; that that they will live forever; that they already know the secrets of the universe, since the explanation of everything is written down in their scriptures. Setting aside the ways most people of all sorts fall short of the moral demands of their creeds, I think that what both ask is somewhat similar. Religion asks that we humble ourselves before God. And does not science, properly understood, ask us to humble ourselves before the unquestionable reality of all that is?

Saturday, May 2, 2009

An Instance of the Fingerpost

I just finished a very interesting book, An Instance of the Fingerpost by Iain Pears. I learned about the book from an old acquaintance's Facebook list of his five favorite books, which I would say shows that such exercises do sometimes have uses. Looking it up, I discovered that Iain Pears is also the author of a series of mysteries involving an art dealer, which I tried once and despised. But I found descriptions of Fingerpost so intriguing that I ordered a copy anyway. My take on Pears now is that having written Fingerpost, which must have involved a gigantic effort of research and writing, and become a noted author with a reputation he could cash in on, he decided to write some books that involved no effort at all. Hence the very thin mysteries, which I advise you to avoid.

An Instance of the Fingerpost is set in 17th-century England, and it is narrated by four 17th-century people, two of whom are real historical persons. The four narrators all describe the events surrounding the death of an Oxford fellow named Robert Grove. Each has his own ideas about what happened and why. At least three of them are wrong. One is an Italian visitor, who goes first I suppose so he could describe things about 17th-century England that no native would ever remark on. The narrators all have distinctive personalities, which are quite believable as the personalities of 17th-century people. This is very impressive but also sometimes tedious, since all these men are strongly sexist, if not downright misogynist, all look down on the lower classes, and all strike a 21st-century reader as religious fanatics. Two of them are also such jerks that sometimes I had trouble slogging through their stories. The Italian visitor is interested in medical research, and 17th-century medical research is not for the faint of heart. But their stories intersect in a marvelous and believable way. Each sees the things you imagine he would see and draws the conclusions you imagine he would draw. It must have taken an enormous amount of planning and diagramming to lay out the details of who saw what, when, leading each to his own ideas about Grove's death, and making each narrator's conclusions plausible to a reader who already knows the conclusions of others.

If a very long mystery set in 17th-century Oxford and London, involving religion, politics, and science, told from multiple points of view, sounds interesting to you, by all means find a copy of An Instance of the Fingerpost, because it is really a marvelous book.

Friday, May 1, 2009

commuting is hell

From Jonah Lehrer:
A few years ago, the Swiss economists Bruno Frey and Alois Stutzer announced the discovery of a new human foible, which they called "the commuters paradox". They found that, when people are choosing where to live, they consistently underestimate the pain of a long commute. This leads people to mistakenly believe that the McMansion in the suburbs, with its extra bedroom and sprawling lawn, will make them happier, even though it might force them to drive an additional forty-five minutes to work. It turns out, however, that traffic is torture, and the big house isn't worth it. According to the calculations of Frey and Stutzer, a person with a one-hour commute has to earn 40 percent more money to be as satisfied with life as someone who walks to the office. The reason long commutes make us so unhappy is that the flow of traffic is inherently unpredictable. As a result, we never adapt to the suffering of rush hour. (Ironically, if traffic was always bad, and not just usually bad, it would be easier to deal with.) As the Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert notes, "Driving in traffic is a different kind of hell every day."
This makes sense to me. Riding the train takes longer than driving and is expensive, but it takes almost all the stress out of my trip to Washington. Without the train I couldn't stand to travel so far every day.

And isn't it interesting that people are so bad at knowing what will make them happy? In every study we overvalue getting material things like big houses and nice cars and undervalue friendship, connection, and mental engagement.

things I have seen in the ground