Monday, November 30, 2009

The Swiss Ban Minarets

I have two reactions to the news from Switzerland, where voters approved a law that bans all new minarets. The first is that it is wrong, and the second is that everyone should have seen it coming. I think anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim sentiment in Europe is still at the bottom of a slope that has a long way to rise. I expect to see much more of far-right, anti-immigrant politicians and their parties, and I expect to see more measures like this minaret ban and the French head scarf ban. Many Europeans feel that their identities are under siege, and they are going to lash out. Their hostility is fully reciprocated by many European Muslims, who give at least verbal support to terrorists. I don't want to exaggerate; obviously no European country has yet elected a government sworn to stop immigration, and many Muslim immigrants are quite happy to be in secular Europe. But the tensions are there and they are not going away.

I don't believe that freedom of religion means the freedom to do anything one might call religious. I believe that prominent religious buildings should go through the same kind of reviews that all plans for large buildings go through in a country like Switzerland. And if there are good reasons for not building a large mosque or a tall minaret somewhere -- because it is a historic district or a scenic tourist town or what have you, I have no problem with saying no. But to ban all minarets, even from the kind of grimy industrial suburbs where most Muslim immigrants live, without imposing any similar limits on church steeples, is just legalized hate. It has no justification other than to send a message that Muslims should not get too comfortable in the country. I think it is an ominous sign that the political system in Europe is not dealing at all well with the issues raised by large numbers of immigrants, and that more, worse trouble could well be ahead.

Sunday, November 29, 2009


WHEN I read the book, the biography famous,
And is this, then, (said I,) what the author calls a man’s life?
And so will some one, when I am dead and gone, write my life?
(As if any man really knew aught of my life;
Why, even I myself, I often think, know little or nothing of my real life; 5
Only a few hints—a few diffused, faint clues and indirections,
I seek, for my own use, to trace out here.)

--Walt Whitman

Genius Beauty

I was just directed to a rather nice collection of photographs at a site called Genius Beauty: Magazine for Smart and Beautiful Women. I thought this sounded a little intriguing, but it turns out that genius beauties are, or so the editors think, interested in the same things as stupid women. The categories of articles are: Celebrity Gossip, Cosmetics, Relationships, Fashion, Health, Pregnancy, Fitness, News, and Weightloss. Yes, Weightloss is now one word.

On the flip side, Spike TV is now advertising some new show with the tag line, "Now Every Guy Can Get Some."

Dubai is a Scam

When the world's tallest building rises next to the world's largest manmade harbor and its largest manmade marina and a whole bunch of other biggests and tallests and mosts, what do you get? The vast real estate scam that is Dubai. Dubai is a huge confidence game hatched by the Emir and his cronies to enrich themselves. The financing for the Dubai boom has come mainly from Arab governments and rich Arabs, who were looking for someplace to invest their oil money. It's no surprise that as the money has dried up, the Emirate is on the brink of default.

The announced goal of the Emir is to make Dubai into a world financial center rivaling New York, London, Mumbai and Tokyo. What a great idea. It might even work, although so far by far the biggest industry in Dubai is construction, with tourism second and finanical services pretty much negligible. I mean, Los Angeles started as a real estate scam, too. But I suspect that as soon as the Saudis and Kuwaitis get tired of throwing money down the Dubai rathole, the whole vast, glittery party will whither away, leaving a bunch of huge, empty buildings in the desert.


Another member of the family displays her contempt for my writing.

Realism in Israel/Palestine

At the NY Review, a long, pessimistic article by Hussein Agha and Robert Malley on the prospects for peace in Israel/Palestine. Like me, they are not enthused about the prospects for a two-state solution any time soon, bemused that people think the problems can be solved by clever diplomatic manuevering, and interested in what they call a "Long Term Interim Solution":

As currently defined and negotiated, a conflict-ending settlement is practically unachievable; even if signed it will not be implemented and even if implemented it will not be sustained. Against this background, the idea of a long-term interim arrangement acquires some logic. Instead of a resolution that promises finality, Israelis and Palestinians could strive for an agreement that seeks to minimize risks of violence by attempting to stop some of the dispute's more inflammatory manifestations. Such an agreement could create a more positive climate and new realities that may, in time, end the conflict. Israel would withdraw from all or part of the West Bank, diminishing friction between the two peoples. Security arrangements would be put in place. More vexing questions, including final boundaries, the fate of refugees and of Jerusalem's holy sites as well as Palestinian recognition of a Jewish state, for now put on a slow track, would be taken up only after both peoples had grown accustomed to their new interaction.

The Range of Our Color

"Synecdoche" by Byron Kim, each of the 429 panels based on the skin tone of a person who sat for him. As an image I think this is kind of neat, but if you want to read a little art criticism at its most pretentious and awful check out what Blake Gopnik wrote about the new installation of this work at the National Gallery.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Deltora Quest

Ben and I just started the third of the eight original Deltora Quest books. These little books, by Emily Rodda, have been among the first beloved chapter books of all my children. I read them to Robert and Mary when he was 6 to 7 and she 5 to 6, to Thomas when he was 6 and 7, and now to Ben at the same age. They are structured like a fusion of bad dungeons and dragons with derivative fantasy: three characters adventure together through a world threatened by an evil Shadow Lord, solving puzzles, battling monsters who look scary but are beaten with ridiculous ease, and generally acting strangely. But, you know, I would rather read bad fantasy than any other sort of bad book, and these go quickly. Plus they have held the attention of all my six- and seven-year-olds through the whole series, which is something of an accomplishment. So two cheers for Emily Rodda and Deltora Quest, as I read them for the third time.

The Placid Generation

NPR reports on the newest way to talk about Japan's ambitionless young men:

The sensitive New Age man has finally arrived in the land of the salaryman. But there is a catch — a particularly important one in Japan, where the declining birthrate has caused alarm: The new Japanese man doesn't appear to be interested in women or sex.

In Tokyo on the weekends, the trendy area of Harajuku is a melting pot of urban tribes: Lolita goths bat their fake eyelashes, while the punks glower.

Away from the strutting are the retiring wallflowers, a quiet army of sweet young men with floppy hair and skinny jeans. These young men are becoming known as Japan's "herbivores" — from the Japanese phrase for "grass-eating boys" — guys who are heterosexual but who say they aren't really interested in matters of the flesh.

They are drawn to a quieter, less competitive life, focusing on family and friends — and eschewing the macho ways of the traditional Japanese male.

Decadence! See what happens when a society renounces war!

On the bright side, maybe all the Japanese women rejected by herbivores will marry some of the excess men from China and Korea.

November Roses

Blaming the Americans

The NY Times has an editorial complaining the Obama and his team have bungled the Israeli-Palestinian "Peace Process":

Nine months later, the president’s promising peace initiative has unraveled.

The Israelis have refused to stop all building. The Palestinians say that they won’t talk to the Israelis until they do, and President Mahmoud Abbas is so despondent he has threatened to quit. Arab states are refusing to do anything.

Mr. Obama’s own credibility is so diminished (his approval rating in Israel is 4 percent) that serious negotiations may be farther off than ever. . . .

Most important, they allowed the controversy to obscure the real goal: nudging Israel and the Palestinians into peace talks.
Peace talks that will accomplish exactly what? Let's see, we can convene the two sides around a table somewhere so the Israelis can offer the Palestinians a pseudo-state with no military, no control of its borders, and no airport in Gaza and maybe half of the West Bank, in return for recognition that everything else will be permanently part of Israel. The Palestinian authority, which doesn't represent even half the Palestinians, will counter that they want a full nation in all of the West Bank, including Jerusalem, and the right of any Palestinian who wants to to return to his or her pre-1947 home. What does anyone think will come of that? Even if some future Israeli government accepted those terms, how would they evict the Settlers when units of their own army have already said they won't do it?

Until people want peace and are willing to sacrifice something to get it, there is nothing to talk about. I have said before and will repeat again that I don't believe this conflict will end in my lifetime. The only things that might be accomplished in talks would be to find some ways to make the lives of Palestinians easier.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Thanksgiving in Richmond

Had a pleasant trip to my father's house for Thanksgiving dinner. Except for Robert, who slept all day, my children found ways to amuse themselves -- fortunately it was a lovely day. I saw most of my Richmond relatives and ate too much.


Robert just came in saying, "Wheelbarrow plus night vision goggles equals fun!"

Cramped in Hong Kong

A series of photographs by Michael Wolf that document people living in 100-square-foot apartments in Hong Kong.

On the Road

The best license plate I saw going to Richmond and back was
And the best bumper sticker said

Another Bit of Timeless Orwell

Via Andrew Sullivan:
The energy that actually shapes the world springs from emotions — racial pride, leader-worship, religious belief, love of war — which liberal intellectuals mechanically write off as anachronisms, and which they have usually destroyed so completely in themselves as to have lost all power of action ... He [H.G. Wells] was, and still is, quite incapable of understanding that nationalism, religious bigotry and feudal loyalty are far more powerful forces than what he himself would describe as sanity.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Giving Thanks

I sit alone in my dining room on this gray, foggy Thanksgiving morning, wrapped in silence, feeling warm and thoughtful, and pondering the things for which I feel thankful.

My thoughts turn first to my children. I have felt, from the beginning, that who my children are is almost completely beyond my control. So when I reflect that I like them and feel proud of them, I feel blessed. I enjoy their company, and they enjoy mine. It is sometimes a little annoying that I have to chase them out of my bedroom to have a little peace, but how much worse it would be if they never wanted to be with me or were afraid to jump on me. I am pleased that they seem happy, and that they all have friends who like them. I am pleased that they all have their own interests and don't seem to care what the rest of the world is into. They are all fascinating people, and the older ones show every sign of growing into fascinating adults.

I am thankful for my marriage, and that after twenty years together I still really like to be with my wife.

I am thankful for my friends, but wish they lived closer.

I am thankful for the internet.

I am thankful for the intellectual richness of the world I live in, full of books, magazines, images, essays, ideas, discoveries, and every other kind of fodder for thought and wonder.

I am thankful for November roses, and the rain that made this a green and lovely year.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Peter Callesen

I love these wonderful papercuttings.

Unmoored and Purposeless in a Vague Way

From a moderately interesting article about the boom in "boy studies" and the debate over whether boys are having some kind of crisis, I extract this from psychologist Sara Mead:
What seems to most resonate with teachers and parents is not as much the empirical evidence but this sense of boys being unmoored or purposeless in a vaguely defined way.
And this, it seems to me, puts the finger on what is wrong with our entire civilization: we are unmoored and purposeless in a vague way.

It's Tough to Be President

Reading over comments left by readers at the NY Times, I get the impression that Obama is going to disappoint everybody over Afghanistan. The liberals all say things like:
Please remove our troops from Afghanistan. This is an absolute no-win tangle that will never resolve itself. Bring our money, efforts and intentions back home and let's rebuild this country. We have jobless people wandering around broken cities with falling bridges. Put us to work to help the US for a change. Afghanistan needs to repair itself, or fail on its own. Nothing we can do will save them. This is their job.
Whereas conservatives think the whole thing is a sham and are mad that he is talking about eventually getting our troops out:
an exit strategy-- that means cut and run, right?
It seems that the word "victory" is a particular bone of contention. Conservatives are mad in advance that Obama won't use it, but people who follow the military say that Petraeus and McCrystal never use the word, for reasons having to do with counter insurgency doctrine or something -- but then maybe they don't use the word because the White House has told them not to. Who knows?

I feel sad. Not angry, because we all knew that given everything Obama has said and done, this is what would happen. Just sad that we are who we are and the world is what it is. Americans, like many people, are easily seduced by violence, angered by opposition, determined to see ourselves as right and anyone who shoots at us as wrong. We like courage and resolution, and we despise weakness. We want to stand by our friends and humble our enemies.

There is an old saying that nations get the leaders they deserve. Because Americans are who we are, we could never elect a real lover of peace as President. We set a high standard of bellicosity for anyone who would be our commander-in-chief. So we get leaders who are not reluctant to start wars and determined to win them once they have begun. We tend to think of Vietnam as a "tragedy" because we understand how we were trapped into acting as we did. Once Vietnam was divided, we had to stand by our friends and fight our enemies. There was no exit that would not humiliate us.

General Longstreet, watching Pickett lead his doomed men up Cemetery Ridge, observed to noone in particular that the charge had already been repulsed before it had even begun, but it "must continue until the last measure of honor is filled." That is the way of warriors. They do not quit, even when the mission is stupid or doomed, until honor has been served. How long that will take us in Afghanistan, I can't say. But I am sure it will be years, years marked by thousands of deaths and tens of billions squandered. Because that is the way we are.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

From the Mouths of, um, Babes?

A commenter on Ta-Nehisi Coates' blog:
Just the sheer volume of responses confirm my suspicions, the liberals are scared to death of Sara Palin because she stands for freedom, honesty, decency and motherhood. Not afraid to speak her mind and not afraid to confront critics. Her message rings true to much of America.
Speaking as a liberal terrified of freedom, honesty, decency, and especially motherhood, I quake in my socks at the thought of Sarah Palin's electoral juggernaut. Please, no, not Sarah Palin! Oh, my poor liberal heart is weak with terror! Please, wicked Republicans, please nominate somebody less scary!

A Dream Within a Dream

I stand amid the roar
Of a surf-tormented shore,
And I hold within my hand
Grains of the golden sand-
How few! yet how they creep
Through my fingers to the deep,
While I weep- while I weep!
O God! can I not grasp
Them with a tighter clasp?
O God! can I not save
One from the pitiless wave?
Is all that we see or seem
But a dream within a dream?

-- Edgar Allen Poe

Novel Oaths

My 16-year-old son is playing "Modern Warfare 2" online and getting so excited that he just shouted out, "Lactating llamas!!"

Final Word on Mammography

For anyone who really wants to explore the background to and implications of the latest breast cancer screening debate, check out the Respectful Insolence blog. This is written by an oncologist of very skeptical character. He has covered current events thoroughly in recent posts, and he also had a good series of two posts back in 2007 which explain very well the issues involved in improving the detection of early stage cancer.

He notes, among other things, that one autopsy study found that nearly 100% of 50-year-old men have thyroid cancer, but only about 0.1% of men ever develop any symptoms from the disease.

Shoot the Messenger

Amidst the uproar created by the USPSTF's decision to tell the truth about breast cancer screening, Dana Milbank of the Washington Post has a solution:
Many oncologists, no doubt, would like to send Calonge and his colleagues off to Gitmo, where they could live out their years happily denying one another cancer screenings. Luckily, Congress has a simpler solution at hand: It can abolish the task force and turn it into a group that is more accountable to the public.
Why would we want to do that? Because they reported facts that cancer activists don't want to hear? Oh, that's a great way to get the truth from your scientific advisers; fire the ones who won't toe the line.

You might think that as citizens of a world built by science, we might have some conception of its power. But, no, we happily use our hi-tech cell phones and internet connections to spout medieval conceptions of how the world works. Here is Nancy Brinker, founder of Susan G. Komen for the Cure:
What works is what we know: early detection, awareness, research and treatment, and, yes, screening, mammography and self-awareness. Let me say it as clearly as I can, as a breast cancer survivor whose breast cancer was found with a mammogram at the age of 37. . . . Mammography saves lives.
If mammography saves lives, why can't anyone count the lives saved? When something changes the material world, it is a general principle of our science that we should be able to measure the effect. Sometimes this is difficult, but not in this case. It is, after all, rather easy to count how many people are alive and how many are dead. True, scientific studies often turn out to be wrong, and you should never take any one study too seriously. But we aren't talking about one study, we are talking about an area of medicine that has been intensely studied across the world for 40 years now. What Nancy Brinker thinks, or what you think, or what I think, just doesn't matter. The numbers are clear.

If we are serious about fighting cancer, we should follow the recommendations of the task force and put the money saved into the scientific study of cellular genetics. When we really understand cancer, we will be able to stop it, but not until then.

Monday, November 23, 2009

The Anti-Federalist

That a national government will add to the dignity and increase the splendor of the United States abroad, can admit of no doubt: it is essentially requisite for both. That it will render government, and officers of government, more dignified at home is equally certain. That these objects are more suited to the manners, if not [the] genius and disposition of our people is, I fear, also true. That it is requisite in order to keep us at peace among ourselves, is doubtful. That it is necessary, to prevent foreigners from dividing us, or interfering in our government, I deny positively; and, after all, I have strong doubts whether all its advantages are not more specious than solid. We are vain, like other nations. We wish to make a noise in the world; and feel hurt that Europeans are not so attentive to America in peace, as they were to America in war. We are also, no doubt, desirous of cutting a figure in history. Should we not reflect, that quiet is happiness? That content and pomp are incompatible? I have either read or heard this truth, which the Americans should never forget: That the silence of historians is the surest record of the happiness of a people. The Swiss have been four hundred years the envy of mankind, and there is yet scarcely an history of their nation. What is history, but a disgusting and painful detail of the butcheries of conquerors, and the woeful calamities of the conquered?
--A Maryland Farmer (John Francis Mercer), 1787

Democratic Mammography Madness

Just to prove that I am an opponent of lunacy no matter its party, I mention here that leading Democrats have been behaving as stupidly over the new mammography recommendations as Republicans. The new guidelines were not even 48 hours old when my esteemed Senator, Barbara Mikulski, introduced an amendment to the pending health care bill that would require insurers to pay for mammograms for women in their 40s. Because while Republicans may be sure that the government is always trying to oppress somebody, Democrats are equally sure that insurance companies are always trying to cheat somebody. Both parties seem to think that everybody should have all the health care he or she wants, damn the expense and the potential harm, with the money to appear magically from somewhere.

Here is a typical reaction from a breast cancer lobbyist in Maryland, as quoted in the Baltimore Sun:
What people are worried about is the one case where you wouldn't catch a cancer, and that results in someone's loss of life -- and that's real.
The science that shows this would do not good is not real, I suppose.

The one intelligent thing said by anyone the Sun interviewed was that even though our diagnostic technology is not good enough now to make this work now, it is getting better all the time. True. And when it gets good enough for routine screening of women in their 40s to save lives, we can start recommending it.

The one good thing about this brouhaha is that it has probably made a lot more women aware of the USPSTF recommendation, which has been the same since the 1970s. And since all the women I know hate getting mammograms, millions of women will probably use these guidelines as an excuse to avoid getting the mammograms they dread. We will thus save a lot of money and avoid a lot of needless harm despite what the American Cancer Society and Congress say.

The Lights Went Out

Today we had Ben's seventh birthday party. The party was at Pump-It-Up, where they have two rooms full of cool inflatable slides, bouncers, and the like. Everything was going along fine, our 14 small beasts running happily amok, when the other party came stumbling out of the room next door. The power had gone out in most of the building. Now bouncing in the dark actually sounds like fun to me, but without the fans, the equipment all deflates.

What a perfect metaphor for our civilization's dependence on the electrical grid. So when it came time for us to vacate the first room -- the usual drill is you switch rooms after 45 minutes -- we made our way back to the pizza and cake room to eat lunch in the dark. This was actually pretty fun, and the kids had a great time climbing over this throne. I love the way kids can have a great time with nothing more than a foam cube, or a pile of leaves.

Strange Headlines and Sewer Problems

The NY Times is running a series of articles with the rather mysterious title, "Toxic Waters: America's Growing Pollution Problem." Mysterious because while water pollution is a major problem, it is one thing about our lives that is manifestly getting better. The rivers through our major cities used to be giant, stinking sewers that regularly caught on fire, and now they are clean enough that people want to live along them again. From New York to Oakland, waterfront areas that used to be home only to warehouses are filling with condos that have windows looking toward the water, something that was never done in the industrial age.

Today's Times piece is on the old problem that insiders call "combined sewerage overflows." The sewer systems are in our old cities are "combined," that is, sewage and rainwater runoff flow through the same pipes. So when it rains hard, too much water enters the pipes for the sewage plants to handle, and they have to let the mixture of sewage and rainwater flow untreated into the nearest river. The technology for solving this problem is rather simple: separate the sewers. This is how all new systems have been built since around 1970. But we have so many old sewer pipes running deep under all of our old cities that to do this would cost around a trillion dollars. The estimate for New York alone, according to the Times, is $58 billion. So what sewer authorities across the country are trying to do is to increase the storage capacity of their systems, so they can store the rainwater that falls in an average storm and treat it over the next several days. In Washington, DC, the plan is to tunnel a sort of ring sewer deep underground that would serve this function. But these storage devices, even if built -- the costs are in the billions -- would not hold all the water from really large storms, so some sewage overflows will continue indefinitely, and the water in the East River will never be safe for swimming. Not to mention that Americans are constantly increasing the amount of water we use in our homes, further adding to the problem.

Water pollution, whether we are talking about fertilizer runoff, sewage overflows, or synthetic hormones, is a problem we could solve whenever we feel like it. We have the technology. We just don't feel like paying for it.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Characters for an Epic Tale

A print by Tom Gauld. Click on the image to enlarge.

A Perfect Thing

Ben, hiding behind a tree with a double handful of leaves: "This ambush is going to be a perfect thing."

A Witch Bottle Analyzed

From Fortean Times, an analysis of a witch bottle found in Greenwich, England in 2004:
It probably dates from the last quarter of the 17th century, and contained 12 bent iron nails (one of which pierced a small leather heart), eight brass pins, 10 adult fingernail pairings (not from a manual worker, but a person “of some social standing”), a quantity of hair and urine with traces of nicotine, indicating it had come from a smoker. There were also traces of sulphur, then known as brimstone, and what is thought to be navel fluff. The brimstone recalled the passage in Revelation where the beast and the false prophet were “cast alive into a lake of fire burning with brimstone”.
Navel fluff? That's a new one to me. And so weird that I have a sudden urge to write magical navel fluff into my novel.

Scientific Medicine vs. Saving Lives

I have trouble understanding back surgery. All the data suggests that for most people with debilitating back pain, surgery does no more good than a week of rest followed by a program of exercise. But I have three acquaintances who are convinced that back surgery saved them from a life of pain. They all say that they felt better within a week of surgery than they had felt in years.

What's going on with that?

That was a rhetorical question, because nobody really knows the answer. We see the same thing in the debate over breast cancer exams. The data show that for women under 50, breast cancer screening does no good. But everybody knows somebody who is convinced that her life was saved by early detection of cancer, either by a mammogram or a physical exam. One of the commenters on the NY Times health blog said that she found a marble-sized lump in her breast, and that immediate treatment saved her life. The numbers, though, suggest that somehow she is wrong. Why?

Two things come to my mind. The first is that Americans do not have a sufficient appreciation of how dangerous hospitals are. The whole apparatus of medicine -- gleaming buildings, highly credentialed doctors, devoted nurses, digital machinery -- makes people feel safe. It shouldn't. Hospitals are actually very dangerous places, crawling with antibiotic-resistant bacteria, full of marginally competent people whose errors kill 100,000 Americans a year. So anything that sends people to the hospital who don't need to be there poses a real danger to our health.

The second is that we don't understand cancer nearly well as some people think. The general perception is that cancers start in one place, where a tumor grows, and then at some point spread around the body; they key to successful treatment is to remove the tumor before the spread happens. But many cancers aren't like that. Some never spread at all, no matter how big the original tumor gets. Some have already spread before the tumor reaches the size of a pinhead. Our NY Times commenter probably had a slow-growing tumor that might never have threatened her life; if she had had a dangerous tumor, it would already have spread throughout her body long before it reached the size of a marble. I heard an oncologist on NPR speaking about a drive to screen for thyroid cancer. He said that this would little good, because most thyroid cancers are not dangerous and remain operable no matter how big the tumor gets, and the dangerous ones have usually spread through the body before the tumor could be detected by any method we have.

Americans seem to think that more health care is always better, so any plan to limit the amount of care people get is evil. But they are wrong.

Nidal Hasan and the War on Terror

As Robert Wright points out in the NY Times, it is somewhat puzzling that neocon commentators like Charles Krauthammer are so determined to call Fort Hood shooter Nidal Hasan a terrorist. I suppose that they want to call Hasan a terrorist because this supports their view that we are surrounded by dangerous Muslim enemies. But I agree with Wright that if Hasan is the face of terrorism, we are fighting terrorism in the wrong way. Unbalanced Muslims who live in the west, like Hasan and the perpetrators of the 7/7 bombings in England, are not going to be deterred or defeated by waging war in Iraq and Afghanistan. On the contrary, the more wars we fight in Muslim countries and the more Muslims we kill, the more such people will be motivated to lash out with violence.

Muslim extremists don't need "safe havens" to attack the west, because thousands of them already live here. All they need is a gun or a homemade bomb. Defeating the Taliban will have no effect on them, except perhaps to make them more determined to strike. The crushing defeat the North inflicted on the South didn't deter John Wilkes Booth. The way to prevent acts like Major Hasan's is to stop killing Muslims abroad and treat them well at home.

Poverty, Aid, and Culture

Nick Kristof has a column today about some of the issues surrounding aid to poor countries, which is intelligent but, I think, unwise. He notes that some kinds of aid work very well but others do not.
For example, the number of children dying each year before the age of 5 has dropped by three million worldwide since 1990, largely because of foreign aid. Yes, aid often fails — but more than balancing the failures is quite a triumph: one child’s life saved every 11 seconds.
Reading through Kristof's cases, it seems to me that a general rule emerges: medical aid works, education aid sometimes works, but aid intended to promote economic growth doesn't work. Aid thus feeds into the Malthusian trap that keeps poor people poor. Africa has actually seen a lot of economic growth since 1960, mainly because of mining, oil, and improvements in agriculture (the "green revolution"), but because population growth has been even more rapid, the result is that poor Africans are worse off than before.

In the contemporary west, population growth has slowed because although we have low death rates we also have very low birth rates. Those low birth rates seem to arrive when societies make the transition from rural, peasant economies to urban, commercial and industrial economies. Across east Asia and South America this transition has been working just as it did in Europe and North America, and birth rates in China and Brazil are lower than they are in the US. But this isn't happening in Africa or much of the Arabic-speaking Middle East.

Why not? It seems to me that to describe the transition from a peasant society to an urban commercial society as "economic" is to miss most of what happens. The difference between peasant farmers and modern urbanites is cultural. We think and act in different ways and have different expectations. Those countries that have modernized rapidly are those that have embraced the cultural side of modernity. The template for such a cultural revolution was set in Japan in the 1860s. Japan's leaders, humiliated by the military superiority of western nations, dismantled their country's traditional institutions, took up western dress and habits, and relegated Japanese ways to harmless bits of heritage.

In Africa and the Middle East there is a huge resistance to adopting western ways and values. So long as that is the case, there will be no economic revolution. Because being rich according to western norms requires living like western people. In this sense, the whole notion of "economic development" is a western construct that really means "people should act like we do." Of course, many people in the world do want to live like Europeans and Americans. But many don't. They want to continue their peasant ways, but somehow to be made richer by economic magic. It can't happen, and even if it did the gains would be wiped out in a generation by population growth. Which is why Kristof's approach to aid, though warm hearted, is ultimately dubious. The sad fact is that without cultural transformation, more children surviving means more poverty for everyone. In Asia we are seeing that population growth can be a factor driving people toward modernity, as they move to cities, take jobs, and need to limit the size of their families lest their overflow their cramped urban apartments. We don't see this happening in Africa. I think we are not because the cultural gap is too wide to be bridged in a single generation. So my forecast for the future of Africa is more misery, more violence, and more hunger, no matter how much aid or what kind we choose to give.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

A Brief History of the Fear of Breast Cancer

Great article by Robert Aronowitz that puts the current flap over mammograms in perspective.

THE United States Preventive Services Task Force’s recommendation this week that women begin regular breast cancer screening at age 50 rather than 40 is really nothing new. It’s almost identical to the position the group held in the 1990s.

Nor is the controversy that has flared since the announcement something new. It’s the same debate that’s gone on in medicine since 1971, when the very first large-scale, randomized trial of screening mammography found that it saved the lives only of women aged 50 or older. Despite the evidence, doctors continued to screen women in their 40s.

Again in 1977, after an official of the National Cancer Institute voiced concern that women in their 40s were getting too much radiation from unnecessary screening, the National Institutes of Health held a consensus conference on mammography, which concluded that most women should wait until they’re 50 to have regular screenings.

Why do we keep coming around to the same advice — but never comfortably follow it? The answer is far older than mammography itself. It dates to the late 19th century, when society was becoming increasingly disappointed, pessimistic and fearful over the lack of medical progress against cancer. . . . .

Emma Sky and the American Military

Interesting profile today in the NY Times of Emma Sky. Sky is a British foreign service officer who has become the right hand of Gen. Raymond Odierno, the top American in Iraq. She is from a left-wing background and opposed the war -- reporter Thomas Ricks called her a "tree hugger" -- but she speaks Arabic, has logged more time on the ground in Iraq than any American soldier, and has put her expertise to work helping to maintain order in Iraq and get the Americans and British out. It is uplifting to see a person who is actually working to end evils she hates, even if it means working side-by-side with people she totally disagrees with.

Sky has been from the beginning a critic of our habit of trying to defeat insurgents from the air, with attendant "collateral damage."
During the troop buildup in 2007 known as the surge, she said that attacks on insurgents that also resulted in civilian casualties were tantamount to “mass murder.”

“When you drop a bomb from the air and it lands on a village and kills all those people and you turn around and say, ‘Oh we didn’t mean to kill the civilians,’ well, who did you think was living in the village?” she said.

When the Americans realized that killing Iraqis would never solve anything and switched to their counter-insurgency strategy, they began to pay a lot more attention to people like Sky. Odierno:

Emma was able to give me a completely different perspective: it was from an Iraqi viewpoint. We didn’t have a lot of experience in doing these things, so someone with her background and knowledge was able to assist us as to how we could best help civilians.

It's quite a story, and one comes away from it feeling better about a species that includes people like Emma Sky.

Another impression one gets from these stories is what a serious institution the US military is. Sky herself told Thomas Ricks that "America doesn't deserve its military." What she means, I think, is that while American politicians and pundits like to bluster about toughness, and most American civilians don't care a fig about the rest of the world, American generals are focused on solving problems, and American soldiers are genuinely willing to die defending abstractions like freedom. When the invasion of Iraq began, Bush, Rumsfeld and company were blithely dismissive of the future; it was Gen. Petraeus who famously turned to a reporter and said, "Tell me how this ends." It was Gen. Stanley McChrystal, our current commander in Afghanistan, who ordered an end to airstrikes and all other attacks on populated areas that might kill civilians. It is our military officers who have shown a real ability to learn from their mistakes, and who see the limits of what force can accomplish.

That doesn't mean the generals are right about everything. I think at the moment they are far too optimistic about Afghanistan, although I certainly understand why; who wants to send soldiers to die in a war he thinks he can't win? They are focused on the mission, so when somebody tells them to defeat the Taliban, they devote all their energies to defeating the Taliban, not to wondering whether a bunch of tribesmen with AK-47s are worth the thousands of lives and hundreds of billions of dollars that would really take. But it is clear to me that the trillions of dollars we spend on our military have bought a very impressive and powerful thing, one that can do amazing things. But it still remains to us to decide what those things should be.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Hoag's Object

Zdzislaw Beksinki

An interesting collection of sci-fi and fantastic art.

Megafauna, Fungus, and the First North Americans

Very interesting study published today in Science by Jacquelyn Gill et al. They studied lake bottom sediments from Indiana and New York, looking for spores of the fungus Sporormiella. Sporormiella grows in animal dung, especially big piles, so its presence is a marker of the presence of large herbivores like elephants. They were trying to find out when the "megafauna" of North America went extinct, that is, mammoths, mastodons, giant ground sloths, giant beavers (the size of black bears) and the like.

Their conclusion is that those animals began to decline in numbers around 14,800 years ago, more than a thousand years before the appearance of the Clovis hunters who are the first certain human occupants of North America. The final extinction of the megafauna happened around 13,300 to 12,900 years ago, during the Clovis culture. These dates rule out the supposed comet impact of 12,900 years ago as the cause of the extinction, as well as the rapid climate fluctuations of the centuries around that time.

The interpretation offered is that humans were present in the Americas by 14,800 years ago, and that the Clovis big game hunters with their huge spear points represent an adaptation to the decline of large animals, that is, once the animals became rare, it was necessary to develop more sophisticated technology and a more focused adaptation to hunt them.

This is a fascinating piece of data, but it seems a lot to hang on one well-studied Indiana lake and a few other samples. Their argument only holds if the pattern is the same across diverse North American environments. But we already have data on Sporormiella frequencies in several western lakes, and they show a different pattern, with a dramatic decline around 12, 900 years ago. From what I can tell, that western data is not as precisely dated as the new material, but it certainly suggests that the picture for North America as a whole is different from the picture in Angel Lake. So I will file this under "important if confirmed."

Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Stories of Ex-Jihadis

Amazing long article by Jonathan Hari on British former Islamist fanatics who have now turned against their old beliefs. A few samples:
To my surprise, the ex-jihadis said their rage about Western foreign policy – which was real, and burning – emerged only after their identity crises, and as a result of it. They identified with the story of oppressed Muslims abroad because it seemed to mirror the oppressive disorientation they felt in their own minds. Usman Raja, a bluff, buff boxer who begged to become a suicide bomber in the mid-1990s, tells me: "Your inner life is chaotic and you feel under threat the whole time. And then you're told by Islamists that life for Muslims everywhere is chaotic and under threat. It becomes bigger than you. It's about the world – and that's an amazing relief. The answer isn't inside your confused self. It's out there in the world.". . .
He says the [Islamist] message is particularly comforting to disorientated young Muslims in the West. "It tells you – you're in this state of sin. But the sin doesn't belong to you, it's not your fault – it's Western society's fault. It isn't your fault that you're sinning, because the girl had the miniskirt on. It wasn't you. It's not your fault that you're drug dealing. The music, your peers, the people around you – it's their fault."

Twilight and the Crisis of Adolescence

In my house we are fans of Joss Whedon, but we have always been puzzled by his obsession with high school. The first three seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer are half about battling evil and half about the trauma of being high school outcasts. Whedon, along with John Hughes and various other authors and film makers, seems to regard high school as the most important, the most vibrant, the most fully lived part of modern life. To them, or so it seems to me, high school was both acutely painful and amazingly wonderful because everything meant more and everything was felt more powerfully. To be excluded from the right clique was agony; to be kissed by the right girl was heaven.

I was reminded of this because there is an amusing piece by Monica Hesse in the Washington Post today about women who wanted to hate Twilight but found themselves unable to resist it:

In "Twilight," Edward Cullen waffled between wooing and eating new girl Bella Swan. He chose love. In "New Moon," the darkest installment of the series, Edward becomes convinced that his girlfriend would be safer without him, so he dumps her in order to protect her and then vanishes. Bella, catatonic from the pain, finds solace in Jacob Black, the devoted friend who has just learned he is a werewolf, and their relationship grows deeper, and this description is utterly, utterly useless because none of it gets at what the "Twilight" series is actually about, which is being 17.

It's a time capsule to the breathless period when the world could literally end depending on whether your lab partner touched your hand, when every conversation was so agonizing and so thrilling (and the border between the two emotions was so thin), and your heart was bigger and more delicate than it is now, and everything was just so much more.

I suppose the great advantage of having had a boring, mainly miserable high school experience is that I never miss it. I do recall how acutely I felt some things, mainly embarrassment and anxiety, but I certainly don't think that my feelings then were more powerful than the ones I have as an adult. Looking back, my adolescent loves seem mainly silly to me, based on hormones rather than understanding another person. My ambitions seem trite, my fantasies pathetic. The main things I felt in high school were boredom, restlessness, a strong desire to be somewhere else, and a vast, quiet arrogance that told me I was better than everything around me and destined for greater things. Compared to things I have felt as an adult -- compared to marrying, to holding my babies, to forming lasting friendships, to achieving real understanding of little bits of the world, to planting trees and watching them grow -- what I felt in high school seems dim or trivial.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Darkling Words

From Dark Passage, a sign in the autopsy room of an abandoned New York mental hospital.

The complete message is,
Let Conversation
Cease. Let Laughter
Flee. This is the Place
Where Death Delights
To Help the Living.
This seems to be a common line among medical examiners and forensic specialists, old enough to have been originally written in Latin:

Taceant colloquia. Effugiat risus. Hic locus est ubi mors gaudet succurrere vitae.

But I can't determine the source.

Experts Suck

Jonah Lehrer:

Look, for instance, at mutual fund managers. They take absurdly huge fees from our retirement savings, but the vast majority of mutual funds in any given year will underperform the S&P 500 and other passive benchmarks. . . .

Or look at political experts. In the early 1980s, Philip Tetlock at UC Berkeley picked two hundred and eighty-four people who made their living "commenting or offering advice on political and economic trends" and began asking them to make predictions about future events. He had a long list of pertinent questions. Would George Bush be re-elected? Would there be a peaceful end to apartheid in South Africa? Would Quebec secede from Canada? Would the dot-com bubble burst? In each case, the pundits were asked to rate the probability of several possible outcomes. Tetlock then interrogated the pundits about their thought process, so that he could better understand how they made up their minds. By the end of the study, Tetlock had quantified 82,361 different predictions.

After Tetlock tallied up the data, the predictive failures of the pundits became obvious. . . . Most of Tetlock's questions had three possible answers; the pundits, on average, selected the right answer less than 33 percent of the time. In other words, a dart-throwing chimp would have beaten the vast majority of professionals. Tetlock also found that the most famous pundits in Tetlock's study tended to be the least accurate, consistently churning out overblown and overconfident forecasts. Eminence was a handicap.

But here's the worst part: even terrible expert advice can reliably tamp down activity in brain regions (like the anterior cingulate cortex) that are supposed to monitor mistakes and errors. It's as if the brain is intimidated by credentials, bullied by bravado. The perverse result is that we fail to skeptically check the very people making mistakes with our money. I think one of the core challenges in fixing our economy is to make sure we design incentive systems to reward real expertise, and not faux-experts with no track record of success. We need to fund scientists, not mutual fund managers.

The Weird Science of Breast Self Exams

The less noticed part of the new guidelines for breast cancer screening is this little item:
The USPSTF recommends against teaching breast self-examination (BSE).
Now why would that be? Doesn't it make sense that finding lumps would help in the diagnosis and treatment of cancer? Even oncologists are confused about this one.

But the bottom line is that studies have found no health benefit at all from self exams. None. Zero. Asked why, the statisticians can only roll out the usual explanatory suspects: the high false positive rate leads to so much stress and so many unnecessary procedures that this outweighs the very few treatable but dangerous cancers found in this way. But nobody really knows.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Can't Get No Respect

No matter how many times the Pakistani Taliban claim credit for bombings in the country, many Pakistanis refuse to believe them. Mastafa Qadri in the Guardian:

Although the Taliban have openly claimed responsibility for the recent epidemic of suicide bombings against civilian targets in Peshawar and Islamabad, many Pakistanis appear convinced that the real culprits are India or the United States.

"These are India's agents," an anti-narcotics bureaucrat tells me in Islamabad with a confident grin. With its operatives active in a string of Indian consulates along the Pak-Afghan border, so goes the popular claim, they direct New Delhi's latest attempt to topple the Islamic Republic. It is a common refrain in Pakistan. In fact, so common, that almost everyone I venture to ask blames the Indians, or Americans, or foreigners for the terrorism.

Israel also gets blamed a lot.

Roman vs. Modern Engineering

For 1800 years the water from the hot springs in Bath, England was carried to the River Avon through a drain built by the Romans. In the 1960s, an extension was built after some marshes along the river were filled in. Two years ago the modern extension collapsed and had to be rebuilt. Now the rebuilt section is backing up, and a major overhaul is required.

Still no troubles with the Roman part of the drain.

Genetics and the Indo-European Problem

That most Europeans, Iranians, and people of northern India speak Indo-European languages is one of those elephant in the room sort of facts. When the connections between these languages were first discovered, 19th-century historians imagined a wave of battle-ax wielding barbarians emerging from the Ukrainian steppe around 2500 BC and sweeping down on the unsuspecting peaceful farmers of Eurasia, killing or enslaving them and imposing their languages across the continent. Unfortunately for this theory, there is next to no archaeological evidence for such people or their invasions. To make matters worse, the theory became the pet historical model of various European racists and imperialists, and it was of course beloved of the Nazis. Embarassed, intellectuals looked away from the elephant. (Ignore it. Maybe it will go away.)

But the elephant stubbornly refuses to go away. The latest attempt to make it disappear was the idea, associated with British archaeologist Colin Renfrew, that Indo-European languages emerged from Asia Minor and spread with farming. There was certainly good archaelogical evidence for the spread of farming from the Middle East into Europe, and the fulminations 0f linguists who said that the history of the languages could not be made to fit this model were largely ignored. The Indo-European farmers model has now been widely enough accepted to be written into textbooks. It fits the prevailing archaeological ethos of the post-Nazi twentieth century, which emphasized local development and peaceful, gradual change, not invasion, conquest, or revolution.

Now we have a new kind of data, genetic material from both modern populations and prehistoric skeletons. Archaeologists went to this data looking for the answer to a question that emerges naturally from their model of the past: how many of Europe's first farmers were immigrants from the Middle East, and how many were native hunter-gatherers who took up farming? And, as a corrollary, are more modern Europeans descended from immigrant farmers or native hunter gatherers? It was quickly established that most of the first farmers were immigrants, and that the native hunter-gatherers have few modern descendants.

But, as it turns out, modern Europeans are also not descended from those first European farmers. Puzzled expressions all around:

Now, a team from Mainz University in Germany, together with researchers from UCL (University College London) and Cambridge, have found that the first farmers in central and northern Europe could not have been the descendents of the hunter-gatherers that came before them. But what is even more surprising, they also found that modern Europeans couldn't solely be the descendents of either the hunter-gatherer alone, or the first farmers alone, and are unlikely to be a mixture of just those two groups.

"This is really odd", said Professor Mark Thomas, a population geneticist at UCL and co-author of the study. "For more than a century the debate has centered around how much we are the descendents of European hunter-gatherers and how much we are the descendents of Europe's early farmers. For the first time we are now able to directly compare the genes of these Stone Age Europeans, and what we find is that some DNA types just aren't there - despite being common in Europeans today."

At this point the bemused observer points to the elephant in the corner: what about Indo-European invaders? Could those mysterious genes maybe have arrived with the languages? "What elephant?" say the archaeologists. "I don't see any elephant. But what a puzzle this is!"

Meanwhile, in India, nationalist historians have been vehemently insisting that their Indo-European languages are native, so if there has been any migration it must have started in India and moved west into Asia. That this is archaeologically and linguistically absurd does not seem to bother them. Evidence that India contains two genetically distinct populations, one in the south related to Australians and one in the north related to west Asians and Europeans, has been ascribed by them to waves of settlement that arrived from Africa at least 40,000 years ago. (Elephant? What elephant? That is only a statue of Ganesh, our beloved native deity!)

I don't mean to say that the problem has any simple answer. As I said, the model that makes the most linguistic sense -- waves of people emerging from the steppes and spreading east and west -- almost completely lacks archaeological confirmation. But that does not banish the elephant. The languages are themselves historical data of the highest importance, and they speak eloquently of migrations and connections, not local developments. The genetic data ads to the picture, and it again speaks of migrations and connections. Who the people who moved were, and what they carried with them, we do not know, but I believe their existence is as certain as any fact about events of 4,000 years ago ever can be.

A Tiny Glimpse into the Indus Valley Civilization

The Indus Valley civilization is the least known of the world's great bronze age cultures, because we can't read their writing. Everything about it is disputed, even whether it is writing at all in the full sense. Now Bryan Wells, an expert on the Indus Valley script, has announced what passes in this context for a breakthrough: good evidence that lines scratched on some Indus Valley pots really are numbers representing the volume of the pot or the number of objects stored inside.
The Indus civilisation had a volumetric system with inscriptions on ceramic vessels (glazed pots from Harappa) indicating that the sign ‘V’ stood for a measure, a long linear stroke equalled 10, two long strokes stood for 20 and a short stroke represented one, according to Bryan Wells, who has been researching the Indus script for more than 20 years.
I find it interesting that the unit of volume works out to about 9.24 liters, about a peck, a measure derived from the size of small baskets used to carry grain.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Engineering Less Troublesome Men

From Science Daily. "Phthalates" are chemicals that can mimic female sex hormones:
A study of 145 preschool children reports, for the first time, that when the concentrations of two common phthalates in mothers' prenatal urine are elevated their sons are less likely to play with male-typical toys and games, such as trucks and play fighting. . . .

Because testosterone produces the masculine brain, researchers are concerned that fetal exposure to anti-androgens such as phthalates -- which are pervasive in the environment -- has the potential to alter masculine brain development, said lead author Shanna H. Swan, Ph.D., professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology, director of the URMC Center for Reproductive Epidemiology, and an expert in phthalates.

"Our results need to be confirmed, but are intriguing on several fronts," Swan said. "Not only are they consistent with our prior findings that link phthalates to altered male genital development, but they also are compatible with current knowledge about how hormones mold sex differences in the brain, and thus behavior. We have more work to do, but the implications are potentially profound."

Phthalates are chemicals used to soften plastics. Recent studies have shown that the major source of human exposure to the two phthalates of most concern (DEHP and DBP) is through food. These phthalates are used primarily in polyvinyl chloride (PVC), so any steps in the processing, packaging, storage, or heating of food that use PVC-containing products can introduce them into the food chain.

I can't believe that this hasn't been taken up by Fox News as proof of Obama's conspiracy to turn us into a nation of sensitive wimps who love socialized medicine and cower before terrorists.

I'm Raising them Right

My eldest son just joined a Facebook group called "I'm going to wake up on December 21, 2012 and shout BRING IT!"

A Chimney Fall

I was in the woods down at Quantico today, looking for, among other things, an old house site said to be marked by a standing three-story brick chimney. I thought this would be simple enough; what kind of archaeologist are you if you can't find a site with a three-story brick chimney standing in the middle? It turned out to be a little harder than I expected. The woods were dense, and on our first walk through the study area we didn't see a thing. So I kept looking. After about an hour I found a little private graveyard with plain fieldstone markers, a common enough sight in the Virginia woods. Exploring around the graveyard I found an old road trace, and I simply followed the trace a hundred yards through the woods until I stumbled upon the chimney. It had fallen down, which explains why it was hard to spot. Along the way I spooked a great horned owl, which flew up from a branch only five feet above my head.

Who Owns the Past?

I am completely unimpressed by the claims of countries to own all the ancient artifacts excavated from their soil.

For one thing, I dispute that there is necessarily any meaningful continuity between the current owners of a tract of land and the people who actually made the objects in question. What right does modern Turkey have to the relics of ancient Greeks, whose descendants the Turks drove out of the country in 1923? When Ephesus was a great city, the Turks were nomads roaming central Asia; to me they have a better claim to the treasures of Samarkand than they have to the Hagia Sophia. Even in a simpler case, like in Italy, I deny that the average Italian has a more meaningful connection to the ancient Romans than I do. And who among us has any meaningful connection to Paleolithic cave artists?

What about Greek statues stolen by the Romans that happen to be excavated in Rome? Hordes of Viking silver found in Norway, most of it no doubt looted from British or Irish monasteries? Or even Greek vases excavated from Etruscan tombs? True, the Etruscans bought them, but then the Metropolitan museum paid a lot for the Euphronios crater. Why does that purchase by the Etruscans matter more than the one by the Met?

This is in the news again because the Egyptians are trying to get the Rosetta Stone returned to Egypt. But what connection does a modern, Arabic-speaking Egyptian have to the Greek-speaking rulers of Hellenistic Egypt? Just the accident of geography, as far as I am concerned. I understand that in a world of nation states, any protection of archaeological sites has to be provided by nations, and that export controls can help to curtail looting. But to me that has no relevance to objects dug up centuries ago.

The spread of art and artifacts around the world serves a real purpose: it spreads the appreciation and enjoyment of diverse cultures. My 15-year-old daughter just went to the Metropolitan in New York and came back full of enthusiasm for studying Egypt and Rome. If the Egyptian and Italian governments have their way, she would have to fly to Europe and Africa to have those experiences, which means that she would likely never have them, and her enthusiasm for the past would still lie unawakened. The result of nationalizing the past is the narrowing of human interests.

I believe the past of the world belongs to all of us. I recognize that certain objects may be strongly associated with certain nations or peoples, like the Star Bangled Banner with the US, Chin Shih Huang Ti's tomb with China, or sacred medicine bundles with Indian tribes. I can accept that a few objects closely associated with a National narrative may be in some sense national property. But the rest, I assert, truly belongs to humanity.

K. Anthony Appiah recently wrote a book advancing the kind of arguments I am making here, and now James Cuno of the Art Institute of Chicago has written another. Cuno points out that many of the most protectionist countries have artistic traditions that relied very heavily on foreign examples: "imagine the Renaissance without the influence of looted Greek antiquities." He writes, and I completely agree:
It is in the nature of our species to connect and exchange. And the result is a common culture in which we all have a stake. It is not, and can never be, the property of one modern nation or another.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Andre Jordan

Draws strange postcards.

Faith Healing for Children

Jonathan Turley has an angry column today complaining that when children die for lack of medical care, parents who withhold care for religious reasons are treated more leniently by the courts than those who offer other excuses:

This disparate treatment was evident last month in Wisconsin, a state with an exemption for faith-based neglect under its child abuse laws. Leilani and Dale Neumann were sentenced for allowing their 11-year-old daughter, Madeline Kara Neumann, to die in 2008 from an undiagnosed but treatable form of diabetes. The Neumanns are affiliated with a faith-healing church called Unleavened Bread Ministries and continued to pray with other members while Madeline died. They could have received 25 years in prison. Instead, the court emphasized their religious rationale and gave them each six months in jail (to be served one month a year) and 10 years' probation.

During their sentencing, Marathon County Circuit Court Judge Vincent Howard said the Neumanns are "very good people raising their family who made a bad decision, a reckless decision." He then gently encouraged them to remember that "God probably works through other people, some of them doctors."

I have no sympathy for these lunatic parents, but neither am I much interested in seeing more prosecutions for parental neglect. Denying life-saving care to children is already a crime; what is gained by sending these parents to jail for 25 years instead of six months? Does anyone think that would put an end to faith-healing cults?

My reaction to all of this is colored by general horror I feel about the interference of the state in family life. The power to take a child from its parents is one of the most awesome and frightening powers of the state, on par with the power to wage war. I think we should be very careful how we use it. The standard of proof involved should be the same as the standard for conviction of a serious crime, or commitment of an adult to a psychiatric institution. Sometimes leaving children with unfit parents is a price we simply have to pay for freedom.

Advocates of more government involvement in family medical care, like Turley, dwell on cases where the diagnosis seems clear and the child's condition is treatable. But that isn't always the case. Doctors make mistakes all the time, and sometimes there are real questions about what kind of care should be given, or whether we should give any care at all. I don't have enough faith in the medical system to hand over decisions about health care to doctors or hospital administrators.

What about a case in which a child has a disease that is 90% likely to be fatal no matter what doctors do? Can parents decide that the child should die at home instead of spending his or her last months in the hospital?

Can the parents of deaf children be forced to get them cochlear implants? Can the parents of obese children be forced to put them on low calorie diets?

I am dealing in hypotheticals, I know, but I just want to lay out the kind of scenarios that give me nightmares. The assumption has to be that the parents are the best judges of the interests of the child, until their unfitness has been proved beyond a reasonable doubt.

The Dunhuang Star Atlas

This amazing document, accurately charting the positions of more than 1300 stars and 257 Chinese constellations, was written in the seventh century and found in 1907 in the Silk Road city of Dunhuang.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Van Gogh's Drawings

I often like the drawings of famous artists at least as much as their paintings. I am not sure why; perhaps the roughness and the unfinished quality of the drawings appeals to me, or perhaps I have gotten sated with the paintings from 40 years of exposure. For whatever reason, I was delighted to find this huge gallery of Van Gogh's drawings, posted by the Van Gogh museum. They cover a wide range of subjects across his whole career.

A Vampire Burial

From Archaeology Magazine, a wonderful find in Italy: in a mass grave of plague victims, a skeleton with a brick stuffed into its mouth. This was done to keep vampires from eating their way out of the ground and emerging to torment the living.
The vampires thought to be chewing through their shrouds were sometimes referred to as the nachtzehrer (a German term meaning "night-waster"). The superstition was born among the Kashubes of north-central Poland and goes back to the 13th century in Bohemia and Moravia. It then spread around all Europe during the seventeenth century. The nachtzehrer is a dead body kept in a kind of liminal life by supernatural forces or Satan. A "scientific" overview of them was offered by Protestant theologian Philippus Rohr at the University of Lipsia in 1679, under the title Dissertatio historico-philosophica de masticatione mortuorum. The text describes some distinctive habits of this revenant: the nachtzehrer usually eats the cloth or funerary shroud in which it is wrapped, and its chewing causes noises similar to a pig while it is eating. As it chews through the shroud, it is just in a larval stage. When it becomes stronger, it can even leave its grave to become a real, "traditional" vampire.

Epidemic diseases, generally plague, were believed to be a result of the nachtzehrer's chewing. In a sort of inverse food chain, plague both decimated the population and supported the growth of vampires.

Malachy and Wikipedia

From a cute column by Gail Collins about the latest apocalypse brouhaha, I discovered the prophecy of Bishop Malachy. This purports to be a list, authored in 1139, of the 112 popes who who would reign between then and the end of the world. By one count, Benedict is number 111, under the title "Glory of Olives."

Intrigued, I googled friend Malachy and was led to a really excellent Wikipedia article. The article explains that the prophecy first appeared in 1595 and has that quality so telling of prophecies foisted on ancestors: it makes sense down to 1595 but is increasingly wild and vague thereafter. The article includes a huge table listing all of the popes since 1139, with the corresponding line from the prophecy, the explanation for the link offered by prophecy believers, and even a picture of the pope's coat of arms, since many of the links refer to images in those arms. Clearly put together by a real expert on the subject. Such an expert, indeed that the article carries a dire warning from the editors: THIS ARTICLE MAY CONTAIN ORIGINAL RESEARCH.

From time to time I think that I really ought to get more involved in wiki-editing on subjects I know a lot about, like Edward II and the witchcraft persecutions. I mean, wikipedia is now the world's most important reference source, perhaps its most important body of knowledge. But, honestly, the articles on witchcraft and Edward II are already ok, and I have never mustered the energy to think of how to improve them.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Beelitz Heilst├Ątten

From Opacity, the urban ruins site, a gallery of photographs of an abandoned German mental hospital.

Rodrigo y Gabriela

Two amazing guitar players.

James Nachtwey

Amazing collection of images by a photographer drawn toward trouble. Some are pretty horrible. Above, a relic of the war in Nicaragua becomes a piece of playground equipment. Below, a refugee returns to her home in Kosovo to help with the harvest.

Climate Change Can Happen Fast

From New Scientist:

Around 12,800 years ago the northern hemisphere was hit by the Younger Dryas mini ice age, or "Big Freeze"[which] lasted around 1300 years.

Until now, it was thought that the mini ice age took a decade or so to take hold, on the evidence provided by Greenland ice cores. Not so, say William Patterson of the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon, Canada, and his colleagues.

The group studied a mud core from an ancient lake, Lough Monreagh, in western Ireland. Using a scalpel they sliced off layers 0.5 to 1 millimetre thick, each representing up to three months of time. No other measurements from the period have approached this level of detail.

Carbon isotopes in each slice revealed how productive the lake was and oxygen isotopes gave a picture of temperature and rainfall. They show that at the start of the Big Freeze, temperatures plummeted and lake productivity stopped within months, or a year at most. "It would be like taking Ireland today and moving it up to Svalbard" in the Arctic, says Patterson.

Nobody knows what caused the Younger Dryas; the new theory that it was caused by the impact of a comet is not holding up very well. The older theory that it began when a massive glacial lake covering most of northwestern Canada burst its banks and flowed into the north Atlantic has never convinced a lot of people. But we do know that it both began and ended very quickly.

The Grant Memorial

A review of a new book about monumental Washington reminded me of my favorite heroic sculpture, Henry Shrady's statue of U.S. Grant in front on the Capitol.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Galaxies Collide

Hubble photograph; click for a larger image.

The Wicker Husband

Wonderful little fable by Ursula Wills-Jones which begins like this:
Once upon a time, there was an ugly girl. She was short and dumpy, had one leg a bit shorter than the other, and her eyebrows met in the middle. The ugly girl gutted fish for a living, so her hands smelt funny and her dress was covered in scales. She had no mother or brother, no father, sister, or any friends. She lived in a ramshackle house on the outskirts of the village, and she never complained.
One by one, the village girls married the local lads, and up the path to the church they'd prance, smiling all the way. At the weddings, the ugly girl always stood at the back of the church, smelling slightly of brine. The village women gossiped about the ugly girl. They wondered what she did with the money she earnt. The ugly girl never bought a new frock, never made repairs to the house, and never drank in the village tavern.
Now, it so happened that outside the village, in a great damp swamp, lived an old basket-maker who was famed for the quality of his work. One day the old basket-maker heard a knock on his door. When he opened it, the ugly girl stood there. In her hand, she held six gold coins.
'I want you to make me a husband,' she said.
'Come back in a month,' he replied.

The House of Lords

Something about this debate gets me:
Lord Ashley of Stoke: Does my noble friend agree that this is a no-win situation, whichever way the Government turn? We cannot advocate noisy vehicles because of the environment and yet blind people and deaf people really are vulnerable to silent vehicles. The only realistic solution is to raise the awareness of the public and drivers.

Lord Adonis [for the government]: My Lords, as a Minister now for four and a half years, I am used to being in no-win situations. My perpetual quest is for the happy medium.

Lord Jenkin of Roding: My Lords, I declare an interest as a former member of the council of Guide Dogs for the Blind. I think that the Question could go a little wider. Cyclists are completely inaudible and frequently ride on pavements. Whether one is visually handicapped or not, they constitute a real peril to pedestrians. I think, if I may say so, that something ought to be done.

Lord Adonis: My Lords, cyclists should obey the law, like everyone else.

Lord McColl of Dulwich: My Lords, does the Minister accept that there might be a simpler solution? When I purchased one of these cars a few years ago, my wife, being very practical, said that the answer would be to put on the front of the car a small Swiss cowbell.

Lord Adonis: My Lords, I think this is England. Whether such Swiss innovations would go down well here is a matter for conjecture. We have nine months for a wide-scale public debate. I shall ensure that the noble Lord’s suggestion features prominently in that debate.

Lord Grenfell: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord McColl, has suggested that a cowbell may be the answer. Does the Minister agree that, from the position from which I am speaking, maybe a man with a red flag walking in front of the car would be better?

Lord Adonis: Your Lordships are full of such useful suggestions this afternoon. I believe it was Herbert Morrison who lifted the speed limit above 20 miles per hour, which it was until the 1920s in this country. That is where it had got to after people had ceased to be required to carry red flags before cars. I do not believe, though, that the future always lies in reinventing the past.