Saturday, January 30, 2010

The Romans Had Them First

The Swiss Army did not invent the folding multi-purpose tool. This Roman contraption, dating to around 200 AD, included a knife blade (the rusted thing), a spoon, a fork, a toothpick, a small spike, and that little hooked blade, which may have been for getting cooking oil out of small bottles.

Teacher Quality is the Only Thing

Big stories this month in both the Atlantic and the New Yorker about new research showing that the quality of teachers makes a huge difference in how much students learn. Here is Malcolm Gladwell's piece in the New Yorker:

Eric Hanushek, an economist at Stanford, estimates that the students of a very bad teacher will learn, on average, half a year’s worth of material in one school year. The students in the class of a very good teacher will learn a year and a half’s worth of material. That difference amounts to a year’s worth of learning in a single year. Teacher effects dwarf school effects: your child is actually better off in a “bad” school with an excellent teacher than in an excellent school with a bad teacher. Teacher effects are also much stronger than class-size effects. You’d have to cut the average class almost in half to get the same boost that you’d get if you switched from an average teacher to a teacher in the eighty-fifth percentile. And remember that a good teacher costs as much as an average one, whereas halving class size would require that you build twice as many classrooms and hire twice as many teachers.

Hanushek recently did a back-of-the-envelope calculation about what even a rudimentary focus on teacher quality could mean for the United States. If you rank the countries of the world in terms of the academic performance of their schoolchildren, the U.S. is just below average, half a standard deviation below a clump of relatively high-performing countries like Canada and Belgium. According to Hanushek, the U.S. could close that gap simply by replacing the bottom six per cent to ten per cent of public-school teachers with teachers of average quality.

As Gladwell explains, the usual measures of teacher "quality" -- certification, master's degrees, years of experience -- have very little relationship to the quality of the teaching. Paying more for teachers with masters degrees just encourages teachers to put their efforts into something that has no bearing on their job performance, instead of something like class preparation that makes a difference.

In the Atlantic, Amanda Ripley profiles a star teacher who works in one of Washington's poorest schools but routinely gets stellar results -- last year only 40% of his fifth grade students were performing at grade level when the year started, but by the end of the year 90% were.

If the credentials of the teachers don't matter, what does? The quality of the interactions between the teacher and his or her students. One organization that has tried to sort this out is Teach for America:
As Teach for America began to identify exceptional teachers using this data, Farr began to watch them. He observed their classes, read their lesson plans, and talked to them about their teaching methods and beliefs. He and his colleagues surveyed Teach for America teachers at least four times a year to find out what they were doing and what kinds of training had helped them the most.

Right away, certain patterns emerged. First, great teachers tended to set big goals for their students. They were also perpetually looking for ways to improve their effectiveness. For example, when Farr called up teachers who were making remarkable gains and asked to visit their classrooms, he noticed he’d get a similar response from all of them: “They’d say, ‘You’re welcome to come, but I have to warn you—I am in the middle of just blowing up my classroom structure and changing my reading workshop because I think it’s not working as well as it could.’ When you hear that over and over, and you don’t hear that from other teachers, you start to form a hypothesis.” Great teachers, he concluded, constantly reevaluate what they are doing.

Superstar teachers had four other tendencies in common: they avidly recruited students and their families into the process; they maintained focus, ensuring that everything they did contributed to student learning; they planned exhaustively and purposefully—for the next day or the year ahead—by working backward from the desired outcome; and they worked relentlessly, refusing to surrender to the combined menaces of poverty, bureaucracy, and budgetary shortfalls.

The bottom line for all you teachers: it's all up to you, and your results will depend a lot on the level of effort that you put into your work. Have a relaxing day.


Early this week our weather forecast was full of dire warnings about snow last night or today. But as the week passed the chance of snow slipped away, until, yesterday afternoon, we had only a 30% of snow, no accumulation. But the storm must have done a quick turn inland, because this morning the forecast was calling for 1 to 3 inches. We have nearly an inch on the ground now, at 11:55 AM, and it is falling steadily. Nobody wants to go out and play, though, because the temperature is 16 degrees.

Europeans in Ancient Mongolia

From Science News:

Dead men can indeed tell tales, but they speak in a whispered double helix.

Consider an older gentleman whose skeleton lay in one of more than 200 tombs recently excavated at a 2,000-year-old cemetery in western Mongolia, near China’s northern border. DNA extracted from this man’s bones pegs him as a descendant of Europeans or western Asians. Yet he still assumed a prominent position in ancient Mongolia’s Xiongnu Empire, say geneticist Kyung-Yong Kim of Chung-Ang University in Seoul, South Korea, and his colleagues. . . .

This long-dead individual possessed a set of genetic mutations on his Y chromosome, which is inherited from paternal ancestors, that commonly appears today among male speakers of Indo-European languages in eastern Europe, central Asia and northern India, Kim’s team reports in an upcoming American Journal of Physical Anthropology. The same man displayed a pattern of mitochondrial DNA mutations, inherited from maternal ancestors, characteristic of speakers of modern Indo-European languages in central Asia, the researchers say.

The data certainly seem to be evidence for the spread of people from eastern Europe or western Asia in the first millenium BC, but of course there are the usual caveats. What is not really in dispute, though, is how far some mutations can spread in just a few thousand years. Whatever model you favor for the spread of these genes, they speak of intimate contacts between prehistoric people thousands of miles apart. The modern inhabitants of, say, western Ireland are not simply the descendants of the Mesolithic inhabitants of the region, nor are they simply the descendants of this or that group of invaders. Instead, we see that genes have spread across Eurasia by some combination of migration, conquest, and marriages with outsiders. (The picture shows the skull of the man under analysis.)

Obama Confronts House Republicans

Just let me say that this sort of exchange is exactly what our country needs more of. Let's debate our ideas, not sling insults on news shows or blogs that nobody from the other side will ever see.

Eight Republicans, some addressing Obama for the first time, queried him on topics that ranged from the $12.4 trillion national debt to trade policy to lobbyist access to the White House. Some exchanges were cordial, but many were sharp, with Obama telling the Republicans that he had read their proposals but that economists had found them lacking.

"Bipartisanship, not for its own sake, but to solve problems, that's what our constituents, the American people, need from us right now," Obama said, appearing before a retreat of the 178-member House GOP conference at the Renaissance Baltimore Harborplace Hotel.

After Rep. Jeb Hensarling (Tex.) spent several minutes blaming Obama for the increase in the federal deficit to $1.35 trillion, the president interrupted and asked, "You're going to let me answer?"

"The whole question was structured as a talking point for running a campaign," Obama told him. "That's not true, and you know it's not true."

Obama gave a fierce defense of the $787 billion stimulus package signed into law in February without a single House Republican vote. He angrily told Pence, the No. 3 GOP House leader, who served as the event's moderator, that 2 million jobs were lost from December 2008 through February 2009, long before the Recovery Act took affect. "I'm assuming you're not faulting my policies for that," Obama said. . . .

Obama joked Friday that there would be more such gatherings: "You know what they say, Keep your friends close, but visit the Republican caucus every few months."

Historic Preservation on the Moon

California's historical commission has declared that all of the trash left behind by the Apollo 11 mission is a Protected Resource.

While Apollo 11 was indeed a landmark mission — during which Neil A. Armstrong became the first man to walk on the moon and he and Buzz Aldrin apparently ditched their boots — it wasn’t exactly tidy. Worried about the weight of their landing capsule, the harried lunar explorers left behind tons of trash, including empty food bags, electrical equipment and, yes, several receptacles meant for bodily waste.

There is also a collection of artifacts of historical note and emotion: Mr. Armstrong’s footprint, for example, and an American flag. Apollo 11 also left behind a mission patch from Apollo 1, in which three astronauts died in a fire, and a message from world leaders.

And while some of the garbage might seem like, well, garbage, California is just one of several states seeking protection for the items in the face of possible lunar missions by other nations as well as a budding space tourism industry. . . .

Milford Wayne Donaldson, the state historic preservation officer, said the reasoning behind the first-of-its-kind designation was simple: Scores of California companies worked on the Apollo mission, and much of their handiwork remains of major historical value to the state, regardless of where it is now or what it was for used for then.

When you take action to prevent a danger before it really exists, this is called being "proactive." I think the California historical commission is being proactive to an extreme.

I wonder what a court would say about the claim that a state agency has jurisdiction on the moon?

Friday, January 29, 2010

Life Demands Choices

Julie Scelfo in the NY Times, about a guy who spent 20 years wandering the world and becoming a successful writer:

Pouring mint tea into two glasses, he explained that while he has no regrets about his past, he still wants nothing more than to fall in love and start a family. “At a certain point, one wants it all to stop, and just to settle down and be boring and normal,” he said. “And that’s absolutely who I’ve become now. I will be the happiest person on this planet when I have kids. I do think it’s a bummer to be playing around with your kids in your 50s as opposed to in your 30s, but that’s the way the cookie crumbled.”

Later, in one of several late-night phone calls when Mr. Bowe seemed less guarded, he speculated about his chances of finding love at this point in his life. “I think it’s a very arrogant gamble I made in a way,” he said. “I’ll have time to set up a career that fulfills my spiritual goals and then have time for a relationship afterwards. If I’m right, then I’m the coolest guy in the world. If I’m wrong, I’m a loser.”

Over the years, he admitted, friends have accused him of being afraid of intimacy. “But pretty much all of those friends wanted to be artists or filmmakers or writers, and none of them are,” he said.

“The goal was always to avoid being that surly alcoholic guy who didn’t live up to his dreams and blamed the wife and kids for that,” he added. “So, you make your calculations, you roll the dice and you hope you’re right that there’s time after you make it to then join the human race and have a normal emotional life.”

I made the opposite choice. Knowing that for me marriage and children were more important, I put off my artistic ambitions. Now, with a home, quite enough children, and a wonderful marriage, I will be trying in my 50s to become a successful artist. I'll keep people posted about how it goes.

RIP Howard Zinn

I am totally confident not that the world will get better, but that we should not give up the game before all the cards have been played. The metaphor is deliberate; life is a gamble. Not to play is to foreclose any chance of winning. To play, to act, is to create at least a possibility of changing the world.

There is a tendency to think that what we see in the present moment will continue. We forget how often we have been astonished by the sudden crumbling of institutions, by extraordinary changes in people's thoughts, by unexpected eruptions of rebellion against tyrannies, by the quick collapse of systems of power that seemed invincible. . . .

Revolutionary change does not come as one cataclysmic moment (beware of such moments!) but as an endless succession of surprises, moving zigzag toward a more decent society. We don't have to engage in grand, heroic actions to participate in the process of change. Small acts, when multiplied by millions of people, can transform the world. Even when we don't "win," there is fun and fulfillment in the fact that we have been involved, with other good people, in something worthwhile. We need hope. An optimist isn't necessarily a blithe, slightly sappy whistler in the dark of our time. To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places--and there are so many--where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction. And if we do act, in however small a way, we don't have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.
--"The Optimism of Uncertainty," The Nation, 2004.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Is America in Moral Decline?

Peter Wehner:

Dr. James Dobson, the founder of Focus on the Family, is starting a new radio show. . . . In announcing his new venture on his Facebook page, Dobson wrote, “Our nation is facing a crisis that threatens its very existence. We are in a moral decline of shocking dimensions.”

In fact, a great deal of empirical evidence argues that, if anything, we are in the midst of a social and cultural re-norming of some significance. For example, on issues of particular concern to Dobson—abortion and divorce—we have made great strides. The number of abortions performed annually in the United States has dropped to a level not seen since the Supreme Court’s 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade.

The divorce rate, meanwhile, is now at its lowest level in decades. It fell from a historic high of 22.6 divorces per 1,000 married women in 1980 to 17.5 in 2007. “In real terms,” according to Brad Wilcox of the University of Virginia, “this means that slightly more than 40% of contemporary first marriages are likely to end in divorce, down from approximately 50% in 1980. Perhaps even more important, recent declines in divorce suggest that a clear majority of children who are now born to married couples will grow up with their married mothers and fathers.”

Since the high-water mark of 1994, the national welfare caseload has declined by around 60 percent. Teen drug use has declined significantly since the 1990s; so has the birth rate for teenagers aged 15 to 19. . . . By 2008, the murder rate had dropped to the lowest level since 1965. And given the preliminary figures released by the FBI a few weeks ago, the rate for 2009 should be lower still.

I suppose Dobson thinks accepting gay marriage is more important than any of this stuff.

I have always been puzzled by those people, common on both the religious right and the eco left, who refuse to believe good news about the world. Honestly, folks, sometimes things really do get better.

Digital Illumination

The Book of Hours of Catherine of Cleves, one of the masterpieces of medieval illumination, has been fully digitized. You can pan around each page and zoom in and out to your heart's content.

We do?

"Alternative Medicine" guru Mike Adams is fed up with criticism from skeptics, so he "did a little research" to "find out exactly what 'skeptics' actually believe." His list is very strange, starting with his assumption that skeptics all believe the same things. But, anyway, here he goes:
Skeptics believe that the human body has no ability to defend itself against invading microorganism and that the only things that can save people from viral infections are vaccines.
Actually, Mike, the only virus we know of that is pretty near 100% fatal is rabies. But even if only 5 or 10% of the kids who get measles die of it, isn't that too many? When every one of those deaths could be prevented by a vaccine?
Skeptics believe that pregnancy is a disease and childbirth is a medical crisis. (They are opponents of natural childbirth.)
I'm not. There certainly is, in America anyway, an association of natural childbirth with suspicion of the medical establishment and the like, but really skeptical people (like me) are as unimpressed by the medical magic of hospital childbirth as we are by psychic surgery.
Skeptics believe that there is no such thing as human consciousness. They do not believe in the mind; only in the physical brain. In fact, skeptics believe that they themselves are mindless automatons who have no free will, no soul and no consciousness whatsoever.
Certainly many self-proclaimed skeptics are opposed to religious ideas like our having a "soul," but consciousness? I don't know skeptics who don't think we are "conscious" in some sense of the word, and only nutty behaviorists think people are "mindless."
Skeptics believe that water has no role in human health other than basic hydration. Water is inert, they say, and the water your toilet is identical to water from a natural spring (assuming the chemical composition is the same, anyway).
Well, I guess I do agree with this one. Not in the sense that I think all water is the same; to take only the most obvious example, water with fluorine in it is good for your teeth. But that would be explained by the chemical composition of the water. How else, exactly, does water vary? Does water from springs contain some essence of the earth goddess that toilet water does not?

The really interesting thing about Adams' whole list is the absolutist, either-or, black and white nature of his thinking. To Adams, if you are skeptical about one thing (anti-vaccine hysteria, say) you must be a "skeptic" who denies everything. Flipping this around, it seems that to Adams the right-thinking people are the ones who believe in everything. In his world you are either one of those "skeptical" pawns of big business who parrots drug company propaganda, or you are a believer who accepts at least the possibility of everything that comes from the earth, plants, and the soul. The complexity of the world, the need to deploy skepticism in the right doses and in the right ways, is lost on him.

Nature is Full of Tricks

From Zoologger:
In a grassy field on the edge of a patch of woodland, some ants are escorting a pink caterpillar to their home. Once it has been guided into the depths of their nest, the caterpillar begins feeding the ants with sweet fluids.

It may sound like a touching story of interspecies love, but it ain't. Over the following year, the caterpillar will eat its way through hundreds of ants, eggs and larvae. So voracious is the intruding caterpillar, there is a good chance that the ant colony will be wiped out.

This deceitful ant-muncher is the caterpillar of the large blue butterfly – in adult form, a strikingly beautiful creature with iridescent, spotted wings. But in order to reach adulthood, the caterpillars must infiltrate the ants' homes, and they have an arsenal of less than beautiful tricks for that purpose. . . .

So how does a large blue caterpillar sneak its way into the ants' nests? It doesn't have to: the worker ants escort it in.

They do this because the waxy coat on the caterpillar's skin mimics the ants' own chemical make-up. As far as the ants are concerned, the caterpillar smells like an ant larva and is not a threat.

A Tradition I Could Get Into

As long as you don't have to eat pickled herring. Guizers of the "jarl squad" carry the torches they use to set a longship replica on fire during the Up Helly Aa festival in the Shetland Islands. This commemoration of the islands' Norse history seems to go back to the 1870s.

Do Not Walk Away from Reform

President Obama, last night:

After nearly a century of trying, we are closer than ever to bringing more security to the lives of so many Americans. The approach we've taken would protect every American from the worst practices of the insurance industry. It would give small businesses and uninsured Americans a chance to choose an affordable health care plan in a competitive market. It would require every insurance plan to cover preventive care. And by the way, I want to acknowledge our first lady, Michelle Obama, who this year is creating a national movement to tackle the epidemic of childhood obesity and make our kids healthier.

Our approach would preserve the right of Americans who have insurance to keep their doctor and their plan. It would reduce costs and premiums for millions of families and businesses. And according to the Congressional Budget Office — the independent organization that both parties have cited as the official scorekeeper for Congress — our approach would bring down the deficit by as much as $1 trillion over the next two decades.

Still, this is a complex issue, and the longer it was debated, the more skeptical people became. I take my share of the blame for not explaining it more clearly to the American people. And I know that with all the lobbying and horse trading, this process left most Americans wondering what's in it for them.

But I also know this problem is not going away. By the time I'm finished speaking tonight, more Americans will have lost their health insurance. Millions will lose it this year. Our deficit will grow. Premiums will go up. Patients will be denied the care they need. Small business owners will continue to drop coverage altogether. I will not walk away from these Americans and neither should the people in this chamber.

As temperatures cool, I want everyone to take another look at the plan we've proposed. There's a reason why many doctors, nurses and health care experts who know our system best consider this approach a vast improvement over the status quo. But if anyone from either party has a better approach that will bring down premiums, bring down the deficit, cover the uninsured, strengthen Medicare for seniors and stop insurance company abuses, let me know. Here's what I ask of Congress, though: Do not walk away from reform. Not now. Not when we are so close. Let us find a way to come together and finish the job for the American people.

Our Weird Ambivalence about Government

In giving the Republican response to the State of the Union address, Virginia governor Robert McDonnell kept coming back to the theme that our government is too big and does too much:
The circumstances of our time demand that we reconsider and restore the proper, limited role of government at every level. . . . Today, the federal government is simply trying to do too much.
Now this is a perfectly rational philosophy, and it gets loud cheers in some quarters. I submit, though, that very few Americans actually agree with this. Everything I have read lately says that people are upset about the economy and want the government to do something about it. How can that be reconciled with the notion that the government is too big? And consider this table, from one of many polls showing that although Americans complain about the size of the government, they want more spending on almost everything the government does:

Given that nobody really wants to shrink the government, and Republicans know this -- witness their ploy of opposing health reform by raging against proposed Medicare cuts -- there is an element of pure fraud to statements like McDonnell's.

The Colors of a Feathered Dinosaur

A series of wonderfully preserved fossils found over the past two decades have shown us that many small dinosaurs had feathers. We don't know why; perhaps to regulate their temperatures. At any event, feathers have the useful property that, at least among living birds, the shape of the structures that hold the pigments are related to the color produced:
After all, they knew that in the feathers of living birds, some color comes from pigments called melanins. And inside of a hair or a feather, "the melanin is actually contained within a kind of capsule," says [paleontologist Mike] Benton.

The shape of the capsule depends on the color. "The black or dark brown kind of melanin goes into a somewhat sausage-shaped capsule," says Benton, while a reddish-brown kind of melanin goes into a more rounded capsule shaped like a ball.

And some of the feathered fossils are so exquisite that they actually preserve the shapes of these melanin capsules:

With this in mind, the researchers used a sophisticated, powerful microscope to peer inside primitive feathers on a turkey-sized dinosaur called Sinosauropteryx. "It's a flesh-eater. It's got sharp little teeth in its mouth, and it's got grabby little hands," says Benton. "It's a two-legged dinosaur, so very slender limbs. It's got a sort of straightish backbone and a long thin tail."

Fossils show that this tail was ringed with dark bands of primitive feathers that look like bristles. And inside these bristles, Benton and his colleagues found melanin capsules in the shape associated with the orange-brown color.

"These dark stripes, as far as we can tell, were exclusively ginger, and so this early dinosaur with its long thin tail had ginger and white stripes up the tail," says Benton.

I don't regard this finding as certain, but given that until now we knew nothing at all about the color of dinosaurs, it is still amazing.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Along Chopawamsic Creek

An old road, worn deep into the bluff by wagons on their way to the mill by the creek.

These old concrete dams were built in the early 1900s to provide water to a nearby town.

That's me standing by the ice house pit of an old plantation.

A view of the Creek from atop a steep bluff. Click on the pictures to enlarge.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Traditional Architecture of Iran

A wonderful collection of photos.

Thawing to Death

Peter Stark in Outside:
In fact, many hypothermia victims die each year in the process of being rescued. In "rewarming shock," the constricted capillaries reopen almost all at once, causing a sudden drop in blood pressure. The slightest movement can send a victim's heart muscle into wild spasms of ventricular fibrillation. In 1980, 16 shipwrecked Danish fishermen were hauled to safety after an hour and a half in the frigid North Sea. They then walked across the deck of the rescue ship, stepped below for a hot drink, and dropped dead, all 16 of them.

No More D&D in Wisconsin Prisons

John Schwartz in the NY Times:

Prisons can restrict the rights of inmates to nerd out, a federal appeals court has found.

In an opinion issued on Monday, a three-judge panel of the Chicago-based Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals hexed a lawsuit challenging a ban on the game of Dungeons & Dragons by the Waupun Correctional Institution in Wisconsin.

The suit was brought by a prisoner, Kevin T. Singer, who argued that his First Amendment and 14th Amendment rights were violated by the prison’s decision to ban the game and confiscate his books and other materials — including a 96-page handwritten manuscript he had created for the game.

Mr. Singer, “a D&D enthusiast since childhood,” according to the court’s opinion, was sentenced to life in prison in 2002 for bludgeoning and stabbing his sister’s boyfriend to death.

Prison officials said they banned the game at the recommendation of the prison’s specialist in gangs, who said it could lead to gang behavior and fantasies about escape.

The game could “foster an inmate’s obsession with escaping from the real-life correctional environment, fostering hostility, violence and escape behavior,” prison officials said in court. That could make it more difficult to rehabilitate prisoners and could endanger public safety, they said.

The court acknowledged that there was no evidence of marauding gangs spurred to their acts of destruction by swinging imaginary mauls, but it ruled nonetheless that the prison’s decision was “rationally related” to legitimate goals of prison administration.

Wisconsin Department of Corrections officials did not immediately return calls seeking comment.

Now I certainly agree that D&D promotes escapism, but what's wrong with escapism among prison inmates? The notion that D&D might lead to real gang behavior strikes me as especially silly. I doubt there was ever a group of people less like a gang than my old D&D crowd.

There is a long discussion of this at the Volokh Conspiracy, from which you can learn how many lawyers know a suspicious amount about D&D. Sample comments:

Of course the prison’s rule is justified. Magic-user prisoners might launch a Meteor Swarm at their jailers; inmates might slip a Phylacter of Love into a guard’s drink (or even worse, a Throat Leach.)

The only downside is that prisoners will no longer have the know-how to combat wayward Gelatinous Cubes or Beholders, which have a tendency to hang out in dank stone corridors. But I guess they should of thought of that before they robbed that 7–11.


Obviously the regulation has a rational basis. Look at any high school. Who’s terrorizing the teachers? Who’s beating up other kids in the halls? Who’s injuring student athletes so badly they miss games?

The Dungeons and Dragons gangs, that’s who.


I like my judges to have a Lawful Neutral alignment, so I agree he had to uphold it under rational basis review.

Populist Anger Against Obama

John Judis in the New Republic:

Working-class populism in America has always taken two forms: The first--let’s call it left-wing populism--has typically been directed at speculators who make money from people who work in factories and offices and who don’t seem to contribute to the actual wealth of society. The second form--let’s call it right-wing populism--has targeted immigrants, black sharecroppers, the unemployed, and other out groups who are seen as trying to deprive those who work of their rightful earnings. These two strains often appear together, as they did in the original American populist movement. And these sentiments are most concentrated among the embattled classes--those that see themselves threatened from above and below.

Obama has provoked both left-wing and right-wing populism. He provoked left-wing populism by using tax dollars to sustain the banks and auto companies and to reward their managers who had already shown themselves to be incompetent--and then by acquiescing when the bankers paid themselves additional bonuses. In a poll taken in early January by Allstate/National Journal, 1,200 respondents revealed whom they thought had “benefited most” from the government’s response to the financial crisis. Banks, investment companies, major corporations, and the wealthy were way out in front.

Obama’s health care plan has provoked a combination of right-wing and left-wing populism. The middle class and senior citizens see it as a program that taxes and takes benefits away from them in order to help those without insurance--the out groups--and to enrich the insurance companies themselves. They didn’t invent this perception out of thin air: It derived in part from the plan to tax “Cadillac” health care plans (which are sometimes held by unionized middle class workers), penalize workers who don’t buy insurance, and cut future Medicare spending, while providing new subscribers and profits for the insurance companies. Undoubtedly, the prior perception of Obama’s financial policies reinforced these suspicions about his health care plan, which is now as unpopular as the bank bailout.

Who Opposes Health Care Reform?

At least in Massachusetts, it's people with Medicare:
The age group that most strongly favored Brown was sixty-five to seventy-four-year-olds by 58 to 38 percent. The same group opposed national health insurance by 48 percent to 28 percent and thought the federal government couldn’t afford such a plan by 66 percent to 33 percent.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Ancient Monuments and Woolworths Stores

Ben Goldacre at the Guardian: passes on the story of a New Age archaeologist who was tripped up because a real scientist took the trouble to analyze his work. English "researcher" Tom Brooks
analysed 1,500 prehistoric monuments, and found them all to be on a grid of isosceles triangles, each pointing to the next site, allowing our ancestors to travel between settlements with pinpoint accuracy. . . . Brooks has proved, he explains, that there were keen mathematicians here 5,000 years ago, millennia before the Greeks invented geometry: "Such is the mathematical precision, it is inconceivable that this work could have been carried out by the primitive indigenous culture we have always associated with such structures … all this suggests a culture existing in these islands in the past quite outside our expectation and experience today." He does not rule out extra­terrestrial help.
It looks impressive at first, and at least two major English papers carried the story, but you have to remember that he had 1,500 sites to work with. Mathematician Matt Parker showed the fallacy behind this sort of reasoning by doing a similar analysis of Wooldworths stores:
"We know so little about the ancient Woolworths stores," he explains, "but we do still know their locations. I thought that if we analysed the sites we could learn more about what life was like in 2008 and how these people went about buying cheap kitchen accessories and discount CDs."

The results revealed an exact and precise geometric placement of the Woolworths locations.

"Three stores around Birmingham formed an exact equilateral triangle (Wolverhampton, Lichfield and Birmingham stores) and if the base of the triangle is extended, it forms a 173.8 mile line linking the Conwy and Luton stores. Despite the 173.8 mile distance involved, the Conwy Woolworths store is only 40 feet off the exact line and the Luton site is within 30 feet. All four stores align with an accuracy of 0.05%."

Parker used an ancient technique: he found his patterns in 800 ex-Woolworths locations by "skipping over the vast majority, and only choosing the few that happen to line up".

With 1,500 locations, Brooks had almost twice as much data to work with, and on this issue Parker is clear: "It is extremely important to look at how much data people are using to support an argument."

Parker concludes that “these incredibly precise geometric patterns mean that the people who founded the Woolworths Empire must have used these store locations as a form of ‘landmark satnav’ to help hunters find their nearest source of cheap sweets that can be purchased in whatever mix they chose to pick. Well, that or the fact that in any sufficiently large set of random data it is possible to find meaningless patterns of any required accuracy.”

People with Computers Beat Either

Interesting article on chess and computing by Gary Kasparov, who notes that while computers are generally stronger than human players these days, a chess expert using a computer for assistance can easily beat either a computer working alone or a human chess master. And in a major tournament entered by teams of players and computers, the tournament was won, not by the strongest human player or the one with the best computer, but by two American amateurs who had worked out the best way to interact with their machines. As Kasparov puts it,
Weak human + machine + better process was superior to a strong computer alone and, more remarkably, superior to a strong human + machine + inferior process.
Figuring out the best way to combine human ingenuity with computer processing power might be the most important technological frontier in the near future.

Could it Work?

A scheme that has for decades floated along the boundary between science and fiction: set up a plant along a desert coastline that would use solar power to desalinate water, then use the water to grow crops or trees. Now the idea is getting renewed interest as a way to increase forest cover and soak up carbon dioxide.

Beauty and the Beast

From a marvelous new version illustrated by Angela Barrett. (Retold by Max Eilenberg. Candlewick Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2006.)

Sunday, January 24, 2010

For Historical Geeks Only

I have posted a new essay at Bensozia, a review of 1688: the First Modern Revolution, by Steve Pincus.

Luc Tuymans

Although flashier artists get most of the public attention, none of them have been as revered in art circles over the past decade as the Belgian painter Luc Tuymans. Now a major retrospective show of his paintings is being mounted, although unfortunately it doesn't seem to be coming anywhere near me. I have never seen any of his famous works, and they look like the sort of thing that make a different impression in person, especially since some of them are huge. Because I have to say that in the form of small digital images, nothing I have seen really moves me. Tuymans is said to be concerned with "the ambiguous nature of our relationship to the images we are inundated with," and his response to this seems to be to render everything vague and washed out. Some of his paintings are said to be political, treating issues like Belgian meddling in the post-independence Congo, but few of them have any clear meaning to me. Maybe that's the point; this is Sanford Schwartz in the NY Review:
In the suspicion-laden atmosphere Tuymans creates, we don't need to learn the details behind, say, his 1991 Buttonhole (which shows just that), or his 1998 Orchid (which shows just that), to get a little edgy. We feel we are in the presence of an artist for whom people, places, and things are most fully alive when there is something frightening or culpable about them, or when, disturbingly, he can suggest that a vital aspect about the person or thing we are looking at is being withheld. In an earlier century, his specialty as a painter would surely have been images of hell.
His work is certainly distinctive and interesting, and I would like to see more of it.

Music has to Surprise Us

Jonah Lehrer summarizes some observations on the brains of people listening to music:

The experiment was more compelling. The scientists measured the brain waves of a twenty subjects while they listened to various hymns. It turned out that unexpected notes - pitches that violated the previous melodic pattern - triggered an interesting sequence of neural events and a spike in brain activity:

Our electrophysiological results showed that low-probability notes, as compared to high-probability notes, elicited a larger (i) negative ERP component at a late time period (400-450 ms), (ii) beta band (14-30 Hz) oscillation over the parietal lobe, and (iii) long-range phase synchronization between multiple brain regions.

There are two interesting takeaways from this experiment. The first is that music hijacks some very fundamental neural mechanisms. The brain is designed to learn by association: if this, then that. Music works by subtly toying with our expected associations, enticing us to make predictions about what note will come next, and then confronting us with our prediction errors. In other words, every melody manipulates the same essential mechanisms we use to make sense of reality.

The second takeaway is that music requires surprise, the dissonance of "low-probability notes". While most people think about music in terms of aesthetic beauty - we like pretty consonant pitches arranged in pretty patterns - that's exactly backwards. The point of the prettiness is to set up the surprise, to frame the deviance. (That's why the unexpected pitches triggered the most brain activity, synchronizing the activity of brain regions involved in motor movement and emotion.)

Dollar Coins

Yesterday I was handed my first examples of the new dollar coin, with the Statue of Liberty on one side and James Monroe on the other. I like the idea of dollar coins, but these Presidential coins are very disappointing. They are so thin and light that they feel like cheap tin imitations, and the color also has the cheap sheen of stainless steel instead of the gleam of precious metal. (According to the US mint, they are 88.5% copper, 6% zinc, 3.5% manganese and 2% nickle.)

I'm also a little disappointed that I got a Monroe instead of a Millard Fillmore. Perhaps the treasurer of 7-11 is a neocon who dispatched a few million Monroe coins to his stores to promote aggressive foreign policy?

And it can't say much about the success of the program that I am receiving my first examples three years after the Washington dollar was released. What they should do is abolish the dollar bill, but we are too conservative about our money to do that. Even more they need to abolish the penny, which costs the government billions a year to produce something that is essentially worthless. I suppose they don't because the cranky conservatives who always think the government is up to no good will protest furiously that this is a plot to tax us more by rounding up the sales tax, or some even more nefarious scheme -- perhaps a mind-control ray that is impeded by the zinc-copper alloy in pennies? -- and it is worth a few billion a year to avoid that sort of squabble.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Kinetic Sculpture

This contraption, made up of steel balls attached to wires, is at the BMW museum in Munich. If you visit this site, you can see a 2.5 minute video of it in action. As art it doesn't wow me, but the technology of making these individually controlled pieces dance is quite amazing.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Moscow's Stray Dogs

From Popular Science:

Poyarkov has studied the dogs, which number about 35,000, for the last 30 years. Over that time, he observed the stray dog population lose the spotted coats, wagging tails, and friendliness that separate dogs from wolves, while at the same time evolving social structures and behaviors optimized to four ecological niches occupied by what Poyarkov calls guard dogs, scavengers, wild dogs, and beggars.

The guard dogs follow around, and receive food from, the security personnel at Moscow's many fenced in sites. They think the guards are their masters, and serve as semi-feral assistants. The scavengers roam the city eating garbage. The wild dogs are the most wolf-like, hunting mice, rats, and cats under the cover of night.

But beggar dogs have evolved the most specialized behavior. Relying on scraps of food from commuters, the beggar dogs can not only recognize which humans are most likely to give them something to eat, but have evolved to ride the subway. Using scents, and the ability to recognize the train conductor's names for different stops, they incorporate many stations into their territories.

Longer article at the Financial Times.

Today in the Academic World

A lecture at the University of Chicago:

“Torture, The Feminine Touch: Exploring Military Interrogation as Intercultural Performance.”

Girls and Ballet

Money and Power

Money and power attract each other. For at least the past few thousand years, people with power have used it to get rich and people with money have used it to buy power. How you feel about this ancient state of affairs determines how you feel about the campaign finance debate in America. If you just shrug your shoulders about the coziness of money and power and think nothing can be done about it, you are unlikely to be interested in writing lots of regulations to determine how money can be spent in elections. If you regard the political influence of money as a great evil, akin to giving rich people five votes for each vote a poor person gets, and therefore akin to giving white people five votes for every vote a Mexican gets, they you are probably a big advocate of "campaign finance reform." And you are probably outraged that the Supreme Court just struck down laws that limit what corporations and unions can spend to influence elections.

I find myself to be largely in the shoulder-shrugging camp. My view is that unless people are going to take an interest, find out the facts, and vote for the candidates who support what they themselves believe in, then nothing can be done to make the process fair and rational. And if people do those things, advertising doesn't matter. I also think that at least at the national level, if you can't raise the money necessary to compete you probably don't have the support base or the leadership skills to run the country.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

A Democratic Senate Staffer Vents

From TPM:
Things have gotten so bad that in roaming the halls today it feels exactly as if we lost the Majority last night.

The worst is that I can't help but feel like the main emotion people in the caucus are feeling is relief at this turn of events. Now they have a ready excuse for not getting anything done. While I always thought we had the better ideas but the weaker messaging, it feels like somewhere along the line Members internalized a belief that we actually have weaker ideas. They're afraid to actually implement them and face the judgement of the voters. That's the scariest dynamic and what makes me think this will all come crashing down around us in November.

I believe President Clinton provided some crucial insight when he said, "people would rather be with someone who is strong and wrong than weak and right." It's not that people are uninterested in who's right or wrong, it's that people will only follow leaders who seem to actually believe in what they are doing. Democrats have missed this essential fact.

The stimulus bill in the spring showed us what was coming. In the face of a historic economic crisis, Democrats negotiated against themselves at the outset and subsequently yielded to absurd demands from self-described "moderates" to trim the package to a clearly inadequate level. No one made any rational argument about why a lower level was better. . . .

This is my life and I simply can't answer the fundamental question: "what do Democrats stand for?" Voters don't know, and we can't make the case, so they're reacting exactly as you'd expect (just as they did in 1994, 2000, and 2004). We either find the voice to answer that question and exercise the strongest majority and voter mandate we've had since Watergate, or we suffer a bloodbath in November. History shows we're likely to choose the latter.

Two Thoughts on Scott Brown

The first thought is part of my ongoing series of observations on how hard it is to know what childhood experiences will lead to adult happiness and success. Brown is famously disciplined and organized and has been married to the same woman for 23 years:

Mr. Brown’s craving for discipline and order was born of a chaotic childhood. His parents were divorced when he was 1, and each one was married four times. He lived for a time with his grandparents and dealt with an ever-changing cast of stepparents.

“Some of these marriages were not that pretty,” said John Encarnaceo, a retired colonel in the Massachusetts National Guard and former boyfriend of Mr. Brown’s mother, Judith Brown.

“I grew up fast,” Mr. Brown recalled. “I remember waking up in the middle of the night, and hearing the banging and the screams and having to be the 5- or 6-year-old boy having to save Mom.”

He grew his hair long, listened to Aerosmith and Kiss and, at 12, was arrested for shoplifting a bunch of albums (Black Sabbath, Deep Purple and Grand Funk Railroad) at a local mall.

The second thought concerns the Republican party at this moment, because people are already comparing Brown to Obama as a rising star. And he is an impressive person who ran an impressive campaign. But what does he stand for? Here is the op-ed he put out during the campaign:

I’m running because more of our people are unemployed today than ever before. Public debt has reached $12 trillion and counting, and Washington politicians want to borrow trillions more. Terrorists want to strike our country again, and they will do so if we let down our guard. We have fighting forces in two theaters of war, and those men and women need our support.

Like everyone else, I want to see more Americans with good health care coverage. I like what we achieved in Massachusetts. It’s not perfect, but nearly everyone is now covered by a private insurance policy - not a government policy. I hope other states follow our example.

But the healthcare bill under discussion in Washington is not good. It will raise taxes and increase spending. If you are a senior on Medicare, it will lead to a half trillion dollars in cuts to your care.
It's maddening. His two biggest issues are unemployment and the budget deficit, but neither he nor anybody else has any idea what could be done about unemployment that wouldn't increase the deficit even more. And anybody who has ever looked at the budget knows that we can never balance it without finding some way to reduce Medicare spending. Brown's economic plan?
My plan for the economy is simple: an across-the-board tax cut
That ought to reduce the deficit right quick.

Now nobody really expects the average politician to put out detailed, sensible plans the first time he runs for a major office, and most campaigns produce lies about the budget. But Obama had lots of concrete ideas when he first ran for the Senate, and he has been remarkably upfront about the budget choices we face. Nor has Scott Brown ever said or written anything anywhere else that suggests he has any ideas, other than cutting taxes and waterboarding suspected terrorists. In this he is entirely typical of the Republican Party, which hasn't had a real program since 1994. With nothing to say, they put forward smiling athletic nice guys like Scott Brown and hope that bad economic times and obstruction in Congress will bring them back to power. It may work for them, but it won't help the rest of us.

Faking Relics

It seems that the "relics" of Joan of Arc, supposedly taken from the pyre at which she was burned to death for heresy, are nothing of the kind:

The so-called "relics of Joan of Arc," overseen by the Archbishop of Tours in Chinon, France, do not contain the charred remains of the Catholic saint.

Rather, the artifacts consist of a mummified cat leg bone and human rib, both dating to the 6th-3rd century B.C., according to a new study.

I have long wondered about the mindset of people who fake relics. In this case it is hard to imagine that the first finder believed in what he was doing; how could somebody searching a pyre for bones somehow come up with museum pieces? Intentional fraud of some sort had to be involved. Was it a simple case of a con man tricking a gullible believer, who then passed the relics on as genuine? Or was the whole thing concocted by knowing churchmen who sincerely thought that having some relics for the common folk to venerate would help spread the true faith?

So far as I can determine, these "relics" first surfaced in the 1860s, when they were found in the attic of a Paris pharmacy with a scrap of paper written in a a 17th-century hand that identified them as "Remains found beneath the scaffold site of Jeanne d' Arc, Maid of Orleans." After a dispute, they were accepted by the church but housed in a museum at Chinon rather than in a cathedral, which suggests to me that somebody was unwilling to put the full weight of the church behind their authenticity.

This is a very interesting detail from the patholigical study of the remains:
Odour analysis is a new technique for palaeopathology, but Charlier says that he hit on the idea after being struck by the variety of odours of other historical corpses. Delacourte and Duriez sniffed the relics and nine other samples of bone and hair from Charlier's lab without being told what the samples were. They were also not allowed to confer. Both smelled hints of 'burnt plaster' and 'vanilla' in the samples from the relics.

The plaster smell was consistent with the fact that Joan of Arc was burnt on a plaster stake, not a wooden one, to make the whole macabre spectacle last longer. But vanilla is inconsistent with cremation. "Vanillin is produced during decomposition of a body," says Charlier. "You would find it in a mummy, but not in someone who was burnt."

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The Democratic Congress

Matt Yglesias:
Explaining the October Revolution, Trotsky said “power was lying in the streets—we picked it up.” Now I’m not one of those guys who gets sentimental about Trotsky; notwithstanding his falling out with Stalin they were both bad guys. But you’re talking about someone who had an understanding of political action.

Ever since November of 2008, power has been lying not in the street but in the halls of Congress. And it seems to me that many members of Congress have been simply unwilling to accept that fact. They want to evade responsibility. They want to talk about Chuck Grassley or Olympia Snowe or now Scott Brown. They want to talk about polls. They want to talk about tea parties. They want to talk about cable news. They want to talk about process. But they have to recognize what’s happening. The power is there. Anthony Weiner and Barney Frank and Evan Bayh are all autonomous human beings. If they choose not to pass health care, then they have the right to do so. But it’s up to them and they just need to decide. The way things happen in politics is that people put themselves in a position to do certain things, and then they do them. House Democrats are in a position to enact a sweeping reform of America’s health care system. Will they do it, or are there two parties that support the status quo?

Apparently, alas, there are two parties that support the status quo.

Joseph Conrad

I just finished listening to two of Conrad's most famous works, Lord Jim and Heart of Darkness, and I liked them very much. The prose is vigorous, the characters are memorable, and there is enough description of the exotic settings to make them seem exotic, without dominating the story or detracting from it. My favorite thing about Lord Jim was actually the narrator, a sea captain in his 40s named Marlowe. Conrad did something with him that I tried in the first draft of my current novel project, showing us a character by having him tell a story about someone else, and I think this is the best I have ever seen this done. Marlowe says little about himself, but by the end I thought I knew him well, and he was also a good narrator.

Heart of Darkness is a very weird story. The first 75% is the build up, with the narrator, Marlowe again,traveling to Congo and then up the river toward the farthest station, where the mysterious Kurtz resides. When Marlowe finally arrives, he sees a few things, has a brief conversation with a minor character, collects the dying Kurtz and loads him on the boat for home, where he dies before he says much beyond "the horror." One gathers that Kurtz, who set out for Africa as a humanitarian backed by tea-drinking association ladies, has turned into the leader of a marauding native band, but it is all very vague and we never hear why or how this happened. It is more like a description of a single intricate panel of images, a sort of Hieronymus Bosch altarpiece of white men in Africa. In one panel Kurtz arrives in his white suit, Bible in hand; in the next he lies dying with a ghastly expression on his shrunken face, mourned by a platoon of spear-wielding warriors and a brass-bedecked woman who may have been his wife. In the last scene Marlowe goes to see Kurtz's fiancee, with some vague idea of trying to tell her what happened to Kurtz. Seeing her in her pleasant apartment, in mourning clothes, weeping over Kurtz the great humanitarian, he loses heart and lies to her. Nobody safe at home in London, especially not a tea-drinking woman, could possibly understand.

It is a regular part of Conrad's world that some men get into situations like Kurtz's. For people safe at home in their studies to judge sailors in storms, soldiers in battle, or ivory traders on the Congo is simply absurd. There are the men who been to enough places and seen enough terrors to know, and there are the rest of us. Conrad, who spent twenty years at sea and himself sailed up the Congo, gives us a glimpse of what the men who went to those places saw and felt, and how they judged themselves and each other. It is a fascinating world, and I am looking for more Conrad to read.

People Hate Reality

From Democracy in America:
The Massachusetts election is to a large extent a referendum on health-care reform, and health care is a complicated issue. Some on the left, like Jane Hamsher at FireDogLake, have a health-care position voters can understand: it's all the fault of the insurance companies and Big Pharma. That's not true and leads to no workable solution, but it makes progressives happy to hear it. Scott Brown has a health position voters can understand, too: it's all the fault of big government. That's not true and leads to no workable solution, but it makes conservatives happy to hear it. Barack Obama has a different position: it's the result of a set of systemic problems that need to be changed with a combination of government subsidies, regulations and market incentives, and to have a realistic shot at enacting a reform like that you need to get all the political and industry stakeholders involved and craft a compromise that better serves the public but that everyone can sign off on. That message is political poison, and it now has a significant percentage of the American public calling for his head.

Discouraging Health Care News

From TPM:
I am a resident of Norton MA and Barney Frank is my congressman. I just called his office in DC and expressed my displeasure with his statement released last night especially the line "But our respect for democratic procedures must rule out any effort to pass a health care bill as if the Massachusetts election had not happened." I told him I didn't think we lost this election because of it was a Health Care Reform referendum but because we had a very weak Senate candidate. He agreed she did a lousy job campaigning. I told him we should just pass the Senate HCR and be done. He stated that all that would do was rile up the electorate and guarantee our further losses in November. I told him that caving in to Republican foot-dragging would kill the bill and we would not have HCR for another 15 years. He thought our best route was to try to get Snowe to come aboard with a revised Senate bill. I told him that was ridiculous, that the Republicans were emboldened by this win and I was incredulous that he thought there was any chance of getting even one Republican vote to make this bipartisan.

Barney Frank insisted to me that there was not the vote in the House now to pass the Senate HCR. I asked him personally if he would vote to pass the Senate HCR as it stands and get it on Obama's desk. He said he would not vote yes on the Senate bill. He cited the abortion and plan tax portions of the bill for his opposition. He thought the Democrats were headed for heavy losses if they didn't drop the current HCR and try to pass some revised version. I told him if they didn't pass the Senate HCR now the November defeat would be guaranteed and much worse because you would lose the progressives and nothing Barney Frank would do or say could convince the right to not vote against us. He was firm in his belief and I found his argument very unconvincing.

I got the impression that HCR is now doomed and his alternative to fix it and pass it did not seem feasible. I told him the public is sick and tired hearing about health care and that we should pass the Senate HCR, have Obama sign it tomorrow, and then spend from now to the election passing a jobs bill and doing financial reform. I told him the public will only remember that in November and will have moved on from HCR. I said the electorate is always distracted by the next shiny object they see and would forget HCR and remember last good bill you passed, but he replied he thought the public had more intelligence than I thought they had. We ended the call in total disagreement on his assessment, his plan on how to proceed on HCR, and is refusal to vote personally for the Senate HCR.

I am very discouraged the Democrats in Congress would panic and run because of the results of the Mass Senate election. Be afraid. Be very afraid.

My Kids Seem to Be Typical

From the NY Times:
The average young American now spends practically every waking minute — except for the time in school — using a smart phone, computer, television or other electronic device, according to a new study from the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Those ages 8 to 18 spend more than seven and a half hours a day with such devices, compared with less than six and a half hours five years ago, when the study was last conducted. And that does not count the hour and a half that youths spend texting, or the half-hour they talk on their cellphones.

And because so many of them are multitasking — say, surfing the Internet while listening to music — they pack on average nearly 11 hours of media content into that seven and a half hours.

Garbled Data on European Genetics

Summary of a new article by Patricia Balaresque et al. in PLOS biology:
Arguably the most important cultural transition in the history of modern humans was the development of farming, since it heralded the population growth that culminated in our current massive population size. The genetic diversity of modern populations retains the traces of such past events, and can therefore be studied to illuminate the demographic processes involved in past events. Much debate has focused on the origins of agriculture in Europe some 10,000 years ago, and in particular whether its westerly spread from the Near East was driven by farmers themselves migrating, or by the transmission of ideas and technologies to indigenous hunter-gatherers. This study examines the diversity of the paternally inherited Y chromosome, focusing on the commonest lineage in Europe. The distribution of this lineage, the diversity within it, and estimates of its age all suggest that it spread with farming from the Near East. Taken with evidence on the origins of other lineages, this indicates that most European Y chromosomes descend from Near Eastern farmers. In contrast, most maternal lineages descend from hunter-gatherers, suggesting a reproductive advantage for farming males over indigenous hunter-gatherer males during the cultural transition from hunting-gathering to farming.
I think the discrepancy between the male and female lineages is a sign that we don't understand this data very well. This would be like finding out that contemporary Americans are mostly descended from Europeans in the male lineage and American Indians in the female lineage. We have no evidence the men in the European neolithic had multiple wives, and everything we know about primitive farmers worldwide suggests that this is unlikely. What we know about the interactions between neolithic farmers and mesolithic hunters in Europe (not much, admittedly) does not suggest intermarriage or any other form of close cultural contact.

One day we may understand this data well enough to make some statements about history based on it, but that appears to still be a ways in the future.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Where I Spent my Morning

The charring, from fires started by hot bullets, is an especially nice touch. And then there were the areas like the one below, where all the topsoil eroded away long ago and the acidic subsoil supports only stunted pines and lichens.

Emerson was a Strange Man

William Major and Bryan Sinche, in the Chronicle of Higher Education:

The fault, though, is that of the author. Because of Emerson's obscurantist and peripatetic style, his meanings—assuming there are some—are hidden. Consider this koan, one among many: "It is essential to a true theory of nature and of man, that it should contain somewhat progressive. Uses that are exhausted or that may be, and facts that end in the statement, cannot be all that is true of this brave lodging wherein man is harbored, and wherein all his faculties find appropriate and endless exercise. And all the uses of nature admit of being summed in one, which yields the activity of man an infinite scope."

That is the prose of a crazy person.

RIP Kate McGarrigle

Monday, January 18, 2010

The Massachusetts Candidates

Dan Drezhner on the Massachusetts Senate race:
Second, the candidates are God awful. Seriously, they stink. Just to review our choices: Democrat Martha Coakley has a prosecutor's complex that would make Javert seeem like a bleeding-heart liberal. She is a God-awful politician so out of touch with reality that she accused Red Sox hero extraordinaire Curt Schilling of being a Yankee fan (Schilling's blog response is here). Based on the ads I've seen, her campaign has also been, by far, the nastier of the two.

This leaves Republican Scott Brown, who based on this vacuous Boston Globe op-ed, is an empty shirt with no actual policy content whatsoever. He was in favor of health care reform before he was against it. He can't stand the run-up in government debt, and wants to cut taxes across the board to take care of the problem -- cause that makes perfect economic sense. The one thing he is unequivocally for is waterboarding suspected terrorists.

Seriously, these are my mainstream choices? These people are the recipients of all the political firepower both parties can muster? I'm inundated with 24/7 political blather so I can choose between Nurse Ratched and Bob Roberts? And I'm a professor of political science -- if I'm fed up with the state of this campaign, just imagine how other Massachusetts voters feel.

Experience and Intuition

Jonah Lehrer on chess prodigy Magnus Carlsen, the youngest number one player ever:
At first glance, there is something surprising about a teenager weaned on chess software extolling the wonders of intuition. It's as if we expect Carlsen to act like his software, to be as explicit in his strategic decisions as Deep Blue, the IBM supercomputer. But that misses the real purpose of practice and the real genius of the human brain. When we practice properly - and this means engaging in deliberate practice - we aren't just accumulating factual knowledge. Instead, we're embedding our experience into our unconscious, so that even insanely complicated calculations - and Carlsen can regularly plan twenty chess moves in advance - become mostly automatic.

This is a truism of expertise. Although we tend to think of experts as being weighted down by information, their intelligence dependent on a vast set of facts, experts are actually profoundly intuitive. When experts evaluate a situation, they don't systematically compare all the available options or consciously analyze the relevant information. Carlsen, for instance, doesn't compute the probabilities of winning if he moves his rook to the left rather than the right. Instead, experts naturally depend on the emotions generated by their experience. Their prediction errors - all those mistakes they made in the past - have been translated into useful knowledge, which allows them to tap into a set of accurate feelings they can't begin to explain. Neils Bohr said it best: an expert is "a person who has made all the mistakes that can be made in a very narrow field." From the perspective of the brain, Bohr was absolutely right.

I have been sitting here wondering if this is true for me about anything. Do I have any intuition? The closest I can claim for myself is a feel for sentences. I don't analyze them, I just listen to how they sound, and I have had some success with the results.

More Evidence of Murder at Guantamamo

Andrew Sullivan:
In Gitmo, the most tightly controlled and directly monitored prison and torture camp under Cheney's control, we already had a report that casts extraordinary doubt on the story-line that three deaths in Gitmo in 2006 were suicides. Dish readers may recall my recent airing of it here. Now, we have guards who have given clear and powerful evidence that strongly suggests that the three prisoners who allegedly hanged themselves did no such thing. There are now credible accounts that, far from being suicides, these deaths were either the result of serious negligence in treatment of prisoners under "enhanced interrogation" or that, quite simply, they were tortured so badly in what appears to be a secret Gitmo black site that they died. Their deaths were then covered up and faked as suicides. Like some footnote in Daniel Jonah Goldhagen's work, these suicides were nonetheless described by the military as aggressive acts of asymmetrical warfare against the U.S. Many branches of government must have been involved in such an act of torture or negligence or both, and the subsequent cover-up - from the FBI, the Justice Department, the State Department, the Pentagon and the CIA, and JSOC. The cover-up appears to have been continued by the Obama administration - a staggering surrender to pragmatism that is in fact a cooptation of evil.
The story on which Sullivan based his commenters, by Scott Horton in Harpers, is here.

Messages from God

One of the strangest stories to come out of the devastation in Haiti, to me, was the accounts of believers trying to understand what message God had sent by destroying the cathedral in Port-au-Prince.

They Were Like That for a Long Time

The earliest known example of Hebrew writing, said on I'm not sure what grounds to date to the 10th century BC, has been translated:
1' you shall not do [it], but worship the [Lord].
2' Judge the sla[ve] and the wid[ow] / Judge the orph[an]
3' [and] the stranger. [Pl]ead for the infant / plead for the po[or and]
4' the widow. Rehabilitate [the poor] at the hands of the king.
5' Protect the po[or and] the slave / [supp]ort the stranger.
Although this is not a passage from any Biblical book we have now, it much resembles a lot of passages. It seems that the ancient Hebrew prophets had been saying this sort of thing for a long time when the Bible was written down.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Intelligence about Iran

A summary of some of the assessments our magnificent intelligence experts have produced about Iran over the past 20 years:

Late 1991: In congressional reports and CIA assessments, the United States estimates that there is a ‘high degree of certainty that the government of Iran has acquired all or virtually all of the components required for the construction of two to three nuclear weapons.’ A February 1992 report by the U.S. House of Representatives suggests that these two or three nuclear weapons will be operational between February and April 1992.”

February 24, 1993: CIA director James Woolsey says that Iran is still 8 to 10 years away from being able to produce its own nuclear weapon, but with assistance from abroad it could become a nuclear power earlier.”

January 1995: The director of the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, John Holum, testifies that Iran could have the bomb by 2003.”

January 5, 1995: U.S. Defense Secretary William Perry says that Iran may be less than five years from building an atomic bomb, although ‘how soon…depends how they go about getting it.’”

April 29, 1996: Israeli prime minister Shimon Peres says ‘he believes that in four years, they [Iran] may reach nuclear weapons.’”

October 21, 1998: General Anthony Zinni, head of U.S. Central Command, says Iran could have the capacity to deliver nuclear weapons within five years. ‘If I were a betting man,’ he said, ‘I would say they are on track within five years, they would have the capability.’”

January 17, 2000: A new CIA assessment on Iran’s nuclear capabilities says that the CIA cannot rule out the possibility that Iran may possess nuclear weapons. The assessment is based on the CIA’s admission that it cannot monitor Iran’s nuclear activities with any precision and hence cannot exclude the prospect that Iran may have nuclear weapons.”

And when they produce the next assessment, people will treat it as serious and demand action. Sigh.

How Can I Get my Boyfriend/Girlfriend to. . . .

More from the wonderful world of the questions people ask Google, revealing what people want from their boyfriends, girlfriends, husbands, and wives.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Burqa Ban?

French legislators are moving closer to banning "full face veils" from many public places.
Gerin, who also is mayor in the working-class Lyon suburb of Venissieux, said his parliamentary commission will present formal recommendations for legislation Jan. 26. They will probably urge a nonpartisan parliamentary resolution condemning full-face veils in principle, he said, to be followed by targeted decrees or laws banning veils in public facilities such as town halls, and then a general law prohibiting full veils in as many places as possible under the French constitution. As Gerin described it, that law would bar fully veiled women from, for instance, walking down the Champs Elysees.
The proposed ban is backed by anti-immigrant groups and feminists:
Women's advocacy groups, some of which include Muslim women, have strongly endorsed the proposed legislation to ban the full-face veil on grounds it offends women's dignity and symbolizes oppression by men.
I think this is a little crazy.

Elizabeth Edwards

I despised John Edwards from the moment he first stepped into the political spotlight, and I never thought much of his wife, either. But Elizabeth Edwards became a sort of hero for many women, and, I think, she was big part of her slimy husband's impressive runs for the Presidency in 2004 and 2008. I always had a nagging suspicion that women liked her because she, a smart but ordinary-looking woman, managed to marry such a handsome golden boy, and they liked her husband better because he married a less beautiful woman than he might have. Now I see that the NY Times agrees:

It wasn’t just that Elizabeth Edwards — who looked considerably older than her eternally baby-faced husband — was a woman they admired and believed in.

Her story made them believe something good about themselves. It was a kind of Everywoman’s fable: behind the imperfect physical shell, a gem of inner beauty resides. And is loved and recognized.

This story was a dream come true for many women. “I like that he’s got a fat wife,” a woman in a focus group told an Edwards pollster in his 1998 Senate race, as recounted in Game Change. “I thought he’d be married to a Barbie or a cheerleader.”

If it was thus for Elizabeth Edwards, there was hope for us all.

Recent events remind us, again, of the dangers of believing that public figures ever live out that sort of fairy tale. To reach the highest levels of politics, sports, or entertainment in our world requires an insane level of ambition, and it rarely turns out that people with that level of ambition are particularly admirable in how they carry on their personal lives.