Monday, May 31, 2010

The Most Reproduced Paintings bills itself the world's largest distributor of hand-painted reproductions of famous paintings. Over the past decade, the best sellers have been:
  • 1. "Starry Night" – Vincent van Gogh
  • 2. "Café Terrace at Night" – Vincent van Gogh
  • 3. "The Kiss" – Gustav Klimt
  • 4. "Poppy Field at Argenteuil" – Claude Monet
  • 5. "The Mona Lisa" – Da Vinci
  • 6. "The Dream" – Pablo Picasso
  • 7. "Luncheon of the Boating Party" – Pierre August Renoir
  • 8. "The Scream" – Edvard Munch
  • 9. "Red Cannas" – Georgia O’Keeffe
  • 10. "Persistence of Memory" – Salvador Dal
I confess that I cannot recall ever having seen either the second Van Gogh, above, or the O'Keeffe, below.

Something to Think About

Although I have long wondered about the wisdom of anonymous sperm donation, I have never spent much time thinking about the hundreds of thousands of adults who were conceived in this way. This study, from the Commission on Parenthood's Future, is making me think. The study compares 485 adults who were conceived by anonymous sperm donation with adults who were adopted and those raised by their biological parents. The study's authors are associated with the Institute for American Values, a conservative organization, and they have a serious ax to grind. But the study seems fairly well designed, as far as it goes.

In terms of what sociologists call "outcomes," sperm donor children seem similar to adoptive children: they are about twice as likely as children raised by biological parents in the same social class and neighborhood to drop out of high school, be arrested, have substance problems, and all those other indexes of troubled youth, and also about twice as likely to report mental illness as adults.

All of the people in the study of course know that they are children of sperm donors -- otherwise they couldn't be in the study. The study found a major difference between those whose parents were honest and those who found out accidentally. Those whose parents were not honest were more than twice as likely to report mental health problems. The children of single mothers do somewhat worse in all areas than those raised by couples, whether heterosexual or lesbian. There were only 39 children raised by lesbian couples in the study, but they were the best group in terms of those outcomes I mentioned, although still worse than children raised by their biological parents.

This part of the study deals with measurable facts, and I can't see any reason to doubt the findings -- as I said, the results are similar to those for adopted children. I have questions about the other part of the study, which deals with attitudes. Because, see, what happens is that some researcher calls up these people and asks to talk with them about being the offspring of sperm donors, and then asks questions like, "Do you ever wonder what your sperm donor's family is like?" Even if you hardly ever think about this, being asked this question in the context of this interview is going to get you thinking about it. So I think the study could seriously overstate the degree to which the children of sperm donors worry about their status. But, for what it's worth, the authors found that offspring of sperm donors report suffering a lot over their situations. For example,
Nearly half of donor offspring (48%), compared to about a fifth of adopted adults (19%) agree, "When I see friends with their biological fathers and mothers, it makes me feel sad."
Another issue that I confess I never thought about:
Nearly half (46%) of donor offspring, but just 17% of adopted adults and 6% of those raised by their biological parents, agree, "When I am romantically attracted to someone I have worried that we could be unknowingly related."
What's with the 6% of those raise by their biological parents who worry about this? Nut cases.

The offspring of sperm donors seem to have conflicted views about the process. A majority believe that everyone has a right to have children, and a large minority have completely libertarian views about reproduction. But two-thirds think they have a right to find out the identity of their biological fathers, and to try to form a relationship with him. I consider this a bizarre fantasy born from the same part of the brain that writes fairy tales. Lots of adopted children try to seek out their birth parents, but very, very few ever end up forming a decent relationship with them. But it does reflect the confusion felt by these children over who they are and where they came from.

My feelings about this remain conflicted. As Ross Douthat points out in the column that pointed me to the study, couples who want to adopt have to prove themselves worthy in a lengthy and expensive process, but anybody with the money can get donated sperm and eggs and even a surrogate womb mother. I would probably not support legal intervention in the process, but that doesn't mean I think it is a good idea.

Today's Statistic

About a million American adults, if not more, are the biological children of sperm donors.

--Ross Douthat in the NY Times

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Treasures of the Dresden Armory

Above, a shield made around 1600. Click to enlarge. Collection of photos of other Renaissance pieces here.

Librarians Having Fun

Students and faculty from the University of Washington Information School performing a Lady Gaga remix about researching. Enjoy.

Democracy and Violence

We would like to think that democracy is an antidote to violence, allowing conflicts to be thrashed out in elections rather than in civil wars. We would like to think that democracy, by spreading the rewards of citizenship more broadly, might help to reduce crime. Sometimes, though, neither one of these things is true. Orlando Patterson in the NY Times:

It may or may not be true that democracies do not wage war with each other, but a growing number of analysts have concluded that, domestically, democracies are in fact more prone to violence than authoritarian states, measured by incidence of civil wars, communal conflict and homicide.

There are many obvious examples of this: India has far more street crime than China; the countries of the former Soviet Union are more violent now than they were under Communism; the streets of South Africa became more dangerous after apartheid was dismantled; Brazil was safer before 1985 under its military rule.

Three good explanations are offered for this connection between democracy and violent crime. First, it has been persuasively shown . . . that the electoral process itself tends, on balance, to promote violence more than peace. . . .

Another well-supported argument is that democracies are especially vulnerable to ethnic conflict and organized crime. In diverse democracies, the temptation of leaders to exploit ethnic identity for political ends is an all too frequent source of major conflict, sometimes culminating in oppression of minorities and even genocide. We saw this happen in Rwanda in 1994 and the former Yugoslav states in the 1990s. Dennis Austin, who has studied political strife in India and Sri Lanka, has concluded that in such societies “democracy is itself a spur to violence” adding “depth to the sense of division.”
Just so. There is nothing inherent in democracy that leads to violence, but if political leaders stoke ethnic conflict to further their own ends, violence can be the result. This is why you should not vote for people who call their opponents traitors, monsters, baby-killers, un-American, planet-destroyers, or anything else that might seem to make them good targets for a well-aimed bullet.

The questions of crime strikes me as more complicated. Criminals are generally people who do not feel that they are part of the broader society. So societies with high social cohesion have low crime rates. One would like to think that democracy would promote social cohesion, but often that does not happen. Instead, democracy reinforced the dominance of the majority ethnic group, or the majority social class, or the majority way of think and living, leaving many outsiders. And since democracies have more freedom, it is easier for people who see themselves as outsiders to make crime pay.

Nectocaris Pteryx

Nectocaris pteryx, one of the many puzzling Cambrian fossils from the Burgess Shale, has been explained. Ninety-one new fossils have been found, and they show that it was a cephalopod, a relative of modern cuttlefish and squids.

The Burgess shale may be the world's most important fossil collection, preserving the soft tissues of many creatures from 505 million years ago, not long after most modern groups of animals -- arthropods, mollusks, and so on -- first appeared. Much has been made over the years of how weird some of them seem. One of the most famous is called Anomalocaris, to emphasize its uniqueness. The thing about science is, though, that over time many things that seem strange are shown to fit into older categories or to be covered by earlier explanations. Not everything -- some things remain mysterious. But it is usually a mistake to put too much theoretical weight on our inability to explain or categorize things.

Discoveries (2)

More images from Brian Fagan's Discoveries. (First set here.) Above, a stone statue of a Celtic warrior from Glauberg in Germany, dated about 400 BC. Below, the head and torso of a Greek bronze statue of a dancing satyr, recovered from the sea floor near Sicily. The recovery of this and several other Greek bronzes has given us a much more direct contact with the creators of classical art. Fifty years ago we knew Greek sculpture largely in the form of later Roman copies in marble, or else shattered fragments from ruined temples. Now we have several wonderful original bronzes recovered from the sea, and we can understand much better the wonder they inspired. (And the greed, which caused the Romans to steal them all and ship them to Italy, which is how a few ended up on the sea bottom.)

Artificial News

I have been meaning to write something puncturing the hype about "artificial life", but I see that Craig Venter already wrote a clear explanation of what his team actually did for the Wall Street Journal:

In 1995, we reported the DNA sequences for the first two cellular genomes. Nowadays genome sequences, which contain the genetic instructions for an organism, are routinely obtained and deposited in computer databases.

Last week, we reported that this process can be reversed. The digitized DNA information of Mycoplasma mycoides, a simple bacterium, can now be brought to life.

Notice the passive voice of that last sentence. Venter and company did not, themselves, bring the DNA "to life", they put it in a fully functioning cell that did that for them.

So what is new and unique about what we did? The process of synthesizing a cell began at a computer. We started with the more than one million letters of genetic instructions for Mycoplasma mycoides, and then made slight modifications to its DNA sequence. First, we deleted 4,000 letters, which removed the function of two genes. We then replaced 10 genes with four "watermark" sequences. These watermark sequences are each over 1,000 letters in length and can be decoded to reveal the names of people, famous quotations and a website address. The entire sequence of DNA letters was then partitioned into 1,100 pieces, and each was synthesized using four different bottles of chemicals that make up DNA. These DNA fragments were designed such that adjacent pieces contained an 80-letter overlap, which facilitated the assembly process by providing unique regions where the synthetic pieces could join.

The synthetic Mycoplasma mycoides genome was assembled by adding the overlapping DNA fragments to yeast. Once inside a yeast cell, the yeast machinery recognized that two DNA fragments had the same sequence and assembled them at this overlapping region. The genome was not assembled from all 1,100 pieces at once but rather in three stages: 1,000 letters to 10,000 letters, 10,000 letters to 100,000 letters, and finally 100,000 letters to complete the 1.08 million letter genome. This assembled genome is the largest chemically defined structure ever synthesized in the laboratory.

. . . nor did we create life from scratch. We transformed existing life into new life. We also did not design and build a new chromosome from nothing. Rather, using only digitized information, we synthesized a modified version of the naturally occurring Mycoplasma mycoides genome. The result is not an "artificial" life form. It is a very real, self-replicating cell that most microbiologists would be unable to readily distinguish from the naturally occurring counterpart without the aid of DNA sequencing.

So what they did was build, with the help of yeast cells, a very big molecule. Because that molecule is DNA, people have gotten all excited about "making life," but DNA is not life. It is just one molecule, just one part of the millions of parts that make up even the simplest cells. A very important part, but by itself DNA is not life. Without a fully-functioning cell to carry out the instructions it encodes, it just lies around for a while and then decomposes.

I also pass along this piece of satire, about "journalists create world's first artificial news story."

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Herb Festival 2010

One of our favorite Baltimore events; we've been coming since we had Robert and Mary in a double stroller. We rode the toy train,

Ate lemon sticks, and kind of went crazy buying flowers.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Today at the Lee-Fendall Garden

Just three days later, things have changed. The two features in front of the kitchen we thought were nineteenth-century planting beds now seem to be twentieth-century ditches more than two feet deep, but we have no clue why they were dug. We still think there are planting beds here, but not the two long, obvious features we flagged before. But that little bit of brick rubble we found has grown into a big rubble pile, obviously the remains of a building from early in the site's history. In the picture below, two clowning archaeologists pretend to do what they are actually doing, thinking about this pile of brick rubble and wondering how to proceed.

Meanwhile, we have found another large pile of rubble along one side of the garden, just a few feet from the east wall. This is probably another building from the late 1700s.

One more week to go, and still so much to find and figure out.

Why Else?

From the Times of London:
The opening of a Moscow Metro station named after Fyodor Dostoevsky has been postponed after complaints that murals decorating the platform walls are too depressing. The images, drawn from the 19th-century novelist’s works, could prompt depressed commuters to kill themselves, critics say.

Things to Look Forward To

Older Americans are happier:
Despite weighty concerns such as aging, planning for retirement or caring for older friends and family, people in the U.S. seem to get happier with age. A new study reports that these changes are consistent regardless of whether individuals were employed, had young children at home or lived with a partner.

General well-being (characterized by how people currently felt about their life) fell sharply through the age of 25 and tapered more gradually overall until the ages of 50 to 53. And by the early 70s, that wellbeing was back up to late-teen levels.

"As people age, they are less troubled by stress and anger," the researchers noted in their study, which was led by Arthur Stone, of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Science at Stony Brook University, and published online May 17 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. "And although worry persists, without increasing, until middle age, " they continued, "it too fades after the age of 50."
In some moods I think this points to something wrong with our lives. But it may be just a cruel evolutionary trick. For the species to thrive, people aged 15 to 45 have to get up and do lots of stuff: hunt, gather, find mates, establish territories, fend off enemies. And it seems that happiness and contentment are bad motivators. So to make us get up and do things, our genes inflict us with agitation, anxiety, ambition, anger, lust, greed, and a general restlessness. Only those people excused from effort, the young and the old, are freed from this hormonal assault on our well being.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

John Kenn

Interesting collection of grotesque drawings by a guy I never heard of.

The More You Harass, the More You Get

The headline for this story at New Scientist is that male chimpanzees don't trade meat for sex. Or not in a simple quid pro quo way; some studies do suggest that males who give meat to females have more sex over the long term.

So why do male chimps share their meat? Because others harass them:

A more likely explanation is that chimps share meat because others beg, [primatologist Ian] Gilby says. He has found that the more a chimp eating meat is harassed, the more he shares; that begging slows the speed at which chimps eat meat; and that begging tends to stop once meat is shared.

"It doesn't involve males thinking about who owes them favours," Gilby says. "It is essentially 'you're in my face bugging me, because you're there harassing me for meat I can't eat'."

Much is hereby explained about the behavior of human children, who seem to have internalized this rule that the more you harass, the more you get.

France's Brown Bears

From this little piece at National Geographic, I learned that France has an ongoing effort to re-introduce brown bears to the Pyrenees. A decade ago the bears were nearly extinct in France, with only five known to be alive in the wild. They are a little better off now, but not that much. European brown bears are similar to North American grizzlies, and they are large and fierce animals. And yes, they do kill sheep. So it is not easy to sustain a population in a crowded country like France.

Oil in the Gulf

As of this writing, the amount of oil escaping from BP's damaged rig in the Gulf of Mexico has been reduced by their "top kill," and there is hope that it may soon be stopped. And that's good news. But a vast amount of oil has already been pumped into the ocean. We don't know how much, or where it is, or where it is going, or what will happen when it gets there, but the answers to all of these questions are surely going to be bad. I haven't written much about the disaster because I don't really know what to say. Obviously the procedures for operating these rigs need to be reviewed from top to bottom, and we ought to be better prepared for every sort of disaster we can imagine. But the only long-term answer is to move toward a world in which we use much less oil, and that is a long way off no matter what we do.

Martin Gardner and Me

I have been meaning to write something to mark the death of Martin Gardner, mathematician and professional curmudgeon. It was a collection of Gardner's essays, read when I was about 14, that first opened my eyes to the joys of skepticism. Gardner made it fun to doubt, and a positive delight to mock the latest in trendy mysticism. The effect was not entirely positive. I was among the most cynical teenagers in human history, and my scientific skepticism was part of it. But at least I was cynical in a rational way. I never doubted that it was possible to learn about the universe, or that it was possible to tell the difference between serious inquiry and bullshit. I always believed in the value of intelligence and knowledge. Gardner helped me shape my brain into a precise tool for judging how much credence we ought to place in various kinds of claims about the world, and for that I will always be grateful to him.

Discoveries (1)

I have been perusing a new coffee table book edited by Brian Fagan, Discoveries: Unearthing the New Treasures of Archaeology. This is a lovely thing, with great pictures of archaeological discoveries from the past 20 years and short articles by the discoverers. I spent a lot of time with such books in my youth, and I long ago fixed in my mind the images of the iconic archaeological discoveries from the century before I graduated from high school in 1980. But many of the discoveries in this book are new to me, or else I know them only from news items. Some of these images will one day be as famous as the ones I grew up with, like the ruins of Machu Pichu or the bull's head lyre from the royal tombs of Ur. I am going to post a few of them here, from time to time, just for fun, and to show that amazing archaeology is still being done around the world. Above, a ceramic effigy vessel from a Moche tomb in Peru; below, a collection of bronze objects from a Celtic ritual deposit at Tintagnac, France, including a swan-shaped helmet and many musical horns, and two stone statues from the tombs of bronze age queens in Syria.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Ancient Civilizatons and Bad Writing

I have a new piece up at Bensozia, a review of a new book about the Indus Valley Civilization by MacArthur winner Rita Wright, titled, "If Rita Wright is a Genius, Why Can't She Write?"

Teosinte and Corn

Botanists and archaeologists have been searching for the wild ancestor of corn for a century. The close resemblance between corn and a Mexican grass called teosinte was observed by botanist George Beadle in the 1930s, and Beadle went on to show that cross breeds of corn and teosinte are fertile. The problem is that corn and teosinte are very different in a lot of basic ways, as you can see from looking at the pictures. In teosinte, the female ears develop on long side stalks, rather than on the central stalk, and there are several male flowers per plant instead of just one.

Modern genetics has confirmed that Beadle was right, and corn and teosinte are the same species. Only a handful of genetic changes separate the two plants, and it is a mutation in one regulatory gene that creates the different shapes. This must have happened around 9000 years ago, when the plant was first domesticated, since there is no archaeological record of domesticated teosinte. What a strange and key event it was, since corn was the basis of all the native civilizations of Central and North America.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

I'm Sure this is Symbolic of Something

These mushrooms were sprouting today in the garden in front of a very posh office building in Washington. Dozens of them. Each uglier than the last.

The Lee-Fendall Garden

My latest project is in the garden of the Lee-Fendall House in Alexandria, Virginia. This lovely house was built in 1785, when this was the undeveloped outskirts of the town. The builder was Philip Fendall, a cousin of Light Horse Harry Lee, and various other Lees and close relations lived in the house until the 1903. George Washington was a regular guest in his time, Robert E. Lee in his. In the 1850s the house was remodeled by a wealthy Alexandria merchant who had married into the Lee family, giving it the Greek Revival appearance it has today. From 1937 to 1969, in one of those weird historical connections that seem significant in a way you can't put your finger on, the house belonged to John L. Lewis, President of the United Mine Workers.

The house is furnished to the 1850 to 1870 period, and the foundation that owns it would like to know what the garden looked like at that time. So we are spending three weeks digging in the garden to find out what we can. Mostly we are excavating long, narrow trenches like the one below. We are hoping to find paths, planting beds, other garden features, and buildings, including a greenhouse mentioned in an 1854 advertisement.

Our first discovery was that across most of the yard the original topsoil is buried under about a foot and a half of fill -- soil brought from somewhere else. The fill looks very like the natural soil of the site, so it presumably came from nearby. Your first assumption when you find a lot of fill spread around an old house is that it came from digging the cellar and the well, so you imagine it dates to the time the house was built. But this fill contains artifacts dating (we think) to the mid 1800s. The deep trench in the picture below cut through the fill to the natural topsoil buried beneath it, and that soil contained a lot of artifacts dating to around 1800, like the broken coffee cup in the next picture. Since nobody lived around here in 1785 when the house was built, that means these artifacts, sealed beneath the fill, were thrown away by the Fendalls, confirming our suspicion that the fill dates to later.

We haven't yet pinned down the date of the fill, but we think it must have been put down around the time the house was remodeled, in the early 1850s. That was the only time we know of that a lot of money was invested in the house. Perhaps the soil came from a nearby lot, from the cellar of one of the neighboring houses. The long trench we dug across the lawn (above) didn't show any planting beds or really much of anything, so we think this area was always a lawn. The only planting beds we have found so far are in the trenches we dug near the kitchen (top photo), so there were likely vegetables or herbs being grown in that part of the yard. In one of those same trenches we found brick rubble underneath the planting bed, and that is another important clue. (That's what our field supervisor Jason is troweling up in the picture below.) We have a 1796 insurance map that shows a bunch of outbuildings in the yard, but these were gone by 1854. So we think that around the time the house was remodeled, the yard was transformed from a busy work area, with many buildings, to something quieter and more genteel. The buildings were knocked down and their foundations leveled, and fill was spread across the yard to hide the remnants and help get the plants started. Trees were planted, the lawn was established, and garden beds were laid out in front of the kitchen and probably around the edges of the yard as well.

We still have more than a week of fieldwork yet to go, so our thinking about all of this may change. And the fieldwork will just be the first step. We will take all of the artifacts we find to the lab for more analysis and (we hope) more accurate dating. We have soil sample we will send to our botanist for flotation, to search for seeds or other plant remains, and other sample we will have analyzed for pollen. By the end of the project we expect to have learned a lot about the Lee-Fendall garden.


Strange Ancient Inventions

I have often wondered how ancient peoples came to discover some of the strange things they discovered. Like, who figured out that if you grated up an inedible cassava root, squeezed out all the juice, dried it in the sun, and then boiled it, you would get a nutritious food?

Now here is a new one, processed rubber:
New research from MIT indicates that not only did these pre-Columbian peoples know how to process the sap of the local rubber trees along with juice from a vine to make rubber, but they had perfected a system of chemical processing that could fine-tune the properties of the rubber depending on its intended use. For the soles of their sandals, they made a strong, wear-resistant version. For the rubber balls used in the games that were a central part of their religious ceremonies, they processed it for maximum bounciness. And for rubber bands and adhesives used for ornamental wear and for attaching blades to shafts, they produced rubber optimized for resilience and strength.

All of these, according to the research by Professor Dorothy Hosler and Technical Instructor Michael Tarkanian of MIT’s Department of Materials Science and Engineering, were most likely achieved by varying the proportions of the two basic ingredients, latex from rubber trees and juice from morning-glory vines, which were cooked together.
Who ever thought to boil sap from a rubber tree and morning glory juice together, and why?

Monday, May 24, 2010


In Germany last year, 651,000 babies were born and 842,000 people died. Enough immigrants arrived to keep the population steady, but the low birth rate has become a major political issue. Despite an ongoing budget deficit the government recently increased the "parent money" (Elterngeld) they pay to new parents to more than 25,000 Euros for most couples.

I take issue, though with the Weekly Standard's headline about "Germany's Dire Demographics." I think that it would be great for the planet if the human population would decline. Obviously there are challenges to an aging and shrinking population, but they are in principle no more difficult than the problems created by a rising population. We are just not used to solving them.

A Confederation of Equals

Obama's West Point address reminded James Fallows of the famous "farewell address" by President Eisenhower, 50 years ago:
During the long lane of the history yet to be written, America knows that this world of ours, ever growing smaller, must avoid becoming a community of dreadful fear and hate, and be, instead, a proud confederation of mutual trust and respect. Such a confederation must be one of equals. The weakest must come to the conference table with the same confidence as do we, protected as we are by our moral, economic, and military strength. That table, though scarred by many past frustrations, cannot be abandoned for the certain agony of the battlefield.

Disarmament, with mutual honor and confidence, is a continuing imperative. Together we must learn how to compose differences, not with arms, but with intellect and decent purpose.
Republicanism has changed a lot in 50 years.

The Strategic False Alarm

Just too perfect:

During mating season, male topi antelope trick females with false alarms of nearby danger to boost chances for sex, a new study says. If a female starts wandering out of a male's territory, the male will begin snorting and staring, ears pricked, at nonexistent predators.

"The female will be walking away, and the male runs in front, looks not at the female but where she's going, makes this snort, and she typically stops," said lead researcher Jakob Bro-Jørgensen of the University of Liverpool. The researcher, who observed the topi's tricky behavior in Kenya's Masai Mara National Reserve, noted that the males issue fake warnings only when the wandering females are in heat.

I always suspected that for warriors to increase their power by playing up fake threats was one of the oldest political tricks, but I never knew how old.

Men, Women and Relaxation

Here is another nugget from that UCLA family study I described in my last post, which included regular measurements of cortisol levels in all the participants:
These cortisol profiles provided biological backing for a familiar frustration in many marriages. The more that women engaged with their husbands in the evening, talking about the day, the faster their cortisol dropped. But the men’s levels tapered more slowly when talking with a spouse.


The NY Times has a piece today by Benedict Carey on the videotape study of 32 Los Angeles families, carried out in 2002-2005 by anthropologists from UCLA. Each family was paid $1000 to fill out extensive questionnaires and let the film crews videotape them for a week. All of the families were middle class, and both parents had full-time jobs. One of the study leaders calls the result “the richest, most detailed, most complete database of middle-class family living in the world.”

I am intrigued by this sort of thing because I wonder how we get our ideas of how to parent and what family life should be like. How many families do any of us know well before we get married? Our own, and maybe one other if we have a childhood best friend. And yet somehow we form ideas about how things ought to be that are often at odds with how we grew up. Is it television? Are we projecting into family life ideas we develop in other areas, like, we believe in fairness and gender equality, so we imagine how those ideas will work out in our future families?

Consider the age-old question of how much children should be asked to help around the house. We have very little success getting our children to do housework. They exact such a high price for any effort that it is generally easier and quicker for me to do things myself than to get one of my children to do them. I could bully them into doing more, but I prefer to reserve my strongest efforts in that regard for getting them do their homework. Anyway, it seems that nobody else in America gets much work out of children, either:
Mothers still do most of the housework, spending 27 percent of their time on it, on average, compared with 18 percent for fathers and 3 percent for children (giving an allowance made no difference).
The researchers also took spit samples from family members four times a day, to measure the levels of cortisol, a stress hormone. It seems that stress is lowest where there rigid rules about who will do what, rather than an ongoing negotiation. And this is certainly true in dealing with my children. One of Lisa's greatest innovations is a schedule that specifies who will unload the dishwasher on any given day; as long as we keep to the schedule, the dishwasher gets unloaded with minimum fuss. But should the schedule get out of whack, say beecause someone is gone all day on his or her unloading day, mayhem ensues.

And, again, I wonder how it happens that all the families in America have the same problems, when parents and children are so different from each other in so many ways.

Sunday, May 23, 2010


Robert (right) and his theatrical friend Mack on their way to a live-action rolepay today.

Robert said afterwards, "We're getting respect on the field."

Discrimination against the Ugly

Discrimination against the fat and ugly is pervasive:
Unattractive people are less likely to be hired and promoted, and they earn lower salaries, even in fields in which looks have no obvious relationship to professional duties. (In one study, economists Jeff Biddle and Daniel Hamermesh estimated that for lawyers, such prejudice can translate to a pay cut of as much as 12 percent.)
But put me down against any law banning discrimination on this basis. It just sounds like a gigantic mess. The key to getting ahead in a lot of fields is playing a part well, acting and looking like a successful whatever-it-is. For many and maybe most professions, being non-ugly, non-fat and non-short are part of the image; for a few, being beautiful is. But looks are not everything. It is perfectly possible for a fat, short, or ugly person to convey a professional demeanor. Clothes, accessories, posture, tone of voice and so on matter a lot, too. Every young man entering business is told that a firm handshake is essential to success. Most of the studies about bias in how people rank job candidates and the like are based on photographs, and that is not a good way to assess how we will respond to real people.

I have learned to project a professional image in a variety of settings, but I had to learn it. I grant that it is easier for a tall, non-fat, non-ugly man to do this, but it is still a trick. I suspect that part of the problem for many unattractive people is that, subjected to harassment as children and young adults, the never learn the head up, confident, friendly, gladhanding, one-of-the-boys/girls manner that helps so much in getting ahead. And as for all the complaints about discrimination against people with dreadlocks or too many piercings or hip-hop style and what have you -- yes, people complain about this all the time -- too bad. If you care more about your style than getting ahead, good for you, but this is just one of many areas in life that you can't have both ways. How is a lawcourt supposed to sort out "legitimate" reasons for disliking a person -- whatever those are -- from physical type?

Saturday, May 22, 2010

The Perils of Dark Magic

I was just idly watching a few minutes of a movie called Dark Relic, which features a band of heroic crusaders returning home with a relic that turns out to be cursed. They are attacked by wolves, locusts, storms, and whatever else the devil can throw at them. At one point on their grim road dead crows start to fall from the sky, lading like big hail around and on them.

Thinking this over, it is rather creepy, and it is hard to think of anything that would have more freaked out an actual medieval person. But watching it I nearly burst out laughing, because it seemed so slapstick and ridiculous. The sound of the crows thudding against the knights' shields was particularly silly. Thomas and I started telling jokes, like, "Well it could be worse. It could be dead wolves falling from the sky." "Or dead rhinos."

Successful fantasy depends on creating the right mood, and if the necessary suspension of disbelief is lost even for a moment, disaster ensues.

Today in the Garden

Poppies and Clematis.

And Death Shall Have No Dominion

And death shall have no dominion.
Dead mean naked they shall be one
With the man in the moon and the west wind;
When their bones are picked clean and the clean bones gone,
They shall have stars at elbow and foot;
Though they go mad they shall be sane,
Though they sink through the sea they shall rise again;
Though lovers be lost love shall not;
And death shall have no dominion.

--Dylan Thomas


The Library of Congress is hosting a conference on portolan maps. These maps, the oldest of which date to the 13th century, are based on straight line sailing distances between ports. Nobody knows much about how they were made, although they obviously depended on compass readings. By the 16th century, when the map above was made by Mateo Prunes, they had become reasonably accurate for the Mediterranean and the Black Sea. But the method could not cope with the curvature of the earth across oceanic distances, so these maps were abandoned in favor of projections based on latitude and longitude, like the method of Mercator. People have tried to show that portolans were based on ancient Roman or even Phoenician traditions, but there is no evidence of this, and it seems they were Medieval invention. The detail below shows the method better.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Congress at Work

Americans like to complain that the government is not dealing with the issues that matter most to them, and certainly Washington insiders often get exercised about minor scandals and the like that are really of no importance.

But this year Congress has already passed a hugely important health care reform law, and now the House and the Senate have both passed versions of laws designed to reform the financial sector and avoid future ad hoc bailouts. The bills are not that far apart and a signed law looks likely by the end of the summer. Committees are working on immigration reform bills and bills designed to reduce carbon emissions and thereby influence the climate of the world. Say what you want about this Congress or this President, you can't say they are afraid to take on big issues.

Spending Cuts for Other People

This is from the Wall Street Journal, via David Frum:

Tea party favorite Rand Paul has rocketed to the lead ahead of Tuesday’s Republican Senate primary here on a resolute pledge to balance the federal budget and slash the size of government. But on Thursday evening, the ophthalmologist from Bowling Green said there was one thing he would not cut: Medicare physician payments. In fact, Paul — who says 50% of his patients are on Medicare — wants to end cuts to physician payments under a program now in place called the sustained growth rate, or SGR. “Physicians should be allowed to make a comfortable living,” he told a gathering of neighbors in the back yard of Chris and Linda Wakild, just behind the 10th hole of a golf course. ...

He also said he plans to continue practicing ophthalmology if elected.

The fantasy of the budget cutters is that spending can be reduced without hurting anyone, or at least anyone who deserves our consideration. But every dollar of government spending seems like a really good idea to somebody.


I just learned today about the megalithic observatory at Kokino in Macedonia, discovered in 2001. The site consists of a rock outcrop on top of an old volcano that was modified by the construction of platforms and the erection of menhirs with notches in their tops that mark the positions of important celestial events. The site has been dated by potsherds found in the platform areas to around 2000 to 1800 BC. The upper photo is very large and you can click on it for a better view of the site.

I can't find much out about the site, but I imagine it is controversial with hard-headed, scientific types. The rock of the mountain fractures naturally into rectangular shapes, and both the stones of the platforms and the menhirs are unaltered natural rocks. So an enthusiast could easily imagine lots of constructions that a skeptic would dismiss as natural rock piles. The Macedonians have applied to UNESCO for World Heritage Site status, and their application includes some rather speculative stuff:
All crucial features of the ancient observatory are situated at two platforms, an upper and a lower one, at an elevation difference of 19m. The shapes of four stone seats ("thrones") placed in a row dominate the lower, western side. They are oriented in the direction north-south, thus enabling the one seating on the throne to observe the apparitions on the upper platform, while the tops of the rocks had the role of an eastern horizon. According to the archaeo-astronomical analysis, the main role of the thrones was the performing of the bonding ritual of the Sun God with his "representative" on Earth - the ruler, who sat on one of the thrones (the second one) during the ritual. A testimony for that is the distinct stone block with a separate marker cutting on its top, placed right under the highest elevation of the site. The ritual was performed in mid-summer (today in the last day of July) when the Sun rises exactly in the opening of the stone marker. The marker cutting was made with great precision, in such a way that the distance of its external vertical sides fully corresponds with the diameter of the Sun, when observed from the second throne.
This photograph is titled "thrones", and these rocks look pretty natural to me:

And as you can see from this photograph, a lot of the points that are said to have been used for solar, stellar, and lunar observations are natural cracks in the rock:

But the presence of Bronze Age pottery on a remote mountaintop implies a ceremonial site of some kind, and the standing rock in the second picture above certainly looks like a megalith. And, honestly, my image of Bronze Age Europeans is that they would be more impressed by a site where you could sit on natural thrones and observe important sunrises or moonrises through natural rock clefts than by an observatory they had to build themselves. So whatever the details, this strikes me as a fascinating site.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

The New Anarchists

Mark Lilla on the "new populism":
Quite apart from the movement’s effect on the balance of party power, which should be short-lived, it has given us a new political type: the antipolitical Jacobin. The new Jacobins have two classic American traits that have grown much more pronounced in recent decades: blanket distrust of institutions and an astonishing—and unwarranted—confidence in the self. They are apocalyptic pessimists about public life and childlike optimists swaddled in self-esteem when it comes to their own powers.
Lilla's essay is fascinating and I highly recommend it. His thesis is that right now the only political movement is a desire for more autonomy. The left focuses on cultural issues like the right of gay people to marry, while the right focuses on economic issues like the right of people to decide how much they will pay to support the government. But the dominant message coming from both sides is that freedom and autonomy are the only goods. Community feeling is nonexistent, party loyalty fading, and even nationalism is often expressed as the desire that other people should just leave us alone.

I tend to agree with Lilla, mostly because I feel these things so clearly in myself. I have no community feeling and no party loyalty, and I hate being told what to do. I am a liberal partly because I share the cultural concerns Lilla describes, and partly because I value, for selfish reasons, common goods like public parks and public transportation. I also think that contemporary American Republicanism is too militant, too nationalistic, too prone to an irrational faith in free markets, and too given to flat-out lying. If I were English, I believe I would have voted Tory in the last election, partly because the Labor government was too interested in "nanny state" experiments like harassing the parents of fat children.

I wonder if we can sustain a robust public sector, providing things that we can all share -- free public schools, cheap public universities, parks, subways -- in a world without strong community loyalties. I think we can. The trick is to convince people that some government actions make everyone better off. When the Interstate highway system was proposed, many conservatives screamed about the unwarranted interference in local affairs. But once people started driving on the new expressways, the opposition vanished. I think we could do the same thing with high speed trains, and I am sure that once the national health insurance system is up and running, most people will learn to love it.

We are a social species, and modern life demands that we work together. I think those basic facts will sustain liberalism despite the intense individualism of our age.

The Zoque Pyramid

In Mexico, archaeologists are excavating the oldest pyramid tomb yet found in central America. The main burial was accompanied by jade beads and other extraordinary artifacts, along with two human sacrifices. All those Mayan pyramids were tombs; there is always a founding tomb near the base, and every time the pyramid was enlarged, more tombs were added. So the discovery of the tomb at Chiapa de Corzo, dating to about 700 BC, sheds some light on the origin of the practice. And, interestingly, Chiapa de Corzo is not a Mayan site, nor does it seem to have been part of the Olmec culture, which was the richest and most influential of the time. Archaeologists call this culture Zoque, but nobody knows quite who these people were or how they were related to the Maya.

Fish vs. Dams

At National Geographic today, a cheerful piece describing how many fish have returned to the Kennebec River in Maine since the last major dam was removed in 2000. Last year 2 million alewife returned to the Kennebec to spawn, the largest alewife migration in the US, and alewife are just one of several species that spawn in the river.

And that's great.

But every functioning dam that we dismantle means that a little less of our electricity comes from hydropower, a little more from burning coal. The dams we dismantle are always described as "outdated," and most of them produce very little power. But very little is still some. Since 1997, 430 "outdated" dams have been removed from America's rivers. Some of them, like the one on the Patapsco River near my house, were doing nothing at all, but some of them were still powering small hydroelectric plants.

Everything comes at a cost.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Clouds from Space

A collection of photographs. The swirls above are a Von Karman Vortex Street.

Bag End in Miniature

An amazing creation.

If You're Going to Lie, Lie Big

One of history's greatest fake resumes.

Gotta love "The Rime of the Book of the Dove: Zoroastrian Cosmology, Armenian Heresiology, and the Russian Novel."

A Poem for a Day in the Office

A Note from Echo

Narcissus, I no longer haunt the canyons
and the crypts. I thrive and multiply;
uncounted daughters are my new companions.

We are the voicemail's ponderous reply
to the computers making random calls.
We are the muzak in the empty malls,
the laugh track on the reruns late at night,
the distant siren's chilling lullaby,
the steady chirp of things that simplify
their scheduled lives. You know I could recite
more, but you never cared for my recitals.

I do not miss you, do not need you here --
I can recite the words of your disciples
telling lovers what they need to hear.

--A.M. Juster

The Bourgeois Optimist

Zoologist Matt Ridley, more recently a writer for the Economist, believes in progress in a big way, and he is sick of doomsday talk:

Rational optimism holds that the world will pull out of its economic and ecological crises because of the way that markets in goods, services and ideas allow human beings to exchange and specialise for the betterment of all. But a constant drumbeat of pessimism usually drowns out this sort of talk. Indeed, if you dare to say the world is going to go on getting better, you are considered embarrassingly mad.

If, on the other hand, you say catastrophe is imminent, you can expect a MacArthur Foundation genius award. In my own adult life I have listened to solemn predictions of growing poverty, coming famines, expanding deserts, imminent plagues, impending water wars, inevitable oil exhaustion, mineral shortages, falling sperm counts, thinning ozone, acidifying rain, nuclear winters, mad cow epidemics, Y2K computer bugs, killer bees, sex-change fish, global warming, ocean acidification and even asteroid impacts that would soon bring our happy interlude to a terrible end. Let me make a square concession at the start: the pessimists are right when they say that if the world continues as it is it will end in disaster. If all transport depends on oil, and the oil runs out, then transport will cease. If agriculture continues to depend on irrigation and water stocks are depleted, then starvation will ensue.

Notice the “if”. The world will not continue as it is. That is the whole point of human progress, the pressing message of cultural evolution.

I am, like Ridley, an optimist about our future; I think that with effective birth control and the infrastructure in place to create ever improving technology, we can only get richer by leaps and bounds. Whether that will make us happy is an entirely different question. But right now I am interested in a model of history Ridley endorses in his new book, The Rational Optimist. Like many boosters of business and free markets, Ridley believes that innovation in history has been concentrated in the commercial classes of trading cities. The people who move history forward, in this model, are not kings or philosophers but merchants and craftsmen:
Forget wars, religions, famines and poems for the moment. This is history’s greatest theme: the metastasis of exchange, specialization and the invention it has called forth.
Kings, emperors, and generals appear as just so many parasites wasting on pointless wars the surplus wealth created by commercial towns. Religion is just another sort of parasite, diverting scarce capital into temples and rituals while imposing taboos that limit trade. Ridley believes, in fact, that the main thing slowing progress is parasites of various kinds:
Empires bought stability at the price of creating a parasitic court; monotheistic religions bought social cohesion at the expense of a parasitic priestly class; nationalism bought power at the expense of a parasitic military; socialism bought equality at the price of a parasitic bureaucracy; capitalism bought efficiency at the price of parasitic financiers.
In European history, there is certainly something to what Ridley says. Kings and emperors have squandered our surplus wealth on endless wars, and if you examine the economics and finance of Renaissance or modern Europe, you see that most of the money was coming from commercial towns. I do not think, though, that royal courts or the church have been nothing but a drag. Ridley thinks the exchange of ideas has been as important as the exchange of goods, and in medieval and modern times royal courts and church institutions like the universities have been major foci of such exchange. Governments have made big investments in new technologies and industries and opening trade routes. (Who sent Columbus to America?) Although wasteful of capital, war has been one of the main drivers of new technology. Commercial towns are also perfectly capable of waging pointless wars and accumulating costly empires -- Athens, Carthage, Venice, and many others. I also think that the sort of science supported by royal academies and universities has been a big part of our progress over the past 200 years.

Nothing is as simple as Ridley wants history to be. And yet when I read about another Renaissance king bullying bankers to advance him yet more of their money to fight yet another war, in which thousands of peasants will die and a few aristocratic heroes will cover themselves with glory and be showered with gold, I feel what Ridley feels: war is a criminal waste, the military aristocracy was a bunch of insufferable parasites who hid their uselessness behind Courage and Honor, and it was the clever people hard at work in their offices, their ships, and their mills who deserve the credit for creating the modern world.

Goodbye, Senator Specter

Arlen Specter, one of the Senate's emptiest suits, a careerist who was willing to do just about anything, even change parties, to stay in power, has been booted by the Democratic primary voters of Pennsylvania. I find this to be the most cheerful election result of the past year. Representative Joe Sestak, who unseated him, seems like a reasonable guy to me -- he opposed the invasion of Iraq and supported health care reform, and just that gives me hope that he will be a much better senator than Specter. His personal appeal and clean record also make it almost certain that Democrats will hold the Pennsylvania seat in the fall.

Meanwhile, the Republican voters of Kentucky have gone collectively insane. It isn't just that they voted overwhelmingly for Tea Party hero Rand Paul, who supports the gold standard and promises to balance the budget in one year. They have also turned fiercely against Senator Mitch McConnell, the minority leader. McConnell supported the other candidate in the primary, and when reporters asked Paul voters about this, many of them said that McConnell was "going along with Obama's agenda" and "not doing enough" to support conservative causes. But McConnell has done a herculean job of keeping his caucus united to oppose absolutely everything Obama has tried to do. Even the most liberal stalwarts have marveled at the discipline that McConnell has managed to instill in his Republican senate colleagues. Short of armed rebellion, what else could he possibly do?


At the NY Times, a feature on the possible emotional benefits for children of having enemies. The core finding is that those students who hated someone who also hated them were ranked by teachers and peers as more popular and better adjusted.

My elder daughter had a bitter enemy for a while, and I always told her that the noble Romans thought a man needed both friends and enemies to be great: friends for support, and enemies to struggle against, to measure oneself against, and to point out one's faults. I was half kidding, but maybe I was right.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Rocks and Lemurs

Exploring the stone forest of Madagascar.

The Speaker on Gay Rights

Andrew Sullivan reports on a conference call with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. She intends to move forward with a law adding sexual orientation to the list of categories protected from employment discrimination, and with the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell:
I have no intention of losing on either of these.

Pigmy Wallabies and Other Wonders

At National Geographic, a slideshow of new animal species recently discovered in the New Guinea highlands, including this pigmy wallaby and the blossom bat.

The Moral Purpose of Academic Schooling

In response to arguments that public schools should teach "civic virtue" or "public morality," whatever those are, James Murphy asserts that academic education has its own moral purpose:
the acquisition of traits that lead us to be conscientious in the pursuit of truth.
Teaching people to be "good citizens," thinks Murphy, always leads to distortions of the truth:
The aim of teaching students to love (or, more recently, to criticize) their nation has all too often prompted textbook authors and teachers to falsify, distort and sanitize history and social studies. . . . Some advocates claim that civic instruction poses no threat to truth, setting aside all historical experience and common sense. Others frankly admit that civic uplift must sometimes take priority over truth. Whether implicitly or explicitly, both groups express contempt for the moral lessons inherent in real learning.
In the short term, lying can be an effective strategy in many projects. In the long run -- and what nation doesn't want to be around for the long run? -- the truth will out. It is far better to base our politics on a real knowledge of the world, rather than on fantasies that will inevitably be exposed. What are we afraid of?

Science at Work

Back in 2003, archaeologists working in Mexico reported what they said were human footprints in volcanic ash that they dated to 40,000 years old. Since the oldest accepted evidence for a human presence in the Americas is only 13,500 years old, that created something of a stir. Not everybody believed the Mexican evidence, though. The depressions look a little like footprints, but not in any detail -- for example, they lack any sort of left-right alternation. The site is an active quarry (above), and some people thought the "footprints" were just some kind of weird marks left by modern mcahinery. Then somebody else dated the volcanic ash, using a different technique, and came up with a date of 1.3 million years old.

Papers and accusations flew back and forth. But, what do you know, the original discoverers of the footprints replicated the radioactive Argon dating done by their critics and got the same result, and now they have conceded that they were wrong. It is so hard for people who have invested years of work in a finding to admit this that I think we ought to heap praise on every scientist who publicly recants. So here's to Silvia Gonzales and her colleagues, who put the truth above their own egos.

The Gold of Hyderabad

Indian Archaeologists have unearthed a hoard of gold jewelry and silver coins from the 13th century AD near Hyderabad. Slide show here.