Sunday, October 31, 2010

Halloween 2010

Only two kids went with Trick-or-Treating me this year. Thomas went with his friends, and Robert and Mary didn't go at all.

Ben told several people, "Ninjas are not cute!"

Ben also lectured people on the deficiencies of their candy. "That's all you have? I don't like that." And then there was the guy who handed out peanut butter crackers: "It's supposed to be candy!" he shouted, shaking his head and walking away.

Clara still seems caught up in the wonder of a day where she can have all the candy she wants just by saying "Trick or Treat."

A Fall Day in the Woods

This afternoon.

At the Rally for Sanity

This great line:
“The battle for the American mind right now is between talk show hosts and comedians,” said Alex Foxworthy, a 26-year-old doctoral student from Richmond, Va. “I choose the comedians.”
And this was Andrew Sullivan's favorite sign:
Some other good ones:



I liked this line of Stewart's:
If we amplify everything we hear nothing.
No, I wasn't there, but my elder daughter represented our family.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Nobody Should Patent Genes

In March, federal judge Robert Sweet ruled that the patents held by the University of Utah on two gene variants involved in breast cancer, BRCA1 and BRCA2, were not valid. I applauded, because I have always thought it was crazy that we allowed people to claim patents on genes that have existed in nature for thousands of years.

The University of Utah appealed. Now the Justice Department has filed a friend-of-court brief in the case arguing "that human and other genes should not be eligible for patents because they are part of nature." I think this is great, and I think it makes it almost certain that Judge Sweet's ruling will be upheld. I suppose that back in the day the Patent Office was awed by the cutting edge technology involved in identifying a single gene, but their decision to allow patents was still a mistake. Now that automated processes identify dozens of new genes every day, we can see how bad a mistake it was and set about undoing it.

Chasm City

I just finished listening to Chasm City, by Alistair Reynolds. This is a science fiction novel set in the same marvelous universe as Reynolds' enormous Revelation Space trilogy, but unlike the trilogy, this stand-alone novel has a tight, engrossing plot. Loved it.

No Frost

We had a frost warning last night, but nothing froze at my house, and my flowers are still thriving. The next cold night in the forecast isn't for another week.

The New Shed

Delivered Thursday. Now I can get all the junk off the back porch and our neighbors will stop thinking we just moved from West Virginia.

"They realized they are free now"

John Leland offers a fascinating and hopeful look at Sadr City, Baghdad's huge Shiite neighborhood. Once terrorized by Saddam's thugs, and then by the Mahdi Army of Moktada al-Sadr, the neighborhood now seems much more free. Leland found clean-shaven young men playing pool on street corners, internet cafes, a wedding shop doing a thriving business in risque gowns. One man explains that since Saddam banned Shiite religious rites, “Then after that, of course people were looking for religious ceremonies. But now, people have had enough of this. They’ve relieved themselves. They realized they are free now.”

The desire and ability of people to just get on with life always amazes me. In the midst of war, terrorism, revolution, natural disaster, they strive for the ordinary. Leave them alone, and they build lives full of music, games, work, wedding parties, prayer, fashion, and hanging out on street corners.

Friday, October 29, 2010

The New American Folk Art

Decorating your house for Halloween. These were all taken this week in Georgetown.

Mount Merapi

The volcano currently erupting in Java is one of the world's most active. Above, in a recent photo; below, in 2006.

And below, in an undated older photo, looking like the volcanoes I drew in my grade school dinosaur pictures.

Does Inflammation Cause Depression?

Some researchers think it plays a role:
Studies have shown that people with depression or bipolar disorder, both those who had a physical illness and those who were medically healthy, had higher levels of inflammation. And as the depression faded, so, too, did the evidence of inflammation. Similarly, a 2009 study showed that mice that with chronic inflammation showed depressive symptoms, but blocking a key inflammatory enzyme alleviated the downer behavior in the mice.

The big discovery has been that depressed patients who have proven most resistant to traditional treatments (such as therapy or selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitor drugs) seem to have particularly high rates of inflammation. And in studies from the last few years, inhibiting inflammatory cytokines (signaling cells found in both the immune and nervous systems) seems to help alleviate depressive symptoms. Miller said that these results suggest that "cytokines might have an effect on fundamental dopamine synthesis," an important chemical process that, if thrown out of whack, can have big impacts on mood, energy and motivation.
I have also encountered speculation that the enormous colonies of bacteria we carry around may influence our mood and behavior. The irrational states of mind that trouble us may one day be explained, and even controlled.


That's two astronomers' estimate of the number of earth-sized planets in the universe.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

More Fall

Georgetown, today.

Don't Freak Out About the Election

Will Wilkinson:

This is the great unspeakable fact of American politics: it doesn't matter all that much who wins. . . .

But I think you'll also find that policy doesn't swing very wildly when government changes hands. Parties do what they can to reward supporters, but they can't do too much. Many interest groups play both sides, exerting significant influence on policy regardless of the party in power. Military suppliers, big Wall Street interests, and the economic middle-class may do better or worse, but they always do pretty well. Moreover, policy is quite constrained by general public opinion. Neither party will drift too far from the median voter. Of course, the median voter doesn't know or care much about many areas of policy. In those cases, interest groups that stand to gain or lose from a change in policy may be the decisive influence. But, even then, parties are not unfettered. For one thing, the interests that constitute a winning coalition are not all perfectly aligned, and we can expect parties often to split the difference in internal conflicts. And, of course, out-of-power interest groups are not powerless. It is not uncommon for opposing lobbyists to more or less cancel out each others' influence.

All this adds up to: very little change about half of us tepidly believe in.
I don't agree with this entirely, but I do think that many Americans get way too upset about which party wins our elections. Right now we are hearing a lot of apocalyptic rhetoric from the right about socialism and the fall of our republic, which is just silly. I don't hear anything comparable from the left this year, since it seems that many of the leftists who thought that electing Obama would somehow alter the structure of the universe now think he is exactly like Newt Gingrich. But I am old enough to remember when my friends seemed to think that Reagan's election meant nuclear war, the end of social security, or both.

Some people need to settle down.

Soldiers Are Not Reluctant to Fight

There is a persistent myth in America that only people who have not fought in wars want more of them, because veterans understand "what war is like." Here is a new expression of this idea from Michael Nelson, trying to explain why our nation accepts the unending wars in Iraq and Afghanistan:
Fewer and fewer of the civilian decision makers who now send troops into battle know what war is like. Apart from the moral queasiness this ought to induce, there is a tangible consequence. Feaver and Gelpi show statistically in Choosing Your Battles that throughout American history, the government's likelihood of initiating the use of force has consistently gone up whenever the percentage of veterans in Congress and the cabinet has gone down.
This is hogwash. The statistical effect identified by Feaver and Gelpi is explainable by the rhythm of political history: after a big war, successful officers run for Congress and win, and after a big war we usually have a few years of peace. I am willing to bet that when the question of war or peace actually comes before Congress, veterans are just as willing to vote for war as non-veterans; certainly this was the case in 1965, 1991 and 2003. The experience of war turns some men into pacifists but others into hawks. The most bellicose member of the US Senate at present is the one who has suffered the most from war, John McCain, and he is not unusual. From Sargon of Akkad to Hitler, history's biggest warmongers have mostly been men with much experience of battle. The awful of truth is that some men who have been to war find that they like it, and many others end up feeling that it is not so bad.

Is Obama a Pragmatist?

Well, I am something of a pragmatist myself, in the philosophical sense. So I was intrigued to read that after exhaustive study of everything our President has written, what he told his students, and so on, Harvard historian James Kloppenberg -- a man who must be an intellectual because he uses the word "whom" in conversation -- came to this conclusion:

To Mr. Kloppenberg the philosophy that has guided President Obama most consistently is pragmatism, a uniquely American system of thought developed at the end of the 19th century by William James, John Dewey and Charles Sanders Peirce. It is a philosophy that grew up after Darwin published his theory of evolution and the Civil War reached its bloody end. More and more people were coming to believe that chance rather than providence guided human affairs, and that dogged certainty led to violence.

Pragmatism maintains that people are constantly devising and updating ideas to navigate the world in which they live; it embraces open-minded experimentation and continuing debate. “It is a philosophy for skeptics, not true believers,” Mr. Kloppenberg said.

Lost and Found

From Japan Today:
Two swords found under the Great Buddha of Todaiji temple in the Meiji era have been identified as sacred swords that had been missing for some 1,250 years since around 760 after Empress Komyo, the wife of Emperor Shomu who built the Buddha, dedicated them along with other items to the temple, the temple said Monday.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Storm

Satellite image of the hurricane-like storm that sailed into the US from the northwest this week, with winds of over 80 miles per hour, spawning numerous tornadoes and severe thunderstorms. Today it brought rain to us, drawing up moisture from the Gulf, a thousand miles from the eye. Some places near the eye have recorded their lowest atmospheric pressure readings ever.

Pepsi Pretension

Next time you hear some politician say that government needs to be run more like a business, remember that the way most businesses are run is insane. Consider this document, which explains the process by which Pepsi's advertising consultants arrived at the new logo. Some sample images follow.

Well, that makes perfect sense, doesn't it? But right now I bet you're wondering, how does this relate to Leonardo and the Golden Ratio?
And isn't advertising something like gravity?

Which makes Pepsi something like the universe!

Something to Ponder

As geologists learn more about volcanoes, they are starting to issue disturbing predictions about future eruptions. Alwyn Scarf, author of Vesuvius: a Biography, estimates that Vesuvius will erupt again between 2023 and 2064, that it will be a major eruption, and that, given the rising population density around the mountain, “over half a million people could be in grave danger of succumbing to a horrible death. . . . Russian roulette is not a game that volcanoes usually lose.”

Update: It may be even worse than that. One of the commenters to a Discovery piece about Vesuvius posted this:
Vesuvius will explode very soon, I had a warning dream about it just on May 20th 2010. It will kill over million of people. It is too bad I cannot tell the exact date. Sorry.

Maneuvering Over Afghanistan

A piece by Greg Miller in today's Washington Post confirms my own speculations about the purpose of recent US military actions:
One of the military objectives in targeting mid-level commanders is to compel the Taliban to pursue peace talks with the Afghan government, a nascent effort that NATO officials have helped to facilitate.
Miller also says that the news reports we have been seeing lately are part of the political maneuvering leading up to a major review of our Afghan policy scheduled for December. So Petraeus and his allies have been putting out reports about successes, while their opponents are putting out reports saying that we continue to fail:
"The insurgency seems to be maintaining its resilience," said a senior Defense Department official involved in assessments of the war. Taliban elements have consistently shown an ability to "reestablish and rejuvenate," often within days of routed by U.S. forces, the official said, adding that if there is a sign that momentum has shifted, "I don't see it."
I am curious to see what Obama will decide. Obama has proposed a timetable under which US troops will start to withdraw next summer, but Petraeus has opposed this from the beginning. If the review indicates that we are not defeating the Taliban -- which is what I think, and what most analysts not close to Petraeus seem to think -- what will Obama do? Cut our losses and get out? Or dig in for another year?

Having Sisters Makes You Happy

More evidence that loneliness is the besetting problem of the modern human condition. Having sisters, it seems, makes people feel less lonely and therefore happier.

Some People Never Learn

I share Tom Friedman's mystification that many Republicans are running so well in this election advocating exactly the policies that we had in place when the current crisis started:
Let’s have more tax cuts, unlinked to any specific spending cuts and while we’re still fighting two wars — because that worked so well during the Bush years to make our economy strong and our deficit small. Let’s immediately cut government spending, instead of phasing cuts in gradually, while we’re still mired in a recession — because that worked so well in the Great Depression. Let’s roll back financial regulation — because we’ve learned from experience that Wall Street can police itself and average Americans will never have to bail it out.
I know, as I keep saying, that people are not rational about these matters, but shouldn't the Republicans have to at least pretend to be advocating something other than recycled Bushism?

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

In The Field

Northern Virginia, today, working on a ridgetop site with a view of the Potomac River.

Over Investing in College

Richard Vedder thinks that this table from the Bureau of Labor Statistics proves that Americans over invest in higher education:
Over 317,000 waiters and waitresses have college degrees (over 8,000 of them have doctoral or professional degrees), along with over 80,000 bartenders, and over 18,000 parking lot attendants. All told, some 17,000,000 Americans with college degrees are doing jobs that the BLS says require less than the skill levels associated with a bachelor’s degree.
I would make two caveats. One is that many of those college-educated bartenders and waitresses are recent graduates who may one day have managerial jobs. Many Americans in their twenties have trouble finding jobs that put their educations to use, and they hold menial jobs for a while before going to professional school or moving into professional work. And, you know, there are lots of managerial jobs in the restaurant, hospitality and retail industries, and some of my acquaintances who went to work in stores or restaurants found that they were soon promoted into management, no doubt in part because of their degrees.

Second, Vedder seems to assume that the only reason to go to college is to get a professional job. Certainly this is why many or even most students go to college, but there are still a few people out there who want to learn about the world regardless of whether the knowledge ever serves any professional purpose.

As a matter of national economic policy, we may be over-investing in higher education, but as human beings I don't think we can ever learn too much.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Tonight's Fortune Cookie

Sing and Rejoice, for Fortune Awaits You.


Ani, now in Turkey, was an Armenian town built in the 10th century AD and abandoned in the 14th century. Now only a few building stand amidst scattered ruins, including the cathedral (above) and the church of St. Gregory the Illuminator (below).

The Church of St. Gregory was built in 1215 by a merchant named Tigran Honents. The church's once magnificent frescoes are peeling away from its crumbling walls. UNESCO just put the site on a list of twelve significant historical sites that are rapidly disappearing.

The Future is So Unpredictable

Here's a theory of modern angst: we humans come wired with a strong preference that things in the future be just as they were in the past. Any kind of change makes us nervous, especially changes that effect how we earn our livings or who our neighbors are. We can only tolerate the ceaseless change of the modern world by believing that change will mostly be for the better. The enormous economic growth of modern times has made it possible for many people to believe this most of the time ("The American Dream"). When the national economy turns sour, or an industry evaporates without any obvious replacement in the local economy, or the faces of our neighbors change, we react with anxiety and long for the certainty of some lost Golden Age.

The latest evidence that something like this drives American politics comes from Kirk Johnson's NY Times piece about voters in Colorado. Here is Darryl Pike of Loveland:

“Everything is fractured,” said Mr. Pike, 63, a roofing salesman and lifelong Democrat from this city in northern Colorado.

Mr. Pike said he felt that the country was on an uncharted course, economically and politically. That belief has torn him from the moorings of loyalty that he felt for decades to the Democrats. There is not one on the ballot in Colorado he really likes, he said. But he is not sure he’s quite ready to vote for a Republican, either. “I have no idea what I’m going to do,” he said.

In dozens of interviews in Loveland and across Larimer County, a similar conclusion emerged time and again: uncertainty or trepidation about the future — with the election simply an expression of those deeper currents.

On issues from the economy to the state of democracy, many people described themselves as out to sea and adrift. Some said they feared that lost jobs might never return. Others were clinging more tightly than ever to the things they thought worth fighting for: family, school, church.

When our stability is undermined, we are sustained by faith in a brighter future; when that faith is also undermined, we feel out to sea and adrift and easily fall into anger or reactionary defensiveness.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Nobu Fukui

Rainfall Potential, Collage with Beads, 2010. Click to enlarge.

Assassination and Strategy in Afghanistan

From Afghanistan, two bits of news this week. First, confirmation that peace talks are ongoing between the Taliban and the Karzai government. Second, news of US military successes -- although not the kind of success Petraeus and company said they were after. The "hearts and minds" campaign seems to be on hold as US troops focus on killing Taliban troops and especially mid-level Taliban leaders. Earlier this week there were reports from the south that US Marines have been rooting Taliban fighters out of caves they have used as hiding places for years, using highly accurate battlefield missiles. Today the Washington Post has a feature on events in the far northwest:
October has been a calamitous month for the Taliban guerrillas waging war from sandy mountains and pistachio forests in this corner of northwestern Afghanistan. The first to die was their leader, Mullah Ismail, hunted down and killled by U.S. Special Operations troops. Next came the heir apparent, Mullah Jamaluddin, even before he could take over as Taliban "shadow" governor. Within a week, several other top commanders were dead, a new governor had been captured and the most powerful among the remaining insurgents had lit out for the Turkmenistan border - all casualties of the secretive, midnight work of American commandos.
Since Petraeus has been saying for years that killing rebels is a waste of effort, I assume that there is some other point to these attacks. In the context of the peace talks, I would guess that point is to encourage serious negotiation. If every Taliban commander has to worry about being shot in the dark, and Taliban fighters feel like they have no safe place to rest between battles, they might be more interested in a negotiated settlement. The Post piece also hints that another goal is to create tension between Taliban field commanders, who face a real risk of being killed every day, and their senior leaders, who live in safety in Pakistan.

Then again, maybe the killings will just make the Taliban angrier and spawn more killings. I suppose time will tell.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Wild Mums

In my garden, today.


Now when the time of fruit and grain is come,
When apples hang above the orchard wall,
And from a tangle by the roadside stream
A scent of wild grapes fills the racy air,
Comes Autumn with her sun-burnt caravan,
Like a long gypsy train with trappings gay
And tattered colors of the Orient,
Moving slow-footed through the dreamy hills.
The woods of Wilton, at her coming, wear
Tints of Bokhara and of Samarcand;
The maples glow with their Pompeian red,
The hickories with burnt Etruscan gold;
And while the crickets fife along her march,
Behind her banners burns the crimson sun.

--Bliss Carman

Sea Level Rise

Interesting feature in the Baltimore Sun today about the fall of the last house on Holland Island in the Chesapeake Bay. In 1880, more than 300 people lived on the island, but since then the sea level around Maryland has risen a little more than a foot. Not much for hilly country, but in the flat lands around the Chesapeake Bay this has been enough to send half a dozen inhabited islands under the waves.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Moral Accounting in Iraq

I opposed the US invasion of Iraq from the beginning and still oppose our presence there. But I have always hoped that maybe, at the end of a decade of horror, Iraq might emerge as a better country than when we started. After all, Saddam was pretty awful.

Now we are seeing that hope unravel. The elections have become nearly irrelevant to a political process of maneuvering among Shiite insiders, who have frozen out secular and Sunni parties; in response, many Sunnis are abandoning politics and going back to the resistance. As to how the government will treat its Sunni opponents, we got a glimpse today in the form of a big new document dump from Wikileaks. These documents detail the systematic abuse of prisoners by the Iraqi and army and police over the past seven years.

I foresee increased terrorism and other acts of violence, tending back toward civil war between Sunnis and Shiites, with the government growing ever more authoritarian and ever more willing to employ horrific methods against its enemies.

Meanwhile, the latest attempt at a comprehensive count of deaths during the war puts the Iraqi toll at 100,000 to 120,000.

Was it worth it, America?

Politicizing History

Ron Radosh, best known as a conservative critic of Howard Zinn and other left-wing historians, gives a favorable review to two books attacking the bogus history of Glenn Beck and the Tea Party. One of the books he reviews, by Jill Lepore, points out that today's Tea Party is not the first of modern times:
Lepore realizes that trying to find a usable past is not only a sin of the right. Indeed, she shows that in the 1970s, the left-wing activist Jeremy Rifkin created what he called “The People’s Bicentennial,” and used the Tea Party as a symbol for his attempt to invoke the Founding Fathers for the left in much the same way Beck and others do for the right today. His group, she writes, was meant to start “a tax-agitating Tea Party, too,” and said Tea stood for “Tax Equity for Americans.” His goal was to obtain “genuine equality of property and power and against taxation without representation,” and the group’s slogan was “Don’t Tread on Me.” Rifkin, she writes, “wrote the Tea Party’s playbook.”
One of the depressing things about studying history is that the people who care the most about it care the least about getting it right.

Colors of Fall

Yesterday: sumac by a parking lot, lighting up a dismal gray day.

Sam Harris on Moral Atheism

Since I was just writing about the alleged connections between religion and morality, I will note that atheist champion Sam Harris has a new book out titled The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values. A man whose name really seems to be Troy Jollimore has an interesting online review. I haven't read Harris's book, but the argument seems to be the basic utilitarian one:
Questions about values—about meaning, morality, and life's larger purpose—are really questions about the well-being of conscious creatures. Values, therefore, translate into facts that can be scientifically understood.
Things that make us better off are good, while things that make us worse off are bad. Simple enough.

Or is it? Does war, for example, make us better off or worse? War leads to great suffering and it corrupts our souls toward violence -- as Bernard of Clairvaux put it, it leads to mortal sin for the victor and death for the vanquished -- so it would seem to be bad. Yet millions of men have found war to be the greatest and most powerful thing in life, something to be celebrated in song rather than shunned. Many human societies have been shaped around war and military values, and it was woven all through their lives and their art. The society of the European aristocracy, which gave us all the glories of Renaissance and Baroque art, would have made no sense without their ethic of soldiery and honor.

Is it good or bad for people to suffer rejection and failure? It seems to break some people, but drive others on toward great accomplishment. Wealth and safety would probably figure on any list of good things for humans to have, and yet for many they seem to lead only to boredom, depression, nihilism, thrill-seeking, and libertarianism.

Since I am myself an existentialist who thinks that we have to make our own way in the world without divine help, my morality must at some level be the one advocated by Harris, Jeremy Bentham, and so on: what is good is what makes for human flourishing. My problem is with the second half of Harris' title, his notion that science can "determine" what is best for us. My own approach to life is rooted in my sense of how little we understand ourselves and our world. I do not think we can predict what will happen to us if we ever build a world of universal peace and wealth. It may turn out to be as awful as anti-utopian writers imagine. After all, we evolved to struggle, and without it many of us feel mainly a lack or a hole where struggle and suffering should be.

So while in practical terms I want the world to move toward peace and prosperity, there is a part of me that is glad we will not achieve them in my lifetime. I fear what that would be like for us.

In Praise of Long Gray Hair

I know that Dominique Browning's little essay, "Why Can't Middle Aged Women have Long Hair?" is another example of whining about petty oppression by mainstream expectations, but I hypocritically liked it anyway because I love long hair on older women.

A Thought about History

In some future age, people will say history began with the twentieth century, for it will be the earliest period for which they'll have sound and motion recordings to capture the flavor of life.

--James O'Donnell

Thursday, October 21, 2010

That's an Old Door

This wooden door, from a neolithic lake village in Switzerland, has been tree-ring dated to 3063 BC, making it Europe's oldest door.

You Said It

Via Andrew Sullivan:
“Some people say I’m extreme, but they said the John Birch Society was extreme, too,” - Kelly Khuri, founder, Clark County Tea Party Patriots.

Archaeology is Hard

One of the archaeological sites most in the news lately is the Grotte du Renne ("Reindeer Cave") in central France. The site is famous partly because ornaments (in the picture above) have been recovered from what were thought to be Neanderthal layers of the cave. These ornaments have figured prominently in arguments that Neanderthals were more intelligent and artistic than they are sometimes given credit for. The site was excavated in the 1950s under the direction of André Leroi-Gourhan, and so far as I can tell the excavators did a superb job. Sometimes, though, that is not enough:

Leroi-Gourhan attributed the artifacts in the lowest levels to Neandertals and artifacts from higher levels to modern humans, based largely on the types of tools they made. But the middle layers at the site included bone tools, ivory ornaments, and other sophisticated artifacts that Leroi-Gourhan attributed to a culture called the Châtelperronian. Although Châtelperronian artifacts closely resemble those made by modern humans, many researchers have attributed them to Neandertals because they have sometimes been found with Neandertal fossils. Indeed, at the Grotte du Renne, Leroi-Gourhan found about 30 Neandertal teeth in the Châtelperronian levels, which can be distinguished from modern human teeth based on the size and shape of their cusps and other features.

Most debates about the Châtelperronian—which begins about 40,000 years ago—have revolved around whether Neandertals invented it or simply copied the behavior of incoming modern humans. But recently, some researchers have begun questioning whether Neandertals made the Châtelperronian at all.

In the new study, published online today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a team led by dating expert Thomas Higham of the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom reports 31 new radiocarbon dates from the Grotte du Renne, using new filtration methods to purify radiocarbon samples and remove contamination by modern carbon sources, which has long plagued dating accuracy. The dates, obtained on materials such as bone tools and ornaments made of animal teeth, painted a disturbing picture: Whereas upper layers attributed to modern humans clocked in at no older than 35,000 years, artifacts from the Châtelperronian levels ranged from 21,000 years ago, when Neandertals were long extinct, to 49,000 years ago, before the Châtelperronian actually began. Indeed, Higham and his colleagues found that at least one-third of the Châtelperronian dates were outside the known time period of this culture.

The team concludes that the archaeological levels must have become mixed over thousands of years and that younger artifacts made by modern humans may have moved down into levels long thought to be associated with Neandertals. "The evidence from the Grotte du Renne ought to be viewed with extreme caution," the authors write.

It certainly should be. And, so far as I am concerned, all archaeological evidence ought to be treated with caution. Artifacts move around in the soil, and get mis-tagged or mis-cataloged; small pieces of charcoal move around in the soil, screwing up radiocarbon dates; soil gets disturbed by earthworms, burrowing rodents, tree roots, and people; and a million other things can happen that can result in the artifacts you find meaning something completely different than what you want them to mean. The watchword of the archaeologist should always be "humility."

Malpractice Reform and Health Care Costs

Nobody know how much fear of malpractice contributes to health care costs. We know that the direct effect is not very big -- that is, things done by doctors specifically to avoid a lawsuit -- but there may be a more subtle effect that is very large. Malpractice lawyers look for places where doctors deviate from "customary practice," that is, what most doctors in the area do. And there are large, unexplained discrepancies between the cost of medical areas in different parts of the country. Could it be that malpractice law is one reason why all doctors in one area order tests or use expensive procedures that doctors in another part of the same state don't bother with?

Peter Orszag has a plan to test this: have medical bodies issue guidelines for treating certain conditions, based on scientific evidence, and immunize from malpractice lawsuits any doctor who follows the guidelines. The new health care law provides for some small experiments with this approach, but as Orszag points out they have small budgets and probably won't accomplish much. Orszag wants to spend the money necessary (hundreds of millions, anyway) to produce these guidelines for many areas of medicine, and keep them updated, with the hope that this will produce billions of savings down the line, as well as improvements in care. Seems like a good idea to me.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The Renegade Professor Gets Fired

Thaddeus Russell, lately a history professor at Barnard College, has a long rant at Huffington Post about his denial of tenure:

Five years ago, I had every reason to believe that my job as a history professor at Barnard College was secure. I had been teaching there for four years, I had published my dissertation with a major publisher, and because I had tripled the sizes of the introductory U.S. history course and the American Studies program, colleagues told me they "would be shocked" if I were not promoted to a tenure-track position.

But that was before my colleagues knew what I was teaching.

I had always been a misfit in academia, partly because of my background, partly because of my personality, and increasingly over the years because of my ideas -- ideas that are now a book called "A Renegade History of the United States."

Ah, the radical professor, the renegade, the outsider who sees the truth that the establishment insiders are trying to cover up. How shocked those dweebs are by his cutting insights!

What was his particular truth?

I showed them that during the American Revolution drunkards, laggards, prostitutes, and pirates pioneered many of the freedoms and pleasures we now cherish -- including non-marital sex, interracial socializing, dancing, shopping, divorce, and the weekend -- and that the Founding Fathers, in the name of democracy, opposed them. I argued not only that many white Americans envied slaves but also that they did so for good reason, since slave culture offered many liberating alternatives to the highly repressive, work-obsessed, anti-sex culture of the early United States. I demonstrated that prostitutes, not feminists, won virtually all the freedoms that were denied to women but are now taken for granted. By tracing the path of immigrants from arrival as "primitives" to assimilation as "civilized" citizens, I explained that white people lost their rhythm by becoming good Americans. I presented evidence that without organized crime, we might not have jazz, Hollywood, Las Vegas, legal alcohol, birth control, or gay rights, since only gangsters were willing to support those projects when respectable America shunned them.

Thaddeus Russell may be an entertaining teacher who pulls in the students, and he might be fun to talk to over a beer, but he is a lousy historian. In this screed, and in the amusing list article he links to, he mixes up unrelated things in a baffling way and skates around important historical questions without ever coming to grips with them.

History is the discipline of context. It means understanding what things meant in the time and place in which they were said, and it means getting things in the proper order so you can understand what led to what. How do you suppose the riffraff of revolutionary America managed to "pioneer" dancing and non-marital sex, both of which have been around for at least as long as Homo sapiens? The rest of Russell's list mixes up bits of old European artisan culture like "Saint Monday," the freedom of life on a chaotic frontier that faded as civilization was established, a view of marriage advanced by certain radical Protestants and accepted by some New England Puritans, the general naughtiness of the eighteenth century, and things that are simply not true. The notion that the culture of early America was "anti sex" is downright weird; look how many children they had!

Russell also thinks he has made some radical discovery by noting that the leading American revolutionaries opposed much of what the common people did for fun. They did. Many of them believed that political freedom had to be accompanied by an increase in personal virtue, because lazy drunkards would inevitably fall back under the rule of tyrants. The revolutionaries ran for office on this platform and gave speech after speech on this theme. How, then, could this be a "secret" that only a radical like Russell could ferret out? It cannot have escaped anyone that in some ways life in the nineteenth century was more restrained and repressed than it had been in the eighteenth; that is pretty much what we mean by "Victorianism." I might point out that besides drinking, lewd dancing, and inter-racial carousing, the reformers also opposed dog fighting, bear baiting, judicial torture, the exhibition of mental patients for entertainment, and numerous other things that Russell probably does not celebrate.

Russell, the bad-boy rock-and-roll renegade historian, is also a bit late to this particular party. There are dozens of historical books about the unending effort to reform popular culture, reduce drunkenness and illegitimacy, and get people to work harder and go to church. And there was such an effort, although how much difference it made is open to question. Historians of Russell's ilk have long imagined that at some time in the past, before the agents of repression took power, people were liberated, funky, and fun. As one famous French historian put it, the peasants were out "joyfully upending each other in the fields." But, really, it wasn't like that. Before effective birth control, carousing led to babies, which tended to dampen the rowdiness:
I thought if I could marry I would have song and dancing; what did I get, though, but to rock the cradle and hush the baby?
As a 17th-century Welsh epigram has it. Drunkenness also led to violent brawls, ill health, and various other routes to an early death, which was the fate of all too many of those happy, rowdy commoners.

I would have voted to deny him tenure, too.

British Neoclassicism

Royal Institute of British Architects recently mounted an exhibit featuring the work of Britain's three leading neoclassicists, Ben Pentreath, George Saumarez Smith, and Francis Terry. David Watkin has a glowing review. All three men have built a variety of buildings around Britain, from a hospital to private houses. Above is a design for an art gallery in London by Smith, below an office building in Tottenham Court Road by Terry.

Of course, all three architects have done work for Prince Charles. The prince is one of the biggest landlords in England, and he has lately been putting his money where his mouth is by financing new developments built in traditional styles. The most famous is Poundbury in Dorset, a complete new town built to look as much like an old one as possible.

I have two reactions to these buildings. First, I like them. I like all of the work I have seen by these men better than the average contemporary building, and I like some of them a lot, including the two I chose to illustrate. Poundbury looks to me like a really nice place to live.

It does make me a little queasy, though, to admire buildings built in frank imitation of things that belong in another time and place. I am not sure why I feel this way. Partly it may be a sense that what I am seeing is fake, some sort of Disney recreation of classicism rather than classicism itself. In a deep philosophical sense that is silly, since classicism has been derivative since the 4th century BC, but I can't shake the feeling. Also, I am just dismayed that the characteristic architectural forms of my own time are so ugly. Why can't we create something that is attractive, livable, and new? Whatever beauty there is in modernism I find cold, inhuman, and sterile. I can sometimes admire a modern building or chair for its purity of form, but I would never want to live in one. Can't there be some way of seeing architectural form that is neither mechanistic nor a straight copy of something built more than 500 years ago?

Qatna Again

More from the ongoing excavations at Qatna, Syria, a bronze age palace complex dating to 1650 to 1340 BC. The picture above shows an obsidian cup with gold accents among human bones in a royal tomb. The site is being opened to the public as an archaeological park, but excavations will continue.

Art and Sadness

In the long-running discussion about the relationship between melancholy and creativity (Keats: “Do you not see how necessary a World of Pains and troubles is to school an intelligence and make it a soul?”) a new study showing that people who got negative feedback on a speech, and were therefore in worse moods, made collages that were evaluated as better and more creative than those made by people who received positive feedback. Jonah Lehrer:
What’s driving this correlation? Why does a melancholy mood turn us into a better artist? The answer returns us to the intertwined nature of emotion and cognition. It turns out that states of sadness make us more attentive and detail oriented, more focused on the felt collage. Joe Forgas, a social psychologist at the University of New South Wales in Australia, has spent the last decade investigating the surprising benefits of negative moods. According to Forgas, angst and sadness promote “information-processing strategies best suited to dealing with more-demanding situations.” This helps explain why test subjects who are melancholy — Forgas induces the mood with a short film about death and cancer — are better at judging the accuracy of rumors and recalling past events; they’re also much less likely to stereotype strangers and make fewer arithmetic mistakes.


Egyptian archaeologists have announced the discovery of the tomb of a priest named Rudj-Ka, who oversaw the purification rituals for one of the pharaohs entombed in the Pyramids. That's him on the right, his wife on the left.

Starch Grains and Seed Grinding

What did early humans eat? Well, probably they ate a lot of different things, depending on where they lived, just like modern hunter-gatherers. Humans have a remarkable ability to subsist on everything from frozen seal meat to flowers, and the diet that makes us healthiest combines several different kinds of food.

So here's a more precise question: how greatly did the adoption of agriculture change the diets of the first farmers? The basis of farming in most parts of the world is grain -- wheat, rice, corn -- so farmers eat a lot of grain. How much grain did hunter-gatherers eat, especially in those areas where farming was invented? Possibly quite a lot. The basic evidence for this is prehistoric grinding stones, which are quite common on pre-agricultural sites; above is one my crew found on a site in Washington, DC.

A new study out this week in PNAS offers further evidence for grain grinding in the Paleolithic, around 30,000 years ago. The authors studied possible grinding stones from three sites, one each in Italy, Russia, and the Czech Republic. They were looking for starch grains, and they found grains that they say derived from both grasses and the roots of a marsh plant similar to cattails. The identification of starch grains is a cutting edge technology right now. Starch grains are microscopic lumps of starch that most starch-storing plants create; they should be chemically very stable in neutral soil (not too acidic or basic), and different plants create grains of differing shapes. So this is a very promising new technology for studying past diets and environments. But I caution everyone that the technology is new and others that seemed equally promising (e.g., protein residue analysis) have proved to be misleading.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Lost Cities

A list of lost cities, including some obscure ones (to me, anyway) like this fortress of the south Indian Vijayanagara Empire.