Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Art in a Time of War

An exhibit of contemporary carpets from Afghanistan at University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (click to enlarge). I suppose most of these were made for sale to Americans. What a strange mix of ancient artistry, tourism, and deadly weapons.

Let's Go to Enceladus

Or send a robot, anyway:
Saturn's icy moon Enceladus is emerging as the most habitable spot beyond Earth in the Solar System for life as we know it, scientists said last week at a meeting of the Enceladus Focus Group at the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California. . . . "It has liquid water, organic carbon, nitrogen [in the form of ammonia], and an energy source," says Chris McKay, an astrobiologist at NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California. Besides Earth, he says, "there is no other environment in the Solar System where we can make all those claims".

Better yet, geyser-like jets spew ice crystals and gases into space, allowing a spacecraft to sample the subsurface by flying overhead. The current Cassini mission has done that several times already, but it's only equipped to find the building blocks of life, not more complex molecules. "We want biomarkers," says Larry Esposito, a planetary scientist at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

But no, we're sending more rovers to Mars. Where there isn't any life and never has been.

I have to say, though, that I am sometimes puzzled by the conventional thinking of astrobiologists:

First, though, it's necessary to figure out what to look for. That begins by figuring out how Earth-like organisms might survive in Enceladus's underground lakes, ponds or oceans, where there is no sunlight and so no photosynthesis.

Why "earth-like" organisms? Why couldn't life on Enceladus be completely different? I understand that life of any sort is likely to rely on the common, highly reactive elements -- carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, hydrogen, sulfur -- but those elements can be put together in many, many ways.

No, No, No, No, No, No

Paul Ryan, challenged by Ezra Klein to explain how his Medicare numbers would add up, had this (and a lot more similar verbiage) to say:
Experience and economics support the view that the best way to control costs without sacrificing quality is to give consumers more power to act as a check on erratic pricing, deteriorating quality and excess care. Competition and consumer choice are the most powerful cost-control mechanisms ever devised. Our plan includes both, and that’s why we are confident that our targets are achievable.
In many areas, it is true that competition and consumer choice act to hold prices down. But health care is not like other segments of the economy. (For the reason why, see here.) If you look around the world, you see evidence that Ryan's argument is exactly wrong. Among rich nations, the more socialistic the health care system, the cheaper it is. The cheapest among rich nations is Britain's entirely socialistic system. Mostly socialistic systems like the French or the Swedish are next. Mostly private systems like those in Switzerland and the US are the most expensive.

Within the US, government-run Medicare is cheaper than private insurance.

Ryan is living in an Ayn Rand novel, not on planet earth. His model makes some theoretical sense but we already know, using the whole world as our experiment, that in practice he is completely wrong.


If you're tired of picturesque castles and pretty scenery, next time you're in Wales you might consider stopping by a very different sort of historic site: the industrial landscape of Blaenavon. In the nineteenth century, South Wales was a industrial powerhouse of coal, iron, and steel, and also one of the centers of the world labor movement. Blaenavon was at the heart of it.

The ironworks was founded in 1788, and by 1789 there were three steam-powered blast furnaces operating at the site. (A "blast furnace" is a furnace for melting iron ore where air is forced or "blasted" through the furnace to intensify the reaction, an invention of the late Middle Ages.)

The operation was organized on the large scale of the "industrial revolution," with furnaces, forges, storage rooms, offices, and even workers' housing in one compact unit. This lithograph shows the works in 1801. By 1812 there were five furnaces capable of making 14,000 tons of iron a year. A horse-drawn railroad was built to haul the pig iron down from the mountains, and it featured a tunnel 1.5 miles (2.4 km) long.

You can see in this picture how close the workers' housing was to the loud, smoky ironworks. At first almost all the workers lived in company housing, but eventually a community grew up around the site. The population of the town grew from a few dozen 1787 to 11,500 by 1891.

At first the iron ore came from shallow, open pit surface mines, but after 1817 deep shafts were dug. You can still see the marks mining left on the local landscape.

What catapulted South Wales into industrialization was the close proximity of vast deposits of iron ore, limestone and coal, along with a population of workers who had acquired their skills in the old-style ironworks. Coal mining endured in the region longer than iron-making, and the last mine at Blaenavon did not close until 1980. That became the Big Pit Museum (above), where visitors can ride underground to get a sense of what work in the tunnels was like.

The demise of these coal and iron districts has been a bittersweet thing for the people who live around them. They fouled the air and water and maimed or killed off workers at an alarming rate, and their nasty labor relations fed the angry politics of the early twentieth century. On the other hand they provided thousands of jobs that paid enough to support a family -- in 1913, 250,000 worked in the Welsh coal industry, nearly a quarter of all the adult men -- and they made their workers proud of the way they were shaping the world with muscle, sweat, and know-how. Since the iron works and the mines closed, the population of Blaenavon has fallen by more than half. Because nothing new is being built there, the old landscape is amazingly preserved, but a few jobs in the tourist industry can hardly replace the thousands lost to de-industrialization.

Graduating, Entering Life

Three things came together this morning to send my thoughts back to a familiar topic: the uneasy transition from adolescence to adulthood. The first was my eldest son's graduation from high school, to a future that is a complete mystery to both him and me. The second was a headline on this morning's Examiner: "Freeloading Kids Return to the Nest: Facing Tough Times, Grads Come Home." I suppose there must be parents who would feel that way, but my children are always welcome in my house. I like having them around.

The third was an interesting column by David Brooks, who weaves together this problematic transition with one of his own themes, our excessive individualism. The lives of this year's graduates, he writes,

have been perversely structured. This year’s graduates are members of the most supervised generation in American history. Through their childhoods and teenage years, they have been monitored, tutored, coached and honed to an unprecedented degree.

Yet upon graduation they will enter a world that is unprecedentedly wide open and unstructured. Most of them will not quickly get married, buy a home and have kids, as previous generations did. Instead, they will confront amazingly diverse job markets, social landscapes and lifestyle niches. Most will spend a decade wandering from job to job and clique to clique, searching for a role.

I think this is a bit overblown. My children's lives have not been that much more structured than mine was, on the whole, and they have been navigating certain free-form environments for years; online life, for example, a Wild West sort of place for teenagers with few rules and many pitfalls. But I certainly agree that the world college graduates are entering now is less structured than that faced by most or maybe even all previous generations. Brooks goes on:

Worst of all, they are sent off into this world with the whole baby-boomer theology ringing in their ears. If you sample some of the commencement addresses being broadcast on C-Span these days, you see that many graduates are told to: Follow your passion, chart your own course, march to the beat of your own drummer, follow your dreams and find yourself. This is the litany of expressive individualism, which is still the dominant note in American culture.

Yeah, the "follow your passion" thing. I recently read what purported to be a piece of job advice but went something like, "Find that place where your own dreams intersect with humanity's greatest needs." What percentage of human beings, do you suppose, ever find such a job? The anxiety to find this elusive, meaningful passion is real and painful for many young people, especially those with good resumes from good schools. I have had several friends who felt like failures because they weren't living up to this impossible expectation.

My model of career life is different. Of course people are diverse, and a few do find meaningful lives working to alleviate humanity's greatest needs, or build careers on the cutting edge of the coolest art, or make it to the center of the action in Washington or on Wall Street. For the rest of us, though, I suggest a different strategy: find a niche where you are comfortable. Your job should be something you like, much of the time anyway, and that pays enough to support your life. You should seek out compatible people, because those you work with will be a big part of your social circle, and pleasant interactions with your colleagues are the best part of many jobs. You should look for a level of stress that suits you; too much and you will be unhappily frantic, too little and you will be bored. You should seek an environment where you will be comfortable, outdoors or in, on the go or in place, constantly meeting new people or part of a small, consistent team. You should not do something that disgusts you, like selling what you think is a bad product. To work at something you think is wrong is the surest route to cynicism and heart disease. On the other hand, you should probably not expect too much of the world, which is a corrupt place where good deeds are routinely punished and vast amounts of effort are wasted. One of the great things about our crazy world is that there are millions of niches in the system, and with some effort and flexibility you can find one where you will fit in well enough.

Remember, too, that you are likely to have a long life and spend at least 45 years in the work force, which is plenty of time to change careers if the one you try first starts to bore or appall you.

It is also possible to pursue a passion outside work. If you find that your real passion is, say, idle curiosity, something that is hard to get paid for, you can start a blog and spend your spare time discovering interesting things and posting them. You can climb mountains, play bridge, rescue abused dogs, and any of a million other things, all of which are easy to arrange if you don't insist on being paid for them.

Work, after all, is only one part of adult life, and it need not be the most important. Friends, family and community matter. About these things I would preach some individualism. If you want to get married, have kids, and move to the suburbs, do it; I did, and I am quite happy this way. But this common denominator life is not for everyone. All the statistics show that having children does not make most people happier, and it makes some much less happy. Suburban life is safe and comfortable but a little dull. I have a nagging feeling that many American suburban parents should have chosen another path. Don't do the usual thing because you feel like it is expected, or because you don't know what else to do. Try to live the kind of life that feels best to you.

Here I am, giving out advice, which I really didn't set out to do. Advice is a kind of pressure, especially when the same advice comes from so many quarters. I think we should ratchet down the pressure and tell young people that while the transition to adult careers and lives will be long and may involve some pain, it works out reasonably well for most people in the end.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Colima Shaman

Statuette of a shaman from the Colima culture, southwestern Mexico, 200 BC to AD 300.

Art and Happiness

Here's a link to yet another study showing that making and even viewing "art" -- meaning stuff in museums, not Hollywood movies -- is strongly correlated with happiness and well-being. This study in itself is not very impressive, but it fits with many others showing such a link. Tortured artistes are a stereotype, but in general people who regularly play an instrument, paint, sculpt, or write are happier and feel better about their lives.

Two of the human pursuits with the least practical use -- art and religion -- are two of the three that correlate most strongly with happiness. The third, being with friends, has obvious evolutionary value, but on the other hand it works whether or not the friends are doing anything "productive."

Origami Nazgul

The Victorian Goth Goes to Prom

My daughter Mary (and friends), Friday night.

Art in Egypt

Interesting article by Philip Kennicott in the Post about the arts scene in Egypt. Having spent the past thirty years trying to criticize the regime in ways that would slip past the censors, or at least not get them arrested, Egyptian artists are now unsure what they want to do or how to go about it.

Artists here are particularly engaged with influencing the future of the freedom of expression. The revolution is still up for grabs, they say, with powerful, entrenched interests dragging Egypt in different directions. They are grappling with huge historical uncertainties: What happened? Has anything changed? And they are turning to the literature of South America, films made in Eastern Europe after the fall of communism, even French comic books from the 1960s, for answers.
This is just one version of the problem faced by most modern artists: once they have disconnected themselves from the traditional interests of the aristocratic class, what should they say and do? Some become cynical and spend their time mocking the middle class, some struggle to hold onto a sense of opposition and revolution, while others focus on cashing in.

In the aftermath of Egypt's revolution, some artists will try to hold onto that miraculous moment. One of the artist's features in this peace, Lara Baladi,

speaks in almost mystical terms about the days she spent in Tahrir Square and what it all meant. . . . Beyond political revolution, she argues, Tahrir gave Egyptians a vision of religious and social unity that could refashion the nation’s most fundamental values. Baladi, a Christian with roots in Egypt and Lebanon, imagines the revolution transforming not just Egypt but the world.

But how to make art that will express such hopes without becoming mawkish?

At least, though, the artists have a sense of new possibilities, and a new vision of their country and themselves.

Hard Money

Of all the dumb ideas roiling around in the Tea Party crowd, the dumbest is their obsession with gold and silver. The news from the heartland:
Utah has passed a law intended to encourage residents to use gold or silver coins made by the Mint as cash, but with their value based on the weight of the precious metals in them, not the face value — if, that is, they can find a merchant willing to accept the coins on that basis.

The legislation, called the Legal Tender Act of 2011, was inspired in part by Tea Party supporters, some of whom believe that the dollar should be backed by gold or silver and that Obama administration policies could cause a currency collapse. . . . supporters say that it is just a beginning, that one day soon Utah might mint its own coins, that retailers could have scales for weighing precious metals and that a state defense force could be formed to guard warehouses where the new money would be made and stored.

“This is an incremental step in the right direction,” said Lowell Nelson, the interim coordinator for the Campaign for Liberty in Utah, a libertarian group rooted in Ron Paul’s presidential campaign. “If the federal government isn’t going to do it, then we here in Utah ought to be able to establish a monetary system that would survive a crash if and when that happens.”

Note the sense that the world is under siege by mysterious forces lurking out there in the darkness, coupled with a lack of faith in the institutions that actually keep our world running: the federal government, the Federal Reserve, the banks, the markets. Not that fear of a market collapse is necessarily irrational, as we saw in 2008, but what we also saw in 2008 was that modern governments are strong enough to ride out these crises. One thing that did not lose value in the crash was money, and that goes for pretty much everywhere in the world.

A "gold standard" is not really a pro-liberty policy, because what it means is that the government fixes the price of gold. Since gold markets naturally fluctuate as much as any other markets, a government on the "gold standard" has to keep the price steady by massive interference in the gold market -- which is why we have that huge store of gold in Fort Knox and other places.

I suppose part of what drives the gold obsession is the sense that gold is "real," whereas dollars and euros are fake. But that isn't so. Gold only has value because people accept that it does; if you want something with real value, you should go for oil, wheat, or pork bellies. Yes, our government can (and does) change the value of the dollar by its policies, but given how much gold we own we could do the same thing with gold. Gold as an exchange mechanism safe from the vagaries of government policy and market shenanigans is a fantasy.

Alas all this hard money obsession is having, I think, a bad effect on our real economic policies. The big US budget deficit has helped spread fear of inflation in many quarters, and the Fed has responded by limiting the money supply much more than I think they should. Unemployment is still 9 percent, but instead of pumping up the economy to bring it down we are all talking about cutting spending, and all the fed bulletins are about inflation fears. It's silly.

We are all at the mercy of the worldwide economy and the markets that grease its wheels. If that scares you, the right response is to push for better regulation of the markets and more sensible economic policies. We can't go back to a system of local economies only weakly connected to the world market. Our wealth depends absolutely on the international connections that tie the planet together, and those connections depend on soft money.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Is it the Process or the Job?

This cartoon set me thinking. Is the process of running for President really irrationally miserable? I'm not sure.

In the case of Mitch Daniels, the biggest obstacle may be his family life; he and his wife divorced, apparently because she had had affairs, and then remarried, apparently because he forgave her. I can see not wanting to listen to hour after hour of speculation about what this means. But does anybody think the speculation would be less intense if he were President? It would be constant, and it would be rekindled every time he visited a new country and a new set of journalists got to mull over his toughness and whatnot. Since we are so obsessed with the private lives of public figures, a nomination process that did not involve raking through the candidates' closets would hardly give us people who could do the actual job of leading the country.

There are some bizarre things about running for president. Each party has powerful interest groups that insist the candidates swear fidelity to their positions, even when they might tie a President's hands in destructive ways. Some of these at least are real issues, such as abortion and taxes. Others, though, are just words that people recite, like "support for Israel", "education reform," support for "Christian values," or being pro or anti government. (As if everybody were not both.) It particularly bugs me that politicians are expected to have been consistent over time when the electorate itself has not. Mitt Romney's problems with health care are a perfect example. Five years ago he was praised by conservative leaders for offering a conservative alternative to socialized medicine, but now opinions are shifted and he is pilloried for the same thing that got him praised five years ago. Angry voters seem to have no memories.

Being president, though, is also a crazy thing to do, and I think anybody who could not stand the craziness, constant prying into every word and act, and grueling pace of the campaign probably could not stand the job.

The Age of Motion

In the old OED, the word with the most meanings was "set." It has now been replaced by a new champion more fitting to our frantic age: run.
The word has exploded with the increase in the number of machines and computers: a train runs on tracks, a car runs on gas, an iPad runs apps. But simultaneously, there have also been countless revivals of antique non-mechanical senses: you now run out on someone, you run something past someone. Old “runs” are, in other words, generating new meanings, a demonstration of the living nature of the language.
We think in terms of motion and action, and so we see things running all around us.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

RIP Leonora Carrington

Leonora Carrington, one of the last surviving surrealists, died this week at the age of 94. I suppose when your career lasts 75 years, you have outlasted several generations of artistic movements. Below, a self-portrait from 1938, and then a collection of images. You can see that besides the usual surrealist interest in dreams and the unconscious she was involved with alchemy and the history of magic. I suspect she was into Jungian analysis, although this wasn't mentioned in the online biographies I have seen.

Patrick Rothfuss, "The Name of the Wind"

In all art there is a necessary tension between the familiar and the new. The very act of creating a painting, a sculpture, a novel, or a song immerses the artist in conventions; if the conventions were not followed, how would we know we had encountered a work of art? For a writer of genre fiction, the conventional element is necessarily large, adding to the rules that define a novel further rules that define romance, detective, or fantasy.

I have been musing on this because I just read The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss, probably the most widely praised fantasy novel of 2007. I liked it, but I did not love it, and the reason I did not love it was that it felt to me a little too familiar. Of course it is not fair to expect a fantasy novelist to create something entirely new. I suspect that my own mood is part of the reason I did not like The Name of the Wind as much as some other readers did; lately I have been reading books of kinds I never read and listening to music by people I never heard of, in a quest for new and different things. And yet, you know, I have read several works of fantasy in the past decade that did feel original to me: Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke; Waterborn and The Briar King by Greg Keyes; Sabriel, by Garth Nix, an adolescent novel about a necromancer that is remarkably different from all other fantasy; Jonathan Stroud's Bartimaeus trilogy; and, of course, Harry Potter. So my standards of novelty are not impossible to meet. This story, though, which starts with a bunch of men eating stew in an inn and then proceeds through a caravan of impossibly talented gypsies and a band of ancient, evil demons to a university of magic where an impossibly talented young man dazzles the better professors, antagonizes the grouchy ones, makes friends and enemies, and falls in love with an amazingly desirable woman, didn't meet them.

The Name of the Wind has much to recommend it. The central character, Kvothe, is brave, resourceful, and witty. The world is rich. The evil demons are wicked and creepy. The university of magic has arcane traditions and a nicely insane headmaster. And so on. It is entertaining and I read it straight through. I plan to read the second book, when it comes out in paperback. But I don't know what the reviewer (cited on the back) was thinking when he said to "put it on the shelf beside The Lord of the Rings"; maybe he doesn't have any books by authors with names between R and T?

Rothfuss has a couple of weaknesses that bother me. For one, he doesn't seem to know anything about medieval or ancient history. Not that there is any special reason why a fantasy world has to be like medieval Europe, but it cuts into my suspension of disbelief when modern things are presented as if they were medieval commonplaces. (E.g., the tiny inn at the beginning has a bar, behind which the proprietor stands like a modern bartender; medieval inns had no such piece of furniture.) Worse, when he wants to impress us, Rothfuss tends to make things really big. Kvothe spends a few years as an orphan boy on the streets of a city, about which we are told little beyond that it is enormous: "It was too big, actually. It was immense. Seas of people, forests of buildings, roads wide as rivers." And so on. But I never figured out why it was there, what business its people did, who governed it, or what those forests of buildings actually looked like. Then there is the woman, Denna, who is praised up to the sky and back to the abyss as the most beautiful and wonderful of beings but who seemed utterly unremarkable to me. She may be gorgeous, but she never says or does anything interesting, and I found her more annoying than anything else. She seemed to me like the enormous city, rendered amazing by hyperbole. Take away the superlatives, though, and there wasn't much to see.

One thing I liked was the conception of magic, which involves mental gymnastics like believing and disbelieving something at the same time, defined sources of energy, and "sympathy" of the old, neoplatonic kind. Another is the way Kvothe tries to track down his ancient demons through old songs and folktales. And, as I said, Kvothe himself is an impressive character. But on the shelf next to Tolkien it does not belong.

Thought for the Day

Life should be an aim unto itself, a purpose unto itself.

--Michel de Montaigne

Baltimore Herb Festival 2011

Off to the herb festival again today with Ben, Clara, my sister-in-law Linda and my niece Lydia.

This is Linda and Lydia on the train, which we all rode.

It was very crowded -- horrible traffic, a long line to get in the gate, worse lines for food, annoying masses of people around some of the vendors. The line of cars heading out the gate was so dire I drove across the grass, the sidewalk, and the curb and out onto the street and headed the opposite direction from everyone else -- down into Baltimore, which was a bit of an adventure, but at least we didn't spend ten minutes waiting to get out the gate.

Ben's favorite part is the carnivorous plants.

This is my attempt to recreate a photograph from last year, which you can see here. The rock and the children were the same, but I'm afraid the magic was missing.

On the other hand I love these pictures Lisa took of Clara getting spun.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Rules? What Rules?

Karl Rove thinks Sarah Palin is running for president, but not in the usual way:
Look, I don't think she thinks the rules apply to her. She doesn't need to have the traditional trappings of a presidential campaign. . . . She gets to decide what the rules are that govern her campaign and go accordingly and politics is changing. Some people have done things that have been outside the norm of custom and have won.
In most circumstances I am all for people getting away from expectations and going their own way. Sarah Palin creeps me out, though, because she represents the complete triumph of narcissism in politics.

I think almost all prominent politicians are narcissistic, and I suspect a fair number are outright sociopaths. Considering what we put political candidates through, who else would run for office? So I think power-hungry narcissism is already the main failing of our political class. The important thing about the traditional campaign is that it forces politicians to step our of their personal bubbles and interact with the outside world -- to meet with and impress thousands of contributors, to answer hostile questions from journalists, to state halfway coherent positions on major issues. This process verifies that the narcissist in question can at least function at a high level.

Palin's campaign strategy of only taking questions from carefully vetted journalists, speaking only to carefully screened audiences of her supporters, presenting herself via carefully edited videos and books written by skilled ghost writers, and so on keeps her inside the bubble where she is queen. Rather than confronting her weaknesses and strategizing around them, she avoids any evidence that she has any weaknesses. I think her success so far is a bad sign for our Democracy, and should she win the nomination that would open the floodgates for reality-deniers of every stripe.

The White Working Class Loses Faith

Ron Brownstein reads the latest Pew Poll on Americans economic attitudes and concludes that white people without college degrees are "the most pessimistic and alienated group in American society."
One question asked respondents whether they expected to be better off economically in 10 years than they are today. Two-thirds of blacks and Hispanics said yes, as did 55 percent of college-educated whites; just 44 percent of noncollege whites agreed. Asked if they were better off than their parents were at the same age, about three-fifths of college-educated whites, African-Americans, and Hispanics said they were. But blue-collar whites divided narrowly, with 52 percent saying yes and a head-turning 43 percent saying no. . . .

In the most telling result, 63 percent of African-Americans and 54 percent of Hispanics said they expected their children to exceed their standard of living. Even college-educated whites are less optimistic (only about two-fifths agree). But the noncollege whites are the gloomiest: Just one-third of them think their kids will live better than they do; an equal number think their children won’t even match their living standard. No other group is nearly that negative.
And the thing is, these folks are not necessarily being pessimistic. If current trends in income and inequality continue, the bottom half of American society will not be getting richer. The optimism of Hispanics is probably related to the experience of immigrants, while many black Americans have watched barriers fall and can imagine a world in which their incomes rise to be equal to those of whites. But, honestly, the economic future of Americans without special skills does not look so great.

As an aside, I think it is a mistake to treat "college educated" and "non college educated" Americans as social classes. People with mediocre grades from obscure colleges are not much better fixed for the future than high school graduates, whereas people with skills like welding or finish carpentry can earn good livings. Plus, nowadays many families include both kids who finish college and kids who do not. So to divide these groups as if they were ethnicities obscures the real situation.

So Long Rinderpest

Rinderpest, scourge of cattle, has become the second disease to be completely eradicated:

This is quite a momentous occasion for humanity. . . . The suffering that this disease has caused through the millennia is incredible. This is probably the greatest achievement in veterinary medicine.

First to go was smallpox, although there is suspicion that lingers in weapons labs. Soon to be gone: polio and guinea worm.

Fun Times in Regency England

This interesting item was unearthed during excavations into the slum neighborhood of London known as St. Giles Rookery. It dates to the late 18th or early 19th century, and it is what contemporaries called a "Fuddling Cup." To quote the Museum of London:
A fuddling cup is a three-dimensional puzzle in the form of a drinking-vessel, made of three or more cups or jugs all linked together by holes and tubes. The challenge of the puzzle is to drink from the vessel in such a way that the beverage does not spill. To do this successfully, the cups must be drunk from in a specific order.
In this excavation, as in all other excavations into 19th-century slums I have ever read about, the excavators found a large assortment of fairly nice artifacts. I have excavated tenant farms of circa 1800 that produce next to no artifacts, but even the meanest slum tenement site is chock-a-block with stuff. This seems to be telling us something important about life in urban slums: poor urban people had (and have) a fair amount of stuff. Maybe it was broken and dirty, but they had it nonetheless. I think that the urban environment was just richer in stuff than rural areas, much of circulating among the poor via pawn shops, used goods dealers, and so on.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

A Day in the Sun

I was back in Delaware today for another day of backhoe work on a small farm site dating to around 1800. The last time I did this I had a crew of five but we found next to nothing and spent most of the day standing around. This time I took only one person to help me but (of course) we found lots, so it was a hard day of digging and scraping in 90 degree heat. What we did was map the features we uncovered and then dig out a section from each, to find out what they were and whether they contained interesting artifacts.

We dug a little section of this amorphous pit and found several sherds of Creamware -- the invention that made Josiah Wedgwood rich -- and Pearlware, a nice circa 1800 collection.

This was was packed full of broken cobbles, but amongst them were those sherds from a coarse redware jar.

And there was this thing. Nine by ten feet (3.0 x 2.75 m), roughly round, filled (on top) with gray clay that must have been dug up at least a hundred feet away.

I had my colleague Paul start digging into it, thinking it would either be shallow or turn into a well, and either way we would be done in an hour.

But we worked on it all day. It turned out to be three feet deep (nearly a meter), with sloping sides; if the rest is like the segment we dug out, it comes to a sort of point on the bottom. The lower half of the fill is a mix of sand and yellowish brown clay, not as unusual as the gray clay on top but still something different from what was dug out of the hole in the first place. We only found about a dozen artifacts, but that was enough to show it dates to the same period as the farm site.

What is it? I have no idea. Why would somebody dig out this large hole, which doesn't have the right shape to be a cellar or a storage pit or anything else I can think of, only to fill it in with dirt from somewhere else? Where did the dirt that was in it go?

Any day with a mystery like this one is a good one for me, even in the middle of a shadeless field at 90 degrees.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011


From Science News, more proof that mating season makes male mammals insane:
Since 2005, bottlenose dolphins have killed at least 44 porpoises off the California coast. For the first time a research team documents details of three attacks and the necropsy of a victim. Almost all the dolphins involved were males.
Big surprise there!
Fatal competition between the species seems unlikely, because their diets don’t overlap much, California researchers report in an upcoming Marine Mammal Science. Rough dolphin play or fighting practice still might be a factor, although attacks suspiciously tend to occur at the peak of the breeding season.
See? Mating season, a little roughhousing, and the next thing you know, raging porpicide.

Of course humans mate year round.


The Atlantic has an astonishing collection of photos from Joplin, Missouri, in the aftermath of the tornado. That's the Joplin tornado above.

Tombs of the Ministers

Relief from the tomb of Maya, the treasurer of Pharaoh Tutankhamen, newly opened to the public in Egypt. Tutankhamen was of course very young when he inherited the throne, and he was deeply involved in tense family politics and arcane religious disputes, so we have to assume that his top officials did most of the real governing. The tomb of Tutankhamen's leading general, Horemheb, is also now open for visitors (below).

Too bad nobody is visiting Egypt. If you have the money, I suggest you go now; the turmoil has eased off, and with tourism way down you will miss the crowds. I went to Greece during the first Gulf War, when fear of terrorism kept many people away, and it was a great experience. My mother and I were the only tourists at Tiryns when we visited, and there were only about 20 people at Mycenae when we visited there.

Weird New Species

The pancake batfish of the Gulf of Mexico, one of National Geographic's ten weirdest new species of the year. The list also includes a glowing mushroom, a 2-meter long lizard, and a tiny antelope.

Medicare 1, Budget Cuts 0

Democrat Katherine Hochul won yesterday's Congressional election in New York's strongly Republican 26th Congressional District. The big issue was the Republican plan to turn Medicare into a subsidy for buying private health insurance, which would decline over time. Key voter comment: "The privatization of Medicare scares me." Paul Ryan's gambit of exempting everyone now over 55 from the change was not very successful, with polls showing that the older voters were, the more the Medicare plan worried them.

The presence of Tea Party candidate Jack Davis, who got 9% of the vote, was a factor but probably not a decisive one. Nate Silver runs the numbers:
Davis ran in the district as a Democrat in 2006, and polls suggested that his voters leaned Republican by roughly a 2-1 margin, but not more than that. If you had split his vote 2-1 in favor of Ms. Corwin, the results would have been Ms. Hochul 51 percent, and Ms. Corwin 48 percent.
On average over the past decade this district has gone Republican by a 12% margin, so a 6 point win for the Democrats, or even a 3 point win, is a major shift. That huge surge of support that carried the Republicans to victory in 2010 has already pretty much disappeared, and now polls show the Democrats are back in front on the generic Congressional ballot. So much for their mandate to cut spending.

Meanwhile Republicans in the senate are trying to block Obama's plan to control Medicare spending by filibustering all the nominees for the board that is supposed to limit costs, so as of now nobody's plan to control Medicare costs is going anywhere.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Where to Get the Plague

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there are 5 to 15 reported cases of bubonic plague in the US every year, and 1 in 7 is fatal. As you can see, they are not randomly distributed. Plague lives most of the time in communal, ground-dwelling rodents like prairie dogs. You can get it from handling prairie dogs, or being bitten by a flea from a prairie dog, but more often it has first spread to some other rodent community, such as grasshopper mice. In 1924 there was an outbreak in Los Angeles that killed 37 people, and in that case the bacillus had somehow spread to rats.

In today's really bad news, a form of plague resistant to most antibiotics has been reported in Madagascar.

Crime and Lead

Violent crime in the US is down again this year, by another 4.5%. Violent crime is now at its lowest level in 40 years, and your chance of being murdered is less than half what it was in the early 1990s.

Could the cause be the clean-up of lead?

From a 2007 article from the Washington Post:

The theory offered by economist Rick Nevin is that lead poisoning accounts for much of the variation in violent crime in the United States. It offers a unifying new neurochemical theory for fluctuations in the crime rate, and it is based on studies linking children's exposure to lead with violent behavior later in their lives.

What makes Nevin's work persuasive is that he has shown an identical, decades-long association between lead poisoning and crime rates in nine countries.

"It is stunning how strong the association is," Nevin said in an interview. "Sixty-five to ninety percent or more of the substantial variation in violent crime in all these countries was explained by lead."

Through much of the 20th century, lead in U.S. paint and gasoline fumes poisoned toddlers as they put contaminated hands in their mouths. The consequences on crime, Nevin found, occurred when poisoning victims became adolescents. Nevin does not say that lead is the only factor behind crime, but he says it is the biggest factor.

I am always suspicious of simple, monocausal theories of social change, but this one actually has some strong evidence behind it. By one estimate, a dollar spent on lead abatement back in the day saved more than a dollar in crime cost each year thereafter, which is ten times more impact than a dollar spent on prisons or police. Yet for some reason lead abatement has been portrayed as a soft, do-gooding liberal sort of thing, compared to being "tough on crime." And even if the lead clean-up is not responsible for 90% of the decline in crime, it has certainly prevented thousands of cases of mental retardation and other problems. Leaded paint and gasoline were environmental catastrophes.

Read the Constitution!

Angry Republican Herman Cain thinks Americans should know the Constitution better:
We don’t need to rewrite the Constitution of the United States of America, we need to reread the Constitution and enforce the Constitution. … And I know that there are some people that are not going to do that, so for the benefit of those who are not going to read it because they don’t want us to go by the Constitution, there’s a little section in there that talks about “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.'

You know, those ideals that we live by, we believe in, your parents believed in, they instilled in you. When you get to the part about “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” don’t stop there, keep reading. Cause that’s when it says “when any form of government becomes destructive of those ideals, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it.” We’ve got some altering and some abolishing to do!
Of course, that's the Declaration of Independence.

Solar Power at Night

One of the biggest problems with solar energy is that it works, on average, less than 12 hours a day. There are many possible ways to store energy (flywheels, pumping water uphill, etc.) but all involve a lot of waste. A new solar plant just approved for the California desert will fight this problem using salt. It will be set up like the solar thermal tower shown above, but instead of turning water to steam like most such plants it will melt salt and heat it to about 1000 degrees Fahrenheit. The molten salt will stay hot enough all night to keep creating steam and thus generating power. I don't know much about the engineering but the company behind the venture, Solar Reserve, says it will be economically competitive.


Another Icelandic Volcano covers northern Europe with ash.

It was actually yesterday, looking at pictures of tornado devastation in Missouri, that I had a thought about habitable planets. Maybe a temperature range that supports liquid water isn't enough; maybe a planet would also have to have the right amount of storminess. If the earth were an order of magnitude more stormy than it is, could we survive? On the other hand, if the planet were so calm that it did not have weather to stir things up, would higher life develop or spread?

A Bronze Age Battle?

German archaeologists have uncovered about a hundred human bodies from the banks of the Tollense River that date to around 1200 BC. Most, but not all, are young men. At least eight have evidence of severe trauma, potentially fatal; one arm bone has an embedded arrowhead. They found no evidence that the bodies had been intentionally buried, and they speculate that they are the remains of a battle. I can easily imagine an attack launched on members of a rival tribe as they were crossing the river -- a classic tactic -- leading to this slaughter. But then, it could be a lot of other things, too.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Everywhere We Go

Wherever we humans go, we kill things. The latest from the literature is "the first land crab extinction of the human era," the disappearance of Geograpsus severnsi from the Hawaiian Islands after people arrived:

The loss of the crab likely greatly impacted the ecology of the Hawaiian Islands, as land crabs are major predators, control litter decomposition and help in nutrient cycling and seed dispersal. Their disappearance was caused by the arrival of humans to the islands and resulted in large-scale changes in the state's ecosystem. Researchers said the full impact of the extinction on Hawaii is unknown, but they are certain it led to changes in the diversity of the food web, a continuing concern to conservationists studying species loss in other habitats. . . .

"If these land crabs were alive today, Hawaii would be a very different place," said lead author Gustav Paulay, marine malacology curator at the Florida Museum of Natural History on the UF campus. "They certainly were major ecological players, as they were very abundant, large, carnivorous omnivores."

Numerous fossils of the new species, Geograpsus severnsi, have been found on the major Hawaiian Islands for many years, but its identity was not clear. Researchers identified the crab by comparing physical characteristics with specimens from various collections. The species is unique to the Hawaiian Islands and the most land-adapted crab in the Pacific, expanding further inland and to higher elevations than any other. Like other island land crabs, G. severnsi appears to have retained ties to the sea, where its larvae developed.

Analysis of the radiocarbon-dated specimens show they vanished soon after Polynesians colonized the Hawaiian Islands about 1,000 years ago. Colonists brought novel predators to the islands, including lizards, rats, pigs, dogs and jungle fowls, profoundly altering coastal and low-elevation habitats, Paulay said.

The Southwest Ecodistrict

One of the most ghastly creations of the whole Great Age of Uglification was the grim complex of office buildings and freeways that fills southwest Washington, DC. It's a desert of concrete, asphalt, and big, ugly, box-shaped buildings. The picture above, of 10th Street, shows one of the more scenic views.

The National Capital Planning Commission has a plan to change all this. They call their vision the Southwest Ecodistrict, the plan is full of mostly meaningless words about sustainability. The clever scheme seems to be to leverage some of the Federal money available for environmental initiatives to make this wasteland a place where people want to be.

To quote the plan, “As envisioned, the ecodistrict will be an active, multi-modal, mixed-use neighborhood of significant cultural attractions and public spaces, offices, residences, and amenities.” Since this district is adjacent to the Mall -- right behind the Air and Space Museum, one of the nation's top tourist attractions -- and already has lots of high-value Federal tenants, and since developers are running out of places to put more condos in the center city, this might really work. And what a boon it would be to replace all that void with trees, cafés, shops, and human life.

A Shaman's Staff

From a Scythian tomb. Click to enlarge.

He Mourns For The Change That Has Come Upon Him And His Beloved, And Longs For The End Of The World

Do you not hear me calling, white deer with no horns?
I have been changed to a hound with one red ear;
I have been in the Path of Stones and the Wood of Thorns,
For somebody hid hatred and hope and desire and fear
Under my feet that they follow you night and day.
A man with a hazel wand came without sound;
He changed me suddenly; I was looking another way;
And now my calling is but the calling of a hound;
And Time and Birth and Change are hurrying by.
I would that the Boar without bristles had come from the West
And had rooted the sun and moon and stars out of the sky
And lay in the darkness, grunting, and turning to his rest.
--W.B. Yeats

Dreams Before Waking

Despair falls:
the shadow of a building
they are raising in the direct path
of your slender ray of sunlight
Slowly the steel girders grow
the skeletal framework rises
yet the western light still filters
through it all
still glances off the plastic sheeting
they wrap around it
for dead of winter.

At the end of winter something changes
a faint subtraction
from consolations you expected
an innocent brilliance that does not come
though the flower shops set out
once again on the pavement
their pots of tight-budded sprays
the bunches of jonquils stiff with cold
and at such a price
though someone must buy them
you study those hues as if with hunger

Despair falls
like the day you come home
from work, a summer evening
transparent with rose-blue light
and see they are filling in
the framework
the girders are rising
beyond your window
that seriously you live
in a different place
though you have never moved

and will not move, not yet
but will give away
your potted plants to a friend
on the other side of town
along with the cut crystal
flashing in the window-frame
will forget the evenings
of watching the street, the sky
the planes in the feathered afterglow:
will learn to feel grateful simply for this foothold

where still you can manage
to go on paying rent
where still you can believe
it's the old neighborhood:
even the woman who sleeps at night
in the barred doorway -- wasn't she always there?
and the man glancing, darting
for food in the supermarket trash --
when did his hunger come to this?
what made the difference?
what will make it for you?

. . . .

What would it mean to live
in a city whose people were changing
each other's despair into hope? --
You yourself must change it. --
what would it feel like to know
your country was changing? --
You yourself must change it. --
Though your life felt arduous
new and unmapped and strange
what would it mean to stand on the first
page to the end of despair?

--Adrienne Rich

The Philosophy of Diet

JEH Smith muses on the history of our dietary obsessions:

I came up under an anti-fat regime, when foods, or packaged food products, were rated according to their degree of 'fat-freeness', and it was taken for granted that to eat fat was immediately to become fat. This regime made natural sense to me; du bist was du ißt, and all that.

Imagine my surprise then, when, a decade or so ago, the entire value system was suddenly inverted as a sort of Protestant Reformation of the diet occurred, where suddenly it was not the fats but the carbohydrates that were on the index alimentorum prohibitorum. This was difficult to grasp since, as I had always understood, carbohydrates just are the default variety of foodstuff: you get a bit of fat here, and a bit of protein there, but for the most part to eat is just to eat carbs. For these to suddenly be prohibited, and in favor, at that, of at least a certain subvariety of lipid, was all really too much for this old diet-obsessed eater to comprehend. It was more than a Reformation. It was a revaluation of all values.

The anti-carb fever seems to have waned in the most recent years, and now other dietary components are being denounced as the real evil (gluten? Who the hell ever cared about gluten before?); and having lived long enough --having not yet been killed off by the things I eat-- to see dietary rules come and go, I feel emboldened in my reading of the historical record on such matters to conclude that, in general, there must always be some element of diet or other that is prohibited, and it does not matter so much which one it is. The anti-carb revolution was a vivid illustration of a sort of social instability, of a historical period in which competing theories of the proper diet could in a matter of years or even months squeeze out their competitors.

We are, I mean to say, no more advanced than Galenic humoral medicine, or than Ayurveda, in our ascription of values to various foodstuffs. . . .

Smith then goes through the list of harmful foods that Richard Burton put in his Anatomy of Melancholy, a sort of random assemblage of foods and liquors said to increase melancholy; among these are puddings stuffed with blood, buttered meats, fritters, pancakes, and Malmsey wine. But where, he asks, is Burton's list of healthful foods? There is none:

Everything you eat is perceived as potentially harmful, and that is not because of any real, measurably physiological effect, but only because we will never be entirely at ease with the alimentary nature of our existence, with, to put it bluntly, the fact that in order to keep on going as creatures we must constantly devour other creatures. That is a charged activity, and one that is bound to give rise to endless disputations as to the right way of going about it.

And this is pretty much what think of all dietary advice beyond the most basic. Some people very much want the act of eating to be important. They attach great meaning to what they eat, and connect it to whatever else obsesses them. Concerned with your health? Try the latest regime of dietary self-denial. Worried about the environment? Go vegan, or become a locavore. Want to help migrant workers? Boycott some vegetable or another. Want adventure? Seek out foods no one you know has ever tasted, preferably made from things you have never seen alive. Seeking god's favor? Be sure not to eat the foods he frowns on.

None of which is to say that food is not important; after all, we die without it. But attempts to attach meaning to every mouthful make me queasy.

Cincinnati, 1848

A wonderful panorama of the Cincinnati waterfront shot by Charles Fontayne and William S. Porter in September 1848, now digitized so you can zoom in on details like the bloomers below.