Saturday, December 31, 2011

Frozen Bubbles

By Emmanuel Coupe. Gas rising from the bottom of a Canadian lake trapped in clear ice.

William Blake, Eve Tempted by the Serpent

Art of the European Bronze Age

As a New Year's present to myself, I post some of my favorite objects. These are all from the European Bronze Age, 2200 to 800 BC, an age just beyond the reach of written records or real understanding, but enough like the better documented societies of the late Iron Age that we can imagine what these people were like and how they thought about the world. Above, sword hilts from Switzerland.

One of the Vilso helmets from Denmark, ca. 900 BC.

An arm band from Germany, ca. 1400 BC. From the Neolithic to the coming of Christianity, Europeans were fascinated with spirals.

Cult object from Denmark in the form of a solar chariot.

Stone gorget, Germany 2nd millennium BC.

The Nebra Disk, from Germany, ca. 1600 BC. This disk, about 30 cm (a foot) across, depicts the moon, the sun, and the Pleiades, and it may have been an astronomical device used to calculate when to add an intercalary (13th) month to the year.

Bronze "arm guard" from Hungary, ca. 1300 BC.

Gold hanging bowl.

The golden hat of Berlin, one of three or four such monumentally silly hats from Bronze Age ceremonial sites.

Two bronze pins, ca. 800 BC.

Gold lunula from Ireland.

Bronze diadem from the Carpathians, ca. 1000 BC. What if the Bronze Age was actually the great era of silly hats, but since most of them were made of cloth or hide, only a few gold and bronze examples have survived?

Like this! (The Petrie Crown from Ireland.)

Gold cope, now in the British Museum.

Jet necklace from Scotland.

Mass Human Sacrifice in Peru

At the foot of a pyramid along Peru's northern coast, archaeologists have unearthed a pit filled with about 100 human skeletons and the remains of a huge, beer-soaked feast. The pyramid is in the Sicán site, the capital of the Lambayeque people, who ruled the region from about A.D. 900 to 1100. The skeletons were buried naked, some of them headless, and were almost certainly human sacrifices.

Most of the victims are adult men, and when archaeologists find a mass execution of men they usually assume they are looking at war captives. There is not much evidence, though, that the Lambayeque people were warriors. Their sites are undefended, their art does not feature warfare, and weapons are not prominent in their tombs. This has led to some strange speculations about where these victims came from, like this one from Haagen Klaus of the University of Utah:
All the dead in the newfound pit were likely willing participants from local communities engaged in a ritual that celebrated death so that "new life could emerge in the world," Klaus said in an email to National Geographic News.
I think it is more likely that there was some warfare in the Sicán world, however little their culture emphasized it, and that these men were the victims of it. Since the site is in many ways unique (so far) it is very hard to know.

Op Ed Art

"Changing Your Mind" by Valero Doval, from a collection of art drawn to accompany Op Ed pieces at the NY Times. Below, "A Reluctant Enemy" by Sam Weber.

George Will Takes Aim at the Achilles Heel of Environmentalism

George Will on why he thinks America's future is conservative:
For the indefinite future, a specter is haunting progressivism, the specter of abundance. Because progressivism exists to justify a few people bossing around most people and because progressives believe that only government’s energy should flow unimpeded, they crave energy scarcities as an excuse for rationing — by them — that produces ever-more-minute government supervision of Americans’ behavior.
I don't think Will is exaggerating about the plans of some environmentalists. I once met a "save the Chesapeake Bay" operative who suggested creating a list of everyone living within the Bay's watershed, organized by families; only when someone in your family died or left the watershed, she said, would you be allowed to have a child. Migration into the watershed would be banned.

Almost everything you do affects the environment some way or another, so an environmental tyranny would be a very thoroughgoing one. It is always necessary, therefore, to balance environmental goals against freedom, and against the annoyance of having a holier-than-thou environmental priesthood lecturing the rest of us about our sins. Repeated claims that the earth is on the verge of environmental or population apocalypse have not come to pass, and I think this is one reason why most people don't take predictions of climate doomsday seriously. To rebuild their influence, environmentalists must shed their image as whining, nagging, bossy prophets who secretly long for a catastrophe because it would prove them right.

The way out of the human freedom vs. the environment trap is through new technology. If we can develop sustainable ways to generate all the electricity we want and to power the biggest cars we can fit on the road, we can have it both ways. Obama's people understand this, which is why they have pushed so hard to invest government money in solar power, electric cars, and other clean tech. Will and his allies hate this with an irrational passion, which is why they fulminate about Solyndra and crow that the Chevy Volt is selling badly. They don't want the problem to be solved and the conflict rendered moot; they want to force environmentalists to admit they were wrong in the first place.

But if environmentalists are wrong when they preach catastrophe, they are right that everything we do affects the planet. If we want the earth to remain a place we love and find beautiful, and that is healthy for our children, we should think about what our impacts are and limit them where we can.

Romney is Right about Campaign Finance

Since the Supreme Court has held that buying political ads is speech, protected by the first amendment, there is no longer any rationale for our limits on campaign contributions. Asked about campaign finance the other day, Mitt Romney said we should lift the $2500 limit on what individuals can contribute to candidates. It would be better, he said, if all the money now going to "Super Pacs" went to the campaigns instead, so the candidate would control his message and people would know who was buying which ads. He was right. The ridiculous charade of "independent" pacs who actually tailor their ads to help one candidate should end, and we should just let candidates raise all the money they can and spend it however they think will help them most. This change would also reduce the advantage we now give to rich people, who are allowed to spend as much of their own money as they want.

I think it's time to give up on the experiment of campaign finance reform.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Hedge Funds are Terrible Investments

Amy Orr in the Wall Street Journal:
Much has been made about hedge funds’ failure to keep up with the major stock market benchmarks this year. But 2011 is merely the latest disappointment in a string of misses that stretches back nine years, according to one analysis of the hedge fund industry.

Money invested in hedge funds since 2003 would have generated a return of 18% through November, according to data compiled by Hedge Fund Research. That puts it far behind the Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index, which has generated returns of 29% over that same period, once dividends are factored in, according to Simon Lack of SL Advisors. The hedge fund underperformance is even starker when placed next to a small basket of investment grade corporate bonds, as measured by the Dow Jones Corporate Bond Index. That benchmark has gained 77% since 2003.

Factor in hedge fund mangers’ customary 2% management fee and a 20% cut in profits, and the gap widens even more.
So why do rich people keep pouring money into these sinkholes? I think it is because only rich people can invest in them. They create a feeling of being a wealthy insider, and everybody knows that rich insiders do better under capitalism than anyone else. That hedge funds are not subject to all the consumer protection regulations that govern mutual funds only increases the allure, especially among government-despising conservatives.

Really most of the financial services industry is a scam, delivering no added value at great cost. I keep wondering when the world will wise up to this.

Las Palmas by Tony Hernandez

The Risco de San Juan district of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, Canary Islands, one of twelve photos chosen by Nikon for its annual calendar.

Does Pollution Make Storms Worse?

National Geographic reports on a study of 15 years of North American storm data:
Tornadoes and hailstorms occurred at a rate of about 20 percent above average during the middle of the week. In contrast, the phenomena occurred at a rate of roughly 20 percent below average on the weekend.
The only obvious explanation is pollution, especially from auto exhausts, which is greater during the week.

Birth Rates Plummet Across Latin America

Today's good news for the planet:
From sprawling Mexico to tiny Ecuador to economically buoyant Chile, fertility rates plummeted, even though abortion is illegal, the Catholic Church opposes birth control and government-run family planning is rare.

A frenzied migration to the cities, the expansion of the female workforce, better health care and the example of the small, affluent families portrayed on the region’s wildly popular soap operas have contributed to a demographic shift that happened so fast it caught social scientists by surprise.

In 1960, women in Latin America had almost six children on average. By 2010, the rate had fallen to 2.3 children.

Among other things, this will greatly reduce immigration pressure on America's southern border. Our illegal immigrant problem will largely disappear before we figure out what to do about it.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Rebirth of the Anacostia Waterfront

Southeast Washington, DC, was once an industrial zone centered on the U.S. Navy Yard, for a time the world's biggest ordnance factory. Then for decades it was a post-industrial wasteland, fronting on the stinking embarrassment that was the Anacostia River.

But now this neighborhood is coming back. The river is clean enough that people want to be near it. The Navy has converted several old factory buildings into offices for thousands of civilian personnel. Other old factories have been demolished, and several major developments are underway. The banks of the river are becoming parks.

Just this month work has begun on two big projects. The biggest is Riverfront on the Anacostia, a name that twenty years ago would have seemed like a sewage joke but will soon comprise 1.1 million square feet of residential, office, retail and public access to the riverfront (top). The demolition of the concrete plant that now occupies the site is underway (above).

Meanwhile, one of the old navy buildings is being turned into The Boilermaker Shops, a new "festival marketplace."

Oh, and which state grew fastest over the past year? The District of Columbia, which added 16,000 new residents, growing at a 2.7% pace.

What is the Purpose of Literary Scholarship?

English Professor Mark Bauerlein thinks most literary scholarship is a waste of time. Using Google's citations search and perusing book notes by hand, he concludes that most articles are hardly cited at all:
Of 13 research articles published by current SUNY-Buffalo professors in 2004, 11 of them received zero to two citations, one had five, one 12. Of 23 articles by Georgia professors in 2004, 16 received zero to two citations, four of them three to six, one eight, one 11, and one 16.
If scholarship is supposed to be a conversation, most publications are shouted into the wind.
Yes, research is an intellectual good, and yes, we shouldn't reduce our measures to bean counting. But we can no longer ignore the costs of supporting research—financial costs (salaries, sabbaticals, grants, travel; the cost to libraries to buy and store material, to scholarly presses to evaluate, produce, and market it; and to peers to review it), opportunity costs (not mentoring undergraduates, not pushing foreign languages in general-education requirements, etc.), and human costs (asking smart, conscientious people to labor their lives away on unappreciated things).

The research identity is a powerful allure, flattering people that they have cutting-edge brilliance. Few of them readily trade the graduate seminar for the composition classroom. But we have reached the point at which the commitment to research at the current level actually damages the humanities, turning the human capital of the discipline toward ineffectual toil. More books and articles don't expand the audience for literary studies. A spurt of publications in a department does not attract more sophomores to the major, nor does it make the dean add another tenure-track line, nor does it urge a curriculum committee to add another English course to the general requirements. All it does is "author-ize" the producers.

And from a related blog entry:
The debate over the validity and implications of that conclusion may proceed, but in one area I believe we can all agree. Research does NOT advance the cause of literary studies in material terms. It does not draw more money, more undergraduates, and more teaching lines to English and foreign language departments, and it does not build bridges to off-campus audiences. In fact, I would say, it does the opposite. Research in those areas is almost always individualized. People work on their projects by themselves, in isolation. They need lots of time alone to produce these labor-intensive goods.

The result is that research faculty regard collective occasions as a hindrance. Committee meetings, department gatherings, group efforts to promote the department . . . they take away precious hours from inquiry and composition. In the words of 1950s sociologists and culture critics, research “atomizes” faculty members.

The problem is that, in order to sustain English and foreign languages on campus, departments need concerted, collective action.
My readers know that I have attitudes similar to Bauerlein's. I believe in humanistic scholarship, but I suspect that the immense quantity of it now produced is a problem in itself. But we just don't know how else to evaluate academic excellence, so major changes to the system are no doubt far away.

Titan's Hydrocrabon Seas

A false-color map of the Sea of Ligeia, one of the largest lakes on Titan, based on radar data from the Cassini spacecraft. Titan has clouds, rain, rivers, and seas, but since the temperature is minus 300 F (-150 C), the liquid is not water but hydrocarbons like methane and ethane.

Some black and white radar maps. Above, an island in the Sea of Kraken, mapped by Cassini; below, river channels, mapped by the Huygens probe on its way to the surface.

Christian Libertarianism

Ron Paul presents himself as a Christian libertarian, and this seems paradoxical to many Americans. To most strong believers, Christianity seems to imply using the government to accomplish Christian aims: feed the hungry, protect the weak, punish immorality, and so on. Yet Jesus and his early followers were no great admirers of government. To them the Roman state was so distant as to make little impression at all, beyond the depredations of tax collectors. When the state did start taking an interest in Christians, it was to feed them to lions for refusing to honor the state religion.

So I don't think there is anything inherently absurd about Christian libertarianism; you have only to take the commandments of the faith as applying to us as individuals rather than as citizens. Jesus assumed, though, that the state was under the control of distant Romans, and therefore could never be Christian. What if Christians did control the government? Which, in the U.S., they do. Does it still make sense to assume that the system is inherently too wicked to ever accomplish good?

Ron Paul thinks so. Sometimes when I ponder things like the vast size of our secret, shadow government, and the routine injustice of our courts, I tend to agree; a system can grow so large and self-involved as to largely escape control from anyone outside it. And yet overall, I think, the governments of the post World War II period have made huge progress in improving human life, and so I always end up setting aside those objections.

Which brings me to this ludicrous essay by Norman Horn of Libertarian Christians. As I said, I see no inherent contradiction between Christianity and distrust of government, and I like Ron Paul's insistence that making war to spread democracy is not what Jesus had in mind. But that isn't enough for Horn, who has to derive all of the usual libertarian crap about the monetarism and the Federal Reserve from the Bible:
Libertarians talk a lot about economics, and rightfully so. Money is central to a healthy economy. Christians are also concerned about money; in fact God talks frequently about money in the Bible. God’s warning against unjust “weights and measures” in Leviticus 19 is a warning not to tamper with the market ecosystem of money and trade. Rep. Paul acknowledges the Bible’s concern for honest money as well in End the Fed : “The Bible is clear that altering the quality of money is an immoral act… It is dishonesty in money that has been a major source of evil throughout history.” If the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil, as 1 Timothy 6:10 says, how much more seriously ought we to take how our society views the control over the supply of money? If it is true, as many libertarians contend, that the Federal Reserve is the primary cause of the economic crisis we have today, then the only solution is to restore honest, sound commodity money, free from political machinations and special interests.
Oh, come on. The fetishization of gold and silver is one of libertarianism's stupidest obsessions, and it points directly toward their secret desire: to live without depending on anyone else for anything. In their dreams, gold is "real" money with real value, not dependent on the whims of bankers, allowing people to trade with each other in a way that ignores the rest of the planet. But we all depend on each other, in a million ways. Our wealth comes from the web of economic ties in which we are enmeshed, and the gold standard would only make us poorer, not more independent.

Contemporary American libertarianism is rooted, it seems to me, in contempt for most of humanity. All the libertarians I know have a strong misanthropic strain, and they seem to want personal independence because they can't stand the smell of other humans. It is here, not in the theory of government, that libertarianism and Christianity collide. You can be a Christian and want more freedom, a smaller government, fewer wars, and less policing. But you cannot be a Christian while hating humanity. Love thy neighbor as thyself, Jesus said. Show me a libertarian more interested in love than in stockpiling gold, and I will believe in Christian libertarianism.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Book Carving Craze

Carving up books seems to be all the rage. I guess nobody reads encyclopedias or the like any more, so it's nice somebody has found a use for them. Besides the mad, anonymous book sculptor of Edinburgh, above, about whom I wrote here and here, I have lately seen several other book carvers on the art blogs.

Most prominent is Brian Dettmer, aka the Book Surgeon, who likes to carve up medical textbooks and science reference books.

Alexander Korzer-Robinson, another fan of reference books.

And Icelander Ragnhildur Jóhanns, who works with volumes of poetry.

Guy Laramee, who makes landscapes from whole sets of books.

Whatever works, I guess.

The Psychedelic Potter of Maryland's Great Valley

I spent this afternoon looking through the artifact collection from an old farm site near Sharpsburg in Maryland's Great Valley. The collection mainly dates to the 1770 to 1860 period. Besides all the usual stuff (see below), there were these two sherds of earthenware that are not like anything else I have ever seen. This must be a local potter. There was a strong tradition of making slip-decorated, coarse earthenware pans and pie plates in the Great Valley, mainly between 1760 and 1820. I have seen other fairly loud designs, but nothing this crazy. Imagine a pie plate made of this, a foot across. The mind boggles. I keep thinking, as I look through the coarse pottery from these valley sites, that there must be some collector or curator somewhere who would instantly recognize the work of various local potters. Alas, I have yet to find that person. Incidentally, these two sherds are the same color, I just shot them in different lights, which gives you a hint of how different artifacts can look depending on how you light them.

Refined wares, most likely made in England.

Locally-made coarse earthenware jars.

Slip-decorated redware plates, made locally or around Philadelphia.

The World is Surpassing Complex, the Human Mind Only so Strong

In an essay subtitled "Why Science is Failing Us" Jonah Lehrer looks at the difficulty we have understanding complex systems that cannot be approached by breaking them into small, simple pieces that can be understood one at a time. After noting the repeated failures of new drugs that seemed, based on our understanding of physiology, to be sure things, he writes,
This assumption—that understanding a system’s constituent parts means we also understand the causes within the system—is not limited to the pharmaceutical industry or even to biology. It defines modern science. In general, we believe that the so-called problem of causation can be cured by more information, by our ceaseless accumulation of facts. Scientists refer to this process as reductionism. By breaking down a process, we can see how everything fits together; the complex mystery is distilled into a list of ingredients. And so the question of cholesterol—what is its relationship to heart disease?—becomes a predictable loop of proteins tweaking proteins, acronyms altering one another. Modern medicine is particularly reliant on this approach. Every year, nearly $100 billion is invested in biomedical research in the US, all of it aimed at teasing apart the invisible bits of the body. We assume that these new details will finally reveal the causes of illness, pinning our maladies on small molecules and errant snippets of DNA. Once we find the cause, of course, we can begin working on a cure.
Alas, the human body is one of those complex systems that cannot be understood that way. A drug that fits perfectly into one well-understood loop may have impacts on some other system in another part of the body that undo the good done in the targeted part. The only way to know what some compound will do in the body is to try it out in several thousand volunteers and watch.

We have made great progress in understanding the world through the statistics of correlation, measuring precisely how likely it is that two things go together. In some cases, like smoking and lung cancer, the connection turns out to be very powerful, and leads to simple prescriptions. More and more often, though, the reason for the correlations we observe remains murky at best. Cause, as philosophers have understood at least since Aristotle, is a slippery thing. Once you get beyond the collisions of rolling steel balls, it is just very hard to be sure that one thing causes another. Lehrer:
The reliance on correlations has entered an age of diminishing returns. At least two major factors contribute to this trend. First, all of the easy causes have been found, which means that scientists are now forced to search for ever-subtler correlations, mining that mountain of facts for the tiniest of associations. . . . Second—and this is the biggy—searching for correlations is a terrible way of dealing with the primary subject of much modern research: those complex networks at the center of life. While correlations help us track the relationship between independent measurements, they are much less effective at making sense of systems in which the variables cannot be isolated. Such situations require that we understand every interaction before we can reliably understand any of them. Given the byzantine nature of biology, this can often be a daunting hurdle, requiring that researchers map not only the complete cholesterol pathway but also the ways in which it is plugged into other pathways. Unfortunately, we often shrug off this dizzying intricacy, searching instead for the simplest of correlations. It’s the cognitive equivalent of bringing a knife to a gunfight.
It may be that our ever increasing knowledge of the body and other complex systems will eventually add up to a profound understanding, but right now that isn't happening.

Zeno's Advent Calendar

From xkcd.

The Sacred Heart of Ancient Dacia

Before the Romans conquered Romania and settled it so heavily that it ended up with their name, it was called Dacia. The Dacians were a collection of tribes that had fallen under the sway of a powerful royal family. That family was based at a city the Romans called Sarmizegetusa. Once Trajan's legions had defeated the Dacians and sacked their city, in 107 AD, it was refounded as the Roman colony of Sarmizegetusa Ulpia Traiana. This new city became the provincial capital and an important trading center. Excavations have been going on at the site on and off since 1924, and many of the Roman buildings have been uncovered.

The conquest of Dacia is the campaign immortalized on Trajan's Column; above, Romans fighting Dacians.

Hidden among and under the great mass of Roman construction are some remains of ancient Dacia, including defensive walls, the palaces of noble families, and workshops for smelting ore and working metal. The most important Dacian find is the sacred enclosure shown above. The Romans seem to have left this area alone, building their own temples elsewhere, so what you see dates to the peak of the Dacian kingdom, 84 BC to 106 AD. The Dacians' chief deity was associated with the sun, and that large circular structure seems to be a solar temple. The wooden posts, alas, were placed during the communist era to make the site look more impressive, and these days archaeologists are dubious.

Dacia was rich in gold and other minerals, and Trajan's men carried a great treasure back to Rome. Some glimpses of the wealth of the Dacian elite have recently come from Romanian tombs. These objects are controversial, and some people think they are fake, but the latest scholarship supports the notion that they are genuine Dacian relics.