Monday, April 30, 2012

Spring Flowers

Georgetown, today.

Sea Shadow to be Scrapped

DARPA's Sea Shadow, a ship built in 1983 to 1984 to test new naval technologies, is being scrapped.

The ship is best known as a testbed for stealth technology -- it was designed by the same Lockheed folks who built the Stealth fighter -- but it was also used to test the stability of the SWATH hull design (which turned out to work very well) and new automation systems that reduced the necessary crew to a handful. (It has only 12 bunks.)

Photojournalism at its Finest

A tranquilized bear falls out of a tree at the University of Colorado. If Andy Duann doesn't win a Pulitzer for this, something is seriously wrong with the system.

Your Memory is not a Hard Drive

Jonah Lehrer:
The biggest lie of human memory is that it feels true. Although our recollections seem like literal snapshots of the past, they’re actually deeply flawed reconstructions, a set of stories constantly undergoing rewrites. . . .

In recent years, neuroscientists have documented how these mistakes happen. It turns out that the act of summoning the past to the surface actually changes the memory itself. Although we’ve long imagined our memories as a stable form of information, a data file writ into the circuits of the brain, that persistence is an illusion. In reality, our recollections are always being altered, the details of the past warped by our present feelings and knowledge. The more you remember an event, the less reliable that memory becomes.
And, I would add, the context in which you do the remembering influences how much your remember, how well, and what sort of distortions creep in.

National Geographic Underwater Photo Contest

Above the, winner for wide angle shot, showing lionfish herding smaller fish in Israel's red sea. By Mark Fuller.

And the winner for Macro photography, showing two yellownose gobies peaking from a brain corral. By Todd Mintz.

See the whole contest here.

Liberalism as an Ideology

Jonah Goldberg has a little piece in the Post this week about five cliches liberals use to in place of thought or argument. It's actually the best thing by him I've read in a long time, and it got me thinking. Here's his list:

Violence never solves anything. Actually pacifism has never been a core liberal belief; consider that our most liberal Presidents -- Wilson, both Roosevelts, Johnson, and Obama -- have all been warriors. Liberals do differ from some conservatives in that few think war is a good thing, but then not even all conservatives accept those arguments about war making the nation stronger and what all.

Better ten guilty men go free. Goldberg says that everyone accepts this one, but that it simply provides no real plan of action. I disagree. I think that every effort ought to be made to give everyone a fair trial; that prosecutors who hide evidence from the defense should be dismissed and disbarred; that cops who extract confessions with beatings should be jailed; that when new evidence emerges, even 50 years after a conviction, it ought to be given a legal hearing. In practice, conservatives have opposed all of these things. Does Goldberg? If he really accepts that it is better for ten guilty men to go free than for one innocent man to be jailed, why doesn't he advocate for reform?

Social Darwinism. I agree with Goldberg that this is a straw man, since only the hardest core, most misanthropic libertarians really want failed human beings to starve and take themselves out of the gene pool. It always embarrasses liberals to be reminded of this, but in America conservatives give more to private charity than liberals, and more of what they give goes to groups helping the poor. (Mainly through churches.) But a softer sort of social Darwinism really does permeate conservative thinking: that competition is good, whether we are talking about the economy or education or sports, and that competition means nothing if somebody doesn't lose. In modern conservative thought, what is best about life comes out of competition, whether we are talking about the best new products or the best churches. Most liberals accept this to some degree (I do), but liberals are more queasy about the effects of losing on the losers, and more determined to make the rules fair.

The Living Constitution. This is, I think, a double red herring, since both liberals and conservatives argue for extending the Constitution in some instances and sticking to the text in others. (E.g., conservatives think the Second Amendment implies a right to carry a concealed handgun, which is not what those words meant to the people who wrote them.) I hate to be a complete cynic, but I really think that all talk about Constitutional originalism vs. a living constitution and such is just cover for the cold operation of politics and ideology. Roe vs. Wade simply baffles me, and if anybody can make a real constitutional defense of Bush vs. Gore, I'll eat my shirt.

Diversity is Strength. Here I agree with Goldberg completely: it is simply not true that diverse communities are stronger. No matter how you measure community strength or participation in communal institutions, you find that mono-ethnic communities are stronger, tighter, and more supportive. In fact the likely reason that Americans are less supportive of a government safety net than Europeans is that America is more diverse. But, given that America really is a diverse society, what are we supposed to do? Taken as statements of fact, "diversity is strength" is crap, but as an aspiration, maybe it is what we all have to say if we want our huge, polyglot nation to succeed.

This is a nice list, but it doesn't get to the core of my own understanding of liberalism. Here are some additional principles I would add to my own notion of a liberal ideology:

Look to the poor, not the rich. Societies should be judged by how they treat the poor, the sick, and the vulnerable, more than by the opportunities available to the rich and the successful. The right measure of economic progress is not the GNP, but the median income, or even the income of the poor. The rich can take care of themselves, and we should not be designing policies to help them.

Capitalism is neither natural nor fair. It is a human construction no more than a few hundred years old, and the rules were written by the rich to benefit themselves. It should be respected only to the extent that it promotes the common welfare.

Nobody's money is really his or her own. Money is a social good that exists only as a medium of trade. It is created by society, and ultimately it all belongs to society. Societies that recognize no right to private poverty are either dysfunctional or tyrannical, so some right to property is essential. But those rights should be limited by common needs.

Democracy and freedom are not natural to our species. On the contrary, most human societies are aristocratic, with most wealth and power concentrated in a few hands. If we want our society to be something else -- democratic, middle-class, fair, however you want to see it -- we must use democratic politics to fight for those ends. Only concerted political action by the non-rich can keep our society from sliding towards aristocracy. Class warfare is essential to maintaining a middle class democracy.

Women are people. Our laws must make every effort to treat men and women equally and accord them equal rights and dignity.

We must respect our environment. Our actions affect the planet, and we have it within our power to render it uninhabitable. If we want the earth to be a nice place to live for future generations, we must limit our destructive behavior.

I'm sure there are other things I have left out, but that will do for now.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Inflatable Stonehenge

Actual size, but you can bounce on it!

I confess that I liked it even better before I discovered that it is an art "installation" by Jeremy Deller, called "Sacrilege."

High Trestle Bridge, Madrid, Iowa

Very impressive design done at low cost, as part of another Rails to Trails project:
In 2003 the Union Pacific Railroad proposed the abandonment of a 25-mile corridor in central Iowa and was willing to negotiate a bargain sale to the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation (INHF, a non-profit organization). After years of being involved in numerous rails-to-trails in the state since the 1980s, INHF was excited to be a partner in this potential new project. The corridor spanned nine jurisdictions (four counties and five towns), was a connecting link between two regional trail loops and was located 25 minutes north of the largest metro area in the state. 
The pillars were part of what the trail inherited from the railroad, but the bridge deck had to be built from scratch. The design must have been a team effort, since the list of credits reads Snyder & Associates, Shuck-Britson Inc., Dahlquist Art Studios, RDG Planning & Design.

Doors of Frederick, Maryland

These were all taken during a ten minute walk through the historic district of Frederick, Maryland.

Republicans are the Problem

Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein in the Post:
We have been studying Washington politics and Congress for more than 40 years, and never have we seen them this dysfunctional. In our past writings, we have criticized both parties when we believed it was warranted. Today, however, we have no choice but to acknowledge that the core of the problem lies with the Republican Party.

The GOP has become an insurgent outlier in American politics. It is ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.

When one party moves this far from the mainstream, it makes it nearly impossible for the political system to deal constructively with the country’s challenges.
Whether this truth can penetrate the minds of American voters who tune out all partisan accusations remains to be seen. But truth it is.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Paul Kriwaczek, Babylon

Paul Kriwaczek's Babylon; Mesopotamia and the Birth of Civilization (2010) is the best book I have read about the ancient Near East in at least a decade. There has been a huge amount of new scholarship on these topics since Samuel Noah Kramer's History Begins at Sumer and the other classic works I know were published, and Kriwaczek is well up on it. I learned a lot from this book. It is also lively and entertaining, with well-chosen anecdotes and in depth analyses of half a dozen well chosen artifacts. Kriwaczek understands the process of learning about the past through archaeology, the problems of translating extinct languages, and the scholarly debates over topics like how far the tablets reflect life outside the temple compounds where they were written. He knows so much, in fact, that I was rather startled to discover that he is not an archaeologist. He is the head of Central Asian Affairs for the BBC, and his two other books are In Search of Zarathustra (which just shot to the top my list of books to find) and Yiddish Civilization.The Renaissance Man lives.

Babylon begins with the origins of Sumerian civilization in the 4th millennium BCE, and ends with the fall of Babylon to Cyrus the Persian. Kriwaczek does a good job of telling a coherent story about Mesopotamia as a single civilization without ignoring the great changes that took place over this vast span of time, or the regional differences that sometimes divided the land. He gives both a framework narrative and many well chosen details, some drawn from written documents, others from archaeological fieldwork.

I was interested to note that when it comes to explaining the rise of civilization, economic determinism seems to be dead. This popular writer did not even give a nod toward theories that the first cities arose from trade. His model of the rise of Eridu begins with a shrine on the shore of a sacred lake, around which a festival grew up, which slowly turned into a settlement. When I was in college these ideas were new and radical, and now they have become the status quo. Thus long have I lived.
I would share dozens of Kriwaczek's stories if I had time and space. I loved a little excerpt he presented from the famous King List, describing an anarchic period:
Who was king? Who was not king?
But I must limit myself. I choose this gem:
When the omens were particularly unfavourable it was the custom to spirit the monarch away to safety and temporarily place a commoner on the throne to receive whatever blow fate had in store for the man in the palace. Around 1860 BCE destiny spoke, probably in the form of a lunar eclipse, threatening the Sumerian King Irra-Imitti of Isin. "That the dynasty might not end," explains the later text that Assyriologists cale the Chronicle of Early Kings, the sovereign "made the gardener Enlil-Bani take his place upon the throne and put the royal tiara upon his head." Thus legitimized, the pretend-ruler officiated in the temple rites and performed all other royal duties.

The usual course of events would have been to wait until the danger had passed and then put the temporary monarch to death. But fate was not as blind as she is usually described and seemed to have been perfectly able to distinguish the fake royal from the real: "Irra-Imitti died in his palace after swallowing boiling broth. Enlil-Bani, who was upon the throne, did not relinquish it and so was established as king." Enlil-Bana was remarkably successful, managing to maintain his rule almost a quarter of a century.
I have a few complaints. Kriwaczek dwells too much on what was first, which is no doubt a great temptation when writing about the oldest civilization we know. But older examples of things turn up all the time, and if you say that Eridu was important because it was the first city then you will have trouble justifying your work if somebody turns up an older one. Kriwaczek also makes too many allusions to recent events in Iraq for my taste.

But on the whole, this is a terrific book, and I recommend it highly.

Meet the Archaeologist

I spent half the day sitting behind a table at the USA Science and Engineering Festival, a gigantic event in the DC convention center. As you can see, I actually had a sign that said, "Meet the Archaeologist." My job, I think, was to tell people that you really can make a living doing archaeology. And to hand out brochures from the Society for American Archaeology explaining the various jobs and their educational requirements. I must have spoken to a hundred people. I was sitting next to folks from the Sweetbriar College School of Engineering who were handing out pink hard hats.

After my stint I wandered around for a while, looking for whoever was selling the cool science t-shirts I saw on many bodies, but the event was so big and so crowded that I never found a single t-shirt seller. I did, however, catch a few minutes of the Mythbusters blowing things up.

Leafing Out

The leaves are out on the beech trees in our woods. Every year when this happens I try to take pictures, but they never capture the sense I have of being bathed in the fresh green light of spring.

Friday, April 27, 2012

The Body in the Mound

Back in 1999, I wrote a mystery novel. It's called The Body in the Mound, and it's about a tough guy archaeologist named Jack Gordon. It's set in Renovo, Pennsylvania, a dying little railroad town (at least it was in 1994 when I worked there) that made as big an impression on me as New York or London. With the help of my friends and an agent, I made it into a book that people told me should be publishable. But the big publishers passed. It wasn't what they were looking for, they said. They wanted my detective to have more of a private life and be more personally involved in the story. Like, I suppose, the way Patricia Cornwell's medical examiner is always being pursued by a serial killer and searching for her runaway niece and about to be fired by the governor and what all. But I followed the detective authors I like best, Ross MacDonald and Raymond Chandler, whose detectives are mainly observers of the world's corruption, with almost no lives of their own. Rather than try to rewrite the story in a way the publishers would like, I set it aside and started another very different writing project. (Which I am still writing, slowly.)

Then this year I read about self publishing on Amazon and I thought, why not? So I did it. The Body in the Mound is now available as a Kindle download, for $5.99. It will also soon be available as a print-on-demand paperback from CreateSpace, for $7.99. My blurb:
When archaeologist Jack Gordon starts a dig in the small mountain town of Renovo, Pennsylvania, he is dragged into a murder case somehow connected to an ancient Indian burial mound. As he tries to get on with his work, Gordon is threatened, shot at, and accused of being the murderer himself. To save his career and his reputation, he has to find out himself whether the mound was real, and, if so, who dug it up and what happened to the very valuable artifacts it must have contained. The more questions he asks, though, the angrier the threats against him become, and the greater the danger to his own life.
So there it is, world. Do what you will with it.

Spiral Lava Flows on Mars

This Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter photo shows spiral patterns in rocks near the Martian equator. The region is known as Athabasca Valles, and it has long been disputed whether its strange rock patterns were created by lava flows or glaciers. These spirals resemble lava features on earth, which is a strong argument for the lava flow theory.

Under the Earth

A giant cave in Vietnam, photographed by Peter Carsten.

The Reproducibility Project: Science Done Right

A group of psychologists have announced a broad effort to find out how many of the experimental results published in major journals stand up to serious scrutiny. They have chosen three journals, - Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Psychological Science, and Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition - and the propose to try to replicate every experiment published in these journals in 2008. They call their effort The Reproducibility Project.

This is how science is supposed to work. Every single experimental finding ought to be checked and checked again before anybody takes it seriously. Alas, only the most famous experiments are ever replicated even once. Hence this effort, which I think is a terrific idea. The Chronicle of Higher Education:
The project is part of Open Science Framework, a group interested in scientific values, and its stated mission is to “estimate the reproducibility of a sample of studies from the scientific literature.” This is a more polite way of saying “We want to see how much of what gets published turns out to be bunk.”

For decades, literally, there has been talk about whether what makes it into the pages of psychology journals—or the journals of other disciplines, for that matter—is actually, you know, true. Researchers anxious for novel, significant, career-making findings have an incentive to publish their successes while neglecting to mention their failures. . . . So why not check? Well, for a lot of reasons. It’s time-consuming and doesn’t do much for your career to replicate other researchers’ findings. Journal editors aren’t exactly jazzed about publishing replications. And potentially undermining someone else’s research is not a good way to make friends.
Other studies of this sort have found that many and even most published findings cannot be replicated.
Recently, a scientist named C. Glenn Begley attempted to replicate 53 cancer studies he deemed landmark publications. He could only replicate six. . . . A related new endeavour called Psych File Drawer allows psychologists to upload their attempts to replicate studies. So far nine studies have been uploaded and only three of them were successes.
Some skeptics, like John Ioannidis, think that  most published scientific "findings" are false. So all praise is due to the founders of The Reproducibility Project, and may many similar efforts follow.

A Memory of Rome

Ancient graffiti scratched into a cave in Jordan:
The Romans always win.

The Whore's Revenge

Roberto Loiederman, who was a merchant seaman from 1966 to 1974, ponders the scandal of the Secret Service agents in Caracas:
When I worked on ships, seamen were a superstitious lot. When there was a bad storm, while the ship pitched and rolled, the crew, unable to eat or sleep, would gather in the messroom and grumble. Anyone who remembers Coleridge’s ancient mariner knows that seamen don’t blame the wind and tides for bad weather and rough seas. Rather, they blame a fellow member of the crew — someone who has, say, killed an albatross. During storms, they’d mumble darkly that a crew member had “Jonah’d” the ship — done something wicked, while ashore, that caused the seas to rise up and take revenge.

Inevitably, someone would point out that the likely cause of the foul weather was that one of our crew had committed the worst sin of all: not paying a whore. All would nod gravely. In my day, seamen were convinced that this was such a serious infraction it could threaten a ship’s survival. More than once I saw fellow crew members, who’d come back to the ship so drunk they couldn’t remember where they’d been, make superhuman efforts to send money to a woman ashore in a desperate attempt to avoid the curse of the unpaid prostitute.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Gun Control in the Wild West

John Lahr in the April 23 New Yorker:
In Wichita, Kansas, in 1873, a sign read, "Leave Your Revolvers at Police Headquarters, and Get a Check." The first thing the government of Dodge did when founding the city, in 1873, was pass a resolution that "any person or persons found carrying concealed weapons in the city of Dodge or violating the laws of the State shall be dealt with according to law." On the road through town, a wooden billboard read, "The Carrying of Firearms Strictly Prohibited." The shooting at the O.K. Corral, in Tombstone, Arizona, had to do with a gun-control law. In 1880, Tombstone's city council passed an ordinance "to Provide against Carrying of Deadly Weapons." When Wyatt Earp confronted Tom McLaury on the streets of Tombstone, it was because McLaury had violated that ordinance by failing to leave his gun at the sheriff's office.
Americans are always whining about the loss of freedoms we never really had.

Gianluca Mantavani

Contemporary Italian artist. Lots of his work here. Most strikes me as merely competent, but I love this drawing.

And the Martin Luther Random Insult Generator

While I'm on the subject, I couldn't miss mentioning the Martin Luther insult generator, featuring lines from his sermons and pamphlets:
You are not human beings, but empty shells and shadows.

You are the most insane heretics and ingrafters of heretical perversity.

Get out in the name of a thousand devils, and break your neck before you are out of the city.

You are like the ostrich, the foolish bird which thinks it is wholly concealed when it gets its neck under a branch. Or like small children, who hold their hands in front of their eyes and seeing nobody imagine that no one sees them either. In general, you are so stupid that it makes one feel like vomiting.

Random North Korean Insult Generator

Featuring lines that actually appeared in North Korean state media, like
You politically illiterate human scum!

You half-baked beast!

You swollen-headed flunkey!

Iran's Bizarre Theocracy

Fascinating article by Karim Sadjapour on the sexual obsessions of Iran's ruling theocrats:
Like Islamists in today's Egypt -- and some among America's Christian right -- Iran's revolutionaries found fertile ground on which to play the politics of pious populism, rather than concretely address the enormous challenges of building a diversified economy. The country's massive oil wealth made it appear all too easy. Khomeini famously dismissed economics as "for donkeys," and he responded to complaints of inflation by saying, "The revolution wasn't about the price of watermelons." Three decades later, the results are self-evident: In 1979, resource-rich Iran's GDP was almost double that of resource-poor Turkey. Today, it is roughly half.

The brutal reality is that Iranians had entrusted their national destiny to a man, Khomeini, who had spent far more time thinking about the religious penalties for fornicating with animals than how to run a modern economy. 
The obsession of religious conservatives with sex reveals something very important about the interconnections of psychology and politics.

Ningursu, Lord of Destruction

Thorkild Jacobsen explained the origins of one Sumerian god like this:
One must realize that Ningirsu was the yearly flood of the river Tigris personified. Each year when the winter snows begin to melt in the high mountains of Iran they pour down through the foothills in numerous mountain streams to swell the Tigris. This was experienced theologically as the deflowering of the virgin foothills, Nin-Hursag, by the great mountains, Kur-gal, farther back; the waters of the flood being his semen. Kur-gal, whose other name was Enlil, is thus Ningursu's father. Ningirsu's mother is Nin-Hursag, Lady Foothills, and the reddish brown colour of the flood waters which comes from the clay picked up by the water in passing through the foothills is seen as due to blood from her deflowering. The flood to which all this refers, the god Ningirsu himself, is awesome indeed. . . .

Magic Capitalism

Mitt Romney seems to genuinely believe at least one thing: that capitalism is the answer to every economic question and the solution to every economic problem. He gets the best applause when he talks like this:
Is it easier to make ends meet? Is it easier to sell your home or buy a new one? Have you saved what you needed for retirement? Are you making more at your job? Do you have a better chance to get a better job? Are you paying less at the pump?
And so on. His program for economic improvement is less regulation, especially of the financial and energy sectors, and lower taxes, paid for largely paring back government retirement and medical programs.

The thing is, we have been trying that for 30 years, and I think we have pretty much proved that it does not work. From Reagan to Bush II we tried lower taxes and less regulation as economic tools, and the overall effect is that the rich have gotten much richer, the poor have gotten a little poorer, and the median income has stagnated. Surging inequality is the order of the day, as it was the last time we tried these policies, in the late 1800s. I wish there were an easy way to create the economic conditions that make ordinary people better off, but all the evidence is that this is a very hard problem.

What creates economic growth is mainly the deployment of new technology, with some assist from added investment in old technologies. We got a spurt of economic growth in the 90s, not from anything to do with tax rates, but from the deployment of internet technology. Tax rates went up and then down without having any impact on economic growth.

We cannot magic new technology into being with low tax rates. Nor can we mandate that the new wealth created by financial manipulations and the like be distributed to the mass of the people. The more equal distribution of wealth in the mid 20th century came about from a convergence of factors that included rapid technological progress, business innovation, strong unions, strongly nationalist ideologies, and strong government action in fields like retirement and the minimum wage. Whether we could recreate those conditions, even if we tried, is not at all clear.

There are no magic bullets. The problems of poverty and inequality are ancient and very hard to solve, and creating a society in which most people feel reasonably well off seems to be all but impossible. Looking around the world you see that wherever countries are doing reasonably well at these things, government in fact plays a big role.

Romney's economic plan is just more Bushism, and it will only help him and his rich friends.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Azaleas of Catonsville

It's the peak of azalea season in Catonsville now, and I celebrate with some pictures. Starting with the mad azalea folk of Delrey Avenue, who have crafted this startling display.

One of my favorite local yards.

And some random bushes from my neighborhood.