Thursday, May 31, 2012

Teaching Baby Otters to Swim

The Perils of Happiness Research

Will Wilkinson has a smart column on one of the many problems that besets happiness research: pollution from moral ideas about what ought to lead to happiness.

Most of us have all been raised with ideas about "the good life," and we are prone to see happiness in such a life -- honest, hard-working, devoted to family and friends, in touch with nature, etc. Presented with a person who seems to be happy but is partying all the time, using lots of drugs, lying, treating friends badly, using other people sexually, and whatnot, we are quick to say that this person cannot really be happy. (Wilkinson's essay takes off from a study that shows exactly this.) We judge our own lives using criteria we learn, mostly, from these sorts of social expectations.

Our knowledge of who is happy comes from what people say about themselves, and what they see in the lives of others. Neither kind of data is even close to objective. What, in this context, would objectivity even mean?

Alain Badiou on Love

I insist on this – that solving the existential problems of love is life's great joy.

From this interview.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Bad Boys Get More Sex (Studies Show!)

Yes, it's true:
In one survey of men, Trapnell and Meston (1996) found that nice guys who were modest, agreeable, and unselfish were disadvantaged in sexual relationships. Men who were manipulative, arrogant, calculating, and sly were more sexually active and had a greater variety of sexual experiences and a greater number of sex partners. These men scored higher on the agentic facets of an extraversion scale, namely assertiveness, activity level, and excitement seeking. These dimensions were correlated more highly with sexual experience than other communal variables such as warmth and positive emotion. Similarly, Bogaert and Fisher (1995),in attempting to predict number of sexual partners among university men, found that sensation seeking, hypermasculine sex role, positive sexual affect, testosterone, psychoticism, physical attractiveness, and dominance were all positively correlated with the men’s lifetime number of sexual partners. Intimacy and closeness were negatively correlated with number of sex partners both during a one-month period and over the subjects’ lifetimes. 
There is no justice in the world. Similarly, psychological studies that actually employ proper controls, suitable methods, and representative samples rarely turn up the kind of findings that make the news.

William De Morgan, Victorian Ceramicist

William De Morgan (1839-1917) was an English ceramicist, friend to William Morris and one of the mainstays of the Arts and Crafts Movement. In the 1860s he designed furniture and stained glass for Morris & Co. Through Morris he met the Pre-Raphaelites, including his wife, painter Evelyn De Morgan.

Morgan established his own pottery to manufacture his designs, but he was beset by technical difficulties and financial problems. In 1907 he finally abandoned the pottery and turned to writing novels, at which he was actually more successful than potting. Today, his pottery and especially his tiles are much beloved, but nobody can read his novels. Such is art.

I find De Morgan's tiles to be a perfect illustration of Morris' motto for the Arts & Crafts Movement, "Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful."

Climate Change and the End of Indus Civilization

Some time around 1900 BC, the great civilization of the Indus Valley went into decline. Many settlements were abandoned, including many villages and some of the major cities. The remaining cities shrank, and their grand buildings were carved up into small apartments or used as trash dumps. The famous sewers were no longer cleaned out. After limping along for two hundred years, what was left of the civilization disappeared. The cities were abandoned, the written script forgotten, the whole civilization forgotten for 3600 years. Some survivors seem to have moved east, into the Ganges Valley, but this is disputed.

Why? From the time the ancient cities of the Indus were first rediscovered, in the 1860s, there have been two main theories: invasion and climate change. Some European scholars first thought that the demise of the Indus civilization represented the entry into northern India of the speakers of Indo-European languages, who were nomadic cattle herders and so simply sacked the cities and left them to die. The problem with this explanation is that none of the cities shows evidence of destruction, and none of them seem to have been taken over by people of another culture, not to mention that some places have been invaded and conquered by nomads a dozen times without their civilizations ever disappearing.

Climate change has also had proponents from the beginning. Some of the Indus cities are now in deserts, next to the courses of dried-up rivers (see map above).  A cursory survey of Pakistan's many such dry rivers and marshes shows that the place was once much rainier than now. But when? The authors of a new study of sediments at the mouth of the Indus say that the timing is right, and the rivers experienced a major decline in flow right around 1900 BC. This happened, they say, because the pattern of the monsoon changed, so that less rain fell, and what did fall was shifted south and east:
Initially, the monsoon-drenched rivers the researchers identified were prone to devastating floods. Over time, monsoons weakened, enabling agriculture and civilization to flourish along flood-fed riverbanks for nearly 2,000 years. . . . Eventually, these monsoon-based rivers held too little water and dried, making them unfavorable for civilization. "The Harappans were an enterprising people taking advantage of a window of opportunity — a kind of "Goldilocks civilization," Giosan said.

Eventually, over the course of centuries, Harappans apparently fled along an escape route to the east toward the Ganges basin, where monsoon rains remained reliable. "We can envision that this eastern shift involved a change to more localized forms of economy — smaller communities supported by local rain-fed farming and dwindling streams," Fuller said. "This may have produced smaller surpluses, and would not have supported large cities, but would have been reliable."

This change would have spelled disaster for the cities of the Indus, which were built on the large surpluses seen during the earlier, wetter era. The dispersal of the population to the east would have meant there was no longer a concentrated workforce to support urbanism. 
Well, maybe. As I said, people have been trying to explain the demise of the Indus ("Harappan") civilization by climate change for 150 years, and there is nothing like a consensus about when the climate dried and what the impact would have been. MacArthur winner Rita Wright's unreadable but fact-filled book cites studies that date the drying to 4000 BCE, 500 BCE, and every century in between. Plus, you know, sometimes civilizations adapt to climate change very well. Even if less rain fell in Pakistan after 1900 BC, the Indus never dried up, and (according to Wright, anyway) the amount of water flow was always enough to have maintained urban civilization if anyone had been organized enough to set up proper irrigation systems. This is the problem with all arguments that tie the fate of civilizations to climate change. Climate change by itself explains little, unless you can also explain why the civilization in question was not capable of adapting to the change.

I have three thoughts on the subject. Perhaps the economic foundation of Indus Civilization was never actually very strong, and the cities always struggled to extract enough food from the countryside to sustain themselves; thus, only a small push was enough to make the whole structure collapse. Or, perhaps there was an invasion or infiltration of Indo-European peoples at around the same time, destabilizing the political situation such that the power of the engineers who built the Indus cities was already weakened when the skies began to dry. This might have been accompanied by a pull effect as well. If some Indus people had set up settlements in the Ganges plain, and those settlements were thriving and welcoming more immigrants from the homeland around the time the rains failed, it might have seemed easier to decamp to greener fields than to stay around dealing with drought and barbarians.

The climate matters a lot, but people with technological skills have made civilization thrive in all sorts of environments, including places much drier than Iron Age Pakistan.

Drone Warfare in Yemen

In Yemen, we have launched a campaign against a group we call Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP. These are the people who bombed the U.S.S. Cole back in 2000, and tried to launch a couple of attacks on airliners in 2009. Since 2009 we have launched about 35 missile strikes and killed, the Pentagon claims, more than 200 AQAP fighters.

But over that time AQAP's armed membership has grown from around 300 to more than 700 and they have gained the sympathy of thousands of people, allowing them to take over a substantial swath of southern Yemen and rule it as an Islamic state. The Washington Post is running a story today arguing that the drone strikes are backfiring, creating sympathy for Al Qaeda and allowing it to recruit more fighters faster than we can kill them.

This, in turn, has led to an anti-US backlash across the whole country, since US drones are violating the country's sovereignty but not defeating Al Qaeda.

This is my worry about drone warfare. Because it is easy, cheap, and risks no American lives, it tempts us to intervene in places where we have no business. Almost by definition it can solve no real problems -- surely if we have learned one thing from our blundering invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq it is that killing a few "terrorists," or a few thousand, does not little or nothing to help create a stable political situation. And it could easily make many problems worse. What could be more terrifying than knowing that American drones hover over your country all the time, beyond your sight, and that at any moment you might be blown up by a missile because you happen to be standing too close to some suspected terrorist? What could be more likely to make you hate and fear America?

I think we should forget about killing enemies, in either Yemen or Pakistan, and spend the money on things that might help in the long term -- like, say, scholarships for students from those countries to study in U.S. universities.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Godafoss, Iceland

By Orsolya and Erlend Haarberg. From National Geographic.

What is My Culture? Where Do I Belong?

I was just reading this stimulating essay by Kenan Malik on the question of multi-culturalism in contemporary society. Malik muses over the role of cultural identity and its relationship with politics, one of the main political questions of our age. This keeps coming back as a political question because, despite the fondest hopes of the Enlightenment, people refuse to abandon their particular ethnicities and become just plain humans. There seems to be something highly compelling about belonging to a definable, all-encompassing group and drawing most of our habits and opinions from its common store. Philosopher Joseph Raz once expressed this pull of identity by saying, ‘It is in the interest of every person to be fully integrated in a cultural group.’

I have to say that I feel left out of this whole conversation, because I cannot say to what culture I belong. Yes, I know that I belong to the modern, North American version of Western Civilization, and that I am a white, male, married homeowner. I eat like a modern North American, my house is arranged in a fairly typical North American way, my working life is structured around the usual norms of commuting to the office, and so on. But this is weak stuff compared to the deep sense of belonging that many people have and even more seem to aspire to.

What does it mean to be an American? This is, I would say, much contested; in fact I would say that the basic conflict in the politics of the United States is over what an American identity means. To some people, being American ought to imply the sort of all-encompassing identity that we associate with, say, Ultra-Orthodox Jews or south Italian peasants. To people of this mind, you cannot be an American if you do not speak English, drive a car, celebrate American history as the triumph of goodness over its enemies, cheer for American soldiers wherever they are fighting, go to church, and support (at least in theory) small government and individual initiative. The competing vision celebrates America as a land of freedom to be whatever we want to be, a land of immigrants who all carry their own cultures but find a welcome within the overall structure of American civilization, a land of political conflict in which the views of the living majority, not heritage, determine what sort of government we choose to have.

I have mostly given up my youthful, snobbish disdain for the flag-waving multitudes, but I still find myself a poor fit with any strong notion of American identity. In some ways I am quite American. I love hamburgers, play basketball, drink coke, and react with anti-dictator outrage to the kind of restrictions on free speech put in place by European countries. But I think that from the Indian wars to Bush's torture regime, my country has done evil acts beyond counting, and I refuse to excuse this or look away. My political opinions are all over the place, and in fact I think it is very dangerous for democracy when people take their positions on particular questions from the approved views of their own groups, however defined. One of the weirdest things to me about contemporary America is the number of people who espouse things that, it seems to me, they can't possibly believe, because those are the approved views of conservative "real Americans." People who depend absolutely on Social Security and Medicare fulminate against government spending, and people who have no interest in running the world nonetheless think defense spending should always go up. I find it equally bizarre that people become attached to "American" ways of doing things that are nothing but historical accidents, like our peculiar system of employer-provided health insurance. Health care in Europe is better and cheaper than ours, but it is somehow un-American to point this out and argue that we should copy a system that works.

For these and other reasons I resist defining myself as an "American." Nor do I fit into any of the usual hyphenated groups.  I identity more strongly with the skeptical, empirical school of western thought, stretching back to Aristotle, than I do with my fellow U.S. citizens -- and yet this is another weak sort of identification, not tell me much about how I should eat or dress or vote.

I am, I suppose, a citizen of the Enlightenment. As uncomfortable as I am with many Enlightenment ideas, I am what Kant and Hume expected the future to be: a person who upholds free thought over all ideologies, and freedom to self-invent over all inheritance, and without any home but the world.

A Bone Flute that May Be 42,000 Years Old

This bone flute was found in the Geißenklösterle cave in southwestern Germany. Because this is an Aurignacian Site, that is, it produced artifacts associated with fully modern humans, it was thought to date to after 35,000 years ago. But new radiocarbon dates suggest that it is really 42,000 years old, making it the oldest known musical instrument. I caution my readers that radiocarbon dating for this period is in turmoil these days, and all radiocarbon dates more than 30,000 years old are disputed.

I feel quite certain that music is at least as old as Homo sapiens -- love of music seems born into most of us, and that means it evolved with our species.

Summer Begins

Ben and Clara celebrate Memorial Day in the sprinkler, appropriate for one of the first hot days of the year.

And two pictures of the garden: self-seeded larkspurs putting on a show in the annual bed, and pinks and impatiens by the front walk.

Monday, May 28, 2012

How Not the Eat the Wrong Frog

This, from Science News, is today's amusing science headline. The story concerns the ways fringe-lipped bats avoid eating poisonous frogs. (They listen for the frogs calls and then use echolocation to verify the animal's size and shape.)

Today's Indian Palace: Jaipur Palace Complex

The city of Jaipur was founded by Sawai Jai Singh on 18 November 1727, a date selected after careful consultation with astrologers. The original design included a royal palace, but that original palace has been eclipsed by later additions. The most important is the Hawa Mahal or Palace of the Breezes, built in 1799 by his grandson Sawai Pratap Singh. The architect was Lal Chand Usta.

Interior details.

View over the women's quarters.

Off the courtyard behind the Hawa Mahal is the Mubarak Mahal, built in the late nineteenth century by British architect Swinton Jacob for Maharaja Madho Singh II. The style is a fusion of Indian and European elements.

The audience hall.

The main residential building is the nineteenth-century Chandra Mahal.

The most famous part of the Jaipur palace complex is the Jantar Mahal, an observatory complex that includes an array of outsized instruments. Above are an overall view and a closeup of one of the giant sundials, which measure time to an accuracy of a few seconds.

These were intended for observing important constellations.

Another famous element of the palace complex is these enormous silver vessels, used to store sacred water from the Ganges. They are said to be the largest silver vessels in the world.


Why should I let the toad work
Squat on my life?
Can’t I use my wit as a pitchfork
And drive the brute off?

Six days of the week it soils
With its sickening poison -
Just for paying a few bills!
That’s out of proportion.

Lots of folk live on their wits:
Lecturers, lispers,
Losers, loblolly-men, louts-
They don’t end as paupers;

Lots of folk live up lanes
With fires in a bucket,
Eat windfalls and tinned sardines-
They seem to like it.

Their nippers have got bare feet,
Their unspeakable wives
Are skinny as whippets - and yet
No one actually starves. 

Ah, were I courageous enough
To shout, Stuff your pension!
But I know, all too well, that’s the stuff
That dreams are made on:

For something sufficiently toad-like
Squats in me, too;
Its hunkers are heavy as hard luck,
And cold as snow,

And will never allow me to blarney
My way of getting
The fame and the girl and the money
All at one sitting.

I don’t say, one bodies the other
One’s spiritual truth;
But I do say it’s hard to lose either,
When you have both.

--Philip Larkin

An Ancient Mask for Sale

Christie's is going to auction off this ancient mask from the Judean desert. It looks very similar to one from the Hirbat Duma neolithic site that the one the Israeli State Museum says is the oldest mask ever found:

Christie's dates its mask to the 7th millennium BCE, which the same date the Israeli State Museum gives for theirs. So you could buy one of the oldest masks ever found, if you have the cash. The pre-bid estimate is $400,000 to $600,000.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Water Use on Land Contributes to Sea Level Rise

The level of  the seas is rising. There isn't any doubt about this, despite what you hear in some right wing circles. Detailed studies of sea level show that for the past 70 years it has been rising about 1.9 mm per year, or 7 inches per century. Much of that comes from global warming melting the ice caps; according to the most detailed studies, about 1.1 mm per year. What accounts for the other 0.8 mm?

A new study in Nature Geoscience says that the rest of the water comes from human activity on land, mostly pumping groundwater and then letting it run off into our rivers and sewers:
Depletion of groundwater reserves has more than doubled in recent decades as a result of population growth and the increased demand on groundwater reservoirs for drinking water and the irrigation of croplands. Most of the water pumped up from deep pools is not replenished; it evaporates into the air or flows into river channels, feeding into the seas. Artificial reservoirs, such as the Hoover Dam on the Colorado River and the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River in China, have the opposite effect, locking up water that would otherwise flow into the seas. Scientists once speculated that the effects cancelled each other out, but this study and other recent ones have shown that groundwater depletion has a larger net effect.
Think about that. We are pumping ground water so much faster then it is being replenished that we are making the level of the ocean rise. This is the definition of "unsustainable," and you have to wonder what people in dry places (like the western US) are going to do when our fossil ground water runs out.

Dragon Flies to the International Space Station

The SpaceX Dragon capsule docked at the International Space Station this week, an event that is getting a lot of attention.

But why? Private companies have always built America's rockets and space ships, maintained them, built our launch pads, and so on, and they have been launching satellites for some time. What they don't do themselves is supply the money or the rationale for space exploration, and they will not do any such thing in my lifetime. After all, all the Dragon capsule did was carry supplies to the International Space Station, a government-funded and designed effort to -- what, exactly? I have never gotten the ISS. What is it for?

Until we figure out how to get to Mars, there is just no point to sending people into space. We should shut down the ISS and the rest of the manned space program and spend the money on developing the kind of technologies that will be needed for reaching Mars.

Mitt Romney's "Bold" Education Speech

Gail Collins parses Romney's education speech:
Also, Mitt is going for “bold policy changes.” He said “bold” almost as many times as “education crisis,” even though the Romney verbiage was un-bold in the extreme. Did he want vouchers so kids could use public money for private school tuition? The one brief mention in the prepared text of “private school where permitted” vanished in Mitt-speak.

Here, in total, were his thoughts on the terrible problem of college costs: “We got to stop fueling skyrocketing tuition prices that put education out of the reach of way too many of our kids and leave others with crushing debt. Now, these are bold initiatives. ...”

But about school reform. Three big ideas: First, Romney is going to make the states provide “ample school choice.” Unless we’re talking, mushily, about vouchers, this one sounded exactly like the Bush law that allows parents whose children are in failing schools to move them elsewhere. It hasn’t really worked well. It turns out the parents wanted their local school to be better, not to ship their children out of the neighborhood. The magic of the marketplace works great for iPods, but not apparently for fourth graders.

Second, Romney wants the schools to have “report cards” on student performance so parents can make good decisions about choice. The only problems with this plan are: A) The parents don’t want that kind of choice; and B) the schools already have report cards.

Finally, he vowed to encourage teacher evaluation and accountability. This is something the Obama administration has been doing through its Race to the Top initiatives, much to the dismay of some teachers’ unions. Romney then concluded with a long attack on Obama for being in the pocket of teachers’ unions.
Romney's strategy is to keep reminding people that the economy sucks, while avoiding saying anything about any other issue that might cost him votes. But a presidential candidate is supposed to have policies about things like education reform, health care reform, and so on, so you can expect more of these  high-profile, devoid of content speeches as the campaign goes on. Not that I blame Romney for dodging this one; I certainly don't have any ideas for education reform that wouldn't involve spending a whole lot more money, so I can't really complain. But speeches like this confirm my overall impression that Romney is an emptiness wrapped in ambition.

Marc Chagall's Magical Animals

Marc Chagall's village dreamscapes don't always work for me, but when they do they leave a powerful impression.

If I close my eyes and try to imagine a Chagall work, what I see is the faces of animals. For me the innocent appeal of his scenes is not so much in the flying people or the fiddlers on roofs, but in the eyes of his barnyard friends.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Medieval Clocks

The mechanical clock was one of the most important inventions of the later Middle Ages. They slowly changed the understanding of time from something based on the sun and the moon to something traced by the hands of a clock -- until clocks came along, there were always twelve hours of daylight and twelve of night, so the length of the hour varied with the seasons. To make them, a class of craftsmen skilled in making gears and springs and other mechanical parts grew up, and later lent their skill to many other devices. The early surviving clocks are also beautiful, like the one above in Wells Cathedral, England.

The clock in Prague Cathedral.

Wroclaw, Poland.

Bern, Switzerland. These clocks all date to the 1400s or later 1300s. The earliest medieval clocks had wooden mechanisms, which of course did not last very long.

The key invention that made these clocks possible was the "escapement", a mechanism which allowed a swinging pendulum to control the advance of a geared wheel. You all remember from physics class that a pendulum of fixed length has a fixed period, that, is, every swing takes the same amount of time. (Not exactly, in the real world, but pretty close.) The geared wheel thus rotates at a fixed rate, and it could be used to drive the hands of a clock. The pendulum was coupled with a falling weight mechanism that gradually fed energy into the system, keeping the pendulum swinging. This example is actually a seventeenth-century refinement called the "deadbeat escapement," but the medieval "verge escapement" worked on the same basic principle. This system seems to have been perfect around 1280, because over the next 50 years dozens of these clocks were built all over Europe.

All of the parts of these clocks had been known for centuries, including escapements of various kinds, but the famous showpiece clocks built for Caliphs and Chinese emperors all relied ultimately on the flow of water, so they were not truly mechanical devices. This is a drawing from a manuscript of 1206 CE showing the Elephant Clock belonging to one of the Baghdad Caliphs.