Thursday, January 31, 2013

Misty Mount Holyoke

Photographs by my daughter Mary.

Bird People vs. Cat People

The latest salvo in the ongoing war between bird fanciers and cat owners is a new study, by some migratory bird experts at the Smithsonian, estimating that cats kill 1.4 to 3.7 billions birds in the US every year, and 6.9 to 20.7 billion mammals. Most of the killing is not done by house pets, but by stray or feral animals.

Scary numbers, if they are anywhere near correct.

But I have to wonder: what impact does this have? My neighborhood is full of birds. Leaffall every year reveals at least three new nests in just my yard. I find it hard to imagine that any more robins or mockingbirds could live on my block, even if all the predators disappeared overnight. Has anybody noticed a major decline in the songbirds of exurbia, or the pigeons of our cities? What is the natural songbird population for a wooded suburb, and does the concept have any meaning?

The real concern, I guess, would be if cats prey preferentially on rare birds that we are trying to preserve -- bluebirds, or red cockaded woodpeckers, or some such -- thereby encouraging starlings, song sparrows, and robins to spread even more. But I haven't seen any such claims. The researchers do say that cats prefer native chipmunks to invasive brown rats, which is hardly surprising given that a brown rat is about 20 percent of a cat's mass, and fierce.

Is there some impact on other predators? Are cats out-competing falcons or foxes or weasels?

Or is it just that bird fanciers hate cats and cat people, and since they can't live out their fantasies of poisoning all the cats in the country, they produce these studies instead?

The Unpopularity of al Qaeda in Mali

I've been reading all I can find about events in Mali, and I have yet to find anything about people who are upset to see the Islamists go, or angry at the French for chasing them out. Now maybe the supporters of al Qaeda are lying low, and it's the people who support the government who come out to talk to reporters. But usually when that is the case good reporters are able to pick up some signs of affection for the retreating rebels, and in the news from Mali I am not picking up any such thing.

Of course militant Islam does have supporters, but so far as I can tell they are nowhere near a majority anywhere. When the terrorists do seem to enjoy broad support, it is because the people are in an intolerable situation under a corrupt, brutal government -- viz Hamas, or some parts of Nigeria. You would think that when people are as universally hated as al Qaeda, it would not be hard to defeat them. Their resilience is a testimony, I think, to the deep streak of frustration that runs through most of the Islamic world these days, and to the awful bungling of western and pro-western governments.

Ramps in the Night

Last night I had an extraordinary dream.

I was driving down a four-lane road through forested hills when suddenly I came upon a ramp set up in the middle of the road. It was a ramshackle thing, made of wood, rising steeply up about five feet. I pulled over to the shoulder. As I got out of my car a hot rod raced by me and took the ramp, shooting into the air and landing on a matching ramp 30 feet or so beyond. Then the whole road was crowded with ramps, and there was no way through but by taking them one at a time. So I put my foot to the floor and went through, sailing into the air several times.

I passed into an old industrial town, perhaps in western Pennsylvania, with derelict factories, dreary houses, and new convenience stores at crumbling intersections. It was in the grip of ramp fever, or maybe some sort of underground ramp festival. Ramps kept appearing on streets, and cars would shoot over them and then disappear. The town was full of leather-jacketed guys in souped-up cars, revving their engines, exchanging mysterious signals. Once I was sitting at a traffic light when a bunch of guys appeared and pulled pre-cut sections of asphalt out of the road and arranged them into a ramp heading off into a parking lot, and I realized that this was something that happened regularly, that was part of life in this strange town.

I tried to investigate, or at least find out what was going on -- sometimes it seemed I was an official authority, sometimes just a confused citizen. But nobody would tell me anything, and when I asked about the ramps they clammed up. I ended up talking to the police chief, who insisted that nothing was happening and told me to go back where I came from. I could not decide if he was ignorant or complicit.

Then the climax of this mad festival came, the Death Race. Two battered old hearses drove in, painted matte black, one missing a front fender. I saw close-ups of the kids who were driving them, one made up as a zombie, the other as a clown with a carrot-shaped red nose. This part of the dream was especially cinematic, the made-up faces, the cars on night-time streets, the shine of wet pavement under streetlights, scene after scene shot in the dark palate of a Batman movie. People drove around, racing their engines, acting tough, but a sense of doom hung over everything. I knew something bad was happening but I could do nothing about it. I was too much of an outsider, a spectator, to have any influence on events. I followed the action to the edge of town and saw that it sat on a steep bluff with a river a hundred feet below. I understood that in the Death Race the cars would shoot off a ramp at the top that was wide enough for both, but that the ramp at the bottom was only wide enough for one. At least one of the drivers would surely die. I knew they were volunteers, though, making some kind of wager with death out of mad, hopeless boredom, and I knew that everyone else involved greatly respected their courage.

I did not see the jump; the dream passed straight on to the aftermath. The town had emptied, the hot rods and their drivers all gone, the atmosphere dim and sad. I met the police chief again and I knew that one of the drivers in the Death Race was his son, who was either dead or dying. Still he denied, angrily, that anything had happened. I rose up out of the town and saw the riverbanks lined with abandoned factories stretching away toward a distant bend, each one grimmer and more fantastically shaped than the one before.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The First Americans at Smithsonian

Pretty good article on the Clovis First vs. pre-Clovis debate by Guy Gugliota at Smithsonian, for the curious. It mentions several of the sites that have been dated to before the earliest Clovis sites, around 13,500 years ago, and reviews the controversies about a few. The skeptical case toward these early finds is best made by Ted Goebel. First he explains how the Clovis First model came to be accepted:
The idea that the Clovis people, as they came to be known, were the first Americans quickly won over the research community. “The evidence was unequivocal,” said Ted Goebel, a colleague of Waters at the Center for the Study of the First Americans. Clovis sites, it turned out, were spread all over the continent, and “there was a clear association of the fauna with hundreds, if not thousands, of artifacts,” Goebel said. “Again and again it was the full picture.”

Furthermore, the earliest Clovis dates corresponded roughly to the right geological moment—after the ice age warming, before the great cold snap. The northern ice had receded far enough so incoming settlers could curl around to the eastern slope of North America’s coastal mountains and hike south along an ice-free corridor between the cordilleran mountain glaciers to the west and the huge Laurentide ice sheet that swaddled much of Canada to the east. “It was a very nice package, and that’s what sealed the deal,” Goebel said. “Clovis as the first Americans became the standard, and it’s really a high bar.”
Now, though,
Goebel characterizes his attitude toward pre-Clovis finds as “acceptance with reservation.” He said he’s disturbed by “nagging” shortcomings. Each of the older sites appears to be one-of-a-kind, he said, without a “demonstrated pattern across a region.” With Clovis, he adds, it is clear that the original sites were part of something bigger. The absence of a consistent pre-Clovis pattern “is one of the things that has hung up a lot of people, including myself.”
And including myself. Another thing you can pick up from reading the article is that pre-Clovis advocates disagree strongly among themselves about when the first people got here and from where, so it's not like they have any kind of unified notion of what sort of model should replace Clovis First.

What Happened to Gout?

I was reading the other day about another eighteenth-century gentleman who had gout, and then I asked myself: what happened to gout?

From Henry VIII to George IV it was the ailment of kings; recent tests on the mummified finger of Emperor Charles V showed that he was a sufferer. In the raucous eighteenth century it spread among the gentlemen of the clubs, becoming the disease that punished over-indulgence. Benjamin Franklin wrote a dialogue with gout. Samuel Johnson used his as an excuse to visit spas, where he may not have been cured by the sulfur baths but certainly made many new acquaintances.  Carl Linnaeus dosed himself with laudanum to deal with his gout pains. (Maybe that explains his obsession with the sexual parts of flowers.) Isaac Newton ranked gout among the worst afflictions of old age.

Then what happened? Gout is a kind of arthritis caused by excess uric acid in the blood. Excess drinking is a contributing factor; obesity is another. This explains its association with high living eighteenth-century gentlemen. But don't we have the same problems? Searching the web this morning I found a list of famous gout sufferers, and the most recent name was Benjamin Disraeli (died 1881).

But though gout has faded from the medical headlines, it is still with us as a disease. According to the CDC, as many as eight million Americans may have gout today. We just don't talk about it very much.

Why not? Snobbery, most likely. It was all the fault of those famous royal sufferers, I think, which made gout the disease of choice for the rich. Accurate diagnosis was quite difficult until after 1848, so it is hard for us to know if all those Regency dandies really had gout, or perhaps some other form of arthritis. Wags at the time noticed the discrepancy: Lord Stanhope once wrote that ‘gout is the distemper of a gentleman—whereas the rheumatism is the distemper of a hackney coachman,’ and Bearse's Devil's Dictionary has ‘Gout n—A physician's name for the rheumatism of a rich patient.’ Because gout was a disease of the rich, rich people liked to talk about it. But once doctors could really test for it they discovered that it struck all up and down the social spectrum. Nobody wanted to talk about having the same disease as the servants, so gout faded from the chatter of the salons, its place taken by newly fashionable diseases.

Reconfiguring the Kennedy Center

The Kennedy Center in Washington is a nice place to see a concert, if you can get there and find your way in. As you can see in the aerial view above, the huge box of the hall is surrounded by highways and pretty much impossible to walk to, even though it is just four lanes away from very popular paths along the river. It is a completely isolated island.

Yesterday a new plan was announced to reduce the isolation and make better use of some of the surrounding space. The plan, by architect Steven Holl, involves three new pavilions, one of them floating on the river, and a garden. The river pavilion could be used for concerts, and one of the other pavilions would include a large screen for simulcasting events inside the center. Considering how awful this space is now, this looks like a major improvement, and we should all cheer whenever parking lots and driveways can be replaced by gardens.

South Korea in Space

South Korea has successfully launched its first satellite into space. This feat continues the country's extraordinary story of economic growth and technological prowess.

In 1960, South Korea was one of the poorest countries in the world, with a GDP of $79 per person. Most of Latin America and Africa did better. Today Their GDP is $13,300 per person, making them the world's 12th richest country. And for all of you libertarians out there, take note that this growth was carefully planned by the government and carried out largely by half a dozen giant conglomerates (like Hyundai and Samsung) who still do not really compete against each other in the domestic market -- a quite different story than that of Hong Kong or Taiwan.

I imagine that this must have been quite strange to live through. If there is a good book on living through this economic miracle, I would love to read it; any recommendations? I once asked a Korean historian this, after a talk, and he said there is a great novel that gives much of the feel, but he couldn't remember the English title and promised to email it to me, but he never did.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Police Thuggery, Beyond Ideology

In Egypt now we can ponder the strange spectacle of police who learned to wield truncheons and tear gas under one regime, against one enemy, now working for some of the people they used to beat up, but wielding their truncheons against new enemies with equal vigor. Brutality, it seems, is an axis of behavior that operates independent of ideology.

What Sank the Hunley? Maybe their Own Bomb

The Confederate submarine CSS Hunley, the first sub to sink a ship, was lost with all hands on the night of its famous attack. The crew were all found at their places, with no evidence that they had tried to abandon ship or any clear sign of what might have killed them.

Now there is a new theory. The Hunley carried its deadly mine on the end of a spar at the front of the vessel. The idea was that it was supposed to detach from the spar and attach to the vessel it was attacking, so that the sub could get away. But after cleaning the spar, the conservators think that the mine never came off:
Conservator Paul Mardikian had to remove material crusted onto one end of the spar after 150 years at the bottom of the ocean. Beneath the muck he found evidence of a cooper sleeve. The sleeve is in keeping with a diagram of the purported design of a Hunley torpedo that a Union general acquired after the war and is in the National Archives in Washington. "The sleeve is an indication the torpedo was attached to the end of the spar," Mardikian said. He said the rest of the 16-foot spar shows deformities in keeping with it being bent during an explosion.

Now it may be that the crew, found at their seats when the sub was raised with no evidence of an attempt to abandon ship, may have been knocked out by the concussion of an explosion so close by, said Lt. Gov. Glenn McConnell, a member of the South Carolina Hunley Commission.

"I think the focus now goes down to the seconds and minutes around the attack on the Housatonic," he said. "Did the crew get knocked out? Did some of them get knocked out? Did it cause rivets to come loose and the water rush into the hull?"
So it looks like either the mine went off accidentally during the attack, or the captain, unable to detach the mine, set it off anyway, sacrificing himself and his men to sink the USS Housatonic.

Drawing of the CSS David, a semi-submersible attack boat with a spar torpedo.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Mali Update

As French-led forces advance in Mali, the rebels seem to be fleeing back into the desert without much of a fight. Of course, since the desert is the size of Texas, it will be very hard to find them and finish them off. I suspect this war will degrade into a long-term insurgency that we will quickly forget.

Meanwhile, though, what I feared has happened in Timbuktu:
French troops managed to seize the famous town of Timbuktu over the weekend, but not before feeling rebels continued their assault not just on the people, but on the very culture and history of the region. The mayor of Timbuktu says that the Islamist group that was holding the city set fire to a library containing thousands of priceless manuscripts, some more than 1,000 years old. The documents, mostly in Arabic, chronicle the geography, history, and science of the Sahara region and of Isalm itself. The mayor described the loss as "the history of Timbuktu, of its people" and a "devastating blow" to world culture.

Penitent Snow

Penitent snow, or nieve penitente, is so called because the shapes were thought to resemble robed monks. National Geographic explains:
Nieve penitente tend to form in shallow valleys where the snow is deep and the sun doesn't shine at too steep an angle, said Kenneth Libbrecht, a physicist at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena who studies ice crystal formation.

As the snow melts, dirt gets mixed in with the runoff and collects in little pools here and there, he said. Since the dirt is darker in color than the surrounding snow, the dirty areas melt faster "and you end up digging these pits," explained Libbrecht.

Charles Darwin encountered this phenomenon while exploring the Andes during the voyage of the Beagle, and he wrote this account:
Again we had a heavy & long climb similar to that up the Puquenes range. On each hand were bold conical hills of red Granite. We had to pass over still broader pieces of perpetual snow; this by the action of the thaw had assumed the form of numberless pinnacles, which as they were close together & high rendered it difficult for the Cargo Mules to pass. (Note in margin: Mem. Icebergs Arctic Regions.) A frozen horse was exposed, sticking to one of these points as to a pedestal, with its hind legs straight up in the air; the animal must have fallen into a hole head downmost & thus have died. 

Bobby Jindal is not the Republican Savior

Conservative Republican and Louisiana native Rod Dreher takes apart the speech 2016 Presidential hopeful Bobby Jindal gave in Washington last week:

Jindal: We do not need to change what we believe as conservatives – our principles are timeless.

Dreher: No, of course not. Conservatism, which was received by Reagan on Sinai, cannot fail; it can only be failed. We weren’t wrong about anything. Don’t worry about that.

Jindal: If you take nothing else away from what I say today, please understand this – We must not become the party of austerity. We must become the party of growth. Of course we know that government is out of control. The public knows that too. And yet we just lost an election.

Dreher: How is it that the government is spending way too much money, but austerity is bad? I don’t get it. Does he want to cut government spending, or doesn’t he? And does the public really know that “government is out of control”? If that’s true, where in this speech is the part where Jindal confronts the public about Medicare and Social Security?

Jindal: We must stop being the stupid party. It’s time for a new Republican party that talks like adults. It’s time for us to articulate our plans and visions for America in real terms. … We must stop insulting the intelligence of voters. We need to trust the smarts of the American people. We have to stop dumbing down our ideas and stop reducing everything to mindless slogans and tag lines for 30-second ads. We must be willing to provide details in describing our views.

Dreher: Mote, beam. Rhetorician, heal thyself.

Dreher knows Jindal, a little, and has followed his career closely. He insists that Jindal is a very smart man. So the explanation for this vapidity is not Jindal's own intellect.

The problem is with the contradictory goals of the Republican Party, which have been its goals since Reagan: to somehow shrink the government without cutting defense spending or damaging the entitlements on which its predominantly older voters depend or expect to depend. Or, to put it another way, to cut taxes and balance the budget without giving up a single aircraft carrier or angering a single retiree. Since these goals are absolutely impossible to carry out together, they have  retreated behind a rhetorical smokescreen. This is why John Boehner, Paul Ryan and company keep demanding that Obama propose some cuts in entitlement spending so they can debate them. Their budgets demand big cuts in such spending, but they are terrified of proposing serious cuts and then having Democrats attack them for having granny thrown out of the hospital.

Really Republicanism is a series of attitudes or precepts, which I would express as:

Hardworking, churchgoing people are good, especially hardworking, churchgoing white people; lazy, drug-using, welfare-check-cashing people are bad, especially lazy, drug-using, welfare-check-cashing brown people. America is good; everywhere else is either silly or dangerous. Business is good, especially if it involves heavy machinery or expensive suits and very large sums of money. Taxes are bad. Toughness is good. Character is what counts, circumstances just an excuse. Conservatism is the natural expression of old-time American values; liberalism is the whine of losers and the pastime of over-paid, America-hating professors.

The challenge for conservative politicians is to turn this attitude into policy recommendations. Reagan managed this fairly well, as did Gingrich in 1994. At the moment, nobody knows how to do it, which is why Republican politics consists mainly of vapid rhetoric and hatred of Obama.

Today's Medieval Church: Our Lady Before Tyn, Prague

Prague's most famous building is the magnificent Church of Our Lady Before Tyn. Construction of the surviving church began in the late 1300s, replacing an earlier building. Most of the work was completed by 1450, but famous facade was not finished until 1511. The name comes from a former market that was nearby, Tyn Square, so this was the church you came to before you came to Tyn.

The two towers do not match; this is said to be an intentional comment on the male and female haves of creation, or, others say, on the complementarity of husband and wife in marriage. Beats me. The towers are 260 feet (80 meters) tall.

As you can tell from the photos, the church is now surrounded by buildings old enough that they can't be torn down but that make it hard to see the church very well. Thus wikipedia shows this old engraving of the nave when it could still be seen, a much more conventionally gothic design than the facade.

View toward the west end of the church, still medieval looking.

Two images of the north portal, a famous work of Gothic sculpture.

The interior of the church was badly damaged during the Hussite Wars -- for a while it was the main church of the Hussites -- and the Reformation, and then by a fire in the 1600s. The symbolic center around the altar suffered most from all of that theological wrangling. What you see looking toward the altar today was largely installed by the Jesuits by way of reasserting Catholic control. Ah, the Baroque, when the words "too much" lost their meaning.

Above, a sixteenth-century shrine of St. John the Baptist and the eighteenth-century organ.

One medieval survival is this baldachin -- that's a stone canopy over an altar, a word you can now use to impress your friends should you ever be guiding them around a medieval cathedral -- installed in 1493.

The modern tombstone of astronomer Tycho Brahe.

Why We Need Health Care Reform, Part 958

From the Times, a look at the health care situation in North Dakota:
The furious pace of oil exploration that has made North Dakota one of the healthiest economies in the country has had the opposite effect on the region’s health care providers. Swamped by uninsured laborers flocking to dangerous jobs, medical facilities in the area are sinking under skyrocketing debt, a flood of gruesome injuries and bloated business costs from the inflated economy.

The problems have been acute at McKenzie County Hospital here. Largely because of unpaid bills, the hospital’s debt has climbed more than 2,000 percent over the past four years to $1.2 million, according to Daniel Kelly, the hospital’s chief executive. Just three years ago, Mr. Kelly added, the hospital averaged 100 emergency room visits per month; last year, that average shot up to 400. . . .

The 12 medical facilities in western North Dakota saw their combined debt rise by 46 percent over the course of the 2011 and 2012 fiscal years, according to Darrold Bertsch, the president of the state’s Rural Health Association.

Hospitals cannot simply refuse to treat people or raise their rates. Expenses at those 12 facilities increased by 15 percent, Mr. Bertsch added, and nine of them experienced operating losses. Costs are rising to hire and retain service staff members, as hospitals compete with fast food restaurants that pay wages of about $20 an hour.

“Plain and simple, those kinds of things are not sustainable,” he said.
Indeed they are not. And the answer is the principle embodied in Obamacare: that all those who can afford to should contribute to the cost of the system. I would prefer to do this through taxation, the most equitable solution, but since that seems impossible, the "mandate" is a partial substitute: next year all people who can afford it will either have to buy insurance or pay into a fund that will cover costs like the ones these North Dakota hospitals are facing. And oil field workers certainly can afford it; I was just reading about all the strippers moving to ND because they can earn $1000 a night in tips from lonely drillers.

If hospitals aren't going to turn away uninsured patients, something almost all Americans oppose, then we have to get the money somewhere. For those out there who don't like mandates, what's your answer?

Senate Framework for Immigration Reform

Eight senators have released their "framework" for immigration reform, which you can read here. Their "four pillars":

This is progress, but I still hate that attitude that says we have to be "tough" on illegal immigrants. They broke the law, so they must suffer! They came here to work and prosper, just like my ancestors; Americans hired them; they settled down and built lives. Seems to me that years of uncertainty and inability to complain about poor working conditions or missed paychecks is suffering enough.

Fighting Back Against Patent Trolls, or Inequality in a Nutshell

Newegg has won a huge victory for all consumers by getting an appeals court to throw out patent lawsuits from Souverain Software. Souverain is not a real company; it's a shell set up by investors and lawyers to file patent lawsuits, based on three patents they acquired from now bankrupt OpenMarket back in 2001. Souverain clamed that all online shopping systems were based on its patents for "shopping cart" technology. Using this claim, they had extracted more than $100 million from online retailers, including $40 million from Amazon. But Newegg argued, and the appeals court agreed, that those patents were bogus because OpenMarket's software didn't do anything that Compuserve Mail didn't do five years earlier, which Compuserve never tried to patent because it was so obvious. It would be like getting a patent on setting up your cash register near the door and having customers line up to pay.

Patent trolling is one case of the financial shenanigans that are driving inequality. Think about how this worked. Online retailers were required to pay millions to a company that had no employees, just lawyers and investors. All of the money, extracted from online shoppers, was paid to those fat cats. It's a straight-up transfer of wealth from ordinary people to the rich.

And that is how patents and copyrights increasingly work today. The purpose of patents and copyrights, according to the constitution, is not to reward creators but to encourage invention. Letting Souverain file those suits did nothing to encourage invention; the inventors disappeared years ago, and the "inventions" were nothing much anyway.

If you ask me, this is the model of how spiraling inequality is created. Systems that seemed like good ideas for everybody have been co-opted by the rich and their clever henchmen to create rents for themselves. To fight inequality we need to rethink all of those measures and ask whether they really help all of us. The clearest example is the lower tax rate we charge on investment income. This was put in place because we thought the economy needed capital to grow, which would benefit everyone. But now there is too much capital in the world, leading to crazy investment booms, but we are still giving rich investors a tax break that benefits no one but them.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Hadrian's Villa

The Roman emperor Hadrian (reigned from 117 to 138 CE) disliked his official residence in Rome. So he built himself a gigantic palace in the country 18 miles (29 km) outside the city, to serve both as his chief residence and as the center of his government in Italy. We call this Hadrian's Villa.

Building  luxurious villas was routine for emperors -- almost every one who reigned long enough built one, and some built several. But Hadrian's was by far the biggest, and it was also remarkable in other ways.

This astonishing construction showed off the emperor's power through its vast size and a bewildering diversity of architecture, including several buildings that are, as far as we know, unique.

This, called the Maritime Theater, is one of the unique structures.

This was a public building, designed for the work of administration and diplomacy. When he wanted to get away from it all, the emperor had several smaller villas he could use as retreats. He came here to be emperor. This model, kept at the site, gives an idea of the scale of operations. The gardens covered a hundred acres (40 hectares). The whole was supplied with running water through underground aqueducts, and there were other underground passages so the servants could pass between buildings without disturbing the senators and ambassadors upstairs.

The villa was decorated with hundreds of free-standing statues, miles of reliefs, and acres of mosaics. One ancient text calls it "the villa with brightly colored walls," so it was no doubt elaborately painted as well. It is the scale of this decorative program that most impresses me. After all, we build lots of big buildings, but I can't think of a modern structure for which anything like this amount of art was specially prepared.

I was actually inspired to write about the villa by this sculpted pillar, which once stood on a porch that divided one of the buildings from the gardens. What an exquisite thing.

I wonder if Hadrian might have been the most sculpted ruler in history. Type Hadrian into Google image search and you'll see what I mean. Even now there must be a hundred surviving busts and statues. Thinking about all of those statues brought home to me in yet another way the immense size and grandeur of Rome.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Sledding, 1/26/2013

We got about an inch of snow last night, and this morning there was still barely enough left at the High School to speed Ben, Clara and me down the hill. Not the best sledding, but the first of the year, and with warmer weather coming next week I wanted to take advantage.

Backwards into the holly bush.

Back up the hill.

Ready to go dogpile style.

And there they go. (We also did this all three together.)

Somebody's having a great time.

Women, Motherhood, and the Rat Race

Pivoting off a David Brooks column on the "geographical aristocracy," Rod Dreher has started an interesting discussion on his blog about why smart kids leave small towns for certain big cities and then never come back, and the effects this has on their families, their home communities, and conservative values. Maisy, a commenter, said this:
Women in particular are in for a nasty surprise after they jump through all the meritocratic hoops, get out of their small town, go to the fancy grad school and land a prestigious job in an expensive blue-state city . . . and then find themselves at 35 with two babies and no mom, sister, or other female relative within a thousand miles.

In my experience, when that first child is born, the impressive corporate job you’ve worked all your life for starts to look a lot like fool’s gold: You’d much rather be home with your child, who needs you. Immediately, a series of unpleasant realizations hits:

(1) You’ve bought a house (and your husband has a job) in a place where the cost of living is so astronomical that it’s very hard to cut down to one salary. It would not mean giving up luxuries but moving to a crappy, possibly dangerous neighborhood with bad schools. Or your husband could do a 3-hour commute.

(2) Nannies and daycare are incredibly expensive and guilt-inducing.

(3) Your family is scattered all over the U.S., driven by similar forces. But having only strangers whom you pay to help you, at that time of life when you most need help, is unnatural and weird.

(4) Meanwhile, hubby is deep in the meritocratic rat race trying to make partner or whatever, so don’t count on him being around much either. You met him at the fancy school and he still has his fancy dreams, which have not been derailed by having kids. Fat chance he’s moving back to Hicksville.

(5) Your life is incredibly hard, lonely, and pricey, and there’s no easy way out. The girls on Facebook who opted for simpler lives close to home seem to be happier than you are.

(6) Oh — and congratulations on getting all those A’s! It was totally worth it.

Sacrasm aside, someone should start telling girls — realistically — what they’re probably going to want in 20 years. At 35, I would have given anything to have my mom nearby and an affordable three-bedroom ranch house in an uncool midsized town. But my “smart girl” dynamic rocketed me right out of that world before I even knew what hit me.
My own contribution to this discussion was as follows:
I wanted to second what Tyro said. A libertarian, capitalist, dog-eat-dog economic world forces people who care about their families to seek high-paying jobs wherever they can find them. If staying home means living in a trailer without health insurance, then responsible parents will move.

This is why I think free-market capitalism is anything but a conservative policy. In a world of economic winners and losers, anyone who doesn’t want to be a loser, or see his children grow thinking they are losers, has to enter the marketplace and fight hard for a decent share of the pie. John Boehner likes to complain that the government destroyed the world he grew up in, but I don’t think so. He grew up in a world where factory workers in small Ohio cities earned middle class salaries, with pensions and health benefits. It wasn’t the government that took those good, union jobs and left people with the choice of fast food or moving on. Preserving small towns means using government money to cushion the effects of economic change.

Women in Combat

So the US military will now allow women to hold jobs in the front line units that do most of our fighting -- armor, artillery, infantry. The impetus for this move did not come from liberals in the White House or Congress, but from the service chiefs. This ought not to surprise anyone who knows the American military. For officers in particular, the military is a gigantic career ladder they spend their lives climbing, so the complaint of female officers that not being able to hold combat jobs was hurting their careers was bound to win out in the end. The services are also always short of people with certain vital skills, like speaking Arabic, and this move allows commanders more freedom to use women with such skills wherever they will do the most good.

My emotional reaction to this change is no, no, no. I recognize, though, that I feel this way because war is not a reality to me. For me, it is a myth. In my mind war is where male courage was tested by blood and men formed bonds of heroic brotherhood, where ordinary citizens joined the Minutemen and the 20th Maine and risked death in defense of their freedom. For me the distinction between men who go to war and women who stay home is an archetype, something more spiritual or even erotic than political.

Is any of that relevant to government policy? I guess not. For most soldiers and sailors, most of the time, the military is a job. For officers, it is a career. For the nation, it is an instrument of policy. Not allowing women to aim cannons is discrimination, plain and simple. If the Army thinks that letting women aim cannons will help women get ahead and make our military stronger, who am I to speak against that? So I won't. I will simply wonder where the modern world is headed, and ponder what it means to make changes in the most ancient structures of civilization so the military career ladder will be more equitable.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Painkillers vs. Cars

Poisoning is now the nation's leading cause of accidental death, overtaking car crashes. Ninety percent of those deaths are caused by drugs, and by far the most dangerous drugs are prescription opiates. Bloomberg:
In 1980, about 2.7 people died per 100,000 from drug poisoning, both from prescription and illicit substances, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. As of 2008, about 12 people died per 100,000. Roughly half of drug overdose deaths result from prescription painkillers. And for every person who dies from prescription painkillers, there are about 32 more emergency department visits. The soaring increase in sales of prescription painkillers explains most of the deaths. In 1999, a total of 2 kilograms of such drugs were sold for every 10,000 people; as of 2010, about 7 kilograms were. According to the CDC, opioid analgesics such as methadone, hydrocodone and oxycodone are the most common cause of drug poisoning.

To put the magnitude of the issue in perspective, the death wave from drug abuse is now as big, in terms of annual deaths, as the one caused by HIV-AIDS in the late 1980s.
While we fight cartels in Mexico and argue about marijuana, an epidemic of really dangerous drugs is raging under our noses.

World Population Growth Slowing, and Yet We Still Worry

Jeff Wise:
The world’s seemingly relentless march toward overpopulation achieved a notable milestone in 2012: Somewhere on the planet, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates, the 7 billionth living person came into existence. Lucky No. 7,000,000,000 probably celebrated his or her birthday sometime in March. . . .

A somewhat more arcane milestone, meanwhile, generated no media coverage at all: It took humankind 13 years to add its 7 billionth. That’s longer than the 12 years it took to add the 6 billionth—the first time in human history that interval had grown. (The 2 billionth, 3 billionth, 4 billionth, and 5 billionth took 123, 33, 14, and 13 years, respectively.) In other words, the rate of global population growth has slowed. And it’s expected to keep slowing. Indeed, according to experts’ best estimates, the total population of Earth will stop growing within the lifespan of people alive today.

And then it will fall.
I did not realize that the fall in birth rates was already causing the overall  growth rate to slow. I consider this very good news. Until we have the technology to support all of those people without further trashing the planet, we should keep our population down. Some people, though, find cause for worry in these numbers. Wise again:
In the long term—on the order of centuries—we could be looking at the literal extinction of humanity. That might sound like an outrageous claim, but it comes down to simple math. According to a 2008 IIASA report, if the world stabilizes at a total fertility rate of 1.5—where Europe is today—then by 2200 the global population will fall to half of what it is today. By 2300, it’ll barely scratch 1 billion.
Why are we anguishing now about falling populations in the year 2300? Who knows what life will be like then? How can we know that current trends will continue for 200 years? Could anyone 200 years ago have predicted the history of the modern era? Please. Of all the things to worry about, whether people will be having enough babies in the year 2300 seems to me to be one of the silliest.

That High School Thing

Some American adults are obsessed with high school. You see this in movies and television, with lots of directors and writers returning again and again to high school and tired questions of who was cool and who was out, as if nothing significant had happened to them since.

And now along comes Jennifer Senior, with a long piece in New York Magazine about how what happens to us in high school determines the rest of our lives. As Katy Waldman summarizes, "Remember that dork you were in high school? You're still the same person." Senior even has some pseudo-science to back up her obsession. There is evidence, it seems, that our tastes in things like music can be fixed in adolescence, and also that when prompted for memories of their pasts ("Tell me about a really bad experience," say) people most often mention things that happen when they were between 15 and 25. Senior:
It turns out that just before adolescence, the prefrontal cortex—the part of the brain that governs our ability to reason, grasp abstractions, control impulses, and self-­reflect—undergoes a huge flurry of activity, giving young adults the intellectual capacity to form an identity, to develop the notion of a self. Any cultural stimuli we are exposed to during puberty can, therefore, make more of an impression, because we’re now perceiving them discerningly and metacognitively as things to sweep into our self-concepts or reject (I am the kind of person who likes the Allman Brothers). “During times when your identity is in transition,” says Steinberg, “it’s possible you store memories better than you do in times of stability.”
Yawn. How about this: maybe it feels like you are still the same person you were in high school because you still are the same person. You still have the same genes, the same early life experiences, and the same family. If you were an idiot in high school, you're probably still an idiot. If you were supremely confident at 16, you probably still are, and you probably were at 3 and 5 and 10, too. If you spent your teenage years obsessing about who was cool and who was out, you probably still waste your time worrying about the same crap.

Which is not to say that some people don't have important experiences in high school. No doubt many do. I didn't, but maybe that was because I was such a weirdo outcast. My most important post-childhood experiences happened in college, where I discovered a world of people who like to talk about intellectual things. (And also that some women find intelligence sexy.) Come to think of it, I spent much more of my 15 to 25 years in college than high school, so why aren't these articles about the importance of things that happen after graduation?

Senior also thinks that high schools are really miserable places, The Lord of the Flies plus algebra tests. I tend to agree that we are making a mistake by walling all of our teenagers up together, without nearly enough adult role models, but I found high school much more tedious than destructive. I personally felt the social anxieties that figure in these articles much more painfully in middle school, and by 16 I had pretty much stopped caring what the cool kids thought. In my mind I had already left them all behind, on my way to the Ivy League. Here is my advice to anyone, adolescent or adult, who worries a lot about high school social hierarchies: grow up and move on.

"High school itself does something to us, is the point. We bear its stripes," writes Senior. So? Childhood does something to us, too, and so does adulthood. Maybe the longer we live, the greater the weight of past experiences we have to drag around with us, and maybe that makes it harder for us to change. But not impossible. I have lived my adult life with a determination to never accept that the excitement is all in the past, and that things I want are now closed off to me. I take my view of life from a different text: "it isn't over 'til it's over."

Sweet Potatoes and Ancient Mariners

On isolated Polynesian islands from Easter Island to New Zealand, people grow and eat sweet potatoes. Which is interesting, because sweet potatoes come from the highlands of South America, where they were domesticated around 8000 years ago. It seems highly unlikely that they could have floated across the Pacific, since they are killed by even a short immersion in salt water. So how did they get to Polynesia?

There have long been two theories: one, that the potatoes were taken to the islands by early Spanish or Portuguese mariners in the 1500s, something that had already been forgotten by islanders before Bougainville and Cook made their scientific expeditions 200 years later; two, that the potatoes were brought from South America by Polynesian voyagers who reached the continent in prehistoric times. In recent years the remains of charred sweet potatoes from Polynesian archaeological sites have been radiocarbon dated to as far back as 1000 CE. This is strong evidence that they spread before Columbus, but if you have followed this blog you know that radiocarbon dating is too quirky for archaeologists to take is as proof of anything that can't be readily reconciled with other evidence.  There is also some linguistic evidence, that is, the words for sweet potato in some Polynesian languages resemble the Quechua (Inca) word. Against this is the question of why, if Polynesians discovered South America, they then forgot about it. In historic times they had no knowledge of the continent beyond the eastern horizon, which seems a little odd if they had been there. Also, once the more remote Polynesian islands were settled, there is not much evidence of traffic between them and the settlers' home islands -- the Polynesians went out, but rarely back. So even if some Polynesians reached South America, how the sweet potato get back to Tahiti?

Now there is new evidence that weighs on the side of Polynesian, pre-Columbian spread. A team of French scholars investigated the genetics of sweet potatoes and found that those used by the natives in the 18th century were genetically quite distinct from the varieties taken to the Philippines and China by the Spanish. To do this they cleverly went to the herbaria assembled by those 18th-century scientific explorers, who brought back shiploads of specimens, and took samples from those old roots. Some islands in the far west did have varieties related to those carried by the Spanish, so they may have acquired theirs from Europeans, but farther east the potatoes were all of a different strain. By itself this would not prove much, but the converging lines of evidence represented by DNA, radiocarbon dating, and linguistics together make a strong case that Polynesian explorers reach South America and brought back what became their staple crop.

Time to Worry about Gerrymandering

The Republicans who control Virginia's legislature have brought forward a plan to thwart the will of their voters and hand their electoral votes to a Republican candidate. Their scheme is to apportion the state's electoral votes according to which candidate wins each Congressional district, as Maine and Nebraska already do. The things is, Virginia's districts are so savagely Gerrymandered that this would give a Republican candidate a crushing advantage. As Dave Weigel  notes, this plan
is even less democratic than other vote-split schemes. Most of these bills assign one electoral vote for every congressional district, then give the two at-large districts to whoever wins the state. But the Carrico bill would assign the final two electors to whoever won the most districts.  . . . Had the Carrico plan been in place in 2012, Romney would have won nine of Virginia's electoral votes, and Obama would have won four -- even though Obama won the popular vote of the state by nearly 150,000 ballots and four percentage points.
And as I understand it, this is perfectly constitutional. The Constitution says quite plainly that it is up to each state to decide how to hold its Presidential election and apportion its votes. And Virginia isn't the only state; Republicans are at least talking about doing the same thing in all the states that Obama won but where they control the legislature, notably Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Wisconsin.

It's time to get serious about fighting the Gerrymandering of Congressional districts. Nobody has done anything about this before, because both parties do it when they can, and most people just roll their eyes about politicians acting like they always do. But if this scheme spreads, it could render Presidential elections moot. They would be decided in advance by state house elections; in each battleground state, the party that controlled the first session after the census would carve up the state in ways that would guarantee their Presidential candidate the majority of votes, and the whole thing would be over for a decade no matter what the voters think on election day.

And, you know, I don't understand why Gerrymandering is constitutional. It is a clear attempt to thwart the will of the people, and it works pretty well. In California, Democrats used to have the district lines drawn so well that they could get a veto-proof 67% of the legislature with only 51% of the votes. If we care about our votes, we need to start working now to insure that they are not stolen by these schemes.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Ota Swire, Skye: the Island and its Legends

Ota Swire's book on Skye, first published in 1952, has become my favorite work of folklore. I like it so much partly because it is much more than a work of folklore. It is a tour of the island, following its main roads counterclockwise around the coast, with little sections on each town, ruin, hill, or bay a visitor would come to. Swire tells the reader everything she knows about each place, from ancient legends about Cuchulain and the Fenians to where Bonnie Prince Charlie slept to the notable bathtub in the hotel. It is this interweaving of the legendary past, the historical past, and the present that makes the book so utterly charming. Reading folklore often becomes a tedious slog of one story after another, all vaguely similar, but Ota Swire's approach avoids that trap. Instead it is like driving around the island with an impossibly knowledgeable and good-humored native guide, a dream vacation for anyone interested in Scotland.

One example:
In the ruins of Kilchoan Church a twisted elder tree grows. This tree, according to tradition, grows out of the grave of a Scandinavian prince named Diel or Tiel. He was a great prince of Norway, it is thought the king's son, and he came with his ships of war to Scotland. He was killed in battle, or, as some have it, drowned, and his ships sailed into the bay bringing his body for burial in the little church of Kilchoan. First they laid the body down on the shore, where a Skerry is still known as Cnoclannach, the Norseman's Skerry. The bay, til then known as Loch-a-Chuain, Loch of the Ocean, became Poltiel or Poultiel, the Pool of Tiel. Within living memory an old man in the district found that he could not keep his sheep out of his cabbages, so one night in the dark he came to the graveyard and cut billets out of the elder tree to protect his cabbages. This became known and John MacLeod, brother of Neil MacLeod the Skye Bard, wrote certain verses lampooning him. What they were is known only to Glendale, for they were never published. They had, however, the desired effect; no one since has dared to harm the tree.
Ota Swire was born in 1898, and this book was mainly written in the 1940s. Swire had deep roots on Skye; she was descended on one side from the MacLeods of Dunvegan, and on the other from people of Clanranald who lost their lands on Lewes after supporting Charles Stuart in  the '45 and thereafter lived in Skye as "refugees." Yes, on Skye in the early 20th century a family that came in 1745 was still considered not quite native. Swire heard many stories from her grandmothers and great aunts, others from an old bard who once worked for her great-grandfather, still others from the many friends she made around the island. She had also read all the available books on the island's history, as well as much of Scottish and Irish folklore, but whenever she could she preferred to stick to what she had been told.

From the Middle Ages to the '45, the history of Skye was mostly the history of two warring clans: MacDonald and MacLeod. The MacDonalds were the most powerful family in the Scottish islands, and their chiefs sometimes styled themselves Lords of the Isles. Their main power was elsewhere, but from the thirteenth century on they had a branch on Skye, the MacDonalds of Sleat. Their rivals on Skye were clan MacLeod, based at the great castle of Dunvegan. All the islanders were a mix of Celt and Viking, but the MacDonalds identified more with the Celtic side, the MacLeods with the Norsemen. The MacLeods had more land and followers on Skye itself than the MacDonalds, but the MacDonalds could sometimes draw support from branches of their clan on other islands. So neither was ever able to drive the other out, and they waged 500 years of low-level warfare, punctuated by a dozen or so pitched battles. Their castles dot the landscape, and the locations of their battles are still remembered in the place names and the stories.

Besides the history of the clans, and a bit too much on Bonnie Prince Charlie -- while in hiding after his defeat he seems to have passed from supporter to supporter all around the island, allowing every district and every clan to claim that they sheltered him -- we get plenty of the usual Scottish folklore: water horses, seal maidens, lake monsters, hills full of little people and fairy music, haunted castles, churches built by followers of St. Columba. There is even a little on the clearances, and the tour takes you to several vanished towns that emigrated en masse to Canada or Australia, founding new settlements named after their old homes. The whole thing is delightful and I recommend it highly, especially for anyone considering a trip to Skye.

Swire was no scholar and spoke no Gaelic, so she made many mistakes. Since her book became a classic it has been brought out in several "improved" versions, with the Gaelic corrected and the history straightened out. Avoid them. Instead get the new, 2006 edition from Birlinn, the one for sale on Amazon and in most bookshops. This has the text exactly as Swire left it, but supplies corrections in a long introduction by Gaelic scholar Ronald Black. That way you can both experience the stories as Swire told them, and, if you feel the need, check to see what recent scholarship says about the events she mentions and the place-name etymologies she presents. You can also get from Black some hints at the darker side of the island's history, especially what really happened to the people who vanished from the island, their places taken by sheep.

Ota Swire's Skye is in its way nearly as wonderful as the island itself, which is a very wonderful place indeed.