Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Today's Castle: Haldenstein

Haldenstein castle sits perched on this pinnacle of rock overlooking the town of the same name, in the Swiss canton of Graubünden. It was built some time before 1180. A "wild eagle's nest" (wilde Adlernest), or so Swiss tourist propaganda has it.

It belonged to the Lords or Barons von Haldenstein, whose small lordship survived as a nearly independent state down to 1803. Perhaps the castle's most famous lord was Ulrich von Haldenstein, who, besides having the archetypal German medieval noble name, was a general serving the Habsburgs in the mid 1300s,

Since there was no room to build outward on the rock, the barons built up; you can see how the ruins looked striped, each stripe representing another stage of upward construction.

The castle's rock is a spur of the Calanda massif, which looms behind it. The castle was severely damaged in the twentieth century by a massive landslide that roared down from Calanda and ripped the castle in half before destroying a good part of the town.

The Barons von Haldenstein had long moved on to this so-called castle, built in 1545. My German source properly names this a Pompgebäude, but when you search for Haldenstein castle it is mainly pictures of this that come up. The builder was actually a French lawyer named J.J. Caston, who had married the widow of the previous lord. So the fierce tower of old Haldenstein was left to eagles and landslides, and to our imaginations.


I am not sure what this really is, but it is being used to promote a new exhibit of Latin American artists in Colombia. I would certainly agree that this is an artistic feat far surpassing much of what gets sold as art these days.

The Actively Disengaged Worker

From the LA Times:
Seven out of 10 workers have "checked out" at work or are "actively disengaged," according to a recent Gallup survey. In its ongoing survey of the American workplace, Gallup found that only 30% of workers are "were engaged, or involved in, enthusiastic about, and committed to their workplace." . . .

The survey classifies three types of employees among the 100 million people in America who hold full-time jobs. The first is actively engaged, which represents about 30 million workers. The second type of worker is "not engaged," which accounts for 50 million. These employees are going through the motions at work.

The third type, labeled "actively disengaged," hates going to work. These workers -- about 20 million -- undermine their companies with their attitude, according to the report.

"The general consciousness about the importance of employee engagement seems to have increased in the past decade," said Jim Harter, Gallup's chief scientist for workplace management and well-being. "But there is a gap between knowing about engagement and doing something about it in most American workplaces."
This is a strange sort of survey, and I am not sure what it means or how it has changed over time, but it certainly does not refute my notion that work in our age is generally pretty awful. Nor is this just about fast food servers, hotel cleaners, and other wage slaves; employees with college degrees are more likely to be disengaged than those without them.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Two Poems by Lu Tung Pin

When the moon is high I'll take my cane for a walk,
When the wind is cold I'll put on some clothes.
My heart is hidden in thick bamboo groves --
I come home alone leading the white clouds.

*   *   *

Sojourning in Ta-yu mountains --
Who converses with the white crane that comes flying?
How many times have the mountain people
Seen the winter plum-flowers blossoming?
Spring comes and goes,
Deep in fallen flowers and streams.
People are not aware
Of the many immortals around them.

Translated by by T. C. Lai

Lu Tung Pin was one of the Eight Taoist Immortals. He seems to have been a real person of the 8th century CE, but his story is so overgrown with legend that little is known about his life. He became associate with the doctrine that Heaven is all around us and inside us and that the true Tao is the finding of this immanent Heaven. Life, he is said to have taught, is as transient as a flickering flame or a flash of lightning in a summer cloud, but within life is Heaven, and within Heaven is life without end.

Manuel Cosentino, Behind a Little House

Photographer Manuel Cosentino visited the same small house over two years to photograph the scene behind it. More here.

Medicine and Science

Some doctors are very science-oriented. Some are not.

This truth has dawned on me as I have pondered a long series of medical trials in which common medical procedures have been evaluated and found wanting. Here is the latest announcement in this vein:
We usually assume that new medical procedures and drugs are adopted because they are better. But a new analysis has found that many new techniques and medicines are either no more effective than the old ones, or worse. Moreover, many doctors persist in using practices that have been shown to be useless or harmful.

Scientists reviewed each issue of The New England Journal of Medicine from 2001 through 2010 and found 363 studies examining an established clinical practice. In 146 of them, the currently used drug or procedure was found to be either no better, or even worse, than the one previously used. The report appears in the August issue of Mayo Clinic Proceedings.

More than 40 percent of established practices studied were found to be ineffective or harmful, 38 percent beneficial, and the remaining 22 percent unknown. Among the practices found to be ineffective or harmful were the routine use of hormone therapy in postmenopausal women; high-dose chemotherapy and stem cell transplant, a complex and expensive treatment for breast cancer that was found to be no better than conventional chemotherapy; and intensive glucose lowering in Type 2 diabetes patients in intensive care, which not only failed to reduce cardiovascular events but actually increased mortality.
The story goes on, but I think you get the point. Many doctors routinely ignore medical studies that purport to say what works and what doesn't. Why?

I suppose one reason is that the findings of medical research seem to change all the time, and some doctors have probably built up a healthy skepticism about, for example, the latest announcements about healthy diets. So they take all such studies as provisional at best.

But I think there is something else going on. Some doctors don't pay much attention to scientific studies because they are focused on their patients and what seems to help them. These doctors want to do something for their patients; they want to help their patients be healthy and happy. They prescribe a treatment; their patient gets better; they prescribe it again. This drives medical scientists crazy. They think it is no better than medieval medicine; I was sick, I made a vow to St. Roche, and then I got better, so it was St. Roche who cured me. But the experience of prescribing a treatment and seeing the patient recover seems to be a very powerful one for physicians.

Many patient-focused doctors seem to believe that if big studies show that some treatment does, on average, nothing, that is because it helps some patients and hurts others. This was explicitly stated in a recent NY Times essay by Clifton Leaf, a medical writer who thinks people are too genetically diverse for a huge study to say how a drug will work in any one patient. Doctors raise these objections on the pseudo-scientific basis of genetic diversity, but I think they really flow from clinical practice. They prescribe the same treatment to two patients, and one gets better while one gets sicker; they decide that sometimes this works and sometimes it doesn't, and the only way to know is to try. One thing both clinicians and patients hate is to be told that nothing can be done, and both are likely to try some treatment for incurable conditions, hoping that it will help this particular patient even if the chance is low.

When it gives us treatments that work well, everybody likes medical science. But when it doesn't, doctors don't give up; they fall back on much older traditions of care.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Witches and Wicked Bodies at the National Galleries of Scotland

The National Galleries of Scotland is mounting an exhibit on the art of witchcraft and such that looks quite cool. Highlights here. Above, The Witches Sabbath by Franz Fracken, 1606.

Agostino Veneziano, The Witches Rout, 1520, and detail. Images like this one and the first remind us that part of the horror of witchcraft was the sheer chaos associated with their mad revels.

John Runciman, The Witches of MacBeth, 1767.

John Faed, Illustration from Robert Burns Tam O'Shanter.

The Surfing Hippos of Gabon's Loango National Park

Body surfing hippos! What could possibly be better? These pictures seem to come from this National Geographic feature of 2004; people who have been there since have not had as much luck documenting the semi-mythical surfing hippos. It may be that the hippos are actually using the ocean current to ease their trip home from one of their feeding grounds to where they like to sleep.

Unfinished Dugout Canoe Found in Coastal Alaska Forest

It seems to have been made with traditional tools; based on the age of the trees growing next to it, it may be 500 years old.

Sunday, July 28, 2013


Long ago, I used to bake bread on a fairly regular basis. Then I had children and got a job. I have a long, semi-joking list of all the things I have not done since my second child was born, one of which is bake bread.

But this week that second child, my elder daughter, said she wanted to bake bread. So I hunted around until I found a pretty simple recipe for French bread, and today we did it. It felt really good to have my hands in dough again.

And it was good.

The Dismal Economic Vision of Robert Gordon

Benjamin Wallace-Wells has a good article in New York Magazine about the economic thought of Robert Gordon, which has been very much in the news lately.

Gordon's essential argument is the the high economic growth rate of the 1750 to 2000 period was the result solely of two waves of innovation, which we typically call the First and Second Industrial Revolutions. The first involved the mechanization of spinning and weaving, huge improvements in iron and steel manufacture, and the steam engine; it was powered by water power and coal. Along with it came huge improvements in ocean-born commerce, better organization of firms, and so on. The second industrial revolution involved the internal combustion engine, the automobile, oil, chemicals, and especially electricity, which revolutionized the home. Farm machinery, along with fertilizers and better seeds, allowed the number of farmers in the population to fall to 2 percent; low birth rates and electrical appliances allowed women to enter the workforce in long numbers; the great acceleration of wealth allowed many more people to go to college and acquire expensive skills.

Some people think we are in the midst of a third economic revolution, this one based on computers. Gordon is not impressed; he finds, as do most economists, that the productivity gains born from the computer and telecommunications revolutions are modest at best. Computers and cell phones are making our lives more interesting, but they are not changing the fundamental equations of income and expense.

So what now? Are we doomed to a century of low productivity growth? If so, what will that do to our politics, which were shaped by two centuries of rapid change and at least the hope that things were getting better for everyone?
If you buy Gordon’s story, then the effect of the second industrial revolution was to replace the specific entitlement of the Gilded Age (of family, of place of birth) with a powerful general entitlement, earned simply through citizenship. “Just the fact of being an American male and graduating from high school meant you could have a good-paying job and expect that you could have children who would double your own standard of living,” Gordon says. This certainty, that the future would be so much better than the past that it could be detected in the space of a generation, is what we call the American Dream. The phrase itself was coined only in 1931, once the gains of the second industrial revolution had dispersed and inequality had begun to dissipate. There is a whole set of manners, which we have come to think of as part of our national identity, that depends upon this expectation that things will always get better: Our laissez-faire-ism; our can-do-ism; the optimistic cast of our religiosity, which persisted even when other Western nations turned toward atheism; our cult of the individual. We think of the darkening social turn that happened around 1972 as having something to do with the energies of the sixties collapsing in on themselves, but in Gordon’s description something more mechanistic was happening. “The second industrial revolution had run its course,” he says, and so, in many ways, had its social implications.
Wallace-Wells offers this observation:
The prospects for African-American employment increased most dramatically during World War II and in the period just after: 16.4 percent of black men held middle-class jobs in 1950; by 1960 it was 24 percent; by 1970, 35 percent. Progressives will often describe the history of social liberation by quoting Martin Luther King Jr.’s line that the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice; the implication is that metaphysics are somehow involved. But this history has also taken place during unique economic times, and perhaps that is not coincidence.
If improvement in the lives of the downtrodden happened only because of the remarkable economic growth of the 20th century, how can we help today's poor without it?

I think the realization that ordinary people are not getting better off like they once did will certainly dominate our politics over the next decade -- you can see that happening already. Like Gordon, I don't see much dramatic change in our economy any time soon, just cooler video games, more renewable energy, and more fights about health care. I think the spread of Gordon's thinking might be a good thing in one sense, helping to beat back the nonsensical Republican gospel about taxes and growth.

But I think it is a real failure of imagination to think that meaningful innovation is over. Biotechnology, in particular, has enormous potential to change the world, and we are only beginning to understand how to use computers. The danger is that these new technologies may mainly eliminate jobs rather than create new ones, leaving us scratching our heads over what half our population will do.

The Fairytale Roofs of Alberobello

Alberobello, in southeastern Italy, is known for one thing: the architecture of its traditional houses.

These houses, known as trulli, have been built in this way since time out of mind -- in fact they seem to be survivals of the pre-Roman Iron Age, when many Europeans lived in something similar.

According to a book I got out of the library on the small towns of Italy, the walls are made of dry-laid stone overlaid with thick, whitewashed plaster:
This method of construction has its roots in prehistoric times. The conical-shaped roofs are made of stones placed on top of each other in concentric circles overlaid with thin sheets of limestone called chianche. Each roof is topped by three stones (one cylindrical, one flat, and one round) said to avert evil.
Interior view showing the corbelled vault.

They are certainly delightful, and not like anything else I know of.

And should you visit, you can even bring home a souvenir.


One part of the old world that has mostly disappeared from our frenetic age is the ethic of personal service. I don't mean the kind of service you get in stores, I mean the kind servants give to their masters. Once upon a time there was a whole class of servants who worked on highly intimate terms with the leaders of society and took pride in doing their jobs well partly because that made it possible for leaders to lead. Like the butler in Remains of the Day, who really believes that if he runs the house perfectly his master and his elite house guests may find a formula for European peace.

I was reminded of this because of this headline in yesterday's Times:
Emotional Victory for Mickelson’s Caddie of 21 Years
The story continues:
Phil Mickelson drained the last of his six birdie putts Sunday to end his long and winding road to the British Open championship. He picked the ball out of the cup and raised his arms high while his longtime caddie, Jim Mackay, calmly replaced the flagstick on the 18th hole at Muirfield.

And then one of the driest Opens in recent memory got all wet. Mackay and Mickelson embraced, with one sobbing into the other’s shoulder. Only it wasn’t Mickelson crying but Mackay, who later explained while choking back more tears, “You work for a guy for 21 years, it’s pretty cool when you see him playing the best round of golf you’ve ever seen him play in the last round to win the British Open.”
Golf caddies, it occurred to me, are one of the last survivals of the old fashioned service relationship. Professional golf depends on maintaining a superhuman level of concentration that can be broken by almost any distraction, and golfers and caddies both believe that a caddie who takes care of all his chores perfectly can materially help his boss keep his mind on the game.

Seems to me that I was once stranded in front of a television showing a little documentary on the personal assistants of celebrities, the people who answer the phone for them, keep their schedules and help them decide which charity events to attend. These folks seemed to have something of an old-fashioned service ethic. I suppose butlers and so on still exist in the White House, Downing Street, and so on. But when it comes to servants, golf caddies are now the elite.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

The Best Animal Video Ever?

Christian Shamans in Peru

Wonderful photo essay by Juan Manuel Castro about shamanistic practices in the mountains of Peru. Above, skeletons in what CNN identifies as a "shamanic temple." But surely these people identify as Christians and all themselves "healers" or something similar; they certainly don't use the Siberian word "shaman."

This picture, for example, is captioned "A shaman holds a crucifix." So this is obviously a mixture of Christian and ancient Indian ideas, and to judge by this essay it is more Christian than Voodoo is. These men also use tarot cards for divination, a magical practice from the European tradition. (Incidentally, the "voodoo doll" is also a European or Middle Eastern device that Haitians learned from the French.) I wonder what these shamans see on their spirit journeys?

A fire ceremony.

Dried baby alpacas for sale; these are used in rituals.


Were one asked to characterize the life of religion in the broadest and most general terms possible, one might say that it consists of the belief that there is an unseen order, and that our supreme good lies in harmoniously adjusting ourselves thereto. This belief and this adjustment are the religious attitude in the soul.

--William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience.

Our Enemies List is Classified

With whom are we at war? We can't tell you:
In a major national security speech this spring, President Obama said again and again that the U.S. is at war with "Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and their associated forces." So who exactly are those associated forces? It's a secret. At a hearing in May, Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., asked the Defense Department to provide him with a current list of Al Qaeda affiliates.

The Pentagon responded – but Levin's office told ProPublica they aren't allowed to share it. Kathleen Long, a spokeswoman for Levin, would say only that the department's "answer included the information requested." A Pentagon spokesman told ProPublica that revealing such a list could cause "serious damage to national security." "Because elements that might be considered ‘associated forces' can build credibility by being listed as such by the United States, we have classified the list," said the spokesman, Lt. Col. Jim Gregory. "We cannot afford to inflate these organizations that rely on violent extremist ideology to strengthen their ranks."
And yet we have accused people in court of abetting our enemies. (E.g., Bradley Manning.) How can people be prosecuted for aiding our enemies if we haven't said who they are?

It's really time to bring this charade we call a war to an end. And that, by the way, is the lamest excuse I have ever read for keeping something secret.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Mesolithic House Reconstructed at University College Dublin

This house, just built by the archaeologists at University College Dublin, is modeled on the ones uncovered at the Mount Sandel Mesolithic site in Ireland.

The pattern of post holes that defined one of the originals, dating to around 7600 BCE. You can see that the pattern is not as perfect as one would like, and some people don't really believe in these. But what else could all those posts be?

View of the frame. It is covered with turf. Which makes me wonder why; in North America wood-framed dwellings were covered with sheets of tree bark or woven reed mats.

More at the project blog.

The Fearsome Data Crunchers at the NSA

The NSA has responded to a Freedom of Information Act request by saying that it lacks the technology to search its own employees' emails by keyword.

Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, Mumbai

The building once known as the Victoria Terminus, in the city once known as Bombay, is one of the masterpieces of Victorian architecture. It was designed by British architect  Frederick William Stevens in a style that wildly mixes the Gothic, Italian Renaissance, and Mughal styles.

The building was opened in 1887 to celebrate Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee.

These days the great city is known as Mumbai, the building was renamed the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus in 1996. Shivaji (1627-1680) was the found of the Maratha Empire of India's south and a great promoter of Hinduism and India's native languages -- in his time even many Hindu rulers used Persian for administrative purposes, but Shivaji insisted on using Marathi and Sanskrit. So an obvious hero for the Hindu nationalists who controlled Mumbai at the time.

The station was one of the targets of the 2008 terrorist attack, and 58 people were killed here. The building was damaged and the repairs were completed only recently .

Visitors say the outside of the building is much more impressive than the interior, which has been reconfigured to support modern facilities and a much greater number of tracks. But there are still nice interior details.

Is there any airport anywhere in the world that compares to these wonderful train stations? Comparing a wonder like this to any of our ghastly airports, would an alien believe that we are actually much richer than they were?