Saturday, November 30, 2013

Breast Feeding Helps Prevent Food Allergies

A piece of folk medical belief that has been around for at least 30 years is that breastfeeding a child for longer, and delaying the first solid food, can help prevent food allergies. Recent research confirms that this is true:
After controlling for birth weight, the duration of pregnancy, maternal allergies and many other factors, they found that 17 weeks was the crucial age: babies who were introduced to solids before this age were significantly more likely to develop food allergies.

The study, published online in Pediatrics, found that continuing to breast-feed while introducing cow’s milk also had a protective effect against allergies. The authors suggest that the immunologic factors in breast milk are what provide the advantage.

“Don’t introduce solids until 17 weeks,” said the lead author, Kate E. C. Grimshaw, a nutritionist at the University of Southampton, “and if you can wait longer, that’s fine, too. At whatever age you begin solid foods, you should continue breast-feeding as well. And for those who cannot breast-feed, the advice not to introduce solid foods until 17 weeks is still applicable.”

Street Art

The folks at Stumble Upon have put together a nice collection of 106 images from Street Art Utopia, all different sorts from clever graffiti to big murals commissioned by cities. The above is in Olsztyn, Poland, by Adam Okuciejewski and Szymon Czarnowski.
Borondo, Madrid.

Stairs in Beirut, Lebanon.

And one for the archaeologists that I got from the Street Art Utopia main page, by David Zinn in Michigan.

Backlit Saturn

Some anonymous photo wizard at NASA put together this amazing montage of more than a hundred Cassini images of Saturn, all taken from the far side, with the planet obstructing the sun.

Libertarian Health Care

Last night an anonymous commenter added this to my post on Julia Ioffe's whooping cough:
To call for someone else to take drugs so that you do not get sick, is frankly ridiculous. You are responsible for your health or lack of it, not some new born child. I empathize with your health challenge. I trust you will recover in time, however, do you really think that all children in the world should be injected with drugs at birth because you have a cough?
Perhaps this person was merely grouchy after eating too much stuffing in the company of annoying relatives, but taken seriously this shows exactly what is wrong with libertarianism and the attitudes behind it.

First, there is the fantasy that you, and you alone, could somehow keep yourself well by your own efforts. Infectious disease mocks this notion. The way epidemics work is that by spreading to more and more people they build up to an enormously powerful wave that simply sweeps away the immune systems of individuals unlucky enough to get in their way. What did any of the 20 million people killed by influenza in 1918 do wrong? If you are stranded in the midst of a serious outbreak of bubonic plague there is pretty much nothing that you, by yourself, can do about it. Chance will determine whether you live or die. Yet European governments managed to defeat plague in the 18th century without having any idea what caused it, by imposing draconian quarantines on any city where the plague broke out. These measures were unfair; in fact they simply ignored notions of individual responsibility. Yet they removed from Europe one of the great scourges of the age.

Cholera and typhoid fever were defeated in Europe and North America by public water systems and intrusive inspections of restaurants and food wholesalers. Tens of thousands of babies were saved from blindness by requiring that their eyes be treated against venereal disease, ignoring the cries of outrage from parents who insisted that there was no chance of their having such horrid conditions.

Public health is one of the things that only governments can do, and only by trampling on the individual "rights" of citizens. It takes a government with a hardened heart toward its people's fears to bring dangerous diseases under control. What is bringing whooping (and the measles, mumps, and other diseases) back is that our governments have gone soft. Without the prod of the great fear these diseases used to cause, they have decided to be gentle with people who don't want to take any risk for the public good, or who just feel "uncomfortable" about vaccinations. And now we are suffering for it.

Yes, I do think that all the children in the world should be injected with drugs to keep other people from getting sick. It is the only way to keep us well. And I think that to make our world better governments should force people to do thousands of other things, from paying taxes to educating their children to replacing old, polluting lawn mowers. Asking people to please take responsibility for their own health care is a joke, just like asking people to please take responsibility for their own streets, sewers, clean air, electrical grids, school systems, police forces, and a million other things. We can only survive by working together.

Friday, November 29, 2013

The Ruin of Syria

Francesca Borri writes in the Guardian about the experience of being a journalist in Syria:
Since the rise of the Islamist resistance, parts of Syria have become off-limits to journalists – 30 of us are now missing. Today my helmet is a veil, and my flak jacket a hijab. Because the only way to sneak into Aleppo is by looking like a Syrian.

Locals here don't refer any more to "liberated areas", but to east and west Aleppo – they don't show you pictures of their children, or of siblings killed by the regime, but simply the pictures of beautiful Aleppo before the war. Because nobody is fighting the regime any more; rebels now fight against each other. And for many of them, the priority is not ousting Bashar al-Assad's regime, but enforcing sharia law.

Aleppo is nothing but hunger and Islam. Dozens of threadbare children, disfigured by leishmaniasis, walk barefoot in the steps of mothers, covered in black from head to toe – all bowl in hand, seeking a mosque for bread, their skin yellowed by typhus. In the narrowest alleys, to dodge mortar fire, boys are on the right with their toy Kalashnikovs, while the left is for girls, already veiled. Jihadi fathers push with their beards, djellabas and suicide belts. In July, Mohammad Kattaa was executed for misusing the name of the prophet. He was 15.
You know, if we had elected John McCain, we would be in the middle of this mess, trying to sort out the Islamist rebels from some other kind of rebels, battling against Assad's regime but trying to avoid killing his Christian supporters. What a catastrophe. I am actually beginning to think that we should discard our support for those largely imaginary non-Islamist rebels and try to help the Assad government put the country back together. They may be thugs, but was life under their rule as bad as this? I don't know what else to think.

Rod Dreher comments:
Yesterday, driving to New Orleans, I saw a pick-up truck drive by with this bumper sticker: “Government, stay out of my life”. We have the luxury here in America to entertain the idea that we are oppressed by the government, because we have never had to live in anarchy.

Today's Castle: Château d'Aigle

In the most French part of Switzerland, at the mouth of the Ormonts Valley overlooking Lake Geneva, stands Château d'Aigle, a perfect medieval fairytale castle. It's name means "Eagle," and its first residents were the Chevaliers d’Aigle, which just entered my list of the most improbably cool historical names.

The castle originated as a simple stone keep built around 1200. At first the Chevaliers d’Aigle were effectively independent, but they soon became vassals of the Counts of Savoy.

The castle was enlarged over the years. The outer walls were probably built in the 14th century by the family Oberlond, Lords of Compey, whose arms are painted over the front gate. They were also vassals of Savoy.

By 1475 the castle had fallen, like so much of the German-French border country, to the Dukes of Burgundy. It thus ended up on the front lines of the long war between the Dukes and the independent towns of Switzerland. In 1476 German-speaking Swiss soldiers swarmed over the mountains into the upper end of the valley, taking the castle by surprise and seizing it with a sudden assault. Thus it became, says the castle's web site, the first French-speaking part of the Swiss Confederation.

It was administered at first by the free city of Bern, which rebuilt the castle's residential quarters to serve as the home of its governor. Besides the walls, much of what you see today was built by the Bernese between 1476 and 1500. (The large structure in front of the castle in this picture is a 15th-century tithe barn.)

The castle was never abandoned, serving variously as an official residence, administrative building, and jail. In 1900 it was purchased by the town of Aigle as a historical monument. In the 1970s it was partially reconstructed, and today it houses the Museum of Wine.

So, not a terribly exciting history. But look at it!

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Thanksgiving 2013

Things I feel thankful for today:
my healthy children
public libraries
trees that change color in the fall
National Geographic
my friends
the Kepler space telescope
reading glasses
Patapsco State Park
that I love being home with my wife

Today's Medieval Church: Kilpeck

The Church of St. Mary and Saint David is in Kilpeck, Herefordshire, near the boundary of England and Wales. Built around 1130 to 1140, it is famous for its wonderful array of well-preserved Romanesque sculpture.

The small church has three sections, but all seem to have built at pretty much the same time.

The south door, with its tree of life tympanum. (Also at the top of the post.)


Dragon's head in the nave.

The delightfully weird corbels are particularly famous. There are 91, and most are still in good shape.

The sheela na gig. These figures are more common in Ireland than Britain, leading to suggestions on Celtic influence on the church. Kilpeck was in the diocese of Landaff, in Wales, until right around the time this church was built, so this is not implausible. However, the question of what influenced the "Hereford school" of sculpture and how is bewilderingly contentious, with claims made for France and Scandinavia as well as Ireland. But what an amazing place.

For a complete set of images of all the carvings, see the Corpus of Romanesque Sculpture. For a more artistic set of photos, see the work of the wonderful Julianna Lees.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Republican Hawks and the Iran Deal

Dana Milbank tears apart Republicans who tweeted all these things about the new interim deal with Iran without even knowing what was in it:
Ari Fleischer: The Iran deal and our allies: You can’t spell abandonment without OBAMA

Ron Christie: Precisely. . .  A disgraceful deal.

Rep. John Culberson (R-Tex.): Worse than Munich. (with a link to a Breitbart News article with that headline and images showing Secretary of State John Kerry and his Iranian counterpart juxtaposed with Hitler and Chamberlain)

Rep. Allen West: America just had a modern-day Neville Chamberlain moment

Rep. Michelle Bachmann: total surrender by Obama administration
I mean, why wait for the details? This crew already knew without hearing that they were against the deal, and on Twitter being first is everything. It was a good hour between the first announcement of the deal and the beginning of Obama's speech explaining it, and in modern politics an hour like that can't be wasted. Better just to start denouncing the deal right away before somebody else beats you to it.

Another Fact about Animal Sexuality that has Nothing to do with Humans

No, really -- how could anybody think that this is relevant to how people act?
The Deadly Allure of the Exotic

Males of a praying mantis native to New Zealand, Orthodera novaezealandiae, are more attracted to the cannibalistic females of an invasive species introduced in the 1970s, Miomantis caffra, than they are to the noncannibal females of their own kind, a new study suggests.

Moorhead State and the Future of the University

Minnesota State University Moorhead has a plan to close its $5 million budget deficit: eliminate the departments of English, History, Physics, Political Science, Philosophy, and Computer Science. As I understand it, there would still be teaching in the fields after the departments have been shuttered. The point is to get rid of a lot of tenured faculty, and one way to do that is to close the whole department. When the department goes away, the protection of tenure evaporates, and the university can fire all the high-salaried people they think they can't afford. (This is a common trick in the Federal bureaucracy as well, where it is also very difficult to fire people but possible to eliminate whole offices; they call it a RIF, for "reduction in force," and people fired in this way are said to be "riffed.")

With all those departments and professors gone, will what's left still be a university?

Well, that depends on what a university is, and what it is trying to teach people. As all my readers know, I am highly dubious of our "college for everybody" approach; it seems to me that our 60-year experiment in mass university education has not gone very well. I will wager a guess that most of the people at Moorhead State are there because they want better jobs, and they have little interest in studying philosophy or literature. What is gained by forcing it on them? Would some sort of narrower technical education -- in business, accounting, medical technology -- be more use to them and our society? I think if I were the dictator of education in Minnesota I would respond to the crisis by converting Moorhead into a community college. (Which is absolutely what they should do with the University of the District of Columbia, another school having severe budget problems.)

It seems to me that the only possible solution to the ongoing university funding crisis is fewer four-year colleges. If half the non-selective schools in the country were closed or downgraded, the pool of state and Federal funding would go farther for the ones that remain, enabling them to keep up a higher standard, to better serve the newly concentrated students actually interested in education. This would require a change in our attitudes about many jobs, which now require a four-year degree for no particular reason. But the system we have seems to me to be wasting gigantic amounts of human energy: the energy of professors teaching what students don't want to learn, of students studying what they don't care about, of administrators fighting to keep schools open when they are serving no clear purpose.

Kalavantin Durg

This mountaintop in India must be one of the most photographed yet least explained sites in the world.

Kalavantin Durg -- Durg meaning fortress -- sits atop a rock pinnacle 300 meters (1000 feet) tall, close enough to the larger Prabalgad plateau that everybody who visits the fort at Prabalgad takes a picture. Brave souls climb up all those steps to the top.

But in an hour of internet searching I have found out nothing about who built Kalavantin Durg, when, or why. Just about twenty copies of this same text:
This fort is just opposite to Prabalgad. It is also visible from Mumbai-Pune highway. According to stories, the fort was built for a queen named Kalavanti. Steps leading up to the fort have been cut into the rock face of the hill. From the peak of this hill you can see Matheran, Chanderi, Peb, Ershal, and Karnala forts, and also the Mumbai city. The Adivasi People of Machi-Prabal village observe the custom of dancing on every Holi (Shimga) Festival at the top of Kalavantin fort. These people have a long-standing relationship with this fort and it has become a part of their heritage.
Which is nice so far as it goes but really says nothing. The dating of the nearby Prabalgad is not helpful because it is one of those Indian hilltops that was first fortified in prehistoric times and rebuilt over and over down to the 17th century. The Western Ghats were a much fought-over region, especially in the 13th to 17th centuries CE, so a lot of people could have built this.

Atlas Obscura says the fort was built in 530 BCE as a lookout tower, but offers no evidence and no source.

So I guess this one will have to remain a mystery for now.

New Drugs for Depression: Scopolamine, Ketamine, Riluzole

On the Metro yesterday morning I noticed an ad from NIMH recruiting depressed people for a study of new anti-depressant drugs: ketamine, riluzole, and scopolamine. I scratched my head. Isn't ketamine an anesthetic? Don't they prescribe scopolamine for motion sickness? And what the heck is riluzole?

So I as soon as I got to a computer I did some searching. It seems that ketamine and riluzole both interact with glutamate, which is actually the brain’s most widespread neurotransmitter although you may not have heard of it because until recently nobody thought it had anything to do with depression. Near as I can tell, there is still no clear understanding of why messing with glutamate would affect mood, but of course that is true for serotonin as well. Scopolamine interacts with acetylcholine, another neurotransmitter, although some people say it also impacts glutamate production.

"Scopolamine depression" led me to this page at the NIMH web site:
Confirming results from earlier research, a clinical trial of treatment for major depression showed that the medication scopolamine, commonly used for motion sickness and as a sedative, could lift symptoms of depression within days, far faster than current antidepressants. Though the study was small, the magnitude of scopolamine's effects in comparison with placebo suggests that this class of medications has potential for rapid treatment of depression. . . .
The drug is given intravenously in three treatments three to five days apart, and a majority of patients showed marked approval within three days.

"Ketamine depression" led me to this:
Researchers at Mayo Clinic have found that the general anesthetic, Ketamine, is very effective at treating depression when administered over a long period. The study . . . revealed that prolonged, low-dose intravenous infusions of Ketamine have excellent potential in reducing the symptoms of severe depression.
It seems that doctors have long known that ketamine sometimes relieves depression, but since it has severe side effects (including hallucinations, which is why people take it for fun, as "special K") they have been looking for a safe way to use it.
Timothy Lineberry, M.D., a Mayo Clinic psychiatrist, said: "It's surprising both that it works and how rapidly it has effects. It sometimes can work in hours to reduce depressive symptoms and suicidal ideation. Our goal is to begin to determine how the drug can be administered safely in routine treatment." A total of 10 patients with either a major depressive disorder or type of bipolar disorder were included in the study. All of the participants failed to respond to anti-depressant medications. The patients were all treated with low-dose ketamine infusions (0.5 mg/kg total dose), up to twice a week, until their symptoms of depression went away. Ketamine proved to be very effective at helping the patients recover. In addition, the authors found that ketamine infusions at low rates worked just as well as higher infusion rates.
Articles on this therapy proliferated around 2010. By this summer there were ads for clinics that specialize in ketamine infusion therapy for depression, so I guess I was way behind on this one.

Riluzole, which is given to slow the progress of ALS, seems to have first attracted real notice as an anti-depressant around 2003.  Interest in this drug seems to have progressed much more slowly than that in ketamine and scopolamine. Not sure why.

This is potentially exciting news, given how many people don't respond to SSRIs, or stop responding to them after a few years. As always there are also big potential problems, like this one:
Also, people can get hooked on ketamine, and habitual use has been linked to serious mental and physical health problems.
The search is on now for drugs that would have the same effects on glutamate production without causing hallucinations or addiction. We'll see.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013


In great deeds, something abides. On great fields something stays. Forms change and pass; bodies disappear, but spirits linger, to consecrate the ground for the vision-place of souls. And reverent men and women from afar, and generations that know us not and that we know not of, heart-drawn to see where and by whom great things were suffered and done for them....

 ― Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain

Pope Francis Talks Economics

Pope Francis is not a fan of libertarian economics:
How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points? This is a case of exclusion. Can we continue to stand by when food is thrown away while people are starving? This is a case of inequality. Today everything comes under the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless. As a consequence, masses of people find themselves excluded and marginalized: without work, without possibilities, without any means of escape.

In this context, some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system.
I love that "crude and naïve trust" line. The notion that free markets will inevitably benefit everyone is indeed a tenet of capitalist ideology, not a fact. Some countries where the government intervenes quite flagrantly in economic matters (South Korea) have done very well of late, as have some countries with strong unions and robust protections for workers (Germany, Austria, the Netherlands). It is simply not true that laissez faire is the only possible route to prosperity.
While the earnings of a minority are growing exponentially, so too is the gap separating the majority from the prosperity enjoyed by those happy few. This imbalance is the result of ideologies which defend the absolute autonomy of the marketplace and financial speculation. Consequently, they reject the right of states, charged with vigilance for the common good, to exercise any form of control. A new tyranny is thus born, invisible and often virtual, which unilaterally and relentlessly imposes its own laws and rules.

In this system, which tends to devour everything which stands in the way of increased profits, whatever is fragile, like the environment, is defenseless before the interests of a deified market, which become the only rule.
Here Francis gets at something that really irks me, a worshipful attitude toward "markets" as if they always produce the best possible outcome. They do not. Nor do they operate in a sort of neutral vacuum, but a real world of power imbalances in which political and legal decisions always matter a great deal. There are always rules. When governments step in to change the rules so as to benefit the mass of people rather than the rich, the rich often cry that this is a violation of the natural order. Nonsense; capitalism is an arbitrary human creation full of notions about property, ownership, power and so on that I think are unsupportable -- except insofar as they work to create economic growth for ordinary people. When they cease to do so, they should be discarded and other rules put in their place.

Beware of Bigfoot

These Sasquatch warnings were posted recently at the Beattie Street trailhead in Helena, Montana by an anonymous concerned citizen.

Depression and Sleep

More evidence linking depression with sleep disorders:
Psychiatrists have long thought that depression causes insomnia, but new research suggests that insomnia can actually precede and contribute to causing depression. The causal link works in both directions. Two small studies have shown that a small amount of cognitive behavioral therapy to treat insomnia, when added to a standard antidepressant pill to treat depression, can make a huge difference in curing both insomnia and depression in many patients. . . .

A study of 66 patients by a team at Ryerson University in Toronto found that the cognitive therapy for insomnia, a brief and less intense form of talk therapy than many psychiatric patients are accustomed to, worked surprisingly well. Some 87 percent of the patients whose insomnia was resolved in four treatment sessions also had their depression symptoms disappear, almost twice the rate of those whose insomnia was not cured.
I have certainly noticed that depression and irregular sleep habits go together, and more evidence keeps coming in to show that circadian rhythms are fundamental to the function of our minds and bodies. So this is certainly intriguing.

Understanding Scientific Findings

William J. Sutherland, David Spiegelhalter, and Mark Burgman have an editorial in Nature offering Twenty Tips for Interpreting Scientific Claims. They are:
  • Differences and chance cause variation.
  • No measurement is exact.
  • Bias is rife.
  • Bigger is usually better for sample size.
  • Correlation does not imply causation.
  • Regression to the mean can mislead.
  • Extrapolating beyond the data is risky.
  • Beware the base-rate fallacy.
  • Controls are important.
  • Randomization avoids bias.
  • Seek replication, not pseudoreplication.
  • Scientists are human.
  • Significance is significant.
  • Separate no effect from non-significance.
  • Study relevance limits generalizations.
  • Feelings influence risk perception
  • Dependencies change the risks.
  • Data can be dredged or cherry picked.
  • Extreme measurements may mislead.
The authors offer a little paragraph on what they mean by each of these, should you be curious.

Most of these cautions relate to understanding statistics, which I suppose underscores the importance of statistics in science these days. I am not sure what "feelings influence risk perception" is doing on the list, since this is more a problem of non-scientific thinking than a problem judging scientific findings. I could quibble with a lot of the others, too. But the bigger problem is not that people don't understand these things, it is that scientists themselves work to undermine understanding of these principles. It sometimes happens that scientists will publish an article that clearly says their findings are preliminary and uncertain, only to have the press blow it out of proportion. But more often it is the scientists themselves who blow their own work out of proportion. It is scientists, not reporters or the public, who draw regression lines through messy data sets and act like their lines mean something. And it is scientists who structure their own experiments around picking up small and quite likely irrelevant statistical anomalies, to which they then apply "significance" tests so they can publish and crow about their results.

Really understanding science requires more than statistical techniques. It requires the judgment that comes from familiarity with science broadly speaking, not just a tiny area of study; is that really a likely causal connection? how would it work? have I heard similar claims before that didn't pan out? does this fit with other research, or with findings in other, related disciplines? what are the broad problems with this kind of analysis?

When I apply this sort of thinking to new scientific claims, I end up writing off whole fields of research. Diet is first among them; are their any claims about diet science, beyond the most obvious (eat a balanced diet and don't eat too much) that have stood the test of time? On the other hand I end up with renewed confidence in certain other fields, especially evolution. For me climate science hangs in between, very likely to be true in its outlines but rife with unjustified precision and bogus claims.

Here is my tip for interpreting scientific claims: science is hard, especially the science of complex, interrelated systems like the human body or the earth's climate. When it comes to subjects like these, pay no attention to any single study. Only a massive weight of evidence derived from many different approaches should change your mind.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Brick Brownstones

Is it pedantic of me to protest that these brick and frame houses are being sold as the Brownstones at Bethesda? Not to mention that they are said to be in "North Bethesda," which is a made up place -- they might as well just say, "We wish these were in Bethesda but they aren't."

Rice Paddies and the Anthropocene Era

New evidence has come from air bubbles in the Antarctic ice showing that humans have been affecting the earth's climate for at least 5,000 years. Around that time, the amount of methane in the trapped air increases, and since methane is a powerful greenhouse gas, this might have warmed the planet. The current leading candidate for the source of the methane is rice paddies in Asia, since they are known to be powerful methane sources and we think wet rice agriculture first became a big deal around that time.

I won't express any particular opinion about this one finding, for my usual skeptical reasons. But it is one more piece of evidence among many that humans have been profoundly changing the planet for thousands of years. For thousands of years we have been clearing forests, setting massive fires, plowing the soil, spreading our favorite crops and the weeds that live with them, wiping out other animal species, cutting irrigation canals, damming streams, draining swamps, dredging harbors, fertilizing fields, building cities, mining metals, and more. The industrial revolution did not begin this process but only advanced it to a new level. This is our planet now, one that we have made just as surely as it made us, and to pretend that our actions do not matter is foolish and wrong.

Ward Charcoal Ovens, Nevada

By Royce Bair. The ovens were used between 1876 and 1878. From National Geographic.


Lecturing is out. All the educational reformers are down on it, and their numbers seem to show that time spent working in small groups leads to more learning. The dissatisfaction with lecturing started with leftists, who thought it represented an authoritarian model of education, but it has now spread across the political spectrum; the new Common Core standards for elementary through high school education emphasize group work.

I have to say that as a student I HATED working in small groups with other students. Absolutely hated it. Except for science labs, I never saw the point and never thought I learned a thing from it. I wanted to learn from somebody who knew more about the subject than I did, not listen to my peers natter on about their own ill-informed opinions. I liked seminars, because I liked talking to my professors, but mainly I took lecture courses. I loved them. And I learned a vast amount in college. Looking back from 30 years later, I find that I remember a lot of very specific things from my lectures, but only one thing springs to my mind from a discussion section. (A debate about the origins of the Peloponnesian War, for certain readers who may also remember it.) I just asked my college student daughter whether she preferred lectures or discussions and she answered, "Discussion classes were invented by Satan to give stupid, ignorant people a chance to voice their opinions."

High school teacher Abigail Walthausen has a little article on the Atlantic defending the lecture as a teaching technique:
As a college student, I was often advised by well-meaning adults to sign-up for seminars rather than lectures in order to get “face time.” To be perfectly honest, though, the lecture format, far more than the noisy seminar, enabled me to think deeply about a topic rather than being distracted by poorly planned and redundant comments from peers (often aggravated by a teacher who is reluctant, for fear of being too top-down in terms of pedagogy, to deflect them). Besides frustration with the dominant participants in many a seminar class, I have also wasted time distracted by the anxiety that I had to race others to an appropriate comment in order to accumulate those necessary class participation points.
Like Walthausen, I did a lot of great thinking sitting in dim lecture halls. Lecturing is not enough -- people also need practice speaking and writing and doing things, but I still think reading and listening are great ways to learn. As Walthausen notes, TED talks are enormously popular. My dropout sons are among the millions of people who encounter mind-stretching ideas mainly at the TED web site, and they regularly tell me about cool talks they have heard.

I have a feeling that if we really understood this we would see that students are all different, and that some learn best with one method and some with another. That, after all, is the way most things work.

In my own teaching I try to mix lecturing with class discussion, typically about half of each. While I am lecturing I show lots of pictures, because I am an intensely visual person and can't remember what I can't visualize. So far this format has worked pretty well for me.

I am certainly not ready to give up on lecturing, and I was glad to read Walthausen's defense.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

A Preliminary Deal with Iran

Great news from Geneva, where American and European negotiators have reached a deal with Iran to limit Iran's enrichment of uranium for six months while they work on a permanent deal:
Iran, which has long resisted international monitoring efforts and built clandestine nuclear facilities, agreed to stop enriching uranium beyond 5 percent, a level that would be sufficient for energy production but that would require further enrichment for bomb-making. To make good on that pledge, Iran will dismantle links between networks of centrifuges.

Its stockpile of uranium enriched to 20 percent, a short hop from weapons-grade fuel, would be diluted or converted into oxide so that it could not be readily used for military purposes. Iran agreed that it would not install any new centrifuges, start up any that are not already operating or build new enrichment facilities. . . .

In return for the initial agreement, the United States agreed to provide $6 billion to $7 billion in sanctions relief. Of this, roughly $4.2 billion would be oil revenue that has been frozen in foreign banks.
This is terrific; it at least postpones a war over this issue and, I think, makes one much less likely in the long run.

I have to say, though, that I find this rather puzzling. My contacts in the nuclear disarmament field are toward the lefty peacenik end of the spectrum, but they have always assured me that Iran is definitely pursuing the bomb. Their enrichment program makes no sense except as a bomb-making enterprise. And I don't blame them; given that America has invaded two of their neighboring countries and overthrown their governments, and various American Congressmen regularly suggest that we should do the same to Iran, I can certainly see why they want the bomb.

So what are they about? Have they decided that right now it makes sense to shelve the nuclear ambitions for a few years to get the economy back on track? Are they hoping that future events will lead to the break-up on the sanctions-enforcing coalition, enabling them to restart? Are they planning to establish another, even deeper layer of secret facilities? Is this a sign of disagreement within Iran's governing elite, between those determined to get the bomb and those who would be happy to give up the bomb in return for economic normalcy? Or have a majority of the leadership really changed their minds?


By Alexey Kljatov, who took these by taping a $50 macro lens to his camera. More here.

Ode to the Voyager Albatross

A great gray albatross
died the other day.
Here's where it fell
upon the wet sands.
In this gloomy month,
on a silvery,
drizzly autumn day like a web
of cold fish and sea water.
This is where it fell dying, magna avis.

It was in death a cross of black.
The wings spanned three feathered meters,
the head curved like a hook,
the cyclonic eyes were tightly sealed.

From New Zealand
it had crossed an ocean
to die in Chile. Why?
What salt, what wave,
what wind could
it have sought in the sea?
Why pit its strength
against all space?
Why test its powers
in the hardest solitudes?
Or was it goal the magnet of a star?
No one knows, or can tell.

. . .

Far-ranging bird, aloft you seemed
suspended between continents
over lost seas,
a flick of a wing
a bell clap of feathers; majestically,
you changed your course a fraction
and, triumphant and true,
continued on your implacable, lonely route.

How beautiful you were,
wheeling between wave and air,
trailing the tip of a wing in the sea
or resting in the vast oceanic expanse,
wings closed like a coffer of secret jewels,
rocked on the lonely foam
like a mute prophecy
in the movement of the psalms.

. . .

Oh no, I said
to the king of the wind,
the bird of the seas,
don't expect them to erect
a monument to your feats;
and while melancholy spectators
gathered around your remains,
plucking a feather,
a petal,
a message from a hurricane,
I walked away, so that,
at least, your memory,
without a stone, without a statue,
might on these lines fly
for that last time into space
and your flight near to the sea.

Oh, dark captain,
defeated in my country,
my your proud wings
still soar above
the final wave, the wave of death.

--Pablo Neruda

Translated by Margaret Sayers Peden
From The Complete Odes, edited by Ilan Stavans, a wonderful bilingual edition

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Aún aprendo

On Aldous Huxley, author of Brave New World, who died fifty years ago yesterday:
He offered as his personal motto the legend hung around the neck of a ragged scarecrow of a man in a painting by Goya: Aún aprendo. I am still learning.
Another motto I would happy to take for my own.

Seals from Ancient Doliche

Archaeologists working at the Roman-period site of Doliche in Turkey say they have recovered more than 600 stamp seals and amulets. They think these were left as offerings at the city's famous temple of Zeus Dolichenus, god of storms.

On the Frontier of Gentrification in Shaw

I spent my Thursday in Washington's Shaw neighborhood, on the frontier of gentrification. Shaw is the sort of place gorgeously restored houses sit across the street from boarded up ruins, and there is construction on every block.

Diversity. All the pictures in this post were taken on a ten-minute lunch break walk.

In today's America you even have to threaten vegetable thieves in three languages.

This is the old 7th Street Market, scene of a famous 1996 gang shooting, then a roofless ruin, and now a gleaming new Giant in an old brick shell. With a new roof that looks just like the old one.

Next door to the market, luxury condos are going up -- with a rooftop dog walk, in case the residents don't want to risk strolling through their neighborhood at night.

A couple of old style Shaw houses, no doubt occupied by old-style Shaw residents. I wonder what these will look like in a decade?

This run down old commercial block looks like a great investment opportunity for somebody.

I love what some rich hipster did with this old house.

Gentrification is one of those topics we are doomed to disagree about. Some people just hate it when their neighborhoods change, for whatever reason. Add in racial tension, class tension, and people having to move when their rents rise, and you get a lot of anger. But what is the alternative? Old houses need massive infusions of capital every few decades, or they fall apart. Shaw was headed that way, and without the investment being made by the new mainly (but not entirely) white owners, these wonderful old buildings were doomed.

The world won't stand still, and trying to make it stop is usually a waste of energy. Better to celebrate the gains being made than to curse the whirlwind.