Thursday, July 31, 2014

Bloodswept Lands and Seas of Red

Ceramic poppies at the Tower of London, to commemorate World War I:
The evolving installation by ceramic artist Paul Cummins, with setting by stage designer Tom Piper, will be unveiled on 5 August 2014; one hundred years since the first full day of Britain’s involvement in the First World War. Entitled ‘Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red’, the installation is being created in the Tower’s famous dry moat. It will continue to grow throughout the summer until the moat is filled with 888,246 ceramic poppies, each poppy representing a British or Colonial military fatality during the war.

A Drop of Seawater by David Littschwager

Magnified 25 times.

God in Coal Country

Meanwhile in Alabama:
Two members of the Alabama Public Service Commission, a member-elect and an Alabama representative to the Republican National Committee said proposed EPA regulations that aim to reduce power plant carbon emissions by 30 percent represent "an assault on our way of life" and are a purposeful attempt by the Obama administration to kill coal-related jobs. . . .

At their news conference today Cavanaugh and PSC commissioner-elect Chip Beeker invoked the name of God in stating their opposition to the EPA proposal. Beeker, a Republican who is running unopposed for a PSC seat, said coal was created in Alabama by God, and the federal government should not enact policy that runs counter to God's plan.

"Who has the right to take what God's given a state?" he said.

Cavanaugh called on the people of the state to ask for God's intervention. "I hope all the citizens of Alabama will be in prayer that the right thing will be done," she said.
But didn't God also make arsenic, mercury and cadmium? Does that mean we should burn them and poison ourselves? Just because something is in the ground doesn't mean we should put it in the air.

And if God made coal, didn't he also make sunshine? Why would switching from coal power to solar or natural gas be ungodly?

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Edward Hirsch, Gabriel

Excerpts from a book-length elegy Edward Hirsch wrote for his son:

I will not forgive you
Sun of emptiness
Sky of blank clouds
I will not forgive you
Indifferent God
Until you give me back my son.

     .    .   .

The evening with its lamps burning
The night with its head in its hands
The early morning
I look back at the worried parents
Wandering through the house
What are we going to do
The evening of the clinical
The night of the psychological
The morning facedown in the pillow
The experts can handle him
The experts have no idea
How to handle him
There are enigmas in darkness
There are mysteries
Sent out without searchlights
The stars are hiding tonight
The moon is cold and stony
Behind the clouds
Nights without seeing
Mornings of the long view
It’s not a sprint but a marathon
Whatever we can do
We must do
Every morning’s resolve
But sometimes we suspected
He was being punished
For something obscure we had done
I would never abandon the puzzle
Sleeping in the next room
But I could not solve it.

     .   .   .

I did not know the work of mourning
Is like carrying a bag of cement
Up a mountain at night
The mountaintop is not in sight
Because there is no mountaintop
Poor Sisyphus grief
I did not know I would struggle
Through a ragged underbrush
Without an upward path

     .    .   .

Look closely and you will see
Almost everyone carrying bags
Of cement on their shoulders
That’s why it takes courage
To get out of bed in the morning
And climb into the day.

More on Edward Hirsch and this story in the New Yorker.

Kumano Kodo: an Ancient Pilgrimage in Japan

Kumano is a region on Japan's Kii Peninsula that has been a destination for pilgrims since the 11th century.

The region's spiritual significance arose from its geography, specifically Japan's highest waterfall and a famously impressive rock. When Buddhism came to Japan in the 6th century these ancient sites of animist worship were reinterpreted as a Pure Land, and monks went there to live ascetic lives in the purifying mountains. By the tenth century the three major temples of Kumano had all been founded: Kumano Hongū Taisha, Kumano Nachi Taisha and Kumano Hayatama Taisha

In the eleventh century, Japanese Buddhists grew concerned about the fate of the world. By one calculation it was the start of an era designated Mappo, when the Buddha's powers were weakened and disasters would befall society. In an attempt to avert this catastrophe, the Emperor made a pilgrimage to Kumano. A precedent was set, and over the next two centuries important members of the imperial family journeyed to Kumano more than a hundred times.

The route pioneered by monks was made famous by the emperors, and the notion gradually spread, first to Samurai and then, by the sixteenth century, to anyone who could afford it.

There are actually several different routes to Kumano, but all cross rugged mountains through spectacular scenery.

One of the more popular routes begins at this hot spring, Yunomine Onsen, where pilgrims prepare for their journey with a purifying bath.

Along the way the trails pass many small shrines, some set up around strange rocks or ancient trees in the best Shinto style.

The journey is physically demanding; the ascent to this shrine requires the pilgrim to climb 538 steps.

Much of the route still follows the ancient foot paths trod by medieval emperors.

The temples at the end of the journey have been rebuilt many times, as with most Japanese temples, but they still have the same essential layout and design as they did in the 11th century. Traditional costumes appear in many photographs of the pilgrimage today; besides priests and guides, it seems that some of the Japanese who make the journey do so in traditional garb, the better to get in touch with the authentic Japanese-ness of the experience.

I find these Japanese pilgrimage routes very appealing, and should I ever find myself in Japan I think I would rather walk one of these ancient trails than do anything else. But I would worry about intruding, tourist-fashion, into something that belongs to the Japanese.

Some images courtesy of Tanabe City Kumano Tourism Bureau.

The Foreign Policy of the Zen Masters

Dan Drezner divides American foreign policy experts into two groups: the Reality Creators, who want to run around doing things and stopping others from creating "facts on the ground," and the Zen Masters:
These people think that the long arc of history is bending in their direction — that the fundamental strengths of the United States and its key allies are more robust than any potential rivals on the global stage. The worst thing to do, therefore, is to overreact in the short run to things that will balance out in the long run. They don’t believe in getting riled up too much, and that, in the end, the universe tends to unfold as it should. It’s not that they’re unaware of what Russia or China or the Islamic State is doing — it’s that they believe that these actions are short-sighted, counterproductive and very likely to fail. They believe that actors that try to forcibly revise the status quo will pay a serious price. The Zen Masters predict that Russia won’t be able to do much to directly control eastern Ukraine, China is alienating all of its neighbors, Iran is itching to re-join the international community, and the Islamic State will eventually alienate its subject population through its zealotry.
That describes my views almost exactly; it seems to me that almost all of the major "actions" we have carried out in the past 14 years have made things worse. But instead of the Buddha as a progenitor I might point to Talleyrand, who remarked that "Most things get done by not being done."

More on the Disturbing Saga of the FBI Crime Lab

Back in 2012, the Washington Post published an article exposing that "experts" from the FBI crime lab were offering court testimony at variance with the official policy of the FBI; these experts were saying that hair and fibers from crime scenes were "exact matches" to those from the defendant or the defendant's clothes, when the science clearly shows that no such certainty is possible. The Justice Department asked the courts to free two men convicted largely on the strength of this evidence and ordered the FBI to undertake a "major review" of all the cases in which their fiber experts offered testimony.

Today the Post has a follow-up story on what has happened since:
Nearly every criminal case reviewed by the FBI and the Justice Department as part of a massive investigation started in 2012 of problems at the FBI lab has included flawed forensic testimony from the agency, government officials said. 
And what was the FBI's response to this disturbing discovery?
The findings troubled the bureau, and it stopped the review of convictions last August.
Wow, this investigation is turning up lots of bad stuff -- we had better stop. Fortunately the Justice Department has ordered the FBI to resume work. Still, in two years they have only managed to review 160 out of 2,600 cases they were ordered to investigate, so a lot of men are still in prison whose convictions might end up being thrown out because of this, and they are taking their sweet time getting to those cases.

And this is the FBI crime lab, which had the reputation of being the most rigorous in the nation. Imagine what we would find if we let real scientists review all the testimony given by state and local crime lab "experts" over the past 40 years.


New fossil from the Solnhofen limestone bed of Germany, preserving an astonishing impression of the feathers. Forty years ago there were people who thought the original archaeopteryx fossil was a fake, just a dinosaur with the feathers added on by some clever artist. That turns out to have been one of the silliest conspiracy theories ever, right up there with the fake moon landing.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

More from the Boneyard of Alken Enge

Danish archaeologists are back digging at Alken Enge, a bog full of Iron Age skeletons. As I wrote two years ago, the skeletons seem to be the remains of a small army from about the year 1 that were defeated in battle and then offered to the gods. The first interpretation was that the victims might have been captured alive and then dispatched with axes by the side of the bog. Now, though, this has changed:
"We have found a wooden stick bearing the pelvic bones of four different men. In addition, we have unearthed bundles of bones, bones bearing marks of cutting and scraping, and crushed skulls. Our studies reveal that a violent sequel took place after the fallen warriors had lain on the battlefield for around six months," relates Project Manager Mads Kähler Holst from Aarhus University.
Imagine the procession of people carrying bones from the battlefield to the bog: skulls on poles, pelvic bones strung on sticks, other bones in bundles, drums beating, horns blowing, priestesses shrieking or chanting, children crying, teenage boys trying to act like brave warriors, raucous crows circling overhead, everywhere the stink of rotting flesh. At the sacred lake the bones are dumped out on the shore and then attacked as if they were living enemies: hacked with axes and swords, smashed with hammers, stomped on, spat on. Was it the men who did this, or was it the whole community, old people and children taking this chance to inflict blows on their enemies? Were those who lost relatives offered the chance for revenge on the mute bones?


Graffiti, Washington

Fiona Hall

Fiona Hall is a contemporary Australian artist, born 1953, now a star of biennials and such like. Lots of images of her work at the Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery website. She got a degree in painting from the National Art School in Sidney, then took an MFA in Rochester, New York, focusing on photography. She started out professionally as an avant garde photographer; above is Leura, New South Wales, 1974.

But she continued to paint; this is Dante's Inferno, Canto V, The Circle of the Lustful, 1988.

She first attracted major attention for mixed media installations, including some that mocked anthropological museum displays, like this one from 2005.

Hall went through a phase of making art from trash, as many African and Haitian artists do. This is Lotus, 1999, one of a whole series of erotic/floral works she made from sardine cans.

Rising Tide, 2002, one of her snow globes. There is an environmentalist theme to much of her work, and I suppose this has something to do with oil drilling and global warming.

Nerve Endings, 2005.

Nest things, also from 2005.

Lately she has gone back to more traditional sorts of flat work, like painting and etching. Sundew, from a collection of etchings titled Insectivorous, 2006.

These are described as "etching on Hahnemuhle cotton rag paper." Above, Fan Palm, and below, Cycads, from her Burning Bright exhibition of 2011. I like these. As for the experimental parts of her oeuvre, well, she certainly has a wide range, and hasn't gotten stuck in a rut, and has made her living as a creator of strange things, so kudos to her.

Are the Nation's Top Colleges Turning Kids into Zombies?

Everybody is commenting on William Deresiewicz's screed against the Ivy League, so I guess I had better weigh in, too. Deresiewicz thinks that Ivy League schools are not really educating students, only equipping them with the analytical skills they need to succeed in business; destroying rather than enhancing their curiosity; making them miserable; and increasing inequality through their phony “meritocratic” admissions process. Here's a sample:
There are exceptions, kids who insist, against all odds, on trying to get a real education. But their experience tends to make them feel like freaks. One student told me that a friend of hers had left Yale because she found the school “stifling to the parts of yourself that you’d call a soul.”
To which I say, I loved Yale and have never been happier. I was determined to learn everything and I absolutely did not feel like a freak; in fact Yale was the first place I had ever been where I did not feel like a freak. My horizons were widened in every way. Awesome experience. I also knew people who hated it and vowed that they would never let their children go to any such school. That’s life – nothing works for everybody.

I won’t bother to defend the college admissions process except to ask, what would work better? If Deresiewicz has any ideas, I would love to hear them. But he seems to prefer vaguely worded but catastrophic-sounding complaints to useful advice.

Actually Deresiewicz does offer one constructive if completely implausible suggestion for reform:
I used to think that we needed to create a world where every child had an equal chance to get to the Ivy League. I’ve come to see that what we really need is to create one where you don’t have to go to the Ivy League, or any private college, to get a first-rate education.

High-quality public education, financed with public money, for the benefit of all: the exact commitment that drove the growth of public higher education in the postwar years. Everybody gets an equal chance to go as far as their hard work and talent will take them—you know, the American dream. Everyone who wants it gets to have the kind of mind-expanding, soul-enriching experience that a liberal arts education provides. We recognize that free, quality K–12 education is a right of citizenship. We also need to recognize—as we once did and as many countries still do—that the same is true of higher education. We have tried aristocracy. We have tried meritocracy. Now it’s time to try democracy.
Isn’t it a bit puzzling that a man who think elite education makes students miserable wants to offer it to everyone? If I understand this, Deresiewicz is saying that we should make an Ivy League-quality education -- no, actually, but some kind of education better than what the Ivy League offers -- available to every American 18-year old. This strikes me as the epitome of the Ivy League smugness Deresiewicz thinks he is attacking. It completely disregards things like political realities, educational economics, what 18-year-olds really want, what the non-academic majority of the nation wants to spend its money on, and so on, in fact every single thing in the universe except the dreams of William Deresiewicz. And not only that, but the amazing education he wants to offer every student doesn't even seem to exist, since everything about the system falls short of his exalted standards.

Part of Deresiewicz's rant concerns how isolated Ivy League students are from the bottom half of America, and he recommends that they spend some time working as waitresses or some such so as to appreciate how other people live. ("How about waiting tables so that you can see how hard it is, physically and mentally?") I recommend that he quit his job at Yale and go teach in a community college for a few years, then get back to me on his vision for democratic education.

Here's Some Wasteful Spending to Cut

The effort we put into enforcing marijuana laws is staggering, as is the cost:
From 2001 to 2010, the police made more than 8.2 million marijuana arrests; almost nine in 10 were for possession alone. In 2011, there were more arrests for marijuana possession than for all violent crimes put together.

The costs of this national obsession, in both money and time, are astonishing. Each year, enforcing laws on possession costs more than $3.6 billion, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. It can take a police officer many hours to arrest and book a suspect. That person will often spend a night or more in the local jail, and be in court multiple times to resolve the case. The public-safety payoff for all this effort is meager at best: According to a 2012 Human Rights Watch report that tracked 30,000 New Yorkers with no prior convictions when they were arrested for marijuana possession, 90 percent had no subsequent felony convictions. Only 3.1 percent committed a violent offense. . . .

What makes the situation far worse is racial disparity. Whites and blacks use marijuana at roughly the same rates; on average, however, blacks are 3.7 times more likely than whites to be arrested for possession.
And what, actually, do we get for this? Anything?

Monday, July 28, 2014

Some People Find Human Domestication an Upsetting Notion

A while back I mentioned some new work on human domestication by Jim Chatters, famous (notorious?) for his part in the Kennewick Man controversy. I disagreed with his conclusions, but my reaction was nothing compared to that of some others. The letters page of the July 25 issue of Science features the following, signed by 13 eminent American professors:
As anthropologists, archaeologists, and biologists, and as members of the National Academy of Sciences, we were startled to read J.C. Chatters’ statement that the cranial morphology of early Native Americans “represented a human ‘wild type’,” whereas more recent native American cranial morphology reflected a “domesticated” form. . . . We are deeply offended by Chatters’ implicit comparison of early Americans to the wild ancestors of today’s domesticated animals.

We are disheartened to learn that there are those who continue to believe that cranial morphology carries implications of a presumed “wild” state. By doing so, they demean the very people they attempt to understand.
Now I ask you, what is this all about? Why did 13 important academics take time out from their presumably busy lives to organize this protest of a minor bit of anthropological research? Was this really the worst thing happening in the world last month, the thing they felt the most need to speak out against?

Ok, I get it, anthropologists these days are hyper-sensitive about anything that might be offensive to the communities they want to study.

But what is offensive about Chatters' work? Is it the very notion of human self-domestication? If so, they are a little late to this party, since debate about self-domestication has been going on for at least 20 years, and the concept has spread far enough to appear in the New York Times and Slate. And if they are offended by the concept, why? Are they trying to deny that humans have continued to evolve since we spread across the globe? Because statistical genomics makes it all but certain that our evolution has in fact speeded up, not slowed down.

I suspect that what offends them is the notion of “wild” humans; they probably think this points back to Victorian racism, when “wild men” were those primitive tribes that needed to be missionized, imperialized, and generally brought under white, western control. If so, they have lost touch with the culture. These days, to be wild is a good thing. This is the era, as I just said in another context, of The Three Little Wolves and the Big Bad Pig. Imagine a poll with the question, “would you rather that a potential date thought of you as wild or domesticated?” Would 90 percent of Americans answer “wild”, or just 80 percent? We love wild animals, especially savagely dangerous ones. I am waiting, as I have said, for those guys who live in cabins in Idaho to discover this research and proclaim themselves throwbacks to pre-domesticated humanity. The notion that there is something offensive about being considered wild is the real Victorian idea here.

Not to mention that this protest seems made in ignorance of actual Native Americans. The Indians I know would be very happy to hear that they are more like wolves than they are like Europeans. Especially, some of them would add, like anthropologists.

Yoo Byung-eun and the Strange Journey of Modern South Korea

Fascinating article in the Times about Yoo Byung-eun, South Korean cult leader and entrepreneur whose empire crumbled after a ferry owned by one of his companies sank in April, killing 304 people. After weeks on the run from a huge police manhunt, he committed suicide.

I think the saga of the Yoo family is another side effect of the incredible transformation of South Korea, which has marched from peasant society poorer than most of Africa to high-tech powerhouse in just 50 years. I can scarcely imagine what it is like to live through such changes, but clearly it has been wrenching for many people. One of the stranger results has been the great popularity of authoritarian cults headed by men who seem to me transparent charlatans. Sun Myung Moon was the most famous, but there are many others, including Yoo Byung-eun. These men recruit followers by promising belonging and a sense of direction to people bewildered by the wholesale destruction of every traditional Korean institution, and then tax them ruthlessly to accumulate vast personal fortunes. South Korea has been getting richer so fast that the followers hardly begrudge their leaders the money; even tithing 10 or 20 percent they are still vastly better off than they were as children, so why not buy what they really need instead of more stuff?

Yoo Byung-eun was an even more unsavory character than the Reverend Moon, a convicted swindler whose shipping company spent hundreds of thousands to buy and display his own photographs while stinting on safety for its passengers and crew. The ferry that sank was so overloaded and under-ballasted that it was, said one expect, lucky to have even left the harbor and doomed to sink as soon as it hit rough water. The crew had no idea what to do, because they had never been through a single safety drill. South Korea has safety regulators who are supposed to catch and stop this sort of thing, but in fact they seldom do; regulatory corruption and lax standards are part of the pro-business formula that has helped South Korea's economy grow so quickly. (Just as they were in the U.S. during our industrialization.)

The Yoo family spent much of their wealth promoting their patriarch as a great artist, paying the Louvre millions to mount an exhibition of his photographs. Which are pretty ordinary stuff, as you can see from the examples I reproduce here. Interesting, the dreams people have.

The outcry over the ferry sinking will, I hope, help push South Korea toward real regulation of business. This may slow down their crazy economic growth, but it seems to me they have reached the point at which safety ought to matter more.

Sharks at Cape Cod, or, We Love Predators

Back when we were often hungry, we hated the predators that stole our sheep and competed with us for deer. Now that we are overfed and safe, we have started to love predators. They are exciting and wild and free, all the things we crave. This is the era of The Three Little Wolves and the Big Bad Pig. Back when Jaws was made there weren't any great white sharks in coastal New England, because the seals, their favorite food, had been wiped out by fishermen. The Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 ended the slaughter of seals in U.S. waters, and the gray seals gradually came back. Now there are lots of them, and great whites have started coming back to the waters off Cape Cod to feed on them.

But are we scared? No. We are much more excited by the prospect of seeing a great white shark than we are afraid of being bitten by one. Seal watching tours are crowded with people actually hoping to see, not a seal, but a shark, and better yet a shark killing and eating a seal. The merchandisers of Cape Cod have caught on, and now you can get everything from slippers to hats with shark logos. Eventually, a shark is going to kill somebody, because that does happen every now and then; I wonder if that will have any effect on the enthusiasm for Carcharodon carcharias.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

The Indignity of being Killed by a Giant Anteater

Two hunters in Brazil have been killed by giant anteaters. I mean, being killed by a jaguar is one thing, but an anteater?


Brilliant Scientists are Getting Older

Philip Ball:
Famous scientists are making their big discoveries ever later in their careers. A study in 2011 found that the average age at which Nobel laureates in physics, chemistry and medicine conducted their key work has risen from mid-to-late 30s before 1905 to 45-50 after 1985. Even more strikingly, whereas one in five laureates pre-1905 made their breakthrough discoveries before they hit 30, now almost none do so.
And why might that be? Ball blames the bureaucratic structure of contemporary science:
I suspect the finding also reveals that the research landscape no longer supports innovative thinking in young scientists. There is no reason to suppose that postgraduates and even undergraduates are any less brilliant than they were 100 years ago. But if they want to get established and secure in the scientific world then they have to start publishing papers rapidly, which encourages them to focus on making incremental advances in safe projects. What’s more, the tremendous pressures they now face—not only expectations about results and papers, but the administrative and teaching duties they must shoulder, and the scrabbling for funding leave little time for thinking about the big ideas.
I would point in other directions. First, the big advances in science these days mainly come from huge, cooperative teams; the Large Hadron Collider with its thousands of scientists is only the most extreme example of this trend. The leaders of such teams, to whom much of the credit is given, are always mature scientists with many years of experience. Perhaps younger scientists could perform this job just as well, if we let them; but in fact we don't, so we have no idea.

Second, I have a strong sense that within our main scientific paradigms, the sort of work that could be done by a single scientist working alone has already been done. With so many clever scientists in every field, the flashes of insight available at our current level of knowledge have already occurred to somebody. Cutting edge science increasingly requires thousands of person-hours of grinding work, because, again, all the easy stuff has already been done. When a field of science is new --quantum mechanics in the 1920s, plate techtonics in the 1960s -- there is low-hanging fruit that a lone genius can pluck. After fifty years, what is there left? Only work that hasn't been done because the resources weren't available.

Obviously that is not entirely true, and people have exciting new insights all the time. But at the Nobel Prize level they are getting rarer and rarer.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Opera in Orange

Opera being performed this summer at the 1800-year-old Roman theater in Orange, France.

Tom Ricks Finds Himself Drifting to the Left

Tom Ricks is a great writer on the American military whose comments have often appeared here. He recently wrote an essay on Politico in which he described his own political evolution:
In my late 50s, at a time of life when most people are supposed to be drifting into a cautious conservatism, I am surprised to find myself moving steadily leftward.

This is unexpected. It comes even as I am financially comfortable and enjoying my work. (I’m writing this from my summer home in Maine.) I’m not a natural progressive—I spent the last quarter century covering the U.S. military, first for the Wall Street Journal and then for the Washington Post, and now for Foreign Policy magazine. I have written five books about the Marines, the Army and our wars.

I am puzzled by this late-middle-age politicization. During the time I was a newspaper reporter, I didn’t participate in elections, because I didn’t want to vote for, or against, the people I covered. Mentally, I was a detached centrist. Today I remain oriented to the free market and in favor of a strong national defense, so I have hardly become a radical socialist.

But since leaving newspapers, I have again and again found myself shifting to the left in major areas such as foreign policy and domestic economic policy. I wonder whether others of my generation are similarly pausing, poking up their heads from their workplaces and wondering just what happened to this country over the last 15 years, and what do to about it.
As the issues that have driven him leftward Ricks lists:
  • our dismal performance in the Afghan and Iraq wars
  • torture
  • our use of mercenaries
  • increasing economic inequality ("I also have been dismayed by the transfer of massive amounts of wealth to the richest people in the country, a policy supported over the last 35 years by successive administrations of both parties. Apparently income redistribution downward is dangerously radical, but redistribution upward is just business as usual.")
  • the contempt of our intelligence apparatus toward the citizenry (bad enough that they spy on us, worse that they won't tell us straight out what they are doing or offer any kind of justification for it)
  • bailouts for rich bankers
  • Supreme court verdicts that put democracy up for sale
  • gun massacres
I find it interesting that Ricks begins his list with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He covered both, and was dismayed by what he saw -- his book on Iraq is called Fiasco -- but then so were a lot of people who have remained neocons. I can only imagine that his experience of the lying, double-dealing and cavalier attitude toward peons that radiated from the Bush administration aroused in him a feeling that something was fundamentally wrong, and that this feeling was what drove him to rethink his own political positions.

My political evolution was somewhat similar, although I started out from a position that was ambivalent rather than detached. It was the reign of Bush II that drove me toward a firm leftist view, as he carried on with one policy after another that I had simply believed impossible -- that will never happen, I told myself about things ranging from the size of his tax cut to his invasion of Iraq to his open embrace of torture.

The sense that something is very much wrong in America is widespread. Sadly, it is divided about equally between leftists like Ricks and me and others who think the main problems are government and sexual immorality and the solutions are tax cuts and religion. That is hardly a set-up for successful reform.

More Evidence that Power Decreases Empathy

The Times has yet another news story on yet another piece of neuroscience suggesting that the feeling of power makes people less empathic. In this case, the study showed that people put in power positions had less activity in their mirror neurons, the ones that virtually imitate the physical actions of others.

I have no opinion about the validity of this study, or about the others that show similar things. After all, these laboratory setups are not much at all like the life in a family, a corporation, or a country. And yet I feel certain that the phenomenon they document is real: powerful people really do feel no empathy for those they lord over. How else could CEOs pay themselves millions while asking their employees to subsist on $10 an hour?

It may be that this mechanism has some sort of evolutionary importance, allowing commanders to send men into battle or some such. But in modern capitalism it only encourages looting. If you think that executives will ever run companies in anyone's interest but their own, you are a fool. Democracy forces politicians to at least gesture in the direction of caring, but I put no trust in their promises. They will only act in our interests if we understand those interests and demand that our leaders follow them.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Great Falls Park

Coming up this fall I have one of my scam jobs, getting paid to look for archaeological sites in Great Falls Park, Virginia. That's the Great Falls of the Potomac above, from one of the overlooks.

But although this is a scam job we are still expected to do stuff like find new archaeological sites and so on. Since I don't know this park very well and we have only the vaguest notions of where to look, I thought we had better do some scouting around before we write our research plan for the first year of the study. (Otherwise: we propose to wander around the park, admiring the scenery and putting our shovels in the ground at random intervals, hoping for the best. . . .) Taking one for the team, I delegated this job to myself, and I spent all morning hiking from one end of the park to the other, 7 or 8 miles all told, looking for places where we might have a good chance of finding something. (Above, Mather Gorge facing downstream from just below the falls.)

I asked my two older sons to come with me, and they liked the idea last night, but 6:00 this morning neither one would get out of bed to come with me. So they slept in while I explored places like Difficult Run, above.

The park already has one famous archaeological resource, the canal built by George Washington's Patowmack Company in the 1790s.

But finding new sites is actually going to be tricky. The park is very rugged, and much of what isn't rugged is swamp, and the biggest spot that is neither rugged nor swamp is covered by the ruins of Matildaville, the little town that grew up along the canal and has already been explored. There are two well-known Indian sites in the park, one above the falls and one below, and they occupy what looked to me like the two most likely spots for an ancient Indian site.

Still, I did find a few new places to search, and there is always more to learn about the sites that have already been recorded. So I expect to find enough to deliver a respectable report at the end of all this. And what fun we will have searching.

Stephen Greenblatt, The Swerve

How important can one book be? In The Swerve, literature professor Stephen Greenblatt asks us to consider that the rediscovery of one ancient manuscript helped give birth to the modern world. The manuscript was a precious copy of De Rerum Naturae, a poem written by an otherwise obscure Roman named Lucretius in the 1st century BCE. The Swerve tells the story of Poggio Braccionlini, a Florentine book hound who discovered a forgotten copy of De Rerum Naturae in 1417, in a German monastery, and brought a copy back to Florence. (Braccionlini never said which monastery, presumably because he intended to go back some day and search the library for yet more treasures.) From there the book spread rapidly through humanist circles across Europe, to become one of the most influential works of the whole era between Braccionlini's day and the French Revolution.

I very much enjoyed The Swerve, but perhaps only because I have acquired a talent for ignoring large swathes of what Renaissance scholars say about the Middle Ages. Greenblatt seems to think that medieval Europe was largely populated by monks whose favorite pastime was whipping themselves, when they weren't being slaughtered by barbarians. On the other hand the angry responses of medievalists are just as silly, like a certain Jim Hinch whose rage against Greenblatt inspires him to insist that
Western civilization was created in medieval Europe. The forms of thought and action which we take for granted in modern Europe and America. . . . and from which indeed we cannot escape, were implanted in the mentalities of our ancestors in the struggles of the medieval centuries.
I will leave this wrathful sputtering to people who enjoy shouting past each other and move on to more important things. Because whatever Jim Hinch says, the modern world is very different from the medieval one, and it must have gotten that way somehow. How?

De Rerum Naturae -- "The Way Things Are" in the usual English translation -- describes in lovely Latin verse the philosophy we know as Epicureanism. The philosophy of Epicurus has two distinct but related parts, a physics and a guide to life. The physics is atomism. Atomism means, first, that the world is made of tiny particles, and all the phenomena we observe are created by atoms moving about  (the "swerve") and combining with each other; second, that the motions of atoms explain everything about the universe, which therefore has no need of gods, spirits, or immaterial souls. Atomism was the creation of Democritus, a Greek thinker of the fifth century BCE. Epicurus, who lived 150 years later, thought that he had extracted the practical lesson of atomism: since there is nothing in universe but atoms and void, and therefore no gods, commandments, or divine judgment, the best we can do with our lives is to seek out pleasure and avoid pain. This philosophy was a dangerous one to even discuss in the fifteenth century and fatal to advocate publicly, yet the age could not resist Lucretius. Every intellectual seems to have read him, from skeptics to ardent believers like Thomas More, whose Utopia is a sophisticated response to Epicurus. So this book, radically anti-Christian in both style and substance, full of the most dangerous possible ideas, somehow managed to spread across Europe at the height of the Protestant and Catholic Reformations; Greenblatt explains that it was left off the first Catholic index of forbidden books because the head of the Inquisition was a fan.

Greenblatt's discussion of Lucretius' wide reception is not likely to cause much controversy, because it is mainly a narrative of well-documented events. Since I do not have much interesting in debating how dark the dark ages were, to me the most interesting question raised here is how much influence this book or any other book can have on the course of history. I usually finish books like The Swerve thinking that the author has grotesquely exaggerated the importance of his subject; don't get carried away, I want to say to the average historian. But in this case I think Greenblatt actually understates the impact of the book he has written about. I think that the survival and rediscovery of The Way Things Are was a huge event in the development of the modern scientific worldview, perhaps accelerating by a good century the onset of Enlightenment thinking.

I believe this because I believe that really original thinking is hard. In fact I think it is all but impossible; even the intellects we think of as great rarely come up with more than, say, five original ideas in a lifetime. As for truly radical ideas of great importance, has any person ever had more than one? The ancient Epicurean vision of a material cosmos containing nothing but atoms and void provided early modern scientists and philosophers with a template for a truly different and radical view of nature. People who wanted to question the universe they learned about in school -- godly Aristotelianism, more or less -- had in Lucretius' poem a ready-made escape hatch from the dominant paradigm. The Way Things Are was the favorite book of, among others, Giordano Bruno, Montaigne, and Thomas Jefferson, who owned seven copies in four languages and put the wonderful Epicurean motto "the pursuit of happiness" in our Declaration of Independence. Machiavelli, Rabelais, Hobbes, Francis Bacon,and Pierre Bayle were also great fans. Ask yourself this: why was Galileo an atomist? There was no real scientific evidence for the existence of atoms until the late 1700s, when chemists like Lavoisier and Priestley made their exact studies of combustion and other reactions. Galileo was an atomist because he took his view of a material cosmos governed by impersonal forces from Lucretius. For 250 years The Way Things Are was the main repository of this kind of thinking. I think that the presence of this ancient body of materialist lore -- and The Way Things Are was the only Epicurean book that survived into modern times -- made it much easier for early modern thinkers to conceive such a universe than if they had had to start from scratch.

Greenblatt seems more interested in Lucretius' impact on ethics than his scientific influence, and he makes much of the notion that while medieval people pursued pleasure, they were never willing to defend it in theory. In his view the modern world arrives when serious intellectuals start thumbing their noses at the church and holding up a life of pleasure and the highest possible one. Actually societies devoted to sophisticated pleasures spring up wherever people have too much money and time on their hands, including medieval Europe; surely the courtly love circles of 12th century France are one of the purest examples of the type. (Don't get carried away.) It may also be somewhat arbitrary to pin so much on Lucretius, when the discovery of his book was just one episode in the great recovery of ancient learning that began in the 11th century. Aristotle was in his own way every bit as radical a thinker as Epicurus, especially in his insistence on submitting all claims to the judgment of his own reason. But as it happened his works were spread across Europe during an age when all learning was thoroughly controlled by churchmen, and the theologians were able to integrate Aristotle into Christianity without opposition from skeptics. The dismal style of Aristotle's surviving works also limited his popularity in the Renaissance, an era obsessed with literary beauty. So whatever you wish to argue about how other books might have fulfilled the role that De Rerum Naturae played, it was in fact Lucretius' poem that most stimulated the growing materialism and moral skepticism of modernity.

As to why Lucretius had this immense impact, let me offer this suggestion: maybe he was right. The Jesuits who eventually got The Way Things Are placed on the index of forbidden books thought that atomism was an especially diabolical teaching; among the prayers Ignatius Loyola taught his followers was a daily litany against atomism. I think they were right, too; I think any successful theory of an entirely material, mechanical universe fatally undermines Christianity. In the universe of Lucretius -- and Galileo, and Hobbes, and Thomas Harriot and so on -- miracles are impossible because everything about the universe is governed by implacable laws. A philosophical sort of religion can be maintained in this universe, but not one in which God cares about people and sometimes acts to help them, or one with any possibility of an afterlife. I also think that Epicurus drew the obvious moral lesson from Democritus' atomic universe: if God doesn't care and there is no judgment or afterlife, why not try to lead the most pleasant life you can? I think that Epicurus had a very narrow view of the good life -- conversation in pleasant surroundings, more or less -- but without traditional religion it is hard for me to see what we can aim for beyond the pursuit of happiness. And, you know, the universe is made of atoms; maybe that was a lucky guess, but it was certainly an inspired one.

So if you are curious about the origins of modernity and can laugh at a Middle Ages full of ignorant peasants and self-flagellating monks, by all means read The Swerve. It is entertaining, full of diverting anecdotes and well-chosen quotations, and raised in my mind all sorts of fascinating questions about the past and the present.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

CEO Pay vs. Performance

Bloomberg graphed US CEO pay vs. company performance and produced the scatter graph above, which I have to say is the single most random data set I have ever seen:
An analysis of compensation data publicly released by Equilar shows little correlation between CEO pay and company performance. Equilar ranked the salaries of 200 highly paid CEOs. When compared to metrics such as revenue, profitability, and stock return, the scattering of data looks pretty random, as though performance doesn’t matter. The comparison makes it look as if there is zero relationship between pay and performance.

Math Reform in America

Elizabeth Green as a fascinating article in the Times about why efforts to reform the way American schools teach math -- the New Math of the 60s, the new New Math of the 80s, Common Core today -- have all failed. This was my favorite part:
In the 1970s and the 1980s, cognitive scientists studied a population known as the unschooled, people with little or no formal education. Observing workers at a Baltimore dairy factory in the 80s, the psychologist Sylvia Scribner noted that even basic tasks required an extensive amount of math. For instance, many of the workers charged with loading quarts and gallons of milk into crates had no more than a sixth-grade education. But they were able to do math, in order to assemble their loads efficiently, that was “equivalent to shifting between different base systems of numbers.” Throughout these mental calculations, errors were “virtually nonexistent.” And yet when these workers were out sick and the dairy’s better-educated office workers filled in for them, productivity declined.

The unschooled may have been more capable of complex math than people who were specifically taught it, but in the context of school, they were stymied by math they already knew. Studies of children in Brazil, who helped support their families by roaming the streets selling roasted peanuts and coconuts, showed that the children routinely solved complex problems in their heads to calculate a bill or make change. When cognitive scientists presented the children with the very same problem, however, this time with pen and paper, they stumbled. A 12-year-old boy who accurately computed the price of four coconuts at 35 cruzeiros each was later given the problem on paper. Incorrectly using the multiplication method he was taught in school, he came up with the wrong answer. Similarly, when Scribner gave her dairy workers tests using the language of math class, their scores averaged around 64 percent. The cognitive-science research suggested a startling cause of Americans’ innumeracy: school.
So that's math education in America: destroying children's native ability in math. A few years ago I watched my youngest daughter descend into cognitive paralysis in the face of her math homework, too confused to even count along a number line correctly. Over the course of the first grade she only got worse. These days she is performing at grade level, but I don't think she can do math at all; I think she memorizes the answers to all the likely questions. I shudder to think what happens when she encounters long division.

The stumbling block that wrecks all math reform efforts is the training of teachers. According to Green, teachers in states moving to Common Core are being asked to radically change their teaching methods with only two days of instruction and no chance to practice. In class they try to convey what they only half understand using completely unfamiliar methods, with predictable results. At a deeper level, says Green, we simply don't give teachers enough training to overcome their biggest experience of teaching, the way they were taught themselves. (I was personally told, when I started teaching, to remember what my most effective teachers did and copy it.) Since the way teachers were taught is precisely the problem with math education, it is extremely difficult to make any change work. And since we know that for many people the way we teach math damages their understanding rather than helping, many of our teachers don't understand math well enough to teach it conceptually anyway. Not to mention that the attention span of the American system is too short to ever enact a reform that takes a generation to pay off; the Japanese experts interviewed by Green all emphasized persistence as the key to education, and here we switch fads every few years.

All this is why I think Common Core math is doomed. Americans who understand math conceptually have too many career options for many to be drawn into the modestly paid, low prestige profession of elementary school teaching. For practical purposes we are stuck with the teachers we have, and they are not going to throw themselves into learning a very difficult to master new way of teaching, especially when they all assume (correctly) that the fad will pass and in a few years they will be back to what they were doing before.

Winslow Homer

Winslow Homer (1836-1910) was and is one of America's most famous painters, and one of my favorites. His body of work is huge and full of wonders in many different veins. The National Gallery has a nice summary of his early career:
Winslow Homer was born in Boston, the second of three sons of Henrietta Benson, an amateur watercolorist, and Charles Savage Homer, a hardware importer. As a young man, he was apprenticed to a commercial lithographer for two years before becoming a freelance illustrator in 1857. Soon he was a major contributor to such popular magazines as Harper’s Weekly; in 1859 he moved to New York to be closer to the publishers that commissioned his illustrations and to pursue his ambitions as a painter.
Homer spent much of the Civil War sketching for Harper's. Most of his war work was forgettable and quickly forgotten, although the historians say he grew as an artist from the constant work. Home Sweet Home, 1863.

Here is a historical oddity, quite possibly the first work of art to depict a sniper with a telescopic sight. Sharpshooter on Picket Duty, 1862.

At the end of the war he painted what I regard as his first masterpiece, The Veteran in a New Field. Homer began this work in the summer of 1865, as the nation meditated on the Union's bloody victory and the assassination of Lincoln. It is drenched in symbolism -- the Union veteran has returned home to take up farming again, but the scythe in his hand suggests the grim reaper, and I at least always imagine that he is remembering his awful days in other, bloodier fields. Yet the amazing wheat crop before him suggests a hopeful future.

In the later 1860s and early 1870s Homer painted many, many pictures of children, especially boys in the country. Sick of war, I suppose, and longing for a return to the innocence of the antebellum years. This is Boys in a Pasture, 1874.

Another interesting facet of his work is a number of paintings of working women looking competent. Sick Chicken, 1874.

Sick Chicken is a watercolor, as is this lovely work, Over the Stile (1878). After spending 20 years mastering oil painting, in the 1870s Homer got bored with that, or something, and decided to take up watercolors, which people told him was crazy. But most of the famous works from the later decades of his life are watercolors, so I guess it worked out for him.

Another favorite of mine, The New Novel, 1874.

Homer quit illustration in 1875 to paint full time and had a huge success at the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia. Here he showed several works including what is probably his most famous, Breezing Up (A Fair Wind). People who loved the sea loved the painting and praised it extravagantly; those who disliked the sea were ambivalent. Among the latter was Henry James, who wrote,
We frankly confess that we detest his subjects...he has chosen the least pictorial range of scenery and civilization; he has resolutely treated them as if they were pictorial...and, to reward his audacity, he has incontestably succeeded.
In 1877 Homer made a return trip to his old Civil War stomping grounds in Virginia and made several watercolors of African American life. This is Dressing for the Carnival. According to the Met:
The brilliant light and color of this scene, originally titled "Sketch–4th of July in Virginia," contradict its more solemn meaning. The central figure is being dressed as Harlequin, the clown and social outcast of European comic theater. The strips of cloth being sewn to his costume, however, derive from African ceremonial dress and from the festival of Jonkonnu, when slaves left their quarters to dance at their master's house. In the years following the Civil War, aspects of Jonkonnu became part of the celebration of the Fourth of July and Emancipation. Here, the pageantry of multihued costumes suggests a festive celebration, but it also reflects the dislocation of traditional African culture and the beginnings of its transformation into a new tradition.
The success of 1876 allowed Homer to travel widely and take his work in new directions. In 1881 to 1882 he spent more than a year in England, mainly in the North Sea fishing village of Cullercoats. He painted mainly in watercolors; this, Sparrow Hall, is one of his few oils from that time. He was fascinated by the fisher women of Cullercoats and painted them many times.

In the 1880s and 1890s he traveled widely in Florida and the Caribbean, creating many of the works for which he is best remembered. This includes the one at the top of the post, Flower Garden and Bungalow, Bermuda, 1899, and the one above, Native Hut, Nassau, 1885.

The Gulf Stream, 1899.