Thursday, July 30, 2015

Alison Syme, "Willow"

Willows have long been associated with death and mourning; but I was surprised to discover, from reading Alison Syme's Willow (2014), how far back this association goes.

At least to ancient Egypt, where the myth says Osiris was drowned in a willow casket, and where the sites where his dismembered pieces landed were all marked by willow groves. Here, a pharaoh makes an offering of willow branches in a temple of Hathor at a place called Nikentori, with means willow-earth.

Syme thinks the association of willows with both death and fertility springs from the ease with which willow twigs spring back to life if planted in the earth. Even, old, dried-out looking branches will sometimes take root and grow. These pictures show the planting and eventual appearance of the Auerworldpalast in Germany, a living structure made by sticking willow withies into the ground and letting them take root.

Across Europe there is a widespread ritual in which young men welcomed spring by whipping young women to encourage fertility, and except among the Romans – who used whips of wolf skin, hence lupercalia – this was almost always done with willow branches. In many places the branches had to be covered with catkins for the ritual to work. As with other pagan symbols of rebirth, the willow was attached to Easter; across eastern Europe what I call Palm Sunday is Willow Sunday.

Mythmakers, poets and painters have found the association irresistible. Besides their striking form, willows dwell in the liminal place along the water's edge, where they can overlook drownings like Ophelia's:
There is a willow grows aslant a brook,
That shows his hoar leaves in the glassy stream.
Therewith fantastic garlands did she make
Of crow-flowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples,
That liberal shepherds give a grosser name,
But our cold maids do dead men's fingers call them.
There, on the pendent boughs her crownet weeds
Climb'ring to hand, an envious sliver broke,
When down the weedy trophies and herself
Fell in the weeping brook. . . .
Some digital scholar figured out that willow is the plant most often mentioned in classical Chinese poetry, beating out even plum blossoms:
Whether the willow can love or not,
It is always dancing,
With a beauty that shakes the kingdom. . . .
Willow comes in hundreds of species, some of which hybridize freely, creating a muddle that has long frustrated taxonomists. True weeping willow is Silex babylonica, native to China. From there it spread across Asia, arriving in the Middle East by the medieval period and in Britain in the 17th century. It was instantly popular with gardeners all across Europe, since its lovely weeping form fit so perfectly with the mythical associations of willows.

Besides the myths, Syme also deals with the practical importance of willows, both in medicine (aspirin comes from willow bark) and in making baskets. Baskets were economically vital until recent times. One detail: during World War I, the British government commandeered the island's whole output of willow branches to make baskets for things like artillery shells and homing pigeons.

Willow is an interesting book, short and with lots of great pictures. I read it in a day and mostly enjoyed it.

Yet I found it vaguely dissatisfying. Yes, willows are woven all through the folklore of the northern hemisphere, from the groves of Hades where Persephone languished to Old Man Willow and Buffy the Vampire Slayer's best friend, Willow. But one could write an identical book about many other plants: oak, rowan, holly, rose, mistletoe, and probably many more. Instead of just a list of places that willows appear in myth and art, I want to understand the relationship between the mythic and natural worlds. Do all plants that are so prominent in the lives of traditional peoples cross into their stories? Are the same stories told about different species of tree and shrub, or do some species have stories all their own? What does it all mean?

The human fascination with the growth of plants runs deep. Plants feed us, shelter us, and spring from the ground in a miraculous way, growing from tiny seeds or cast off pieces. Sometimes, looking at plants and thinking about them, I have felt the power of rebirth in a deep way, and been filled for a few moments with something that felt like understanding, only to have it fade away a moment later, like a rainbow, or dew in the sun.

The Mathematician Plays Chess with the Devil

From an article on math prodigy turned Fields Medal winner Terry Tao:
The true work of the mathematician is not experienced until the later parts of graduate school, when the student is challenged to create knowledge in the form of a novel proof. It is common to fill page after page with an attempt, the seasons turning, only to arrive precisely where you began, empty-handed — or to realize that a subtle flaw of logic doomed the whole enterprise from its outset. The steady state of mathematical research is to be completely stuck. It is a process that Charles Fefferman of Princeton, himself a onetime math prodigy turned Fields medalist, likens to ‘‘playing chess with the devil.’’ The rules of the devil’s game are special, though: The devil is vastly superior at chess, but, Fefferman explained, you may take back as many moves as you like, and the devil may not. You play a first game, and, of course, ‘‘he crushes you.’’ So you take back moves and try something different, and he crushes you again, ‘‘in much the same way.’’ If you are sufficiently wily, you will eventually discover a move that forces the devil to shift strategy; you still lose, but — aha! — you have your first clue.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Artifacts from along the Anacostia River in Washington, DC

I mentioned a while back that I have been involved in a project to go through old artifact collections from along the Anacostia River in Washington, DC. These are really old collections picked up mainly in the 1870s and 1880s. Most were surface finds. As this collection shows, back then you could fill a box in an afternoon without bothering to pick up any broken junk. These spear points probably date mainly to between 2000 and 1000 BCE.

Sherd from the neck of a pot made between 1200 and 1500 CE. This is what we call Potomac Creek pottery. This is a rather famous sherd because this is the one that Smithsonian archaeologist William Henry Holmes used to illustrate the type in the report where he gave it the name Potomac Creek,back in 1891.

Stone axes.

And more points. There is a ton of stuff (literally, I would guess) in the Smithsonian's collections from the Anacostia, but much of it is labeled only "Anacostia River," not enough to say where it actually came from. We focused only on collections that we could locate more precisely, and still there are thousands of artifacts like these.

The Hard Scientific Problem of Hamster Happiness

Is your hamster happy? How would you know? Well, you might try this experiment designed to measure whether a hamster's level of depression is affecting its judgment. The idea is that depressed animals have a bias toward pessimism, happy ones toward optimism:
Recent developments in the study of animal cognition and emotion have resulted in the ‘judgement bias’ model of animal welfare. Judgement biases describe the way in which changes in affective state are characterized by changes in information processing. In humans, anxiety and depression are characterized by increased expectation of negative events and negative interpretation of ambiguous information. Positive wellbeing is associated with enhanced expectation of positive outcomes and more positive interpretation of ambiguous information.
According to this study, hamsters who live in "enriched" environments are 12% more likely to interpret ambiguous signals in a positive way, i.e., are more optimistic, than those who live in a Spartan environment.

Who says science isn't taking on the hard, important problems?

Pluto, Getting Clearer

As the hi-resolution photographs from the Pluto flyby are gradually transmitted back to earth, we see Pluto in more and more detail. Above, mosaic of the whole planet(oid) at twice the resolution of the famous image from July 12.

The true color photographs NASA releases are made by combining two different types of data. New Horizons' main camera works in black and white, generating images like this one and the one below. That decision was made because 1) it's really dark that far from the sun, and the scientists wanted the maximum possible resolution, and 2) color images take a lot more bandwidth to transmit, and the scientists were not certain they would have good enough communications with the spacecraft to download everything. But color information is collected by a different instrument, and that color data can be algorithmically added to the black and white photos. So eventually we will see all of these detail shots in color, too.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

About that Armed Citizenry

Every time a lunatic opens fire in a theater or school, fans of guns say that it wouldn't have happened if more people were armed. The National Gun Victims Action Council arranged a study to see what would happen if average citizens with guns actually encountered crisis situations:
They recruited 77 volunteers with varying levels of firearm experience and training, and had each of them participate in simulations of three different scenarios using the firearms training simulator at the Prince George's County Police Department in Maryland. The first scenario involved a carjacking, the second an armed robbery in a convenience store, and the third a case of suspected larceny.

They found that, perhaps unsurprisingly, people without firearms training performed poorly in the scenarios. They didn't take cover. They didn't attempt to issue commands to their assailants. Their trigger fingers were either too itchy -- they shot innocent bystanders or unarmed people, or not itchy enough -- they didn't shoot armed assailants until they were already being shot at.
Gee, that sounds like a great solution. The Post has videos of some of the amateurs in actions.

Demographic Change in Europe

Detailed map from the German government showing population changes in Europe over the 2001 to 2010 period. Click to enlarge.

Some things to note: the large areas of dark blue (= population decline of more than 2% per year) in Albania, Bulgaria, eastern Germany, the Baltic states and rural Greece and Turkey; strong population growth in western France, Ireland, and in rings around many great cities, representing surging suburbs. In general there is much movement from rural areas to great cities, and from east toward the northwest.

Joni Niemelä: Details

Joni Niemelä is a Finnish photographer who specializes in small things viewed from up close. These images are fine, but what really grabs me is the colors. Above, one image from a whole series on the carnivorous plants called sundews. Lots more at his web site and instagram.

Rand Paul Fades Away

Rand Paul started out from a position quite different from most Republicans, strongly libertarian on domestic issues (other than abortion) and strongly opposed to foreign entanglements. These days he is hard to tell from the other candidates. The rest of the crowd has moved toward Paul's call for radically shrinking the government at home, and he has moved toward their belligerence abroad. Now he has taken the position that will insure he never gets any support from anti-war liberals:
Republican presidential candidate and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul says he supports military action against Iran to prevent them from getting a nuclear weapon, even though he says it would only delay Iran getting a bomb.
Well, that's a puzzler. It won't do any good to attack Iran, but we should do it anyway. Nobody pressed Paul to explain this nonsense, which saved him the trouble of covering up for the real reason: because opposing Obama over Iran has become something that all Republicans must do to be taken seriously, and Paul wants to be taken seriously.

At this point Paul holds no more interest for me, and I suspect I speak for most anti-war voters who found him intriguing. He doesn't seem to hold much interest for Republican voters, either, since in the latest polls he is scoring under 5 percent. His attempt to run for president as a different kind of Republican was probably doomed from the start. Sadly he has chosen to sacrifice his anti-intervention principles in a futile effort to compete, rather than defying the party as his father did, so he is losing his credibility along with the race. Sigh.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Malcolm Gladwell is Skeptical of Big Data

Professional contrarian Malcolm Gladwell gave a talk recently in which he questioned the value of the enormous databases being accumulated by tech companies:
To summarize the problem, Gladwell recounted the study a psychiatrist performed on some peers in which the information provided by the study’s author increased over time.

Giving more data to the experts resulted in almost no change in the probability that they would give the correct diagnosis, the study found.

But when studying their confidence in a diagnosis, more data led to a stronger conviction that the diagnosis was correct, so more data might lead them to make stronger recommendations to patients.
I'm thinking of putting that on my office door or my email footer or some such prominent place: giving the experts more data resulted in no change in the probability that they would be right.

The Spaces in Between

One afternoon last week I met an old friend for dinner. He was in from out of town, staying in a hotel in a patch of suburb called Spring Hill, Maryland. The hotel was actually in a little cul-de-sac where the only structures are three new hotels. This little neighborhood has highway along one side -- behind the trees in the back of the picture above -- and some commercial development on the others. I had a couple of errands to run before meeting my friend and I badly mistimed them, so I arrived an hour early. What to do for an hour in Spring Hill, Maryland? After reading for a while I got bored and tried to go for a walk. I explored the stormwater management pond and watched the dragonflies swoop around. A redwing blackbird was calling almost constantly, but I never saw him.

I noted the daylilies in the hotel garden.

Saw the moon rising behind some crepe myrtles.

Was impressed by a mass of wild grape vines.

Admired a row of crabapple trees in full fruit.

Then I startled this handsome fellow, who ran out from under a car and then paused long enough for me to take a blurry picture before he darted through a hole in the parking lot fence and disappeared.

He ran into this little space, in between an old fence and some boards that had been leaned against it a decade ago.

I have long been fascinated by the little patches of woodland left in the interstices of modern development. Around the three hotels were about 5 acres (2 ha) of woods, serving to separate the hotels from the highway and their parking lots from each other. Stepping into the woods where there was a gap in the greenbriar, I saw lots of bottles and dishes from the early 20th century slumping down the banks of a little stream, either the remains of a house or perhaps just a dump. This was not an old forest, but one that has grown up since the Depression, when many farms around here were abandoned.

Are these little woodlands impoverished places, dominated by a few species, many of them invasive? Or are they evolutionary laboratories where plants and animals are adapting to survive in close proximity to humans, with high tolerances for heavy metals and highway noise? I wish someone would write a good book about this. What lives in the miles-long strips of forest down the median strip of Interstate highways?

And what about human inhabitants? The gap in the fence that the cat used to flee from me was made by people, I imagine boys, since it was only tall enough to allow belly wriggling. I think it might predate the hotels, allowing access from the old woods and vacant lots into the back lot of an auto repair shop. I also found an old trail near the stormwater pond, worn deep enough to be visible even half overgrown with weeds.

Every place has a history, natural and human. I always wish I knew more about the world around me.

Napoleon's Starving Soldiers

Back in 2001, archaeologists in Vilnius, Lithuania stumbled across a mass grave containing around 3,600 skeletons. They proved to be soldiers from Napoleon's Grand Armee who died during the disastrous invasion of Russia in 1812 to 1813.

Famous map of the campaing by M. Minard; the width of the line shows the number of surviving soldiers, pink on the march to Moscow and black for the return. The army had around 650,000 men when the campaign began, but only 30,000 marched back with their regiments. How many of the missing died and how many melted away into the countryside is disputed, but most historians think more than 300,000 died.

Vilnius was a stop on the return march,and French records suggest that about 20,000 soldiers died there of exposure, starvation, and typhus.

This is in the news now because the results of studies of the bones are now getting into print. The most striking finding was that many of the skeletons had higher than expected amounts of nitrogen's heavier isotope, N15. (Most nitrogen is N14.) Two things can cause this: living mainly on seafood, and starvation.
When the human body is deprived of protein, nitrogen isotope values can skyrocket. So conditions like anorexia, prolonged morning sickness, vitamin D deficiency, and starvation can cause an increase in nitrogen signatures.

Napoleon’s men were not in good health, even before their ill-fated stop in Vilnius. Research on the teeth of the soldiers in the mass grave showed rampant dental cavities and indications of stress during childhood, and over one-quarter of the dead had likely succumbed to epidemic typhus, a louse-borne disease. A febrile illness like typhus could cause increased loss of body water through urine, sweat, and diarrhea, which may also cause a rise in nitrogen isotopes. And, of course, historical accounts detail how troops fruitlessly scoured the countryside for food and how many of them ate their dead or dying horses.
Most likely such skewed ratios of the isotopes in bones would not be created in just a few months of campaigning. They suggest that Napoleon's soldiers had suffered from repeated bouts of hunger and terrible nutrition, probably both before and after they entered his army. Theirs was a hard lot, whether in uniform or out.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

High Summer

After a long, wet spring that lasted into July, summer is finally here. Hot weather is forecast all week, with only the chance of thunderstorms to break the torpor. The garden is a crazy mess, sunflowers and morning glories reaching for the sky, everything else surging into the gaps around them.

This time of year the flowers have to compete with animal life for attention, especially goldfinches, hummingbirds, and butterflies. It's a wonderful cacophony.