Thursday, March 31, 2016

Loving Vincent

Trailer for an animated movie about Van Gogh.

Menopause and Leadership among Killer Whales

Killer whales and humans are among the very few animals that undergo menopause. Researchers have been trying to figure out how menopause relates to orca social structure:
Pods are matrilineal, composed of old females, their offspring and their daughters’ offspring. There aren’t many old males, Croft said, because there’s a huge disparity in life expectancy, with males living to about 40 and females up to around 100.

At about the same age that the males expire, female killer whales go through menopause. The only other female mammals known to have long post-reproductive lives are pilot whales and humans. Most other animals reproduce until they are near death.

Fatherhood is not part of whale life. Neither is bonding between mates. Males will mate with females in neighboring pods but stay with their own families. The supreme, permanent bond in killer whale society is between mothers and their sons. All offspring stay with their moms throughout life, but the mothers put more energy into caring for the sons. Research in 2012 showed that males tend to die shortly after their mothers die. In 2015, researchers published observations that the older females lead their pods to find the most promising hunting grounds.
Among the whales, menopause seems to get older whales to focus on helping their growing offspring, especially their sons, find food and reproduce:
In some species, individuals are more likely to propagate their genes if they have fewer offspring but invest more in their survival and their success in reproducing. One of the most popular ideas to explain human menopause is the so-called grandmother hypothesis, which posits that older women keep promoting their genetic legacies by helping with grandchildren. In whales, it looks like the older females help the whole pod, which is made up of their kin. They also invest time in helping their grown sons find food, which could be a way to ensure that they have more grand-offspring.
Of course in humans some men also lead very long lives, which also needs explanation. In some societies at least older women and men serve as repositories of knowledge; for example old people may remember storms or droughts of rare severity, so the lessons of survival are not lost.

On the Shores of the Potomac

Pictures from recent days. Native trout lily.


Prints in the mud: squirrel, duck, dog.

The New Yuppies

Core neighborhoods in some American cities are booming, even though big problems remain with big city school systems, police forces, and so on. So who is moving to cities? 538 has a nice article on this, with graphs. You can see from the graph above that while wealthier people are moving to inner city neighborhoods in places like Manhattan, Brooklyn, Washington, and San Francisco, poor people are moving out. In fact the poorest people are fleeing inner city neighborhoods in record numbers. This backs up an insight I heard twenty years ago from a relative who works in real estate. Far-flung outer suburbs, he said, were destined to become the slums of the future as people get tired of commuting and the ones who can afford it move back to older urban neighborhoods and inner suburbs. The idea of suburban counties as white, middle class bastions is dead. The suburban counties around here include large concentrations of poor people, immigrants, and blacks. Fights have broken out over school district lines in several Maryland counties as middle class people seek to protect their children's schools, and the value of their houses, from influxes of poor, minority students.

But inner city schools remain a big problem, at least in the eyes of middle class parents. You can see this in the bottom half of the graph above, which shows that people with no children or only toddlers are moving to the inner cities, but people with school age children are moving out. One mother I know, a devotee of hip urban living, saw my neighborhood and said, "If I lived out here I would have to put my head in the oven." But after a few years of fighting with the Baltimore City schools, she now lives right down the road.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

David Mitchell, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

I was talking fiction with a relative at my Richmond family's annual February birthday party (lots of February births) when the subject of David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas came up. We agreed that the structural gimmicks were a showy waste, and whatever value it had came from one or two good stories embedded in the silly architecture. But, he said, you should read The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, which is excellent.

I took his advice and I am glad I did. I just finished listening to Mitchell's 2010 novel, and I loved it. In fact I loved it so much that this morning I started listening to it again. It is just my kind of book, with a fascinating historical setting enlivened by hints of the fantastic. The main character, de Zoet, is a clerk in the Dutch East India Company. In 1799 he arrives on Dejima, the tiny Dutch island outpost that was the only point of contact between Japan and the European world. Mitchell fills Dejima with a marvelous array of European and Japanese characters, the Dutchmen struggling to get on with their trading and their lives as Napoleon's conquests overturn the homeland they left behind.

The chief villain is perhaps too villainous, but I found the heroes quite human and just heroic enough. Interesting minor characters abound. The Japanese setting is very well rendered, the corrupt politics of the Dutch East India company even more so. The reading I listened to was no more than adequate, but that was sufficient to convey the excellence of the book. I give this my highest recommendation.

When the Islamic State is defeated, things may get worse

Today's cheerful reminder from Tom Friedman:
Let’s go back to the future of Iraq. “The problem in Iraq is not ISIS,” Najmaldin Karim, the wise governor of Kirkuk Province, which is partly occupied by ISIS, remarked to me. “ISIS is the symptom of mismanagement and sectarianism.” So even if ISIS is evicted from its stronghold in Mosul, he noted, if the infighting and mismanagement in Baghdad and sectarian tensions between Shiites and Sunnis are not diffused, “the situation in Iraq could be even worse after” ISIS is toppled.

Why? Because there will just be another huge scramble among Iraqi Sunnis, Kurds, Turkmens, Shiite militias, Turkey and Iran over who controls these territories now held by ISIS. There is simply no consensus here on how power will be shared in the Sunni areas that ISIS has seized. So if one day you hear that we’ve eliminated the ISIS caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and lowered the ISIS flag over Mosul, hold your applause.
This is why I think Obama is right not to make a major American commitment to defeat the Islamic State with another blitzkrieg armored advance on Raqqa, no matter how many people they kill in Europe and America. As things stand, that would only lead to more chaos, and to more intense fighting among all the other factions. We would be spending tens of billions of dollars and losing hundreds of lives to achieve nothing.

I am not sure if it is even possible to find a diplomatic, political solution to the mess in Syria and Iraq, but I believe that achieving a stable political climate is the only way to control terrorism. Shock and awe will not suffice.


Here is another piece of that Tyler Cowen and Jonathan Haidt interview I linked to yesterday, about a new movement that I fully intend to join:
COWEN: Antiparsimonialism , underrated or overrated?

HAIDT: Antiparsimonialism, have you any heard anyone say that other than me, is that my term?

COWEN: No, that’s why I asked.

HAIDT: Oh good, then of course I think it’s underrated, because I think — so parsimony is overrated.

Rather here’s what I should say. The pursuit of parsimony is a bad idea. It becomes almost a religious quest, people think, “Oh, if I can explain this phenomenon with one principle, I have won, I have produced a better explanation.” That’s a disaster for the social sciences, maybe it works in physics, but again, people are really complicated, much more so than matter.

People who pursue parsimony, scientists who pursue it and think that the simplest explanation is better than one that’s a little more complicated, that’s a problem. I’m trying to advocate for what I’m calling antiparsimony, or antiparsimonialism.

COWEN: Normatively you’re a pluralist then, and not like a utilitarian, or — ?

HAIDT: Normatively I’m a pluralist, yes. That means that there are many human values, and this is straight from Isaiah Berlin. There are many human values, and if you take one, let’s take liberty. “Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice.” Wrong.

Extremism in defense of any virtue becomes a vice, it becomes sick, it becomes something that leads to horrible inhumanity and brutality. Many people try to say well all that really matters is care and compassion.

But if you take that to its absurd extreme you get kind of close to what we have on campus, which is we will destroy anybody’s rights in order to protect these seven victim classes.
I am not sure I have ever read anything with which I agree more fully. When it comes to either social science or practical politics, simplification is destruction.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Local vs. National Politics

This comes from a fascinating conversation between Tyler Cowen and Jonathan Haidt. Haidt suggested that the Trump phenomenon shows that over time the values of the Republican leadership had gotten out of alignment with the values of Republican voters:
COWEN: Here’s what I worry about with that explanation. If I look at local government — state legislators, governors, Congress for that matter — the Republicans seem pretty much in tune with people’s intuitions, because they control all those branches, sometimes pretty solidly, especially at the state and local level. And then at the national level there’s this huge disconnect. So if all the Republicans were losing, it would be easier to see.

HAIDT: National politics is different from local. National politics, I believe, is much more like religion than local politics is. If you take it all the way down to the very local level — who the dogcatcher is, who the treasurer is of the town — that’s all very practical stuff. People are very worried about their property values and things like that. It’s not very ideological. National politics is much more like a religion. The president is the high priest of the American civil religion — I think that’s what Robert Bellah called it. At the national level it’s often unrelated to what happens at the local level. This is something that Ronald Reagan really understood much better than his challengers. He was able to appeal to the moral intuitions of people about America, making America great. It’s very different from what happens at the state level.
I, too, have been struck by the difference between national and local politics. I have sometimes thought that this has to do with greater levels of abstraction. That is, people know what they want from the local government in a concrete way, but at the national level the problems become too vague to be neatly solved, and the proposed "solutions" become ever more abstract. Paving streets is one thing, but making the national economy work for ordinary people is a problem of an altogether different order.

On the other hand I have also noted here the difference between how people evaluate their own lives and how they evaluate the state of the nation. There is, I sometimes think, something downright mystical about the way some people evaluate the state of the nation. After a victorious war, everyone feels better about the nation; after a defeat, everyone feels worse. People feel worse when the President is from the other political party, better when he is from their own. If he is from another race, some people seem to feel even worse.

How much politics can do to bridge these gaps is a huge question, and a hard one to answer.

UPDATE: Here's another interesting piece of the same interview.
COWEN: Here’s a question from a reader at Marginal Revolution: As you Jonathan have delved into morality more deeply, are there any examples of something you considered harmless before, that now you think may actually be harmful once second, third, etc., social effects are taken into account.

HAIDT: Oh, yes, yes. When I was younger I remember thinking, “Oh, you know, marriage isn’t so important, all that matters is that you — of course you need to take care of the kids, but people should be free to do what they want.” I’ve come to see — so I started off on the left. In fact I got into political psychology in 2004 precisely to help the Democrats because I thought they were getting their rear‑ends kicked by the Republicans who knew how to talk about morality.

Whereas Gore and Kerry just didn’t have a clue. Since I started researching conservatism and then libertarianism, I’ve just found that they make a lot of points that as a social scientist I have to agree, “Oh, that’s a good point.”

The overriding importance of family stability, if you’re raising kids with incredible family stability, they just come out better. In fact they’re much more likely to rise economically than if they’re raised with any sort of family instability. So I think I’m more conservative about family arrangements, precisely because of these second- and third-level effects.

Hillary is Honest

As Kevin Drum notes, few people know more about the Clintons than Jill Abramson:
Abramson has followed Bill and Hillary Clinton for more than two decades, first in the Washington bureau of the Wall Street Journal, then at the New York Times, where she eventually became Washington bureau chief (and even later, executive editor). Her perch gave her an unrivaled view into Hillary's actions.
And what does she say about them?
I would be “dead rich”, to adapt an infamous Clinton phrase, if I could bill for all the hours I’ve spent covering just about every “scandal” that has enveloped the Clintons. As an editor I’ve launched investigations into her business dealings, her fundraising, her foundation and her marriage. As a reporter my stories stretch back to Whitewater. I’m not a favorite in Hillaryland. That makes what I want to say next surprising.

Hillary Clinton is fundamentally honest and trustworthy.

The yardsticks I use for measuring a politician’s honesty are pretty simple. Ever since I was an investigative reporter covering the nexus of money and politics, I’ve looked for connections between money (including campaign donations, loans, Super Pac funds, speaking fees, foundation ties) and official actions. I’m on the lookout for lies, scrutinizing statements candidates make in the heat of an election.

The connection between money and action is often fuzzy. Many investigative articles about Clinton end up “raising serious questions” about “potential” conflicts of interest or lapses in her judgment. Of course, she should be held accountable. It was bad judgment, as she has said, to use a private email server. It was colossally stupid to take those hefty speaking fees, but not corrupt. There are no instances I know of where Clinton was doing the bidding of a donor or benefactor.
Progressives who think that Hillary is some kind of crook are accepting a right-wing lie. If Bernie Sanders were honest, he would tell his followers that.

Gal Gross, Migrating Cranes on an Israeli Lake

From National Geographic.

Why Masturbation is Worse than Rape

This is actually the Catholic tradition, as expostulated by St. Augustine ("of all sins belonging to lust, that which is against nature is the worst") and given logical form by St. Thomas Aquinas in the Summa Theologica. He covers this in Article 12, Whether the unnatural vice is the greatest sin among the species of lust?

Aquinas admits (Objection 1) that seduction and rape are contrary to charity, and that masturbation might seem like a less serious matter because it causes no injury to persons. But he rejects this view. Aquinas states his own logic most clearly in his Reply to Objection 1:
As the ordering of right reason proceeds from man, so the order of nature is from God Himself: wherefore in sins contrary to nature, whereby the very order of nature is violated, an injury is done to God, the Author of nature.
So rape mainly hurts other people, but spilling seed on the ground offends God, which is much worse.

I mention this because it gets so precisely at the difference between modern, consequentialist ethics, like my own, and the old religious traditions. I simply cannot take logic like that of Aquinas seriously. It relies on definitions of "nature" and "natural" that are based, not on a close look at actual human beings (surely few human activities are more universal than masturbation, which is also practiced by apes and monkeys) but on a view that is already moralistic. That is, it is asserted that something is wrong because it is unnatural, but "unnatural" is just another way of saying "wrong."

But I know, because I read their blogs, that many conservative Christians today still take this very seriously. (And, I assume, many conservative Muslims as well.) This view of "nature" is so thoroughly interwoven through Catholic theology that to reject it requires starting over, and the whole point of religious conservatism is not having to start over.

I simply do not see how a person who believes such things and I could ever agree about the morality of sex, marriage, and many other topics. We simply have no common language to speak in, no basis for a common understanding. Dialogue will be useless.

So, I fear, issues like gay marriage, abortion, contraception, transexuality, and the like will remain unhealable wounds in the nation, and the law will simply follow the will of the majority. We can't change the minds of believers in "natural law", but we can outvote them.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Moss on Old Lava Fields, Iceland

Douthat on Cruz

I think Ross Douthat nails Ted Cruz in this essay. After noting that actually there are many true believers in politics, he writes:
With Cruz, though, even the most fervent peroration always feels like a debater’s patter, an advocate’s brief — compelling enough on the merits, but more of a command performance than a window into deep conviction.

This doesn’t mean that Cruz’s conservatism isn’t sincere. But the fact that he seems so much like an actor hitting his marks fits with the story of how he became Mr. True Conservative Outsider in the first place. Basically, he spent years trying to make it in Washington on the insider’s track, and hit a wall because too many of the insiders didn’t like him — because his ambition was too naked, his climber’s zeal too palpable. So he deliberately switched factions, turning the establishment’s personal disdain into a political asset, and taking his Ivy League talents to the Tea Party instead. . . .

Unloved, unattractive, a Simpsons-quoting nerd still chasing the teenage dream of world domination, the Texas senator has outworked, out-organized and outlasted the candidates who were supposed to beat him, from the blueblood to the jock.

His cynicism can be repellent, his message discipline exhausting, and his Reagan-vintage policy proposals induce a mild despair. But in the drama of this insane campaign, he has actually earned his position, and if his doggedness wins the Republican nomination on the second ballot it will be one of the most fascinating triumphs in recent political history.

Jessie Arms Botke

Jessie Arms Botke (1883-1971) has been dubbed the “Art Deco Audubon” for her many, many paintings of birds. I discovered her this weekend because of the painting above, which I find delightful.

I also like this tapestry, which she designed. As to how she came to do so many paintings of peacocks:
Chicago born, Botke had a job in New York designing tapestries and interiors. Her career-defining moment came when client Billie Burke—now remembered for playing the Good Witch in The Wizard of Oz—requested a frieze of white peacocks. “I didn’t even know there was such a thing as a white peacock and went up to the Bronx Zoo to find out, and they had one,” recalled Botke. “It was love at first sight.” 
Botke moved to California in 1919, living on a ranch near Ventura. She was a very trendy painter during Hollywood's golden age, and she sold many paintings to actors and other movie people.

So when you imagine those fabulous movie star mansions of the 30s and 40s, you should perhaps imagine one of Bokte's bird paintings somewhere in the frame, perhaps hanging by the bed or in the piano room.

After falling completely out of fashion during the era of shocking modernism, Botke is hot again, and several galleries are advertising online for her paintings, which can now fetch up to $90,000 at auction.

Dante the Shaman

From a new biography:
…Dante’s fame as a necromancer is also in a certain sense documented.

Such notoriety shouldn’t be surprising. For one thing, he had a reputation as an expert in astrology, and we know that this discipline could easily spill over into magical and necromantic practices. And then, above all, he was famous after the publication of Inferno for having descended live into the realms of the afterlife and for having encountered devils there, the souls of the damned, and having spoken to them. It must have been a rumor widely spread and also disturbing. It seems, according to Boccaccio, that the women who used to pass him in the street would say to each other: Look, “he who goes into Hell, and returns whenever he likes, and brings back news of those who are down there…” 
Via Marginal Revolution. In modern language, of course, visiting hell and returning to talk about it is not necromancy but shamanism. In the Renaissance the vocabulary for all of these things was not precise, and any sort of magic could be called sorcery, witchcraft, necromancy, and other things, some of the words taken from Latin and others specific to the local language.

But note the all-to-human reluctance to distinguish between truth and fiction, which still comes up all the time. For example, in folklore about various scenes in movies being “real,” or the belief that people who write powerfully about something (war, love, madness) must have experienced it. A large swathe of humanity seems determined to underrate the power of imagination.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Easter Egg Hunt 2016

I fear this might have been the last Easter Egg Hunt at my house. Ben, who is 13, at first said he didn't want to hunt eggs this year, and Clara was ambivalent about doing it by herself. But Ben changed his mind, so the egg hunt was on for at least one more year. Clara, in her carefully selected egg hunting outfit, off on the hunt.

Clara in her egg-hunting form, a blur of motion, charging from place to place with mad abandon.

"A girl's gotta know what she has."

Finally, she holds still.

Meanwhile, Ben saunters around in his lounge pants, on the verge of being too cool for it all.

Today's Castle: Carreg Cennen

Carreg Cennen is a castle in South Wales. Legend holds that this spot was first fortified by Urien Rheged, Lord of Iskennen, and his son Owain, knights during the reign of King Arthur.

Historians think the first castle on the site was built by the Welsh Lord Rhys, Prince of Deheubarth, in the late 12th century. His descendants intermarried with their Norman neighbors, and when his descendant Rhys Fychan held the castle he was betrayed by his mother (the Norman Matilda de Braeos) who turned over the stronghold to the Henry III of England. Rhys Fychan regained control of the castle in 1248, but he was then betrayed by his uncle, Maredudd ap Rhys Gryg. Medieval Welsh history was all like that, one back-stabbing after another; reading it I always end up thinking the English conquest was exactly what the Welsh princes had coming.

Edward I seized the castle in 1277 and granted it to John Giffard, the son of a Marcher family who had become one of his household knights.  It was Giffard and his son who built most of the castle as you see it today.

Later it passed to Edward II's favorite Hugh Despenser, and from him to Edward III's son John of Gaunt.

When Gaunt's son Henry Bolingbroke seized the throne in 1399, the castle became crown property. In 1403 it was besieged by the great Welsh rebel Owain Glyndŵr and 800 of his men, but he failed to take it. It was defended by a man who was to marry one of Glyndwr's daughters just a few years later, Sir John Scudamore of Herefordshire.

It was a Lancastrian stronghold during the Wars of the Roses, and after the Yorkist victory in 1461 Edward IV decided it was too much of a threat, so it was partialy demolished and thereafter decayed into ruin.

Later on it was granted to the Earls of Cawdor, and it remains in private hands. You can hire it for your wedding, should you be so inclined.

The castle's most famous feature is a sort of cave in the bedrock beneath it, accessed down this spooky stairway and then a dark, moldering corridor. The guides say the cave was used as a dungeon and that several noble prisoners were held there. and the place is so dank it would be churlish to demand proof.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Names for Dogs Ancient Greece

Wonders and Marvels:
Atalanta, the famous huntress of Greek myth, called her dog Aura (Breeze). An ancient Greek vase painting of 560 BC shows Atalanta and other heroes and their hounds killing the great Calydonian Boar. Seven dogs’ names are inscribed on the vase (some violate Xenophon’s brevity rule): Hormenos (Impulse), Methepon (Pursuer), Egertes (Vigilant), Korax (Raven), Marpsas, Labros (Fierce), and Eubolous (Shooter).

The Roman poet Ovid gives the Greek names of the 36 dogs that belonged to Actaeon, the unlucky hunter of Greek myth who was torn apart by his pack: among them were Tigris, Laelaps (Storm), Aello (Whirlwind), and Arcas (Bear). . . .

Popular names for dogs in antiquity, translated from Greek, include Lurcher, Whitey, Blackie, Tawny, Blue, Blossom, Keeper, Fencer, Butcher, Spoiler, Hasty, Hurry, Stubborn, Yelp, Tracker, Dash, Happy, Jolly, Trooper, Rockdove, Growler, Fury, Riot, Lance, Pell-Mell, Plucky, Killer, Crafty, Swift, and Dagger.

The Flags of Russian Cities

Many Russian cities have their own flags, even quite small ones; this is Moscow's, perhaps the most famous.

Nizhny Novgorod.



Irkutsk, depicting a tiger with some poor prey animal in its mouth.

And now for the Soviet era. This is Shuya, an industrial city whose first great product is the one shown on their flag: soap.

Magnitogorsk. This represents the mountain from which came the ore that sustained the city's metals industries. (Isn't Magnitogorsk a great name for a twentieth-century industrial city?)

Linyov, a town that made electrodes.

Severny, a place once mainly known for an enormous radio transmitter.

And two from formerly closed cities. Above, Zheleznogorsk, devoted to the extraction of plutonium; below, Mirny, a launch site for missiles and then satellites.