Sunday, July 31, 2016

Floods Rip Through Ellicott City, Maryland

Ellicott City, the little historic district just two miles from my house where I have been hanging out for decades, was last seen here as a Pokemon mecca. Saturday night it was ripped up by a flash flood that killed two people.

Scene from a video of men forming a chain to rescue a stranded woman from that car, which was washing down the street. Ellicott City is built on a slope rising up from the Patapsco River, and normally when it floods it is because river water is rising up. But this water is flowing downhill toward the river; this is a little tributary called Tiber Creek overflowing its banks because of heavy rains uphill.

But this is down by the Patapsco and it shows that the river also flooded into the town. So the town got slammed from both sides. Wow.

It looks to me like the most significant damage was done to the street and sidewalks, which were catastrophically undermined. Nothing else can really be done until they get Main Street open, since it is pretty much the only way in or out of town, and that is going to be a big, big job. Until this gets repaired, there is going to be a hole in my life, and one of the main routes I use to get anywhere is going to be blocked.

Mount Wachusett in the Fog

Just back from a very nice hike up Mount Wachusett, a large hill in central Massachusetts. My brother's dogs lead the way up the first stretch, an old farm lane.

Oak trees lining the lane.

Giant windmill one passes partway up.

Scenery on the ascent.

The spectacular view from the summit. It was so foggy that after blundering into this large clearing we had a hard time finding the clearly marked trail down.

Hemlock grove on the descent. It was lovely. The morning's rain cooled everything off, and we enjoyed the cool and the absence of crowds while only getting drizzled on a little.

Coley's Toxins

From an interesting Times article on new therapies that prime the body's immune system to fight cancer, I extract this on an unwitting pioneer of these treatments:
Dr. William B. Coley, an American surgeon born in 1862, is widely considered the father of cancer immunotherapy. But he practiced a crude form of it, without understanding how it worked.

Distressed by the painful death of a young woman he had treated for a sarcoma, a bone cancer, in 1891, Dr. Coley began to study the records of other sarcoma patients in New York, according to Dr. David. B. Levine, a medical historian and orthopedic surgeon.

One case leapt out at him: a patient who had several unsuccessful operations to remove a huge sarcoma from his face, and wound up with a severe infection, then called erysipelas, caused by Streptococcal bacteria. The patient was not expected to survive, but he did — and the cancer disappeared.

Dr. Coley found other cases in which cancer went away after erysipelas. Not much was known about the immune system, and he suspected, mistakenly, that the bacteria were somehow destroying the tumors. Researchers today think the infection set off an intense immune response that killed both the germs and the cancer.

Dr. Coley was not alone in believing that bacteria could fight cancer. In a letter to a colleague in 1890, the Russian physician and playwright Anton Chekhov wrote of erysipelas: “It has long been noted that the growth of malignant tumors halts for a time when this disease is present.”

Dr. Coley began to inject terminally ill cancer patients with Streptococcal bacteria in the 1890s. His first patient, a drug addict with an advanced sarcoma, was expected to die within weeks, but the disease went into remission and he lived eight years.

Dr. Coley treated other patients, with mixed results. Some tumors regressed, but sometimes the bacteria caused infections that went out of control. Dr. Coley developed an extract of heat-killed bacteria that came to be called Coley’s mixed toxins, and he treated hundreds of patients over several decades. Many became quite ill, with shaking chills and raging fevers. But some were cured.

Parke-Davis and Company began producing Coley’s toxins in 1899, and continued for 30 years. Various hospitals in Europe and the United States, including the Mayo Clinic, used the toxins, but the results were not consistent.
I wonder what other promising medical treatments lie buried in the records of 19th-century medicine, shunted aside when exciting new technologies like radiation became available.

Incidentally I am a long-term optimist about cancer. Unlike bacteria, cancers can't adapt to our treatments, so once we find a cure for a particular type it ought to work for a long, long time. Cancer treatments can be honed to strike cells with particular mutations, so unlike treatment for, say, heart disease, or depression, we can fix problems in one area without causing just as many somewhere else. Our knowledge about genes, proteins, and cells continues to grow exponentially. I consider the exciting therapies described in the Times to be the primitive precursors of vastly better techniques to come. I don't see why we can't nearly eliminate cancer deaths within a century.

Saturday, July 30, 2016


I'm off on a five-day jaunt to Massachusetts. Not sure how much I will blog while I'm gone. But I'll see everyone when I get back.

Van Gogh Drawings

I never get tired of these. From the top, A Flower Garden, Arles from a Wheat Field, Fishing Boats at Sea, and An Ivy-Covered Tree. All c. 1888

Mississippi's Prison Economy

The news from down south:
County officials across Mississippi are warning of job losses and deep deficits as local jails are being deprived of the state inmates needed to keep them afloat. . . .

As the wave of mass incarceration begins to recede, the Mississippi controversy has local and state officials talking openly about how harmful locking up fewer people up will be for the economy, confirming the suspicions of those who have argued that mass incarceration is not merely a strategy directed at crime prevention.
The basic story is that when its prisons were filled by the crime wave of the 80s and 90s and the draconian sentences put in place to fight it, Mississippi asked counties to expand their jails and make the space available for state prisoners. The counties were payed a fixed rate per prisoner per day. Of course the counties would not have done this unless they expected to earn a profit. For 15 years they did, and for a few counties that became a key part of their revenue. Now the pie is shrinking, as it were, as the number of new inmates falls and their sentences are shortened. So the various players – state prisons, privately operated prisons, and county jails – squabble over the available funds.

So I don't think these county sheriffs are doing anything evil by demanding more prisoners. But I would ask why Mississippi was always able to find the money to lock more people up, but never finds the money for libraries or public schools or public defenders who might have kept some of those men out of jail in the first place. If the money was there to pay for housing prisoners, it ought to still be there for some other state purpose that could employ people as something more useful than prison guards.

Friday, July 29, 2016

Urban Wildlife

Sparrows, ducks and box turtle, in Washington today.

The Most Metal Words

A data science guy took a big database of heavy metal lyrics and compared it to another database that is supposed to represent standard English to see which words are most metal and which the least:
The most metal word of all is burn, followed by cries, veins, eternity, and breathe. The least metal word is particularly, followed by indicated, secretary, committee, and university. What you can infer from this is that the metal English is spoken from a timeless, elemental, and darkly ethereal space, while standard English is unremarkably deskbound. Perhaps this is why we hunger for metal in the first place.
So heavy metal is the opposite of a university committee, particularly the secretary of the committee.

Mysterious Glowing Purple Orb on the Sea Floor

Alien life in California:
Deep under the sea, near the Channel Islands several miles off the coast of California, marine scientists noticed a glowing purple orb hiding in the shadows. They zoomed in on the creature with an underwater robot camera — and were completely mystified. They had never seen anything like this before.

“I’m stumped,” you can hear one of the scientists say in the video below, as they watch a live feed. “I have no idea. I couldn’t even hazard a guess.”
Moving closer.

And there it is. But what is it? On the video at the link you can hear these biologists speculating about egg cases, but I've seen enough Star Trek to know dangerous alien life when I see it.

And notice the way this crab moved to defend the orb when the submersible approached. Obviously the orb is controlling it. But then the orb realized that the approach of this robotic craft allowed it a chance to ascend to the surface and take control of more interesting life forms, so it ordered the crab to back off and then allowed itself to be collected as a specimen. Back in the lab, the human scientists say they still haven't figured out what it is, but then since they must be under its control by now that is only what we would expect.

Non Real World Stuff

I've forgotten the source and the exact wording, but I was struck yesterday by a quotation I saw printed next to a sudoku puzzle. It said, approximately, "Sometimes I'm amazed by how little attention I give to real world stuff."

This, it seems to me, is one of the defining attributes of contemporary life, at least for people like me. I read fantasy and science fiction, watch superhero movies, and mainly play video games in which I can be a wizard. Some of my other interests are technically real world, but as far as my own life goes they might as well be fantasy: ancient and medieval history, space exploration.

These habits are widespread. I was back in Ellicott City with my son Wednesday night, watching hundreds of people catching virtual Pokemon.The most eagerly awaited work of art of any sort right now is probably the next Game of Thrones novel. There is also a huge amount of stuff in our culture which is real world but not very real, like professional sports and celebrity gossip. And what about music, which remains a mystery despite the explanatory efforts of a legion of evolutionary psychologists? What about art?

This is not really new. Many of the best human minds of the past were taken up with abstruse theology, or the development of elaborate mythic systems. Mathematics was developed to track the stars and planets, for reasons of faith more than anything else.

I don't have anything profound to say about this, I was just struck by the thought that I, and billions of others, prefer to think about almost anything rather than what actually feeds and houses us. For many of us, our minds are too big for our daily needs, so we find other ways to fill them.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Little Dragon

Book of hours, Bruges ca. 1500

Baltimore, Walters Art Museum, Ms. W.427, fol. 25v

Speaking of dragons, my youngest son told me that in the next generation Pokemon game there is going to be a Pokemon called Drampa, which means Grandpa Dragon or Old Man Dragon, and he plans to call me this from now on.

Trump's Appeal

An analysis of Trump's appeal to his followers from one of James Fallows' readers:
Any “rational” analysis of Trump will fail. (“Rational” in both the “logical utility” and in the “sane” sense.) He is not presenting a logical way for attaining real benefits, nor is he presenting himself as sane.

What he is selling is fear and anger. It is those two emotions, and just the emotions, that his supporters want. They want to be deathly afraid of the world, and they want to use that fear to justify an all-consuming anger. They are not looking for justification for those emotions; they just want the emotions themselves.

If you see his supporters as masses of the frustrated and disenfranchised who are seeking a voice at the table of power, then it makes no sense. Anybody like that would not want to be lied to. They have been lied to too many times by the powerful. Trump is an obvious liar, and he is never going to do what he says is is going to do. Anyone who simply feels betrayed by the political process isn’t about to set themselves up to be betrayed again. Those types will simply stay home on election day like they always do.

There is no point going into who said it, but it was said that “people would rather believe a big lie than a small one.” Once you lie, and once you lie very very big, then you are in constant fear of being found out. The only possible face-saving response is to use the energy of that fear to violently insist that you are right.

Once you stand up in public and say you believe that the Earth is flat, then you simply can’t back down. The fear of ridicule is so great that the only way forward is to be angry at all attackers. That anger then becomes its own validity. It is an addiction, pure and simple. It is an addiction to strong empty feelings. No one believes that the Earth is flat because of any logical argument. They believe that the Earth is flat because the panic that is caused by believing that lie sustains their desired anger. And their anger is all they have and all they want. Believing the lie is a deliberate and calculated act to drum up an overriding state of blind emotion.

Trump’s big lies are the whole point of his appeal.

Hillary’s fault is that she makes small lies (about the e-mails and a lot else). Small lies can be proven to be false, and the small liar shown to be a fool. You can say that you believed her about the e-mails, and then be shown that that small lie was wrong, and then say that she is a scoundrel for fooling you like that.

But if you swallow a big lie, you can’t back down. Any backdown would be such a loss of face, that your identity won’t allow it. You get trapped in a world of fear of discovery and anger at your critics and you can’t get out.
This is related to what I tried to say about Fox News in passing the other day. What is the appeal of anger? Because like this writer I see much of what Fox and Trump are selling as not just partisanship but anger in and of itself.

One model would be that our hypothetical Trump supporter/Fox News follower is unhappy about his or her life, and the direction of the country, and wants someone to blame. By creating some enemy to get angry at, people avoid having to think about what is really wrong, a process that might force some people to admit that they themselves are to blame. But against that it must be admitted that conservatives are in general just as happy or a little happier than liberals. So maybe getting angry and blaming someone else works? Could it be psychologically healthy to have enemies to revile?

I have personally found that it is very bad for me, and I am much happier since I eased up on being angry at my political opponents (and other drivers, rude salespeople, people with bad taste in music, etc.). For me, anger just raises my blood pressure and makes me negative. But maybe it works for somebody.

Already Great

President Obama in Philadelphia:
Look, we Democrats have always had plenty of differences with the Republican Party, and there’s nothing wrong with that; it’s precisely this contest of ideas that pushes our country forward.

But what we heard in Cleveland last week wasn’t particularly Republican – and it sure wasn’t conservative. What we heard was a deeply pessimistic vision of a country where we turn against each other, and turn away from the rest of the world. There were no serious solutions to pressing problems – just the fanning of resentment, and blame, and anger, and hate.

And that is not the America I know.

The America I know is full of courage, and optimism, and ingenuity. The America I know is decent and generous. Sure, we have real anxieties – about paying the bills, protecting our kids, caring for a sick parent. We get frustrated with political gridlock, worry about racial divisions; are shocked and saddened by the madness of Orlando or Nice. There are pockets of America that never recovered from factory closures; men who took pride in hard work and providing for their families who now feel forgotten; parents who wonder whether their kids will have the same opportunities we had.

All that is real. We’re challenged to do better; to be better. But as I’ve traveled this country, through all fifty states; as I’ve rejoiced with you and mourned with you, what I’ve also seen, more than anything, is what is right with America. I see people working hard and starting businesses; people teaching kids and serving our country. I see engineers inventing stuff, and doctors coming up with new cures. I see a younger generation full of energy and new ideas, not constrained by what is, ready to seize what ought to be.

Most of all, I see Americans of every party, every background, every faith who believe that we are stronger together – black, white, Latino, Asian, Native American; young and old; gay, straight, men, women, folks with disabilities, all pledging allegiance, under the same proud flag, to this big, bold country that we love. . . .

America is already great. America is already strong. And I promise you, our strength, our greatness, does not depend on Donald Trump.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Earring Depicting Nike in Her Chariot

Greek, 4th Century BCE. In the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Egyptian Figurines

Red jasper duck amulet.

Frog amulet, faience

Hippopotamus head weight, 1549-1296 BCE.

Baboon, 3100 to 2650 BCE

Dog, 664 to 332 BCE.

Hedgehog, faience, 1294-1279 BCE

Jerboas, 1850 to 1640 BCE. These are so cute I would suspect fraud, except that they are in the Met.

Bear, steatite, 664-332 BCE.

Fly, 1500 to 1070 BCE.

Glass fish, 664 to 332 BCE.

Cat, 664-332 BCE.

Antelope head, Memphis, 525 to 404 BCE.

And another cat, 2nd millennium BCE.

The Changing Reasons People Hate Hillary

Michelle Goldberg makes an interesting observation. Many people have hated Hillary since she first emerged on the national scene, but not for consistent reasons:
Over the last two decades, the something that pisses people off has changed. Speaking to Gates, former Republican speechwriter Peggy Noonan described “an air of apple-cheeked certitude” in Clinton that is “political in its nature and grating in its effects.” Noonan saw in Clinton “an implicit insistence throughout her career that hers were the politics of moral decency and therefore those who opposed her politics were obviously of a lower moral order.”

Noonan’s view was a common one. Take, for example, Michael Kelly’s 1993 New York Times Magazine profile, mockingly titled “Saint Hillary.” “Since she discovered, at the age of 14, that for people less fortunate than herself the world could be very cruel, Hillary Rodham Clinton has harbored an ambition so large that it can scarcely be grasped,” Kelly wrote. “She would like to make things right. She is 45 now and she knows that the earnest idealisms of a child of the 1960s may strike some people as naive or trite or grandiose. But she holds to them without any apparent sense of irony or inadequacy.” Kelly’s piece painted Clinton as a moralist, a meddler, a prig.

Few people dislike Hillary Clinton for being too moralistic anymore. In trying to understand the seemingly eternal phenomenon of Hillary hatred, I’ve spoken to people all around America who revile her. I’ve interviewed Trump supporters, conventional conservatives, Bernie Sanders fans, and even a few people who reluctantly voted for Clinton in the Democratic primary but who nevertheless say they can’t stand her. Most of them described a venal cynic. Strikingly, the reasons people commonly give for hating Clinton now are almost the exact opposite of the reasons people gave for hating her in the 1990s. Back then, she was a self-righteous ideologue; now she’s a corrupt tool of the establishment. Back then, she was too rigid; now she’s too flexible. Recently, Morning Consult polled people who don’t like Clinton about the reasons for their distaste. Eighty-four percent agreed with the statement “She changes her positions when it’s politically convenient.” Eighty-two percent consider her “corrupt.” Motives for loathing Clinton have evolved. But the loathing itself has remained constant.
What are we to make of this? Is it that something about Hillary sets people off at an instinctive level, and they then search for any coherent justification? Or is it, as she would have it, that her enemies have been savaging her for decades, for political reasons, creating a bad reputation?

Monday, July 25, 2016

July 4th in Vicksburg, 1877

Vicksburg, Mississippi surrendered to the Union on July 4, 1863. It is a bit of American folk history that Independence Day was not celebrated again in the town until well into the twentieth century. I believe I have written this myself, or at least said it. But I just learned from Dead Confederates that this is not true:
From the Vicksburg Daily Commercial, July 3, 1877:

To-morrow being the anniversary of our Nations independence, all patriotic citizens of this great Republic are expected to observe it as a holiday. We desire to be reckoned among this class of patriotic citizens, consequently no paper will be issued from this office to-morrow. The glorious Fourth happens to come in hot weather this year, and we are glad to be able to observe it ‘neath the shade of country forests.

And a follow-up, on July 5:

The people of Vicksburg came nearer celebrating the glorious Fourth yesterday than they have done for several years. True, there was no general suspension of business, as indicated by closed doors, but so far as the profits of trade were concerned doors might as well have been closed, for the salesrooms were deserted almost entirely. Everybody was out of town, apparently, enjoying the holiday in some way. Several hundred people attended the Hibernian picnic at Newman’s Grove, and not withstanding the extreme heat, all seemed to enjoy the festivities of the day. The colored population turned out in large force, fully one thousand men of them going down the river on excursion boats to picnic-grounds, yet there were enough of them left in the city to form a very respectable procession of colored Masons, and a very large audience to listen to the oration of Judge J. S. Morris, and to assist in laying the corner-stone of King Solomon’s Church. There was no prolific display of fire-works on the streets, but occasional reports from fire-crackers and large torpedoes could be heard, accompanied now and then by a patriotic cry, “rah for the Fourth of July!” We do not wonder at the lack of patriotic enthusiasm displayed on our streets. No amount of patriotism could have induced any sane man to exert himself very considerably on such a day when the thermometer registered very nearly 100° Farenheit [sic.] in the shade. However, the observance of Independence Day yesterday, slight as some may have thought it, was yet sufficient to indicate the prevalence of a broader National sentiment and a determination to at least partially forget the past which renders the Fourth of July especially distasteful to Vicksburgers, and make it in future “The Day We Celebrate” as much as any other National holiday.

Art Nouveau Florence

Who knew that Florence held an amazing array of Art Nouveau houses? I mean, who has time in Florence to see anything but the glories of the Renaissance?

But the stile Liberty, as Italians call it, was big in Tuscany, and today I stumbled across this amazing photo set of beautiful houses. Above and top, Villino Lampredi, 1908-1909.

Villino Lampredi details.

Villino Broggi-Caraceni, 1910-1911.

Villino Broggi-Caraceni details.

Casa-galleria Vichi, 1913-1914

Details. Most of these pictures come from Italian wikipedia, since as I said only locals pay attention to post-Renaissance architecture in Florence.