Monday, October 31, 2016

The Strange Case of Pawnee Farm Arlinda Chief

Freakish numbers from the dairy industry:
It started with a bull named Pawnee Farm Arlinda Chief, who had a whopping 16,000 daughters. And 500,000 granddaughters and more than 2 million great-granddaughters. Today, in fact, his genes account for 14 percent of all DNA in Holstein cows, the most popular breed in the dairy industry.

Chief—let’s call him Chief for brevity’s sake—was so popular because his daughters were fantastic milk producers. He had great genes for milk. But, geneticists now know, he also had a single copy of a deadly mutation that spread undetected through the Holstein cow population. The mutation caused some unborn calves to die in the womb. According to a recent estimate, this single mutation ended up causing more than 500,000 spontaneous abortions and costing the dairy industry $420 million in losses.

That’s a crazy number, but here’s an even crazier one: Despite the lethal mutation, using Chief’s sperm instead of an average bull’s still led to $30 billion dollars in increased milk production over the past 35 years. That’s how much a single bull could affect the industry.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

What if Genetically Modified Crops Don't Work?

The standard story of genetically modified crops has been the promise of greater yields and less pesticide use vs. the fear of unintended and possibly awful consequences. Danny Hakim has a fascinating piece in the Times arguing that so far GM crops have not performed any better on either metric than standard varieties. Check out the graph above, which shows that corn yields in the US are essentially identical to those in Europe, where GM seeds are banned. The point is not original to Hakim; he is drawing on a substantial body of research.

It's a very important point, although it may not be the long-term story. At the moment our techniques for genetic manipulation are clumsy compared to what they will be in ten or twenty years. But so far this technology has mainly benefited big agribusiness companies like Monsanto, rather than farmers or the rest of us.

Denis Forkas Kostromitin

Denis Forkas Kostromitin is a Russian artist who currently lives and works in Moscow. He was born in 1977 in the Volga River town of Kamyshin. By his own account he escaped from a bleak upbringing into the study of Greek and Egyptian mythology, alchemy, and other esoterica.

I was led to him by this amazing "cartoon" (above and top) of Dionysus and Ariadne (2015), which has spread widely across the art blogs.

This work is titled Between Two Worlds: Study for a Recurring Dream of Ichor Baptism Fashioned as a Portico Fresco Cartoon, 2016. Kostromitin posted it his Facebook page with this explanation:
I have experienced the vision twice so far: in my childhood (around 1984) and last autumn.

I enter a concealed pavilion and immediately hear a soft female voice speaking an unknown language. There is something about the timbrе that robs me of my will power and I gradually lose control over my body. The sermon brings me to my knees and pulls towards an imposing figure of a pitch black priestess - her features and details of her attire flattened by uniform blackness. I realize before long that the voice is no more and the scene is now drowned in a solemn silence. The lady tends to a peculiar suspended vessel and places it directly over my head. At her slightest touch it tilts and a warm, living substance pours down upon me. It covers me whole and eventually locks my body in this hard resin shell. Panic surge is quickly replaced by the most glorious sensation of myself imploding within the shell and falling endlessly through the soul’s looking glass into the unknown.

Two pictures from a series on Baldr's Dream. 

Looking at Kostromitin's work you might think, "I bet this guy does covers for satanic heavy metal bands." And sure enough, this is an album cover commissioned by a Polish band called Behemoth. The painting is titled Chalice of Severance.

Dream of the Angel of Empathy and the City of the Great Plague, 2014.

This is titled Study for Hypocrites (illustration for Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri/Inferno, Canto 23), after Francisco Goya after John Flaxman (2015). A work with a lineage.

The Dance of Asterion, 2014.

Jiang-shī Mask, 2014.

The Offering, 2014. More of Kostromitin's art here and at his web site.

Pumpkins 2016

Low Water on the Potomac

Friday morning.

Gary Kasparov Wants to Tell Trump about Rigged Elections

Gary Kasparov:
I know a few things about rigged elections. I know what it’s like to have the overwhelming power of the state used against me to make a mockery of the democratic process. I know what it means to have my opinion censored while every major media outlet is dedicated to vilifying me and my colleagues. I know what happens when a conspiracy of public and private interests forms to intimidate, harass, prosecute and even kill in order to preserve a monopoly on power.
Kasparov tried to run for president as leader of Other Russia in 2008, but he never even made it on the ballot:
In order to do this, I had to jump through the official and unofficial hoops that had been put in place to prevent unapproved candidates from making it onto a ballot. Two million signatures were needed from all over the country in just one month, a task made even more herculean by the sheer size of Russia. A nominating congress had to be held, an apparently simple chore that became impossible when no hotel would rent a suitable space to us. Even American-owned hotel chains mysteriously canceled our reservations.

While I traveled across the country to campaign, we would find venues suddenly closed for repairs, our flights canceled, our meetings shut down by the police. Nor did I quite manage to stay out of jail, spending five days in a Moscow cell for participating in an “unauthorized rally.”
And so on. There are senses in which the American system is unfair; think how hard it is for any third party figure to get a hearing. But the people who think the American election is rigged ought to read a little about places like Russia and Zimbabwe to get a sense of what a truly rigged election is like. Kasparov concludes with this warning:
A democracy is as strong as its people believe it to be. It cannot be destroyed from the outside, only from within.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Arthur Hacker

Arthur Hacker (1858-1919) was born into an artistic, middle-class family, his father an engraver and part-time government functionary. He attended the Royal Academy and then embarked on a modestly successful painting career. In fact he has one of the briefest and most boring biographies of any artist I have ever researched. But I was struck by this painting, By the Waters of Babylon, so I am posting about him anyway.

Two domestic scenes A Difficulty and The Fisherman's Wife (1885). Is there anybody out there who knows enough about sewing to guess what is the difficulty with which the girls needs grandmotherly assistance?

This is the work of Hacker's most reproduced online – mainly on the Tumblrs of young female art fanciers. The Temptation of Sir Galahad. (1897) Between the halo and the plate armor I think she is going to have a difficult time luring him very far astray.

Like most 19th-century painters Hacker did a lot of portraits. His are of widely varying quality, some clumsy but others impressive. This is Charlotte Ferguson of Largham, obviously a true pillar of society, on the board of every charitable organization, with all the right opinions and a terror to those of her class who act beneath their station. Or so I imagine.

Sir Frank Short, 1918.

Oporto, Portugal, painted in an impressionist sort of style.

Piccadilly Circus at Night, 1912.

But it is the mythological and religious scenes that grab me. Here is A Great Cry in Egypt, 1897.

Vale or Farewell, 1913.

And one last, Syrinx.

Birth Control, Medicaid, Poverty, Racism, and the Future

In America, about half of births are "unplanned," around two-thirds among poor women. This seems like a socio-technological failure. We have the means to reduce this number; birth control has gotten a lot better over the past twenty years, and new IUDs and long-term implants work much better than the pill. Yet many women who would rather not get pregnant don't use them, because they aren't cheap and require them to 1) make a big decision, and 2) visit a doctor's office to carry it out.

The people who pay for all those unplanned births have hit an a new method to get women to use more effective birth control: offer it to them right after they give birth.
The idea behind the policy is to seize the day when a woman is sure to be interacting with the health care system — at the birth of a child. It is also the moment she is most likely to be insured: Pregnant women who are poor and do not have insurance are put on Medicaid temporarily. Birth control is usually discussed in a checkup about six weeks after delivery, but a majority of women on Medicaid, which covers 57 percent of births in South Carolina, do not return, officials said. Nearly half of all births in the United States are covered by Medicaid.

The change seems to have done the unimaginable: connect large numbers of poor women with new methods of birth control that have the potential to give them a lot more say over when, and with whom, they have children. Since South Carolina started the policy in 2012, unplanned pregnancies have declined by 6 percent, and the state Medicaid office has saved $1.7 million.
On the one hand, this could save taxpayers a lot of money, prevent pregnancies that come at the worst possible time for the mother, and reduce poverty.


We are, right now, reproducing ourselves at right around the replacement rate; what would happen if we eliminated half of births? Some of those would happen later in life instead, but surely not all of them. We might be talking about a dramatic reduction in childbirth in America, concentrated among poor people. We could quickly end up like Japan, wondering what to do about our shrinking population.

There are also class factors. Offering birth control to women on Medicaid can bee seen as a sort of plot to dragoon more women into the middle class model of life, where everything is planned and happens at the right time. Unplanned pregnancies can be seen as an expression of a different attitude toward life, in which stuff just happens and you adapt as best you can. I have known two black women professionally in Washington who had babies when they were teenagers but then got themselves together, went back to school and ended up in office-manager type jobs. When I knew them they both felt that their lives had worked out well, since they got the hard work of raising babies out of the way early and could then focus on their careers. It is likely that those choices were subsidized by the government in the form of welfare or WIC or what have you, but if the country is worried about demographic decline that might turn out to be a good investment. In general I think the notion that the most carefully planned life is the best life is dubious.

It is also an inconvenient fact that if fully implemented this program would have a bigger impact on black and Hispanic birth rates than those of whites and Asians, since more black and Hispanic women are poor. The legacy of forced sterilization programs for poor, minority women makes many activists very suspicious. Childbirth is a traumatic (in the medical sense) act that is accompanied by massive hormonal changes and often leads to complications like post-partum depression, so is six hours after birth the right time to ask a single woman to make a decision with major life consequences? It smacks of taking advantage of a moment of weakness to sign women up for the agenda of the state.

Realistically, this program will probably not have huge effects; if Medicaid pays for half of births, and the program reduces Medicaid births by 6 percent, that means an overall birth-rate decline of 3 percent. Plus these are all women who have given birth once already, so they already have families. But there are demographic and ethical issues that we need to think about separately from the question of how to save money.

In Israel, the Price of Relentless Polarization

Israeli politics is becoming entrenched along partisan lines in the way that many Americans fear will happen to us. The big questions of Israeli greatness vs. Palestinian rights dominate everything. Israel used to be a model of contentious politics in a truly united country, but now people who speak against the settlements and against oppression are regularly called traitors:
Back in Tel Aviv, I had dinner with Gil Friedlander. He’s an Israeli patriot who served in the air force for many years, before creating and selling a tech company. But his country, so dynamic on the economic front, fertile soil for start-ups, finds itself at a terrible political impasse.

“The great victorious war of 1967 had an impact that is eating us from the inside,” he told me. “I would be more than happy to get out of the West Bank and East Jerusalem and build a country with a morality I believe in. I will fight for peace, but I will not fight to maintain the status quo.” He described feeling more and more confined, living in “smaller and smaller areas where I find people who think like me,” and feeling a stranger in the Jerusalem where he grew up.
I think that captures what decades of intense partisan conflict can do to a country.

Friday, October 28, 2016

Carved Stone Balls of Neolithic Scotland

Today's archaeological mystery is the carved stone balls found by the dozens in Scotland, especially Aberdeenshire, with a few scattered across the rest of Britain and Ireland. Most are around 7 cm in diameter, about the size of a tennis ball.

More than 400 are known.

They very quite a bit in how elaborately they have been carved in decorated. This is a drawing of the very elaborate stone found at Towrie.

Most have been found in plowed fields, with no obvious context. So it took a long time to work out how old they are. But gradually enough were found at good Neolithic sites (five at Skara Brae on Orkney, for example) to show that they date to Neolithic times; one sees dates like 3200 to 2500 BCE. In 2013 one was found at the Ness of Brodgar in a very good Neolithic context.

But what are they? Nobody knows. They have a ceremonial look to them, but none have been found in burials or other clearly religious contexts. On the other hand none of them seem to be worn or broken from use, so it is hard to make them into practical objects such as bola or net stones. Theories include dice (for either gambling or prophecy) and a "speaking stone" that would be passed to the person in an assembly who had the floor. My personal favorite theory is that they were used for a sort of bowling game. But these are just guesses.

These are a complete mystery, and don't let anyone tell you otherwise.

Britain's "Wild" Landscapes

Richard Smyth:
In his recent book Wild Kingdom, Stephen Moss emphasizes the agricultural underpinnings of much of Britain's "wild" landscapes; "Everything I can see, all around me, has been shaped – and indeed is still being shaped – by human hand." Moss is reiterating a point made nearly forty years ago by Richard Mabey in his breakthrough work The Common Ground (1980). "What we had regarded as a natural landscape was a much more complex product of growth and husbandry", Mabey wrote. "The turf of the southern chalk downs . . . turned out to be the product of extensive sheep-grazing . . . . The wild sweeps of moorland in the Scottish Highlands had been created by a massive program of forest clearance. The Norfolk Broads were the flooded remains of medieval peat mines."

The zoologist and activist George Monbiot has spoken frequently of the problem of "shifting baseline syndrome" in ecology; that is, the conviction that the circumstances to which one has become accustomed – the landscape in which one grew up, for example – are the "correct" circumstances, the default setting. The term can be usefully applied to our attitudes towards the "wild sweeps of moorland" of which Mabey wrote. The objective position is that these are denuded monocultures, industrial badlands stripped of biodiversity by sheep-farming and grouse-rearing. In the generations since their deforestation and clearance, however, we have developed – learned? – a sincere appreciation for the starkness of the bare moor and treeless fell. 
From an article in the August 19 TLS. I would add that human modification of the landscape did not begin with farming, but with our first appearance in the lands outside Africa. We transformed North America by slaughtering mastodons and the like thousands of years before agriculture.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Common Swifts can Spend Ten Months in the Air

If this were April, I don't think I would believe it:
The common swift is a bird shaped by and for the air. In flight it looks like a crescent moon, with just a hint of head and a tail that, when spread, echoes the curve of its wings.

Scientists have now confirmed that it can spend up to 10 months in the air without landing. Only when it makes a nest does it need to come to Earth. It can even mate during flight.

Anders Hedenström, a biologist at the University of Lund, and his colleagues determined how much time swifts spend in the air by capturing them in southern Sweden, where they summer and nest, and attaching micro data loggers.
Some swifts rest occasionally, but on the whole, when they are not nesting, they spend 99 percent of their time in the air. They sleep in the air, but plenty of birds do that. I don't know of any other that can spend months straight in the air. Astonishing.

Money and Politics in America

Hillary is poised to be the first Democrat in 60 years to win a majority of white voters with college degrees. According to some polls, Hillary is also poised to be the first Democrat in two generations to win whites earning more than $75,000 a year; ABC News has her leading by 6 percent in this category.

This change has been in the works since the 1990s, but it has accelerated in this election. In 2008 Obama won in a landslide but still lost college-educated whites by 4 percent; in 2012 Romney won them by 11 percent.

There has been a major decoupling of voting from economics. After all Hillary is promising a much bigger tax increase on the wealthy than Obama's modest hike, and measures that will help the poor and struggling. But she is set to win the people she wants to tax, and among whites she will lose the people she wants to help.

Hillary's voters are the people who feel that they are winning. This spring Pew asked people, “compared with 50 years ago, life for people like you in America today is worse, better or the same?”
The optimists: Clinton supporters (59 better, 19 worse), Democrats (55-23), white college grads (43-39), African-Americans (51-20), voters with post graduate degrees (51-29). A separate June 2016 Pew survey of Hispanic voters found that 81 percent of Clinton supporters expect their family’s finances to improve in the near term, and 72 percent said they expect their children to be better off than they are.

The pessimists: Trump supporters (81 worse, 11 better), Republicans (72-17) and whites without college degrees (60-28).
A PRRI poll came up with similar results:
About seven in ten likely voters supporting Donald Trump (72%) say American society and way of life has changed for the worse since the 1950s, while seven in ten likely voters supporting Hillary Clinton (70%) say things have changed for the better.
I always used to mock Republicans who ran against "the elite," since every year Republicans won a majority of the wealthy and well-educated. But now it seems to be true; the elite really is for the Democrat to an unprecedented degree. (According to one poll, Hillary leads among people with graduate degrees 74-14.)

I wonder how long this will go on; it seems odd that the party proposing big tax cuts for millionaires and cuts to Social Security keeps winning a majority of white votes who depend on Social Security to get by. Can such a pattern be stable? Right now people seem more invested in social issues, but won't economics re-assert itself eventually?

Tom Thompson

Tom Thomson (1877-1917) was a Canadian landscape painter whose mysterious death is nearly as famous as his art. (The Pool, 1915)

Born into a working class family in Ontario, he was apprenticed in a machine shop, but was fired for being habitually late. He tried to sign up for the Boer War, but was rejected for medical reasons. (Logging Camp, 1910)

He started learning to draw and worked for years in various design shops and printing firms; this is one of his self-designed business cards. At his last such employer, Grip Ltd., he met a group of painters and began to make artistic trips with them. So far as we know he never took an art class, although he must have been instructed in engraving and so on in his jobs.

In 1912 he began showing his art, and in 1914 the National Gallery of Canada acquired one of his works. (Drowned Land, 1912)

But he still worked part time to support himself, for example as a fire ranger in Algonquin Park. He loved the north woods and spent as much time as he could there, fishing, hiking, and painting. (Northern River, 1914)

On July 8, 1917, Thompson disappeared while on a fishing trip on Algonquian Lake. His body was found eight days later. (The Jack Pine, 1916)

People have wondered what really happened to him ever since. There have been books, documentaries, tv episodes, etc., speculating that he was murdered by a rival or committed suicide because of some great scandal, and also theories that the body in his supposed grave is the wrong height or race. But nothing has ever been proved to the satisfaction of skeptics. (Moonlight, 1916)

Trump and the New Right

Interesting essay by Matthew Continetti traces the origins of Trumpism to the "New Right" of the 1970s:
The enemies of the New Right were compromise, gradualism, and acquiescence in the corrupt system. Partisan identification had little to do with their antagonisms. Nor did ideology. Buckley and Will were just as much targets of media criticism as CBS and the New York Times. Conservatives and Republicans with Ivy League degrees were sellouts, weak, epiphenomena of the social disease.

“There are conservatives whose game it is to quote English poetry and utter neo-Madisonian benedictions over the interests and institutions of establishment liberalism,” Kevin Phillips wrote in Commentary, clearly rebuking Will. “Then there are other conservatives—many I know—who have more in common with Andrew Jackson than with Edmund Burke. Their hope is to build cultural siege-cannon out of the populist steel of Idaho, Mississippi, and working-class Milwaukee, and then blast the Eastern liberal establishment to ideo-institutional smithereens.” In two sentences Phillips repudiated the cornerstone of Burkeanism—the protection of established order against radical challenges—in favor of upheaval, destruction, and power.

Today, when we think of Wallace and the fight against crime and busing, we think of racial antagonism and bias. But there was also something else going on. “Racism is a part of it, though somewhat muted in recent days,” wrote Kirkpatrick Sale in his 1975 book Power Shift. “But more potent still is a broad adversarianism, a being-against. Wallace has no real policies, plans, or platforms, and no one expects them of him; it is sufficient that he is agin and gathers unto him others who are agin, agin the blacks, the intellectuals, the bureaucrats, the students, the journalists, the liberals, the outsiders, the Communists, the changers, above all, agin the Yankee establishment.”

Francis Fukuyama is Nervous

Francis Fukuyama – once famous for the historical optimism of his book The End of History – sounds a lot more pessimistic these days:
We went through a period like this in the 1930s after the Great Depression where you had a lot of economic distress and a lot of radical policies being pursued, and Germany and Italy went off in this authoritarian direction and the United States chose Franklin Roosevelt — a radical in the context of American politics, but [he] stayed well within the political frame.

I think people thought that just reflected a very different kind of American political culture that is deeply democratic and liberal. I think this election year has suggested that maybe we were just lucky back then and there was nothing deeply constraining that kind of move other than just good leadership.
Asked what he would advise the next president to focus on, he said:
You would need to address the problem of campaign finance on the left and right motivating a lot of the anger. If it requires political pressure on the court to require higher regulation of money in politics, that would be part of the agenda.

Fundamentally, the inequality problem is also the driver of a lot of the anger. There’s two things I think you could do that would have an impact: tax reform that would get rid of our ridiculous tax forms that are full of giveaways for special interests in the country. And then infrastructure — a big investment spree that would have to be accompanied by changes to rules that make it hard to get these changes done in less than 10 years.

Between those two things, I think you’d address the underlying causes of voter anger.
I certainly agree that radically simplifying the tax form would be much appreciated by Americans, but I doubt it would do much to dent inequality.

Can there be Democracy without Facts?

Emma Roller:
The strongest bias in American politics is not a liberal bias or a conservative bias; it is a confirmation bias, or the urge to believe only things that confirm what you already believe to be true. Not only do we tend to seek out and remember information that reaffirms what we already believe, but there is also a “backfire effect,” which sees people doubling down on their beliefs after being presented with evidence that contradicts them.

So, where do we go from here? There’s no simple answer, but the only way people will start rejecting falsehoods being fed to them is by confronting uncomfortable truths. Fact-checking is like exposure therapy for partisans, and there is some reason to believe in what researchers call an “affective tipping point,” where “motivated reasoners” start to accept hard truths after seeing enough claims debunked over and over.
To me this is by far the greatest danger to democracy in the world, in fact the only one I take seriously: the division of whole nations into competing camps that do not acknowledge the same version of reality. I am not at all sure how one goes about fighting this problem. I have tried to do my part here by taking the most reasoned tone I can manage and searching for common ground, but my conservative friends still tell me that they often can't stand to read my political posts because they are so maddening.

Most successful countries in history have been governed by a political class that had a broadly shared background and outlook. When the leadership class falls into irreconcilable divisions about their fundamental vision of the world, bad things happen. In the US we seem to be heading in that direction. Our leadership class has lost all credibility with millions of ordinary people, leaving a vacuum filled by people like Trump and Sean Hannity who have nothing at all to say to their opponents. Conservatives and liberals who want to find common ground sometimes discover that they have nothing to talk about, no shared frame for even defining what our problems are, let alone what to  do about them. Sometimes this worries me.

Celtic Gold Arm Band, c 400 BCE

From Timelineauctions.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Ground Down by the Meritocracy

Another depressing look at the lives of young scientists at Nature:
In fact, scientific life was proving tough. He found himself working 60–80 hours per week doing teaching and research. His start-up funding had run out, he had yet to secure a major grant and, according to a practice common in US academia, he would not be paid by his university for three summer months. His wife had not been able to move with him, so he was making tiring weekend commutes. It seemed that the pressures had reached unsustainable levels. Something had to give. . . .

“I see many colleagues divorcing, getting burnt out, moving out of science, and I am so tired now,” wrote one biomedical researcher from Belgium.
When the best careers really are open to anyone with the talent, the only way to get ahead is to work harder than everyone else. And the competition to be the hardest worker seems to be very tough these days.

A Brooch for the Bold Roman

Dating to the 4th century CE, this Roman brooch bears the legend
That would be the old Latin tag Fortuna fortibus favet, or "Fortune favors the bold." This became the motto of the Sforza family, Dukes of Milan in Renaissance Italy; by their time the word was sometimes translated "strong," thus, "Fortune favors the strong." Wonderful to think that some 4th century Roman worthy wore this at his collar. From Timelineauctions.

Odin with Horns; or are they Ravens?

One of those facts that a certain sort of nerd web site likes to throw at you is, "Vikings never wore horned helmets!" Personally I would be very reluctant to say that nobody in the medieval Norse world ever wore a horned helmet, since such things did exist in the ancient world at least, and there are precious few surviving Viking helmets to judge from. But it does seem that normal viking helmets looked like this one.

But then there is this, a small Viking amulet recently found by a metal detectorist on the Danish island of Funen. It likely dates to the 8th century. What does this Viking have on his head? Don't rush to conclusions because the antler-things are broken off.

Most likely they originally looked like this, a gold version from Finland. Look closely and you see that the antler things have bird's heads. So this style of figurine is traditionally interpreted as Odin with his two ravens.

(Odin with two ravens, in case you forgot. From an 18th-century saga manuscript.)

And then there is this famous bronze die found on the Swedish island of Öland, also dated to the 8th century. You can see the bear-skinned berserk on the right, and on the left a figure with with those things on his head. He also seems to have a problem with one of his eyes. So the general view is that he is Odin, and the two horn things represent his ravens.

But, you know, they look an awful lot like horns, and it would not be crazy to interpret this as an image as a warrior in a horned helmet. So while it does seem that the horned helmets are in invention of modern Wagnerians, I would not bet my house on it.