Wednesday, May 31, 2017

My New Career Goal

I want a picture of me posed like this to appear in a newspaper. This is Dr. Rolfe Mandel from the University of Kansas digging at a buffalo kill site. Which is pretty cool, but he doesn't have any particular eminence or charisma. So if he can have this treatment, so can I.

Family Secrets and DNA Testing

One of Rod Dreher's readers sent in this story:
Family members were contacted by an individual who had performed a DNA test and was given actual family names and a location based on that DNA profile and a subscription to Turns out my family member was raped by a relative as a young girl, was sent away, put the baby up for adoption with anonymous records and specific orders not to reopen the file, and left home to make her way in the world. The baby was adopted into a functional and loving family–yet this individual continued to search for his/her birth parents despite knowing the records had been intentionally sealed. Enter for-profit DNA testing.

This person sent several emails to the younger generation of the family and the whole thing blew up. The elderly birth mother has since spiraled into a massive depression, brothers and sisters are arguing about whose “rights” are more important–birth parents or adoptee–and folks are lawyering up to ensure inheritance issues don’t arise. Google “birth mother doesn’t want to meet” to get a glimpse of how volatile these emotions can be on both sides.

Every now and then there is a feel-good story in the newspaper about a birth mother being reunited with a child they put up for adoption. I always wonder how many untold stories there are that didn’t end quite so well. Lesson learned though for the current generation: between DNA testing, social media, and Google absolutely no adoption is private anymore. Soon I suspect no “unknown” paternity will be private either.
Once again our growing mastery of genetics is leading to outcomes people might have wanted to consider more carefully in advance.

Reservoir Dogs in Washington

Fascinating Molly Ball column on the mood among Washington's Republicans:
For the Republicans running the government, Capitol Hill has become a workplace with extremely poor morale. The moderates fear for their careers, while the conservative true believers see little to hope for. When the liberal magazine Mother Jones credited Representative Justin Amash of Michigan with being the first Republican to raise the possibility of impeachment, the office of Representative Carlos Curbelo of Florida called to request a correction: Curbelo had gone there first.

But for the most part, his party has not openly turned on Trump. What would be the point? Behind closed doors, a longtime House Republican staffer told me, a few lawmakers still wholeheartedly defend the president; among the rest, there are differing degrees of fatalism. One group thinks it is possible to fight through the crisis, while another is resigned to “a long slow death,” as this staffer put it, potentially culminating in a Democratic-controlled House beginning impeachment proceedings in 2019. “This is like Reservoir Dogs,” the staffer said. “Everyone ends up dead on the floor.”
American politicians are not, for the most part, slow-thinking types devoted to taking the long view. They tend to be a bit flighty and short on attention span, often caught up in the emotions of the moment. So it does not surprise me to hear that many are distracted by Trump-mania and losing their focus. Plus I think there may be many Representatives who enjoyed being the disloyal opposition more than they like trying to come up with a budget or a health care bill. So I am willing to grant that the mood in many Congressional offices may be sour. But moods change fast, so I wouldn't count out the Republican Congress yet. They may still find the resolve to do all sorts of things. The budget has to be passed, and if it all these distractions mean it ends up being passed in a crazy flurry of last-minute deals, who knows what might be in it?

Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the US State Department

Much of Middle Eastern politics these days is dominated by the rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia for regional leadership. One of the few novel things about Obama's foreign policy was a desire to move away from blind support of Saudi Arabia and prod both parties toward accommodation. Once the issue of the Iranian nuclear program had been dealt with, Obama wanted to move toward recognizing Iran as a normal nation and try to peacefully resolve their conflicts with the Saudis and others. Obama disliked the Saudi leadership and resented the assumption that he should always support them despite their horrible record on human rights and billions they have spent exporting fundamentalist Islam around the world.

The Trump administration has gone back to treating the Saudis as close allies and strongly taking their side in the rivalry with Iran. Other than his habit of storming around the world irritating everyone, this may be the most noteworthy thing about Trump's foreign policy so far. (I'm not convinced that his ramblings about NATO will amount to anything in the end.) He has gone back  to the Bush administration line that Iran is an "evil" nation we need to oppose at every turn. Which makes this little incident at the State Department yesterday interesting.
Dave Clark, a reporter for Agence France Presse, asked acting assistant secretary Stuart Jones a pointed question about President Trump criticizing Iranian democracy while standing next to officials of Saudi Arabia—not exactly a beacon of democracy itself. "How do you characterize Saudi Arabia's commitment to democracy?" he asked. Is democracy a barrier against extremism?
The response, as you can see in the video at the link, was 19 seconds of complete silence.

In truth Saudi Arabia is a family dictatorship and they have regularly opposed democracy in other countries as well (Iraq, Egypt). Iran's elections are far from perfect but at least they have elections. I'm not going to carry water for the Iranian regime, which is a corrupt, violent theocracy – but then so is Saudi Arabia's. It seems to me that our long-term interest is best served by making peace between them, and I don't understand why we should waste any effort helping one over the other.


Here is Rod Dreher on the same scene:
To be fair to him, there is no answer that is both honest and consistent with US policy. Which tells you something about US policy.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Dangerous Orange Petunias

Back on May 16, the U.S. Department of Agriculture ordered the destruction of millions of petunias because lab tests showed that they are genetically modified. Somebody probably should have guessed, since most of the illegal petunias are orange, and that is not a color petunias naturally take. On the other hand some are purple, which is one of the traditional colors, so I don't know what's up with that. Anyway the same varieties are also being sold all over Europe, or were until EU agriculture officials discovered them and started their own massacre; it was scientists in Germany and Finland who figured out that they contain genes from corn (maize).

The "authorities" keep reassuring people that the petunias are not dangerous. It's just that you can't sell any genetically modified organism until it has undergone extensive testing and received a permit, and these don't have a permit. The story refuses to die, though, because these petunias have been sold for years all over the world, and people are starting to wonder: how did genetically modified petunias end up being bred and sold by the million for at least three years without anyone knowing? Anti-GM fanatics in Europe have been really agitated, putting out warnings about the possible threats to wildlife and the like:
Genetic engineering can have many unexpected effects so without proper testing it is impossible to say that these flowers will not cause any harm.
Which is sort of an absurd threshold – can you prove that you will not cause any harm? – but you have to give one to the anti-GM forces on this. Agribusiness and their government allies have always said that genetically modified organisms will be tightly controlled and tested, etc., to which the anti-GM crowd responded with genie-out-of-the-bottle rhetoric: once these techniques are developed and commercialized, who really knows how they will be used? And here we are with millions of manifestly not tested, not approved orange petunias. Most likely they are pretty safe; surely somebody would have noticed by now if they killed bees or went feral in a really invasive way. But how many other genetically modified plants are being sold, and how long will it be before one turns out to have some bad effect?

I wonder if these popular petunias will really disappear from garden centers. I just checked and it looks to me like you can still order them online. Will a black market emerge in forbidden orange petunias?

Meanwhile, let us ponder for a moment the names of the petunia varieties the USDA has banned:
African Sunset
Trilogy Mango
Trilogy Deep Purple
Trilogy Red
Trilogy ’76/Liberty Mix
Fortunia Early Orange
Hells Bells Improved
Petunia Salmon Ray
Sweetunia Orange Flash
Hells Bells? I always thought of petunias as sweet old lady flowers. Perhaps the breeders are trying to branch out? Or is this the variety for badass grandmas? Or maybe did this grower know or suspect that this particular variety contained forbidden genes, and was trying to warn us?

Chimpanzee Cannibalism

National Geographic has a splendid article and a short video on the case of Chimpanzee murder in Senegal I wrote about back in January.

Recall the story: Foudouko was the alpha male of this troop, but then fell from power after his chief lieutenant was badly injured. Driven out of the troop, he lived alone for nearly a year, then returned and spent the next few years hanging around the edges of the troop, keeping out of the way of the new leaders. The new alpha male, of Foudouko's generation, welcomed him back, but
the young males who had chafed under his rule were far less sympathetic. They regularly chased Foudouko out of the community, assailing him with strange calls the researchers did not recognize.

Before dawn on the morning of June 15, 2013, Jill Pruetz and her assistant Michel Sadiakho heard noises from about a half-mile away from their camp: a band of chimpanzees rapidly moving to the south from their nesting site, calling out in an uproar. Pruetz, ill with malaria, couldn’t go see the hubbub, leaving Sadiakho to run after them.

What Sadiakho saw devastated him. Foudouko, who was around 17 years old, lay there dead, his hands covered in bite marks and scratches—implying that two other chimpanzees had held him down as others beat his head and torso. A gaping wound on his foot, perhaps a bite, had peeled back much of the skin and likely led to severe blood loss.

As morning came, Pruetz and her team watched many of Fongoli’s male and female chimpanzees harass—and partially cannibalize—his body, tearing out his throat and biting at his genitals.
Fascinating. Chimpanzee cannibalism has been documented before, always in cases like this, part of the mutilation of an enemy's body. Except that in this case the "enemy" was part of their own troop. It strikes me as a gesture of contempt; you are no longer one of us, but merely food.

Love the detail about the strange, unrecognized call.

National Geographic has more on this troop of chimps here.

Monday, May 29, 2017

The Death Song of Ragnar Lodbrok

One of the good things to come out of the TV series Vikings is the rediscovery of an old poem called The Death Song of Ragnar Lodbrok. Not that it was ever really lost, but it was so obscure that even people like me had never read it until we heard Einar Selvik perform part of it in the show.

Ragnar Lodbrok (Hairy-Breeches) is my favorite kind of historical character, one who hovers on the exact border of myth and history. Norse sources tell us that he led some of the first Viking raids on Britain, around the year 800, that he also fought in France and in the east, the he married three beautiful noble women in succession, and that he fathered several famous sons: Ivar the Boneless, Björn Ironside, Halfdan Ragnarsson, Hvitserk, Sigurd Snake-in-the-Eye. The first two of these are definite historical figures, attested in sources like the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, but sadly those more reliable sources make no mention of Ragnar himself. He appears in his own Icelandic Saga, in the Saga of the Sons of Ragnar (both 13th century), in a fragmentary poem that may date to the ninth century, and in Saxo's History of the Danes. Saxo's book was an attempt to turn a mass of traditional stories and poems into a narrative history, and his account of Ragnar seems to be a not-very-successful reconciliation of several incompatible legends. So the historical record is not so great.

It seems to me, though, that the Vikings would have done great honor to the men who led the first major raids on Britain, and at least remembered their names, so if Ragnar Hairy-Breeches is the name that comes down to us, I am willing to grant him provisional reality. Perhaps he eventually acquired feats performed by other men, as heroes often did, but that he lived and did some mighty deeds I do not doubt.

According to the Icelandic sagas, Ragnar was eventually captured by the King of Northumbria and killed by being thrown into a pit full of snakes. (Wolves, in Saxo's version; take your pick.) Ragnar's Death Song is supposed to be sung by Ragnar from the pit. It is in Old Norse, but not that of the ninth century; the experts think it was composed in the 12th century, most likely in Orkney or the Hebrides. The reason it is not more famous now is that its late date makes it dubious to the people who compile course readers, and even historians who write popular books about the Vikings are leery of quoting it. If you want a few lines of poetry to catch the flavor of the Viking world, we have plenty of fragments composed centuries earlier, including whole poems by the famous Viking Egil Skallagrimson. But 150 years ago it was much more famous, and it did much to shape how Europeans thought about Vikings in the age of Tennyson and Wagner.

The Death Song has 29 stanzas, most of ten lines. It starts like this:
Hjuggum vér með hjörvi
hitt var æ fyr löngu
er á Gautlandi gengum
at grafvitnis morði.
Þá fengum vér Þóru
þaðan hétu mik fyrðar
er lyngölun lagðak
Loðbrók at því vígi.
Stakk á storðar lykkju
stáli bjartra mála.
You can hear how this would have been spoken here; if you want it sung, go to the Einar Selvik link at the top.

Hjuggum vér með hjörvi is the first line of every stanza; it means, more or less, "We swung our swords." Below, a fairly literal translation of the first two stanzas by Ben Waggoner:
We struck with our swords!
So long ago, it was:
we had gone to Gautland
for the ground-wolf’s slaughter.
Then we won fair Thora;
thus the warriors named me
Loðbrok, when I laid that
heather-eel low in battle,
ended the earth-coil’s life
with inlaid shining steel.

We struck with our swords!
Still was I young when we
went east to Øresund,
carved the eager wolf’s meal.
We gave a great dinner
to the gold-legged birds,
where hard iron clashed, howling
against helmets, tall and well forged.
All the sea was swollen,
in slain-blood the raven waded.
You can see that this was written in the Skaldic tradition, loaded with obscure "kennings" like ground-wolf for serpent, carving the wolf's meal for battle. The lines about heather-eel and earth-coil seem to refer to a dragon.

Verse 25 contains a bit of old pagan lore:
We struck with our swords!
My soul is glad, for I know
That Balder’s father’s benches
For a banquet are made ready.
We’ll toss back toasts of ale
From bent trees of the skulls;
No warrior bewails his death
In the wondrous house of Fjolnir.
Not one word of weakness
Will I speak in Viðrir’s hall.
Baldr's father, Fjolnir and Viðrir are all ways of naming Odin; his hall is Valhalla.

This poem, like the Icelandic Sagas, was composed toward the end of the Viking Age. The great raids were over, the discoveries had all been made, Christianity had replaced paganism, and except in Iceland and Greenland the Viking settlements were gradually being absorbed by the lands where they built their farms. But it was still a violent era, when armed men sailed the northern seas in longships, gathered in firelit halls, and listened to poems chanted by skalds. They still felt great kinship with their mighty ancestors, and they loved songs and stories of those days.

Images of a Viking ship in rough seas come from this video; I think they originate from some European Beowulf film.

Sunday, May 28, 2017


This weekend's musical discovery, courtesy of my elder daughter. The musician is Amalie Bruun; the piece is a Danish folk song titled Två Konungabarn, Two Princes (Princesses? I'm not very good at Danish gender); the instrument is a Nyckelharpa. Myrkur (which is old Norse for darkness, like "murk") is a project of Bruun's, a sort of one woman black metal band. You can hear the metal pieces at the Myrkur web site. It's interesting, but someone needs to take this woman aside and tell her that her voice is wasted on that stuff.

A Monument to Peer Review

Ah, Science:
On 26 May, a good-humoured crowd of more than 100 people — including students, researchers and Russia’s deputy minister of education and science — gathered outside Moscow’s Higher School of Economics (HSE) to witness the unveiling of what is probably the world's first monument to peer review.

The sculpture takes the form of a die displaying on its five visible sides the possible results of review — ‘Accept’, ‘Minor Changes’, ‘Major Changes’, ‘Revise and Resubmit’ and ‘Reject’.

Last year, the director of the HSE’s Institute of Education, Isak Froumin, had asked his faculty for ideas about how to turn a useless block of concrete outside the university into something attractive and meaningful.

HSE sociologist Igor Chirikov suggested having the awkward lump chiselled into the die tribute, called 'Monument to an Anonymous Peer Reviewer'.

I don't know if peer reviewers deserve a monument, since so many of them seem to be terrible at what they do, but this process is vital to modern scholarship in good and bad ways. When we say that contemporary science is, say, biased against climate change skeptics, or against people who believe in big differences between male and female brains, these attitudes become operational through peer review. Because the peer review process is so fundamental to scholarship, the shared attitudes, prejudices, and beliefs of scholars shape their fields. Fortunately among the widely shared attitudes is boredom and a desire to see something new, so the bias against revolutionary results is not as great as you might suspect. But the community of scholars makes its will real through peer review.

Twenty-Five Strange Posts

The Hard Scientific Problem of Hamster Happiness. How would you measure it if you had to?

Zombies vs. Cave Bears. Let's have some less ridiculous bad guys, please.

Extreme Spider Situation

Knights vs. Snails. Some genuine medieval weirdness.

The Drowning Mouse Scale of Depression.

How to Tell if You're in a Viking Saga.

Terrorists vs. Squirrels

Dr. Evermor's Forevertron

The Conspira-Sea Cruise

Satan's Spiritual Structure


St. Radegund's Thing for Washing Feet

Indonesia's Chicken Church

The Frustrated Scheme. A strange spy story from the American Revolution.

Earthquakes, Human Sacrifice, and Minoan Archaeology

The Town in the Coal Fire

Some Really Weird Bronze Age Petroglyphs

The Threefold Death of the Hermaphrodite

The Beatles Meet the Fellowship of the Ring

The Twilight of the Svans

Men in Knitwear

The Weirdest Bronze Age Animal

World of Warcraft and the NSA

In Iceland, the Anti-Incest App

Dog Suicide in the 1890s

Bruno Weber's Strange World

The Capuchin Catacombs of Palermo

Ludwig Rösch

Ludwig Rösch (1865-1936) was an Austrian painter and lithographer whose online presence is mostly limited to thousands of copies of this one image: Pilgrim Chapel, St. Stephen's Cathedral.

So I looked him up and a few other nice things, but nothing that compares to the Pilgrim Chapel. He lived all over Europe – England, France, Spain – part of the international elite that dominated the continent before World War I, much like the international elite of today. Above, the royal court in Vienna.

Animal Self-Medication

Nice article in the Times reviewing the research in animal self-medication that I have mentioned here before. I learned from it that sheep self-medicate to control intestinal parasites, switching their diets to include more bitter or tannin-rich plants when their parasite load is high. This is fascinating:
The abiding question — the greatest puzzle of all, really — is how animals first learn which plants are medicinal. Villalba has observed that lambs infected with parasites are more likely to try new plants when grazing in an open pasture compared to uninfected lambs. They lose some of what scientists call food “neophobia,” the fear of new flavors, and their greater willingness to explore the surrounding foodscape may increase the odds of a medicinal discovery.

Huffman calls these tendencies “pre-adaptations.” They’re hard-wired behaviors that push animals toward the acquisition of medical knowledge — in this case, by impelling them to try the very flavors they normally shun. Arguably, this exploratory behavior exhibits a fundamental insight about the world, which, fully articulated, might go like this: Plants have evolved an exquisite array of poisons and noxious compounds to protect themselves. Many of these are directed at invertebrates and microbes, relatives of what makes an animal sick. So a terrible-tasting plant, one usually avoided, has a better-than-average chance of beating back whatever is making that creature ill.
And here's a good example of a very common type of story told by traditional shamans about how they acquired their own medical knowledge:
Huffman often tells a story he heard from his friend Kalunde, who died in 2013, to illustrate the point. Kalunde’s grandfather, a healer, once watched a sick porcupine eat the roots of a plant known to be quite poisonous. When the porcupine recovered, Kalunde’s grandfather began experimenting with the root in small doses, first on himself and then on fellow villagers. It turned out to be an effective treatment for dysentery, one the Tongwe still use today.
In case you ever wondered why traditional human medicine involved so much purging and so many enemas, remember that intestinal parasites used to be one of the main causes of our medical problems. This line of thinking also explains our old belief that effective medicine should taste terrible.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

A Book Review

This short book, revised, improved, and expanded, is so good it is wasted on almost all of you.

–Tyler Cowen on Arnold Kling, The Three Languages of Politics: Talking Across the Political Divides.

Human Evolution and the Transitional Spine

Meet the Dikika Child, otherwise known as Selam, a 3.3-million-year-old Australopithecus toddler unearthed in 2000.

Selam is back in the news because the spine has been imaged at the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility, a technique can easily distinguish fossil bone from the surrounding sandstone matrix. The results show that while Selam shared many characteristics with chimpanzees, her spine already had some of the changes that humans evolved to walk upright. Specifically, she had 12 rib-bearing verterbrae rather than the 13 of apes.

Which gives me another chance to point out that complaints from creationists about the lack of "transitional" fossils are bunk. Australopithecus afarensis is an almost perfect intermediary between chimpanzees and Homo erectus, which is an almost perfect intermediary between A. afarensis and us.
A. afarensis had both ape and human characteristics: members of this species had apelike face proportions (a flat nose, a strongly projecting lower jaw) and braincase (with a small brain, usually less than 500 cubic centimeters -- about 1/3 the size of a modern human brain), and long, strong arms with curved fingers adapted for climbing trees. They also had small canine teeth like all other early humans, and a body that stood on two legs and regularly walked upright.

Juno at Jupiter

NASA's Juno spacecraft is peacefully orbiting Jupiter these days, on an elliptical orbit that brings it close to the planet every 53 days. It is doing lots of science about magnetic fields, the planet's gravity, and so on, very technical stuff. But it also has an infrared camera, which produced the image above, and a marvelous visual light camera. That camera took the images that were assembled into the portrait of the planet's South Pole shown below. While the equatorial regions are organized into those famous bands, which haven't changed much in 300 years, the poles seem to be a chaotic mess.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Bamburgh Castle

Bamburgh Castle looms over the northeast coast of England, remnant of ancient kingdoms and folly of Victorian magnates. It has much in common with the Tower of London: both are places of great antiquity and extraordinary history, but both are still occupied and have been rebuilt and restored so many times that you can never tell who might have placed the particular stones in front of you, or in which century.

Bamburgh was the citadel of one of the earliest Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, Bernicia, which is first attested under a King Ida in 547 CE. Ida was known as Flame-Bearer, probably in reference to his favorite style of warfare. He is supposed to have named the fortress Bebbaburgh after one of his wives.

A 9th century Welsh text calls the place Din Guarie, which would be a good name for Brittonic fort. On the basis of this one source, some authorities assert that Bamburgh was the seat of a Brittonic lordship in the fifth century, perhaps even the capital of Coel Hen's semi-historical kingdom of the north. Coel Hen is Old King Cole, which should give you an idea how much myth is mixed in all of this. Archaeology does show that this strategic hilltop has been occupied since Mesolithic times, and there have been numerous Bronze Age and Roman finds finds. So perhaps when the Roman world fell apart some chieftain did take over this spot and build a hall for his gold-torc'd men.

According to Bede, between 547 and 590 the place passed back and forth between Britons and Anglo-Saxons three times. After 590 it became the seat of the Kings of Northumbria, including the mighty Bretwaldas (high kings) Edwin, Oswald and Oswy. The Staffordshire Hoard is thought by some historians to be the loot collected after one of the battles between Edwin or Oswald and the rival kingdom of Mercia.

The Northumbrian fort was wrecked by the Vikings in 993. After the Normans came they built a castle on the spot, and in 1095 King William II besieged it during the revolt of Robert de Mowbray, Earl of Northumbria. After that it was a royal castle for 500 years. The keep was built by Henry II, who reigned from 1152-1189.

The castle was maintained as a royal base in the north through the high Middle Ages and figured in many campaigns, although the Scots never tried to besiege it. The walls seem to date to the 14th century, although I can't find any definitive statement on the matter. In the Wars of the Roses the castle passed back and forth between factions, and then in 1464 it was besieged by Richard Neville, the Earl of Warwick, who comes down to us under the title of Kingmaker. He took it after using artillery to batter a breach in the wall, making it the first English castle taken in that wise.

After the union of the crowns of Scotland and England in 1603 the castle was of no more military use, so James VI/I gave it to the long-time wardens of the castle, the Forster family. They could not afford the upkeep, so it deteriorated badly in the 17th century; in 1700 they went bankrupt.

The castle then passed to Nathaniel Lord Crewe, Archbishop of York, on whose death it formed part of a charitable trust. The trust's activities included a school for girls and hostel for shipwrecked mariners, both of which were housed in the castle. (One hopes they were not adjacent.) The trust was administered in the later 18th century by Dr. John Sharp. It was Dr. Sharp who began restoring the castle, an effort that sputtered along for a century. It was finally bought by the Victorian era industrialist William Armstrong (1810-1900), who spent some of his gigantic fortune on a major restoration but died before it was completed. That's his coat of arms above, as it appears above the entrance to his quarters in the castle.

Thanks to Armstrong parts of the castle became a lavish modern mansion; these are called the "state rooms." The castle still belongs to the Armstrong family but is open to the public.

Serious archaeology at Bamburgh began in 1961. The director was Brian Hope-Taylor, a noted archaeologist and an even more noted eccentric. He excavated at the castle on and off until 1974, but then illness cut short his work and he died before he ever published his finds. One of his team's discoveries was the small gold ornament dubbed the Bamburgh Beast (above.)

When excavations resumed in 1996 the new team, led by Graeme Young, thought that all of Hope-Taylor's notes and papers had been lost, so their only clues to what had been done came from interviewing some elderly former volunteers. But then one day they were exploring the castle grounds with one of the keepers, looking for a place to store their tools. They broke open a small storeroom built into the castle walls and found Hope-Taylor's study, untouched since the excavations ceased; there was even a 1974 copy of the Daily Telegraph on the desk. All of his notes, maps, and plans were there, right where he had left them.

The new excavations have uncovered many remains of the royal Northumbrian fortress, including fragments of a stone throne (which might have looked like the reconstruction above) and traces of a great mead hall.

The biggest part of the archaeology done at Bamburgh was the excavation of more than 100 burials from the Bowl Hole Burying Ground, which is along the coast a ways south of the castle. The place had long been known because skeletons occasionally eroded out of the bluffs after storms. The burying ground proved to date to the 7th through 9th centuries. The burials showed a confusing mix of pagan and Christian characteristics, for example some of the most pagan looking burials had crosses around their necks. The skeletons were mostly tall, robust people, and some had sword wounds, so it is thought to be an elite group. Elemental analysis suggested that only a minority were local, others came from other parts of Britain, and a few were born in Norway or Denmark.

I would love to tell you more about the project, but as with most British digs the results have only been published in obscure journals and presented at out-of-the-way conferences. There is an excavation blog, but it has been scrubbed of all information that anyone might want to publish, making it one of the most frustrating things I have ever read. One day I suppose there will be a fat report that I will have to go to England to read – provided, of course, that Graeme Young doesn't also die before he gets around to it. But meanwhile it seems like a wonderful place to visit.

And Now a Confederate Monument in St. Louis

Good article on the brewing fight over the Confederate monument in St. Louis' Forest Park:
Tishaura O. Jones, the city treasurer, started a GoFundMe page to raise money for the monument’s removal. In about a week, she has gathered more than $11,000. She passes the memorial during her weekly drive to the grocery store, usually with her 9-year-old son in tow. “What I’m trying to do is set the record straight,” she said. “The Confederates, in my opinion, were traitors. And in this country, we honor patriots.”

Other St. Louisans are resisting the move, arguing that removing it would be tantamount to blotting out the history of the Civil War. Some have said that the enormous monument is too heavy and expensive to move, particularly when it doesn’t have an obvious new home. Still others say that the monument has rarely attracted attention for more than a century — why should St. Louis be caught up in a debate that, in their view, belongs to the Deep South?

“My first choice would be that everyone forget it was there, like before,” said George Stair, 77, who paused at the monument on an evening walk with his wife, Jane Yu, who agreed that it should stay.

Mr. Stair gazed at the sculpture. “I feel like it’s O.K. to honor ordinary soldiers,” he said. “People went to Vietnam even though they didn’t agree with it.”
In Missouri there is the additional point that although the state government remained in the Union, many citizens were Confederate sympathizers. About 110,000 Missourians served in the Federal army, and at least 30,000 on the Confederate side. Plus there were all those bushwhackers (Quantrill, Jesse James, etc.). So removing all Confederate monuments from the state could be seen as an attempt to wipe out that part of its history.

Incidentally I thought Pat Buchanan asked an interesting question the other day: when will statues of Sherman and Sheridan have to come down because of the horrible way they treated the Indians?

Karsten Hoenack

Aerial view of mountains near Coahuila, Mexico. From National Geographic.

Tyler Cowen on Agnosticism

Tyler Cowen was recently asked why he doesn't believe in god and wrote an interesting response:
1. We can distinguish between “strange and remain truly strange” possibilities for origins, and “strange and then somewhat anthropomorphized” origin stories. Most religions fall into the latter category, all the more so for Western religions. I see plenty of evidence that human beings anthropomorphize to an excessive degree, and also place too much weight on social information, so I stick with the “strange and remain truly strange” options.

I see the entire matter of origins as so strange that the “transcendental argument” carries little weight with me — “if there is no God, then everything is permitted!” We don’t have enough understanding of God, or the absence of God, to deal with such claims. In any case, the existence of God is no guarantee that such problems are overcome, or if it were such a guarantee, you wouldn’t be able to know that

2. The true nature of reality is so strange, I’m not sure “God” or “theism” is well-defined, at least as can be discussed by human beings. That fact should not lead you to militant atheism (I also can’t define subatomic particles), but still it pushes me toward an “I don’t believe” attitude more than belief. I find it hard to say I believe in something that I feel in principle I cannot define, nor can anyone else.

2b. In general, I am opposed to the term “atheist.” It suggests a direct rejection of some specific beliefs, whereas I simply would say I do not hold those beliefs. I call myself a “non-believer,” to reference a kind of hovering, and uncertainty about what actually is being debated. Increasingly I see atheism as another form of religion.

4. I am struck by the frequency with which people believe in the dominant religions of their society or the religion of their family upbringing, perhaps with some modification. . . . This narrows my confidence in the judgment of those who believe, since I see them as social conformists to a considerable extent.

That all said I do accept that religion has net practical benefits for both individuals and societies, albeit with some variance. That is partly where the pressures for social conformity come from. I am a strong Straussian when it comes to religion, and overall wish to stick up for the presence of religion in social debate, thus some of my affinities with say Ross Douthat and David Brooks on many issues.

6. I do take the William James arguments about personal experience of God seriously, and I recommend his The Varieties of Religious Experience to everybody — it’s one of the best books period. But these personal accounts contradict each other in many cases, we know at least some of them are wrong or delusional, and overall I think the capacity of human beings to believe things — some would call it self-deception but that term assumes a neutral, objective base more than is warranted here — is quite strong. Presumably a Christian believes that pagan accounts of the gods are incorrect, and vice versa; I say they are probably both right in their criticisms of the other..

Add all that up and I just don’t believe. Furthermore, I find it easy not to believe. It doesn’t stress me, and I don’t feel a resulting gap or absence in my life. 
Like Cowen, the root of my unbelief is that positing "God" does not make the world more understandable to me. It simply moves the discussion to even more abstruse mysteries. I regard the origin and nature of the universe, and of human life, as profoundly mysterious, which is why I also avoid the term atheist, but I just don't see how the concept of God helps us understand anything. Plus much about all religions feels to me too much like what we might wish to be true, and I always rebel against any theory that seems emotionally pat.

Also like Cowen I think that religion fulfills very important social and psychological roles and I wonder what will happen to human societies as it fades. (Conversion to Mormonism has been found to be the most effective anti-poverty program ever tried.) I also sometimes miss the richness added to the world by beliefs in the spirits of springs and groves, the ghosts that haunt old houses, fairies who cross between this world and some other. But maybe most future people will feel as he and I do, and as my children seem to, comfortable with our lack of belief.

Body Language for Project Managers

One of the more amusing parts of the project management course I just completed was this discussion of body language:
The ability to read body language is invaluable in situations where enhanced communication is critical. Basically, every gesture can send a message. Here are a few of the most important signals being transmitted by body language:

Head tilted forward or sideways is receptive, while a face turned away acts to distance.

A head tilted backward so a person can look down their nose at you is just what it seems.

Eyes that blink rapidly or constrict are signaling distress or disagreement.

A stare of longer than two seconds can be seen as a challenge.

Removing glasses while making a point intensifies eye contact, humanizes the face, and removes a barrier between the parties.

Mouth movement, such as licking or biting the lips is a sign of discomfort.

Thinning lips is a negative response. Yawns can mean some level of discomfort or boredom.

Shoulders that roll or shrug are a strong sign of receptiveness or submission.

Squaring of the shoulders indicates an authoritarian attitude.

Arms on the chair with palms up indicate goodwill and honesty.

Self-clasping, such as holding an arm or hands, indicates the need for reassurance.

A body that leans forward or toward someone shows attention.

Angling the body is a cutting off gesture.

A tie that is loosened slightly portrays openness.
There is also a section on how to improve your own body language, from which I draw the following mysterious item:
Try sitting as if someone were pulling your hair to the ceiling.

Meanwhile at first International Bamboo Architecture Biennale

Interesting planet we live on.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Wonders of the Seven Seas

Marvels of Things Created and Miraculous Aspects of Things Existing, 13th century.

The Project Management Course

At the behest of my esteemed employers, I just completed a 22-hour course in project management for engineers. Some of it was not relevant to what I do, but much of it would be very useful for anyone just starting out in project management. For example, there is an excellent description of what has to be accomplished in a kickoff meeting, and a good discussion of how to delegate. Since I have been doing this full-time for about three years and worked closely with my old boss for nearly a decade before that, I already knew a lot of this. But it was interesting enough that I don't regret having done it.

At the beginning there is a description of a "successful project manager" that is based, they say, on interviews they have conducted over the years; the authors are business consultants who work in the engineering industry. It's just what you would expect from any list of successful Americans: project managers keep physically fit, dress well, tell the truth, treat everyone with respect, don't waste time with trivial matters, and get to the office an hour early to have time for long-term tasks that may get crowded out by crises once the rest of the staff shows up, etc. They "eat, sleep and breathe the project."

There is also an amusing lesson that contrasts the ideal type, the Strong Project Manager, with the mere Project Administrator:

As I worked my way through all these lessons illustrated with photographs of models in spotless, utterly dirt-free, obviously-never-been-on-a-construction-site hard hats trying to look like people building skyscrapers, I amused myself by collecting kernels of Project Management Wisdom. I find that these add up to a sort of pointillist picture of American business life and its values. So here, presented in no particular order, are some of the pearls you need to absorb to become a Strong Project Manager; all of these are direct quotations from the lessons.

Start now.

Keep control of your own time or others will.

When someone asks for your time, make ‘No’ your first thought.

Balance is the key.

The best way to solve problems is to avoid them.

Don’t be afraid to decline attending meetings that are likely to waste your time.

Never say “No”; say “Yes, if...”.

Keep your files in order.

Be assertive.

Recognize when you have to compromise.

Deliver faster than you promised.
Deliver more than you promised.

Eliminate excess perfection.

Keep the lines of communication open.

It’s impossible to see any further ahead than you look.

Give credit. Take blame.

Do not draw a line unless you know what it means.

Schedule meetings at odd times (e.g., 10:53 a.m.); this encourages punctuality. Start meetings at the scheduled time, even if all participants are not there.

Make sure only your agenda takes place.

Brief emails are always better.

There is nothing that destroys the quality of a project more than trying to meet an unrealistic schedule.

Pick one solution and go with it.

A professional (not emotional) response is the best way.

It is a well-established fact that people perform better and make fewer errors if they are able to work in a comfortable atmosphere with other team members. Even though a small amount of stress is good stimulation for most people, constant levels of highly charged stress usually cause the performance to decrease and more errors to occur.

Do not waste time in pleasantries.

Document everything.

Do not surprise your boss.