Thursday, August 31, 2017

Your "Conventional Narrative" is Made Up, and Your Ideas are Mush

As I complain all the time, most of my contemporaries can only imagine a scholarly debate in one way: as bold new ideas attacking on entrenched orthodoxy. Consider this gem about from Mark Koyama the rise of religious freedom as in ideal:
According to the conventional narrative, freedom of religion arose in the West in the wake of devastating wars fought over religion. It was catalysed by powerful arguments from thinkers such as John Locke, Baruch Spinoza, Pierre Bayle and Voltaire. These philosophers and political theorists responded to the brutality of the religious wars with support for radical notions of toleration and religious freedom. Their liberal ideals then became embedded in the political institutions of the West, following the American and French Revolutions.

In broad outline, such is the account accepted by most political philosophers and social scientists. But the evidence does not support this emphasis on the power of ideas in shaping the rise of religious freedom, and underestimates the decisive role played by institutions. . . .

With my colleague at George Mason University, the historian Noel Johnson, I recently completed the book Persecution and Toleration (2017), in which we show that ideas were not enough to realise religious freedom. Crucially, it took political and institutional changes – specifically, the growth and strengthening of the ability of states to create and enforce rules – to make religious freedom in the West possible and appealing. It wasn’t the ideas of Bayle or Spinoza or Locke driving the rise of state power, it was the need to raise resources for governing and war. For the rising fiscal-military state, religious uniformity and persecution simply became too expensive and inefficient.
This bold new attack on the "conventional narrative," this assault on the established wisdom, is exactly what I was taught in college in 1984. The notion that the rise of the modern state made possible our modern notion of "rights" is old enough that Michel Foucault framed Discipline and Punish as an attack on it in 1975. I wonder if Drs. Koyama and Johnson have even read Foucault, since anyone who had would know that when and why states and societies persecute people is a very complex and difficult question. On the narrow question of religious tolerance, the pro-tolerance thinkers of the 17th and 18th centuries took their cue from ancient Rome, so they certainly didn't think there was anything new or unusual about religious tolerance under a strong state. This is an old argument that has been raging for many decades, and neither side is either new or radical.

Everybody is probably bored with my harping on this theme, but somebody has to point out how common this way of framing questions has become, and how idiotic. It is a terrible intellectual habit that has bad effects on our scholarship, distorts how millions of people see the world, and probably messes up our politics as well. We should stop.

Not every argument is about old ideas vs. new ones. Sometimes both sides are ancient (free will vs. determinism; democracy vs. dictatorship), other times both are new (differing interpretations of quantum mechanics).

Just forget about whether an idea is new or old, radical or stodgy, and focus on whether it is right.

Another Life Goal

Become a gargoyle on a university library.

Mycenaean Sword Hilt

From Mycenae. Now in the National Archaeological Museum, Athens.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Disaster Sells, or, How Bad is the Flooding in Houston?

I have been frustrated over the past few days at my inability to find out how bad the flooding around Houston really is. Fifty inches of rain is an astonishing amount, as the National Weather Service says "unprecedented," so it might turn out to be one of our worst disasters ever. But is it? and how would we know? Because for news people, catastrophe sells, and nobody ever got higher ratings by downplaying a natural disaster. So they just repeat over and over again that everything is "catastrophic" and "deadly" and show the same images of flooded parts of the city. Like the one above, which has been everywhere. But what is that a picture of? A river. And what do rivers do in hurricanes? They flood. Is this worse than in past hurricanes? Who knows?

Ok, I get it, this is a bad flood. Interstate highways blocked, etc. But I can't tell how bad, and I don't think anyone can tell how bad from the string of scary superlatives on the news. Is this Katrina in New Orleans, or Isabel in Baltimore?

Here we have a flooded neighborhood, and this looks pretty bad. But is this a low-lying neighborhood next to a river, or is it typical? The Houston Chronicle (which is full of dire pictures but seems to have no trouble publishing) has this item:
As the waist-deep waters have receded from Meyerland, a middle-class neighborhood fronting Brays Bayou that now has flooded three times in three years, residents face an agonizing choice: Give up on the neighborhood or try to rebuild?
Was it worse this time, or not?

Last night I saw a headline proclaiming that 17,000 Texans are in shelters, which is rough for them, but on the other hand there are about 6 million people in greater Houston, so clearly most of them have so far been able to take care of themselves. The Times says that 7,000 people have been rescued from flooded houses, but again that in only 1 in a thousand Houston residents.

I also understand that it can be hard to tell how bad a disaster has been until it is over and crews can reach the most devastated areas. The Houston medical examiner said last night that the death toll is bound to rise as people get to houses now flooded and cut off. But so far as I can see, nobody is really trying to make an accurate assessment, and I really wish somebody would.

Babylonian Trigonometry

Last weekend all the science news sites and many regular news outlets carried stories about this 3,700-year-old Babylonian tablet, known as Plimpton 322. They all reported that it had either been shown to be (for the bold majority) or claimed to be (for the cautious few) a trigonometric table based on ratios rather than angles. But these stories were obviously written by reporters whose math is about as good as their cuneiform, so I was unable to tell from them what had actually been claimed, how plausible it was, or how this table of ratios was supposed to work. (I saw in several places the claim that this table is more accurate than modern trig tables, which is absurd since with a computer we can run the numbers out to a million decimal places if we feel like it.) I hate writing about things I don't understand, so I held off.

But now the Times has found a mathematically literate reporter to do a follow-up story, and his explanation is fascinating. He asks, how would a Babylonian scribe have gone about solving this problem:
Suppose that a ramp leading to the top of a ziggurat wall is 56 cubits long, and the vertical height of the ziggurat is 45 cubits. What is the distance x from the outside base of the ramp to the point directly below the top?
Perhaps using a table like the one on Plimpton 322. Plimpton 322 is a list of 15 numerical triads, all of which are Pythagorean triples – numbers for which a2 + b2 = c2, like 32 + 42 = 52. But these are not randomly chosen triads. They are placed in the ascending order of the ratio of the hypotenuse and the short side.
A Babylonian faced with the ziggurat word problem may have found it easy to set up: a right triangle with the long side, or hypotenuse, 56 cubits long, and one of the shorter sides 45 cubits. Next, the problem solver could have calculated the ratio 56/45, or about 1.244 and then looked up the closest entry on the table, which is line 11, which lists the ratio 1.25.

From that line, it is then a straightforward calculation to produce an answer of 33.6 cubits. In their paper, Dr. Mansfield and Dr. Wildberger show that this is better than what would be calculated using a trigonometric table from the Indian mathematician Madhava 3,000 years later.
The modern answer is 33.3317, so obviously the Plimpton 322 method is not perfect. But it would be useful in many circumstances. Which one reason why I think this is a perfectly plausible explanation of this mysterious tablet; some Babylonian scribes were obviously fascinated by the relationship between mathematical arcana and real-world problems, and this is just the sort of thing they might have been into.

The second reason is that it conforms to our understanding of how math has evolved. It seems that many general theories, like the fully-developed Greek theory of angles, are proceeded by numerous glimpses of the underlying principles, and by lists of examples of the theory at work. The generalization of a principle is usually the last stage of a long process. This was especially true in the ancient world, when mathematical advances were usually driven by specific problems in surveying or astronomy. As this example shows, Babylonian scribes often made use of right triangles in their calculations, but so far as we know they never wrote down what we call the Pythagorean Theorem in its abstract form. Some moderns insist that they must have understood it even if they did not write it down, but that is probably a mistake. The drive to create perfectly expressed universal theorems is not that common even among modern people who use complex math; modern physicists and statisticians use mathematical tricks all the time that have never been formalized or proved, because they seem to work, and Babylonian scribes probably used math in the same way.

Because of the great interest, Historia Mathematica has made the original paper by Mansfield and Wildberger available online; but I still recommend  Kenneth Chang's Times piece as the better explanation.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Eunsuh Choi





Korean-American glass artist. More at her Web Site.

Clachtoll Broch

Clachtoll Broch is a fortified Iron Age house on the northwest coast of Scotland. Recent excavations have shown that it burned catastrophically some time between 150 BC and 50 AD and was then abandoned. Which is great for archaeologists, since it means a lot may have been left behind.

Previous excavations inside brochs have mostly been disappointing. It seems that while they were occupied they were kept clean inside, and once they were abandoned they were thoroughly looted by the neighbors.

But Clachtoll Broch has already produced some nice artifacts, such as this stone lamp, and maybe more will turn up as archaeologists keep digging through the rubble.

More on brochs here and here.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Hans Olde

Hans Olde (1855-1917) was a German painter and lithographer of no particular fame, but I like some of his work. (Sunrise) He had a son, another painter also named Hans Olde, but the younger Olde's work looks nothing like his father's, so there is no confusing them.

Olde came from a farming family in Germany's far north and had to rebel against parental authority to become an artist. He had a rapid rise in the art world, studying in Munich and then at the Académie Julian in Paris, where he exhibited at the Salon and discovered impressionism. (The Reaper, 1892)

Olde paid the rent by doing magazine illustrations, and these days those are some of his most famous works. This is the poet Detlev von Liliencron.

After returning to Germany he helped found the Munich Secession – these organizations sprang up all over Europea as a rebellion against the authority of the salons but in the way of such things quickly became the establishment themselves. Then he moved back the the district where he grew up and, in 1894, helped to create the Schleswig-Holstein Art Appreciation Society. These days he is best remembered in the German-Danish borderlands, and that is where you are most likely to find his work in a museum. (Field of Rape on the Baltic Sea, 1895)

Beech Wood with Neolithic Tomb.


Red House in the Snow, 1893.

Winter in Seekamp, 1898.

This is the most famous of all Olde's works, Friedrich Nietzsche in the Asylum, 1898, done from a photograph for the magazine Pan.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Un-Military Monuments

Let's pause in the midst of our monument fight to remember some favorites that don't honor generals or presidents and that nobody wants to tear down. Above, the Charles B. Stover bench in Central Park, alias the Whisper Bench, the only memorial to the man who filled New York with parks and playgrounds.

Statue of Jim Henson and Kermit the Frog on the campus of the University of Maryland.

The Gateway Arch in St. Louis. I have loved this since I was a child; it is probably the only work of art that could be called "modern" about which that is true. It just soars. And it doesn't look like anything else, which in our era of increasingly identical cities counts for a lot; without it, could anybody tell the St. Louis skyline from dozens of others?

Swann Memorial Fountain, Philadelphia. In a triumph of appropriateness, this is a memorial to Dr. Wilson Cary Swann, founder of the Philadelphia Fountain Society. Swann was one of those Temperance fanatics who thought the best way to fight alcohol was to put fountains of pure water all over the city, and whatever you think of Temperance Philadelphia got hundreds of fountains out of the effort.

Statue of screenwriter James Dalton Trumbo in Grand Junction, Colorado. Trumbo was said to have done most of his best work in his bathtub, so that is how he is depicted in his home town. Trumbo was blacklisted during the Red Scare of the 1950s but continued to write under pseudonyms and in 1954 he won the Oscar (for Roman Holiday) under one of his assumed names; the award was picked up by an actor hired to play the imaginary writer. He went back to his own name in 1960 when he wrote two blockbusters, Exodus and Spartacus.

Stone circle in Radnor, Pennsylvania, a monument to the town's Welsh founders. By William Reimann. Used by local druids within months of its installation.

Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass having tea, Rochester, New York. In a little park across the street from Anthony's house. I love this because it reminds us that in most ways 19th-century radicals were very proper people, and because it emphasizes that politics is a social matter in which connections to others are all important. Statue is by Pepsy Kettavong, 2001.

Gus Worham Memorial Fountain, Houston, which is both beautiful and one of the world's few monuments to an insurance executive. He was the kind of civic-minded guy who was on all the boards and commissions and donated to every cause; he also went fishing with all the politicians but never took any kind of controversial stand in public and never betrayed a single confidence. Maybe he had some awful opinions but since he never expressed them, we can't really hold that against him.

Glenn Frey of the Eagles, standing on a corner in Winslow, Arizona.

I plan to expand this post and I would love to hear from people about other obscure monuments they know that make the world nicer without offending anybody.

It's Back

Here's something I've never seen before; the fairy ring in my yard that I posted pictures of last week is back, with new mushrooms sprouting among the ruins of the old ones.

Where's our mushroom expert? Is this normal?

Not wanting to take any chances I cut very carefully around this with the lawn mower this morning. I mean, when the fairies have sent such a clear signal that this particular spot is significant to them, you don't want to risk their wrath. Think of the curses they could inflict.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Civil War Combat

Watching some Civil War battle in a movie, you may have seen lines of men banging away at each other from thirty yards apart and wondered, how did anyone survive such combat?

No need to wonder! This is a question that has a well-known answer: because in battle conditions, soldiers are terrible shots.
For Gettysburg we have a Confederate Ordnance estimate that each man fired an average of 25-26 rounds. . . . these numbers seem to reflect the rounds presumed fired during the whole week in which the battle fell, by all 75,000 Rebel troops in the general area. If they are accurate, we can set them beside Union casualties of some 23,000 men and arrive at a figure of 81 shots fired to inflict each casualty, or maybe nearer to 100 infantry shots per casualty if we also count in the contribution of the artillery.
This estimate has to be corrected for all the bullets that were dropped rather than fired; we know soldiers dropped a lot of bullets because you can locate any Civil War firing line by mapping all the unfired bullets you find with a metal detector. But even if they dropped half their bullets, that's still 50 shots fired for each casualty. And the performance of Confederate troops in the biggest part of this battle was praised by Longstreet as "unquestionably best three hours' fighting done by any troops on any battle-field."

As for the Union troops, for whom we have better records:
We find that Meade's 90,000 men were issued a total of 5,400,000 rounds at Gettysburg, giving an average of 60 rounds per man, although not all of these may actually have been fired. . . .  If we estimate the overall average actually fired as lower than the number of round issued, we can guess that the average Union solider really fired only 40 rounds in the three days of the action. These calculations give a notional 180 rounds fired for every casualty inflicted by Federals, although this is without counting the artillery's contribution. . . . This is higher than the rather unreliable figures for the Confederate side, but consistent with the order of magnitude recorded for the Napoleonic Wars.
This is from Paddy Griffith, Battle Tactics of the Civil War (2001). But you shouldn't imagine that contemporary soldiers are any better; automatic weapons allow them to fire thousands of rounds for each casualty inflicted. There is a great scene in Black Hawk Down in which a squad of American rangers patrolling Mogadishu blunders into a squad of Somali militia, and they proceed to blaze away at each other until their magazines are empty without hitting at thing.

It is just very, very hard to take careful aim when you are being shot at.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Victor Hugo, Strong Castle, 1854

More here.

Scouts and the Future of Male-Female Relations

I was startled to see that a public fight has broken out between the national leaders of the Girl Scouts and the Boy Scouts:
The Girl Scouts of the USA have accused Boy Scouts of America of carrying out a "covert campaign to recruit girls into programs run by the Boy Scouts" in hopes of appealing to millennial parents and bolstering their declining membership, according to a letter they sent the Boy Scouts board on Monday.

The strongly worded letter alleged that BSA was "surreptitiously testing the appeal of a girls’ offering to millennial parents."

It also accused BSA leaders of making "disparaging and untrue remarks" about Girl Scout programming at "family meetings" outlining their proposed programs for girls.

A Girl Scouts spokesperson confirmed that Kathy Hopinkah Hannan, GSUSA's national president sent the letter to BSA's national president, Randall Stephenson, and the entire BSA board.

"Through various means we have learned that BSA is very seriously considering opening their programs to girls and we have made repeated efforts to engage with them and talk about the implications," the spokesperson told BuzzFeed News on Tuesday.

"It's a potentially dangerous and bad idea," the spokesperson said, citing research supporting "single gender programming" which says that girls learn best in an all-girls environment when it comes to scouting.
Which makes this a good time to ask: what is the future of Scouting? Will it endure much longer as separate boys' and girls' groups, or will they have to merge? I have a feeling that this could blow up into a big issue over the next decade. Many American politicians were Scouts, and some of them feel quite passionately about keeping the traditions they grew up with. But an increasing number of Americans are uncomfortable with such firmly gendered ideas about childhood, and with the idolization of rowdy boyness that has always been part of the Boy Scout experience.

I am ambivalent. My experience has been that all-male groups are very different from mixed-gender groups. Personally I prefer mixing – I hated high school locker rooms with a bitter intensity that still comes back to me when I think about it – but since I recognize that the settings are very different I understand why some men prefer all-male activities.

Over the past 50 years we have seen a major decline in the separation of the sexes, and these days we spend most of our time in mixed environments. This is unusual in human history. Most of the traditional societies I know about had strongly gendered divisions of work, social roles and even religious rites. Some American Indians seem to have regarded men and women as separate species who had to somehow come together on occasion to make babies. But now many people regard any division of society by sex as offensive, and some of them hope to see the very distinction disappear within their lifetimes.

I doubt it. Division by sex is after all as old as animal life, and men and women have important physical differences. It would not surprise me if the next generation sees, not a steady blurring of gender divisions, but an intentional heightening of them. Or perhaps we will see both at once in different segments of society. But whatever happens I expect decades of argument, lots of extreme statements from flamboyant figures on every side, and the occasional public explosion.

So here we are again, arguing over things that in most societies were fixed by tradition and passed over without comment. Here is another way in which we are becoming more free, but finding that freedom inevitably brings troubles in its wake.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

The Navy Stands Down

After two fatal collisions between US Navy destroyers and giant cargo ships, the Navy has replaced the commander of the 7th Fleet and ordered a two-day "suspension of ship operations" to review operating and safety protocols.

The Navy brass is being very tight about this business, but if you know the Navy you know what they are arguing about behind the scenes. These days the Navy fights with airplanes, long-range missiles, and commandos. Its officers spend most of their time at Annapolis studying engineering, because of all the hi-tech systems they need to manage. Many regard the Navy as a giant career ladder that they spend their time in the service climbing, wondering when is the right time to cut out for a lucrative management career with some defense contractor.

A faction of Naval officers has long been very worried about all of this. They fear that the Navy is losing what ought to be its core competency: sailing ships. Good sailors do not accidentally blunder into giant cargo ships in the open sea, as in the first of the two recent incidents. And in a crowded place like the Malacca Straits, they exercise extreme caution to avoid collisions.

So I'm sure that in the Pentagon and at the Washington Navy Yard there is a lot of shouting about whether the Navy is judging officers by everything except how well they can handle ships, and whether that needs to change.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Meanwhile at Home

They just sent me this picture from home to show me what happens in my yard when I'm at work. Two of them, in broad daylight, just ambling around looking for something tasty. Yes, she's small, probably a spring foal.

What We Need

We need more softness and more silence and more pause through the chaos.

–Shailene Woodley

Monday, August 21, 2017

Stressed Workers

Here, from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, are the key statistics on which workers are the heaviest users of alcohol and drugs. These were published in 2015, so this is the most recent fully analyzed data available:
  • Combined data from 2008 to 2012 indicate that an annual average of 8.7 percent of full-time workers aged 18 to 64 used alcohol heavily in the past month, 8.6 percent used illicit drugs in the past month, and 9.5 percent were dependent on or abused alcohol or illicit drugs in the past year.
  • The highest rates of past month heavy alcohol use among full-time workers aged 18 to 64 were found in the mining (17.5 percent) and construction industries (16.5 percent).
  • The highest rates of past month illicit drug use were found in the accommodations and food services industry (19.1 percent).
  • The workers in the accommodations and food services industry (16.9 percent) had the highest rates of past year substance use disorder.
I don't know any miners, but I can't say I am at all surprised to see construction workers and waiters at the top of the list.

Construction workers show up as having problems in lots of ways, partly because their employment is episodic: even highly skilled workers are regularly laid off for a while between projects, and some kinds of work can be shut down for weeks at a time due to the weather. So while they can earn a lot of money while they are working, they have trouble really moving into the middle class.

I wonder about the issues surrounding waiters, bartenders, and casino workers; is is the work, or is it that the work draws a certain sort of person, one who wants to work late hours around alcohol?

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Little Panther

This charming copper-alloy object, 1.5 inches across (41 mm), is said by Timeline Auctions to be a Parthian panther head of the second or first centure BCE, possibly once mounted on a drinking vessel.

A Plan for Economic Growth

Noah Smith has a 13-point plan to help the economy grow in ways  that  help ordinary people. Here are his planks, with snippets explaining some of them; each is explained more fully at the link:
1. Universal health care.

2. Pro-employment policies. (The government should use corporate-tax incentives to encourage companies to hire and retain workers during recessions. For those who can’t find any job in the private sector, the government should provide jobs directly.)

3. Improve infrastructure.
 (But the U.S.’s peculiarly high infrastructure costs need to be brought way down.)

4. Encourage urban density.


5. Wealth taxation.
(e.g., property taxes and estate taxes)

6. Skilled immigration.


7. Wage subsidies.


8: Stronger antitrust enforcement. (creeping market concentration is raising consumer prices and reducing the share of income that goes to workers.)

9: More research funding.


10: Mobility policies. (Relocation voucher systems . . . job retraining . . . midcareer apprenticeships)

11: Child-care support.

12: Export promotion.

13: Federal housing for the homeless
An interesting list. It has a bit of a dreamy quality, as in that line about we need to spend more on infrastructure but first we need to figure out why it costs so much. But at least there are ideas out there about things that might help with our economic problems.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Saying Goodbye to Cassini

Cassini, the great explorer of Saturn and one of my best friends these past 13 years, is dying.

Cassini launched in 1997 and entered orbit of Saturn on July 1, 2004.

The mission was only supposed to last six years, a limit set by the fuel the spacecraft carried for navigating around the Saturn system. But the mission controllers got so good at steering the craft using the gravitational tug of the planet and its moons that they have sent Cassini wherever they wanted for seven more years, and thankfully Congress found the money to keep its operators on the job.


These pictures show the results of that cleverness.


Here is Saturn in natural color, showing its golden glow.

But all good things must come to an end. Cassini is running out of fuel at last, and the controllers are running out of more science to do with its limited set of instruments and more images to take with its amazing cameras.


So on September 15 Cassini is set for a fiery end, diving into Saturn's atmosphere. It will keep broadcasting until it is crushed or otherwise destroyed, and scientists are hoping to learn more about Saturn from this final descent.

What an astonishing 13-year mission this has been.

The great robotic space voyages have been key markers of my life: Viking to Mars, Voyager 1 and 2 to Jupiter, Saturn, and beyond; the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter; the Mars rovers; Galileo to Jupiter; New Horizons to Pluto.

Through them we have seen far distant worlds; through them our our universe has grown.

So on the eve of its death I honor Cassini, a noble member of this small band of great explorers, and the thousands of people who made it fly.


You are my heroes.