Thursday, May 31, 2018


I've been reading Ian Buruma's Year Zero: A History of 1945. It's quite a good book; Buruma is a terrific writer and a whole lot of crazy stuff happened right after the shooting stopped in World War II. What has impressed me most is a series of vignettes about crazy, lawless places where for months nobody really wielded authority:
Much of China was not just horribly damaged, but also corrupted by foreign occupation, warlord misrule, and many years of purges and counter-purges in a civil conflict that was often as brutal as the war with Japan. Donald Keene, later a noted scholar of Japan, was a young U.S. Navy officer stationed in Tsingtao, a port city on the Yellow Sea know for its Naval base, European architecture, and German-style beer. The Japanese Imperial Navy was still in town when the U.S. Marines arrived, and Keene soon sensed "something fishy in the atmosphere," a stink of skullduggery and corruption; "the charge of collaboration is no less pervasive than the generally suspicious character of the city itself."

Keene found that Tsingtao was still run by Chinese who had been appointed by the Japanese, generally louche characters who had done well out of foreign occupation. He found Japanese naval officers bragging of their wartime exploits, and Chinese being purged for collaboration by other Chinese whose records were just as blemished: they simply wanted to loot the suspects' properties. Tsingtao was a place of seedy carpetbaggers, gangsters, spies with shifting loyalties, and Japanese who still behaved like a master race. . . .
And one more story, about the trial of Japanese general Yamashita Tomoyuki. Yamashita was a Japanese general with plenty of blood on his hands, but after surrendering he was tried for something he had nothing to do with, a terrible rampage by Japanese troops known as the Manila Massacre. Yamashita was hundreds of miles away at the time and there was no evidence that he had condoned, let alone ordered, the slaughter. Still, as the ranking Japanese officer in the Philippines he was convicted and sentenced to death. He proclaimed his innocence but was not visibly upset by the verdict, noting that it would have been hard for him to return to Japan anyway, leaving so many dead men behind. One of his last acts was to compose this poem:
The world I knew is now a shameful place
There will never come a better time
For me to die

The Trump Prophecy

Florida firefighter Mark Taylor says the Spirit of God appeared to him in 2011 and told him this:
The Spirit of God says I’ve chosen this man Donald Trump for such a time as this. For as Benjamin Netanyahu is to Israel, so shall this man be to the United States of America, for I will use this man to bring honor, respect and restoration to America. America will be respected once again as the most powerful, prosperous nation on Earth other than Israel. The dollar will be the strongest it has ever been in the history of the United States and will once again be the currency by which all others are judged. The Spirit of God says the enemy will quake and shake, and fear this man I have anointed. They will even quake and shake when he announces he is running for President. It will be like the shot heard across the world. Then you will say what shall we do now? This man knows all our tricks and schemes. We’ve been robbing America for decades. What should we do to stop this? The Spirit says, ha, no one shall stop this that I have started, for the enemy has stolen from America for decades and it stops now. For I will use this man to reap the harvest that the United States has sown for and plunder from the enemy what he has stolen, and return it back sevenfold to the United States. The enemy will say, ‘Israel, Israel, what about Israel?’ Israel will be protected by America once again. The Spirit says yes, America will once again stand hand in hand with Israel and the two shall be as one, for the ties between Israel and America will be stronger than ever and Israel will flourish like never before. The Spirit of God says I will protect America and Israel, for this next President will be a man of his word. When he speaks the world will listen and know that there is something greater in him than all the others before him. This man’s word is his bond and the world and America will know this, and the enemy will fear this, for this man will be fearless. The Spirit says when the financial harvest begins so shall the parallel in the spiritual for America. The Spirit of God says in this next election they will spend billions to keep this president out. It will be like money down the toilet. Let them waste their money, for where it comes from is being used by evil forces at work, but they will not succeed. This next election will be a clean sweep for the man that I have chosen. They will say things about this man, the enemy, but it will not affect him and they will say it rolls off of him like a duck. For even as the feathers of a duck protect it, so shall my feathers protect this next president. Even mainstream news media will be captivated by this man and the abilities that I gift to him and they will even begin to agree with him, says the Spirit.
You may wonder why I am devoting attention to this mad raving, but it is all over the internet and apparently someone is making a full-length documentary about it. Many, many people are drawn to this weird mix of triumphalism and despair, of a long fall into corruption redeemed by God's chosen warrior.

I am most fascinated by this line:
the enemy has stolen from America for decades and it stops now
Who is the enemy? How have they been robbing us? And what is Trump going to do about it?

But don't worry, it will be given back sevenfold. Can't wait for my share.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

The Hamilton-Burr Dueling Pistols

At the time they belonged to John Barker Church, Hamilton's brother-in-law. These days they belong to JP Morgan Chase and reside in their Manhattan headquarters, but this month they are on display at the Postal Museum in Washington.

Life Returns to Mosul

Much of the old city remains a shattered wasteland, but the rest of Mosul is returning to normal with zest:
Less than a year ago, Mosul emerged from the nearly nine-month battle to retake it from the Islamic State group.

Now, in many parts of the city, life is returning and the feeling of security is palpable. New businesses are open and people stay out late into the evening for the first time in years. There is a sense among people here that at last Mosul is unshackled from criminal gangs and hard-core Islamic factions. . . .

Just a few minutes’ drive away, Mosul University is also bringing life and energy back to the war-ravaged city.

The young minds needed to rebuild a country so fractured and destroyed are coming back in force to attend classes at the prestigious institution, which was heavily damaged during the fighting.

Some of the first students to graduate since the defeat of ISIS celebrated wildly recently at a reception hall in eastern Mosul. With extended families in attendance, each graduate was paraded through the party under a shower of exploding glitter and booming Iraqi pop music.
One thing I love about our species is the way we bounce back after tragedies that might destroy us.

Why did We Evolve such Big Brains?

Mauricio González-Forero set out to answer the question of why we have big brains using a mathematical model. He started from the assumption that we got smart largely for social reasons, that is, our ancestors used their brains mainly for manipulating each other, leading to an arms race for bigger brains. But that isn't what his model showed. In fact he found that just ecological challenges could lead to big brains, and that social factors did not model very well:
To our surprise, we found that the intuitively appealing social hypotheses did not materialize in the model. Social cooperation and competition, possibly involving cognitive arms races, failed to lead to stable, human-sized brain sizes and may actually decrease brain size. The reasons are that (1) cooperation enables individuals to rely on social partners’ brains and to reduce their allocation to costly brain production, and (2) that competition leads to arms races where outcompeting social partners requires an exceedingly large brain and so it becomes a better strategy to reproduce early in life. In contrast, we found that the human brain size could evolve with a combination of ecological and social challenges, where ecological challenges are the drivers of brain expansion. Additionally, we found indirect evidence that for this to occur, ecological challenges must be coupled with what seems to be culture, suggesting an explanation for why ecological challenges may have failed to lead to brain expansion in other taxa.
Of course this is just one modeling exercise, but it makes sense to me that big brains would be connected to culture at a fundamental level. After all we don't rely on our own brains to solve problems; we use our brains to access the stored wisdom of our people, that is, our culture. Hence our obsession with genealogy, with storytelling, with using cultural clues to distinguish between friends and others. And with language, which we use to manipulate each other but which we use at the most sophisticated level to engage with our cultures.

Monday, May 28, 2018

Today's Place to Daydream about: Parque Pumalín, Chile

Parque Pumalín is a national park in southern Chile that stretches from snow-capped volcanoes across amazingly diverse terrain down to the sea.

Map of the park. I remember my eldest son at about 18 looking over a map of South America, pointing to this rocky, island-dotted coast and saying, "that's where the dragons live."

The park was the creation of American businessman Douglas Tompkins, founder of The North Face. Tompkins had been visiting this region since 1961, and in 1991 he heard that the 42,000-acre Reñihué Farm, home to a stretch of "primeval native temperate rainforest," might be sold to loggers. Since by that time he had a vast fortune at his disposal, he bought it.

Over the next decades Tomkin and his Conservation Land Trust bought almost 700,000 more acres, 98% from absentee landowners. The result was the largest private nature preserve in the world.  (Its rivals were also in Patagonia, since other billionaires had been doing the same thing. In a sense the preservation of vast areas of this gorgeous part of the world is due to an accident of timing, since poor Chilean herders and fishermen abandoned this region for the cities at just the time a class of eco-sensitive billionaires emerged in the US.)

In 2005, dogged by persistent rumors that he had other plans for the land, Tomkins arranged with the Chilean government to have all of his Patagonian lands declared a national Nature Preserve, to be administered jointly by the government and a new land trust that included Chilean environmentalists on its board. To encourage visitors the foundation built a network of trails, cabins, and other amenities.

Tomkins died in 2015, and in 2017 his widow arranged for the whole property to be transferred to Chile as a the crown jewel of 10 million acres of new national parks stretching across hundreds of miles of Patagonia. Much of that acreage is desolate mountaintops, but much is accessible and all is amazing.

The heart of the park is a vast area of temperate rain forest where it rains 20 feet a year, so if you visit you should take your rain gear.

There are several famous stands of old growth forest, accessible via trails. Just above is an alerce tree, the sequoias of that part of the world.

The park is also known for its giant-leafed gunnera plants, commonly known as dinosaur food.

There are also high mountains, with glaciers and vast lava flows,

and rocky coasts.

The Andes are famously volcanic, and that includes the mountains of Pumalín. In 2008 Volcán Chaitén erupted, spewing out enormous amounts of ash; when the rains came rivers of wet ash flowed down the mountains, destroying the town of Chaitén that had been the headquarters of the park. The park was closed for two years of rebuilding, but almost everything is back open now.

Recent photo of the area devastated by the eruption.

On this dreary wet Maryland day I cast my thoughts south to Parque Pumalín; I might be just as damp there, but I would be surrounded by natural wonders.

Oh, Alberto

It has been a sodden weekend here, punctuated by more devastating floods yesterday afternoon after up to ten inches of rain fell on Catonsville and Ellicott City. This after they had just about finished rebuilding from the terrible flood of July 2016.

I think we had about eight inches at my house, based on the "bucket left in  the yard" measuring technique. More on the way, they say.  I think maybe Alberto is pissed that he was just designated a "Subtropical Storm" and he's taking it out on the capital of the government that maligned him.

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Medieval People and Bronze Age Sites

While excavating a Bronze Age burial in Cornwall, archaeologists found that the mound had been reused in the Middle Ages:
 But what has puzzled Dr Frieman and her team was the discovery of "unaccountable" medieval activity on the same site.

She said: "The site has thrown up a big mystery for us because we found what we believe is an entire - albeit crushed - medieval pot from the 12th or 13th century AD, carefully placed under a couple of layers of flat stones. It had some cooked food remains adhering to it and we don't know what it's doing there or why.

"Hundreds of years after the barrow was built, someone from the 12th or 13th century came back to this site and dug into it to bury this pot.

"At that stage there were two local monasteries in view of this site, as Looe Island was a satellite monastery of the Glastonbury Abbey, so it would be very strange to have non-Christian activity on this site.

"The evidence looks quite ritualistic, but what the ritual was, we don't know."
Many ancient barrows and other monuments long retained their uncanny associations. At such places one might encounter the wee folk, ghosts, demons, or the devil himself. So it is hardly surprising that people might have returned to them to carry out sacrificial rituals.

As to Cornish people carrying out pagan rituals near a monastery, well, I'm certainly not surprised.

Saturday, May 26, 2018

Beginning of Summer in the Garden

Valencina de la Concepción: Copper Age Spain

Valencina de la Concepción is a town in southwestern Spain that sits on top of an amazing archaeological site dating to between 3000 and 2000 BCE. That covers the beginning of the Bronze Age, dated in Spain to around 2200 BCE, and the preceding Copper Age or Chalcolithic period. One of the many famous artifacts from the site is this carved slate owl, which now serves as the emblem for the town.

A lot of archaeology has been done here, probably more than on any other site of that period in Spain. But the site is huge and very complex. Estimates of its size range from 300 to 450 hectares, or 750 to 1100 acres. Much of the archaeology has been of the "rescue" type, that is, archaeologists hopping in after another pit full of bones was turned up while somebody was digging a foundation or utility trench. (Remember there is a modern town on top of the site.)

It seems to be a running joke among Spanish archaeologists that the community at Valencina de la Concepción consisted entirely of pits and ditches; by one estimate there should be around 40,000 in the whole site. Some of them have burials in them – at least 134 skeletons have been recovered from the site – while others do not. In general, there is not much difference between the pits and ditches that contain skeletons and those that do not. But a great deal of ordinary domestic trash has been found on the site, which certainly makes it look like people lived there.  That is, the place was obviously a site of great ritual importance, but it was also a town. Like Jerusalem, say.

The most famous elements of the site are two megalithic tombs known as La Pastora (the shepherdess) and Matarrubilla.  These are "Tholos" constructions, that is, a long tunnel led to a round burial chamber. The gallery at La Pastora is 140 feet (43 m) long. Recent studies of the mass of radiocarbon dates from the site suggest that these tombs were built between 2700 and 2500 BCE. La Pastora was thoroughly looted a long time ago, so not much is known about it contents. Matarrubilla was excavated in 1910, and reported finds include gold, ivory, and "green stones."

In 2007 a truly extraordinary find was made in Valencina de la Concepción: another tholos. This one had collapsed in the distant past and had not been completely looted, and it held wonderful things. Excavation went on until 2010, and detailed analysis of the finds is just now coming out.

This tomb seriously needs a cool name, because the archaeological publications refer to it as "Structure 10.049 of the PP4-Montelirio sector" and none of the newspaper accounts I have seen suggest it has any other. It was probably built between 2850 and 2700 BCE. (reconstruction above)

Within the main chamber was the burial of one male "prince" and about two dozen other people. Their skeletons had been disturbed and not all of the burials in the crowd could be properly analyzed, but news accounts from the time of the excavation reported that all were women. The latest statement from the excavators is that two are teenagers, while the rest all are between 20 and 35 years of age; 15 are women, and five could not be identified.

The prince had an astonishing collection of artifacts, like this crystal dagger with an elephant ivory handle and belt plate.

Crystal arrowheads

And a crystal spear head. So a complete set of crystal weapons.

The subsidiary tomb contained a single male, 17-25 years old. An elephant tusk was laid above the young man’s head. Other finds include a set of twenty-three flint blades and several ivory artifacts.

DNA study of the skeletons is under way, so we should soon know if this really was a prince and a retinue of women, and perhaps a lot of other things. It's an extraordinary site, from the time when, it seems, princely dynasties first established their hold on western Europe. Amazing.

Ivory figurine from Valencina de la Concepción

UPDATE: I mixed up two separate features here, the Montelirio Tholos and another burial dubbed "Structure 10.043-10.049 of the PP4-Montelirio sector." Sorry, but everybody seems confused about this. The Montelirio Tholos is the one with two visible chambers; for more on that, see here. The burial of the "prince" with the crystal dagger was in the other tomb.

Centrists and Democracy

In polls, support for democracy has been declining in both the US and Europe. You might think the ones turning against democracy were extremists of the right or the left, but no:

I suppose this is because self-declared centrists include a lot of people who think the solutions are obvious and it's only partisan bickering that keeps us from enacting them. Which is why I prefer "moderate" as a label for myself; I don't think the solutions are obvious or always in the middle.

Friday, May 25, 2018


Every once in a while a little story comes along to remind me how hard the people who make to the top of most fields work. This is a memory of novelist Philip Roth:
I remember when Philip Roth told me he’d stopped writing fiction. He was talking with my wife and me, and — looking honestly happy and relaxed about his new situation — he said, “Now I can have a glass of orange juice in the morning and read the newspaper.” And I remember thinking, You could have had your orange juice after “Portnoy’s Complaint” or “The Ghostwriter,” that you probably earned at least a scan of the A-section by book 10 or 12 or 14. . . .

Philip once told me about finishing a novel, and how, with a new book under his belt and nothing to do, he’d walked out the door of his Manhattan apartment to the American Museum of Natural History, a few steps away. He’d strolled around the displays and told me that, standing in the museum’s Hall of Ocean Life, he’d gazed up at the giant model of a blue whale hanging from the ceiling and thought, “What am I supposed to do, look at a whale all day?” And so he went back up to his apartment and started writing again.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Roderick Mead

Roderick Mead (1900-1971) was an American painter and lithographer who spent much of his life in Carlsbad, New Mexico. St. Michael and the Dragon, 1939.

Horned Animals, 1954

The Creation of Eve, 1942

The Edge of the Sea, c. 1960.

The Seventh Angel Revelations XVI

The Standard 21st-Century Advice, Royal Wedding Edition

Our contemporaries never, ever get tired of saying this.