Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Dion Archaeological Park

Dion at the foot of Mount Olympus was once the royal sanctuary of Macedonian kings; now it is an archaeological park and museum.

Unlike most Greek sites the place is very damp, and indeed as many people come for the birds and wildflowers as for the ancient remains. This is the now drowned sanctuary of Isis, with a statue of the Nile. All the statues on the site are replicas of originals that have been moved to the museum.

Mount Olympus looms over the Hellenistic theater.

Zeus. The main sanctuaries were those to Demeter, Zeus, Isis, and Asklepios, but there were numerous lesser shrines as well.

Aphrodite at the Foot of the Mountain, in the museum and on the site.

Hermaic statue of a philosopher.

Huge statue of a bull.

View of the site.

Excavations have recently focused on a grand Roman period villa known as the Villa of Dionysus, which has spectacular mosaics. This image comes from a lovely video by Konstantinos Arvanitakis showing how the mosaic of Dionysus in his chariot was moved from the site to the museum.

And behold the most spectacular find from the site, the copper pipes of the world's oldest water organ.

The water organ or hydraulis was a musical instrument invented by the engineer Ctesibius of Alexandria in the 3rd century BC. The one at Dion was found in the waterlogged part of the site, hence the preservation.

Seems like an amazing place to stroll among ancient ruins, serenaded by frogs, accompanied by dragonflies and blackbirds.

How Land is Used in America

Interesting graphic from Bloomberg, via Kottke. You may need to click on this to be able to read it.

Humanities Still Shrinking

Back in 2013, Sapping Attention wrote a blog post arguing that the supposed "crisis" in the humanities was a hoax. He has now come back with a new post saying that he was wrong and there really is a crisis.
No matter what baseline you use, virtually every humanities major went into significant decline around the time of the 2008 financial crisis. . . . Rather than recover with the economy, that decline accelerated around 2011-2012. That period constitutes an inflection point for a variety of majors in and out of the humanities. Though it may have slowed a bit in the last few years, there's little sign that the new post-2011 universe holds signs of a turnaround.

The big picture, I think, is: after the boom and bust of the 60s and 70s, the humanities entered a long period of stability from about 1990 to 2010 or so. That period has ended, and now we're entering a new one in which levels will be very different. We'll obviously stabilize somewhere, probably in the next few years, and maybe we'll rebound a bit, but I'd be very surprised if humanities numbers in five years were even 2/3 what they were in 2005.

Sunday, July 29, 2018

A Funeral Wreath

Two views of a girl buried with a crown of ceramic flowers c. 400-300 BCE, now in the archaeological museum of Patras, Greece. The upper image is by Zambia Pateraki of Museums of Greece, the lower from wikipedia.

Back Pain

I complain often here about the stupidities of our medical system, and lately we have seen much trouble and some major retractions in the fields of sociology and social psychology. But sometimes the system works. Consider this review of studies on back pain. Back pain is the single biggest reason people miss time at work and the leading reason why working people seek disability payments, and we are really bad at treating it. Or, to be more precise, we are really bad at treating "chronic, nonspecific lower back pain," the kind that mainly disables people; most back pain is treatable with ibuprofen and a few days of rest.
Historically, the medical community thought back pain (and pain in general) was correlated to the nature and severity of an injury or anatomical issue. But now it’s clear that what’s going on in your brain matters too.

“Our best understanding of low back pain is that it is a complex, biopsychosocial condition — meaning that biological aspects like structural or anatomical causes play some role but psychological and social factors also play a big role," Roger Chou, a back pain expert and professor at Oregon Health and Science University, summarized.

When you compare people with the same MRI results showing the same back injury — bulging discs, say, or facet joint arthritis — some may experience terrible chronic pain while others report no pain at all. And people who are under stress, or prone to depression, catastrophizing, and anxiety tend to suffer more, as do those who have histories of trauma in their early lives or poor job satisfaction.

The awareness about the role psychological factors play in how people experience pain has grown more widespread with the general shift away from the dualist view of the mind and body toward the more integrated biopsychosocial model. Chronic nonspecific low back pain “should not been considered as a homogenous condition meaning all cases are identical,” researchers in one review of the research on exercise cautioned.
In response to a flood of studies showing that surgery has highly uneven results, opiates mostly work no better in the long run than aspirin and also kill people, and steroid injections provide only short-term relief, doctors are becoming much less likely to recommend radical measures and much more likely to refer people for some combination of psychiatric counseling and physical therapy.
Most recently, in February 2017, the American College of Physicians advised doctors and patients try “non-drug therapies” such as exercise, acupuncture, tai chi, yoga, and even chiropractics, and avoid prescription drugs or surgical options wherever possible. (If the non-drug therapies fail, they recommended nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs as a first-line therapy, or tramadol or duloxetine only as a second-line therapy.) In March 2016, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also came out with new guidelines urging health care providers to turn to non-drug options and non-opioid painkillers before considering opioids.
Which is not to say that tai chi is a miracle cure for back pain; these alternative approaches are also hit or miss. But compared to surgery or opiates they are really cheap and much less likely to do long-term harm. Since they do help many people, why not try them? Increasingly doctors agree.

All of this, I think, points toward the great power of the analytical tools we have for studying our society and our bodies. Back surgery, for example, seems to work very well for a few people – I have two friends who swear they were cured from decades of pain by a single surgery – and many doctors kept doing it because of those success stories. To understand how rare these miracle cures are we had to track thousands of cases and analyze them in terms of many variables. This still has not enabled us to predict who will be cured and who will not, but it has helped doctors formulate the problem better.

Even more important has been the sociological data. The fact that people who have recently lost a job or gotten divorced are much more likely to be disabled by back pain tells you something important about the problem, and it is only massive statistical studies that have forced people to confront this reality. Without this mass of data people advancing the "biophychosocial" model would be accused of elitist scorn for poor injured working people, and the whole thing would have become yet another unresolvable political mess. But the data, from dozens of studies of millions of people, is simply irrefutable.

Through statistical analysis we have come to understand this problem much better, and the new medical approach – which amounts to trying different things until something works, with surgery as a last resort – seems to be working much better than what we did before.

On the other hand, through sociology and statistics we have come to understand that rather than being a simple medical problem of the kind we are good at solving, back pain is a social, psychological, and spiritual problem of the kind we are very bad at solving. What many people disabled by back pain really need is better lives: more friends, stronger communities, more meaningful work, less loneliness, less stress. But I would still say that yoga, tai chi, exercise, and therapy are more likely to help with that fundamental issue than surgery.

The Gorgan Wall

At the southeastern corner of the Caspian Sea, near the modern border of Iran and Turkmenistan, a narrow plain separates the mountains from the sea. This plain, its width varying from 50 to 200 kilometers (30 to 130 miles), has long been a route of invasion. Alexander the Great came this way, as did the sons of Genghis Khan and many others.

So it is hardly surprising that at some point a wall was built  across this plain. There is little stone on the Caspian plain, and the wall was made of brick. In some places all the bricks were fired, but in most the core of the wall was mud brick and only the outer courses were fired. The wall is  6 to 10 m (20–33 ft) wide, and it is studded with at least 30 small forts at intervals of between 10 and 50 km (6 and 30 miles).

The wall can still be traced for 195 km (120 miles), beginning by the sea and following the Gorgan River across the plain to the mountains.

 Most of it is not well preserved; the walls of this fort are more or less intact because it was swallowed by sand dunes, protecting it from the weather and brick miners.

Until recently the history of the wall was lost. Medieval Persian historians called it Sadd-i-Iskandar, Alexander's wall, and associated it with the legend that Alexander the Great built a wall of bronze against the people of Gog and Magog. More recent theories have focused on the classical Persian empires, especially the Parthians and the Sasanians.

The wall was certainly built by some great power in a fairly short period of time – years or at most decades rather than centuries. The fortresses are all essentially identical, and along its length are the remains of brick kilns, all of them built to the same plan.

It was those kilns that allowed archaeologists to identify the wall's builders. In the early 2000s a joint British/Iranian team explored several of the kilns and took charcoal samples for radiocarbon dating, and the all came out in the 450 to 525 CE range. So this was a Sasanian creation. During that same study several forts were studied with magnetometry and ground-penetrating radar and they turned out to be densely packed with barracks and other buildings, leading the archaeologists to conclude that the Wall was defended by at least 30,000 men.

The Sasanian Empire (224-651 CE) was the great rival of the late Roman and early Byzantine states, a powerful fusion of ancient Persian civilization and new warrior blood from the steppes.They defeated the Romans on several occasions, most notably in 260 when they smashed the emperor Valerian's army at Edessa and took him captive (above). But like everyone else in Asia they had continual troubles with nomadic raiders from the steppes, including a long series of wars with the "White Turks," and the best guess is that this wall was built in part to keep them out.

The building of walls against outsiders is an ancient human habit; the Romans and the Chinese were also great wall builders, and there are many lesser-known examples. The walls built by ancient empires were never in themselves defensible against either determined attack or small parties of stealthy raiders, so historians have long debated their purpose. In part it must have been symbolic, impressing immigrants or attackers with the power and seriousness of the states that built them. No doubt they were also a complicating factor for any would-be attacker, for if men could scale them horses could not.

Walls that stretch across the landscape always make me marvel at the sheer energy of our species. Since ancient times we have thrown our surplus strength into monumental building of a hundred kinds – walls, tombs, temples, canals, roads – remaking the earth in ways that would surely have astonished our ancestors of 10,000 years ago. It also fascinates me that we can forget so quickly who built these great works and why. That, it seems, is less important than the sheer fact of their existence, standing as monuments to our power to challenge the gods.

Saturday, July 28, 2018

Mary Oliver, "The Journey"

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice —
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
"Mend my life!"
each voice cried.
But you didn't stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voice behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do —
determined to save
the only life that you could save.


Modern Augury

I was reading a story about a possible new treatment for alcohol poisoning when I found this:
Afterwards, the mice were sacrificed and their livers were examined. . . .

Fairy Ring

The fungus that lives under my front yard is celebrating our rainiest July.

UPDATE: My daughter: "Dad, why does only our yard have all these mushrooms?" Me: "Because we are the only ones in our neighborhood on good terms with the Fairies."

Friday, July 27, 2018

Etruscan Vases, c 600 BCE

Via Gorny und Mosch.

What Happened to Mohammed Morsi?

Ever since Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi was overthrown in 2013 I have been wondering what happened to him. Yes, he was from the Muslim Brotherhood, but he won the election; how could the Obama administration, after making so many public commitments to democracy in the Arab world, have turned so quickly against the only Egyptian leader ever chosen in a free election?

Now Times reporter David Kirkpatrick, who was their Cairo bureau chief at the time, has come out with an article that offers some context. First, it turned out that within Egypt, the people whose streeet protests led to the fall of the military regime and the holding of that fateful election were not really interested in democracy. What they wanted was a country more like Europe: more personal freedom, more equality for women, a freer and richer economy. When they got the Muslim brotherhood instead most of them decided to turn against the election and start calling for another military intervention.

There were also big divisions within the Obama administration over how to react:
“The people who wanted to have a different kind of relationship with the Egyptian people, including the president, were on an island in our own government,” Ben Rhodes, Mr. Obama’s deputy national security adviser, later told me. “There was a sense of inevitability about the military resuming control.”
The American military were especially leary, since they spent a lot of time working with Middle Easterners – Saudis, Kuwaitis, Israelis, the Egyptian military – who regarded the Muslim Brotherhood as just another ally of al Qaeda and a terrible danger to peace in the region. But not just the military:
Civilians in government were skeptical, too. Secretary of State John Kerry had grown close to many of the most fiercely anti-Islamist Persian Gulf royals during his decades in the Senate, even sometimes yachting with them. He had always distrusted the Brotherhood, he told me years later. When he visited Cairo for the first time as secretary of state in March 2013, he took an immediate dislike to Mr. Morsi.

“He is the dumbest cluck I ever met,” Mr. Kerry told his chief of staff as they left the presidential palace. “This isn’t going to work. These guys are wacko.”

Mr. Kerry got along better in his one-on-one meeting with Gen. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. A former military intelligence chief, General Sisi had vaulted himself into the job of defense minister in a shake-up just a few months before.

“I will not let my country go down the drain,” General Sisi told Mr. Kerry, as he later recalled to me. He knew then that “Morsi was cooked.” General Sisi was prepared to intervene. Mr. Kerry felt partly relieved, he told me.

“It was reassuring that Egypt would not fall into a civil war or a complete massacre of the public or an implosion,” Mr. Kerry said, although he added, “I did not sit back and think, ‘Great, our problems are going to be solved.’”
Obama spoke to Morsi and urged him to make some dramatic gesture to his opposition, reminding him that Nelson Mandela made one of his own prison guards head of his presidential security detail.
“Be bold,” he added. “History is waiting for you.”
But Morsi would not or could not reach out to his opposition, so hardliners within the US government eventually got their way and we ended up endorsing the coup against him.

It's a sad tale. But it also makes me wonder: could a different man, in Morsi's position, have made those bold gestures, brought some of his opponents into his administration and engineered a different outcome? Or was Morsi simply in an impossible position, unable to make any concessions without alienating his own key supporters?

Are the divisions within Egypt simply too raw and deep to be bridged within a democratic system, or would it have been possible with the right inspired leadership?

How much difference can one person make in a nation's history?

The Fourteenth Amendment

Ratification certified July 28, 1868. The most important fruit of the Civil War:


All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.


Representatives shall be apportioned among the several States according to their respective numbers, counting the whole number of persons in each State, excluding Indians not taxed. But when the right to vote at any election for the choice of electors for President and Vice-President of the United States, Representatives in Congress, the Executive and Judicial officers of a State, or the members of the Legislature thereof, is denied to any of the male inhabitants of such State, being twenty-one years of age, and citizens of the United States , or in any way abridged, except for participation in rebellion, or other crime, the basis of representation therein shall be reduced in the proportion which the number of such male citizens shall bear to the whole number of male citizens twenty-one years of age in such State.


No person shall be a Senator or Representative in Congress, or elector of President and Vice-President, or hold any office, civil or military, under the United States, or under any State, who, having previously taken an oath, as a member of Congress, or as an officer of the United States, or as a member of any State legislature, or as an executive or judicial officer of any State, to support the Constitution of the United States, shall have engaged in insurrection or rebellion against the same, or given aid or comfort to the enemies thereof. But Congress may by a vote of two-thirds of each House, remove such disability.


The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law, including debts incurred for payment of pensions and bounties for services in suppressing insurrection or rebellion, shall not be questioned. But neither the United States nor any State shall assume or pay any debt or obligation incurred in aid of insurrection or rebellion against the United States, or any claim for the loss or emancipation of any slave; but all such debts, obligations and claims shall be held illegal and void.


The Congress shall have the power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article.

Thursday, July 26, 2018


So long as men worship the Caesars and Napoleons, Caesars and Napoleons will duly arise and make them miserable.

 ~ Aldous Huxley, Ends and Means

How Much Medical Inflation is Driven by Fear of Lawsuits?

According to this new study, 5%. The study was done by comparing the one large group of Americans who can't sue their health care providers – active duty military personnel – with those in comparable insurance plans who can sue. They find that doctors who can be sued order more tests and so on, and that this adds up to 5% more spending.

It's nice to have that information about the direct effect of lawsuits, but I don't think that's the whole story. Most doctors practice according to norms, that is, they do what everyone else is doing. That applies to military doctors as well as private ones. Military doctors could be prescribing things that add nothing to our health because these have become the norms of practice, and those norms could have been shaped by fear of lawsuits. So the real amount of the effect could be greater. Or less, I guess, this being just one study.

I think a bigger factor in driving up costs is the pressure from patients; if you want an expensive procedure or medicine that your doctor won't prescribe you can always just find another doctor who will, and doctors don't like losing customers any more than any other businessmen.

To put it differently, I think the biggest factor making American health care more expensive is that neither doctors nor patients have much incentive to seek lower costs. Most of the costs are born by someone else, either insurance companies or the government, so the question of cost enters into these decisions only when insurance won't pay.

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Mathilde Aubry, Head of a Medieval Virgin

All I have been able to find out about Mathilde Aubry is that she lived in the 19th century. This is the only image of her art Google can find. Mysterious.

Using the Hoover Dam for Energy Storage

The most widespread way of storing extra electricity for use later is still "pumped storage," that is, using the power to pump water uphill when there is a surplus and letting the water run back downhill when power is needed. This is a proven technology and an effective one. But it requires a lot of water and a steep gradient up which to pump it. And where might one find more of that?
Hoover Dam helped transform the American West, harnessing the force of the Colorado River — along with millions of cubic feet of concrete and tens of millions of pounds of steel — to power millions of homes and businesses. It was one of the great engineering feats of the 20th century.

Now it is the focus of a distinctly 21st-century challenge: turning the dam into a vast reservoir of excess electricity, fed by the solar farms and wind turbines that represent the power sources of the future.

The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, an original operator of the dam when it was erected in the 1930s, wants to equip it with a $3 billion pipeline and a pump station powered by solar and wind energy. The pump station, downstream, would help regulate the water flow through the dam’s generators, sending water back to the top to help manage electricity at times of peak demand.
Seems like a great idea on the surface, although with storage technologies changing so fast there is a risk that such a big project might be uneconomical before it is finished.

Monday, July 23, 2018

Zhou Enlai and the Empty Boat

Zhou Enlai (1898-1976) was once one of the most famous people in the world. When Mao was the symbolic leader of the worldwide far left, when Nixon chose to engage with China in high stakes diplomacy, when Mao's long final illness led to a political crisis in China, Zhou was on the front pages every week if not every day. Not any more, though; none of my children have ever heard of him.

Zhou Enlai was one of the original Chinese communist leaders, and for a time in the early 1930s he was the effective commander of their armies; he chose the breakout point for the strategic retreat that began the Long March of 1934 to 1935 and was in charge of logistics for the operation. In 1949 he became the first Foreign Minister of communist China, and he led the Chinese team that negotiated the truce that ended the Korean War. After Mao began his series of increasingly deranged power grabs with the Great Leap Forward of 1958, Zhou managed to remain both a close ally of Mao and a leader among the pragmatists who kept the state running. It was this ability to remain in power while straddling opposite factions that fascinated Simon Leys, one of the most important western writers on Chinese affairs in the 1960s and 1970s. This is from a book review Leys wrote in 1984:
Alone among the Maoist leaders, Zhou Enlai had cosmopolitan sophistication, charm, wit and style. He certainly was one of the greatest and most successful actors of our century. He had a talent for telling blatant lies with angelic suavity. He was the kind of man who could stick a knife in your back and do it with such disarming grace you would feel compelled to thank him for the deed. He gave a human face (and a very good-looking one) to Chinese Communism. Everyone loved him. He repeatedly and literally got away with murder. No wonder politicians from all over the world unanimously worshipped him. That intellectuals should share in this cult is more disturbing. . . .

It seems that for Zhou no interlocutors ever appeared too small, too dim or too irrelevant not to warrant a special effort on his part to charm them and to win their sympathy and support. I can state this from direct and personal experience, an experience that was shared over the years by thousands of enraptured visitors -- primary school teachers from Zanzibar, trade-unionists from Tasmania, Progressive Women from Lapland; not even the Pope had to cope with such time-consuming, bizarre and endless processions of pilgrims. Zhou was also the ultimate Zelig of politics: showing tolerance, urbanity and a spirit of compromise to urbane Western liberals; spitting fire and hatred to suit the taste of embittered Third World leaders; displaying culture and refinement in front of artists; being pragmatic with the pragmatists, philosophical with philosophers, and Kissingerian with Kissinger. . . .

Zhou's reputation may eventually suffer from the posthumous debunking of Mao (which is a paradox, since, in the end, Mao ruthlessly attempted to get rid of him). Still, Chinese intellectuals are probably being unfair when they describe him as having merely played Albert Speer to Mao's Hitler. Zhou's relations with his master did not reflect a straightforward subordination but something far more complex. For many years before Mao reached supreme power, Zhou had actually been running the Chinese Community Party behind the screen of a series of ineffectual or unlucky nominal leaders who were purged one after another. He weathered these successive crises, practically unscathed, and from these early days displayed an uncanny ability for political survival that was to become the hallmark of his long career. He developed methods that made him unsinkable: always exert power by proxy; never occupy the front seat; whenever the opposition is stronger, immediately yield. His unique competences made him indispensable; and he cultivated at the same time a quality of utter elusiveness: no one could pin him down to a specific political line, nor associate him with any particular faction. He never expressed personal ideas nor put his own theoretical views on paper. Where did he really stand? What did he actually believe? Apparently, he had no other policies but those of the leader of the moment, and nourished no other ambitions but to serve that leader with total dedication.

Yet, the brilliance of Zhou's mind, the sharpness of his intelligence, his personal magnetism, his eloquence and authority constantly belied the kind of bland selflessness which he so studiously displayed in the performance of his public duties. Zhou's enigma lay in this paradox: that, with all his exceptional talents, he should also present a sort of disconcerting and essential hollowness. Some 2,300 years ago, Zhuang Zi, giving advice to a king, pointed out to him that, when a small boat drifts into the path of a huge barge, the crew of the barge will immediately shout abuse at the stray craft; if however, coming closer, they discover that the little boat is empty, they will simply shut up and quietly steer clear of it. He concluded that a ruler who has to sail the turbulent waters of politics should first and foremost learn how to become an empty boat. History provides few examples of statesmen who were as successful as Zhou Enlai in mastering this subtle discipline.
Originally printed in the TLS of October 26, 1984, reprinted April 20, 2018. Photo at the top shows Zhou Enlai in 1919, and the one in the center is from the 1930s; both from wikipedia.

Something I didn't know about Africa

Former Brazilian slaves flocked to Lagos Island (Nigeria) in the mid-1800s, accounting for more than 10 percent of the city’s population and forming the core of its merchant and professional class.

-Armin Rosen at CityJournal

Maine 2018 Part III

Home from Mt. Desert Isle. I don't have pictures of some of the best things, like all the seals we saw kayaking, dozens of seals, on the rocks and in the water, or all the hermit crabs we found in a little tidal gut.

For me hiking in Acadia has two great joys: first the dark green valleys, full of moss and ferns, and then the barren hilltops with spectacular views. It's easy to get photographs of the hilltops, but to do justice to the dim mossy valleys you would have to carry a tripod. Here is an attempt. I love moss, and have always loved it, and I have never seen so lovely as on Mt. Desert.

The Bowl, a pond on the flank of Mt. Champlain.

The bowl from above, Atlantic Ocean in the background.

View of Bar Harbor from the top of Mt. Champlain.

Tidepooling on the rocks at Wonder Land. We saw a few interesting things here, especially crabs, but my sister told us we could do much better at a culvert on the road not far from the end of her driveway. So on the way out of town we stopped there. This culvert connected a tidal pond to an inlet, so the water flows back and forth through it with the tides. (Which are dramatic here in the Gulf of Maine.) When we arrived water was flowing out of the pond down what looked like a shallow stream, and there in just a few inches of water we saw more crabs than we could count, little fish, two pencil-sized eels, and at least a dozen small hermit crabs. It was a bit of a lesson; in a popular National Park the big attractions are sometimes worth braving the crowds, but some of the best things are hidden away in forgotten corners.

Today I ease back into reality, and tomorrow I go back to work.

Friday, July 20, 2018

Maine 2018 Part II: Sargent and Parkman Mountains

On the way up to the peak of Sargent. These are not big mountains, not much more than hills, but because of the peculiar local geography they are bare on top, and this always feels to me like walking in the sky.

Blueberries and wild lilies on top of Sargent Mountain.

Thomas on Parkman Mountain.

The way down.