Friday, August 31, 2018

Echoes of the Teacher Strikes

News from the Oklahoma primaries:
Starting with West Virginia in late February, a number of Republican-majority, right-to-work states have seen strikes by public-school teachers, and the teachers have, by and large, gained significant concessions from state legislatures. These strikes have, not surprisingly, energized the Left, and especially the rising socialist Left. Interestingly, though, they’ve also revealed cleavages among Republicans. In May, for example, Travis Brenda, a socially conservative public-school teacher in rural Rockcastle County, Ky., bested a rising-star Republican incumbent in a GOP state-senate primary. What was the issue that propelled him to victory? Teacher pay, of course.

Which leads me to Oklahoma. . . . Basically, the Oklahoma state legislature tried to meet some of the teachers’ demands after a statewide strike. Most Republican legislators decided to get behind legislation that would boost teacher pay. However, 19 legislators voted against the bill, presumably out of concern about its fiscal consequences. Now, after the GOP primary runoff earlier this week, it is assured that 15 of them won’t return to the legislature next year, as CNN reports. Some chose to retire from office, others were term-limited, and then, most notably, eight of them lost their primaries to opponents who were more solicitous of the interests of public-school teachers.
As in Kansas, South Carolina, and Louisiana, Republican voters and legislators have found that there are real limits to what hard core conservative policies can achieve. Conservative rhetoric still thrives on the right, but at the state level moderate policies are back in fashion.

Thursday, August 30, 2018

Vanilla, Libertarianism, and the Joneses

The soaring price of vanilla has led to interesting times in northeastern Madagascar, where much of the world's vanilla is grown. High prices for their main crop have enriched many in this region, leading to a flood of new motorbikes and "vanilla mansions" like this one.

The high price has also led to a destructive crime wave, as thieves steal vanilla pods from the vines, sell the stolen pods to crooked dealers, and pay off the police to look the other way. This has led some small growers to painstakingly mark every single pod with their initials or some other personal symbol, to make it harder for thieves to sell their crop. It was news of this marking that first got me interested in the problem; imagining doing this for every one of the thousand or ten thousand pods that provide your whole annual income.

Of course the unreliability of the police has led some growers to take the law into their own hands:
Not only does Mr. Oclin patrol his plot of about 3,000 vanilla vines, he pays three men to stand guard every night during the four months before the summer harvest.

The men are armed with double-pronged fishing spears and clubs, plus Mr. Oclin’s rifle. Each night, a vigilante group patrolling local plantations stops by with a half-dozen men armed with clubs and machetes.

“Every vanilla plot will be guarded,” Mr. Oclin said.

With little public trust in a corrupt police force and justice system, mob justice often prevails when a suspected thief is caught.

In April, a local militia captured a thief with a little over three pounds of freshly picked vanilla. He was beaten with sticks until he collapsed, then hacked to death with machetes, according to residents. It was just one of dozens of similar “vanilla murders” over the past two seasons.
Like all such gangs, these vanilla vigilantes will eventually suffer from corruption and uncontrolled violence; just wait.

And in another all-too-predictable outcome, the sudden influx of wealth has ended hunger in this region but created new social problems instead:
Mr. Lomone said he was concerned about the boom’s effect on local culture, with people doing whatever they can to get rich quick.

“Now in Madagascar, it’s not a problem of poverty to eat, but of social poverty,” he said. “It’s about the competition to keep up with others making fast money. It’s not good. We can’t keep going like this.”

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

A Maya Mask

News from Mexico:
Archaeologists have discovered a ritual mask in Mexico which is thought to represent the face of one of Mesoamerica’s most important historical rulers.

According to the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH), the mask was found inside a building known as “House E” in the palace complex at Palenque—an ancient Mayan city in the south of the country and one of its most precious archaeological gems.

K'inich Janaab' Pakal, otherwise known as King Pakal the Great, ascended to the throne at the tender age of 12, ruling over the city state during what is considered to be its golden age. In total, he is thought to have ruled for 68 years until his death at the age of 80, making him the longest-reigning known ruler in the Americas.
Pakal, who reigned in Palenque from 615 to 683, is famous for a lot of reasons, but most especially because of his tomb. His reign is known from several inscriptions that record, among other things, his marriage, ascension to the throne, military victories, and building of a great temple. That's one of his palaces above.

His tomb was discovered within a temple pyramid known as the temple of inscriptions. That's the lid of his sarcophagus above, an amazing design that fascinates both scholars of Maya art and enthusiasts for ancient astronauts.

Two other stucco portraits of Pakal I got from a cool book I found in my public library, Palenque: Eternal City of the Maya, by David Stuart and George Stuart (2008). The one on the right bears a particularly close resemblance to the mask.

A portrait of Pakal from one of his inscriptions.

One more, showing Pakal as a warrior.

This is his jade funeral mask.

The recently discovered mask has been identified as Pakal largely due to its resemblance to these other representations, along with the supposition that only a very prominent man's face would be turned into a mask. Looks to me like it might be him, but I would not call it certain.

Pessimism in Korea

I'm reading a book about Korea by British journalist Michael Breen, who has lived in Seoul for many years. He notes that throughout the great economic expansion of 1962 to 2010, foreign observers regularly predicted that the economic boom was about to end, perhaps in a spectacular collapse. They did not do this, says Breen, because they were removed from Korea or hostile to Asians; it was precisely the people who knew Korea best who were most pessimistic. They acquired their pessimism from their Korean friends:
The reader may wonder if I did not rely too much on foreign experts for my analysis of Korea. The answer is yes, but only at first. Turning to peope who are similar to you is normal in the expatosphere because you have to be able to understand your informants. Once on more solid ground, you naturally turn to local experts. And that brings me to the biggest reason of all to have doubted continued development in Korea. Local sources were the most pessimistic.Their worry that it would all go wrong was the greatest influence on foreign observers. So many of the Koreans we worked with and socialized with were convinced, even in the days 8 percent annual growth, that the government was fiddling the figures and that the country was actually in recession or, if not, that disaster lurked in the next quarter. They had opportunity and cash in their pockets but they were shackled by uncertainty. . . . Thanks to this pessimism the Koreans were the last to wake up to their own arrival in the world. I would say that only now, well over a decade into the twenty-first century, are they they getting it. Before this they didn't believe their own propaganda.
As a friend of mine put it, once you've been traumatized – as the Koreans were by Japanese occupation, World War II, and then the Korean war – you may not be able to escape the sense that something is always looming over your head and about to fall.

Make That Change

Steven Leavitt (of Freakonomics) reports on an interesting experiment:
Little is known about whether people make good choices when facing important decisions. This paper reports on a large-scale randomized field experiment in which research subjects having difficulty making a decision flipped a coin to help determine their choice. For important decisions (e.g. quitting a job or ending a relationship), those who make a change (regardless of the outcome of the coin toss) report being substantially happier two months and six months later. This correlation, however, need not reflect a causal impact. To assess causality, I use the outcome of a coin toss. Individuals who are told by the coin toss to make a change are much more likely to make a change and are happier six months later than those who were told by the coin to maintain the status quo. The results of this paper suggest that people may be excessively cautious when facing life-changing choices.
This suggests that "status quo bias," that is, preferring the devil you know to the one you don't, is a real thing and keeps many people from making changes that would benefit them.

Also interesting is that 23,000 people made the digital coin toss on Leavitt's web site, and that more than 13,000 responded to follow-up surveys about how their choices worked out.

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Scott Sumner on Meaning

Economist Scott Sumner responds to a question about meaning:
Compared to most people, I probably find less meaning in success and fame, and more in art. At least that’s how it seems to me. I’m probably about average for seeing meaning in friends and family (although given my Northern European cultural heritage, perhaps a bit less than average for family.)

During my career, I noticed that some colleagues cared a lot about things like promotions, whereas I didn’t care at all. I did get some satisfaction from the positive press I got in September 2012, but probably less than most people would. I’m not ambitious in a career sense. If given the opportunity to be Fed chair, or a senator from California, or CEO of Goldman Sachs, I’d immediately turn down the opportunity. If not for this Mercatus position, I’d already be retired—at age 62. I’d rather make $20,000/year and have the health I had at age 31, than $200,000/year and have the health I have today—and I don’t even have any serious health problems, just chronic annoyances. That’s why the income inequality debate doesn’t really resonate with me; it just doesn’t seem that important. (That’s my impression; I’m not trying to defend it.) On the other hand, extreme poverty in developing nations such as North Korea seems like by far the most important problem in the world.

I also find much less meaning that usual in ceremonies such as funerals, weddings, graduations and other such events. I’m not a social person.

When I was a young academic, my research was meaningful to me. As I got older, I realized that people simply didn’t care and it lost meaning. What made my depression book so hard to write is that I did it after I’d become disenchanted, after I realized the book would be ignored. Fortunately, the hardest part (all the research) was done by the time I reached that view, but it was still an agonizing process to write the book.

Conversely, I got a lot of meaning out of a brief summer course I taught at Cato this summer. I was great seeing younger students from really good schools that were interested in market monetarist ideas. My blog also gave me meaning, especially during the early years when I still had new things to say and the readership was larger and more engaged. I still have modest hopes for my blog book, but I don’t think book length projects are my forte. If I were actually able to influence Fed policy, that would seem meaningful to me.

For me, the greatest meaning in life comes from art, broadly defined to include aesthetically beautiful experiences with nature, old cities, and scientific fields like astronomy and physics. The most meaningful experience in my life might have been seeing the film 2001 at age 13. I’ve never tried LSD, but after reading about the experience it reminds me of this film, and indeed the director was someone who experimented with acid. (It might also be the only “psychedelic” work of visual art that’s actually any good. Whereas pop music from the 60s is full of good examples.)

To me, art is “real life” and things such as careers are simply ways of making money in order to have the ability to experience that real life. After art, I’d put great conversation second on the list. And the part of economics that most interests me is the ability to converse with like-minded people (such as at the Cato summer course.)

I’m sort of like a satellite dish, receptive to ideas and sounds and images. My ideal is Borges, who regarded himself more as a great reader than a great writer (of course he was both, and a great conversationalist.) I’d rather be a great reader than a great writer. I’d rather be able to appreciate great music than be able to produce it.
I think Sumner's life course is a common one for those who are ambitious when they are young. For a while climbing the ladder of success energizes them and feels like the most meaningful thing. Eventually they realize that they are not really going to shake the world – notice that Sumner still fantasizes about influencing real monetary policy – and settle back into a quiescent enjoyment of the things they love most, preferably in the company of like-minded people. Because of all that youthful drive they have plenty of money for an ordinary life and no longer care about getting more. Instead they brace up their self-esteem by insisting they would not even want the jobs they will never be offered.

Realizing that they are never going to win the game, they take their winnings and cash out, abandoning the Stoic for the Epicurean. Which actually seems to me like a pretty good way to live.

The Catonsville Quilt

I just discovered, from Robert Shaw's book American Quilts (2009), that there is a "Catonsville Quilt," a semi-famous object named after my place of residence. And it has quite a story:
According to oral tradition, this quilt was made by a young woman who was pregnant out of wedlock and became an inmate at the Spring Grove State Hospital in Catonsville, the third-oldest mental hospital in the United States. The center of the quilt is made up on ninety-six diamonds containing a wide range of static floral and figural motifs, while the wide outer border is full of much larger and more active imagery, including two large, undulating snakes. While there is no way to decipher the narrative, its implications are clearly unsettling.

Empty Centrism in Britain

Jack Shenker is irritated by the surge of new "centrist" political movements and proposals in Britain, where the elite is baffled by the parallel rise of the socialist left and the anti-immigrant right:
Take United for Change, a centrist political vehicle founded by the multimillionaire entrepreneur and former Labour donor Simon Franks. The nascent party is on a mission to “break the Westminster mould.” To this end, Mr. Franks has secured private investment of £50 million ($64 million) reportedly and put Mr. Blair’s son on its board of directors. The form this mold-breaking might take remains hazy: A brief (and now deleted) section on the party’s website setting out its political views included a promise to “address all the big questions which politicians have swept under the carpet for too long.” What those questions are or how they might be answered are concerns that can seemingly wait for another day. All that matters now is the noise and the lights, the razzmatazz that announces “I am here” and need say nothing more, because the assumption is that you want to be here too.

United for Change is entering a crowded marketplace. Since the Brexit referendum, we’ve seen the emergence of a host of abstract nouns masquerading as political parties: Radicals UK (floated by a journalist at The Economist), Democrats (the brainchild of James Chapman, a former adviser to the Tory chancellor George Osborne), Advance and Renew. There’s nary a fleshed-out policy platform to be found among them, just a deep and abiding ahistoricism with nothing to say about how yesterday’s Third Way ideology, which reduced politics to a mere epiphenomenon of market forces, might have contributed to today’s disarray.
Shenker thinks the real root of all the dissatisfaction is increasing inequality and the stagnation of wages for the masses, and I suspect he is right.

In the U.S. we have Trump, who has the style of a rebel but no ideas to speak of other than to reduce immigration by any means available and insult as many foreigners as possible. And we have a host of young leftists who call themselves "socialists" but seem not to know what that means; they hate the intense inequality of the current system but don't seem to have any interest in actual socialism, things like the government owning the banks or the factories. National health care is about the only big idea they embrace, and while that might be great it won't solve our more basic problems.

So far as I can tell, the great rise in inequality is the product of this phase of global capitalism, an ethos of intense individualism, and a vast determination by conservative forces to fight high taxes. I support many measures that are supposed to decrease inequality, like raising the minimum wage and improving health care for the poor, but I doubt that even taken altogether they would really reshape the current economic and social climate. To do that would require tax increases on a scale that I doubt any western state can pass.

Sunday, August 26, 2018

The Tree of Life Palampore

I've been perusing a lovely new book about American quilts by Robert Shaw. Shaw notes that while after the Civil War quilting came to be seen as a humble art, a way for thrifty farm wives to use up scraps of cloth, the first quilts in North America were made by elite women. After all, cloth of the quality needed for quilting was expensive, and few poor women could have accumulated enough of it to properly cover a bed. Some of the oldest American quilts are made with single sheets of cloth on both sides, nothing patchwork about them.

At the time we are talking about, the mid 1700s, the British elite was mad for cloth imported from India. One of the fabrics they loved the most was what they called palampore, printed cotton made on the Coromandel coast opposite Sri Lanka. These elaborate designs were made by repeated printings using a dye that only adhered where a special binding agent had been painted on to the fabric, sometimes finishing by painting on details with a brush. This example has been made into a quilt.

And one of the most common designs on these fabrics, or at least one of the most common in 21st century collections, is called the Tree of Life. Love it.

These are all rather faded now but they were once much brighter and more vibrant. I would certainly have loved to have one on my bed.

And finally one in the Met, because they have at least one of everything.

Saturday, August 25, 2018

Mad King Ludwig

Léo Larguier wrote this essay in 1911 about Ludwig the Mad of Bavaria, the nineteenth-century king who built three amazing castles before being forced to abdicate when Bismarck engineered the unification of Germany under Prussian leadership:
Was he really crazy, this Louis II who drowned himself in Lake Starnberg? No, only a diehard romantic. . . . When a man is only one in the midst of thousands of men, idealism, along with a taste for silence and fantasy, singles him out for praise; when that man is a king, it becomes terrifying, as his case proves.

He, King of Bavaria, Prince Palatine of the Rhine, lived alone, having neither queen nor favorite, in a country where large families were esteemed; he did not drink beer, even though he lived all his life in Munich; he loved champagne and France, and he did not hide his tastes even at Versailles, when the two white coats and barbarous helmets of Bismarck and Field-Marshal Moltke could be seen in the shadows. . . .

He never saw it. It is necessary to be crazy, is not it, to live alone and far from everyone.

Were the good Bavarian officials invisible, then? Well fed with cabbage, goose and sausages, well watered with good beer, in a dress without elegance but solid, with their good wives and their many children, they went to listen, on Sunday, to the music under the linden trees, and God blessed them and gave them each year a red-haired boy or a blonde girl.

So was the king one of those good people? They never knew.

He did not appear at court galas, nor at festivals in the city. He preferred the meditative intoxication of the vast loneliness of the mountains.

Sometimes he would call his servants at two o'clock in the morning to ready a golden Louis XIV carriage, and white horses that he called by name, and in the illuminated car, rolling heavily on the slopes. escorted by riders carrying torches, one saw as in a dream or by a flash of lightning, the young king meditating in an immense blue cloak! He thus went off on adventures, with this strange and sumptuous crew.

Sometimes he stopped before the humble house of a peasant who adored him, asking for a glass of ice water that a girl half asleep came to offer him at the door of his carriage, then set off again.

He also liked to lie down in the diamond-dewed grass, leaving his servants and the illuminated car on the night road, spending hours at the bottom of the Tyrolean chasms, by cold lakes where the stars were drowning.

This prince palatine of the Rhine was a fairy king; he must have reigned in times of chivalry and legend over a kingdom of  deep valleys, snowy peaks, and blue ponds, sovereign of the forest of elves and the pale pools where Lorelei haunted.

He was one of those unrepentant dreamers of ancient Germany, the Germania of oaks, linden trees, and black forests; the old idealist Germany that believed one could meet Mephistopheles in a tavern fogged by pipe smoke, and that shuddered when they remembered dreams of Walpurgisnacht!

Born too late, in the time of Bismarck and the Prussian conquest, he had abdicated in his heart long before he was dispossessed.

Serious business did not interest him. He hated the grim old counselors, he did not want to see his ministers, especially if they were too ugly, but he built castles on virgin peaks, and when he arrived in Triebschen, without escort, like the most humble, the most dazzled fan, he slept in a camp-bed set up for him in Richard Wagner's study, in this oratory, with heavy furniture, and always perfumed with the extract of white roses. His kingdom was not of this world, as was proved to him.

Matthew 25:35

I Was a Stranger and You Took Me In, otherwise Monument to Strangers and Refugees, by Nigerian-American artist Olu Oguibe. Currently in Kassel, Germany. Text is from the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats. Jesus is speaking:
Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: for I was hungry, and ye gave me to eat; I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink; I was a stranger, and ye took me in; naked, and ye clothed me; I was sick, and ye visited me; I was in prison, and ye came unto me.

Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee hungry, and fed thee? or athirst, and gave thee drink? And when saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee? And when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee?

And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it unto one of these my brethren, even these least, ye did it unto me.

Friday, August 24, 2018

Eudoxio Rodriguez and the Possibilities of Internet History

Dead Confederates recently posted this picture of an 8-inch square unofficial memorial attached to the Galveston Seawall. Just as interesting was how much he was able to learn about this Mexican-American laborer on the internet:
A quick check of online genealogy resources and newspapers tells us that Eudoxio “Eddie” Rodriguez was born in Mier, Tamaulipas, Mexico in November 1881, emigrated to the United States in 1899 or 1900, and soon thereafter was working as a laborer on building the Galveston Seawall, around 1902-03. In 1910 he was still in Galveston, working as a day laborer. He was apparently active in community affairs, as in 1926 (still living in Galveston), he was elected to the post of Treasurer of the a local Woodmen of the World lodge. By 1940 he was head of a large family, owned his own home at 3814 Sealy, and was working as a bottler at the Galveston-Houston Brewery. It was a solid job, that he reported in the 1940 Census had paid over $1,800 the previous year – not a small thing, coming out of the Great Depression. (His eldest son, 26-year-old Philip, lived with the family and made almost as much as a tank cleaner at the brewery.) The average income reported in the census in 1940 (the first to record that information) was $1,368, which places the Rodriguez pretty squarely in the lower middle class. In 1942, at the age of 60, Eudoxio registered for the “old man’s draft” for military service. Eudoxio Rodriguez died in Houston in 1959. A funeral mass was held Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Galveston, and he was interred at Old Catholic Cemetery, just off Broadway in Galveston.
Online genealogical sources are enabling a drastic acceleration in how much we can learn about the ordinary people of the recent past. In one way this is a little sad, since it is generally unnecessary now to leaf through moldering tomes of local records in search of your great-grandfather's name, but on the other hand the amount that you can learn from just a quick internet search is sometimes amazing.

The New Individualism

Oh, those yuppies:
A 2010 study of 325 million American names by Jean Twenge of the University of San Diego and others found a sharp increase in parents giving their children uncommon names starting in 1983. Parents, suggested its authors, wanted them to “stand out and be a star.”
I had not actually considered this before, but a preference for unusual names certainly fits with the competitive individualism of our new age.

Thursday, August 23, 2018

Folly Driving the Chariot of Love, Giuseppe Bezzuoli


Hybrid Humans

Back in 2010, geneticists announced that a finger bone from Denisova Cave in Russia's Altai Mountains represented a new species of humans. They have been dubbed Denisovans after their discovery place, and genetic studies done since then show that modern Asians carry some of their genes. They visited the cave between 48,000 and 30,000 years ago.

That remarkable discovery inspired archaeologists to redouble their efforts in the cave, and the result has been a haul of several thousand bone fragments, most too small for even the species to be identified from the shape. More than 2,000 fragments were sent to the Max Planck Institute in Germany, one of the top three ancient DNA labs, but even they were unable to find usable material in most of the bones. The did identify one 120,000-year-old toe bone as Neanderthal. Then they got to work on a sliver of arm or leg bone that showed traces of hominid collagen:
Viviane Slon, then a graduate student at the institute, led a search for DNA in the fragment. She began by hunting for a special set of genes found in the fuel-generating factories of the cell, called mitochondria.

Mitochondria carry a set of genes distinct from those of the cell’s nucleus; these genes, unlike those in the nucleus, are inherited solely from the mother.

In 2016, Dr. Slon and her colleagues reported that they had gotten mitochondrial DNA from the mysterious bone fragment, and that it closely matched genetic material from Neanderthals.

The researchers called that individual Denisova 11, and they began searching the bone for nuclear DNA. Fragment by fragment, they began reconstructing the entire genome.

Strangely, only some of the fragments of nuclear DNA matched Neanderthal genes. There was just as much Denisovan DNA in the bone.

“I was wondering, ‘What did I do wrong?’” recalled Dr. Slon, now a postdoctoral researcher at the institute.

In each pair of chromosomes, one came from a Neanderthal, the other from a Denisovan. This individual, she and her colleagues concluded, was a hybrid.
Astonishing: so many thousands of years later, to catch interspecies mating almost in the act. This young woman had a Denisovan father and a Neanderthal mother. The DNA showed that her father was from the local Denisovan clan, related to the other Denisovan specimens that have been identified. Her mother, though, was not closely related to other Neanderthals from the Altai, but to specimens found in Croatia.

In so many ways, the last Ice Age was a fascinating time. Giant mammoths and other strange beasts roamed the icy plains, hunted by saber-toothed cats and dire wolves. Among them wandered small bands of humans of at least three different species, all of them far-travelers who criss-crossed Eurasia as the climate shifted and the herds migrated. On their travels, they must have regularly encountered other kinds of humans. I suspect that our ancient legends of beast men may got back to those times, preserving memories of those meetings. Sometimes, it seems, sex was part of those encounters. What sort we have no idea; perhaps it was all rape. But perhaps some took place when small bands, living at the edge of survival in a decade frigid even by Ice Age standards, or a time of rapid change that ruined their hunting routines, came together to help each other survive.

I foresee a novel about modern human and Denisovan lovers, each the only survivor of his or her band, no language in common, meeting up in a cave refuge and helping each other through winter, slowly learning to trust each other until desire breaks through.

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Tomb Symbols from Ptolemaic Alexandria

That large black granite sarcophagus found in Alexandria, Egypt earlier this year is now being opened and studied.

The most intriguing objects so far are these three small gold plaques. Assuming these images were carefully chosen, which I think is a fair assumption, they say something interesting about classical paganism. First, this snake. Because snakes shed their skin and emerge looking youthful again, and because they emerge mysteriously from underground hiding places in the spring, they were often associated with death and rebirth. They were also sacred to Isis, probably the most widely worshiped goddess in Egypt at the time.

An ear of wheat. Wheat was central to many ancient religious rites, including the famous Eleusinian Mysteries of Athens. Wheat was symbolic of fertility, and of the birth of new life from dead ground.

A poppy seed head, enclosed in a shrine; most likely this represents an opium poppy although one can't be sure. Opium was symbolic of both death and sleep, and therefore perhaps of the hope that death was only a sort of sleep, with reawakening to follow.

I see here a hopeful view of death, not a bleak one; a belief that rather than a final end, death is a transition to new life in some form or another.

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Lots of Water Out There

Exoplanet news:
A new evaluation of data from the exoplanet-hunting Kepler Space Telescope and the Gaia mission indicates that many of the known planets may contain as much as 50% water. This is much more than the Earth's 0.02% (by weight) water content.
So there is a lot of water in the universe and many planets with deep oceans. To understand the next bit, remember that Kepler mostly found planets that were big and orbiting close to their stars. This study identified two groups of planets, one with diameters about 1.5 times that of earth, which are mostly rock, and another with a diameter about 2.5 times that of earth. Those larger planets are, this study says, made up largely of water. But they're very weird by our standards:
"This is water, but not as commonly found here on Earth," said Li Zeng. "Their surface temperature is expected to be in the 200 to 500 degree Celsius range. Their surface may be shrouded in a water-vapor-dominated atmosphere, with a liquid water layer underneath. Moving deeper, one would expect to find this water transforms into high-pressure ices before we reaching the solid rocky core. The beauty of the model is that it explains just how composition relates to the known facts about these planets."

Li Zeng continued, "Our data indicate that about 35% of all known exoplanets which are bigger than Earth should be water-rich. These water worlds likely formed in similar ways to the giant planet cores (Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune) which we find in our own solar system. The newly-launched TESS mission will find many more of them, with the help of ground-based spectroscopic follow-ups."
Again, Kepler's planets are mostly large, hot worlds orbiting close to their suns, so nothing says there aren't plenty of smaller, cooler water planets out there. But this study is still a nice indication of how weird the universe it, and good we are getting at learning about it.

Ancient Herders at Lake Turkana

From the Times:
Roughly 5,300 years ago, a group of ancient sheep herders in East Africa began an extraordinary effort to care for their dead.

It was a time of great upheaval in their homeland. Global climate changes had weakened the African monsoon system, causing a significant drop in rainfall. Pastoralism spread south from the Sahara. What is now known as Lake Turkana in northern Kenya shrank by half over the succeeding centuries.

These early herders dug through about 1,000 square feet of beach sands down to bedrock and gouged out burial pits. They interred their dead there: the bodies of men, women and children of all ages, many with personal items and ornamentation.

When the crevices they had dug into the bedrock filled up, the herders piled bodies on top of the pits, carefully placing large rocks over the heads and torso of each corpse. They did this for about 700 years, burying at least 580 people and perhaps 1,000 in all.
The great drying they mention went on in northern Africa until the Sahara ended up almost entirely desert, so this was indeed a major climate event. At top, stone pendants and earrings from the site; below a view of the site, with the main platform in the foreground and smaller platforms behind. Sadly all the pillars have fallen.

Which is all very cool. But in the way of archaeologists seeking attention, the excavators (led by Americans Elisabeth Hildebrand and Katherine Grillo) go on to make a bunch of assertions that are not true. From the abstract:
Archaeologists have long sought monumental architecture’s origins among societies that were becoming populous, sedentary, and territorial. In sub-Saharan Africa, however, dispersed pastoralists pioneered monumental construction. Eastern Africa’s earliest monumental site was built by the region’s first herders ∼5,000–4,300 y ago as the African Humid Period ended and Lake Turkana’s shoreline receded.
Sigh. If you're looking for monumental funerary architecture, it would be hard to beat the Scythians, nomadic herders whose gigantic mounds full of gold have made many appearances on this blog. In fact some people have argued that herders, lacking cities, are particularly prone to building impressive tombs. This has all been known to western science since Herodotus wrote about it in 450 BC. But in our world any scientist who wants a story in the Times has to invent some outdated orthodoxy to attack, so he or she can be a bold rebel overturning the status quo.

Monday, August 20, 2018

Crow Games

Crows can do lots of interesting things:
Puy du Fou, a historical theme park in the Loire region about four hours from Paris, has trained six crows to pick up cigarette butts and bits of trash and dump them in a box. . . .

The theme park’s owners would rather have humans properly dispose of their own candy wrappers and cigarettes. The crows are part of an educational campaign to prompt the ecologically minded to take their rubbish with them.

“We want to educate people not to throw their garbage on the ground,” said Nicolas de Villiers, the president of Puy du Fou. That is especially true of smokers who casually flick lit cigarettes and extinguish them with the tips of their shoes. As Mr. de Villiers put it, if crows can be schooled to pick up trash, why can’t humans?
The crows are rewarded with food for this but according to their trainer they do it for fun, as a game, and quickly get bored if they are asked to do it too much.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

The Great War over Furs and Frozen Wastes

I just finished reading a book about King William's War, which is what Americans call the fighting between the British and the French (plus settlers and Indian allies) that broke out after the Glorious Revolution of 1688. This was a very important event in North American history, setting the pattern followed by all the other North American wars down to 1763. The events of that war kept happening over and over: the British, egged on by New Englanders, kept repeating their siege of Quebec; armies marched over and over down the same roads, boated along the same lakes and rivers, besieged the same forts and fought battles in the same places.

But what I learned from this book that stays with me is that besides fighting on the St. Lawrence, the Mohawk, the Hudson, the St. Johns, Lake Champlain, Lake Ontario, Lake Erie, and the Gulf of Maine, the British and French also fought each other on Hudson Bay.

Imagine: this vast, cold body of water, its only entrance blocked by ice as much as ten months a year, thousands of miles from Europe at the end of a horrifically dangerous voyage that claimed uncounted mariners; I marvel that anyone sailed there, let alone fought a war there. But fight they did.

The Bay's history with Europeans started badly. The first Europeans to see it sailed with Henry Hudson, an Englishman who was then in the pay of the Dutch. They worked their way around the southern coast of Greenland past Baffin Island and into the Hudson Strait – really, the man certainly named a lot of stuff after himself – searching like so many others for the Northwest Passage. Instead they found a vast inland sea. By the time they reached the southern shore it was too late in the season to sail back, so they were trapped by the ice. They wintered over on the shores of James Bay, surviving by bartering with nearby Indians. When the ice finally broke up in the spring Hudson wanted to go on exploring, but his crew had had enough. They mutinied, left Hudson and a couple of loyalists floating on a small boat, and sailed back to Europe.
No one knows the fate of Hudson or the crew members stranded with him, but historians see no evidence that they survived for long afterwards.
Nobody was eager to follow in Hudson's wake, so few Europeans saw the Bay for the next fifty years.

Then around 1660 a pair of resourceful French traders, Pierre-Esprit Radisson and Médard Chouart, Sieur des Groseilliers, reached the Bay by canoe and discovered that the forests around it were a fabulous source of furs. They were unable to interest the French leadership in trading at the Bay  because that would have disrupted the carefully constructed network of alliances with Indian tribes closer at hand. So Radisson and Groseilliers turned to the English. They raised money, much of it in Boston, for a voyage in 1663 that  brought back a load of valuable furs. This got them first arrested for unlicensed trading and then ushered into the company of royal favorites to discuss schemes to exploit their discovery. Those favorites financed a single ship called the Nonsuch to make the journey, in 1668. That voyage was so profitable that its backers quickly formed a company to make regular journeys, The Governor and Company of Adventurers of England trading into Hudson's Bay. The first governor of the company was Prince Rupert, a close associate of the king, and not surprisingly the company received a royal monopoly on trade to the whole region that drained into the Bay.

After the Company built tradings posts on the Bay the French finally responded, sending their own expeditions to drive out the English. A weird sort of war ensued, weird partly because it took two years for news from the Bay to reach London or Paris, be considered the Royal Council, and a new expedition be fitted out to go forth and carry out the crown's decisions. So one side would send a force to take over the half a dozen trading posts that had been established around the Bay, and then two years later the other side would respond and take them back, and so on.

The most exciting part of this long, slow war, was a naval fight known as the Battle of Hudson Bay, when a French warship commanded by Captain Pierre Le Moyne d'Iberville defeated an English squadron commanded by Captain John Fletcher. D'Iberville commanded the Pelican, a warship of 44 guns that had been part of a force of three ships. The other two had gotten lost in fog and ice, but D'Iberville pressed on alone, eventually coming up alone against Fletcher's three ships. The Pelican and Fletcher's flagship, the Hampshire, which carried 50 guns, traded close-range broadsides. The Pelican seemed to be getting the worst of it, and Captain Fletcher demanded that D'Iberville surrender, but D'Iberville refused. Legend has it that Fletcher was raising a glass of wine to toast D'Iberville's bravery when a shot from the Pélican struck Hampshire's powder magazine; the Hampshire exploded and quickly sank, putting a fatal end to Fletcher's toasting.

This northern war ended in an English victory. In the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht France the right of the Hudson's Bay Company to all the land granted in its charter, a vast region that eventually became a third of Canada.

A replica of D'Iberville's Pelican

Once again  I marvel at the fantastic greed and energy of our species. In search of great rewards we will go anywhere and do anything, if necessary fighting and killing and dying at the far end of the planet. If only our wisdom came anywhere close to our daring.

Saturday, August 18, 2018

Lovers Watching an Approaching Thunderstorm,, c 1780-1790

Details below. It probably helps your seduction plans a lot to have, first, an amazing palace and garden for the setting, and second a whole staff of servants and musicians to set the mood.

Friday, August 17, 2018

Today's Castle: Burg Eltz

Burg Eltz is in Germany's Moselle Valley, not far from Bonn. It assumed its current appearance in the 17th century, but substantial parts of it date back as far as the 12th century.

It has belonged to the Eltz family since 1157, and still does, after 33 generations. Of course historical monuments only remain intact over such long periods of time because nothing ever happened there, but you can't have everything.

Courtyard, where you can see construction that spans 500 years.

The interiors feature famous wall paintings from the 15th century.

As well as a vast array of Renaissance furniture like this bed, made around 1520.

The treasury includes some real wonders like "Gluttony being conveyed by Drunkenness", a 1557 masterpiece by the Nuremberg gold and silversmith Christoph Lindberger.

And "The Goddess of Hunting" by Joachim Friess, made around 1600:
It is a precious mechanical toy that was used as part of a drinking game. "Diana" moved along the table and had to be emptied wherever she stopped.
Seems like an amazing place to visit.

More at the castle web site.