Sunday, March 31, 2019

The Day the Dinosaurs Died?

Fascinating fossil discovery in North Dakota, piles of fossils in what had been a freshwater pond but was somehow overwhelmed by water from the sea and then clogged with sediment in one catastrophic event. The picture above shows the jumble of fish fossils that characterize the site. This may (emphasis on the "may") be the signature of the asteroid impact that ended the Cretaceous Period and with it the dinosaurs and many other animal species:
In the deposit, the team discovered an ancient freshwater pond whose occupants had been quickly cemented together by waves of sediment and debris. The fossils include sturgeon and six-foot-long paddlefish, their scales intact but their bodies ripped and smashed; marine mollusks; leaves and tree fronds, and the burned trunks of trees. The fish carcasses were not bloated, decayed, or scavenged, suggesting that they were buried quickly — and that few animals were left alive after the cataclysm to come digging.

The fossil deposit also teems with tektites, tiny glass beads that are the telltale fallout of planetary-scale impacts. Fifty percent of the fossilized fish were found with tektites in their gills, as if the fish had inhaled the material. Also recovered were tektites trapped in amber. Their chemical composition was unchanged in 66 million years, and it closely matched the unique chemical signature of other tektites associated with the Chicxulub event.

The top layer of the fossil bed was found to be rich in iridium, a rare metal that Dr. Alvarez had originally identified at other sites as arising from the giant object that struck the Earth. Iridium, a precious metal belonging to the platinum group of elements, is more abundant in meteorites than in terrestrial rocks.
The excavators, led by Robert DePalma, theorize that the pond was drowned by the great tsunami that spread out from the asteroid impact site, and then filled by debris raining from the sky.


Saturday, March 30, 2019

A Map of the Internet in 1973

David Newbury found this among the papers of his father, an engineer who helped construct ARPANET. Each oval is one computer, each square a router. That's the whole thing. Via Kottke.

Elamite Bowl, 2nd Millennium BCE

From Phoenix Ancient Art.

Less Sex in America

According to the General Social Survey, which is a pretty good source as these things go, Americans are having less sex. This is partly because the population is aging, and 80-year-olds are a generally chaste bunch.

But the biggest driver of the trend is actually among the young; the number of 18-29 year-olds reporting no sex in the past year has increased dramatically, to 23 percent. Weirdly most of the increase is among young men; 28% of young men report no sex, vs. 18% of women.

The underlying cause is of course delayed marriage; fewer young people are having sex because fewer of them are married or otherwise partnered.

Does this maybe explain the country's sour mood? Are the forces that drive young people to delay marriage -- careerism, graduate school, extended adolescence -- making us cranky?

Friday, March 29, 2019

Post- Post-Colonial Algeria

Algerian novelist Kamel Daoud discusses what might come of Algeria's thus far peaceful revolution:
Rachel Donadio: What do you think happens next in Algeria?

Kamel Daoud: It’s hard to know what will happen, because for the moment, the regime isn’t doing much and is trying to buy time. But on the other hand, the Algerians are keeping up the pressure. There are still bigger and bigger demonstrations. For now there’s status quo. The regime is going to try to anticipate things by saying they’ll change the government and carry out reforms and start a national dialogue.

But I think this is the usual strategy that dictatorships turn to when they’re forced to. They try to start a dialogue and reforms, which is what I’d call the first phase. That’s what’s happening now in Algeria. I think the regime pushed Algerians’ sense of humiliation too far. We reached a point of electing a photo, which Algerians can’t tolerate.

There’s an even deeper force: demographics. Half of the Algerian population is under 30. The entire regime is old. The people of the regime are all 85 years old, and sooner or later this generational rupture was bound to cause a crisis. I also think that the generation of the decolonizers has come to an end all over Africa, but it arrived quite late in Algeria. And that was going to have consequences sooner or later.

Donadio: So is this moment of transition also important as a sign of how anti-colonialism has become less strong of a force in Algeria?

Daoud: Yes. For several years now, I’ve tried to write about how to get out of the post-colonial mentality. A lot of people reproached me for this—a lot of people in France and in the United States and elsewhere—because post-colonialism has become a comfort. For years, I’ve been writing about how we need to stop using post-colonialism as a complete and total explanation of reality. I think now we’ve reached a sort of political expression that’s very clear: People want to get out of the post-colonial era. They want to be done with that generation.

Thursday, March 28, 2019

The Assassination of Gustav III

Gustav III was King of Sweden from 1771 until his death in 1792. An admirer of Voltaire, he tried to break the power of the nobility and rule as an Enlightened despot. He veered, like other self-proclaimed enlightened rulers, between constitutionalism and dictatorship, and when the French overthrew their king he helped organize the Alliance of Princes that tried to restore Louis XVI to his throne.

Many of his nobles hated him, and a significant faction planned a coup to overthrow him. At midnight on 16 March, 1792, the king was attending a masked ball at the Royal Opera in Stockholm when the five assassins struck, recognizing him because his costume included the star of the Royal Order of the Seraphim on the breast. (Some "disguise.") The conspirators, who were all wearing black masks, surrounded him and one said, "Bonjour, beau masque." Then Jacob Johan Anckarström shot the king in the back with a pistol. The other conspirators, instead of finishing off the wounded king, fled, and he survived and recovered enough to defeat of the coup before dying of an infection two weeks later. The outfit he was wearing when he was shot (above) is now in the Royal Armory in Stockholm.

Happy Apps, Unhappy Apps

The Center for Humane Technology has been trying to measure which phone Apps make people happy or unhappy. These ratings are based on an App called Moment, which is supposed to help people manage their phone use by tracking how much time they spend on various apps. Above, the happiest apps (among those with enough use in their sample to generate valid statistics).

And the unhappiest.

They also found big effects based on how much time people spend on each app. For example, happy people who play Candy Crush average 12 minutes a day, while unhappy people average 47 minutes. Happy people use Facebook 22 minutes a day, unhappy people 59 minutes.

So, basically, happy people spend less time on social media or playing games and more listening to music, podcasts, or recorded books. Also, spend less time with your phones and do something else.

I had to laugh when I saw that Google Calendar is one of the happiest apps, because this confirms the old intuition that mentally ill people have trouble staying organized.

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

An Etruscan Tomb on Corsica

French archaeologists have been exploring a large cemetery on Corsica that dates to the Etruscan (500-269 BC) and Roman periods.

The most spectacular find is a large tomb built as an underground room with entrance stairs; the excavators think the tomb was re-opened on multiple occasions for additional rites.

The artifacts include a bronze mirror and luxury ceramics.

These earrings.

And this charming ring.

Spring 2019

A gorgeous sunny day in Washington.

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

J.M.W. Turner, The Rainbow, c. 1835

David Brooks on Scandal Politics

How we do politics in America:
The sad fact is that Watergate introduced a poison into the American body politic. Richard Nixon’s downfall was just and important, but it opened up the mouthwatering possibility that you don’t need to do the hard work of persuading people to join your side. Instead, you can destroy your foes all at once through scandal.

Politics since Watergate has been defined by a long string of scandals and pseudo-scandals — Iran-contra, Whitewater, Valerie Plame, Benghazi, Solyndra, swift-boating. Politico last year compiled a list of 46 scandals that were at one time or another deemed “worse than Watergate.”

The nation’s underlying divides are still ideological, but we rarely fight them honestly as philosophical differences. We just accuse the other side of corruption. Politics is no longer a debate; it’s an attempt to destroy lives through accusation.

The political media, especially on TV, now has a template it can apply whenever a scandal looms into view, to hook viewers into the speculative story line. According to the Tyndall Report, the three main broadcast networks made the Russia collusion investigation the second-most-covered news event of 2018, trailing only the Kavanaugh hearings, another scandal. . . .

It’s all a wonderful game. You don’t have to know anything about a boring policy subject like economics, poverty or foreign affairs. You can have a long career in politics and media by simply treating public life as an arena of life-or-death gossip.
Maybe this is partly because the real issues facing our country, from immigration to gun control to trade policy, and especially health care, are fiendishly complex and hard to understand. Who wants to listen to hours of argument about tariffs or emergency room fees? Scandal mongering is a way to rile up the emotions without having to engage the higher modules of the brain, and that is just a lot more fun. After all, we already know that our enemies are bad people with bad ideas, so why bother trying to understand them? Easier to accuse them of doing something nefarious and feel smug about our own virtue.

Monday, March 25, 2019

The Mueller Sideshow

As I have long predicted, the Mueller investigation turned up nothing that will force Trump from office or otherwise shake up the Republic. All the news organizations that have been hyping the upcoming report for two years have fake news egg on their faces.

Trump is probably strengthened by this whole affair; for Democrats and their media allies to have talked it up for so long and ended up with no charges against the president undermines the credibility of any other attacks on Trump.

It was so predictable.

Many people long for something dramatic to happen in politics: a revolution, a generational realignment, a smoking gun. But mostly we muddle through and make do.

We're stuck with Trump and need to accept that and figure out how to move forward despite him.

Sunday, March 24, 2019

Salmon Skin Tunic

From Siberia. Now in the Minneapolis Institute of Art.

Progress on the Home Front

As you can see, the new tub and shower are in place. Paint samples drying on the wall. Tile pattern below. The end is in sight.

Cressida Campbell

Australian artist Cressida Campbell is an Australian artist born in Sydney in 1960.  These works were all made by a process
that combines both painting and printing. Campbell’s process results in two unique artworks: an engraved woodblock and a mirror-image print on paper. For four decades Campbell has begun each of her works by drawing her composition onto a sheet of plywood, before inscribing its contours with an etching tool. Once the woodblock is prepared, she paints the carved design with layer upon layer of watercolour paint. Finally the entire board is sprayed with water and used to create a single, parallel impression, which is hand finished with fine sable brushes.
Very pretty. (Garden at St. Kevin's 1987)

Flannel Flowers, 2013.

Plums with India Cloth, 2004

Xanthorrhoea, 1987

Berry Island, 1992

Gingko, 2017

College Admissions and the American Elite

Every society I know of has an elite; even among mostly egalitarian hunter-gatherers, some people become leaders. Over the past 300 years western society has been immersed in a long, sometimes bitter fight about how our elite should be chosen. We inherited from our medieval and classical predecessors a mostly hereditary elite, with some entry for the most ambitious and successful commoners; the battle cry of the Enlightenment and many subsequent reform movements and revolutions was to sweep all that away and replace it with an "aristocracy of virtue and talent." In the twentieth century the English word "meritocracy" was coined to describe this system.

I grew up hating aristocracy, and I mean really hating. The idea that somebody would consider me beneath him because of who our ancestors happened to be enraged me. Everything I read about how aristocracy functioned in the past, from the beatings noblemen regularly dealt out to uppity commoners to the scorn old money heaped on the nouveau riche, made me ever more sure that it was a fundamentally evil system. The ease with which our ancestors accepted this system did more than anything I learned from anthropology to convince me that culture is everything; not even a tribe that believed black and white were the same color would have seemed odder to me than the acceptance of hereditary power.

Since then I have lost my talent for being certain of things, and most of my hatred. I remain an enemy to hereditary privilege, and I can still get a visceral reaction to snobbery. But I have become more and more aware of the problems with meritocracy, to the point that sometimes a hereditary system doesn't look so bad.

The more thoughtful commenters on the latest college admission scandal have said that the fundamental problem is how much we think it matters which school we (or our children) go to. Given that the number of places in the most elite schools is more or less fixed, the rising demand for those slots means that the competition has gotten crazy. There is outright bribery, mainly by way of having the parents make a big donation to the alumni fund. But I think what happens among those not rich enough to buy their way in is more scandalous.

Some high school kids are pressed to shape their whole lives around the best possible application. It's all about looking perfect: perfect grades, just the right extracurriculars, an essay with the perfect blend of ambition and compassion. This is, as they say these days, everything. Either you get into the right school or you have failed right at the starting block, so you have to pick all your courses and everything else you do with an eye toward that crucial admission. It's crazy, really. Worse, it breeds a corrosive cynicism. If getting into the right college really matters more than anything else, and the way to do it is to pursue a regimen that inflates your abilities and makes you look like someone you are not, then life as a whole is a gigantic scam. A scam, of course, in which the rich have a decisive advantage.

What sort of values does that teach? Is it even possible to thrive in this system without becoming cynical about it? And no wonder most Americans are scornful of our elite's claim to be legitimate leaders, when all they are really good at is networking and resume padding.

Or so it sometimes seems. And it is not obvious that the solution to this crisis is to somehow reduce the cheating and the bias to achieve a more wholly meritocratic system. As Ross Douthat says, our elite is already pretty high-achieving:
The “more meritocracy” argument against both legacies and racial quotas implicitly assumes that aptitude — some elixir of I.Q. and work ethic — is what our elite primarily lacks. But is that really our upper class’s problem? What if our elite is already diligent and how-do-you-like-them-apples smaht — the average SAT score for the Harvard class of 2022 is a robust 1512 — and deficient primarily in memory and obligation, wisdom and service and patriotism?
Which brings us all the way back to the Enlightenment, when reformers sought virtue in the new leadership as much as ability. How to achieve that is, it turns out, a very hard problem. I have seen several times recently the argument that because our elite thinks they earned their positions by merit, they are even more scornful of the plebes than aristocrats used to be. I am not sure that is true, but it on the other hand it is hard to argue that the quality of our political leadership has gone up since FDR's day.

And on some yet other hand: if we moved away from meritocracy, what would replace it? Random hiring? It has been suggested that top universities hold a lottery among all the applicants who meet some standard; that might help, but obviously Harvard and Stanford will set the bar so high that the intense pressure will remain. Plus, being told that you didn't even meet the lottery standard might be worse that a plain rejection.

I believe, as I have said before, that the best thing we could do to make the competition less grim is to flatten the pyramid. If the rich weren't so rich, because they were paying 90% taxes, it wouldn't matter so much who gets to be the CEO. Of course there are still only a certain number of top slots, either in the corporate world or on the National Security Council, and somebody has to hold them. It would be nice, of course, if we could judge each other by our abilities instead of our credentials, but that seems a fantasy; more likely ignoring what college people  went to would just lead to even more hiring of people who look and act just like the people doing the hiring, already a major problem.

We are stuck with meritocracy. Our leaders are going to be hyper-achieving strivers, and I don't think there is much we can do about that. But maybe if our world were more equal and life nicer for middling folks, it wouldn't be quite so appalling.

Saturday, March 23, 2019

Colleen Wallace Nungari

Dreamtime Sisters, 2009

Thursday, March 21, 2019

When and Why Gods Came to Punish Evildoers

The latest from the occasionally important field of big data anthropology:
Past work suggested that the rise of this idea of cosmic enforcement of morality was associated with social complexity. The concept of supernatural judgment evolved to help strangers in large societies cooperate, researchers hypothesized. Some work, such as analyses of Austronesian religions or of the Viking age in Scandinavia, suggested that moralizing gods preceded complex societies, while other research, such as a study of Eurasian empires, found that moralizing gods followed the rise of complex societies.

But those studies were limited in geographic scope and hampered, at times, because historians lacked detailed information on the complexity of societies at given points in history, said Patrick Savage, an anthropologist at Keio University in Kanagawa, Japan. In the new study, Savage and his colleagues sought to overcome these limitations using the Seshat: Global History Databank, a database of information about global history from the end of the Paleolithic period up to the Industrial Revolution.

The scientists analyzed the relationship between social complexity and moralizing gods in 414 societies spanning the past 10,000 years from 30 regions across the globe. Researchers examined 51 measures of social complexity, such as the size of the largest settlement and the presence of a formal legal code, and four measures of supernatural enforcement of morality, such as the concept of a supernatural force that monitors and punishes selfish actions.

The researchers found that belief in moralizing gods usually followed increases in social complexity, generally appearing after the emergence of civilizations with populations of more than about 1 million people.
There are too many questions being begged here for me to accept this as definitive, but it certainly is an interesting finding. I consider this to be one of the most important under-discussed problems of human history: when and why did the gods become moral beings concerned with the moral behavior of humans? After all in many mythologies, gods are neither good nor bad, just powerful; in fact many civilizations seem to lack any sense of "good" and "evil" on a cosmic scale. So far as I know the first person to imagine that the universe was the scene of a cosmic battle between good and evil, and that we are all called upon to choose the good side, was the Persian prophet Zarathustra, around 1400 BC.

My basic sense is that the evolution of modern, moralistic religion was a long, complex process. The first rules are ritual and tribal: we do this [long list of strange practices] for our gods so they will smite our enemies instead of us. Then particular shrines come to be considered especially holy, so that killings in them are murders offensive to the gods; it comes to be an anti-religious act to break an oath sworn on hold objects; the list of rules that a godly person must follow comes to include things like treating your spouse properly and feeding the hungry. And so on, until the world is wrapped in an all-encompassing cocoon of divine watchfulness and divine law.

You can see some of this change being worked out in the dialogues of Plato, where Socrates asks hard questions of the traditional Greek gods and their philandering, vengeful, violent ways. A huge amount of ink has been spilled over when the God of the Hebrews became a moralist, and the bulk of opinion points to the era of Exile around 500 BC; the story of Jonah being sent to preach to the Assyrians is often seen as a claim for universal religion and universal religious morality. In India religious philosophy took a different route, and rather than reforming the gods of the old epics they were turned into something like symbols of a deeper reality.

Somehow this does seem to be related to the stages of civilization: belief in an all-encompassing moral code enforced in some sense by all-seeing gods is a very common attribute of state-level civilizations. You can see the triumph of Christianity and Islam as the culmination of this process.

Everywhere except East Asia, which is rather different. Buddhism certainly teaches a universal morality with a cosmic enforcement mechanism, but Buddhism never dominated China or Japan like Christianity did Europe. In Asia Buddhism existed side-by-side with ancient ritual systems and shamanistic practices that made no particular moral claims. So the question is complicated, like everything else about human history. But I think the general pattern is pretty clear.

Many contemporary believers worry that as belief in the divine punishment of sin fades from our secular world, morality will be corroded and civilization will eventually collapse. As I have said here many times, I find that religious belief and morality are two very separate things; after all we had moral codes before we had angry gods, and I imagine we can keep having them after we have stopped fearing divine wrath.

Men, Women, and Politics

Apropos of the growing gender gap:
Female economists are at some notable points less convinced of market solutions and have more trust in the government in serving the public interest.
Via Marginal Revolutions

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

What to do about Rural America?

Paul Krugman is pessimistic about reviving the economy of rural America:
Reviving declining regions is really hard. Many countries have tried, but it’s difficult to find any convincing success stories. Southern Italy remains backward after generations of effort. Despite vast sums spent on reconstruction, the former East Germany is still depressed three decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall. . . .

So what can be done to help rural America? We can and should make sure that all Americans have good health care, access to good education, and so on wherever they live. We can try to promote economic development in lagging regions with public investment, employment subsidies and, possibly, job guarantees.

But as I said, experience abroad isn’t encouraging. West Germany invested $1.7 trillion in an attempt to revive the former East Germany — more than $100,000 per capita — yet the region is still lagging, with many young people leaving.
Not to mention that decline, absolute or relative, makes people bitter and angry:
Nor, realistically, can we expect aid to produce a political turnaround. Despite all that aid, in 2017 more than a quarter of East German men cast their ballots for the extreme-right, white nationalist Alternative for Germany.
Our ability to control the world is limited. That's no reason to give up trying, but sometimes there just isn't much we can do to alter the course of events driven by fundamental economic and social change.

Monday, March 18, 2019

Consider and Reconsider

After all, what can a first impression tell us about someone we’ve just met for a minute in the lobby of a hotel? For that matter, what can a first impression tell us about anyone? Why, no more than a chord can tell us about Beethoven, or a brushstroke about Botticelli. By their very nature, human beings are so capricious, so complex, so delightfully contradictory, that they deserve not only our consideration, but our reconsideration—and our unwavering determination to withhold our opinion until we have engaged with them in every possible setting at every possible hour.

–Amor Towles, A Gentleman in Moscow

Saturday, March 16, 2019

Adventures in Homeowning

Should anyone wonder where I am over the next few days, well, my brother in here to help me rebuild the bathroom. Demolition of the tub and shower is complete, and all the brown 1970s tile is gone. With any luck there will be pictures of the results in a few days.

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

DNA from a Colonial Pipestem

One of the things I learned doing historical archaeology that has had the biggest impact on how I view the past concerns the invisibility of race. It is very, very hard to tell from archaeology whether any particular site in the US was occupied by blacks or whites. (Or American Indians, once they had taken up European material culture.) Class is immediately visible in the record; archaeologists are really good at telling rich people from poor people. Sometimes regional differences are also pretty clear. But so far as archaeology can tell you, any given cabin in, say, the Chesapeake region of Maryland or Virginia might have occupied by poor blacks or poor whites.

Enter ancient DNA:
Archaeologists often struggle with the challenge of linking historic-period artifact assemblages with specific communities. In particular, small home sites discovered on historic plantations are often difficult to identify as an African American or white tenant house since the material culture appears similar. The discipline also struggles with how to identify the expression of specific West African cultures in their archaeological assemblages. Here, we discuss how DNA was successfully extracted and analyzed from a clay tobacco pipe stem collected from an African American slave quarter in Maryland, USA, and what this information can and cannot reveal about the people present at the site. We successfully identified DNA from a woman, and genome-wide analyses revealed she was closely related to Mende living in present-day Sierra Leone, West Africa. The ability to recover genetic data from personal artifacts now provides archaeologists a viable tool to address questions about communities and ancestral origins. Furthermore, these findings hold the potential to connect living descendants with their ancestors’ homes.
If these techniques ever become affordable for the average archaeological project, a lot might be learned.

Frank Lloyd Wright's Drawings

Millard House, 1923. The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation is very jealous with these images, so much of what you see online comes from one source, a big 150th birthday exhibition that MOMA staged in 2017.

Gordon Strong "Automobile Objective and Planetarium" planned for, but never built on, Maryland's Sugarloaf Mountain. 1924.

Two renderings of his concrete block "textile houses," not sure which. 1920s.

Thaxter-Shaw House Living Area, 1906.

Design for stone work in the Imperial Hotel, Tokyo, 1915.

"Kindersymphonie" theater for children's concerts, Oak Park, Chicago. This is the thing that amazes me about Wright; for him, even a tiny theater where kids would watch Peter and the Wolf should be an architectural masterpiece.

The Rosewald Foundation, 1928.

Unity Temple, 1908

Fallingwater, 1935

Monday, March 11, 2019

The Treasure of El Carambolo

The Treasure of El Carambolo was accidentally unearthed in 1953 in the suburbs of Seville, Spain. It takes its name from the name of the hill where it was found.

It consists of 21 pieces of gold that had been buried in a ceramic pot.

The date and origin of these pieces is much disputed. The treasure was found near two archaeological sites, one on top of the hill (Upper Carambolo) and one down the slope (Lower Carambolo). Upper Carambolo was occupied from around 850 to 750 BC by Tartessians, as we call the people who lived in the neighborhood before the Phoenicians arrived. Lower Carambolo dates to around 750 to 650 BC., after the Phoenicians arrived.

The discoverers thought this was Tartessian and associated with the older settlement, but now opinion has swung more toward a later date and therefore toward Phoenician influence. On the other hand chemical study of the gold argues that it was from Spain, so this was locally made. Lovely stuff.