Tuesday, March 31, 2020

The Roman Theater at Aspendos, Turkey

Aspendos is an old Greek city on the south coast of Turkey. The theater was built in 155 AD by the  architect Zenon, a native of the town. With a diameter of 96 metres (315 ft), it provided seating for 12,000.

What an amazing thing, another spectacular remnant of the classical past that I never heard of. Below other images of the town, the aqueduct and then the basilica.

And a coin of Aspendos, c. 377-333 BC, showing scenes from the Olympic games and a delightful little triskelion.

Kinsa Thermometer Data Suggests Social Distancing is Working

Kinsa, a company I never heard of until ten minutes ago, makes thermometers that upload data to the internet. They can therefore track the number of people across the nation with fevers. Their data clearly shows both the rise in fevers as Covid-19 set in and a fall since social distancing measures were put in place.

Interesting that even at the worst their data show fewer Americans with fever than in February. Presumably the things causing fevers in midwinter were less dangerous, although it is still not certain the Wuhan virus will kill more people than the flu does.

Some epidemiologists say this is good data, with enough points to represent the actual situation. I would caution that people with internet-enabled thermometers are probably more concerned about their health than others and therefore more likely to obey stay-at-home orders. But even that would be good news, I mean, it shows that we are protecting the most vulnerable against this plague.

The Mid-Life Dip in Well-Being

The latest on whether the 30-55 years are the hardest:
The Mid-Life Dip in Well-Being: Economists (Who Find It) Versus Psychologists (Who Don't)!David G. Blanchflower, Carol L. Graham
NBER Working Paper No. 26888
Issued in March 2020 
A number of studies – including our own – find a mid-life dip in well-being. We review a psychology literature that claims that the evidence of a U-shape is "overblown" and if there is such a decline it is "trivial". We find remarkably strong and consistent evidence across countries and US states that statistically significant U-shapes exist with and without socio-economic controls. The US is somewhat of an outlier with evidence of an early uptick in the raw data with some variables – but not in others – that disappears when controls are included. We show that two of the studies cited by psychologists suggesting there are no U-shapes are in error; we use their data and find the opposite. The effects of the mid-life dip are comparable to major life events like losing a spouse, losing a job or getting cancer. They are clearly not inconsequential.

Monday, March 30, 2020

Oliver Sacks and "Rhapsodic Fiction"

Oliver Sacks was a wonderful writer and a fine neurologist. Most people who knew him say he was a deeply warm and kind human being. I believe he left the world better by passing through it. But did he tell the truth?

People who reviewed his early books said he reminded them of Chekhov, Joyce or Borges, not other doctors or scientists. When I was in graduate school and moved twice a year I had a small shelf of books I brought out wherever I happened to be, and two of them were Borges' Ficciones and Oliver Sacks' The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat. I confess that I did not draw the obvious skeptical conclusion until recently; I mean, whose life is really like a story by Borges or Chekhov?

The writings of neurologists and psychiatrists always invite this question. They are encouraged to protect their patients' privacy by altering details, and when questioned they often admit that a certain patient in one of their books is a composite of several real people. At what point does this compositing and altering details turn the whole thing into fiction? Plus there is the problem that some psychiatrists' books are full of people they cured in a few weeks or months and sent home happy.

But Sacks was special case because of the power and beauty of his writing. After reading some of his cases I felt with a deep seriousness that I had seen the world in a new way. I carried that book around for years and still keep in on my shelf because I thought I had learned from it profound things about human life.

Lawrence Wechsler, who knew Sacks well, has now written a "biographical memoir" about his friend titled And How are You, Dr. Sacks? According the reviewers it demonstrates convincingly that much of Sacks "nonfiction" was invented. This is Scott Sherman in the TLS for 13 December 2019:
Quite often, reading Sacks, one wonders, can this be completely true? . . . Weschler quotes a remark by Alan Bennett about Bruce Chatwin who, he suggested, "like Sebald, Kapuściński, and Oliver Sacks", operates "on the borders of truth and imagination." 
In 1983, Wechsler asked Sacks about the famous case of Dr. P., the man who mistook his wife for hat. Sacks said,
I mean, perhaps it's a case that I seized on certain themes, imaginatively intensified, deepened, and generalized them. But still.
But still what? Not even Sacks, it seems, could say, at least not in a few sentences. Sherman again:
Weschler puts Sacks in the same category as Ryszard Kapuściński. For the work of both, he coins the term "Rhapsodic Nonfiction." He notes that Sacks, as a writer, was blazing his own trail: "trying to advocate for and model a different sort of medicine on behalf of chronic, often institutionally warehoused and largely abandoned patients . . . the sort of patients often referred to as 'hopeless.'"
There was also a sense, says Wechsler, in which the redemptive narratives Sacks created for some of his patients were
part of the therapy itself. Helping to turn an it back into an I . . . or maybe a patient into an agent . . . such people were privileged witnesses to and actors along the very remotest stretches of human possibility, and as such had marvelous stories to offer about such extreme vantages and experiences.
Of course only a very few crazy people have ever been able to communicate what they experienced while mad. Has Sacks spoken for them, or has he replaced their voices with his own?

I am wondering how knowing this will change my feelings about Sacks and his books over the years to come. I do not think I will forget or dismiss them. They are so powerful, and so infused with his generous spirit. Perhaps he did not really know what his patients were experiencing, but he certainly knew more about them than I ever will. He wanted, from boyhood, to somehow combine science and literature, and I think he achieved something remarkable in that direction.

Saturday, March 28, 2020

Vladimir Zimakov

Boston-based illustrator and "book artist." More at his web site.


I have been bent and broken, but—I hope—into a better shape.

–Charles Dickens, Great Expectations

Are Invasive Species Filling in for Lost Pleistocene Mammals?

The end of the last Ice Age saw a dramatic die off of the world's large animals. This was partly due to dramatic swings in temperature but mostly due to us: there are no more giant marsupials in Australia or mastodons in North America because we ate them. Other losses are due to our dogs, either because feral dogs outcompeted native species (Australia) or because the dogs spread diseases (rabies, distemper) to which local carnivores had no resistance.

Anyway the "natural" ecosystems of the past 10,000 years are not really natural at all. They have been stripped of many large species, and, although the data is not as good, probably many small ones as well. This loss changed the planet in many ways, although it is hard to be sure which changes were due to the end of the Ice Age and which to the loss of species. Most paleoecologists believe, though, that the loss of large herbivores in particular greatly altered the world. For example in the Ice Age vast stretches of Siberia and the drowned land of Beringia were what we call Mammoth Steppe, grasslands roamed by mammoths, woolly rhinocerous, and other species of giant herbivores. The loss of those grazing species, some believe, led those areas to grow up in forest.

Which brings me to the question of what, if anything, we ought to do about these losses. Some Russian scientists are trying to bring back the mammoths, not just because mammoths are awesome but because they think the Mammoth Steppe was an enormously productive ecosystem that among other things trapped a lot of carbon and helped keep the Arctic cool.

European ecologists who have tried to bring back their ancient ecosystems have found that the species living on the continent now won't do; without large herbivores deer dominate and everything grows up in forests of trees deer don't eat, especially beech. So they have created feral populations of Konik ponies and shaggy cattle to fill those niches and keep the ecosystem more diverse.

In Australia there are now populations of feral dromedaries roaming the outback, and in North America we have herds of feral horses. Are these dangerous invasives that compete with "native" species like bison and kangaroos, or are they filling niches that have been either left empty or filled by domestic cattle since the Pleistocene?

Which brings us back to everyone's favorite invasive mammals, Pablo Escobar's escaped hippos. These animals have been living in Colombia's Magdalena River since the drug lord's death in 1993, and they have multiplied to 50 to 80 animals. Ecologists are divided about them, some considering them destructive invasive species and others thinking they fill a niche left empty by the disappearance of mastodons. Now a new study published in PNAS finds that, as the title puts it, Introduced Herbivores Restore Late Pleistocene Ecological Functions.
Humans have caused extinctions of large-bodied mammalian herbivores over the past ∼100,000 y, leading to cascading changes in ecosystems. Conversely, introductions of herbivores have, in part, numerically compensated for extinction losses. However, the net outcome of the twin anthropogenic forces of extinction and introduction on herbivore assemblages has remained unknown. We found that a primary outcome of introductions has been the reintroduction of key ecological functions, making herbivore assemblages with nonnative species more similar to preextinction ones than native-only assemblages are. Our findings support calls for renewed research on introduced herbivore ecologies in light of paleoecological change and suggest that shifting focus from eradication to landscape and predator protection may have broader biodiversity benefits.
So, I guess, let the hippos run free, and the camels and the ponies, so the world can be more like it was. And when we can bring back the mammoths and others, the world we then be more like the one they lived in, and they will be more likely to thrive.

Friday, March 27, 2020

Today's Place to Daydream about: Anglesey

Anglesey is an island off the northwest coast of Wales. It is hilly and lacks the dramatic scenery of the Welsh mountains, but it has a remarkable history and pieces of that past are scattered from one shore to the other. The name Anglesey is Viking; in Welsh it is called Mona and has been since ancient times.

Most people reach the island across a bridge from the mainland, one of which is still the Menai Bridge, completed in 1841, when its mighty chains were powerful symbols of the new age of coal and steel.

There is lovely scenery; people heap praise on the Coastal Path, which takes you past cliffs, fishing villages, lighthouses, and castles.

It hosts dozens of prehistoric monuments: standing stones, tombs, settlements. I found accounts today by people who spent whole days driving from one to the next to the next, trying to visit as many as possible between sunrise and sunset. (Above, hut circles at South Stack, and the three standing stones of Llanfechell.)

Most famous is probably Bryn Celli Ddu - Welsh for 'the Mound in the Dark Grove.' A circular henge was built here around 3000 BC, with a circle of standing stones. A thousand years later a tomb was built within the circle.

The mound was excavated in 1928-1929.

Among the discoveries was a decorated menhir, buried within the mound, a replica of which was erected outside the rear entrance.

In Celtic times the island was, the Romans said, the great seat of the Druids. Tacitus tells us that in AD 60
Britain was in the hands of Suetonius Paulinus, who in military knowledge and in popular favour, which allows no one to be without a rival, vied with Corbulo, and aspired to equal the glory of the recovery of Armenia by the subjugation of Rome's enemies. He therefore prepared to attack the island of Mona which had a powerful population and was a refuge for fugitives. He built flat-bottomed vessels to cope with the shallows, and uncertain depths of the sea. Thus the infantry crossed, while the cavalry followed by fording, or, where the water was deep, swam by the side of their horses.

On the shore stood the opposing army with its dense array of armed warriors, while between the ranks dashed women, in black attire like the Furies, with hair dishevelled, waving brands. All around, the Druids, lifting up their hands to heaven, and pouring forth dreadful imprecations, scared our soldiers by the unfamiliar sight, so that, as if their limbs were paralysed, they stood motionless, and exposed to wounds. Then urged by their general's appeals and mutual encouragements not to quail before a troop of frenzied women, they bore the standards onwards, smote down all resistance, and wrapped the foe in the flames of his own brands. A force was next set over the conquered, and their groves, devoted to inhuman superstitions, were destroyed. They deemed it indeed a duty to cover their altars with the blood of captives and to consult their deities through human entrails.
Image shows the "Hendy Head," an Iron Age artifact from Anglesey.

The Romans kept a military presence from 77 AD until they withdrew from Britain after AD 400, to watch over the unreliable, druidical population and to defend against Irish pirates. This image shows a small Roman fortified post recently mapped by magnetometry near Cemlyn Bay. There was a larger Roman fort at  Aberffraw, which is now hidden under the modern town. After the Romans left this was taken over by Welsh chieftains, and by 860 AD Aberffraw was the capital of the Kingdom of Gwynedd. It remained so until c.1170. Another wonderful case of barbarian kings living in crumbling ruins of Rome.

St. Gwenfaen's Well

After the Romans, the next great builder in stone to come to Anglesey was Edward I of England. As part of his campaign to subdue Wales, he began (but never finished) the mighty castle of Beaumaris to watch over the island and the strait that divides it from the mainland. Construction began in 1295.

Stone for this castle was taken from the Roman walls at Aberffraw; you can see from this image of the outer wall that several different types of stone were used in the construction, much of it salvaged.

Welsh forces took the lightly manned castle during Owain Glendower's rebellion in 1403, but then the English took it back in 1405. During the English Civil War it was taken by partisans of Charles II, but they surrendered meekly when a Parliamentary army appeared. Which shows the basic problem with Edward's design: the symmetry is marvelous but the castle is so big that that it took a huge force to properly defend it, which was very expensive to maintain in this remote spot, so nobody ever did.

In the eighteenth century the people of Anglesey joined the rest of Wales as foot soldiers in the industrial revolution. These are the barracks of the men who worked the Dinorwic slate quarry.

If you're in the mood for a completely different sort of historical site you could visit Parys Mountain, once the largest copper mine in the world. Copper mining began here by 1600 BC, and the modern name comes from a certain Robert Parys who received the land as payment for service to the Crown in 1406. The ore here was not of high quality but it was consistent and present in huge amounts. Industrial mining got under way around 1770, over the following 150 years over 3.5 million tons of ore was raised, mostly by hand.

It was during the course of modern open pit mining that workers stumbled across ancient tunnels, the charcoal from one of which gives us that 1600 BC date. Today there is an association of people who explore the remaining tunnels, which mostly date to the 15th to 18th centuries.

And that's just the beginning of what the island has to offer.

Links 27 March 2020

The mid-Victorian fad for cheap novels about women who killed their useless husbands and then went on sprees of crime or immorality.

Long article by Jon Lee Anderson on the fall of Bolivian populist leader Evo Morales, which seems quite even-handed, or at least everyone in power on both sides comes out looking bad.

The strange world of Christian "Minion" memes

Hour-long video on the staging of a Tudor festival to mark the 500th anniversary of Hampton Court Palace

The US Marines are ditching their tanks and tube artillery as part of a major reorganization. Instead they are taking on long-range missiles and other weapons they would need to occupy and defend islands in the South China Sea. Their commanding general said, "The current force is not organized, trained, or equipped to support the naval force -- operating in the contested maritime spaces, facilitating sea control, or executing distributed maritime operations."

Nigeria's kings, who have long held an informal power parallel to that of the state, are increasingly isolated and many young people think their offices should be abolished.

Google Earth is offering virtual tours of spectacular US National Parks.

The eye portraits exchanged by 18th-century lovers.

Solitude, loneliness, and the Romantic poets

Scott Alexander on whether wearing a surgical mask helps prevent viral infection

Long, thoughtful review of the new book in which Anne Case and Angus Deaton flesh our their 2015 article on "deaths of despair" among less educated white Americans.

Conserving ancient glass vessels.

First edition of Newton's Principia Mathematica discovered in Corsican library, unnoticed for more than a century because "it was on an upper shelf."

In the poor neighborhoods of Rio de Janeiro, where the government has refused to enforce a stay at home plan, criminal gangs have announced that they will enforce one themselves.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

The Sculptures of the Villa of the Papyri

I have been astonished to learn how many of the most famous works of Greek and Roman art came from a very few archaeological sites. And the site that produced more sculptures than any other was the Villa de Papyri in Herculaneum.

The villa was discovered in 1750, and the early excavations were done in tunnels 70 feet below the surface. If you enlarge or download this plan you can see the tunnels, which are shaded brown.

A glimpse of the ruins today. The villa was actually "lost" after excavations ceased in 1765, and modern archaeologists had to work out its location from puzzling over old maps. They eventually broke into one of the old tunnels by descending 70 feet down a well, tapping on the sides until they found a spot that sounded hollow, much like Indiana Jones except without the snakes.

Reconstruction by Rocío Espín Piñar

The immense villa stretched more than 800 feet (250 m) along the shore of the Bay of Naples. It must have belonged to a very wealthy and prominent Roman; the leading candidate for the builder is Julius Caesar’s father-in-law, Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus.

In terms of being able to visualize this building we are fortunate that a modern American of similar status, J. Paul Getty, was obsessed with the Villa and built his museum in Malibu as a reconstruction of it. Contemporary experts are not in love with the reconstruction but I still think it gives you a better feel for the original than shattered ruins or digital reconstructions do.

The villa takes its name from the charred papyrus "logs" found in profusion. Some of them could even be unrolled and read, filling the scholarly world with breathless anticipation – what lost masterpieces by Plato or Aeschylus would be rediscovered? – but sadly it turned out that most of them are justly forgotten works of Epicurean philosophy by the justly forgotten philosopher Philodemus of Gadara. It is known that Lucius Calpurnius Piso was Philodemus' patron, which is the main reason Piso is thought to have owned the villa. This is instructive because the very high quality of most works surviving from the ancient world deceives us as to the general level of their culture; as in all times, 95 percent of Roman books were awful.

Some delightful frescoes were removed from the villa and taken to Naples.

But as I said, the glory is the sculpture. There is so much that one hardly knows where to begin. Indeed one would like to begin with a count, but there is so much that archaeologists have lost track of some of it and there is dispute about where some pieces came from and how others should be counted. This site lists 84.

Scipio Africanus, one of my favorite ancient works.

The drunken satyr

One of the highlights (lowlights?) of the old "secret room" in the Naples museum, to which ladies were not admitted.

The art and literature of the ancient world survives mainly by luck. Half of the ancient literary works to survive did so only in a single manuscript. And many of the sculptures are known only because a single example ended up preserved in this villa, or in Pompeii or the Baths of Caracalla in Rome. If you think too hard about all that we lost from those times you can make yourself very sad, but I prefer to be excited by the miracle of the things that survive.