Sunday, May 31, 2020

In Troublous Times

French mystic Charles de Foucauld:
There is a phrase of holy Scripture that we must, I believe, always remember. It’s that Jerusalem was reconstructed in angustia temporum (Daniel).
Which the King James version renders as in troublous times. Foucauld continues:
We must work all our life in angustia temporum. Difficulties are not a temporary state that we let pass like a squall so that we can set to work when the weather will be calm. No, these are the normal state. We must count on them being so for our entire life, for all of the good things that we want to do, in angustia temporum.


Sometimes YouTube gets a little confused about who I am.

Saturday, May 30, 2020

How do you say "thingamajig" in. . . .?

Spanish: Chingadera
Danish: Himstergims
Japanese: Naninani
Turkish: Zamazingo
German: Dingsbums
Dutch: Huppeldepup


Driving Hadrian's Wall

Hadrian's Wall, a magnificent monument of Roman power and wealth that happens to stretch  across a beautiful and fascinating stretch of Britain; a perfect spot for a bit of historical tourism. We begin our journey at Carlisle, a small city near the western end of the Wall. Carlisle was founded by the Romans as Luguvalium around 78 AD, two generations before the Wall was built in AD 122, and has a long and exciting history. The Roman fort here was the base of a cavalry force and no doubt saw much action over the centuries defending the empire against perfidious barbarians.

Then in the late 300s the Romans gave up and moved on. So far as archaeologists can tell, the Roman fort was still occupied throughout the dark times of Roman withdrawal and Anglo-Saxon invasion. In the 500s a kingdom called Rheged emerged in this part of Britain, and its king's primary seat may well have been at Carlisle. Then the Saxons took the spot, and then the Vikings took it from them, and then the Scots held it for a while. In 1092 William Rufus, the Conqueror's son, came here, drove out the Scots, and built a castle on top of the Roman fort that over the centuries evolved into the Carlisle Castle you can see today.

The castle was besieged at least six times, most spectacularly in 1315, when small English force led by Andrew Harclay defended it against Robert the Bruce's army, hurling Scottish scaling ladders down from the walls. The museum here covers this whole history, including an array of Roman artifacts. Among the things you can see are these carvings, made in the 1400s by either prisoners or guards.

Carlisle also has a medieval cathedral and other interesting stuff.

Heading east out of Carlyle we find the visible remains of the wall before we leave the suburbs. We're going to follow this amazing Ordnance Survey Map of the Wall, published in 1964.

East of Carlisle the Wall runs along the crest of this ridge, providing some of the most spectacular views.

The Wall is only 84 miles (136 km) long, so to make a long day of this drive we're going to have to take some detours. Our first is to Lanercost Priory. (Notice the Stanegate in the lower right corner. This means "stone street" in the old northern dialect, and this was the Roman Road that paralleled the Wall, allowing for rapid movement of troops along it.)

This spectacular ruin was built in the late 1200s and survived numerous Scottish incursions.

Built into the priory wall is a stone marking a dedication by the Legion VI Victrix, taken from some  fort along the Wall.

Continuing east we come to the first of the Wall's great archaeological sites, Vindolanda. As at Carlisle, the first fort here was built during the conquest, circa AD 85, and only later made part of the Wall's defensive system.

Aerial view showing the fort and the vicus, the town outside the walls.

Vindolanda is best known because parts of the site sank over time into the mire, where deposits up to 25 feet (6 m) deep preserved an amazing array of Roman gear in leather, wood, cloth, and other perishable materials. The writing tablets, which preserve bits of arcana like invitations to birthday parties and job recommendations, are especially wonderful.

Just up the road from Vindolanda is Housesteads or Verovicium, another wonderful Roman fort, but if you are having Roman fort fatigue it's ok to move on.

Housesteads did produce one of my favorite Roman artifacts, this carving of the mysterious "Three Hooded Ones."

Continuing east we take another detour to visit Aydon Castle, a beautiful medieval manor house. (Notice the red line of Deere Street, one of the great Roman roads of Britain.)

There was a timber hall here in the 12th century, belong to people with names like fitzGilbert and de Umfraville. In 1293 it was purchased by Hugh de Reymes; he and his son Robert built the castle. They were wealhty merchants from Suffolk in the process of transitioning into the landed gentry. But they soon fell on hard times, which is is why few improvements were made to the property until the 17th century. The castle was taken by the Scotts in 1315 and again in 1346, but was not severely damaged.

Moving east through rough country we come to a series of forts. At Brocoloitia there is a small temple of Mithras,

and at Chesters there is this museum.

Continuing on our way we pass the spot where a modern stone cross marks the site of the Battle of Heavenfield, described in the Venerable Bede's history, where Oswald of Northumbria won a decisive victory over a Welsh force led by Cadwallon of Gwynedd, in AD 631.

Sometime in the afternoon we enter the city of Newcastle upon Tyne, which grew up around the Wall's eastern end. In the center of town is the keep of the castle, which is actually one of the best preserved Norman castles in Britain.

There is of course a museum in Newcastle and lots of Roman stuff, but we're going to push on. a few miles east. While the Wall originally ended in Newcastle, this was found to leave easy crossings over the Tyne undefended, so 5 years later the Wall was extended eastward to the new fortress of Segedunum.

You can walk the walls of the fort here and tour one more museum, which holds among other things this famous Roman toilet seat.

And then back into Newcastle for dinner and bed, the ringing of ancient swords, the songs of bards, and the chanting of monks filling our tired minds.

Coronavirus Spreading among the Young

The news from Seattle is that half of the newly diagnosed Covid-19 cases in Washington state are among people under 40, with 39% of patients aged 20-39. This is expected: younger people are moving out of lockdown much faster than older people, so they are getting sick more. The news is showing lots of pictures of young crowds at beaches and bars. Meanwhile infections among people 60-79 have fallen from 36% of the total to 14%

The disease's spread among the young may turn out to be for the best in the long run, spreading herd immunity and all. We are also seeing more reports of deliberate self-infections, including a thriving black market in blood from Covid-19 patients.

But some of these brave young folks are going to die, or get one of the weird syndromes that seem to strike one in a hundred patients.

The pandemic is changing but is far from over.

Château de Courances

The Château de Courances was built between 1622 and 1630 by Claude Gallard, looking something like it still looks today.

By 1870 it was in a semi-ruined state. It was purchased in 1872 by Baron Samuel de Haber, a wealthy Swiss banker, and "entirely restored." In the manner of the time Haber's architect took an actual Louis XIII chateau and rebuilt in his own idea of a Louis XIII style.

For example he added the red bricks to the facade, because those were thought to be typical of the time. How foolish of the original architect to omit them! But we can correct this error, no? The fancy stairs were also added, copied from the royal chateau at Fontanebleu.

But anyway the result is magnificent, and most of the structural stone is still original.And it is still in private hands, belonging to four generations of the Ganay family, who these days are among France's largest growers of organic vegetables.

But what drew me to this estate is the gardens, which include both elements of the original, severe, neoclassical park and later, more romantic additions.

The name evokes flowing water, and indeed the property boasts many wonderful water features: canals, fountains, natural springs. There are no pumps or hydraulic tricks; all of the water flow is determined by gravity.

I feel like I could walk happily here for hours.

One of the later additions is the "Japanese" garden, built in the 1920s in imitation of the pseudo-Japanese gardens then in vogue in Britain and the US.

A delightful spot, and just a short drive from Paris, should you be in the neighborhood. The web site is here.

Friday, May 29, 2020

The Dump Truck and the Anglo-Saxon Brooch

Last year a metal detectorist working in a field near Swaffham, Norfolk, England, found this spectacular Anglo-Saxon brooch. It's made of silver inlaid with niello, a black alloy, 2 inches (5 cm) across, probably from the 9th century.

Archaeologists were sent to the site; digging down, they found a nineteenth-century plow. From this they knew that the brooch was in fill brought from somewhere else. At this point someone thought to ask the farmer (a different person from the landowner) and he said that, yes, it was fill, but he didn't know where it came from because he had just "flagged down a passing truck."

So a great mystery: where did the soil come from, and were there other wonders that maybe got shipped off in other truckloads of topsoil to other nearby spots? I wonder if Norfolk residents who had fill put down on their property over the past few years are all out checking it with metal detectors.

Links 29 May 2020

Capital from the Temple of Mars Ultor, Rome

Should we throw ourselves into fighting bad ideas, or ignore them? For a while in the early 2000s scientists threw themselves into combating creationism, but it had no effect on believers, so they stopped. Since the mainstream media stopped covering creationism, support for it seems to have declined. Does it ever happen that a debate changes anyone's mind on issues that matter to people?

87-minute video of what was supposed to be a blockbuster Pompeii exhibit at the British Museum.

Journalist Gwern on the ways life has gotten better over the past 35 years.

Failure of the Edenville Dam in Michigan caught on video.

The pandemic in Florida.

The ancient art of the Bookcase Flex.

Amusing photo set of people "interacting with architecture."

NY Times story on the lawsuit that has erupted in the world of wolf-kink erotica. Is it possible for anything to be original when all the stories draw on a fund of elements from a vast world of fan fiction?

Beating the bounds.

Timeline of when ideas first appeared in science fiction. They say the robotic housemaid dates to 1899, power roller skates to 1909.

The British Museum's blog is running a series of travel guides to historical cities: Nineveh, Rome in the first century ADearly 19th-century Edo.

Opponents of the idea of big migrations in the European Bronze Age argue that there is too much cultural continuity for that to be reasonable. These archaeologists did a detailed study of burial practices and funerary artifacts in that time and found that there is a major cultural break.

Thursday, May 28, 2020

The Beaker Folk and a Different Sort of Genetic History

Much of the history coming from paleogenetics has been rather grim, about how certain groups conquered others and almost completely replaced them. For example, the latest estimate is that 90 to 95% of the people of Britain were replaced after a Bronze Age invasion,  which may have been accompanied by bubonic plague.

But not everywhere. Data from Scandinavia suggests that many hunter-gatherers there survived and interbred with invading farmers, contributing up to a third of the genes of late Neolithic people. Since farmers generally live at higher populations densities, this implies a fairly equal contribution to future genes and a whole lot of intermixing. 

Distribution of the Bell Beaker Culture

And now there is some interesting data about the formation of the Bell Beaker people, who dominated parts of western Europe between 2700 and 2000 BC. Archaeologists long ago recognized that Beaker culture had two homelands, one in Portugal and one in the low countries around the mouth of the Rhine. Genetic studies showed that the two groups were not closely related. The southern group were mostly descended from neolithic farmers, while the northern group were like the Corded Ware people, who had a lot of genes from steppes invaders. Now new data shows that over time the Bell Beaker people interbred until most of them were a mix of Portuguese and Corded Ware types. Somehow these two groups, with different genetic histories and originating in different ecological zones, established a common culture with much interbreeding.

The current consensus is that many elements of Bell Beaker culture originated in Portugal. Somehow they spread that culture to northern peoples, who took it up with great enthusiasm, and then intermarried with southern folk, at least at the elite level.

So it wasn't all conquest and replacement.

A Major Reboot for the National Science Foundation?

Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer has re-introduced a bill that has been kicking around Congress in various versions for years, called this time the Endless Frontiers Act.  The basic idea is to dramatically expand the NSF but to refocus its efforts on potentially commercial technology. 

The National Science Foundation (NSF) would get a sweeping remake—including a new name, a huge infusion of cash, and responsibility for maintaining U.S. global leadership in innovation—under bipartisan bills that have just been introduced in both houses of Congress. 
Many scientific leaders are thrilled that the bills call for giving NSF an additional $100 billion over 5 years to carry out its new duties. But some worry the legislation, if enacted, could compromise NSF’s historical mission to explore the frontiers of knowledge without regard to possible commercial applications. 
The Endless Frontiers Act (S. 3832) proposes a major reorganization of NSF, creating a technology directorate that, within 4 years, would grow to more than four times the size of the entire agency’s existing $8 billion budget. NSF would be renamed the National Science and Technology Foundation, and both the science and technology arms would be led by a deputy reporting to the NSF director. 

Since this is the American Congress, you knew there had to be elements of the plan aimed at spreading the wealth around the country:

The bill calls for directing the biggest slice of the additional $100 billion that NSF would get to an unspecified number of university-based technology centers pursuing fundamental research in 10 key areas. The centers would work to develop prototypes of high-tech products and processes that companies could eventually bring to market. 

The legislation also specifies additional investments in education and training activities, facilities to test out all manner of new technologies, and boosting the budgets of other NSF directorates carrying out basic research that would enhance development of those technologies, including a better understanding of their social and ethical implications. Another section of the bill would authorize the Department of Commerce to spend $10 billion on 10 to 15 regional technology hubs. Those hubs are designed to foster innovation in areas outside the country’s current tech hot spots.

One aim of the plan is to make the NSF more like DARPA, the Defense Department agency that has gotten much praise over the years for turning wild ideas into functioning technology. 

Passage of the legislation could significantly alter how NSF operates. In particular, agency officials would have the authority to adopt some of the management practices used by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) within the Department of Defense, known for its agility and focus on tangible, deadline-driven results. “The new [technology] directorate can run like DARPA if NSF wants it to,” says one university lobbyist familiar with Schumer’s thinking.

The politicians who have signed onto this plan talk about China all the time – the challenge of China, the Chinese threat, etc. – so this seems like a return to Cold War thinking about science. But, hey, that got us to the moon. At least a few Republicans are on board, so maybe this new Cold War will get some bipartisan action out of Congress like the old one did.

It also strikes me that this is a product of our collective decision to not care at all about budget deficits any more. I guess some people in Congress have thought, well, as long as we are going to throw billions around like there is no tomorrow, we might as well throw some of it at the technological future.

Monday, May 25, 2020

A Lovely Spring Day, at Last

In the garden.

On a walk.

And in the woods, an attempt to get a photograph of a blooming white fringetree (Chionanthus virginicus) growing in deep shade. There are hundreds of saplings growing along the trails in our woods that I couldn't identify until I saw this grown-up specimen in flower. I suppose they are doing well because deer don't eat them, and do eat a lot of their competition? Any way they are native and lovely, so one can hardly complain. If all those saplings grow up, then our stretch of Patapsco State Park will be amazing at this time of year.