Friday, October 30, 2020

How an Octopus Tastes with its Limbs

 Katherine Wu in the Times:

Scientists have known for years that octopuses can taste what their arms touch. Now, a team of Harvard biologists armed with bricks, Velcro and an array of genetic tools has cracked some of the code behind this feel-and-feed feat.

The cells of octopus suckers are decorated with a mixture of tiny detector proteins. Each type of sensor responds to a distinct chemical cue, giving the animals an extraordinarily refined palate that can inform how their agile arms react, jettisoning an object as useless or dangerous, or nabbing it for a snack.

The study, published Thursday in the journal Cell, “really nails the molecular basis for a new sensory system,” said Rebecca Tarvin, a biologist at the University of California, Berkeley, who wrote a commentary on the findings but was not involved in the research. “This was previously kind of a black box.”

Though humans have nothing quite comparable in their anatomy, being an octopus might be roughly akin to exploring the world with eight giant, sucker-studded tongues, said Lena van Giesen, the study’s lead author. “Or maybe it feels totally different,” she said. “We just don’t know.”

The internal architecture of an octopus is as labyrinthine as it is bizarre. Nestled inside each body are three hearts, a parrot-like beak and, arguably, nine “brains” — a central hub with an octo-entourage of nerve cell clusters, one in each of the animal’s eight arms. Imbued with their own neurons, octopus arms can act semi-autonomously, gathering and exchanging information without routing it through the main brain. 

Links 30 October 2020

Rag doll from Hawara, Egypt, c. 350-160 BC, wool, flax, and human hair.

People are repainting their houses in the "quarantine palate", colors that many seem to find soothing.

Glorious 4-minute video of dry ice pieces being dropped into water, weirdly, amazingly beautiful.

How to talk to people who are falling for conspiracy theories (NY Times)

Kevin Drum responds to critics of his post arguing that American democracy is not in crisis, which I wrote about here.

Experts To Western States: Time To Finally Fight Wildfires With More Fire (NPR)

So you want to regulate Facebook and Twitter; did you mean regulate them like phone companies, or like broadcast television?

3-minute video using 3d animation to explain how large bridges were built in the Middle Ages; I wish they had shown the arch construction in more detail, but still quite cool.

Paul Krugman tries to explain why Trump's tariffs did not help US manufacturing, somewhat technical but not polemical. One issue is that in our economy staggering amounts of money flow across borders, and companies have mainly responded to Trump's tax and tariff changes by moving money rather than manufacturing operations.

"Captain" Roger Gallagher, famous highwayman of Ireland's County Mayo, who stole from the English rich and gave some of it to the Irish poor.

Is Palantir a scary threat to privacy and democracy, or a faddish, money-losing company with a bad business model? (NY Times)

Huge, zoomable image of a telescope photograph that shows 10 million stars.

Very wealthy neighbors feuding like spoiled children; admit it, you love these stories

Why Amazon has such a big problem with people bribing its employees.

NY Times story on geoengineering to fight climate change, which makes it sound like a lot is being done, until you look at the pathetic budget numbers.

The mysterious strategy of the "nuclear sponge": according to testimony by Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, the main purpose of the hundreds of nuclear-armed ICBMs we keep in silos across the plains is to "soak up" nuclear attacks from our enemies, luring fire away from New York and Los Angeles. We have no plans to fire them. But we're about to spend $95 billion replacing them with newer missiles we also have no plans to fire.

The history of dogs, from their DNA. One weird fact is that no wolf DNA has entered the dog genome since domestication more than 15,000 years ago, so huskies are no more wolf than pugs (NY Times)

According to a leaked document, somebody in the Trump administration thinks Billie Eilish is "destroying our country and everything we care about." Pretty impressive accomplishment for a teenage pop star.

Women of color running for Congress as Republicans (Washington Post)

Long NY Times story on the Epoch Times, a right-wing rag owned by the Falun Gong movement.

Books bound in human skin.

Wednesday, October 28, 2020

The Perils of Stripping away Illusion

After decades spent trying to get Americans to confront the country's crimes, Wallace Shawn find that the results of greater honesty are not what he hoped for:

Now that I’m seventy-six, when I remember the way I used to feel—when I think about how important it once seemed to me to tell people the truth about the crimes in which we all were implicated—well, that all seems quaint and sad. It turns out that by the time the American public learned the sorts of things I’d felt they needed to learn, by the time they came to look in the mirror, what they saw there didn’t look so bad to them. And so, yes, an awful lot of people don’t get upset when they hear Trump talk.

On the contrary, they seem to feel a great sense of relief. Trump has liberated a lot of people from the last vestiges of the Sermon on the Mount. A lot of people turn out to have been sick and tired of pretending to be good. The fact that the leader of one of our two parties—the party, in fact, that has for many decades represented what was normal, acceptable, and respectable—was not ashamed to reveal his own selfishness, was not ashamed to reveal his own indifference to the suffering of others, was not even ashamed to reveal his own cheerful enjoyment of cruelty…all of this helped people to feel that they no longer needed to be ashamed of those qualities in themselves either. They didn’t need to feel bad because they didn’t care about other people. Maybe they didn’t want to be forbearing toward enemies. Maybe they didn’t want to be gentle or kind.

I worry about this, too. If you convince people that their ancestors were not the noble heroes they imagine, but were in fact guilty of violence, racism, and sundry other barbarities, some of them will not turn against their ancestors. Instead, they will decide that violence, racism and barbarity are good things.

In general, attacking people is a terrible way to change them. It almost always makes them double down in defense of themselves and their kind. I firmly believe that nothing helps Trump and his ilk more than constant criticism of "white people."

Inspiring people to do better is the only way, if possible by pointing out their ancestors' virtues and calling on them to build on that past. That's what FDR did, and Martin Luther King, and Barack Obama. It's how the leader's of Swedish socialism and the British Labour Party created the modern welfare state in the 1940s and 1950s. Not by criticizing people, but by appealing to the best in people, and the best in their past.

The History of Parenting Advice:

Times reporter Jessica Grose waded back through the paper's archives to see what sort of advice it had printed for parents:

In the ’30s and ’40s, The Times had a parenting writer named Catherine Mackenzie, whose columns dealt with issues we’re still mulling, like how much kids should be learning in preschool, whether new kinds of media are harmful to children, and what to do when 13-year-old girls want to wear lipstick and go on dates. . . .

But the most revealing article I read was from 1952. It was a summary of the work of Clark E. Vincent, a graduate teaching assistant in sociology at the University of California, who had surveyed thousands of articles from the previous 60 years of infant care and child-rearing advice.

Vincent noted that the breast vs. bottle “controversy” has been around since Hippocrates, and that much of parenting advice is trend-driven. “In 1890 women’s magazines recommended ‘loose scheduling’; in 1920 they were all for the tight schedule, ‘cry it out’ routine, and in the last year analyzed, 1948, all were for ‘self regulation’ by the baby,” the article noted.

According to Vincent, parenting advice has “often reflected changing patterns of thought in middle-class society, and changing theories of education and personality transformation.” His ultimate takeaway? Less dogmatism and more flexibility, “so long as the baby’s needs are satisfied.” Maybe if we keep giving this advice for the next 70 years — that there’s no one way to parent, that kids can thrive in many different situations — it will finally stick. 

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Swordfish Swords

Nautical folklore has always been full of swordfish using their long bills as weapons. Sailors have long reported seeing swordfish drive their swords through boat hulls, kill people and each other, and so on. But over the past century scientists have been skeptical. Yes, there are confirmed cases of swords stuck through boat hulls, but maybe those were accidents; the swords just don't seem like they would make very effective weapons, and there isn't much video or other evidence to confirm sword attacks. Until recently, anyway:

The first victim washed up in September 2016. The police in Valencia, Spain, saw a blue shark dying in the surf along a tiny stretch of beach. They lugged the eight-foot corpse to the yard behind the police station. Then they called Jaime Penadés-Suay, who soon suspected foul play.

The shark had what looked like a bit of wood embedded in her head. He pulled. Out slid a broken fragment from a swordfish sword that had lanced straight through her brain.

“I thought it was crazy,” said Mr. Penadés-Suay, a graduate student at the University of Valencia and a founder of LAMNA, a Spanish consortium that studies sharks. “I was never sure if this was some kind of joke.”

But since then at least six more sharks have washed up on Mediterranean coasts, each impaled with the same murder weapon, and almost always in the head. In the latest example, an adult 15-foot thresher shark — itself equipped with a whiplike tail capable of stunning blows — washed up in Libya. Inside was a foot of swordfish sword that had broken off near its heart.

Taken together these cases offer what may be preliminary scientific evidence of high-speed, high-stakes underwater duels that had previously been confined to fisherman’s tales.

Awesome. File this beside the evidence that thresher sharks really use their long tails as weapons, too.

Giving Money to Homeless People

Vox covers a new Canadian study of how to help homeless people:

The study, conducted by the charity Foundations for Social Change in partnership with the University of British Columbia, was fairly simple. It identified 50 people in the Vancouver area who had become homeless in the past two years. In spring 2018, it gave them each one lump sum of $7,500 (in Canadian dollars). And it told them to do whatever they wanted with the cash.

“At first, I thought it was a little far-fetched — too good to be true,” Ray said. “I went with one of the program representatives to a bank and we opened up a bank account for me. Even after the money was there, it took me a week for it to sink in.”

Over the next year, the study followed up with the recipients periodically, asking how they were spending the money and what was happening in their lives. Because they were participating in a randomized controlled trial, their outcomes were compared to those of a control group: 65 homeless people who didn’t receive any cash. Both cash recipients and people in the control group got access to workshops and coaching focused on developing life skills and plans.

The results? The people who received cash transfers moved into stable housing faster and saved enough money to maintain financial security over the year of follow-up. They decreased spending on drugs, tobacco, and alcohol by 39 percent on average, and increased spending on food, clothes, and rent, according to self-reports.

Plenty of other studies have shown that some homeless people can see their lives turned around by a one-time generous intervention, like cash or a free apartment. You can imagine how this happens: becoming homeless can be part of a downward spiral, losses or failures, leading to depression or binge-drinking that leads to further losses and failures. A big intervention can get some people out of that spiral and help them get back on track. This study also found what some others have, that these interventions more than pay for themselves in things like reduced hospital visits.

Unfortunately the story is more complicated than that. For one thing this study strictly limited the pool of eligible people:

The study only enrolled participants who’d been homeless for under two years, with the idea that early intervention most effectively reduces the risk of people incurring trauma as a result of living without a home. And people with severe mental health or substance use issues were screened out of the initiative.

Those are precisely the people most likely to stay homeless over the long haul; people without addictions or other severe mental health problems are the ones mostly likely to get themselves out of trouble without help. So, yeah, it's always easiest to help the most promising cases.

Again, these interventions seem to pay for themselves, and they certainly help some people get back on their feet a lot faster, so I'm all for them. But there is no long-term solution to our homelessness problem without much better mental health care and addiction treatment.

In a Pandemic, Sleazy Business as Usual

 Washington Post:

The coronavirus recession tipped dozens of troubled companies into bankruptcy, setting off a rush of store closures, furloughs and layoffs. But several major brands, including Hertz Global, J.C. Penney and Neiman Marcus, doled out millions in executive bonuses just before filing for Chapter 11 protection, according to a Washington Post analysis of regulatory filings and court documents.

Since the pandemic took hold in March, at least 18 large companies have rewarded executives with six- and seven-figure payouts before asking bankruptcy courts to shield them from landlords, suppliers and other creditors while they restructured, the Post review found. They collectively meted out more than $135 million, documents show, while listing $79 billion in debts.

Labor experts and bankruptcy attorneys say the payouts are particularly egregious — and unjustifiable — during an economic crisis, and were timed to bypass a 2005 law passed specifically to prevent executives from prospering while their companies flailed. . . . 

Chuck E. Cheese’s parent company filed for bankruptcy, citing $2 billion in debt. But first it awarded nearly $3 million in bonuses to top executives, including $1.3 million to chief executive David McKillips, who had been with the company less than five months.

Monday, October 26, 2020

The Right to Repair

Frustrated by planned obsolescence and products that can only be repaired, if at all, by the manufacturer, consumers and local repair shops are increasingly pressuring regulators and legislators for "right to repair" provisions. Many jurisdictions in the US and Europe already have laws requiring that manufacturers make parts, tools, and spec diagrams available to outsiders, but the struggle continues as manufacturers keep coming up with new systems that, intentionally or not, limit what outsiders can do. 

The "Right to Repair" movement brings several sorts of complaints together. One is manufacturers designing devices that require special tools or special computer codes to access, hoping thereby to monopolize the repair market. Another is a blanket refusal to sell replacement parts to outsiders. But the biggest is frustration with things not lasting as long as they used to, leading to a "throwaway culture" that wastes resources and encourages fads. The tech industry is of course especially bad here, with technological progress rapidly rendering old devices something only nerdy collectors would want; what can you do with a 20-year-old computer or phone? But there are also lots of complaints about household appliances and other objects.

I have devoted a fair amount of thought and even some research to the appliance problem, after going through three dishwashers in five years. First, the new appliances all have more complex circuit boards in them, or chips, which are partly there to manage energy-saving and water-saving features. (It was the circuit boards that kept failing in our dishwashers.) There is simply not the same amount of engineering know-how for making newly designed circuit boards reliable as there is for valves. Second, there is intense cost pressure, driven partly by offshoring or Korean competition and partly by American consumers' intense focus on price. (It has always bugged me that Americans complain about offshoring or imports but then buy the cheaper Chinese-made products, but that is in fact what we do.) 

And third, there is an information problem. In the US there used to be certain brands (Amana, Maytag) that had reputations for quality and reliability; their appliances cost more but people expected them to last a long time. Which are the good brands now? I don't know. And when I tried to find out, from Consumer Reports and others, I entered a contested minefield. Partly because all the manufacturers are buying parts made around the world and constantly re-arranging their supply chains, their products develop new faults every year, or fix old ones, with the result that their quality bounces around. So if you care about buying something that lasts you have to do your research every time, and even then you may find that half the models on the market are too new for anyone to have good quality data on them. Some people respond to this by buying something expensive, hoping that price = quality, but a friend of mine who bought a high-end dishwasher for her newly remodeled kitchen hated it and was actually happy when it died less than two years later and she could replace it.

So, yeah, I understand all these frustrations, which is why I followed up reading this New York Times article with a bit of research; here is the website of the Repair Association. I wonder, though, how much impact all of this can have in a world in which keeping devices going is mostly about insuring their various chips are talking properly to each other; how many local repair shops can do that?

Sunday, October 25, 2020

The Most Wonderful and Unexplained Events and Catastrophes from the Flood to the Year 1552

Delightful manuscript now at the University of Salzburg, probably written in 1552. Above, the Flood.

Eruption of Vesuvius in 1482

Birds freezing in the sky, 1126

A Monster at Rome, 1496

Apparition in the Sky over Poland, 1545 

Sea Monsters and a Rain of Fire, 195

Kevin Drum Says American Democracy is Fine

Kevin Drum is a progressive activist of long-standing. But, he says, he parts company with many contemporaries who think American Democracy is imperiled by Republican advantages in the Senate, the Electoral College, and the Supreme Court. (Long argument to this effect in the Times). Drum:

Of course, if democracy really is under threat then it’s hardly toxic to point this out and fight it. But is it? I understand that mine is an unpopular view these days among progressives, but of course it’s not. America has had gerrymandering, the Senate, the Electoral College, and the Supreme Court since the beginning, and liberals rarely worried that they were an existential threat to democracy. Democrats controlled Congress for nearly 50 straight years after World War II and liberals didn’t think it was a threat to democracy. The Warren Court upended constitutional law in the ’60s and liberals didn’t think it was a threat to democracy. The Senate has only barely changed for over a hundred years, and Democrats haven’t historically had any special problem controlling it for a fair share of the time. Just recently, Democrats passed Obamacare even though it was unanimously opposed by Republicans and only barely eked out majority support from the public. Liberals didn’t consider this a threat to democracy. And in 2015, when the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage? No threat to democracy there.

Democracy in practice is never a perfect representation of majority rule. Every democratic country has institutions that get in the way of perfect representation, and this is often considered a good thing: the Senate as a counterweight to the passions of the House, for example, or the Supreme Court as the guarantor of the rights of the minority vs. the will of the majority. Rather, the foundation of democracy is that the people mostly get what they want most of the time. And in America they do, even if, like every country, we’re imperfect on this score, especially if you’re poor or non-white.

Neither of the two major parties has recently exercised total control over our national agenda, but it’s safe to say that over the past 50 years or so, Democrats have mostly won the culture war while Republicans have won the economic war. The reason, like it or not, is that this is basically what the American public wants. Liberals have made their case for gay rights, civil rights, women’s rights, and so forth, and Americans have hopped on board. Conservatives have made the case for tax cuts and business friendly policies, and Americans have largely hopped on board with that too.

None of this has been the result of gerrymandering or the Supreme Court or the Senate or the Electoral College except at the margins. It’s been almost entirely the result of parties persuading the American public to support their views. Both tax cuts and the ADA were popular. Both the Iraq War and gay marriage were popular. Both immigration restrictions and national health care are, currently, somewhat popular. But only somewhat. That’s why we don’t yet have either one. To put it simply, democracy is alive and well in the United States, and the institutional exceptions are relatively mild and of long standing.
This is where I am, too: if American is screwed up, that's mostly because Americans are screwed up. The government largely reflects the people. Neither progressives nor conservatives can achieve much of what they want, because American voters don't support it. I think by far the biggest obstacle to the will of the American people is not the Senate or the Electoral College but the two-party system, which insures that some issues with a lot of support can't be enacted and turns others into partisan footballs.

Of course, if you think our situation is and always has been intolerable, then you don't care that our problems are old problems. But I still say that it is not the Senate or the Electoral College that blocks the progressive agenda, but the fact that most Americans don't support it.

More Fall

Saturday, October 24, 2020

The Trumpification of One Small Town

Wonderful piece by Brian Groh in the Times about his home town, Lawrenceburg, Indiana. In 2008 an overflow crowd came out to hear Bill Clinton proclaim that under an Obama administration, the economy would boom and their town would come back:

But things didn’t improve. The latest census reports median household income in Lawrenceburg as $30,735, with a little over 32 percent of us in poverty. And in 2014, according to The New York Times, our small county (which is over 97 percent white) sent more people to prison than San Francisco. In January, our hospital cited a “higher number of uninsured patients” as a reason it needed to “right-size” its work force by laying off 31 employees and eliminating behavioral health services.

And there are darker omens. Last fall, my teenage nephew came running into the house, wide-eyed, saying he’d found a human skull in the woods. I followed him until, panting at the bottom of a ravine, I saw the skull trapped in a thicket of sticks and leaves, missing several of its front teeth. The police arrived, and for the rest of the night, I watched from my bedroom window as flashlights swept over the long grass, through the woods, until they were finally swallowed by darkness.

It was an overdose, an officer told me later, the victim most likely another casualty of the nation’s opioid epidemic. (In 2017, in this county, there were 80 opioid prescriptions for every 100 residents.) The young man seemed to have died higher up on the hill, where they found more of his remains. The rain must have washed his skull down the slope.

The skull felt like a portent, but also a turning point. Months later, I noticed a vendor at a roadside stand selling Trump flags. “Trump 2020: Keep America Great,” one read. Another read “Trump 2020: No More [Expletive].” It was more than half a year away from the election, and I remember thinking: Why flags? A flag was something people fought under, and for; something people carried to war. By the summer, another vendor popped up selling flags with even bolder slogans like “Trump 2020: [Expletive] Your Feelings,” “Liberty or Die,” “Make Liberals Cry Again.” The economy was in the dumps but the flag business was booming.

And not just Trump flags. In the past few months, I have seen three Confederate flags hoisted in neighbors’ yards, where previously I’d seen none. Just a few weeks ago, two masked men appeared outside our high school, holding a large KKK flag and fliers, apparently scouting for young recruits.

At times, all of this has felt like a horror movie, where it starts off happily enough — in a sun-drenched, idyllic farmhouse — and then the darkness slowly takes over. The change has occurred so slowly that at times, I hardly noticed it, until one day I barely recognized my hometown.
Obviously I don't think Trump has any kind to solution to these problems, and the KKK certainly doesn't. But democracy is not safe as long as millions of people feel that the system is failing and ignoring them. I would say that one constant of my life, from the 1970s to now, has been this sense of loss across a wide swathe of America, leading to widespread anger and frustration. Almost everybody running for office in America says he or she stands for change, taking it for granted that to defend the status quo is a losing message.

Friday, October 23, 2020

Something Strange: Plastic Bag Sculptures by Khalil Chishtee

Khalil Chishtee is a New York-based artist born in Pakistan in 1964. These plastic bag sculptures have something to do with environmental worries, but he says they are also about "humanity and love."

They're amazing, but how is a museum supposed to curate them?

Manassas Burial Pit Follow-Up

The Park Service now has a good web page up on the Civil War burial pit I helped excavate in 2015, with a short video and several pictures, including one of me.

Issues that Divide Republicans

 Via 538, some recent polling on questions that split Republican voters:

  • Whether Trump should behave "more like previous presidents": 46% yes, 53% no
  • Whether the US should invest $2 trillion on green infrastructure: 45% yes, 52% no
  • A public option for health insurance: 45% yes, 47% no
  • Are state and local measures to halt Covid-19, like mask requirements, justified? 56% yes, 43% no
  • Do African Americans face "a lot" of discrimination? 52% yes, 47% no
  • And on immigration policy, the Dream Act gets 45% for, 53% against; family separation at the border gets 45% for, 53% against.

Links 23 October 2020

Portrait of a Young Girl, French, early 1500s

Eelgrass successfully restored to 200 hectares off Virginia's Eastern Shore after a program that involved scattering 70 million seeds. This is great news, but since we don't know why eelgrass disappeared in the first place, who knows how long it will stay this time?

Good news from Bolivia, where the last election was a disputed mess that ended in what some people called a coup. But Sunday's election came off smoothly, with the losers already congratulating the apparent winner, Socialist Luis Arce.

Confessions of a married sociopath, weirdly fascinating (NY Times)

Silly social distancing signs.

A man lived in the ceiling of a Nevada supermarket for a week, stealing food every night, until he was detected after his foot fell through the ceiling.

The Delightful Boringness of Joe Biden

Review of what sounds like an interesting book on the environmental history of the Bering Strait; who was worse, Soviet socialists or American capitalists?

Some art criticism so weird I have no idea what to say about it. Once we understand the psychoactive properties in the clay of a small jug, "Suddenly, we see Las Meninas for what it is – not just a snapshot of a moment in time, but a soulful meditation on the evanescence of the material world and the inevitable evaporation of self."

Weird NY Times story on the rich executives who, stuck at home during the pandemic, have discovered the pleasures of having dinner with their families.

The Royal Navy is testing jet suit assault squads.

Replacing damaged or lost cartilage with new tissue grown in a lab from the patient's own cells. (Washington Post)

Sand art.

Obituary of James Randi, magician and skeptic, and a hero of mine in my skeptical youth. (NY Times)

Struggling to be anti-rape but also anti-prison and anti-police violence.

Tyler Cowen filed this under "questions rarely asked": should there be more cats in prison? (Yes, is my answer. And I think I posted a few years ago about prison inmates training dogs.) 

From the British Museum, conserving a 130-year-old bag made of fish skin.

Agromining or phytomining: using "hyperaccumulator" plants to concentrate the Nickel or other metals in in metal-rich soils. The plants are then harvested and the metal extracted. Not yet economical, but it could be combined with using this method to extract metals from places made toxic by them. Could also be used on mine waste to extract more metal and render the waste less toxic. (Website of one agromining group, abstract of scholarly article, NY Times story

Thursday, October 22, 2020

Shakespeare, "In Defiance of Time"

No, Time, thou shalt not boast that I do change:
Thy pyramids built up with newer might
To me are nothing novel, nothing strange;
They are but dressings of a former sight.
Our dates are brief, and therefore we admire
What thou dost foist upon us that is old;
And rather make them born to our desire
Than think that we before have heard them told.
Thy registers and thee I both defy,
Not wondering at the present nor the past,
For thy records and what we see doth lie,
Made more or less by thy continual haste.
This I do vow and this shall ever be;
I will be true despite thy scythe and thee.

–Sonnet 123

More on 5G Not Living Up to the Hype

The tech news from China:

China officially launched its commercial 5G networks in September 2019 with the promise of delivering unprecedented digital speed to support new applications from autonomous driving to virtual surgery. More than a year later, the biggest 5G market is now facing widespread complaints about network speed and skyrocketing costs of deployments.

To handle more data at higher speeds, 5G uses higher frequencies than current networks. However, the signals travel shorter distances and encounter more interference.

"5G uses ultra-high frequency signals, which are about two to three times higher than the existing 4G signal frequency, so the signal coverage will be limited," Wang Xiaofei, a communication expert at Tianjin University told Xinhua, the official state-run press agency, last year as the country's state telecoms started to make 5G networks available to the public.

Wang said since the coverage radius of its base station is only about 100 meters to 300 meters, China must build a station every 200 to 300 meters in urban areas. Because the penetration of 5G signals is so weak, even indoor stations will have to be built in densely distributed office buildings, residential areas, and commercial districts.

And to reach the same coverage that 4G currently has, the carriers eventually need to install as many as 10 million stations across the country, according to a report by Xinhua.

"For the next three years starting this year, 1 million 5G base stations may need to be built every year," Xiang Ligang, director-general of the Information Consumption Alliance, a telecom industry association, told the state media last year.

In the first half of this year, China only built 257,000 new 5G base stations. The total number of the stations installed across China so far was only about 410,000 by the end of June, according to the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT).

The cost of the energy needed to power 5G has proved to be one of the biggest headaches for Chinese telecommunication companies.

"The 5G base station equipment consumes about three times more energy than 4G because of the way the technology works," Soumya Sen, associate professor of information and decision sciences at the University of Minnesota, told VOA in an email. "5G uses multiple antennas to make use of reflected signals from buildings to provide gains in channel robustness and throughput."

If 5G is to reach the same level of coverage as 4G networks, the base station's annual electricity bill will approach $29 billion, according to a report by the China Post and Telecommunications News, a media outlet directly under MIIT. That amount represents about 10 times the 2019 profit of China Telecom, one of the three state-owned telecommunication companies in China.

Just what we need, a new technology that uses an extra $29 billion a year in electricity generated by  burning coal.

An Experiment in Covid-19 Antibodies and Resistance

The latest:

American Dynasty, a commercial trawler, departed Seattle one day in May to fish for hake off the Washington coast. Before leaving, its 122 crew members were screened for the coronavirus using the highly accurate polymerase chain reaction (P.C.R.) method, and all the results came back negative. But because those tests are “good but not perfect” . . . SARS-CoV-2 found its way on board.

When a crew member fell seriously ill, the vessel returned to port, and almost everyone was tested for the virus again. The before-and-after results for 120 of the crew members were made available to researchers, who published a study about them in The Journal of Clinical Microbiology in August. In addition to the P.C.R. tests, the pre-voyage screenings also looked for neutralizing antibodies, or proteins generated by the immune system after exposure to the virus, which suggest that a person has been infected previously. Three crew members, it turned out, had those antibodies at the start of the trip. Of the 117 crew members who did not, 103 tested positive for the virus when they got back to shore — an 88 percent infection rate. If you were to randomly select three names from the ship’s manifest, the odds that all three would have tested negative are about 0.2 percent. Yet all three sailors with antibodies were spared.

The finding is believed to be the first direct evidence that antibodies protect against SARS-CoV-2 infection in humans, and it offers clues about what sort of concentrations might be needed to confer immunity. The amounts of antibodies present in the three sailors are “pretty attainable by the vaccines” in development, says Alex Greninger, a virologist at the University of Washington School of Medicine and the study’s senior author.

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

How New is Our Problem with Conspiracy Theories?

Farhad Manjoo has a story in the Times today about Joan Donovan and the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard, which she directs. The center has been compiling databases of information manipulation techniques, and they have just published the Media Manipulation Casebook, which you can find online. Perusing these case studies, Manjoo writes

Every day I grow more fearful that the number of those Americans will be large enough to imperil our nation’s capacity to function as a cohesive society.

Sometimes I worry about this, too. But other times I wonder how new any of this is, and whether our situation is as bad as it has been at some times in the past. Modern history is full of crazy beliefs, from the Great Fear during the French Revolution to magical water of the Mau Mau revolt against the British in Africa. Consider that in 1919-1920 the US was convulsed by a "Red Scare" that led to hundreds of violent attacks on immigrants, mass deportation of immigrant activists, and outright massacres of black citizens who were said to be joining the anarcho-communists in a war against white America. Nothing of comparable magnitude has happened over the past few years.

On the other hand there really was a Russian Revolution, and some immigrants really were left-wing agitators. So while the effects were much worse than, say, QAnon, you could argue that at least as it applied to European immigrants the Red Scare was more grounded in reality. So is there any sense in which our situation is worse than that? Are internet-driven conspiracy theories in some way more insidious, more dangerous, more complete than old-style conspiracy theories spread by newspapers or word of mouth?

Right now I feel like, no, they are not. Perhaps political craziness waxes and wanes somewhat over time, but it is always with us. We are irrational creatures, driven by tribalism and fear. We are going, sometimes, to believe crazy ideas and do crazy things. And if there is something weirdly insidious about the Internet as a way to coordinate and spread lies, and has so far not had any effects as awful as old conspiracy theories about Jews and slave revolts.

And it's not like the non-conspiratorial media are free from lies or manipulation. I personally found our national determination to invade Iraq in 2003 every bit as weird as QAnon, and a lot more alarming, And how about the belief on Wall Street that mortgage-backed bonds were safe? That did a lot more damage than QAnon has.

We all have to be on guard against false and foolish beliefs, all the time, and that includes things being pushed by "mainstream" politicians and newspapers. I don't say this to dismiss the danger of violent ideas being spread over the Internet, which have already led to many deaths. I just don't yet see that the Internet will lead to greater divorce from reality than we have already seen at many other times and places.

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

A Boogaloo Speaks

Via Daily Kos, a speech given at the Michigan state capitol by one of the Boogaloo guys toting guns at a recent rally:

We are gathered here today because divide and conquer is the oldest rule in the book, and we will play the game on our terms, not theirs. Why are we at the breaking point? Why are we ready to take up arms against those in power? For any of those wondering politicians, magistrates, and officers of the law: We are all here because the social contract has been broken persistently and intentionally, by you who believe that your office makes you public masters, not public servants.

You may get away with your tyranny for a time longer, but the day of reckoning rapidly approaches. The jig will be up, the tables will have turned, the tar in the kettle—the wood chipper’s revved up! The fires will continue to rage.

I implore you for your sake as well as mine, accept that your control lasts only as long as the people allow it. Class consciousness is here and it is a more powerful adversary than you or me.

This means: Return the police from the place of a tax collector to that of protecting society from its most dangerous elements—those who take life, liberty and property, not those who do not injure the rights of others. End the war on drugs. End civil asset forfeiture, end the cash-bail racket, and your unjust and unconstitutional intrusion into the lives of your citizens.

Honestly this makes more sense than a lot of political speeches I have seen this year. If they would stop pointing guns and otherwise trying to look menacing all the time I could be persuaded to support a lot of this agenda.

Americans and Politics

There are two ways to see politics in America. One is to focus on the political discourse as it unfolds on the news and on social media. There you see intense partisanship that seems to be tearing the country apart.

But there is another way to see America, as Yanna Krupnikov and John Barry Ryan explain in the NY Times:

The common view of American politics today is of a clamorous divide between Democrats and Republicans, an unyielding, inevitable clash of harsh partisan polarization.

But that focus obscures another, enormous gulf — the gap between those who follow politics closely and those who don’t. Call it the “attention divide.”

What we found is that most Americans — upward of 80 percent to 85 percent — follow politics casually or not at all. 

Millions of Americans are on social media to talk about cars or share pictures of their grandchildren; on Twitter, 10% of users make 97% of the political posts.

On some issues the opinions of the non-involved mirror those of their parties, for example surveys find that all Republicans rank illegal immigration as a serious problem.

But on a number of other issues, we found that Americans fall much less neatly into partisan camps. For example, Democrats and Republicans who don’t follow politics closely believe that low hourly wages are one of the most important problems facing the country. But for hard partisans, the issue barely registers.

Partisan Republicans were most likely to say drug abuse was the most important problem facing the country. But less-attentive Republicans ranked it second to last, and they were also concerned about the deficit and divisions between Democrats and Republicans.

Among Democrats, the political junkies think the influence of wealthy donors and interest groups is an urgent problems. But less-attentive Democrats are 25 percentage points more likely to name moral decline as an important problem facing the country — a problem partisan Democrats never even mention.

I am not at all sure how to think about these findings. There are certainly Americans who hardly ever think about politics. Some of them don't vote; some do, but with a casualness that horrifies the politically involved. Looking over the numbers I conclude that many of them must be fairly strong partisans, since each part seems to have about 40% unwavering support. I suppose deciding on your party and always voting for its candidate is one way to minimize the amount you have to think about politics.

And here's the real question for me: do these people who are not involved, whose opinions are different from the loud partisans, form some kind of anchor that would help keep the country from sliding into civil war? Or would they, in their indifference, just be dragged along by the loud leaders of the side they have chosen?

And then this:

For partisans, politics is a morality play, a struggle of good versus evil. But most Americans just see two angry groups of people bickering over issues that may not always seem pressing or important.

Monday, October 19, 2020

Operation Fantasia

From Smithsonian:

Operation Fantasia was the brainchild of OSS psychological warfare strategist Ed Salinger, an eccentric businessman who had run an import/export business in Tokyo before the war. Salinger’s business dealings had given him a cursory introduction to Japanese culture; he learned the language, collected the art and studied the superstitions—which is why the OSS hired him. Operation Fantasia, he pitched the organization in 1943, would destroy Japanese morale by exposing soldiers and civilians to a Shinto portent of doom: kitsune, fox-shaped spirits with magical abilities. “The foundation for the proposal,” Salinger wrote in a memo outlining his idea, “rests upon the fact that the modern Japanese is subject to superstitions, beliefs in evil spirits and unnatural manifestations which can be provoked and stimulated.”

After toying with numerous crazy schemes like balloons and projections, the OSS decided that they would catch live foxes, spray-paint them with glowing paint, and release them on the Japanese coast.

Of course at that time glowing paint was made with radium, so maybe the foxes would have been dangerous after all. But the story keeps getting weirder:

To find out whether the faux-supernatural foxes would actually frighten the Japanese, the OSS decided to release 30 glowing foxes in Washington, D.C.’s Rock Creek Park to gauge the reactions of the locals. If the foxes spooked Americans, the logic went, certainly they would scare the Japanese even more. 
On a summer night in 1945, OSS personnel released the foxes in the park, and the creatures scampered along the trails with promising results. The sight of the ghostly apparitions at first confused and then terrified passersby on their evening strolls. One citizen was so concerned that he notified the National Park Police, which reported on the incident, “Horrified citizens, shocked by the sudden sight of the leaping ghost-like animals, fled from the dark recesses of the park with the ‘screaming jeemies.’”

That's a new one to me, and I am the co-author of a thick history of Rock Creek Park. And more:

In one newly discovered memo, Salinger wrote that he had learned of “a peculiarly potent manifestation of the Fox legend,” a version of the superstition that supposedly terrified the Japanese even more, that “appears in the form of a fox bearing death’s head on his crown.” His plan to capitalize on this information bears repeating in his own words: “We have made a stuffed fox with a human skull affixed to his head, equipped with a simple mechanical device for raising and lowering the jaw so as to simulate the opening and closing of the mouth of the skull. This stuffed figure will be painted to give the same luminous effect as in the case of the live foxes.” Salinger suggested draping the taxidermied fox body in a black cloth painted with glowing bones and lifting this human-fox hybrid into the air with balloons or a kite, as if it were levitating, to have an even greater demoralizing effect on the Japanese. 

This went on and on, with one test and plan after another, until Stanley Lovell, head of the OSS Research Bureau, finally pointed out that the whole thing was absurd. Lovell once advocated making Hitler's moustache fall out by putting estrogen in his food, so I guess when he said it was too far-fetched the higher ups accepted his verdict. He said, “I trust that this will serve as a critique to us in the field of pure reason.”

Sunday, October 18, 2020

Mutual Fear

What is the biggest fear of American liberals? That Trump is an authoritarian who will move the country in the direction of a white Christian dictatorship. What is the biggest fear of American conservatives? That the Democratic Party wants to move the country in the direction of a thought dictatorship, in which nobody who expresses the wrong opinions can get a job or otherwise live a decent life. Ross Douthat:

A striking thing about the current moment is that if you switch back and forth between reading conservatives and liberals, you see mirror-image anxieties about authoritarianism and totalitarianism, which each side believes are developing across the partisan divide.

I think these mutual fears define the politics of our time.

Millions of Americans live in fear that the police will harass, beat or shoot them; the police live in fear that "bad guys" will kill them.

Millions of American women live in fear that men will harass, assault or rape them; millions of American men live in fear that women will accuse them of harassment, assault or rape.

Gay Americans fear their newly-won rights will be taken away by conservative Christians; conservative Christians fear the Democrats will close all the churches that don't endorse gay rights.

Many Americans fear that protesters and self-proclaimed anarchists will burn down our cities; the protesters fear that the government will jail or kill them.

You can argue, if you want, that these fears are unbalanced, that the fears of the disempowered are more justified than those of straight white men. But the cold reality is that all of our fears, justified or not, are driving our politics away from dialogue and toward apocalyptic partisanship. It does not matter in the least whether you think somebody's else's fear is stupid; that fear is the reality you have to deal with, and if you respond to it with scorn it will only get worse.

I hope that this election will help to ease up on the fear, but I worry that it won't. I worry that nothing will change, and our politics will go from bad to worse, until we can somehow reassure Americans that half the country doesn't want to destroy them.

Saturday, October 17, 2020

Franklinia alatamaha

From a NY Times feature on plants that have gone extinct since Europeans reached North America:

Despite the fact that it’s considered extinct, you could reasonably venture upon Franklinia alatamaha.

Considered “extinct in the wild,” the Franklinia tree — along with six other plants listed in the recent study — now exists only in cultivated spaces such as arboretums or botanical gardens.

John Bartram, King George III’s botanist in the Americas, and his son William first described the species (and named it for family friend Benjamin Franklin) after stumbling upon the unfamiliar tree along Georgia’s Altamaha River in 1765.

In a lucky twist, the younger Mr. Bartram returned a few years later to collect seeds and cuttings, and brought them to Philadelphia where the first cultivated Franklinia tree bloomed in 1781. Within a quarter-century, in 1803, the species was spotted in the wild for the last time.

Today, any Franklinia trees you might encounter in cemeteries, gardens and parks are descendants of Mr. Bartram’s cultivations. “It wasn’t meant to prevent extinction,” Mr. Knapp said, “but it did.”

It’s unclear how the tree disappeared, though some have suggested a soil-borne cotton pathogen, over-collection by nurseries or a change in regional fire frequency could have played a role in its demise.

“What we have is conjecture. We really have no idea why it’s gone,” Mr. Knapp said. “But you can buy it if you go to the right place.”

I think what did in most of the lost plant species was the very rapid changes that have overtaken the ecosystems of eastern North American. After around AD 1000 Native Americans began to clear large areas for farming and carry out selective burning on a large scale. As their populations rose their hunting had major impacts on animal life, including deer, another big change in the environment faced by plants. Then the Europeans arrived. The immediate result of this was an apocalypse of disease and death for Native humans, causing their populations to fall by 80 or 90 percent. Forests rebounded, and deer with them. Then the Europeans began to multiply and march across the country, clearing the forests and hunting out the animals. They also plowed the soil, leading to massive erosion, the silting up of rivers and harbors, and so on. Then they began to abandon fields, which reverted to forest; this was happening in New England by 1800. Then modernity with its roads, cities, strip mines, suburbs.

But in this case I think Franklinia was very rare to begin with. Europeans were on the lookout for useful plants from the moment they sighted the New World, so if this tree was growing that close to the coast without being described until 1765, there must not have been very many of them.

In Mexico, the Godfather was the Defense Minister

I don't know what to say about the news that the Mexico's former Defense Minister has been arrested as a drug kingpin, joining the former head of their equivalent to the FBI. In fact the government turned to the military to fight the drug cartels because they worried that all of their police had been compromised. And now that we think the military leadership has also been compromised, who can the people call on for help?

The vast sums of money in illegal drugs are too powerful, it seems, for governments to resist. 

Where does that leave us? Legalization, I suppose, but making addictive drugs widely available is a disaster of its own, and we have shown in the US with a large-scale experiment on opioids.

I used to have strong opinions about this but now I doubt everything.

Friday, October 16, 2020

Links 16 October 2020

Photo of Venice by Ikko Narahara

The mysterious salt volcano of dwarf planet Ceres.

At La Hoya in northern Spain, archaeologists uncovered evidence of a massacre around 350 BC, with maimed bodies lying in the streets. The burned town was still full of valuable goods, and some of the dead were still wearing jewelry, so this attack was all about killing.

Cool 5-minute video of a dive to the bottom of the Antarctic Ocean, 1000 m down. 

The economics of vending machines.

Transforming urban spaces with brightly colored, architect-designed playgrounds.

Unable to overthrow any government, al Qaeda and the Islamic State are increasingly fighting each other: "internecine fighting has claimed the lives of some 300 jihadists in West Africa's Sahel region since July alone."

11-minute video explaining what happened to Dubai's ambitious plans for artificial islands.

Kwame Anthony Appiah looks into the political complexity of Blackness in Britain and the US; identity, he says, is fractal, and any group can always be subdivided further. (NY Times)

Tool-using ants build siphons to wick sugar water out of containers, keeping them from drowning.

Learning from television how the upper class lives: "I'm not rich," I said, "I just watch a lot of TV." (NY Times)

2020 Wildlife Photographer of the Year.

The grapefruit and the crazy history of citrus. I had no idea.

"A new rule in the Federal Duck Stamp Contest, requiring artists to include hunting themes in their submissions, has raised eyebrows and objections in the duck painting community." (NY Times)

Young people these days: Brigham Young University-Idaho threatens to expel students who intentionally get Covid-19 so they can sell their antibody-rich plasma.

Treaties spell out how the US and Mexico divide the water of the Rio Grande and the Colorado River, but this year there isn't enough water to go around, so Mexican farmers seized a dam and blocked water shipments to the US. (NY Times)

The coronavirus and the nationwide shortage of refrigerators.

Xi Jinping promised a while back that China would be "carbon neutral" by 2060; now a team of Chinese experts has produced a plan showing how that might happen.

Good essay by Jamelle Bouie arguing that "originalists" like Amy Coney Barrett pay too much attention to the Constitution of 1787 and not nearly enough to its major revamping in the post-Civil War era embodied in the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments. (NY Times)

Thursday, October 15, 2020

Gravilliers and Frankish Gaul

Archaeologists working in eastern France have uncovered a Frankish settlement dating to the sixth and seventh centuries. The settlement was built pretty much all at once, occupied for about 150 years, then abandoned. The population seems to have been from elsewhere, come or sent here to found this community. This area was part of the Burgundian kingdom, and the settlement may have been founded after the Frankish conquest in 534 as a way of controlling this part of the territory.

I love this plan. I spent a lot of time in the 1980s trying to interpret patterns of post holes, so I was immediately fascinated by this image. I invite you to enlarge this and play the "sorting post holes into structures" game; I found a couple of places where I would have done it differently than the excavators. But pay attention to the different sizes of the posts; a lot of their interpretation is based on thinking that the biggest posts mark the corners, which may well be true. Notice the perfect apse on the church, the building off by itself to the right. The excavators called this site Gravilliers. or Gravel Pits, so I imagine that must be what the green blobs are.

The cemetery at the site contained quite a few rich graves. Nothing royal or even suggesting the upper aristocracy, more like the knightly class. The sort of people who might have commanded a small military outpost in a recently conquered territory. 

I suppose the historical takeaway is that the Franks, like other conquerors, had standard ways of settling some of their own people in conquered districts. Presumably this both rewarded their key men with land and office, and placed them where they could keep an eye on the locals.

English article here; French original at INRAP here, with many more pictures.

Cory Doctorow Wonders about the Impact of his Fiction

Cory Doctorow made a lot of money writing bleak books about people turning on each other after a disaster:

The central crisis—a nuclear meltdown, a viral pandemic, a breakdown of our networks or computers—is turned into a catastrophe when the other people around your characters turn out to have been beasts all along, their vicious true natures barely kept in check all these years by the fragile veneer of civilization. Your character might be part of a team, but they’re still a small band of heroes fighting against a brutal and vicious world.

This is the thought experiment of a thousand sci-fi stories: When the chips are down, will your neighbors be your enemies or your saviors? When the ship sinks, should you take the lifeboat and row and row and row, because if you stop to fill the empty seats, someone’s gonna put a gun to your head, throw you in the sea, and give your seat to their pals? I’ve committed this sin myself. Right at the start of the first novel in my Little Brother series, a character gets stabbed in a crowded subway by someone who is apparently just knifing people at random in a crowd. That’s never explained, and no one has ever asked me about it. It’s just people being awful.

But now he wonders if books like his are part of the reason Americans have no faith in each other:

Made-up stories, even stories of impossible things, are ways for us to mentally rehearse our responses to different social outcomes. Philosopher Daniel Dennett’s conception of an intuition pump—“a thought experiment structured to allow the thinker to use their intuition to develop an answer to a problem”—suggests that fiction (which is, after all, an elaborate thought experiment) isn’t merely entertainment.

I wonder about this, too. Our culture is saturated with stories about the Purge, a day on which the law is suspended and all our neighbors turn into murderous fiends, or scenarios like the Walking Dead, in which the zombies are a weak threat compared to the way our fellow humans act once the government is gone. Is that helping to make us paranoid? Or do we like those stories because we already have a streak of paranoia?

Or maybe it doesn't mean anything, any more than Dracula stories mean we want to be threatened by the Undead.

Personally I think the real-life crime surge of the 70s and 80s, and the way it was covered in the news, did a lot more to make Americans fear each other than zombie stories. But I have to wonder about the almost automatic assumption of our movies and television series that ungoverned people will turn into monsters. Why do we enjoy believing that about each other?

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

The New Economics of Art

William Deresiewicz, last seen on this blog with an unbearably smug and stupid book about higher education, is back with a new book that at least sounds more interesting. In The Death of the Artist he asks,

is the aspiration to become a full-time writer, filmmaker, or musician — no matter how earnestly held — now essentially obsolete?

Well, no, actually. But the landscape certainly is changing. In an interesting review, Robert Diab summarizes the two views of how the Internet landscape is changing art:

From Silicon Valley and its boosters, we hear: “There’s never been a better time to be an artist.” Anyone can easily market their own music, books, or films online, drum up a thousand true fans, and enjoy a decent living. We see proof of this, time and again, in profiles of bold creators who got tired of waiting to be chosen, took to the web, and saw their work go viral.

The artists tell another tale. Yes, you can produce and post your work more easily, but so can everyone else. Every year, every major venue — SoundCloud, Kindle Store, Sundance — is inundated with thousands if not millions of songs, books, and films, but most sink like a stone. Of the 6,000,000 books in the US Kindle Store, the “overwhelming majority” of which are self-published, “68 percent sell fewer than two copies a month.” Only about 2,000 US Kindle Store authors earn more than $25,000 per year. Spotify features roughly 2,000,000 artists worldwide, but less than four percent of them garner 95 percent of the streams. The pie has been “pulverized into a million tiny crumbs.” We may now have “universal access” to the audience, but “at the price of universal impoverishment.”

When he first wrote about this topic, in a 2015 essay, Deresiewicz was noncommital, but he now comes down firmly on the negative side. In the new environment, he argues, 

All but the most popular creators face new and daunting obstacles, pointing to a future in which more artists will do more of their work as part-time amateurs.

Well, here is a topic I know something about, having spent much of the past twenty years laboring as a part-time amateur author, plus my eldest son serves as a recording engineer for several young singers and rappers who post to SoundCloud. And I am not at all convinced that the old model was much better than the current one.

Since 2008, roughly 7,000,000 books have been self-published in the United States. Which is quite an extraordinary number. It is true that almost all of the authors will make very little money from sales, but then hardly any of them would ever have made any money from published work in the past. Unless you consider the effort they put into writing those books and formatting them for Kindle to be "wasted," what harm has been done? We pretend to value creativity for its own sake; aren't we seeing an explosion of creativity?

The economics of art are bad for simple reasons of supply and demand: the supply of would-be artists vastly overshoots the demand for art. No system could square this circle. It is true that the global economy gives a larger share of the rewards to those at the very top, so maybe some people at the 2nd or 5th percentile are doing worse than they once would have. But this makes no difference at all to the regular, middling would-be artist (like me) who would not have made much money under any conceivable system. 

I do think the vast quantity of art out there creates problems. How would you ever find an obscure musician or author who creates stuff that is weird in exactly the way you like? It used to be the role of professional gatekeepers (producers, agents, editors, gallery owners) to seek out the top new talent and promote it. But that meant the taste of those gatekeepers was all important, and if yours was different from theirs you were out of luck. There was no way you could get recordings of offbeat bands or books by unpublished authors. Now you can, but only if you can find them. Maybe there was some value in limiting the universe of available art, to a level that we could conceivably search through, but let's not pretend the selection was ever anything but arbitrary. True, the very top talent made it through, but the very top talent still does. 

This is how I see the change: there used to be systems in place that limited competition in the arts. Publishers and record companies worked with groups of artists they liked and thought would be popular, making some effort to treat them all fairly. All were featured in their quarterly catalogs, made available to record and book stores. Magazine publishers paid by the word or the piece, the same for everyone, partly because they had little idea which pieces were actually driving sales. The important thing was to have a whole group of good contributors to get you sustained quality over time. Of course this wasn't entirely true, and there were always stars who got special treatment, but these systems made an effort to pay good wages to all their regular artists.

Now those systems are collapsing and competition is much more raw. Nobody can protect the merely good from domination by the best. So the best dominate, and the good slide toward poverty.

Of course neither William Deresiewicz nor anybody else has any idea what to do about this. One thing that I would very much like, as a consumer and a would-be author, is search algorithms that actually point you to new work you like. Amazon, YouTube, Google and Goodreads utterly fail to do this, so there is a real market niche somebody should be exploiting, maybe with the help of the new AI.

Otherwise we're sort of on our own. 

And on a personal note, my efforts to publish my historical fantasy novel the old-fashioned way seem to have gone nowhere, so look for it to appear soon in the right-hand column beside my equally unpublished mystery. I am disappointed, yes, but I regret not a minute of the thousand hours and more I put into writing, revising, and trying to sell it, which was one of the most fascinating experiences of my life.

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

From an Interview with Louise Glück

From the Times:

What is the new collection about?

Falling apart. There’s a lot of mourning in the book. There’s also a lot of comedy in the book, and the poems are very surreal.

I’ve written about death since I could write. Literally when I was 10, I was writing about death. Yeah, well, I was a lively girl. Aging is more complicated. It isn’t simply the fact that you’re drawn closer to your death, it’s that faculties that you counted on — physical grace and strength and mental agility — these things are being compromised or threatened. It’s been very interesting to think about and write about.

A lot of your work draws on classical mythology and weaves together mythic archetypes with more intimate contemporary verses about family bonds and relationships. What draws you to those mythic figures, and how do those stories enhance what you are trying to explore and communicate through your poetry?

Everybody who writes draws sustenance and fuel from earliest memories, and the things that changed you or touched you or thrilled you in your childhood. I was read the Greek myths by my visionary parents, and when I could read on my own, I continued to read them. The figures of the gods and heroes were more vivid to me than the other little children on the block in Long Island. It wasn’t as though I was drawing on something acquired late in life to give my work some kind of varnish of learning. These were my bedtime stories. And certain stories particularly resonated with me, especially Persephone, and I’ve been writing about her on and off for 50 years. And I think I was as much caught up in a struggle with my mother, as ambitious girls often are. I think that particular myth gave a new aspect to those struggles. I don’t mean it was useful in my daily life. When I wrote, instead of complaining about my mother, I could complain about Demeter. . . .

You’ve experimented with different poetic forms in the course of your career, though your voice has remained distinct. Has that been a deliberate, conscious effort to push yourself by trying different forms?

Yes, all the time. You’re writing to be an adventurer. I want to be taken somewhere I know nothing about. I want to be a stranger to a territory. One of the few good things to say about old age is that you have a new experience. Diminishment is not everybody’s most anticipated joy, but there is news in this situation. And that, for a poet or writer, is invaluable. I think you have always to be surprised and to be, in a way, a beginner again, otherwise I would bore myself to tears. And there have been times when I have, when I’ve thought, you know, you wrote that poem. It’s a very nice poem, but you already wrote it.

In what ways do you feel aging has led you to explore new territory as a poet?

You find yourself losing a noun here and there, and your sentences develop these vast lacunae in the middle, and you either have to restructure the sentence or abandon it. But the point is, you see this, and it has never happened before. And though it’s grim and unpleasant and bodes ill, it’s still, from the point of view of the artist, exciting and new.

Over the weekend I read about thirty of Glück's poems, and honestly I enjoyed this interview as much as any of them. Well, perhaps not as much as the one I posted, "Averno," but that was by far the best I found. My readers know that I read poetry and am very attracted to the idea of poetry, and even sometimes write poetry. But I but only intermittently enjoy the poems I read. Reading Glück was for me like reading most contemporary poets, with occasional lines of real beauty or pathos separated by long passages of tedium or confusion. Among all the thousands of poems I have read I think there are fewer than fifty that I enjoy from end to end.

The vision Glück sets out in the interview bedazzles me: writing as exploration, as adventure, as a journey into the unknown, but of course an unknown that is rooted in your own experience in ways mysterious even to you.

What does art do? It takes the raw material of life, mixed ores of pain and joy, and refines it into crystals of beauty, sorrow, or terror. For Louise Glück, even aging and creeping dementia are raw material for the furnace of her artist's mind. I love the courage with which she takes on her work. The results, well, sometimes they reach up to the animating principle but usually not.

So for me reading poetry is like hunting for perfect, beautiful shells on a beach covered with shattered fragments. You have to keep your mind open, not going numb from the endless array of uneven pieces, keeping on despite boredom and frustration, or else you never find the lines that for a moment lift your soul to a higher plane.

Sunday, October 11, 2020

Uluburun Shipwreck

In 1982 a sponge diver told an archaeologists that he had seen "metal biscuits with ears" on the sea floor near a point called Uluburun, on the south Turkish coast about halfway between Cyprus and Crete. Thus was begun a grand archaeological project that took ten years to complete and eventually filled a whole Turkish museum with Bronze Age artifacts. Sailing ships were of course one of the most important new technologies of the Bronze Age. Developed, it seems, in Egypt, they dramatically shrank the world, leading to a surge in long-distance trade far beyond anything seen before.

At that time the Uluburun Shipwreck was the oldest seagoing vessel ever discovered, dating to around 1300 BC. The ship was around 50 feet long (15-16 m). It was constructed by fastening boards together using the mortise and tenon method, without much of a frame, a technique called "shell first." It would have been flexible in the waves but easily smashed if it hit anything.

This is a replica of the ship, the Uluburun II. The wood of the original was cedar from Lebanon. The stone anchors were also from Canaan, as were some of what were taken to be personal items belonging to the crew, so the ship probably sailed from the region later known as Phoenicia.

It's cargo is extraordinary, the best evidence available for trade in the Late Bronze Age. 

Half of the 20-ton total was made up of more than 400 copper and tin ingots, in the ratio of 10:1 that was normal in bronze of the period. This in itself is fascinating since copper came from Cyprus and the tin from Turkey's Taurus Mountains, meaning the ingots had traveled some distance and passed through many hands before they were loaded onto this ship.

And the third biggest part of the cargo was 130 jars full of Terebinth resin, collected from a tree of the pistachio family and used for perfume, incense, and probably lots of other things. The pottery on the ship was mostly from either Cyprus or Palestine, but some was Egyptian

The rest of the cargo is even more remarkable. At least ten different cultures are represented, from sub-Saharan Africa (elephant ivory, ostrich egg shells) to the Baltic Sea (amber). This is a famous artifact, a gold Egyptian scarab that mentions Queen Nefertiti.

Display of gold artifacts in the Turkish museum.

Small idol and a gold medallion.

Ingots of blue glass; 175 glass ingots of various colors were found. Glass seems to have first been made by people in Egypt, but from a very early date it was also made in Syria, using identical techniques, and telling the difference between Egyptian and Syrian glass is hard. As you can see, glass was also traded as a raw material, so even if you could chemically source the sand that went into it that wouldn't necessarily tell you where it was finished. The minerals used to give it color were also widely traded, making further complications. So, no, we don't know where this came from.

Mace or scepter head made of Andesite from Bulgaria. If, as people usually assume, this ship was headed west to Crete or Greece, why was it carrying Bulgarian Andesite? This is just one of many puzzles.

The full list  of the cargo includes tools, weapons, beads, ceramic lamps, a trumpet, two balances with stamped weights, lyres with tortoise-shell sound boxes, raw semi-precious stones such as agate and carnelian from Afghanistan, and more. It's a truly extraordinary find, with more interesting data than has come from the excavations of some whole cities. Archaeology is like that. Hard work is necessary but not sufficient; to really change our understanding of the past  you also need to get lucky.