Monday, November 30, 2020

AI Cracks Protein Folding

DeepMind, the people who gave us world-beating programs for chess, go, and Asteroids, have created an artificial intelligence system called AlphaFold that predicts the folding of proteins in a few hours. It's a very hard scientific problem that has lately been taking months or even years of laboratory work for each protein studied. 

DeepMind trained the program by feeding it the data on known proteins and letting it generalize, then entered it in the Critical Assessment of Protein Structure Prediction, a sort of contest established back in 1994 to track efforts to solve the problem. AlphaFold's score at CASP was actually higher than traditional laboratory methods.

This is a very cool scientific advance, but it does raise the question of what scientists will do when all the hard problems can be solved by AI faster than people can do it.

The Queen's Gambit

My wife and I very much enjoyed The Queen's Gambit on Netflix, a 7-episode series about a female American chess prodigy of the 1960s. Some things about her character, including her chess style and her prickly personality, are said to have been based on Bobby Fischer, the top American player of that era.

The series is partly about the weird world of competitive chess and the peculiar characters who thrive there, but also about the struggles of a strange, somewhat crazy person to emerge from an awful childhood and find a decent adult life.

If you're curious about the chess, my favorite chess vlogger has an analysis of the final game. The first 2/3 is based a game played in 1993 by Vasyl Ivanchuk, but at a certain point the makers of the series found a better move for their heroine that leads to her winning a game that Ivanchuk drew.

Turkish Drones in Libya

Bayraktar TB2 Drone, wingspan 12m (39 feet)

Libya's miserable post-dictatorship history has lately been about a civil war between the internationally-recognized government in Tripoli and an "upstart general" named Khalifa Hifter and his Libyan National Army. Hifter complains, with some justification, that the Tripoli government is a farce incapable of imposing order on the country, and he says the only solution is a strongman like him. For some reason he has gotten enough money and backing in the Persian Gulf, Cairo and Moscow to mount a serious bid for power, and in 2019 he seemed to be winning.

Then came the Turks and their drones.

Turkey had intervened in the Libyan civil war in 2019 on behalf of the government based in the capital, Tripoli, aiming to counter the United Arab Emirates, a regional rival of Turkey that was supporting a renegade Libyan general. Turkey, in part, wanted to prevent another state hostile to Turkey from gaining strength in the Middle East, according to Wolfram Lacher, a Libya expert at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs. 

Turkey used its military power in Libya, with drones a critical component, as both a carrot and a stick, he said. 

The Turkish military had held off on providing full support to its Libyan allies until they agreed to sign deals affording Turkey expansive energy exploration rights in the Mediterranean Sea. But once the deals were signed, Turkey spared no effort to beat back an offensive on Tripoli by the UAE-backed Libyan National Army, or LNA. Turkey deployed Syrian mercenaries and launched its armed drones to disrupt the LNA’s supply lines. 

A critical moment came in May when Turkish drones, in coordination with Turkish warships, attacked the strategic al-Watiya air base, about 80 miles south of Tripoli, allowing government forces to capture the base and ending the LNA’s Tripoli offensive.

Among other things the drones are said to have destroyed several Russian Pantsir air defense systems.

The future is here, at least the drone warfare version.

Friday, November 27, 2020

Links 27 November 2020

Harald Sohlberg, Fisherman’s Cottage, Norway (1906), detail

Garrett Jones is unimpressed by critiques of the meroticracy: "Nostalgia for the comfy old days when insiders ran cozy corporate clubs is wildly misplaced."

Feral wallabies in England?

Evidence of volcanism on Mars less than 250,000 years ago; before this the most recent volcanism had been dated to more then 2 million years ago. In a region called "Cerberus Fossae," which I suppose means "Hell Hound Ditches."

NY Times photo essay on life in rural Portugal, fascinating.

4-minute video on the basics of mRNA manipulation, the technology used to develop the new coronavirus vaccines. And a 17-minute CNBC video explaining those new vaccines.

And on the subject of scientific YouTube, here's an amazing video on the power of the equation xn+1= rxn(1-xn), known as the logistic map.

Possibly the most complex diagram you will ever see: the Roche Biochemical Pathways Map

Women who are secretly relieved to be off the hook for holiday planning this year: “I am looking forward to Thanksgiving Day more than I have in 15 years. I am looking forward to the opportunity to choose how we get to spend the day instead of exhausting ourselves pleasing the extended family.” (Washington Post)

NY Times page listing all of their Ten Best Books of the Year selections going back to 2004. Good place to start looking for something to read.

According to this study, 17% of Americans report having no close friends. These researchers are trying to use their data on social networks to explain something about politics but I'm just blown away by that number.

Remembering American plants that were once domesticated but then abandoned, like sumpweed

The 2,000-year-old rock-cut tombs of Hegra in Saudi Arabia are now open to tourists.

The way the Sacklers and Purdue Pharma illegally "turbocharged" sales of Oxycontin seems worse the more I read about it.

Training neural networks to recognize archaeological sites and identify artifacts. (NY Times)

The Queen's Gambit and the problem of unsocialized genius.

Long NY Times piece on young, left-wing heirs and heiresses determined to give away all of their family's ill-gotten gains.

It's too late to cancel William Faulkner for racism, since he already worked so hard to cancel himself, fully aware that his personal life and his fiction were completely at odds.

Is failure a steppingstone toward success, or just failure?

Watch a wild turkey dust bathing.

Thursday, November 26, 2020

Ira Berlin, "Many Thousands Gone"

I have lately gotten into two arguments with people who seem to think that since I dislike the NY Times' 1619 Project I must be a conservative who likes great white man history and hates to read about slavery. But this is untrue. What the Times should have done instead is print and distribute a million copies of Ira Berlin's 1998 masterpiece, Many Thousands Gone: the First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America.

What Berlin understands, and the 1619 Project tries to gloss over, is that slavery was not a simple, unitary thing, but took different forms in different times and places, and for different people in each time and place. We are talking about millions of people across 246 years, so this is only what you would expect. As Berlin writes, "Understanding that a person was a slave is not the end of the story but the beginning.” (3)

Berlin draws a major distinction between what he calls "slave societies" and "societies with slaves." In a society with slaves, slavery exists, but it is not the main form of labor, and society is not organized around its maintenance. Slaves are rather few, and often become free. One example I have studied was in the Great Valley of western Maryland, where many of the wealthier farmers owned one or a few slaves, but many owned none. Tracing these farms over time you might find a single slave in one census, none ten years later, three ten years after that. Enslaved and free people lived intimately, usually under the same roofs, and they worked side by side. Slaves were sometimes freed only to remain with the landowning family as servants.

In a slave society, slaves provide the bulk of the labor and the whole society is structured to maintain slavery and keep the very numerous slaves in their place. The plantation societies of Brazil, the Caribbean, and the US South were slave societies. Their creation required the massive importation of captives from Africa, special law codes that included draconian penalties for aiding slaves or even criticizing slavery, and a well-organized, well-trained militia constantly on the alert to put down rebellion. When the planters said that ending slavery would destroy their way of life, they were right, because their whole way of life was built around slavery.

American slave societies did not appear all at once, but developed over the course of the 1600s. One problem with making 1619 a key date is that the slaves who arrived in Virginia before 1650 lived very different lives, under a very different system, than those who came later. Only after decades was the status of slavery made permanent and hereditary; early-arriving Africans who survived long enough almost all ended up free. They mixed on fairly equal terms with white indentured servants and enslaved Indians, so race was also not the overriding factor it became later. Among their descendants are the "tri-racial isolates," groups like the Melungeons whose mixed ancestry is testimony to the absence of hard racial lines in 17th-century America.

Slavery was profoundly different from other unequal systems, like tenancy or share cropping, and not just because it was worse. Relationships between enslavers and enslaved were intense in a way we can barely imagine, because they were both intimate and permanent. People had to find ways to get along, because there was nowhere else for either side to go. Yes, rebellious slaves were sometimes sold away as a kind of punishment, and occasionally killed, but by and large a plantation was a place where everyone involved expected to live and die. Reading about plantation life the overwhelming impression I always take away is not horror but strangeness. I was just reading (for work, as it happens) the day book of a wealthy Maryland planter from the years 1838-1839, and half the entries concern which of his workers were either too drunk to work or had run off to town and hadn't been seen in days. And while the enslaved workers couldn't be fired and stayed on no matter how many times they had to be brought home from town dead drunk, the hirelings came and went with the seasons, forming no lasting ties. A more famous example comes from the extensive diaries of Virginia planter Landon Carter, who spilled thousands of words complaining that neither his children nor his slaves respected his authority; he regularly accused his slaves of crimes like intentionally killing oxen but rarely did anything about it. What could he do, when his livelihood depended on their willingness to work and to take great care with his possessions?

Consider that while enslavers and enslaved lived intimately together, they also feared each other, and with good reason. The history of slavery is the history of slave rebellion, and even more of rumors of slave rebellion. Slaves and planters regularly turned on each other with murderous violence. Think of how crazy the threat of Islamic terrorism made many Americans after 9-11, and then imagine that the suspected terrorists live in your house; that was the plantation, a place where people lived at the closest quarters, developed relationships that sometimes seemed respectful and friendly or even loving, but constantly feared that their housemates would slaughter them. The reason some planters gave for not freeing their slaves was fear that this would lead to a genocidal race war; "We have the wolf by the ears," Thomas Jefferson wrote in a famous letter, "and dare not let him go."

Berlin is at his best in describing the many different lives lived by some of the enslaved. For example Charleston, South Carolina developed a thriving urban black culture, with many black-run businesses and churches. Some blacks, such as the operators of taverns and brothels, got rich enough to afford fancy clothes, which led the white legislature to pass one sumptuary law after another cracking down on black finery. (Didn't work, so far as we can tell.) But before the Revolution almost all of those black city-dwellers were slaves. Some of them used their owners' names as protection against annoying police intrusions or complaints from neighbors; they didn't own anything, not even their clothes, and they had to kick a big share of their profits back to their enslavers, but that didn't keep some of them from thriving. It seems more like a Roman patronage scheme than our idea of plantation slavery. On the big plantations a black hierarchy developed, headed by drivers (foremen) and skilled workers, who bossed around the lower-ranking slaves and argued with overseers. Berlin has several cases of white overseers who were fired because they couldn't get along with the leading slaves; if it came to a choice, the slaves were far more valuable to the owners, so the overseers were sacked and the drivers remained in charge.

One criticism that could be made of Berlin is that he might devote too much attention to these rather unusual cases and not enough to the hard, boring lives of plantation workers. After all the majority of North American slaves were laborers who mainly did grueling work in the tobacco fields or rice paddies. In Berlin's defense you could point out that those who formed the black elite before emancipation – free blacks, those who lived and worked in cities, drivers – set the tone for the free African American culture that developed after 1820. 

My favorite section of Many Thousands Gone covers the Revolution. The turmoil of those years allowed thousands of slaves to escape bondage, sometimes by fighting (both sides at times offered freedom to slaves who enlisted) and sometimes by just taking off when the white folks were distracted. Berlin is wonderful on all the ways this happened, and on the angst it caused the planters. The bloodiest partisan fighting of the war was in the Carolinas, and thousands of Carolina slaves joined the armies of both sides, ran for the wilderness, or joined outlaw bands, participating in what Berlin calls "the local tradition of multi-racial banditry." The chaos was repeated during the War of 1812, when more than 4,000 slaves escaped from Virginia plantations.

Of course the Revolution was also a great ideological and political event, and the impact of those changes provides a good lesson in the complexity of historical causation. What was the impact on slavery of all that talk of freedom, and the moral struggles of planters like Washington and Jefferson? In the north, the people turned decisively against slavery and it was abolished or phased out. In the deep south, a decade of waffling ended with the opposite, a much harder pro-slavery ideology backed up by intensified racism. In the middle colonies slavery endured but hundreds of planters freed all or some of their slaves, leading to explosive growth in the free black population and the emergence of Baltimore as the first great urban center of free African Americans.

Freedom, when it came, was hardly the end of trouble for African Americans. In a chapter I found deeply sad, Berlin shows that freedom for some enslaved people in the north led to a fall in economic status. In cities like Philadelphia and New York many slaves were artisans who worked in highly skilled trades like carriage making and metal casting; after all it was only the most successful craftsmen who could afford to buy slaves. After the end of slavery white workers fought to reserve those highly skilled jobs for themselves; without the patronage provided by their owners, black workers could not complete and found themselves gradually driven out of almost all highly skilled work.

But that is just the barest summary of a book that is astonishingly rich with insight from beginning to end. If you are really curious about slavery in America, read it; I know of nothing better.

Giving Thanks

Silver fibula from northeastern Europe, c 400 AD

 Things I am thankful for this year:

  • That no one close to me has died in the pandemic

  • That a vaccine seems only months away

  • That the integrity of the American electoral system is holding

  • That I'm on good terms with all of my children, and looking forward to having dinner with four of them tonight

  • That the price of solar power is still falling fast

  • That I can check digital audiobooks out of the library

  • How-to videos on YouTube

  • The Library of Congress online map collection

  • Dahlias

  • Art Tumblrs

  • My readers and friends

Amazed by Biology

For the real amazement, if you wish to be amazed, is this process. You start out as a single cell derived from the coupling of a sperm and an egg; this divides in two, then four, then eight, and so on, and at a certain stage there emerges a single cell which has as all its progeny the human brain. The mere existence of such a cell should be one of the great astonishments of the earth. People ought to be walking around all day, all through their waking hours calling to each other in endless wonderment, talking of nothing except that cell. 

–Lewis Thomas

Imagine a flashy spaceship lands in your backyard. The door opens and you are invited to investigate everything to see what you can learn. The technology is clearly millions of years beyond what we can make.

This is biology.

–Bert Hubert

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

The Horses of Saint Mark

These bronze beasts are so famous as history and symbol that it is easy to forget they are also beautiful art. The Venetians stole them from Constantinople in 1204, during the Fourth Crusade, and they were installed in front of St. Marks Cathedral. Napoleon stole them from Venice in 1797 but they were returned in 1815. They represent the horses of a quadriga or four-horse chariot. Everyone agrees they are ancient, but some hold for the 2nd or 3rd century AD and others for the 3rd or 4th century BC; there is even a faction that attributes them to the famous sculptor Lysippos. But whoever made them, they are just wonderful.

The Porch Roof

Some of you may recall that last year my retired brother came to our house and rebuilt our main bathroom, with some help from my sons and me. Since he is still bored with retirement and my house still needs a lot of work, he came back this year for more projects. We started with the porch roof; we had intended to do more, but the porch roof ended up being a bigger job than we thought, so that was all we got to. 

Back when we moved into this house our home inspector pointed out that our shingled porch roof was not steep enough for shingles to work properly, so, he said, it was going to fail and leak. And it did; by this summer it leaked catastrophically. So the project was to get rid of the shingles and install a proper low pitch roof.  I was going to do it another way but my brother said anything but rubber was too amateurish to contemplate, so rubber it was. Demolition was a family project, with all my children pitching in. That's my son Thomas.

I knew that one part of the porch roof had failed, so when I picked up the rubber I had already bought one piece of plywood. But removal of the shingles showed that the rot was much more extensive; the whole lower layer of plywood had to be replaced. Worse, some of the rafters were also rotted. All of the missing plywood in this picture was so rotted we had pulled it out with our hands.

But this actually pleased my brother, since sistering in new rafters is just the kind of carpentry he enjoys and is good at. As opposed, for example, to installing a rubber roof, something none of us had ever done before. Thank the stars for how-to videos on YouTube.

The repaired roof, in the blinding sunlight with which nature blessed the project. The project spilled beyond the weekend and into the work week, and I had calls so missed most of the main event, the actual installation of the rubber sheets. So there aren't any pictures of that. As it happened we finished on Tuesday evening (two weeks ago), just in time for torrential rains on Wednesday. And the porch stayed perfectly dry. Finished roof below and at top.

Meanwhile in Canada

Signs that appeared this week in Jasper National Park. Incidentally the moose are seeking salt. I get that training moose to hang around cars is a bad idea, but how you supposed stop a moose from licking your car if it really wants to do so?

Monday, November 23, 2020

The End of Fall

Above, pictures from this weekend in the woods by my house; below, on the Manassas Battlefield, today.

Henryk Płóciennik

Henryk Płóciennik (1933-2020) was a Polish artist and graphic designer. He did a wide variety of work but the ones you are most likely to see are these black and white zinc plate engravings from the 1970s, especially a long series of Adam and Eve fantasies titled "Honeymoon."

Sunday, November 22, 2020

Sullivan Bedell on Bougainville

My father recently wrote a little manuscript about his father's experiences in World War II. These stories were told by my grandfather to his children and then remembered by my father 70 years later, but I reproduce them as they came to me.

My grandfather, Sullivan G. Bedell, became a licensed psychiatrist in 1939. Without any exciting job prospects and with war obviously looming, he entered the US Navy in early 1941. He spent the first 21 months of the war stateside, mainly helping with recruiting.

Then in September 1943 he was ordered to the South Pacific. He went with the 3rd Marine Division to invade Bougainville in the Solomon Islands and spent the next few weeks as a combat surgeon. But then fighting died down, and following plans made before the invasion the Marines were pulled off the island and replaced by men from two US Army divisions. Here is where the story gets rather weird. According to the tale as I have received it, all the Navy doctors but one left the island with the Marines. Only my grandfather stayed. He assumed that he would continue to serve as a surgeon, but the Army refused to send any of their wounded men to a Navy doctor. So for a while my grandfather was left more or less by himself with a Lt. Commander's rank, an empty hospital hut and a private jeep. He was beginning to feel lonely.

Then two young Marines entered the door of the small "clinic" on the beach. They held in their hands a strange looking package, open at the top. Inside the package was a very young cockatoo. They said they had been sharing a two-man foxhole and receiving Japanese fire when a round severed an overhead tree branch and dropped it into their foxhole. In clearing the branch from the foxhole they noticed a bird's nest attached to the branch. They peeked into the next and there was a baby cockatoo. They decided to adopt the bird. They named him Pete and taught him to talk a little. Now they were shipping out and knew they couldn't take him with them. Would someone at the hospital please take care of him? SGB said he would be delighted, and that he had raised chickens when he was a boy. The two young marines said thanks and rushed out the door saying they were late to catch their boat. SGB was indeed delighted. Now he had a friend to keep him company. Soon he called the bird Peter and the bird called him Doc. They were inseparable. Having been taught to talk by frontline Marines, the bird's vocabulary left much to be desired and he was given to colorful expressions not acceptable in mixed company, but SGB didn't object and there was no one else around to be offended.

Shortly thereafter, SGB received a message from a senior officer in ordering him to perform a complete psychiatric examination on a certain Marine private who would be arriving on Bougainville in the next few days. They message asked for a confidential response on the result of the examination and a recommendation ASAP. It seems that the senior officer had been part of a group at a medal-awarding ceremony following the ultimately successful invasion of Tarawa. One of the medal recipients was a young Marine private who had gone ashore in the first wave, which was pinned down on the beach and taking heavy casualties from several hidden machine gun nests. He was credited with single-handedly and without orders moving around the flank of the line of nests and destroying them with grenades. After pinning the medal on the Marine's chest, the officer asked him casually what prompted his heroic action. The marine replied, "Sir, I heard the voice of the 8 Ball and the 8 Ball told me to move around to the left and get behind those Jap machine guns and wipe them out with grenades, and so I did. I always do what the voice of the 8 Ball tells me to do, Sir." The officer was stunned but tried not to show it and moved along.

The officer eventually heard that there was a trained Navy psychiatrist on Bougainville, so he sent the Marine along for evaluation.

Soon the young Marine arrived in Bougainville and found the navy hospital. SGB greeted him and proceeded to conduct a thorough psychiatric exam. The young man retold the story of the 8 Ball in the same language he had used during the medal ceremony. He also cited other instances in which he had received good advice from the 8 Ball and concluded by saying, "That's why I'm in the Marines. The 8 Ball told me to join."

In his "eyes only" report SGB acknowledged that all the communications the young man had received from the 8 Ball to date had been good advice. However, he suggested the possibility of bad advice that would could cause the young man to defy military discipline or perhaps in combat to jeopardize the lives of fellow Marines. He recommended that the man should be transferred stateside and given an honorable discharge. We don't know for certain what action was taken on the recommendation but we can intuit that it was well received, because it was the beginning of frequent referrals by Navy and Marine officers to SGB for psychiatric evaluation or care, mostly of men suffering from "shell shock" or "battle fatigue."

So my grandfather was back in the war effort, this time as a military psychiatrist. But those duties still left him time for other pursuits:

He began each day with a dip in the Solomon Sea and then cooked breakfast for himself and Pete. Often he worked on his seashell collection, which included many large and beautiful specimens of giant clams, conchs, whelks, alphabet shells and others. At the end of the war he was able to have much of his collection shipped home and he kept in on display in a large, built-in bookshelf in our living room in Jacksonville.

Another hobby that he and Pete enjoyed was exploring the Bougainville jungles (inside the perimeter) and collecting seeds from some of the unusual plants they found. Pete especially like those expeditions because he got to ride in SGB's personal jeep, in which he had his own private perch. SGB had always been a gardener and an enthusiastic amateur botanist. When he ran across plants he didn't recognize from his studies he took seeds and had them shipped to the USDA tropical plant experimental station in Miami. The Miami botanists seemed to appreciate his efforts and one of the seeds turned out to be from a previously unknown species which they named in his honor. One day, after an unusually heavy rain the previous night, they set out to explore and the jeep hit a deep submerged pothole, bouncing Pete right off his perch. When SGB got his jeep under control and stopped he looked around and there was Pete marching up the road toward him cursing at the top of his lungs.

As ground fighting intensified in the Philippines and elsewhere in the South Pacific, the number of shell shock cases grew to the point that my grandfather was overwhelmed and asked for help.

A short time later he received a surprising response. He looked up and was amazed to see four female Navy psychiatric nurses in full uniform trooping through his front door.

Not exactly what he had asked for, but, hey, the patients loved it.

Everyone was happy except the head nurse and Pete. The nurse couldn't stand to listen to Pete's foul language and decided to do something about it. Whenever Pete would voice one of his favorite gross expressions, she would grab him by the neck and wash his mouth out with soap. Pete hated that! Gradually he cut down on his swearing and finally ceased altogether.

It was a good thing too, as matters turned out. SGB had wanted to bring Pete home as a pet, and he had been corresponding with the USDA about getting a permit to do so. In the end, the USDA denied a permit and stated that the only way Pete could enter the country would be at the request of a zookeeper for public exhibition. They suggested that SGB correspond with the supervisor of the Jacksonville zoo. This he did, and found that the Jacksonville zookeeper was very enthusiastic about having Pete to exhibit, and would make all the arrangements for his transportation when the war ended. It wouldn't have done to have had a foul-mouthed cockatoo on display in the Jacksonville zoo.

Pete, incidentally, lived long enough for me to vaguely remember him, I guess from around 1967; my older brother and sister remember him very well and say he was always excited to see his old friend Doc.

I may have mentioned here that my grandfather's grandfather, William F. Bedell, was a Union Army surgeon in the Civil War. He was from Brooklyn but served in the Gulf of Mexico, spending a lot of time at a hospital on Key West. He liked Florida so much that he settled in the state after the war, which is why my grandfather and father grew up in Jacksonville.

Belief in the Global Cabal

 Yuval Noah Harari in the Times:

Conspiracy theories come in all shapes and sizes, but perhaps the most common form is the global cabal theory. A recent survey of 26,000 people in 25 countries asked respondents whether they believe there is “a single group of people who secretly control events and rule the world together.”

Thirty-seven percent of Americans replied that this is “definitely or probably true.” So did 45 percent of Italians, 55 percent of Spaniards and 78 percent of Nigerians.

Global cabal theories are able to attract large followings in part because they offer a single, straightforward explanation to countless complicated processes. Our lives are repeatedly rocked by wars, revolutions, crises and pandemics. But if I believe some kind of global cabal theory, I enjoy the comforting feeling that I do understand everything. . . .

The skeleton key of global cabal theory unlocks all the world’s mysteries and offers me entree into an exclusive circle — the group of people who understand. It makes me smarter and wiser than the average person and even elevates me above the intellectual elite and the ruling class: professors, journalists, politicians. I see what they overlook — or what they try to conceal.

But as Harari says, there is a problem: 

Global cabal theories suffer from the same basic flaw: They assume that history is very simple. The key premise of global cabal theories is that it is relatively easy to manipulate the world. A small group of people can understand, predict and control everything, from wars to technological revolutions to pandemics. . . .

Particularly remarkable is this group’s ability to see 10 moves ahead on the global board game. When they release a virus somewhere, they can predict not only how it will spread through the world, but also how it will affect the global economy a year later. When they unleash a political revolution, they can control its course. When they start a war, they know how it will end.

Consider, he says, the invasion of Iraq, planned by what might be called a cabal within the American leadership to reconfigure politics in the Middle East. What happened?

A complete debacle. There were no weapons of mass destruction, and the country was plunged into chaos. The big winner of the war was actually Iran, which became the dominant power in the region.

So should we conclude that George W. Bush and Donald Rumsfeld were actually undercover Iranian moles, executing a devilishly clever Iranian plot? Not at all. Instead, the conclusion is that it is incredibly difficult to predict and control human affairs.

Friday, November 20, 2020

A Historical Footnote on Slavery and Freedom

The departure of southern representatives from the US Congress in 1861 left it with a large Republican, anti-slavery majority. Some anti-slavery men immediately began working to end slavery in the one place everyone agreed they had the constitutional power to do so, the District of Columbia.

What with getting the Civil War under way and all the Congress was a bit distracted in 1861, so it was not until April 16, 1862 that a bill ending slavery in the federal district could be passed. That bill provided compensation of up to $1,500 for slave owners, which was partly a political move to soothe slave owners in Maryland, Kentucky and Missouri and partly to keep DC slave owners from either rushing their property across the district line or attempting to backtrack on manumission later. A formal process was set up, with enslavers and enslaved appearing together before a board that would review applications for compensation and set the amount, while simultaneously issuing manumission papers that were sufficiently impressive to grant the freed people real freedom of movement. After all, at that time nobody knew the end of American slavery was coming. These records make the enslaved residents of DC in 1862 perhaps the best-documented slave population in history

The records of this Board of Commissioners for the Emancipation of Slaves are kept in the National Archives. There one may read a a petition from a certain Clark Mills for compensation in the amount of $1,500 for a man named Philp Reid. Reid is described as 

Mulatto color, short in stature, in good health, not prepossessing in appearance, but smart in mind, a good work man in a foundry, and has been employed in that capacity by the Government, at one dollar and twenty five cents per-day.

Clark Mills operated one of the few foundries in America capable of casting large bronze statues. He had been in the business since the 1840s, when he cast the equestrian statue of Andrew Jackson that still stands in Lafayette Park in front of the White House. At that time Philip Reid was already working for him; in fact, said Mills, he purchased Reid in Charleston and brought him along to Washington 

many years ago when he was quite a youth... because of his evident talent for the business in which your petitioner was engaged, and paid twelve hundred dollars for him.

By 1862 Reid was the most valuable man on Mills' crew; the government was paying $1.25 a day for his services, but only $1.00 for the five free white men who worked alongside him.

The business for which the government was employing Mills and Reid was casting the statue of Freedom that stands on top of the Capitol dome.

DC emancipation had become law before the statue was finished, so Reid was able to attend the ceremony as a free man. Anti-slavery reporters got wind of the story and spread it around the country as the perfect metaphor for the continuance of slavery in a land devoted to freedom, so Reid became modestly famous, which helped him launch his own foundry business a few years later. 

He changed the spelling of his name after he became free, so the monument set up for him in the National Harmony Memorial Park looks like this.

Links 20 November 2020

Copper Face, 12th-13th c. AD, from the Polish village of Poniaty Wielkie

In northern Japan, deploying robot wolves to scare off prowling bears.

 Amazing photographs and videos of starling flocks in Denmark.

Long NY Times piece on Chaska, Minnesota, a suburb that Trump won in 2016 but that went big for Biden in 2020. Part of the story is that the violence surrounding the Black Lives Matter protests in Minneapolis did not make the median voter turn to Trump, and that many people were actually awakened to take racism more seriously.

Top US Air Force general says he is "not so much enamored with airplanes," has other priorities.

BBC piece on the rampaging orcas off Spain and Portugal, which attributes much of the damage to two particular animals and suggests the root cause is overfishing of bluefin tuna.

Photographs of London pubs in the 1920s, via Spitalfields Life.

The Micrarium, a stunning museum display of thousands of prepared microscope slides.

Portland’s anarchists say they support racial justice. Black activists want nothing to do with them.

Consider the Giraffe

A police shooting and the power of unions in Rochester, NY.

Thomas Edsall on the split between progressive and centrist Democrats (NY Times)

table made of fossilized Ichthyosaur dung, now in the Lyme Regis museum.

Once again, the Democrat won the booming counties, while Trump won the places that are struggling. The 477 counties that went for Biden make up more than 70% of the US economy, while the 2,497 counties that went for Trump make up less than 30%. When Biden flipped Maricopa County, Arizona (Phoenix), that gave him all of the 30 richest counties. (Washington Post)

Interesting essay by Rana Dasgupta arguing that democracy was a product of the industrial age, when leaders actually needed workers. The post industrial economy, he argues, is taking us back to the 18th century, when British leaders could ignore workers because their money came from the colonies and world trade, making the common people unnecessary to the leadership.

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

Can Biology Class Reduce Racism?

In the Times, Amy Harmon reports on an effort by some high school biology teachers to rebut racist beliefs about genetics:

Biology textbooks used in American high schools do not go near the sensitive question of whether genetics can explain why African-Americans are overrepresented as football players and why a disproportionate number of American scientists are white or Asian.

But in a study starting this month, a group of biology teachers from across the country will address it head-on. They are testing the idea that the science classroom may be the best place to provide a buffer against the unfounded genetic rationales for human difference that often become the basis for racial intolerance.

At a recent training in Colorado, the dozen teachers who had volunteered to participate in the experiment acknowledged the challenges of inserting the combustible topic of race and ancestry into straightforward lessons on the 19th-century pea-breeding experiments of Gregor Mendel and the basic function of the strands of DNA coiled in every cell. . . .

The history of today’s racial categories arose long before the field of genetics and have been used to justify all manner of discriminatory policies. Race, a social concept bound up in culture and family, is not a topic of study in modern human population genetics, which typically uses concepts like “ancestry” or “population” to describe geographic genetic groupings.

But that has not stopped many Americans from believing that genes cause racial groups to have distinct skills, traits and abilities. And among some biology teachers, there has been a growing sense that avoiding any direct mention of race in their genetics curriculum may be backfiring.

“I know it’s threatening,” said Brian Donovan, a science education researcher at the nonprofit BSCS Science Learning who is leading the study. “The thing to remember is that kids are already making sense of race and biology, but with no guidance.”

My reaction to this is cautious and ambivalent. On the one hand, dealing with race in biology class makes a lot more sense than anti-racist math or other sorts of woke silliness. And there are some facts about race that one might convey to high school students, for example that people from east and west Africa are more different from each other than Europeans are from Chinese, or that most human variation is within rather than between populations.

On the other hand, people are bad listeners. Treating the genetics of race as a serious topic is just going to convince some kids that there is something to racist ideas, or confirm their prior beliefs in that direction. Like when politicians deny being involved in scandals and half the public hears only the connection between the scandal and the name. 

But to me the real problem is that we really know precious little about the genetics of human behavior in any sense, and therefore have no idea whether there are hereditary behavioral differences between populations. Such differences would presumably not be very large, but they could exist and they might matter. This is why I have always argued against a philosophical position that says we should treat people equally because they are all the same. I think there may well be important differences between different types of people – between men and women, between 25-year-olds and 55-year-olds, between immigrants and the native born – so I think we need to acknowledge differences and take our stand on treating people as equally as we can despite them.

I do not think the causality flows from bad beliefs about genetics to bad feelings about people of other races or groups, but the other way around. Racist pseudo-science is just window-dressing for identity affirmation and tribal hate, and is completely unnecessary to racism. Even if you could cure people of it, that would not change their feelings. In the face of commitment to an identity that provides meaning to people's lives and a structure for interpreting the world, evidence and logic are likely to be of no use whatsoever. 

Only gradual social and psychological change will help. Fortunately, that seems to be happening.

Back in My Home Town

 Or the one where I went to High School, anyway:

A group of parents sidestepped school and public health officials and threw an unsanctioned, semi-secret, maskless homecoming dance for students in Rolla, Missouri, last weekend, putting not just their children, but their greater community at risk. Even as local public health officials fear the worst—that the completely unnecessary event was also a dangerous virus super spreader—and order attendees to quarantine until Nov. 22, organizers appear to stand by their very bad decision to encourage hundreds of sweaty teens in fancy clothes to breathe each other’s breath while swaying to slow songs, as beaming parents lurked in the wings.

The school where those sweaty slow dancers attend—Rolla High School—announced Wednesday that at least 10 students and one staffer had tested positive for the virus; though not all of those cases can be traced to the sickening shindig, Officials from the Phelps-Maries County Health Department have been consumed by investigating the dance since learning about it, and fear more cases will surface in the coming days.

Of course the whole thing was arranged via Facebook, where one of the organizing parents posted this:

So my friend and I did a thing yesterday. We did a REALLY big thing. And we had a lot of support. And a lot of help. And a lot of really happy kids. And it was kind of amazing. And I really want to recognize and thank these people but I can’t. But my heart is full and I think the kids are happy and it was worth it. I would do it again. I’m happy and sad at the same time and I want normalcy. I think we delivered this for one night.

And there you have the reason why a thousand people a day are dying in America: the longing for normalcy, for happiness, for full hearts, and a thumb-in-your-eye attitude toward spoilsport authorities who don't want anyone to have fun.

Honestly nothing remotely that interesting happened in Rolla when I lived there.

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Perusing the Ashmolean Museum Online

Some people watch television, I cruise museum collections. Here are some gleanings from the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford. Model chariot, Cyprus, 750-475 BC. Height 15 cm

Allington Disk, Anglo-Saxon, 8th century

Dish fragment from Iran, 12th-13th century

Group of four deities, copper alloy, Syria, 2000-1750 BC

Minoan seal stone depicting a Minotaur

Cache of carved stone balls from Scotland, late Neolithic or early Bronze Age.

Anglo-Saxon coin

Tile from France, 18th century

Late Minoan spouted jug

Minoan signet ring, from Knossos

Monday, November 16, 2020

Joaquín Sorolla

Self Portrait

Joaquín Sorolla (1863- 1923) was a Spanish artist who was much influenced by French Impressionism. He was born into an artisanal family, but both his parents died of cholera when he was two years old. He and his sister were thereafter cared for by their maternal aunt and uncle, a locksmith.

Portrait of a Caballero, 1884

Despite coming from a modest family Sorolla shot  up through the Spanish educational system, studying in Madrid and then winning a four-year fellowship to study at the Spanish Academy in Rome. He then went to Paris where he spent three years soaking up the atmosphere and studying more modern techniques.

Italian Girl with Flowers, 1886

His first major success was with this painting, Another Margarita of 1892, which took a prize at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago. It depicts a scene Sorolla said he had witnessed, two policemen escorting a female prisoner to her trial. Margarita was a slang term for prostitute and more broadly any fallen woman.

A Girl Dressed in White, 1896

Dr. Simarro at the Microscope, 1897

Sorolla's portrait of Dr. Simarro was one of a series he did in 1897 of medical research.

The painting that really made Sorolla famous was this one, Sad Inheritance (1899), which won the grand prize at the 1900 Grand Exposition in Paris. Some sources say the boys are victims of polio, while others point to the title and think they suffer from hereditary syphilis. John Singer Sargent owned a preliminary sketch of this painting. Interestingly this was the last painting Sorolla did with an overt social theme. Could it be that he did not enjoy the kind of attention he got for it?

Instead of following up on the success of Sad Inheritance, Sorolla went back to painting pretty things, like several renditions of this rose bush at his house.

And a long series depicting elegant people at the beach. This is A Stroll along the Shore, 1909

The Arrival of the Boats

I love this portrait of President William Howard Taft, 1909, which I think captures the bonhomie that was his distinctive trait; he seems to have been the nicest guy ever to rise to the heights of power in America.

One of Sorolla's most seen works is 14 large paintings titled The Provinces of Spain that he completed in 1913–19 for the Hispanic Society of America. It was news to me that there even was a large, well-funded Hispanic Society of America by 1913.

Pepilla the Gypsy and her Daughter, 1910