Friday, April 30, 2021

Living Things as Numbers

New scientific estimate of the biomass of the earth:

The sum of the biomass across all taxa on Earth is ≈550 Gt C, of which ≈80% are plants, dominated by land plants. The second major biomass component is bacteria (≈70 Gt C), constituting ≈15% of the global biomass. Other groups, in descending order, are fungi, archaea, protists, animals, and viruses, which together account for the remaining remaining less than 10%. Despite the large uncertainty associated with the total biomass of bacteria, we estimate that plants are the dominant kingdom in terms of biomass at an ≈90% probability. Aboveground biomass (≈320 Gt C) represents ≈60% of global biomass, with belowground biomass composed mainly of plant roots (≈130 Gt C) and microbes residing in the soil and deep subsurface (≈100 Gt C). Plant biomass includes ≈70% stems and tree trunks, which are mostly woody, and thus relatively metabolically inert. Bacteria include about 90% deep subsurface biomass (mostly in aquifers and below the seafloor), which have very slow metabolic activity and associated turnover times of several months to thousands of years. Excluding these contributions, global biomass is still dominated by plants, mostly consisting of ≈150 Gt C of plant roots and leaves and ≈9 Gt C of terrestrial and marine bacteria whose contribution is on par with the ≈12 Gt C of fungi.

According to this estimate, most of the mass of living things is relatively inert woody plants. Of course mass is a limited way to understand life. In the ocean, the mass of plants is relatively low, but they reproduce at a fantastic rate, so they process a vast amount of energy. Fascinating that fungi weigh six times as much as animals.

Notice how much more mass of livestock there is than wild mammals. The same is true for birds; domesticated chickens weigh more than twice as much as all wild birds.


My kids all went to the same preschool. It was an idyllic sort of place, like an advertisement for suburban parenthood: patient teachers (all women), happy children, lots of different activities, and no schoolwork to speak of. Some of the 4-year-olds did a little reading, but nobody was forced to. I thought it was great, and my kids seemed to like it very much.

But I am not at all convinced that public pre-K is a solution to any national problem, unless you count boredom among 3-year-olds. There was once a lot of evidence that Head Start and similar programs improved later school performance, but it has not replicated very well, and most studies now find that any improvement is gone by the third grade. 

So I have always been ambivalent about liberal proposals for universal pre-K. I don't really oppose it, I mean, my kids liked preschool. But I do not think it is a panacea for our educational problems, or inequality, or anything else I can think of, and I wonder if it is the best way to spend billions of dollars.

One thing I dislike about many of these proposals is that they require 3- and 4-year olds to be in school all day. My kids went for half a day, and I feel certain that was enough time for them to get whatever benefit they got out of it. 

Much of this is about providing a place for kids to go while their parents work. Ok, fine. But this often comes with the idea that if this were provided then more parents would work and the economy would grow. That is an explicit goal of the Biden administration's plan: 

“We want parents to be in the work force, especially mothers,” said Susan Rice, head of the Domestic Policy Council.

Me, I think “making the economy grow” is a bad choice for a general theory of existence. I would prefer the model of just giving parents the money, so they could spend it on preschool or not. If what you want is to improve kids' future school performance, cash works better than preschool:

It turns out that putting money directly into the pockets of low-income parents, as many other countries do, produces substantially larger gains in children’s school achievement per dollar of expenditure than does a year of preschool or participation in Head Start.

Americans are ambivalent about work and parenthood. Some polls show that a majority of Americans still think kids are better off if one parent is at home, and the poorer people are, the more they believe this. It's upper middle class people with "careers" who think both parents should be working. And as long as we are divided about this issue, I think the government should be empowering parents to make these decisions rather than making them for us.

Links 30 April 2021

Bust of Niccolo da Uzzano by Donatello ca. 1430-1432

Old stories retold: young woman tries to get her kind but lazy boyfriend to be more like her dynamic, hard-working father. Advice columnist responds: no. (Washington Post)

Police reform in action: the police in Newark, New Jersey did not fire a single bullet in 2020, which was the first year on record they did not pay a single cent to settle claims of police brutality. It can be done.

Hoard of Iron Age weapons found on German mountaintop.

Hans Holbein the Younger, best known for his portraits of Henry VIII's court, liked to paint his children into Nativity scenes and the like.

A new Supreme Court case asks us to consider what freedom of association – the First Amendment actually says "the right of the people peaceably to assemble" – really means. The case considers whether groups that participate in politics can be forced to disclose their donor lists, and it is opposed by organizations from NARAL to the NRA.

Study shows human activity has raised biodiversity in many parts of the world.

Lovely botanical ceramics by Hessa al Ajmani.

Brian Scalabrine was a bad NBA basketball player, rode the bench his whole career. Now he's retired. A high schooler recently challenged him to a game of one-on-one for their shoes, lost 11-0. So long shoes. A reminder that even bad professional athletes are way, way better than you.

Clare Grogan, who starred as a teenager in Gregory's Girl (1981), says people still come up to her every day and tell her how much they loved it, or ask her to dance lying on the grass.

A bunch of guys named Josh fight for the right to be the one true Josh.

Things have gotten so bad in some remote parts of Venezuela that people welcomed the arrival of militant drug-smuggling rebels from Colombia. (New York Times)

Today's thing that has become problematic: the gentrification of thrift stores.

The Supreme Court ponders whether a school can punish a cheerleader for a profane snapchat rant posted from off campus over the weekend. (Vox, NPRNew York Times). When, if ever, can a school sanction off-campus speech? One of the old rules is that schools can punish "disruptive" behavior, but what if the disruption is that the whole school spends Monday passing a snapchat post around and arguing about it? What about abusive bullying? Racist taunting? Or should we just say that that the school's authority ends at the public sidewalk and be done?

Verses Written on the Occasion of Getting the COVID Vaccine (Scott Siskind)

Thursday, April 29, 2021

The New Globalization: the French Tacos

The French tacos – always with the audible "s", even when it's only one – is the latest new food thrown up by the worldwide blending of cultures. Dismissed by French culinary authorities as un sandwich diététiquement incorrect, they have nonetheless swept the nation. And unlike the previous big new food in France, kebabs, they have no particular point of origin and therefore no special association with any ethnic group. Lauren Collins explains:

Technically, the French tacos is a sandwich: a flour tortilla, slathered with condiments, piled with meat (usually halal) and other things (usually French fries), doused in cheese sauce, folded into a rectangular packet, and then toasted on a grill. “In short, a rather successful marriage between panini, kebab, and burrito,” according to the municipal newsletter of Vaulx-en-Velin, a suburb of Lyon in which the French tacos may or may not have been born. . . . 
According to the municipal newsletter, the French tacos, as a dish with a Mexican name and a Greco-Turkish influence, “embellished with fries as in Belgium, shakshuka as in the Maghreb, and French cheese,” amounts to “the culinary portrait of a global city like Vaulx-en-Velin.”
Emerging from the banlieues of southern cities, they have swept the nation, which now has thousands of tacos restaurants. Besides the usual French snobs, this is also offensive to some Mexicans, who regard these non-tacos as sacrilege.

I say, of course, eat what you want, and may a thousand flowers of cultural appropriation bloom across the globe.

Wednesday, April 28, 2021

RIP Ole Anthony, God's Abusive Scold

The death of Ole Anthony gives me a chance to ask again what it means to be a good person. Christianity Today:

When it came down to it, Ole Anthony would admit to a lot of the bad things people said about him. “My own grandiose bull— can get in the way,” he told a reporter in 2004. “I was a schemer and a promoter. That’s just the way my mind works.”

Anthony needed to believe he was special, and he convinced those around him they were part of a spiritual elite. He was at times a huckster. He never stopped being a hustler. He exaggerated and lied about his life to impress people. He dreamed up grand plans to feed his ego and confirm his unmistakable charisma, never letting anything be reined in by humility or other people’s good sense.

But in the process he preached a message of God’s grace to those who wouldn’t have heard it otherwise. He founded a radical community of Christians committed to recreating the first-century church. And he took on the work of exposing televangelists who perverted the name of Christ for financial gain as cheap frauds.

According to the small church he founded in Dallas, Anthony was “more like an Old Testament prophet” than anything else. “Any conversation with him left you pondering your relationship with God,” said Gary Bucker, an elder at Community on Columbia.

Anthony's most notable achievement was bringing down the empire of televangelist Robert Tilton, after hearing from a man who said he was bankrupt after giving all his money to Tilton in exchange for prayers. He rooted through Tilton's trash and found that prayer requests had been thrown away unread, with only the cash removed. Tilton claimed on his next broadcast that he was so full of God that the prayer requests magicked their way directly into his brain, but he lost most of his followers and went bankrupt.

Anthony took on more than a dozen other televangelists over the years and got one sent to prison on tax fraud. He once said, “There’s more fraud in the name of God than any other kind of fraud in the world. That’s just heartbreaking.” And he also pursued philanthropic projects. The Times:

Not all of Trinity’s endeavors were so successful. In the late 1980s, Mr. Anthony started the Dallas Project, which proposed that homelessness could be eradicated if every church in America took in one or two people. He promoted the idea heavily, but only a few churches in Dallas participated.

In 1995, the foundation took out millions of dollars in bonds to buy 13 low-income apartment buildings in Oklahoma City. But the cost to run them was higher than anticipated, and Trinity defaulted in 2000.
Some of Anthony's former followers called his church, Trinity, a cult, and described practices like putting one member on the “hot seat” for hours of abuse. Which sounds cult-like for sure, but on the other hand they were trying to recreate the atmosphere of the early Christian church, which was also in our terms a cult. And it's hard to argue with Anthony's commitment to refocusing Christianity on Jesus and the poor rather than grandstanding tv preachers.

Ole Anthony: liar, braggart, abrasive jerk, cult leader, friend to the homeless, bitter enemy of divine fraud, prophet of a tough God. Who will judge him, and say which way the scales tilt?

Tuesday, April 27, 2021

Anarchism and History

Oregon Historical Society in Portland after the riot of April 17, 2021

Life Expectancy

Interesting article by Steven Johnson in the New York Times about human life expectancy. Up until around 1750, average human life expectancy seems never to have cracked about 35 years. It often fell below that figure, due to disease or famine, but never rose above it. This was true for all classes of society; so far as we can tell (obviously the data sets are small) aristocrats had about the same life expectancy as peasants or slaves. That's because disease did not care about your status:

During the outbreak of 1711 alone, smallpox killed the Holy Roman emperor Joseph I; three siblings of the future Holy Roman emperor Francis I; and the heir to the French throne, the grand dauphin Louis.

Modern statisticians have noticed that this began to change in the 1700s. It changed first with aristocrats; historian T.H. Hollingsworth showed that by 1770 the life expectancy of British aristocrats had risen to 45 years. This change pointed the way to the modern demographic regime, in which everyone lives much longer but the rich live significantly longer than the poor. One factor singled out by Johnson is variolation, a sort of primitive inoculation that was used in many parts of Asia and brought to Britain from the Ottoman Empire in the 1720s. But since life expectancies in the Ottoman Empire and India were not above 35 and probably much less I'm not convinced; maybe variolation worked much better when administered by skilled and therefore expensive physicians. Jenner's vaccination technique, introduced in the 1790s, worked much better.

Anyway life expectancies in rural Europe continued to rise through the nineteenth century; one British statistician found that by 1843 it had reached 50 in mostly rural Surrey. But the overall life expectancy of Europeans rose more slowly, because of the dire situation in industrial cities. In 1843, again, life expectancy in Liverpool had fallen to 25. This had many causes, including pollution, cholera, and gin, but one singled out by contemporaries was bad food. Before refrigeration it was just very hard to get massive quantities of fresh food into dense urban neighborhoods without spoilage, so poor urban people were regularly eating dubious meat, cheese, fish, and especially milk. That's why Louis Pasteur got so famous; not for disproving the spontaneous generation of microbes but for making milk safer at a time when spoiled milk was sickening millions. If the poor tried to avoid such dangerous foods they ended up living on fried potatoes and beer, which is unhealthy in other ways.

And here we get to the part of the story that really interests Johnson. What reversed this trend and got urban life expectancies rising was not so much scientific advances, although those were important, but the great reforming social movements of the day. The crusade to make life healthier had many prongs: Temperance, regulation of the food chain, dietary guidelines, exercise (spread through the "muscular Christianity" Teddy Roosevelt espoused), the City Beautiful movement with its parks and tree plantings,  the construction of sewers, chlorination of drinking water, the paving of streets, the draining of swamps, the banning of dubious patent medicines: in a word, Progressivism. Taken together it worked, and by 1900 life expectancy was up to 50 for all the rich western nations and has continued to rise. 

The same is true for more recent health advances; penicillin was a fantastic discovery, but antibiotics only had an impact on our health because the US and then other governments spent billions to develop them, and the spread of health insurance made them affordable. The safety movement with its "intrusive" regulations has made cars, trains, and factory work much, much safer.

Johnson's article seems to be arguing against the straw man view that "science" made things better by itself, but nobody who knows any history thinks that. Modernity was always as much about organization as it was about science and technology. Steam locomotives were technologically amazing but they weren't much good without railroads, which were built using primitive hand-labor methods but made possible by modern political and business changes. Nineteenth-century sewers were no better than Roman sewers – in fact they were often worse – but they were built by the thousands of miles in every city, by politicians who cared about the health of their working class voters.

I sometimes say that modern Republicans are trying to bring back the Gilded Age, but it is important to remember that even the Gilded Age benefitted from a century of crusades for public improvement. Real Libertarians, and many Anarchists, want to go much farther back and strip away the protections our societies built up across the 1800s. They, and all the other people who want to smash things, should think harder about the precious legacy of caring for each other that we have built up, and on the fact that taken together these measures have doubled the length of our lives.

Monday, April 26, 2021

Vikings, an Icelandic Cave named Surtshellir, and Ragnarök

Surtshellir Entrance

The news from Iceland:

Archaeologists have discovered the remains of rare artifacts from the Middle East in an Icelandic cave that the Vikings associated with Ragnarök, an end-times event in which the gods would be killed and the world engulfed in flames.

The cave is located by a volcano that erupted almost 1,100 years ago. At the time of that eruption, the Vikings had recently colonized Iceland. "The impacts of this eruption must have been unsettling, posing existential challenges for Iceland's newly arrived settlers," a team of researchers wrote in a paper published recently in the Journal of Archaeological Science.

Archaeological work shows that after the lava cooled, the Vikings entered the cave and constructed a boat-shaped structure made out of rocks. Within this structure, the Vikings burned animal bones, including those of sheep, goat, cattle, horses and pigs, at high temperatures as a sacrifice. This may have been done in an effort to avert Ragnarök.  

This is an extremely cool find. The abstract to this article adds that the ritual site was more than 300 m (1,000 feet) from the cave's mouth, and that the ritual activity inside went on for at least 80 years. The cave (a lava tube, technically; photo above shows part of the passage) is more than 1,000 m long. It was definitely known in medieval times, since it is mentioned in the Book of Settlements. After the island converted to Christianity the cave was mostly avoided as a cursed spot until the mid 1700s. The name connects it to the fire giant Surt, whose flaming sword was supposed to burn up the earth at the end of this age.

Imagine hearing that story told a thousand feet underground in a dark volcanic cave, the poetry echoing off the black basalt walls.

But given that this is the Vikings we are talking about, how do we know that the sacrifices in the cave were intend to avert Ragnarök? Seems to me they could just as well have been intended to bring it on. Plenty of people have longed for the end of the world, and the craziest Christian apocalypticists were not the least bit crazier than a lot of Vikings.

Sunday, April 25, 2021

Noam Chomsky on Anarchism

Ezra Klein interviewed Noam Chomsky for his podcast, and in this interview Chomsky gave a better explanation on his beliefs than any of his writings I have read.

Ezra Klein
You’re an anarchist. How do you define anarchism?

Noam Chomsky
Anarchism, the way I understand it, is pretty close to a truism. That’s it. And I think everybody, if they think about it, will accept at least this much. We begin with assuming that any structure of authority and domination has to justify itself. It’s not self-justifying. It has a burden of proof. It has to show that it’s legitimate. So if you’re taking a walk with your kid, and the kid run in the street, and you grab his arm and pull him back, that’s an exercise of authority. But it’s legitimate. You can have a justification. And there are such cases where there is justification. But if you look closely, most of them do not. Most of them are what David Hume, Edward Bernays, Walter Lippmann, Adam Smith, and others have been talking about over the centuries. Namely, illegitimate authority. Well, illegitimate authorities should be exposed, challenged, overcome. That’s true in all of life. We’ve talked about a few cases. Like, say, the workplace, where it’s illegitimate, should not be tolerated, wasn’t tolerated, until it was driven out of people’s heads by force and violence. Well, OK, what’s anarchism? Just pushing these questions to their limit.

Ezra Klein
Who decides when authority is legitimate? In some of the more classic theories of democracy, if you have the consent of the governed and the exercise of authority on their behalf is legitimate. I think there are many of those cases that you wouldn’t agree with. So under anarchism, how are those decisions made?

Noam Chomsky
Here, we go back to the first question you raised, about the unique human properties, like the capacity for thought. You have to think it through. There’s no algorithm. Life is too complicated for simple algorithms. You take a look at the situation, think it through, deliberate it with others in a free society, where people have access to information, have gained control of their lives. They think it through and decide. Take the case of subordinating yourself to a master for most of your waking life. Well, workingmen, in the 19th century, young women from the farms, factory girls that were called. They did think it through. And we can see what their thinking was by reading the very eloquent and forceful literature that they created. They bitterly attacked the imposition of what they called monarchic rule in the workplace, where their basic rights were taken away by subordination to a master, which they regarded as not fundamentally different from slavery, except that it was maybe temporary, you could get free of it. The working people held that we should move towards, what they called, a cooperative Commonwealth, where people control their own lives. Workers should control the enterprises in which they work. Their conception was that anyone who appropriates the labor of someone else is in a position of illegitimate authority. And out of that came the whole picture. Well, that’s how you answer the questions, by deliberation among people who are putting their minds to work. Can you assure the right answer will come out? Of course, not.
As history that is a bit tendentious, but not entirely wrong; there certainly were such movements. Here's my question, which we'll come back to: why didn't that happen? Why did industrial production move instead toward every bigger factories and ever greater concentrations of capital?

Ezra Klein
But people do come to very different answers with this. I mean, you talk about anarchism is the libertarian wing of socialism. And then I know people who end up being the libertarian wing of capitalism and end up very much on the other side. And they’re smart folks, too. And one of the critiques you’ll hear is that you need a certain amount of hierarchy and organization, which I think in many cases, you would call domination, for complex economic levels of structure. So say, developing and then distributing an mRNA vaccine during a pandemic, you need a certain amount of a true hierarchy for that. And not everybody can be equal in that decision-making. Somebody needs to run the organization. Somebody needs to run the lab. And that’s difficult if you’re sort of doing every decision sort of from scratch in real time. How do you think about that trade-off between complexity and deliberation? 

Noam Chomsky
I don’t think it’s a trade-off if it’s done in a free democratic society. A free society can select people to have administrative and other authority to take over parts of the concern for the common good. And they can be recalled. But they’re under popular control. They’re not there because their grandfather built railroads or because in some, they managed to finesse the market so that they ended up with a ton of money. They’re not there for that reason. They’re there because they’re delegated under popular authority, not of any amount of structure of hierarchy and domination you want. You have this in, for example, a worker controlled enterprises. Some of them huge. Take, say, Mondragon, the largest of them, been around for about 60 years in Northern Spain, worker-owned, worker-managed, huge conglomerate, industrial production, banks, housing, hospitals, everything. It’s not perfect by any means, but it does have— it’s based on the fundamental principle of popular democratic control and authorization to carry out managerial functions when needed. And it actually have that in just about any decently functioning research lab in a University, works pretty much the same way. Maybe a department chair was chosen to handle the administrative work, if faculty doesn’t like to pick somebody else. These are certainly possible structures of all kinds. They don’t undermine the possibility of organization. In fact, anarchist society should be highly organized, but under popular control of a free informed community, which can interact without illegitimate forces controlling them.

Of this I have to say that I used to work for a worker-owned company, and it made no difference whatsoever; I never felt in the slightest way empowered by it, plus it meant most of my retirement savings was tied up in the stock of a single company that I would not have chosen to invest in.  Once you get past a certain size, any organization becomes hierarchical and bureaucratic, no matter who owns it. The only way ordinary worker/owners could have influenced company policy would have been to put a lot of effort into getting organized and chosing a slate of directors to elect that we would have to trust to put that policy into effect. Much like, say, representative democracy. And Klein had the same thought:

Ezra Klein
If it trends back in that direction, how do you keep it from becoming representative democracy again?

Noam Chomsky
Representative democracy does not exist. Let’s take our democracy, is that a representative democracy?

Ezra Klein
Not really.

Noam Chomsky
And for fair good reasons, we can discuss it. But if you had a real representative democracy, then it would be very much like this. The community wouldn’t select people to carry out this test because they’re good at it or maybe they want it, and others don’t, others want something else. But it would be under popular supervision, recall, if necessary, and constant interaction. So I think there should be participation at all points. Now, take your own example, distributing a vaccine. Well, people should have to have some say in this. How do we want it to be done? If somebody refuses to accept the vaccine, what should we do about it? Well, that’s a life problem right now. Almost half of Republicans are going to refuse to accept the vaccine. What that says is we’ll never get out of the COVID crisis because we’ll never get a level of immunity, which will make it kind of like flu, maybe you take a shot every year. But it’s not lethal. We’ll never get to that. Or suppose some individual says, I’m not going to wear a mask, what do we do about it? Well, those are problems that the community has to decide. Suppose somebody says, I’m not going to obey traffic laws, I don’t like them. I’m going to run through red lights and drive on the left side of the road. I want to be free. Well, I have to make decisions about that. Saying, I’m not going to wear a mask is not very different from that. Says, I’m going to go out to the shopping mall, and if I infect you, it’s your problem. Well, communities are going to have to make decisions about things like this.

Ok, sure representative democracy is something of a fraud, as smart people have been pointing out in various ways for 250 years. But Chomsky's alternative is vague hand-waving about "the community has to decide." How? Public meetings? Our experience shows that if you ask people to attend more than about one public meeting a year most stop going and only the most ambitious and most radical turn out, leading to profound distortions. Chomsky has argued in many places that this is a problem with our society, where our work places huge demands on our time and we have no fellow-feeling with our neighbors, etc. Ok, fine. But that is our society, and how are we going to change that? It is this transition period that always strikes me as the weak link in every theory of anarchism. I simply cannot imagine any real American community working out its problems in a coherent way, so even if anarchists are right that people who grew up in their system would think and act differently, what happens for the first fifty years?

Because that is exactly what happened in the Soviet Union. The original Bolshevik constitution imagined a nested series of committees, starting with neighborhood committees and workers' committees in every workplace, which would report to higher level committees, and so on up to the Politburo. But this led to chaos and economic collapse. So Lenin and his men set up a parallel structure within the Communist Party to monitor all those committees, and of course a powerful secret police force to monitor the Party, enforcing discipline with great brutality. That got the economy headed back in the right direction, but at the price of effectively ending popular participation. 

The people, Lenin found, can't be trusted to do the right thing.

What would happen under Chomsky's system if a "community" decided, freely, to respond to Covid-19 by expelling all Asians and banning the sale of goods produced in China? Would that be, in Chomsky's terms, "legitimate"? Or would he want the guiding hand of the Anarchist party to step in and set the people straight?

Neither Chomsky nor any other anarchist I have read has an answer to this, except to say that if the people were really trusted to run their own lives and govern their own communities they would respond by becoming more moral and caring.

I don't believe it. 

I furthermore don't believe that much of what we like about the modern world, from vaccines to airplanes, could be created by non-hierarchical cooperatives. I think those workers' commonwealths were swept away because in a time of extremely rapid technological change they simply could not keep up with mobile capital using mobile workers. Such entities survived in a few places, mainly where there was little technological change; a famous example was Cuban workshops where workers hand-rolled expensive cigars.

I am attracted at times to the anarchist notion that a job is a kind of slavery, which is of course what Aristotle would have said. But, again, I can't see any way to make the modern world function without tying our subsistence to productive labor.

Mixed capitalism has many flaws, but it works. So far as I can tell, nothing else comes close, no matter how good it sounds.

Some Perils of Ethology, or, Scientists Study What They Can

From a too-long review of Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? by Frans de Waal, entered into Scott Siskind's book review contest, I extract this:

Ethology also has some really interesting lessons about how important various practical matters and methodology can be when it comes to what your field can (and can't) produce. For example, it turns out that a surprising amount of useful data about animal cognition comes from experiments with dogs. Is it because dog brains have some interesting physical structures? No, not really that different from a comparably sized mammal. Is it because they are social animals and so have a lot of the same cognitive lego blocks as we do? Maybe a little. The main reason is because they will sit still for an fMRI to be the goodest boy (and to get hot dogs). Turns out sitting still for several minutes in a giant, whirring machine isn't something most animals (including chimps) are that into. So we use dogs.

On the other side of that coin, elephants are clearly very smart, but we've done surprisingly little controlled experiments or close observation with them. Why? At this point, I bet you can guess: because they are huge. They're damn inconvenient to keep in the basement of the biology building, they mess up the trees on alumni drive, and undergrads kept complaining about elephant-patty injuries while playing ultimate on the quad. More seriously, it takes a big, expensive facility to keep captive elephants, and there aren't that many wild habitats. We are missing out on a lot of potentially valuable insights because they are really inconvenient. I don't say this as a moral judgment, but to point out that the same thing might be true elsewhere, and we'd do well to keep an eye out.

As an archaeologist I encounter a related problem all the time: we know a lot about some cultures because they left understandable remains in easy-to-access places, whereas other cultures remain obscure because they didn't use distinctive tools or bury people with grave goods or whatever, or because they lived in a place like the Amazon where not much survives.

Many Americans have a basic knowledge of the artistic tradition of southwestern native peoples, because they painted designs on their pottery that survive and are easily recognizable. But what do you know about native artistic traditions in the northeast? Likely not much, because their pottery was unpainted and the artistic works they invested the most in were made of feathers and porcupine quills.

Our knowledge in every field suffers from gaps like this, and some of the biggest questions in science are about how well what we do know can be extended into the places where we know nothing.

Saturday, April 24, 2021


Today's place to daydream about is Westland, the rainy, windswept west cost of New Zealand's South Island. It was The Luminaries, set here in the 1860s, that first took my thoughts across time and space to this little world where the Pacific crashes into the mighty rock of South Island, raised up by a collision of tectonic plates miles below. Let's send our minds there and see what we find.

The scenery is magnificent: tall mountains, lush green hills covered with temperate rainforests, rivers, waterfalls, rocky shores, sandy beaches.

The largest town is Hokitika, population about 3,000. The town was thrown up overnight where gold nuggets carried by the Hokitika River were tossed around by ocean storms and left lying on the beach for lucky explorers to find. 

Above is the Customs House, one of the few survivals of the frontier boomtown this once was. The town has a heritage trail laid out for walking or biking, if you want to explore its past.

In the the distance rises a mountain that, like everything else in New Zealand, now goes by two names, Mount Cook/Aoraki.

Wet Pacific winds meet the mountains here, and the result is year-round rain, on average 170 rainy days out of every 365. The sky is clear only 21% of the time. It is also cool; in February, the warmest month, the average daily high temperature is 68 Fahrenheit, 19.8 Celsius. The coldest month, July, isn't much different, with an average daily high of 53F/12C. In fact the tourism board brands Hokitika the "Cool Little Town."

In 1860, the British crown purchased most of this region from a group of Maori chiefs for 300 pounds sterling. The Maori, devastated by smallpox and other European diseases, were clinging to their existence then, and any infusion of cash was welcome, especially if they could get it by giving up a place they hardly ever went any more.

Hokitika in the 1870s

During the gold rush Hokitika was briefly New Zealand's largest city –population 25,000– and busiest port. 

Dillmanstown, South Island Gold Rush Town, 1870s

The phenomenon of the Gold Rush fascinates me. There are some hints in ancient records of excitement over gold discoveries in Roman times and earlier, but the first real Gold Rush was the one in California that got under way in 1848. Australia saw half a dozen in the 1850s, New Zealand two or three in the 1860s. South America saw several in the 1870s and 1880s, and South Africa was transformed by the one that began in 1886. The last one to be a worldwide cultural event was the Klondike god rush of 1896-1898.

Some industrious person counted 41 vessels in this view of Hokitika's waterfront

These events were produced by a particular stage of world civilization: rapid communication via the telegraph and the daily newspaper, reliable worldwide travel via steamer and clipper ship, a large class of people with the knowledge and resources to embark on a major journey in the hopes of striking it rich and the rootless restlessness to think that seemed like a good idea. And, of course, unexploited gold fields. 

Hokitika in the 1880s and c. 1900

Very, very few did strike it rich; most of the money was made by those who supplied them. But many of them stayed where they had landed, expanding European settlement around the world, and the vast mobilization of resources involved greatly stimulated the world economy.

We are used to think of mass shootings as a recent phenomenon, but this little item from Hokitika's history reminds us that they are in fact as old as the revolver and the repeating rifle:

In October 1941 a local farmer, Stanley Graham, went on a shooting rampage and killed seven people, including three police and two armed Home guard personnel.
The Westland district endured after the gold rush ended with fewer people and smaller ambitions. Gold mining continued, along with timbering and other extractive industries. All of that is mostly gone now, and the place survives largely on tourism and retirees looking to get away from what passes in New Zealand for busy urban life.

The first tourist attraction is just outside of town, the Hokitika Gorge, now with trees and blue water instead of miners and their gear.

Along the mountainous spine of the South Island is a string of National Parks, each more spectacular than the last. Two loom above Hokitika: Westland Tai Poutini and Arthur Pass.

The spectacular, raw scenery of Westland Tai Poutini, home to New Zealand's highest peaks. 

The people of New Zealand, both Maori and settler, are great walkers, and their national parks are full of named multi-day hikes, each with its own folklore. Arthur's Pass National Park celebrates one of them, an ancient route over the mountains to the coast.

Wildflowers love cool, rainy mountains.

Hokitika is on the far side of the planet from where I sit now, a world away, but The Luminaries and the internet have taken me there, to explore its rough past an beautiful present.

Friday, April 23, 2021

A Trip to Gettysburg

Across the whole battlefield the woods looked like this, nature mocking the historical sadness of the a place where 8,000 died.

On the way I saw lots of signs like this one.

Here's a type of site that might puzzle future archaeologists.

The abandoned miniature gold course! It occurs to me that since miniature golf first got big in the 1920s some of these will soon be 100-years-old and therefore eligible to be recorded as archaeological sites.

Monument near Little Round Top, looking like a garden.

Colonel Patrick O'Rourke's nose. I meant to ask a ranger if people touch it for good luck but forgot. The defenders of Little Round Top were fighting downhill, which made them harder to charge, but on the other hand meant their officers were constantly exposed to sniper fire, and most were shot.

Aftermath of a controlled burn at Little Round Top. The Park Service does this a lot these days to keep areas that were open pasture during the battles from growing up as forests.

Archaeologists in action.

Links 23 April 2021

Tudor memento mori ring, recently found by an English metal detectorist

Against minimum parking requirements: "California has expensive housing for people and free parking for cars."

The experiment with releasing genetically modified male mosquitos whose offspring don't mature, thereby reducing wild populations, has been on hold since 2011 but may finally go ahead this spring.

Why nuclear power has been a flop.

This week's mind stretching exercise: could the physical basis of memory be in the form of numbers stored within single neurons?

Howard University dissolved its Classics Department and Cornell West is upset. Interesting to read a man who thinks of himself as a radical black intellectual defending Homer and Socrates in the most traditional terms. (Washington Post)

The conflict between Spanish missionaries and Native Americans over polygamy, one of the issues behind the Pueblo Revolt and other conflicts.

Building low-cost homes from "aircrete." Cultish, and for those who remember the 1960s it smacks of Buckminster Fuller's domes, but honestly we could built strong, livable houses very cheaply if we massively leveraged these sorts of technologies. There are parts of the world where millions of people live in sheet metal shacks. We don't because, well, you know the litany. But maybe we should.

In Colombia, hundreds have converted to Orthodox Judaism, mainly from Evangelical Christianity. They mostly form their own communities rather than joining existing congregations. (Washington Post) Some discussion from Scott Siskind here.

One of the few good things about modern architecture is that you can build a house that's mostly windows for enjoying a spectacular view, like the one of this Scottish loch.

Tom Friedman went to Afghanistan with Joe Biden in 2002, and he wasn't surprised that Biden chose complete withdrawal. Friedman's summary: "maybe leaving will make it worse, but our staying wasn’t really helping." (New York Times)

The number of suicides in the US fell 6% last year, somewhat mystifying given that many studies have shown a big increase in anxiety and depression. My theory would be that misery is easier to cope with when it has an identifiable outside source you can blame, and maybe even more so when you can reasonably look forward to its end.

Depressing AP piece on the poor Romanians, mostly Roma, who burn plastic stuff to extract copper and other valuable metals, scraping out a living while bemoaning the old days under communism when everyone had a job and nobody was rich enough to build new villas.

Botanical stained glass by Elena Zaycman.

In the 1970s Susan Stamberg, Linda Wertheimer, Nina Totenberg and Cokie Roberts were aspiring female journalists who couldn't get editors to assign them serious stories. Unwilling to stay on the women's pages they signed up for National Public Radio when it was so new they had no furniture and held meetings sitting on the floor. They and NPR made each other. It's the perfect story of second-wave feminism in action, and it feels oddly old-fashioned to me. We have largely removed the barriers that kept the highest performing women out of top slots but that hasn't led to a society well set-up for ordinary women, especially mothers.

"A joyful outcome to a terrible situation": many female dancers have taken advantage of the year-long shutdown in live performance to have a child. (New York Times)

Watch a dog wander onto high school track, blow past the leader to win 4x200 relay. And we're talking about a modest, shaggy dog here, not one built for speed. We humans are obsessed with our own athletic performance even though we are completely lame compared to other animals. Usain Bolt is a very famous person but he couldn't have come close to my old dog, even when she was 10 years old and getting arthritic. We have swimming races, as if the fastest human swimmer were anything special in the water; an otter leaping into a swimming relay would look pretty much like that dog did on the track, except it would swim rings around the people for added fun. Not only are we bad at these things, we sometimes make it even harder on ourselves by adding layers of difficulty, viz., requiring swimmers to use strangely unnatural strokes, or race walking. If we focused on the things we are actually good at the Olympics would feature complex intellectual tasks (science, design), verbal acumen (oratory, stand-up comedy, poetry slams), and networking (maybe one of those pyramid scheme games like "Airplane.")

Thursday, April 22, 2021

Liz Cheney and the Republican Id

From a long New York Times piece on Liz Cheney's place in the Republican Party, I extract this item. After Cheney voted to impeach Trump, members of her caucus in the House called for her removal from her post as conference chair, and a long, contentious meeting ensued:

In the conference meeting, Cheney said that she stood by her vote to impeach Trump. Several members had asked her to apologize, but, she said, “I cannot do that.”

The line to the microphone was extraordinarily long. At least half of the speakers indicated that they would vote to remove Cheney. Ralph Norman of South Carolina expressed disappointment in her vote. “But the other thing that bothers me, Liz,” he went on, “is your attitude. You’ve got a defiant attitude.” John Rutherford of Florida, a former sheriff, accused the chairwoman of not being a “team player.”

Others argued that her announcement a day before the impeachment vote had given the Democrats a talking point to use against the rest of the Republican conference. (“Good for her for honoring her oath of office,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi pointedly remarked when told of Cheney’s intentions.) Likening the situation to a football game, Mike Kelly of Pennsylvania lamented, “You look up into the stands and see your girlfriend on the opposition’s side — that’s one hell of a tough thing to swallow.”

“She’s not your girlfriend!” a female colleague yelled out. Kelly’s remark was immediately disseminated among Republican women in professional Washington, according to Barbara Comstock, who served as a Republican congresswoman from Virginia until 2019. “We emailed that around, just horrified, commenting in real time,” she told me.

Throughout it all, Cheney sat implacably — “as emotional as algebra,” as one attendee later told me. She spoke only when asked a direct question. But when McCarthy concluded by suggesting that they put this matter behind them and adjourn, Cheney insisted that the conference vote on her status right then and there. The members cast their secret ballots, and Cheney prevailed, 145 to 61.

The lopsided margin was almost identical to Cheney’s own whip count going into the conference. Individual colleagues had confided in her that most of the conference was only too happy to move on from Trump — but saying so in public was another matter. To do so meant risking defeat at the hands of a Trump-adoring Republican primary electorate or even, many of them feared, the well-being of their families. In sum, it risked getting the Liz Cheney treatment. That Cheney was willing to face Trump’s wrath called attention to the fact that most of them were not — a factor in the aggrievement directed at Cheney in the meeting. Lloyd Smucker of Pennsylvania said that Cheney had “a low E.Q.,” or emotional quotient. On his way out the door, one congressman remarked, “I just got to spend four hours listening to a bunch of men complain to a woman that she doesn’t take their emotions into account.”

Honestly half of the Trump phenomenon seems to be about men's feelings. I remember one of my favorite journalists, Conor Friedersdorf, making the same complaint about Tea Party activists: that they were all too emotional for rational discussion and saw any disagreement as an attack on them and the things they "held dear." This business of using your wounded feelings to hold your opponents hostage seems to be the basic rhetorical trope of our emotional age.

Tuesday, April 20, 2021

To Fly on Another World

Just a little hop, but still amazing.

The deniers are already at it; I've received multiple links to posts claiming it must be a hoax, since there just isn't enough air on Mars to support flight. But there is, and we can.

Sunday, April 18, 2021

George Gower's Elizabethan Portraits

George Gower (c. 1540-1596) is a remarkably obscure figure considering that he was "Serjeant Painter" to Elizabeth I and painted much of England's nobility. His oeuvre has shifted over the years as paintings have newly been attributed to him, and paintings that used to be attributed to him have been assigned to others. All based on style, mind you, so that will probably change again. Meanwhile, here are some currently attributed to his hand including the two earliest on the list, Lord and Lady Kyston.

Self portrait of 1579. Gower came from a gentry family, but as you can see he didn't think very much of them; the allegorical bit on the right shows his painter's tools outweighing his coat of arms. Since I hate to have any sort of clothing tight to my throat, so much so that the thought of tight cravats ruins my fantasies of past lives, I very much admire this open ruff. Could I have gotten away with this?

Elizabeth I. These are two of the paintings that have shifted authorship most, but right now both are attributed to Gower. Hey, he was Elizabeth's official painter, he must have done at least one portrait.

Here is one currently assigned to either Gower or Steven van der Meulen.

Elizabeth and Richard Drake

Elizabeth Knollys, Lettice Knollys, and Mary Cornwallis.