Tuesday, August 31, 2021

Interesting Insight into How People See Themselves

Sure, that may work for you, but will it work for me?

Consumers tend to see themselves in a positive light, yet we present evidence that they are pessimistic about whether they will receive a product’s benefits. In 15 studies (N = 6,547; including nine pre-registered), we found that consumers believe that product efficacy is higher for others than it is for themselves. For example, consumers believe that consuming an adult coloring book (to inspire creativity), a sports drink (to satisfy thirst), medicine (to relieve pain), or an online class (to learn something new) will have a greater effect on others than on themselves. We show that this bias holds across many kinds of products and judgment-targets, and inversely correlates with factors such as product familiarity, product usefulness, and relationship closeness with judgment-targets. Moreover, we find this bias stems from consumers’ beliefs they are more unique and less malleable than others, and that it alters the choices people make for others. We conclude by discussing implications for research on gift-giving, advice-giving, usership, and interpersonal social, health, and financial choices. 

This resonates with me because I have over and over heard the excuse that "I just can't change in that way." For example: Somebody says, "I am a terrible public speaker." Me: there are ways to learn to be better, courses you could take, exercises you can do, programs that have turned lots of people into good speakers. Response: "Oh, that would never work for me."

And maybe it wouldn't; I think talent is a real thing. But most people can still get better even at things they are bad at.

Obviously we could list the reasons why people do this, but I think these authors are right that one of them is believing "they are unique and less malleable than others."

Monday, August 30, 2021

Sunday, August 29, 2021

Neolithic Chile was a tough place

Chilean mummy, c. 1000 BC

Archaeologists examined 194 well preserved skeletons and mummies from coastal Chile, a dry desert where people lived by fishing and irrigated agriculture. Of these, 40 had signs of injuries "consistent with interpersonal violence," and half of them died from wounds. Which is a pretty high total, higher for example than Viking Iceland.

Bola, preserved in the dry desert; some of the head wounds might 
have been caused by weapons like this.

They also examined an earlier, pre-agricultural population, and they found that while the fisher-gatherers experienced a similar level of interpersonal violence, very few of them died of wounds. So they beat each other up, but not fatally.

We are a violent species.

What is the Soul?

The Babylonian had some idea of the soul or EKIMMU, literally "the thing which is snatched away."

R. Campbell ThompsonThe devils and evil spirits of Babylonia : being Babylonian and Assyrian incantations against the demons, ghouls, vampires, hobgoblins, ghosts, and kindred evil spirits, which attack mankind. London, 1903.

Friday, August 27, 2021

More Paleogenetic Data on Early Europe Yields More Evidence of Migration

Early Bronze Age Burial, Czechoslovakia

There's a big new paper this week from the Max Planck Institute ancient DNA group, based on 271 ancient genomes (206 of them new) from western Czechoslovakia dating to between 5000 and 1000 BC. Their basic argument is that besides the two big, well known migrations, the arrival of Middle Eastern farmers around 5000 BC and the arrival of Indo-European speaking steppes people around 3000 BC, there were other genetic shifts that probably represent more migrations.

They identify three different Neolithic populations, each mixed with the Hunter Gathers of a different part of Europe, that seem to have vied over this territory and shifted dominance over time. 

Steppes ancestry arrived with the Corded Ware culture around 3000 BC; but the Corded Ware population was nothing like a pure steppes population, but was mixed with both local Neolithic people and some other population, possibly from the Baltic.

And then there were further changes after the Indo-European speakers arrived. One interesting change is that the early Corded Ware people had five different y-chromosome lineages, but by 500 years later only one lineage survived, meaning that one clan of men completely ousted or outbred the others. But the people of the Early Bronze, c. 2000 BC, were different yet again.

Anyway the genetic history of Europe continues to get more complicated, with more evidence of conquest, movement, and mixing. Old notions of populations and cultures that developed in place over thousands of years have collapsed.

Links 27 August 2021

Painted wooden decoration form a 17th-century Syrian house, now in the Pergamon Museum, Berlin

Hilarious 90-second Nike commercial from 1996, featuring a soccer game against the legions of hell.

Which I discovered from this essay examining the rise of the woke corporation, seen through Nike ads.

Planning for the coming wave of discarded, worn out electric car batteries.

Insanely detailed drawings of imaginary cities by Benjamin Sack.

Astonishing scenes in the aftermath of flash flooding in Waverly, Tennessee, where a storm dropped 17 inches of rain in 24 hours, a new state record: ABC, CNN, and drone footage from "Live Storm Media". FEMA is one of my clients, so I spend a fair amount of time perusing disaster recovery footage, and this is extraordinary. Whenever you see storm footage, look at the topography; a lot of what the news shows is water on floodplains, which are supposed to flood. But in Waverly the flooding extended way beyond that.

At the Smithsonian, photographs of East Baltimore in the 1970s.

Compared to single-use plastic bags, "An organic cotton tote needs to be used 20,000 times to offset its overall impact of production." (NY Times) The most thorough study I have seen says that if you can use a regular plastic bag twice, that beats any conceivable re-usable bag in terms of CO2 production and overall environmental impact.

Oft-cited study arguing that you can get people to be more honest by asking them to sign a promise at the top of their reporting form, rather than the bottom, turns out to be a complete fraud. I suppose the journal didn't demand that the authors sign at the top.

Interesting article on how US National Park Service policy toward wild animals has shifted over time, focusing on Yellowstone's famous elk herd.

Professional critics who give even slightly negative reviews to hot movies or tv shows are sometimes savagely vilified online. B.D. McClay astutely points out that this represents a collision of professional reviewing with fan cultures, within which a positive attitude toward the material is assumed. Sometimes it seems to me that fandom has become the most powerful cultural force in America; my children often say things like "fandom has to die."

The fashion we called "preppy" in my youth is back under the name "old money aesthetic."

New museum of astronomy in Shanghai by Ennead Architects, cool but looks like all the other recent big museums. 

Resisting the pressure to work: the "Lying Flat" movement. (NY Times)

If you could quit your job and earn your living from your hobby – say, ceramics – would that be a good thing?

A judge in California has ordered UC Berkeley to freeze its planned enrollment growth until it completes a full study of the environmental impact. This is under California law; California's environmental protection law, if taken literally, can be applied to just about anything, and is one of the tools NIMBY-ists have used to block many developments. 

Freddie de Boer, an education expert who is very far left, says there is no relationship between spending and educational outcomes in US schools, so spending more money will not close educational gaps. (He thinks a socialist revolution would help, but he doesn't get into that here; anyway he thinks the problems are rooted in our society, not in our schools.)

Richard Hanania asks what our failure in Afghanistan says about the "expertise" of western political scientists, given that our Afghan crew was full of Ph.D.s  who had authored books called "Fixing Failed States" and the like.

Josh Marshall attacks the press over its Afghanistan coverage: "the lightning collapse of the Afghan Army and the Afghan state, far from making me question the decision to withdraw, has removed any doubt in my mind that it was the correct one."

In the same vein, Ezra Klein attacks the "incompetence dodge": "There was no good way to lose Afghanistan to the Taliban. A better withdrawal was possible  — but so was a worse one. Either way, there was no hope of an end to the war that didn’t reveal our decades of folly, no matter how deeply America’s belief in its own enduring innocence demanded one." (NY Times)

Adam Kirsch: "High culture now functions like a counterculture, entailing a conscious act of dissent from the mainstream."

Twenty-first century soul: Black Pumas, "Colors"; Amy Winehouse, "Love is a Losing Game": Alabama Shakes, "Hold On"; Mavis Staples, "No Time for Cryin"; Gnarls Barkley, "Crazy"; Bettye LaVette, "Things Have Changed": Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings, "Stranger To My Happiness".

Thursday, August 26, 2021

The Green Knight

The first time I read Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, at 18, I thought it was stupid.

When I re-read it 15 years later, I found it fascinating. The story is certainly stupid, but the meta-story is something else. The plot is a game within a game within a game: a quest imposed on Gawain, which is part of a trick being played by Morgan le Fey on Guinevere and Arthur, which is in turn part of a world where everything is a contest for fame and glory. Arthur takes us to that world in the first lines, when he announces that they can't start the Christmas feast until something adventurous happens. But at the same time, the world seems magical and, I don't know, eldritch; the landscape these rather silly people move through has magic in its soil, and these tricks may somehow be echoes of ancient, deep, and terrible stories.

I would say that the world is halfway between that of Beowulf and that of Don Quixote; the whole thing is crazy, but instead of laughing we are swept along by the sheer weirdness of the action and the seriousness with which Gawain approaches his ridiculous task. Never mind that the whole thing is contrived and pointless, called a "game" by Arthur right at the beginning; Gawain is still determined to see it through and prove his courage. And maybe the echoes of epic battle and pagan sacrifice indicate that there is some value in the gesture, some repetition of a timeless quest by a timeless hero.

So now there is a movie, The Green Knight, directed by David Lowery, and starring Dev Patel as Gawain. I saw it and thought it was ok.

It is visually fascinating, both in the overall look and in many individual images. There are some good creepy bits, and moments of beauty. It has some ok magic. There is a nice side trip into a famous folk tale.

There are two things that bothered me about it. The first is that the whole structure of the trick has been changed; instead of a petty little attack by Morgan le Fey on Guinevere it is a completely different trick being created by a different person for an altogether more serious purpose, which undermines the thing that now fascinates me about the medieval story: the sense that chivalry is a pointless game people play for fun and honor, but that somehow still echoes grim old epics. This is also shown right at the beginning, for reasons I still don't understand; in the story you have to read to nearly the end to find out what is going on.

Second, the movie's Gawain is one of those utterly unbelievable modern takes on a medieval character. This Gawain is a womanizing drunk, which is ok, there were plenty of noble womanizing drunks in the Middle Ages. But he has a common girlfriend who thinks she might become his wife, and he furthermore does none of the things that even drunken, womanizing noble sons had to do, like train with weapons and boss around servants. Plus, he's a coward. In the world of the Arthurian stories, there is zero chance that Arthur's nephew could be like this.

I thought, from the way it was advertised, that the film would tend toward horror, playing up the creepiness and the fear; but the revelation of the trick at the beginning undermines any fear for Gawain's life. The Green Knight isn't very scary, and a lot more could have been done to make the others Gawain meets along the way creepier. So in the end it isn't very scary at all.

I'm not sure what it was, other than pretty and distracting. But it might still have been the best new (to me) movie I have seen in a year or more. I guess I'm just hard to satisfy these days.

Form Energy Goes for Iron-Air Batteries

Form Energy is a new company whose investors include Bill Gates, Singapore's sovereign wealth fund, and several other big players. The founders are all scientists at MIT. They are trying to improve electrical grids and speed the transition to renewable power two ways: better batteries, and better grid-control software.

The buzz about the company is mainly about iron-air batteries. Metal-air batteries are an old technology; they basically work by turning a pure metal into its oxidized form and back again, like iron to rust and back to iron. This is a great way to store energy but if you think about rust for a minute you might realize that it flakes off and turns to dust and otherwise falls apart, making it hard to turn it back into whatever its previous form was. This has always been the main limitation on metal-air batteries; they work great, but only for a few cycles. After that they quickly degrade.

Form Energy claims to have a solution. If so, that is big news, because existing utility-scale batteries rely on rare metals like lithium and cobalt, and people are worried that this will make it hard to decarbonize the economy that way. But we have iron in practically limitless supply, and we are also very good at recycling it when it is worn out. So if we could build even a decent fraction of our batteries with iron that would very much help.

More: Form Energy's web site, wikipedia article on metal-air batteries.

Wednesday, August 25, 2021

Thomas Mann, "The Magic Mountain"

The Magic Mountain (1924) is a very long, extremely famous but rather puzzling novel that is supposed to say something profound about Europe before the First World War. I listened to the whole thing, enjoyed a lot of it, found the text and reread some of the parts that most interested or moved me. But I am still not at all sure what the profound thing is.

In 1912 Thomas Mann's wife spent a few months at a tuberculosis sanatorium in Davos, Switzerland, and Mann visited her there. He wrote a short, comic novella about the experience but never revised or finished it. Then the war came. Mann was whipsawed by the war, first taking up a German nationalism so militant it puzzled his friends, then sliding into a depressed pacifism as the nightmare blundered toward its grim conclusion.

Mann pulled out the unpublished novella about Davos, reread it, and no longer found the jokes funny. But rather than throwing it away he decided that he had a chance to make it into something much bigger, something that would capture the mood of Europe in 1912, and shed light on what happened to drive the continent to slaughter.

The Magic Mountain is the story of Hans Castorp, a young man just out of the university, with a job waiting for him as an engineer at a Hamburg shipyard where his family has strong connections. He decides to take a break by making a two-week visit to his cousin, who has been at the sanatorium for several months. This way he will offer moral support to his cousin while resting his mind before he dives into his career. But he gets sick, turns out to have some TB himself, and settles in for a long stay.

The book begins with a sort of forward about storytelling. The narrator informs us that all real stories have to be set  in a world different from our own. Davos in 1912 qualifies because, although it was not long ago, the cataclysm of world war separates it from the present. We remember that world, the narrator says, but we can hardly believe we lived in it.

Mann does a lot of work to create the sanatorium as a world apart. The patients have their own vocabulary, their little rituals, special skills like a certain way of wrapping yourself in blankets when you sit in your balcony lounge chair for the outdoor "rest cure," mandatory no matter the weather. Once people have gotten used to life "up above," it is implied over and over, they have a great deal of trouble returning to life "below," and many of them clearly have no desire to. Whatever they left behind – spouses, children, jobs –they are happy to leave it there. Up above they enter a social world with its own parties, outings, and affairs, given a special intimacy and charge because everyone may be dying.

Time, the narrator tells us, passes differently on the mountain. People hardly talk about days or weeks; a month is the smallest unit of time that signifies. This launches Mann into a fascinating reverie about time. He asks why it seems to pass at differing rates, how it is related to motion and change. He calls music "frozen time," and says that time is equally vital to stories, which must unfold in time, one thing after another.  So one reason this is a famous book is that it has some real intellectual content. Which reminds me of a line from William James, "There is, it must be confessed, a curious fascination in hearing deep things talked about, even though neither we nor the disputants understand them."

Insofar as I understand the deeper point, it seems to be that the sanatorium represents Europe, and its occupants the European elite, sleep-walking their way toward Armageddon, paying no attention to events that seem far off and unimportant but turn out to be earth-shatteringly important. There is also a sense that life before the war was just so boring, so trivial, that it was hard to care about it at all, and that maybe compared to that ennui the war was at least real and vital. But as I said, I am not sure I understood.

So let me write about something I think I do understand. Not long after arriving, Hans Castorp meets an Italian named Settembrini, who becomes one of the key characters. Settembrini is a liberal rationalist who thinks the world needs more reason, more democracy, more freedom. He has just accepted a writing assignment, helping with an Encyclopedia of Human Suffering. The idea is to catalog all the different types of suffering, and then discuss the ways each might be ameliorated, applying learning and reason to the task of improving life in every way. He is a perfect caricature of people like that, the ones excited about the future of humanity under democracy, science and reason.

Later on we meet another character, Naphta, who turns out to be Settembrini's foil. Naphta is a bit of a cheat, in that he is both a Jesuit and a radical socialist, which allows him to attack liberalism from many directions. As a Jesuit he abhors its avoidance of final things, its refusal to take any stand on the ultimate questions of life and the universe. As a radical he pours scorn on on liberal politics, which he says really only mean the triumph of bourgeois capitalism. As for reason and democracy, the two are incompatible, since what democracy really gives you is the madness of nationalism. He is particularly trenchant on education. Settembrini, of course, is a fan of liberal education, and he looks forward to a future in which mechanics and loom setters will read and love the Iliad and the Aeneid. Naphta says that such "liberal" studies are only for the rich, who use them to separate themselves from the rest of humanity, and that actual workers have no interest in such things.

In reading these passages I felt very strongly that the politics of our time were already present in the exact same form in Mann's Europe, whether one takes that to be 1912 or 1924. Naphta does not have the word, but he is accusing Settembrini of Neoliberalism, a democratic cloak on a corrupt system that really benefits only the rich, and that is spiritually vacant at the core. It is simply not enough, not enough to fulfill us emotionally, and not enough to create real justice in the world. Settembrini responds that while revolution is sometimes a noble ideal, in practice it usually just means killing people, and that religious certainty is destructive of community, morals, and peace: whatever their limitations, reason and democracy are the only real hope for humanity.

I think Mann would perfectly understand the politics of our own time. And this realization gave me a strange sense that we are stuck with this world, and these arguments. At this level of civilization, they are inevitable. These are the issues of our time, and we, unable to resolve them, will just have to deal with them as best we can.

I was also struck by the realization that Mann's world, that he makes seem so much like our own, was about to fall into a fifty-year crisis of war, revolution, genocide, and sundry other sorts of mayhem. Since 1945 Europe has always stayed away from the brink, I suppose because everyone knows what crossing the line would mean. But give that we are, fundamentally, in the same situation, how much longer can we keep from falling into the abyss again?

Tuesday, August 24, 2021

Kaneko Tomiyuki

Japanese artist Kaneko Tomiyuki was born in 1978. He is a practicing Buddhist with interests in both Buddhist theology and Japanese folklore. He paints a lot of ghosts and demons and the like. I find his work to be an interesting combination of traditional Japanese art, some Indian influence, and some modern approaches, perhaps with a bit of Anime thrown in.

The Longing for a Career

Interesting article in the NY Times today on how the attitudes of workers have changed during the pandemic. Reluctant to return to their old jobs, and cushioned by federal benefits, people are looking for something better. Many, of course, are demanding more pay, guaranteed hours, improved working conditions. But quite a few are asking for something different: a path upward. 

What many Americans want, it seems, is not just a job but a career. And companies are responding; surveying the job openings on internet hiring sites, the Times finds that mentions of "training" and "opportunities for advancement" have increased by a third over last year. Companies like hotels and restaurant chains are dangling, not just improved pay, but the chance to move into supervisory jobs. Some are rethinking what jobs actually require a college degree, allowing more entry-level people to move into white collar slots.

Careerism seems to be a big preoccupation in the firms I have worked for. Every time senior management offers people a chance to ask questions, usually after a presentation about some re-organization or another, many queries focus on career paths: how do I move up? How do I get the experience I need to move up? Can I get support for training? The project management courses I consider to be a chore are seen by many as a plum reward, and there is, I was shocked to discover, a scrum to get into them whenever they are offered.

This is one of the things that I find most striking about our world: many people want a ladder to climb. They are ok with low wages now if they believe they will move up in the future. They want the things that go with a career: rising pay, more impressive titles, training in new skills, travel to conferences or seminars. And also, maybe, respect and a greater sense of self worth.

I have said this before, but it seems like the main reward our society has to offer people who are doing the right things is a career with a visible path, however narrow and difficult, toward the top.

Sunday, August 22, 2021

The Rock Art of Resistance in South Africa

South Africa has a famous tradition of rock painting going back thousands of years. But among the depictions of animals and traditional dances are other images like this one, which depicts a man on horseback, carrying a gun, with the cattle he is presumably rustling.

These images were painted by escaped slaves who lived around the fringes of European settlement. The Dutch settlers were legally prohibited from enslaving the local natives, so they imported enslaved workers from other parts of Africa. But some local Khoe-San people were enslaved, illegally. These locals of course found it easier to escape, but it seems that some people from other areas joined them. They formed mixed bandit gangs, hunting wild animals when they could but also stealing cattle and food from Dutch settlements. The Dutch settlers called these mixed gangs Skelmbasters.

And they left these wonderful records on their presence, and their resistance.

The Dutch-Portuguese War, 1602-1661

In the 1600s, the Dutch and the Portuguese fought a war. Nothing unusual in that, European nations fought each other all the time. But this war was nonetheless something quite new in human history.

Velasquez, The Surrender of Breda, 1634, an incident in the Dutch-Spanish War

The background is that the Dutch were fighting for their independence from Spain, which they did not formally secure until 1648. Portugal was at that time part of Spain, because of a dynastic alliance. So Dutch ships regularly attacked Portuguese ships, considering their cargoes spoils of war. Even after a truce was agreed in 1588 Dutch pirates continued to prey on Portuguese shipping. Some Dutch leaders thought this was a bad idea and tried to stop the pirates. Then in 1595 some English privateers captured a Portuguese ship returning from the Indies with so much spice, silk and other valuables that the amount of cash in the English treasury was doubled.

Dutch Ships Off Brazil

Both the English and the Dutch redoubled their efforts to explore the Indian Ocean and reach the riches of India, Indonesia, China, and Japan. The Dutch East India Company was founded in 1602 and sent its first expedition to India that same year. The Portuguese, used to monopolizing that trade, threatened to attack any Dutch ships they found in that region; the start of the war is usually dated to that Portuguese declaration. But it was the Dutch who attacked first, seizing a Portuguese galleon in February, 1603; the value of its cargo, including 1200 bales of Chinese silk, doubled the capital of the East India Company overnight. The war was on.

Battle off Malacca

And what a war it was. Besides lasting 59 years, it included naval battles in the Sea of Japan, off Macau in China, off Goa and Kochi in India, off Malacca in Malaysia, off the Azores, and at Sao Tome in the Bight of Benin.

Dutch forces in Sri Lanka

Land battles were fought in Brazil, Angola, South Africa, India, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Sumatra, and Taiwan.

The Dutch seized what is now northeastern Brazil in 1621, lost it in 1625, then took it again and held it for two decades; this is a Dutch depiction of the siege and conquest of Recife.

And that is why Recife still has a bunch of lovely Dutch colonial buildings, some of which now house a tech incubator called Porto Digital. Which is actually how I got started on this post, reading about Porto Digital on a global tech web site and wondering why Recife was full of Dutch buildings.

Battle for Goa in India

Morally, this was one of history's more sordid wars, nothing but a naked power struggle over imperial possessions and the profits of trade. The Portuguese Empire was horribly brutal wherever they could get away with it – especially in Angola, where they were the only European nation to do much African slave raiding, and in Brazil, where their treatment of slaves was little short of genocide. But the Dutch were not much better, especially in Brazil, where their only aim was to get some of those vast sugar profits for themselves. On the other hand they did tolerate Jews, and one of the first synagogues in the New World was in Dutch Recife.

Battle off India's Malabar Coast

But technologically and organizationally, the war was astounding. Nations could now send fleets and armies to the other side of the globe. A new kind of empire was emerging, built not by the vast land armies of the Romans or the Mongols but by fleets of little wooden ships armed with canons. The new empires were supported, not by taxes or tribute, but by the profits from trade between Europe and Asia, and from plantation agriculture in the New World. Ships became the world's most potent weapons, and despite tenuous supply lines and vulnerability to local diseases, European navies could now dominate the seacoasts of every continent. Part of what moved me to write this was my bewilderment at the thought of a sea battle off China between two small European nations; what, do you suppose, did Chinese observers make of that?

The human cost of European expansion into Asia was high. Thousands of men set sail on these wooden death traps, never to return. But the profits were so great that the ventures went on. Men came from the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, England, France, Denmark, and more, enduring miserable shipboard conditions for pay and a chance to see the world. Their courage was supported by a vast trove of knowledge slowly built up since the first caravels dared the Atlantic: shipbuilding, sail-rigging, sailing, provisioning, along with ever better charts that showed not just land and sea but winds, currents, and weather patterns like the monsoon. Learning more every year, they gradually extended their reach. They traded fought, and sailed their way to domination of the globe.  

Saturday, August 21, 2021

Kahlil Gibran, "Defeat"

Defeat, my Defeat, my solitude and my aloofness;
You are dearer to me than a thousand triumphs,
And sweeter to my heart than all world-glory.

Defeat, my Defeat, my self-knowledge and my defiance,
Through you I know that I am yet young and swift of foot
And not to be trapped by withering laurels.
And in you I have found aloneness
And the joy of being shunned and scorned.

Defeat, my Defeat, my shining sword and shield,
In your eyes I have read
That to be enthroned is to be enslaved,
And to be understood is to be leveled down,
And to be grasped is but to reach one’s fullness
And like a ripe fruit to fall and be consumed.

Defeat, my Defeat, my bold companion,
You shall hear my songs and my cries and my silences,
And none but you shall speak to me of the beating of wings,
And urging of seas,
And of mountains that burn in the night,
And you alone shall climb my steep and rocky soul.

Defeat, my Defeat, my deathless courage,
You and I shall laugh together with the storm,
And together we shall dig graves for all that die in us,
And we shall stand in the sun with a will,
And we shall be dangerous.


Friday, August 20, 2021

House of the Muses, Zeugma

Zeugma is, or was, a Turkish town on the Euphrates River, founded by the Hellenistic ruler Seleucus Nikator in 300 BC. In 64 BC it passed under the rule of Rome, part of a client kingdom. In AD 70 a legionary fortress was built there, making it a key defensive position on Rome's eastern frontier. In 252 it was sacked by a Persian army and pretty much disappeared for centuries. It came back in the Middle Ages, but only in a modest way. Then in 2000 much of the town was flooded by the rising water of a new dam along the Euphrates.

While the water was rising, archaeologists conducted desperate salvage excavations. They dug into 13 large houses, uncovering many wonderful mosaics. They had little time to do more than photograph everything and then cut out the best mosaics for display in some future, as yet unplanned museum. (Which now exists!)

But when the lake finished rising, only about a third of the ancient city was under water. Archaeological work has continued at the site, of course at a much slower pace. One of the sites that was not drowned was a villa known, after this mosaic, as the House of the Muses.

This house produced one of the most famous images from Zeugma, which used to be known as the Gypsy Girl; not sure what people call it now.

The House of the Muses is back in the news because the Turkish authorities plan to open it to the public, so there will be something for people who make their way to Zeugma to see.

Seems like a very cool place, with wall frescoes as well as mosaic floors.


Links 20 August 2021

Jaoquin Sorolla, A Saint at Prayer, 1888

An interview with Robert Reich, economist and self-styled "angry progressive."

With its army defeated by rebels, will Ethiopia collapse? If so, how might that happen? This paper argues that Ethiopia was highly decentralized for most of its history and might revert to that state.

Gustave Doré's engravings of London's East End, published in 1872.

Nobody born blind has ever been diagnosed with schizophrenia.

Last Friday spawned another round of nonsense about Why the Number 13 Is Unlucky. Here is CNN. Sigh. You have to wonder about the people who write these articles without even checking wikipedia. Or my blog. Here is the one and only correct answer.

Archaeologists document the tough lives of the people buried at Canada's Fort Louisbourg.

In more Canadian news, syphilis infections are soaring in Edmonton, Alberta apparently in tandem with a surge in methamphetamine use. Oh, the simple, virtuous lives of the Heartland.

Interesting look at the thriving tech scene in Lagos, Nigeria. Another thing that seems to be going great in Nigeria despite rampant crime, staggering corruption, and a low-grade civil war.

From the NY Times obituary of the man who made Sudoku popular, I learn that at least 200 million people worldwide have completed a Sudoku puzzle.

Lacy street murals by Nespoon.

The Deep State Dogs are volunteers who pour through video footage from the January 6 riot to identify participants and document criminal acts.

Classical Monuments covers the famous Temple of Bel at Palmyra.

Why is the Chinese government going after some of the top Chinese tech companies?

Vox overview of the degrowth movement, not positive.

Against fear of an insect apocalypse, snarky but seems fact-based. Many news outlets have reported that after a few rough years in the early 2000s, honeybees are doing just fine, and the same seems to be true of insects in general.

One good thing about having liberal billionaires is that they can pioneer green technologies for fun. Consider hydrogen-powered boats, which some experts say are the only feasible way to decarbonize shipping, now being tested out as luxury yachts. 

The attempted hardline coup against Mikhail Gorbachev, which led to the dissolution of the Soviet Union, took place 30 years ago this week. As the music that led into their television announcement of the coup, the plotters chose "Swan Lake," which strikes me as perfect for a foolish fantasy.

Ethereal witchy music: Loreena McKennit, "Samain Night", "The Old Ways"; Clannad, "I Will Find You"; Enya, "Now We Are Free", "May it Be."

Wednesday, August 18, 2021


Crocheted canopy in the village of Alhaurín de la Torre, Malaga, Spain, created by Eva Pacheco and her students. Via This is Colossal.

Populist Economic Thinking

Here's a piece of research documenting something many of us have long known: that many people refuse to believe an economic transaction can benefit both parties:

A core proposition in economics is that voluntary exchanges benefit both parties. We show that people often deny the mutually beneficial nature of exchange, instead espousing the belief that one or both parties fail to benefit from the exchange. Across four studies (and 8 further studies in the online supplementary materials), participants read about simple exchanges of goods and services, judging whether each party to the transaction was better off or worse off afterward. These studies revealed that win–win denial is pervasive, with buyers consistently seen as less likely to benefit from transactions than sellers. Several potential psychological mechanisms underlying win–win denial are considered, with the most important influences being mercantilist theories of value (confusing wealth for money) and theory of mind limits (failing to observe that people do not arbitrarily enter exchanges). We argue that these results have widespread implications for politics and society. 

Are they ever. I would emphasize, though, a different axis than buyer-seller. The working people I have hung around with seem to think that in every transaction, the richer party wins; unless, that is, the other party is clever enough to have pulled off some kind of trick. The idea that, say, the person who hires a roofer and the roofer himself benefit equally (one gets a new roof, the other cash) seems absurd; obviously either the roofer ripped off the homeowner, or else the market was bad and the roofer had to accept a terrible price from a smug bastard unwilling to share his wealth in tough times.

In this view life is a constant struggle in which everyone is using every advantage he has to get the slightest edge. Money is the biggest advantage, so the rich usually win, but smarts or fraud sometimes beat it. Only a fool thinks hard work will ever get you ahead.

I think the ubiquity of this thinking explains why, on the one hand, few workers are big supporters of capitalism — big firms are obviously using their advantage to screw everyone else – but on the other hand don't much like socialism, because when have you ever gotten a good deal from the government? The only alternative to this jungle kingdom would be a utopia of kindness in which people shared all they had willingly, without ever worrying about keeping score.

Tuesday, August 17, 2021

The Tragedy of Afghanistan

You all know what I think about Afghanistan: that Taliban victory was inevitable, and US forces could delay it for as long as we felt like bearing the cost but never change the country's basic politics. The government we defended was never anything but a democratic facade over a cesspit of corruption, a monstrosity no Afghan would fight to defend. There was also the cost of the unending war, hundreds of deaths every year and great economic dislocation.

But I do recognize the tragedy unfolding. Consider just one example, the Afghan all- girls robotics team:

The Afghan Dreamers all-girls robotics team was supposed to embody a new vision of Afghanistan. The team was made up of teenagers who grew up in the post-Taliban era, and had access to cell phones, TV, and the Internet. The group, founded in 2017 by Roya Mahboob, Afghanistan’s first female tech CEO, was based in Afghanistan’s third largest city, Herat, and built a reputation for itself of being vibrant and resourceful.

The Afghan Dreamers competed internationally, and won. During the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic, the team worked on a low-cost ventilator using parts from old Toyota cars. The team’s enthusiasm and success earned it support from the Afghan government, which agreed to help build The Dreamer Institute in Kabul to educate youth from across the country. Members of the team wanted to start their own companies, become engineers — even go to Mars.

Not that they were ever going to Mars, but where are they going now?

I understand, in the abstract, why many people around the world reject western capitalism with its consumerism, exploitation, and worship of shallow celebrities, all fueled by drugs legal or not. But is the only alternative repressive religious dictatorship? Why must the joy be drained out of life, the enthusiasm of girl robotocists demolished? Is it because the only other model we have is reactionary misery?

Could there be a world that is free without being disgusting? Or is repression the only way to fight grotesque inequality, rampant pornography, homeless camps in every city and ever spreading for-profit sleaze? So the only question is where to place your marker on an eternal sliding scale?

One of the pieces that makes up the modern, western, liberal outlook is pacifism. In the US this does not seem to be a crisis, and we still have plenty of soldiers. But would we if we ever got the kind of country American liberals want? In Afghanistan, the more people identified with the west, the less willing they were to fight for their vision of society. Was that just an Afghan problem, or was it something we should all ponder? The forces of reaction are not going away, and in many places they have guns.

The Return of the Professional Satirist

For many people, the greatest danger they could face is mockery; the worst thing they can imagine is to fail and be laughed at for it. In some societies this was institutionalized, and social norms were generally enforced by fear of the mockery you would get for transgressing them. In England there was an ancient tradition of "rough music" that involved catching people in adultery or some other kind of cheating and making a huge rowdy noise to announce it to the world.

In some Celtic societies people with a talent for satire were figures of awe and fear; there is a character in the ancient Irish epics who shows up all over the place, even in royal bedrooms, "because he was a great satirist and could not be kept out." As recently as the 1920s, the people who stole a carved medieval stone on the Isle of Skye were persuaded to return it when a local poet threatened to publish a satire about them. Compared to that, the hundreds of pounds they had hoped to get from selling the stone seemed unimportant.

And now, in Mozambique, the fusion of old-fashioned satire with social media:

Sam Chitsama’s mobile constantly buzzes with WhatsApp notifications: emojis, song lyrics, texts from furious clients and joyful ones — and electronic payments. Chitsama, 33, is a keyboard player and dancer from Mozambique, who has made a name for himself as a singer for hire among South Africa’s 400,000-strong Mozambican diaspora.

Singing mostly in Ndau, a local language spoken across borders in western Mozambique and eastern Zimbabwe, Chitsama peppers his songs with Portuguese and isiZulu phrases. There are occasional love songs and pieces in tribute to good employers or charitable acts, but most of Chitsama’s business comes from “gossip songs.” “If paid,” he told Rest of World, “I sing of your private family feuds to the public on WhatsApp.”

In migrant communities, many based around the gold mining towns of Springs and Welkom, and in Soweto, South Africa’s biggest township, these “gossip songs” are big business. Clients — jilted wives out to publicly shame their husbands’ mistresses, neighbors wanting to broadcast the name of an untouchable cattle thief, a sibling rebuking a brother who has grabbed the entire share of a family inheritance — pay musicians like Chitsama $40 (600 rands) to record, mix, and broadcast songs via WhatsApp. Chitsama also charges an optional $60 “booster” fee every three months to re-share files of a client’s gossip songs to his hordes of offline and WhatsApp fans in South Africa and thousands back home in Mozambique.

Cats and Contrafreeloading

Cats. What can you say?

When given the choice between a free meal and performing a task for a meal, cats would prefer the meal that doesn’t require much effort. While that might not come as a surprise to some cat lovers, it does to cat behaviorists. Most animals prefer to work for their food — a behavior called contrafreeloading.

A new study from researchers at the University of California, Davis, School of Veterinary Medicine showed most domestic cats choose not to contrafreeload. The study found that cats would rather eat from a tray of easily available food rather than work out a simple puzzle to get their food.

“There is an entire body of research that shows that most species including birds, rodents, wolves, primates — even giraffes — prefer to work for their food,” said lead author Mikel Delgado, a cat behaviorist and research affiliate at UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine. “What’s surprising is out of all these species cats seem to be the only ones that showed no strong tendency to contrafreeload.”

I have seen some commenters musing on why most animals would rather work, but that makes perfect sense to me. When I invite people to a dinner party they all ask "What can I bring?" and when they show up half of them come into the kitchen to help.

Monday, August 16, 2021

US Census 2020

Overall population up 7.4%, to 331 million.

This is the slowest growth since the 1930s, and 52% of counties lost people.

The numbers on ethnicity are complicated, because the way race is counted and reported has been "evolving." Now we have complications like "Hispanic, white," "Hispanic, non-white", and "Hispanic, more than one race," and a lot more mixed-race people. The various tables presented by the Census Bureau don't even agree with each other.

But, anyway, the numbers seem to show that the white-only population shrank 8.6%, to 204 million.

The multiracial population grew 276%, to 33.8 million. This has to be mainly due to people reclassifying themselves.

The Hispanic population grew 23%, to 61 million. 

The Asian population grew 32%, to 24 million.

The black population grew 6%, to 47 million.

This table from CNN shows their interpretation of the ethnic breakdown:

Sunday, August 15, 2021

Faces of Fayum

Mummy portraits from Roman Egypt, 1st century BC to around 300 AD. A majority come from the Fayum area, which is how they came to be called Fayum Portraits, but some have been found in other parts of Egypt. Hundreds of these survive. The quality varies from the clumsy and cartoonish to the extraordinary. We know more about what these people looked like than any other population that lived before photography.