Tuesday, November 30, 2021

Real and Fake

The "Alfred Jewel," depicting Alfred the Great of England, now in the Ashmolean Museum. The inscription says AELFRED MEC HEHT GEWYRCAN – 'Alfred ordered me to be made’, and the consensus is that this is an authentic artifact of the reign of Alfred (871-899 AD).

Then there is this "Alfred Jewel," which the Metropolitan Museum in New York used to display as an authentic artifact of Alfred's reign but now believes is a nineteenth-century fake. Not a bad copy!

Monday, November 29, 2021

QAnon and Politics

It is hard for a rationalist like me to evaluate something like QAnon. How much does this fountain of nonsense matter? It seems just too crazy to me to have any impact on the real world, and yet polls show that millions of Americans give some credence to the pronouncements of QAnon prophets.

But one thing we know about movements like this is that crazy people don't get along with each other very well, making it hard for them to organize or stay unified. Rolling Stone reports that QAnon stalwart Lin Wood has attacked the "Stop the Steal" fundraising organization created by some of Trump's friends:

Right-wing darling Kyle Rittenhouse, the teen acquitted of murder for killing two people at a racial justice protest, sent the QAnon world into a tailspin when he said in interviews that Lin Wood, a leading QAnon believer and Trump attorney who briefly represented Rittenhouse, was “insane” and had “taken advantage” of him.

That prompted right-wing Trump allies — including Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, alt-right activist Jack Posobiec and former Trump White House aide Sebastian Gorka — to come out against Wood. In response, Wood has been posting through it, making wild claims without evidence. Over the past few days, he has shared increasingly outrageous claims on his Telegram and turned on pro-Trumpers who used to be his allies, including Sidney Powell, Sebastian Gorka and Michael Flynn.

“After doing the research and connecting the dots, I have reached the conclusion that the Stop the Steal organization is a Deep State organization to raise money for purposes other than to FIX 2020. … WATCH OUT for anyone affiliated with Stop the Steal. Every lie will be revealed,” Wood posted on Friday. . . .

The posting continued on Saturday after he took a six hour overnight break. Wood accused Trump-endorsed Vernon Jones, who is running Georgia’s lieutenant governor, of being a “career Democrat, racist [and] sexual predator.”

Wood also promised, “More Deep State players will be revealed to you.”

Saturday, November 27, 2021

Patrick O'Brian, "Master and Commander"

I didn't hear about Patrick O'Brian's series of sea novels until about 15 years ago, maybe because of the 2003 movie. I checked in my library but all I found was one volume, maybe the 15th in the long series. It was boring. I mentioned this to a friend who is a fan and he said, "Yeah, he should have stopped writing long before the end. You should read one of the first few."

Last week I noticed that my library had purchased new copies of the first ten book in the series, so I took the first one home: Master and Commander, published in 1969. I just finished it and I liked it, but I don't think I will rush out and get another.

The story opens in 1800 in Minorca, one of the chief bases of the British Mediterranean fleet. The two central characters are Jack Aubrey, a naval officer, and Stephen Maturin, an Irish physician who is broke and needs a job badly enough to sign on as a ship's surgeon. Aubrey receives his first command, a sloop called the Sophie, and sets off cruising the Spanish coast in search of trouble.

The sloop HMS Speedy, on which the Sophie was based,
capturing a Spanish warship, a battle which is recreated in
"Master and Commander"

There are two remarkable things about the book, and, I gather, the others in the series. First is O'Brian's astonishing knowledge of Napoleonic seafaring and naval warfare. This is actually what attracted me to these stories. I have long been fascinated by the lore that sailors and shipwrights built up through the centuries of European expansion, allowing them to build vast fleets of wooden ships and sail them across all the oceans of the world. Not that I have room in my brain for much of that knowledge, but it intrigues me that it existed and has since been lost. Anyway Patrick O'Brian knew the rigging of such a ship as well as anyone in the twentieth century, and he immerses you in world where the wind and the power to harness it determine everything. The battle scenes are also as accurate as O'Brian could make them, since he copied them all straight out of admiralty reports, figuring that only by strict fidelity could he convince readers that such insane things really happened.

More interesting to me was O'Brian's recreation of the mental world of his protagonists. The British navy of that period was a fascinating monster. Engaged in a brutal struggle for world domination, it practiced a savage level of violence and held its officers and men to a standard of courage which seems to me downright insane. And yet it was much more than just a fighting force. It was a vast social world with its own politics, its own rituals, its own language. It was a gigantic career ladder that many men were ferociously determined to climb. I think O'Brian's Captain Aubrey splendidly captures the mindset of a man who thinks about battles half in terms of how to win or at least survive them, and half in terms of how fighting or not fighting them will impact his career.

I was even more impressed by the mind of Stephen Maturin. He strikes me as a spot-on recreation of a physician of the period, half practical knowledge and half Galenic theory; one of my favorite bits in the book is when he starts adding foul-tasting herbs to his medicines because the sailors think potent medicine should taste bad. His naturalizing is also terrific; he is boundlessly curious about everything from the distribution of plants to the anatomy of porpoises, but it all seems like random knowledge, with no meaningful theory or structure. I loved him.

The writing is pedestrian, and the plot is more a series of events than a story. But if you want to spend a few hours in the world of wooden ships and the violent men who sailed them, I know of no better way.

Friday, November 26, 2021

Poisoned Women and Beaded Dresses from Copper Age Spain

I wrote a few years ago about the amazing archaeology of Valencina de la Concepción in southern Spain, which was an important ritual site between about 3300 and 2200 BC. An astonishing find was made there in 2007, an unlooted tholos tomb dating to around 2850 BC known as the Montelirio Tholos.

(Actually, and it took me a long time to figure this out, they excavated two tombs at this site in 2007-2010, both from the same period: the Montelirio Tholos and this tomb. This second tomb goes by the splendid name of "Structure 10.042-10.049 of the PP4-Montelirio Sector." It is hard to imagine why you would make such an amazing find and then give it an absurdly bureaucratic name; I suppose Spanish archaeologists are sick of Germans looking down their noses at sloppy Iberian science and decided to show that they can be as technically precise as anybody. But I think the lack of a decent name for this feature confuses everyone, so that even normally reliable sources like the Metropolitan Museum can't keep straight which artifacts came from which tomb. The crystal dagger you see in every other article about the Montelirio Tholos actually came from this tomb.)

But to get back to the Montelirio Tholos. The tomb was very complex to excavate, because it was not filled all at once, and later on much of it was disturbed. Another source of confusion about these finds is that it took the excavators a long time to sort all of this out, and early news accounts are full of statements that I think are now rejected.

Here is a several times recopied plan of the main chamber; the gray is "disturbed," so you can see that quite a lot was lost. The vaguely linear thing running from top to bottom along the right side is a Roman period wall, which you can also see in the photo at the top.

A great many fabulous artifacts were recovered, with lots of exotic stuff like elephant ivory, ostrich egg shells, amber, and so on. Here are a bone comb and a set of stone "arrow heads" that are too finely made to have been any use.

Pigs and acorns appear together in the iconography more than once, and acorns carved from ivory were found, so it seems that the fall fattening of pigs in oak woods was of economic and ritual importance.

Near as can be told the chamber held the bodies of twenty women grouped around a stela roughly a meter tall. They were not put in all at once, since some were clearly moved to make room for later arrivals. On the other hand the bodies seem to have been moved before they completely fell to pieces, and the radiocarbon dates for all of them are essentially identical, so the process took years or decades rather than centuries. The contents of the small, adjacent chamber were thoroughly wrecked, and the bones smashed to small fragments, so no clue yet who those people were.

The women buried in the main chamber were remarkable people. They wore dresses made of thousands of shell beads; the total count of beads in this room is in the millions. The darker objects clustered around the neck are large amber beads that were incorporated into the pattern. Each of these dresses probably weighed about 20 pounds (8 to 10 kilos).

Reconstruction of the garb of one of these women; notice the red face paint

Most of the women were middle aged for the time, a median estimate of 31. But though they were dressed in such expensive clothes, they were not in good health. They suffered from arthritis and had signs of overwork in their hands and also in their legs; the analysts can't decide if the leg deformations are the sort you get from spending a lot of time squatting or if they were perhaps causes by years of acrobatic dancing. These women are back in the news this week because analysis has showed that they suffered from mercury poisoning.

This is not exactly surprising. Notice that in this reconstruction the walls of the tomb are red; in fact the whole tholos seems to have been painted red from the entrance on in. The paint used was cinnabar, mercury sulfide, which is highly toxic. Alas for them the Copper Age people of Iberia loved to paint everything red with cinnabar, and this is not the first time high levels of mercury have been noted in human bones of this period. The concentrations are so high that Spanish archaeologists think they must also have been painting their bodies with cinnabar, as the excavators chose to show in the reconstruction I reproduced above. 

According to the authors of the new study, the levels of mercury in these women's bones "would cause serious motor and cognitive dysfunctions." Which raises all sorts of interesting questions. Who were these women? The Spanish press has dubbed them "priestesses," which is as good a guess as any. (That drawing of the priestess originates with the excavation team but I found it in a news article called "Mother Goddess Temple of the Poisoned Priestesses." So somebody in Spain knows how to name things.) 

Whoever they were, they must have spent too much time around cinnabar, grinding it, making it into paint, putting the paint on themselves and anything else within reach. Did people notice that priestesses all eventually went mad? When they started to tremble and lose motor control, did people think they were in the grip of a divine disease? Did they think it was caused by too much contact with the spirit realm, or with the dead, or with objects others were forbidden to touch? Were these women surrounded by strange taboos?

And how did twenty of these women end up buried in one tomb? I have been imagining that this one school of priestesses got so crazy and made such terrifying prophesies that the people eventually walled them up in a special house and kept them all there until they died, at which point they were all deposited in the tomb, their line ending when the last red-painted corpse was carried in and the passage blocked with stone.

But of course I have no idea, and maybe the same ritual painting with cinnabar went on for centuries, sickening hundreds or thousands more people. This is what I love about archaeology, they way it inspires imagination about the past rather than filling in the whole story.

Links 26 November 2021

Edouard Manet, Head of Jean-Baptiste Faure, 1883

The copper mines in Israel's Timna Valley may or may not have been "King Solomon's Mines" (a phrase that never appears in the Bible), but archaeology done there raises all sorts of interesting questions about the societies and governments of Canaan in 1000 BC. (Smithsonian)

A Cambodian looter, facing death from cancer, is now identifying the objects he stole in museums and private collections around the world, helping Cambodia to recover them. (NY Times)

Obscene medieval names.

The Aerial Archaeology Mapping Explorer, which allows you to view archaeological features that have been documented across a fair percentage of England. Extraordinary.

Dezeen's architecture awards for 2021. A few are ghastly but some are interesting.

There is a woman on tiktok who has gotten kind of famous by arguing that ancient Rome didn't exist but was invented in the Renaissance, and Pompeii is a Victorian theme park. Of course I have not seen any of her videos but I always wonder in these cases who believes it and why. Is it all just trolling? Sometimes I feel bad that I have never had more success as a blogger but then I read about the people who have and have no desire to be them.

Wild turkeys were rare a hundred years ago, but as hunting has declined and suburbs have spread, they have surged back. Now they have become pests in many areas and are taking over college campuses across the Midwest and Northeast; most people find this cute, but they can be aggressive and some people are not amused by their thievery. (NY Times)

Magdalena Andersson was Prime Minister of Sweden for seven hours. I foresee a long future for her as the answer to a trivia question.

Richard Rorty's pragmatism.

Large trial finds that psilocybin is an effective treatment for depression. On the other hand the study seems to show that psilocybin works about as well as Lexapro, which I find discouraging; if you can get the same effect from a much less dangerous drug, why would you take psilocybin? Ok, I can think of one reason why, but this doesn't seem like great medical progress to me. This is nothing like as promising as the results some trials are finding for ketamine.

The killers of Ahmaud Arbery were convicted after a trial in which the prosecutors never mentioned race or racism. I feel like there is a lesson in that about how progressives can make progress on a whole range of issues. (NY Times)

The current course of the pandemic doesn't look good. It seems clear that everyone is going to need at least one booster, and that we need a new vaccine better formulated to fight the Delta variant. New variants keep emerging, and one spotted in South Africa may be even more resistant to the existing vaccines. I suspect that we are in for another bad wave over the winter. I suppose the bright side is that improvements in treatments mean that fewer people will die.

The grim toll of air pollution, especially in the cities of India and China. The rich nations have shown that cleaning up particulate pollution can be done, but they have also shown how much it costs to do so.

Glossary of new dating terms. I love "breadcrumbing."

Shaun Tan, wonderful sculptural illustrations to Grimm's Fairy Tales.

The ancient songs used to soothe cattle.

Thursday, November 25, 2021

More J.M.W. Turner

Venice, 1843

Fire in London, 1834

Heidelberg Castle, 1844

Ancient Rome; Agrippina Landing with the Ashes of Germanicus, 1839

Barnard Castle, 1825

The Slave Ship, 1840

Wreckers on the Coast of Northumberland, 1834

The Harbor of Dieppe, 1826

Thanksgiving 2021

Things for which I feel thankful this year:

That the republic is holding firm

That no one close to me has fallen to the pandemic

That I have been able to work from home this year, keeping safe and staying close to my family



My friends

Public libraries

mRNA vaccine technology

Online museum collections

The miracle of our planet: the rain that falls from the sky, the riot of life it brings forth, the round of seasons that makes every day different

The intellectual resources of our time, that make it possible for me to learn about almost anything

Thirty years of marriage

The falcon that jut flew by my window

Wednesday, November 24, 2021

150,000-Year-Old Jewelry

These shells, found in a Moroccan cave, have been dated to around 150,000 years ago, making them the world's oldest jewelry.

The case that they are jewelry is quite strong, because the shells are polished in the way that shell beads get from being worn on a string.

This is important because for a long time archaeologists thought evidence of symbolic behavior in humans (jewelry, art, funeral ritual) began around 60,000-70,000 years ago. This date held firm for decades, and people started to speculate that some sort of dramatic event must have taken place to launch the change. One version was the invention of language, and another was some sort of macro-mutation affecting brain function.

That never made any sense to me (and plenty of others), because physically Homo sapiens is around 200,000 years old, and there also wasn't any genetic evidence of a major mutation around 70,000. The evidence of symbolic activity after that date also included sites apparently inhabited by Neanderthals, an even older species. So I always thought that older evidence of symbolic activity would turn up eventually. And it has. Shell beads from other African sites have been dated to between 80,000 and 120,000 years ago, although some of them were less convincing than these. There have also been claims of simple art (scratched starburst designs) more than 100,000 years old. So it looks like symbolic activity, and likely language, go back at least to the origins of Homo sapiens.

Monday, November 22, 2021

Railway Spine and the Origins of PTSD

In an interesting Harper's essay, Will Self explores the origins of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. He connects it to the stresses of our modern, mechanized age, and says one of the first prominent forms was the mid-nineteenth-century phenomenon of "railway spine". After train crashes, many passengers who were not physically injured nonetheless suffered debilitating illnesses:

The very notion of the “accident”—not an unlucky coincidence, such as being struck by a hurricane, but rather a wholesale collapse of a functioning system—also owes its inception to the technologies of the era. These were technical apparatuses capable of self-destruction, and it would seem that the human apparatus was similarly affected: many victims who appeared to have suffered minor injuries—or none at all—succumbed nonetheless to psychic and physical symptoms that proved highly debilitating, if not fatal.

The hedging of personal and corporate liability by means of insurance—what Arthur Schopenhauer described as “a public sacrifice made on the altar of anxiety”—is also a product of the second industrial revolution. In order for some claimants to be compensated, they needed an etiology that allowed for physical causes to produce only psychic effects. Just as traumatized Vietnam veterans and activists would campaign to have their psychological symptoms recognized to qualify for compensation, victims of railway accidents made a similar case to insurance companies. Both groups faced the same problem: Without evidence of organic damage, how could they prove a particular event had so grievously affected them? The initial explanation of the psychic injury suffered by some railway-accident victims was indeed physiological: “railway spine” consisted of supposed microscopic deterioration of the spinal cord caused by the accident’s impact, a physical trauma that had psychic effects.

These were the sort of effects that Charles Dickens suffered when he survived a railway accident in June 1865; seemingly unhurt, he hurried to help those who’d been injured. However, when he was recounting the incident in a letter a few days later, symptoms arose: “But in writing these scanty words of recollection I feel the shake and I am obliged to stop.” Which he did, abruptly, with the appropriate valediction: “Ever faithfully, Charles Dickens.”

The question of why we moderns suffer so much from past traumas, or at least attribute so much of our suffering to past trauma, is fascinating and difficult. Could it be that people in the past actually did suffer lingering effects of trauma, but did not talk about it in those terms? Could it be that their psychic coping mechanisms (e.g. religion) worked better than ours? Or could it be, as Self argues, that something about the charging machines, and battlefield explosions of our age makes for worse psychic damage than hand-to-hand combat or acts of god like earthquakes?

Friday, November 19, 2021

The End of Fall

Links 19 November 2021

Lions, Chauvet Cave, 31,000 BC

The trials and tribulations of growing coffee, and the attempt to breed more diverse and resilient strains.

Ingenuity is still flying around Mars, far outperforming NASA's expectations. More flying probes are in the works, including one called Dragonfly that is supposed to explore Titan.

Why is the ratio of administrators to teaching faculty at Yale the highest in the Ivy League? People offer a lot of answers in this story, from a top-down power grab to the growth of the hospital and the need to supply more mental health counselors. Interesting look at the issues surrounding the rising number of university administrators.

Delightful 2-minute video of marine plankton, by Jan van IJken.

Mumbai's former police chief has disappeared, part of a tangled snarl of corruption allegations.

In Korea, wearing a track suit is seen by many as a symbol of low-class status and possibly of unemployment, which is probably why the producers of "Squid Game" dressed the competitors in them. (NY Times) Interesting parallel to sweat pants as a symbol of depression in the US.

German metal detectorist finds sweet Roman dagger at 1st century AD battle site.

Strange but interesting article about Freud, feminine hysteria, the cult of suffering that leads people to fake impoverished backgrounds and debilitating illnesses, strange "natural" medicine, and Ross Douthat's book on his Lyme disease.

Studying the huge ramp the Assyrians built in 701 BC to breach the walls of Lachish.

The vital importance of clean water for health: chlorinating the water for a sample of Kenyan villages reduced infant mortality by 63%.

87-second video of boiling lava in Iceland's Fagradalsfjall volcano.

Eric Kogan, serendipitous photographs shot in New York, some very amusing. More at his web site.

In the recent New York mayoral election, the Republican candidate got only 29% of the vote, but he did best in heavily Asian neighborhoods and may have gotten an actual majority among Asian immigrants. The issues driving Asians toward the Republicans are fear of violent crime and attachment to the meritocratic education practices that are under attack from the left, like high school entrance exams. (NY Times) Neither Asian nor Hispanic voters are particularly progressive, and Democrats risk losing them if they run too far left.

Exciting if real: "In a new study, researchers administered a single injection to tissues surrounding the spinal cords of paralyzed mice. Just four weeks later, the animals regained the ability to walk."

Rich Londoners have been building down, adding basements with multiple levels underneath their very expensive town houses; hundreds of underground swimming pools, spas, theaters and so on have been built in the past 20 years. (6-minute video)

Vox round-up of anti-liberal thought on the right, people like Patrick Deneen who think that since democracy, freedom of speech, and freedom of religion have led to a godless, morally bankrupt nation, we may need to abolish them.

Thursday, November 18, 2021

Scott Siskind on Ivermectin

Scott Siskind has a long post on Ivermectin that I find fascinating and important. The basic story is this:

Early in the Covid pandemic, doctors and hospitals around the world tried all sorts of treatments, and when one of them seemed promising, many tried running small experimental trials. This was, I think, a very impressive expression of the extent of scientific prowess in the world, as hospitals from Bangladesh to Colombia experimented with different treatment regimens and published their results. Of course most of those trials were not very good, because they were necessarily small and conducted in the midst of a pandemic that was stretching hospitals to their limits. But people tried.

One finding that emerged from those trials was that Ivermectin, a common treatment for roundworm and other parasites, seemed to have a positive effect against Covid-19. Siskind goes through all of these trials and finds that while a few were fraudulent and most were bad, some were pretty good, really as good as one could expect under the circumstances. The three best to show positive results were from Bangladesh, India, and Colombia.

So word started to circulate on the Internet that Ivermectin was an effective treatment for Covid-19. The WHO and the US CDC denounced this and said it was nonsense, but they did not offer any rebutting evidence beyond "that's a treatment for worms, why would it effect a virus?" Neither the WHO nor the CDC was exactly covering itself with glory back then, what with the reversals over masking and quarantines and so on. So around the world people started dosing themselves with Ivermectin against Covid.

Here's the first important question: what does it mean to "trust the science"? Does that mean "listen to the CDC", which had already reversed itself on every important Covid-related question? Or does it mean "believe these two dozen studies from around the world that show Ivermectin is effective"? Another factor that played into this, in the US, was suspicion of pharmaceutical companies, everybody suspecting that they wanted Ivermectin downplayed because it is off-patent and very cheap. If you pretended to own a horse you could even get it without a prescription. This was a case where if you "did your own research", early in the pandemic, you would genuinely have found that the large majority of the available studies flatly contradicted the advice that the CDC and the WHO were giving.

This stirred the western medical establishment to investigate, and this summer we got the results of two larger, more rigorous trials, one in Canada and one in Argentina, that found no effect. But by that point belief in the efficacy of Ivermectin was already entrenched in the folk culture and the debate over it had become a political mud-slinging match.

Science is hard, and when it become tangled with politics it gets even harder.  People believe in a vast number of questionable medical practices partly because the establishment is wrong all the time, and because, occasionally, offbeat remedies really do outperform what the establishment doctors are pushing. Slogans like "trust the science" just don't capture the complexity of the world. If you want a serious look at that complexity, read Siskind's post.


Incidentally, if you are wondering why those studies about Ivermectin found positive effects, look at where they were carried out: Bangladesh, India, and Colombia, all countries where roundworms are a serious problem. If you get really sick with Covid-19 they give you steroids to depress parts of your immune system. If you happen to be infected with roundworms or some other parasite, that can cause them to explode, giving you a "hyperinfection" that can kill you. If you dig deep enough into obscure parts of the Covid-19 guidance provided by the WHO you find that they actually recommend giving Covid patients with roundworm infections Ivermectin to prevent this. So co-infection with worms might explain why Ivermectin seems to help in the tropics but not in Canada or Argentina.

Tuesday, November 16, 2021

Edge: The Last Question

Edge, a sort of think tank devoted to promoting connections between scientists and others, used to come up with a question every year to put to their participants. One of my favorites was, "What should we be worried about?" Anyway it occurred to me yesterday that I hadn't seen anything about this in the news for a long time, so I went to the Edge web site. I discovered that they discontinued this practice after 2018, because they couldn't think of more good questions, so they made the final question in the series, "What is the last question?" Some answers:

Is there a way for humans to directly experience what it’s like to be another entity? – Ian Bogost

Can behavioral science crack the ultimate challenge of getting people to durably adopt much healthier lifestyles? – Eric Topol. (I can answer that one: no.)

How far are we from wishing to return to the technologies of 1900? – Tyler Cowen

Will we ever find a form of organization that brings out the best in people? – Olivier Sibony

Must we suffer and die? –David Queller

Will humanity eventually exhaust the unknown? – David Hochberg

When will race disappear? – Nina Jablonski

How can aims of individual liberty and economic efficiency be reconciled with aims of social justice and environmental sustainability? – Phil Rosenzweig

Why do humans who possess or acquire unaccountable power over others invariably abuse it? – John Naughton

Can natural selection's legacy of sex differences in values be reconciled with the universal values of the Enlightenment? – Helena Cronon

Is a human brain capable of understanding a human brain? – René Scheu

Will humanity end up with one culture? – Matthew Jackson

Why is the world so beautiful? – Nicholas Humphrey

Can you prove it? –  Andrés Roemer

Which questions should we not ask and not try to answer? – Nick Bostrom

Saturday, November 13, 2021

Anne Boleyn's Falcon

When Anne Boleyn fell from power and was executed, all trace of her was removed from the Henry VIII's court; her portraits were burned, her possessions ruined or scattered.

Earlier this year scholars announced that in examining what is said to be the prayer book Boleyn carried with her to the scaffold they were able to read the names of several women, apparently a network of Boleyn's female relations who preserved the book and risked execution by writing their names in it.

Now a falcon statue bought for £75, made of painted wood, has turned out to be one of several that Henry ordered installed in Hampton Court Palace before his wedding to Boleyn, then had removed and destroyed after her execution. Why did one of these survive? Again, probably because an admirer of Anne took it, smuggled it out of the palace under her skirts, and preserved it in her memory.

I love these little acts of resistance, although what I really wish is that somebody had stuck a dagger in the king's eye.

Friday, November 12, 2021

Why Western Conservatives Admire Viktor Orban

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban is a very controversial figure, widely considered a dictator by many leftists but admired by many on the right. Orban's party wins elections, and seems to be genuinely popular, but on the other hand he has taken control of the nation's media, refashioned the constitution to increase his power, and sacked many bureaucrats (down to the level of school principals) and replaced them with cronies and allies. 

A few weeks ago Scott Siskind posted a review of two biographies of Orban that leaned toward the "Orban is a dictator" view. Now he has posted a round-up of the comments his received. The comments force one to confront a very hard question: what is democracy, and how much of it do we really want? 

Siskind says that the conservative commenters didn't really praise Orban's policies; they praise him for winning and holding power as a conservative. In a world where so many institutions are controlled by liberals, maybe acting at least a little authoritarian is the only way a conservative can accomplish anything:

The idea is something like: there are a few ways to govern. One is to be Angela Merkel. Be more or less an elite, who only likes things other elites like. Then you can do things like have an independent judiciary (because the elites in the judiciary will mostly be nice to you), have an independent media (because the elites in the media will mostly cover you positively), have independent academic experts (because they will say the evidence supports you), etc.

Another is to be Donald Trump. Go against elite opinion, have all of the elites hate you, and - realistically - don’t accomplish very much. When you try to accomplish something, the courts will declare it unconstitutional, the media will attack it, and academic experts will say the evidence is against it. You can ram the government really hard against all these other institutions and try to break past by sheer inertia, but it’s a tough battle.

Another is to be Viktor Orban. Go against elite opinion, and when the elites try to stop you, crush them. Crush the judiciary and replace it with your college friends. Crush the media and replace it with your college friends. Crush the intelligentsia and replace them with your college friends. Then do whatever you want, and the judiciary, media, and intelligentsia will take your side!

Siskind goes on to say (and I agree) that this is wrong in putting too much emphasis on right vs. left. In fact it is hard to get anything done in a mature democracy, as you are seeing with Democratic efforts to pass spending bills. Realistically, maybe any kind of major change requires authoritarian tactics:

So regardless of your politics there’s a tiny Overton Window of things you can actually get done, things that you can sneak past the gauntlet of various liberal and conservative elites trying to frustrate you at every turn. You can either do some minimal thing within this window - Trump’s tax cut, Biden’s spending-bill-lite - or you can crush all those people.

I believe something like this is true. Changing the world through politics is just really hard, and democracy doesn't make it much easier because so many people hate and fear change.

On the other hand, the world does change. Perhaps not as fast as some of us would like, but only a few odd young anti-racists want to deny that the past century has seen extraordinary changes. The question becomes, do we want change so badly that we want to force it politically, which means dismantling the complex system of multiple power centers that so effectively prevents it? Do we really want pure rule by the people?

Remember that to many Enlightenment figures, including the US founding fathers, democracy was pretty much identical with the election of authoritarian demagogues. They very much had people like Orban in mind when they wrote the Constitution.

My general feeling is that these obstructionist systems have served us pretty well for 200 years, and I am not much interested in casting them aside. Obviously there could come a point where politics becomes impossible, as it did in 1861, but I don't think we are there yet. 

I suppose my root feeling is that I don't trust any faction to govern without limits, and if that means I don't get all of what I from from politics, I think that is probably still for the best.

Links 12 November

Figurine of a Female Rider from a Tang Dynasty Tomb

Wonderful photographs of the Faeroe Islands by Jonathan Nackstrand. (The Atlantic)

The Silver Line, which extends Washington, DC's Metro out to Dulles airport, is finally nearing completion four years late. Cost so far is $5.8 billion for 11.5 miles, $504 million/mile, $95,000/foot ($313,000/meter). And almost all of it is above ground, plans for tunnels having been rejected as too expensive. People who wanted the line buried through Tyson's Corner actually sued the MDTA, arguing that their projected costs for tunnels were so high they must be lying, but the courts found they were the best available estimates. (Washington Post, wikipedia)

Twenty new words Merriam-Webster is adding to the dictionary this year.

The fascinating tale of Asia's biggest drug smuggler, Tse Chi Lop, who got his start in Toronto.

James Bond as a defender of traditional architecture and foe of modernism.

The Supreme Court fight over the power of Federal regulatory agencies; West Virginia vs. EPA has the potential to gut the power of the regulatory state.

HD 3167, a star 150 light years from earth, has a most unusual planetary system, with two planets in polar orbits and one in a near equatorial orbit, 102 degrees away from the other two. We used to have theories about how solar systems evolved but now we know of systems that violate all of them.

Archaeologists using Lidar continue to find more ancient towns and ceremonial sites in the central American jungle.

How the Unification Church brought Sushi to America (NY Times)

In September Ford announced its largest ever investment in manufacturing, $7 billion, to build factories for batteries and electric trucks in Kentucky and Tennessee. This is being driven by surprising demand for their electric F-150. Coming next, a big battle over whether the factories will be unionized.

New recycling center in rural Japan, built from recycled materials, is both attractive and eco-friendly. I like it that they have an area where people can leave unwanted but working stuff and other people can just take it.

The Fast Grants program for Covid-19 research produced some great results, which leads Derek Thompson to argue that we need to drastically overhaul our science-funding system; one poll found almost 80 percent of grant-winning scientists would change the focus of their research if they thought they could get funding for it. (The Atlantic) Here's a question: who should decide what the top scientists focus on? The scientists themselves? Or should we as a society try to direct their work toward common goals?

Vincent Van Gogh, illustrations from his letters to his brother.

A group of conservative to moderate academics, upset with the universities they know, have banded together to create a new school dedicated to freedom of speech and inquiry, the University of Austin. Niall Ferguson lays out their plan at the Washington Post; the university's web site here.

Strange events on the border between Poland and Belarus; Belarus has been admitting thousands of refugees from the Middle East and funneling them toward the Polish border, which is the EU border, and the German Interior Minister just said this is a calculated move by Belarus and Russia to destabilize Europe.

Lots of great internet rumors about the crowd disaster at the Astroworld concert, for example that rapper Travis Scott organized it as a satanic ritual: "This ain’t a festival, it’s a sacrifice." Also: "The music industry is demonic and collects souls." Which might be true, at least metaphorically.

Review of a book about England's most famous female criminals, from the 16th century to the 20th.

Obituary of David Graeber, anarchist anthropologist and one of the central figures in the Occupy movement. My review of Debt is here. Graeber was almost exactly my age, so his death (from necrosis of the pancreas) is perhaps my introduction to the phase of life when deaths of one's peers becomes a major theme.

Fights over banning books from school libraries are focused on two issues: sexually explicit content and race. Seems like a motte/bailey operation, in that the activists really care most about race but when pushed they retreat to the sex issue because that has very wide support (Washington Post)

These architects transformed a brutalist building with a blank concrete facade into something better both inside and out; I feel like we should be doing more of this and giving more attention to the people doing it.

This week's music is Mozart's Symphony No. 40, the definition of classicism in music, outstanding performance from a small ensemble. If you just want the most famous three minutes, go here.

Thursday, November 11, 2021

Looking for Solutions

About a decade ago the word "solutions" swept America. Among those caught up in it was the company I worked for at the time, which rebranded itself "Louis Berger Solutions." The NY Times brought in David Bornstein and Tina Rosenberg to create a column called "Fixes" which reported on solutions rather than problems.

Bornstein and Rosenberg are now ending their column, and in their final number they have some interesting reflections on their run. They complain about how much more media attention crises get, as opposed to resolutions. Rosenberg: 

We journalists have been conditioned to believe that “news” actually means “bad news,” and that you can’t talk about solutions without falling into public relations. Back in 2015, I wrote about the Ebola vaccine’s startlingly rapid development. Everyone knew about the Ebola epidemic in West Africa in 2014. But I was shocked by the number of readers who had no idea there was a successful vaccine. There’s a successful treatment for Ebola now, too — how many people know about that? Here’s a lesson: if we report on the epidemic, we should report on the cure.


You find what you’re looking for. If journalists go out looking for harmful actors, we’ll find them. On the other hand, if we go out looking for helpful actors — people who are, in good faith, trying to solve problems — we’ll find them, too. A lot of them. At one point I had a spreadsheet with 800 story ideas.

I thought this from Rosenberg was especially important:

This is a strange lesson for a column about new ideas and innovation, but I learned that they’re overrated. The world (mostly) doesn’t need new inventions. It needs better distribution of what’s already out there.

Some of my favorite columns were about how to take old ideas or existing products and get them to new people. As one of our columns put it, “Ideas Help No One on a Shelf. Take Them to the World.” There are proven health strategies, for example, that never went anywhere until some folks dusted them off and decided to spread them. It’s not glamorous to copy another idea. But those copycats are making a big difference.

One of the results of all this solutions talk is a couple of internet databases that track stories about solutions to problems, like the Solutions Story Tracker. The goal, I suppose, would be that if you are confronted by a problem you would Google it and find all the different ways other people around the world have solved it. Which is, I think, a noble dream. Come to think of it, the whole "life hacks" thing might be another side to this; if you find yourself wasting a lot of time with some task, do a quick search and see if someone else has found a better way. 

If we could deploy the world's knowledge, we could make life better. We don't need a revolution in either morals or politics, just a consistent effort to be good and do our work as best we can. So here's to David Bornstein and Tina Rosenberg for all the work they put into spreading that message.

Wednesday, November 10, 2021

The Ransomware Guys Realize they Hacked the Wrong Person

 Matt Levine:

Ahahahahahahaha hahahahahaha hahahahaha:

In October, the infamous ransomware gang known as Conti released thousands of files stolen from the UK jewelry store Graff.

Now, the hackers would like the world to know that they regret their decision, perhaps in part because they released files belonging to very powerful people. …

“We found that our sample data was not properly reviewed before being uploaded to the blog,” the hackers wrote in an announcement published on Thursday. “Conti guarantees that any information pertaining to members of Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Qatar families will be deleted without any exposure and review.”

“Our Team apologizes to His Royal Highness Prince Mohammed bin Salman and any other members of the Royal Families whose names were mentioned in the publication for any inconvenience,” the hackers added.

Imagine being a big-time ransomware hacker, thinking that you’re pretty tough, fancying yourself a master criminal, giving yourself an intimidating online alias, maybe even being able, in certain circumstances, to call down violence on your enemies, and then realizing one day that you’d accidentally hacked a guy who had a journalist kidnapped, tortured to death and then dismembered with a bone saw for criticizing him.

They are adding new compliance procedures to make sure this won’t happen again:

The hackers also said that other than publishing the data on their site, they did not sell it or trade, and that from now on they will “implement a more rigid data review process for any future operations.”

We have talked before about the compliance function at ransomware firms. If you run a legal company, you have a compliance department to make sure that you don’t do anything illegal, or at least, if your company is really big, to keep the illegality within acceptable limits. If you run a criminal gang, you have concerns that are different in degree but directionally similar: Your whole business is doing illegal things, sure, but you don’t want to do too many things that are too illegal. You want to do crimes that make you money, but not crimes that get you shut down. You want to steal information from rich people and extort money from them. But not Mohammed bin Salman! Good lord!

Glial Cells, Chronic Pain, and the Weird Obsession with Physical Causes

According to the people who count up stuff like this, more than a billion people around the world suffer chronic pain. "Chronic pain" here means pain that is either unrelated to obvious physical injury or lasts long after the obvious damage has healed, and that lasts at least two months. Chronic pain is a slow-moving medical catastrophe and also big business, which explains why there have been a ton of studies about what causes it.

Today's NY Times has a story about the role of glial cells in pain. One the one hand it is interesting biomedically, as we figure out that the cells we used to think just served as scaffolding for neurons actually do a lot of other stuff. One the other it suffers from the weird obsession with proving that chronic pain has some identifiable physical cause and is not just "in your head." Like this:

For pain sufferers, this is a welcome validation of their reality. “Learning this,” said Cindy Steinberg, the national director of policy and advocacy at the U.S. Pain Foundation, and a chronic pain patient herself, “is enormously helpful to those of us who suffer chronic pain.” In a chronic-pain support group Ms. Steinberg runs, she said that people find it a huge affirmation to learn there’s a distinct biology underlying their pain. It confirms what they’ve long known but often see doubted by doctors and friends: That their pain is as real as any other.

To which I say, there is no such thing as "unreal" pain. Every thought you have, every feeling no matter how fleeting, is something physical happening in your brain. What else could it be? If your pain were caused by obsessing about how cruelly your mother treated you, that would still be a physical thing, and if glial cells are involved in processing pain, then they would be involved in that pain, too.

On the other hand, even pain with overtly physical causes like stab wounds is also a psychological phenomenon, and some people can control it by modulating their thoughts. Remember that some studies have found petting a dog or cat reduces the sensation of pain more than powerful opiates do. Just as there is no pain that is not physical, there is no pain that is not psychological, because you experience it in your mind.

Very good studies have shown that chronic pain is more likely to strike people who have other stressors in their lives, like a divorce or losing a job. This includes both pain that seems to have an overt physical cause like a ruptured spinal disc and pain that does not. The notion that chronic pain could be entirely caused by some problem with glial cells strikes me as absurd; it is easy to show that for many people it is a symptom of a life out of whack. Which, again, does mean that it is not physical, because everything in your mind is physical, or that it could simply be wished away.

At a theoretical level we have understood the complex connections between mind and body at least since Hippocrates. But people keep acting like they are completely separate things, and newspapers where people ought to know better keep publishing stories about entirely imaginary distinctions between things in your mind and things going on with your nerve cells.

Tuesday, November 9, 2021

The Shortage of Truckers

According to this NY Times article, the biggest single problem with supply chains in the US is a shortage of truckers. People throw around numbers like 80,000 for the shortfall in drivers. It's gotten so bad that trucking companies are actually raising wages, which has always been my test of whether workers are really in short supply; some of the companies the Times contacted say they have raised compensation by 20%.

But really long-haul trucking is a tough life, weeks at a time on the road, paying a decent but unspectacular wage of $75,000-$85,000 a year. Most long-haul truckers come from rural areas where there isn't much other work, and one of the trends driving the shortage is probably the emptying out of those areas as people move to growing cities. The bottom line is that people just don't want the work enough to do it.

There are possible solutions. In the long term, it will be self-driving trucks, but that seems to be one of those things that keeps being five years away. Allowing Mexican drivers to operate in the US came up back in the 1990s when NAFTA was being negotiated, but the wage disparity is so great that US truckers threatened a total shutdown and that idea was shelved. I wonder why more freight isn't being shipped by rail, especially stuff that arrives in ports and therefore can't be perishable.

At a deeper level, I wonder how this relates to the big picture question of how Americans feel about work. What happens if most people decide that long-haul trucking, and hundreds of other tough jobs, simply aren't worth it? Or is that attitude just a temporary effect of the pandemic, set to disappear in the next recession?

I wonder how big the disconnect is between the work that our economy needs and the work that people want to do. It strikes me as possible that the rich countries could face shortages of all kinds of workers, which will mean either accepting more immigrants, and thus more bad politics, or re-arranging the economy in as-yet unforeseen ways?

UPDATE: Kevin Drum says there is not shortage of drivers overall, just at the ports, which independent truckers are avoiding because of long waits for loads. This seems weird to me; I mean, if there is a shortage of trucks at the ports, shouldn't that make the wait time go down? The more I read about this, the less I understand.

Monday, November 8, 2021

A Bedroom for Slaves at Civita Giuliana, Pompeii

At Pompeii, archaeologists have been exploring the Villa Giuliana, which is in an area where new digs have been opened up because of the threat from looting. The villa had extensive stables where archaeologists found horse skeletons, fancy horse harness, and pieces of a ceremonial chariot. Adjacent to the stable they have just uncovered a bedroom that they think was used by household slaves:

The room offers an extraordinary glimpse into a part of the ancient world that usually remains largely in the dark. The room grants us a rare insight into the daily reality of slaves, thanks to the exceptional state of preservation of the room and the possibility of creating plaster casts of beds and other objects in perishable materials which have left their imprint in the cinerite that covered the ancient structures.

The discovery itself took place not far from the portico where, in the month of January 2021, a ceremonial chariot was found that is currently undergoing consolidation and restoration work. . . .

In fact, within the room, where three wooden beds have been found, a wooden chest was discovered containing metal and fabric objects, which appear to be parts of the horse harnesses. 

The beds are made of several roughly worked wooden planks which could be adjusted according to the height of whoever used them. While two of them are about 1.7 metres long, one bed measures just 1.4 metres, and may therefore have belonged to a child.

The webbed bases of the beds were made of ropes, the imprints of which are partially discernible in the cinerite, and above which fabric blankets were placed and which have also been preserved as cavities in the ground and recreated through the plaster cast method.

Several personal objects were found under the beds, including amphorae positioned to store private possessions, ceramic jugs and a ‘chamber pot’. The room was lit by a small upper window, and shows no evidence of having had any wall decorations.

In addition to serving as a dormitory for a group of slaves - possible a small family, as the presence of the child-sized bed would suggest - the room was also used for storage, as demonstrated by the eight amphorae crammed into the corners that were otherwise left free for just this purpose.

Remarkable. It also makes me wonder how many discoveries like this were made during the first century of the excavation but either ignored or not properly reported because nobody cared very much. Or perhaps they were reported, but there is just so much stuff from Pompeii that we only have a chance to learn about the most exciting one percent of the finds. I have a hunch that there is a ton of data about Roman slavery buried in the notes and photographs from past digs.

Overall plan of the stable area.

Saturday, November 6, 2021

Battlefield to National Park: Chimanimani, Mozambique

The Chimanimani Mountains straddle the border between Mozambique and Zimbabwe, a position that made them a battleground in two long, bloody wars. 

First was the struggle against Rhodesia's white regime, known as the Bush War, which lasted from 1964 to 1979. Rhodesian rebels regularly based themselves in these mountains, and the Rhodesian army regularly attacked them there, neither side caring much about the international border. Hiding out in the mountains, the rebels hunted for food, devastating the native wildlife.

Mozambique attained its independence from Portugal in 1975, and almost immediately fell into a civil war between factions backed by the US and the USSR. That bloody war – the usual estimate is that 600,000 people died, but some say a million – lasted until 1992. Again, rebels took to the Chimanimani Mountains, and again they supported themselves by hunting.

So by the time something like peace was achieved in Mozambique, the Chimanimani region was in bad shape. Fortunately for the wildlife, the fighting had also driven out a lot of the people, and honestly these mountains weren't a great place for people to live anyway. So the by the late 1990s government of Mozambique began moving to preserve parts of the mountain region from development.

Just recently Mozambique declared part of the region a national park. Chimanimani National Park encompasses about 634 square kilometers, or 156,000 acres, and it is surrounded by an even larger buffer zone within which development is controlled.

Chimanimani has been in the science news over the past few years because biological surveys are under way to document the region's plant and animal species; after all scientists had been mostly excluded from the region for two generations. The mountains are home to many, many plants and animals, and several new species have been discovered. (NY Times, fauna-flora.org)

Meanwhile larger mammals have been making their way back in, and tourism is becoming a significant business; Time Magazine made Chimanimani one of the "must see" places of 2021.

Sometimes it seems like some places are so messed up that things can never get better, but sometimes that is wrong.