Saturday, April 29, 2023

The Buddha of Berenike

Berenike in Egypt was the Roman Empire's main window toward India. In the 2nd century AD fleets of ships sailed back and forth with the monsoon winds, carrying on a significant trade. 

The latest find from the ongoing excavations is this statue of the Buddha, which was found in the forecourt of the Temple of Isis. It is 28 inches high (71 cm). My first thought was that this must have come from India, but apparently not; the analysis says the marble was quarried near Istanbul. This means somebody in the Roman empire knew how to carve statues of the Buddha

And also that somebody in Berenike was interested enough in the Buddha to purchase this statue and leave it as an offering at the Temple of Isis, another fascinating look at the religious syncretism of the Roman Empire.

Friday, April 28, 2023

David Grann, "Killers of the Flower Moon"

David Grann has now written a whole series of best-selling nonfiction books, a remarkably successful record. His method is to find sensational stories that were once famous but have been mostly forgotten and bring them back for a new audience. I very much enjoyed The Lost City of Z, a story of exploration and disappearance in the Amazon that was front page news in the 1920s but had faded to the point that I had never heard of it. The story told in Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI (2016) is not as thoroughly forgotten, but certainly most Americans had never heard of it. Grann's is a great formula because you know the stories will sell; after all, they already did, less than a hundred years ago.

The Osage were once one of the great tribes of the plains, rivals of the Lakota and the Comanche for supremacy. But they were devastated by disease, betrayed by their white friends, defeated by the Cherokee, and pushed onto smaller and smaller reservations. In 1878 they bought a godforsaken corner of Oklahoma from the Cherokee and settled there, thinking that surely nobody would bother them any more on land of such little value.

Then, in a year variously given as 1894, 1895, or 1897, oil was discovered on the Osage reservation. It became the hottest oil patch in the world, a place where fortunes were made and lost overnight; three of the famous oilmen who got their starts there founded the companies called Getty, Sinclair, and Phillips. The Osage became the richest people, per capita, in the world; Osage chiefs were the Arab sheikhs of the 1920s. In 1923 alone the 3,000-member tribe's revenue from oil leases was 30 million dollars. People say that "Black Gold" became a common term when an Osage horse by that name won the Kentucky Derby in 1924.

It is worth noting, given the current brouhaha about Indians being sent to boarding schools, that some of the new Osage millionaires spent their money sending their children to the most expensive boarding schools in the country. People are these days trying to deny that Indians ever did that of their own accord, but that is just wrong.

All of this wealth brought a trampling herd of criminals, grifters, and fortune-seekers to Osage County, determined to get their hands on some of that Indian gold. They were aided by a system, imposed by the Federal government, that ruled on which Osage were competent to manage their own money. Those who were not had to employ white "guardians" who controlled their funds and charged them handsomely for the privilege of accessing their own fortunes. Businesses regularly charged Osage several times as much as whites for the same services. Osage were cheated, robbed, scammed, and extorted by a whole system of leeches who were often backed corrupt officials in the county and state governments. They called it "the Indian business" and it made a lot of white people rich.

All of that is no more than you would expect. But the story of the Osage has a much darker side, so disturbing that it is hard to believe even about the America of the 1920s. 

The profits of the oil were distributed to the Osage under a system of "headrights." Headrights could not be bought or sold, only inherited. But if an Osage married an outsider, the headright could pass to the spouse or the mixed-blood children. This launched numerous schemes to marry into Osage wealth and get control of it. One local resident was observed saying to another, "Why don't you just marry a squaw and take her money?" And Osage kept marrying outsiders, for reasons that remain obscure in Grann's book. Some of the Osage hated this and women who married outsiders could be ostracized, but the marriages went on. I wondered if maybe some of the newly wealthy women were trying to escape from Osage culture, and in particular its patriarchal idea of marriage. But anyway there were deep tensions within the Osage that helped to divide and weaken them.

There were also rumors, beginning during World War I when the oil checks first made people rich, that Osage were being murdered for their money. The murders, people said, were covered up by a white power structure of politicians, businessmen, oil barons, and guardians who exploited Osage when they were alive and just killed them when they got inconvenient. But this was all murky and unproved.

Then in 1921 a series of high-profile killings of wealthy Osage caught the nation's attention. From 1921 to 1926 at least 20 wealthy Osage were murdered, a time the Osage call the Reign of Terror. Local law enforcement made no progress in solving the crimes. Some of the Osage were millionaires, so they hired private detectives to investigate, but that never led to anything, either. Eventually the complaints caught the attention of J. Edgar Hoover. Hoover had just become the head of something called the Bureau of Investigation or BOI. At that point BOI agents had no real police powers – they could not make arrests or execute search warrants, for example – but Hoover was determined to make them into something much more like a national police force. He decided that the Osage murders were the perfect case to make his agency's reputation.

So in 1925 Hoover sent one of his best agents from Texas to Osage County, letting him assemble a picked team of both undercover and above-ground operators. Within a year they had cracked an important group of cases, convicting both the trigger men and the local boss who organized an insidious plot to kill Osage and inherit their headrights. The triumph helped make Hoover and the (soon to be) FBI. But, as I said, it applied to just a few murders of the at least 20 that had been committed. Which may have been a small part of the actual total. Grann argues that the real number of murders was much higher, likely in the hundreds. The BOI had opened one crack in the local mafia of politicains, lawyers, crooks and thugs who were preying on the Osage, but it seems likely that most cases were never solved and most perpetrators never caught. One white lawyer friendly to the Osage was murdered on the street in Washington, DC, when he went to talk to the Justice Department about the killings; everyone assumed he was killed because he knew too much about the "Indian business," but nothing was ever proved. The murders also went on after the "Reign of Terror" officially ended, likely until the 1930s when the Depression and the drying up of the oil made the Osage poor again.

It's a terrific book, and if it sounds like your kind of thing, read it.

There are some questions, though. The number of murders is murky, as Grann admits. Many of the possible murder cases involved Osage who allegedly died from alcohol poisoning. Some of them may well have been intentionally poisoned. But during Prohibition thousands of Americans died from poisonous moonshine; it was a major nationwide problem. Nobody denies that the Osage drank a lot of moonshine. Which doesn't mean some of them were not murdered, but it makes it impossible to know for sure which deaths were homicides. Grann also tries to estimate  the number of murders by comparing the death rate of the Osage to that of the nation as a whole, but in fact all Indians of that period had much higher death rates than whites or blacks, and the rate varied widely from tribe to tribe, so the high Osage death rate is suggestive but doesn't prove anything. Still, I finished the book believing that at least fifty Osage had been murdered for their money and that the crimes had been covered up, and the money leeched away, by an astonishingly corrupt system that reached at least to the governor of Oklahoma.

The second thing that struck me was the strange passivity of the Osage. In 1921 there were Osage still living who had fought the Cherokee and the US government in the 1870s; plus, more than a hundred Osage had volunteered to fight in World War I. Yet in the face of what looks like an organized murder campaign against their nation they did very little. There was one point where good evidence emerged against a man and some Osage threatened to kill him if he weren't arrested, but that was the only case I noted where any Osage even threatened violence. Of couse any Osage who did kill a white man would likely be executed, but that did not deter many other Indians of that period from acts of violence. For a young man to sacrifce his own life in defense of his tribe was (and remains for some Indian nations) an honored tradition. 

The weird passivity starts with people who told friends they were afraid they were being poisoned by their friends or even their spouses but don't seem to have done anything to defend themselves. They kept living with the spouses they feared, kept buying moonshine they thought might kill them. Why?

And why did the Osage nation as a whole do so little? They had leverage; they could have refused to issue more oil leases until the murders were solved. They could have forced the oil barons to take action against the corrupt county officials who were covering this all up; in 1925, no county sheriff stood a chance in a fight against the Gettys and the Sinclairs. But the Osage did nothing of the kind. They did not even boycott the businesses of the men they suspected most strongly.

Grann says at one point that the Osage felt trapped in a vast fog that covered their whole reservation, stretching across the white world beyond it. They could not tell who were their friends and who their enemies; they did not know what to do or where to turn for help. The people eventually exposed as murderers all posed as friends to the Osage. Maybe the Osage suspected they weren't really friends, but they absolutely needed help from white lawyers and officials, and how could they tell whose friendship was sincere?

And this gets me to what I see as the second tragedy that lies behind the astonishing evil of the murders. What happened to the Plains Indians between 1870 and 1896 was the utter destruction of their way of life, the loss of their homes, and the loss of their world. This operated, not just at the political or cultural level, but psychologically. They were unmoored. Indian men were also unmanned, completely cut off from the activities (buffalo hunting, war) that defined them as men. In the strange passivity of the Osage through the Reign of Terror I think we can get a glimpse of how utterly destructive this loss was to the people who lived through it.

The good news is that both the Osage and the American nation have moved on. The number of Osage has rebounded and is now around 20,000, roughly what it was in 1800. In 2011, the US government reached a settlement with the Osage, paying $380 million for their part in mismanaging the Osage's oil weath and other trust funds. This happened because, on the one hand, the Osage have found their footing in the new America and are much better able to navigate the system, better able to distinguish friends who might help them from leeches out to rob them. On the other, the US government is less out to rob and subjugate Indians, and in some quarters even trying to undo some of the harm done in the past. Which is not to say that everything is fine now; Grann talks to people still haunted by the Reign of Terror and what it says about the fate of Indians in a white world. But the worst times are now very much in the past.

Links 28 April 2023

Fireplace by Robert Winthrop Chanler at Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney's studio in New York City, 1918

Some of the 2,000-year-old bamboo slips recently recovered in China turned out to contain medical texts from the school of Bian Que, one of the supposed founders of traditional Chinese medicine.

The man who used an AI chatbot to recreate his childhood imaginary friend, a microwave oven, only to have it try to murder him.

Prior to bringing the Stone of Destiny from Scotland down to Westminster Abbey for the coronation, scientists threw a lot of non-destructive testing at it, found some hints about its history but nothing that strikes me as major.
Attempt by Madagascar to establish a vanilla cartel with a minimum price has collapsed, because so many pods remained unsold at the official price. I understand the desire to prevent wild swings in price, which happen every so often to all agricultural products in unregulated markets. But as the US and Europe have learned, the only way to keep agricultural prices high is by limiting the amount sent to market, and Madagascar has refused to take that road.

Another piece arguing that the way to overcome neighbors' objections to new development is to give them a share of the profits. This is how Seoul has built so many apartments.

In 1985, Bulgaria's population was 9.0 million; in 2021 it was 6.9 million. The government says this is the result of a low birth rate, a high death rate, and out-migration.

New Australian defense policy cuts back on land forces to refocus on long-range missiles, submarines, and other weapons explicitly for use in an air/sea war against China. Document and official statements here.

Ground-penetrating radar identified another Viking ship in a burial mound.

Rumor has it that Rupert Murdoch fired Tucker Carlson because people (including one of Murdoch's ex-girlfriends) were hailing Carlson as a prophet, and "That stuff freaks Rupert out. He doesn’t like all the spiritual talk."

If you want to know about Japan's new military strategy and weapons purchase plans, this 72-minute video from Perun will tell you; I think these are very important changes. The first 38 minutes of the video is on Japanese history and you can skip that if you have even basic knowledge of the subject.

The Ingenuity helicopter has now made 51 flights on Mars; NASA's short video celebrating the 50th flight is here. And this video describes the larger copters NASA plans to build for future missions, based on their experience with Ingenuity.

Colin Woodard at Politco, arguing that regional differences in the level of gun violence across America are caused by cultural differences that go back to the first Euro-African settlement of the regions.

Roman camp found in the Arabian desert, looks exactly like every other Roman camp from Scotland to Nubia.

This week's random past post: The Emperor's Quest for Immortality, 2017

Ukraine Links

An argument that the US military is not doing enough to learn from the war in Ukraine

The US is supplying Ukraine with truck-mounted 30mm autocannons for defense against drones.

Russian blogger with the Rusich group admits that Russia is not fighting against fascism, but for "living space."

Prigozhin on the war, western aid, and the timing of the Ukrainian offensive (he says not until after May 1). He also reveals that the fable I call "the boy who cried wolf" is called in Russian "the boy in the lake."

Ukrainian pizza ad with Russian tank.

Modern warfare: first, a Ukrainian firm put out a game in which you play a Ukrainian drone operator dropping grenades on Russian troops and equipment, then a Russian firm responded with a game in which you guide a Lancet loitering munition to its target.

Intense infantry combat video.

A claim that one Ukrainian platoon fighting in Bakhmut lost 18 of 21 men in 24 hours.

Thread on the latest US weapons aid to Ukraine, includes a quadrupling of spending for artillery ammunition, enough for "thousands" of laser-guided Excalibur shells.

Artilleryman Thomas Theiner with an overview of the reserve forces Ukraine is making ready for its spring offensive.

The US leaks reveal that the US government thought Ukraine had been taken in by a concerted Russian disinformation campaign concerning a possible attack from Belarus this winter.

Wednesday, April 26, 2023

Ross Douthat on Tucker Carlson

What, exactly, did Tucker Carlson stand for? While he was mostly identified with the right, he was not any normal sort of American conservative and he sometimes advocated for left-wing causes. Ross Douthat:

The master key to understanding Tucker Carlson’s programming wasn’t ideology; it was suspicion. He had been the reliable sort of cable-news pundit, once upon a time — the cheerful partisan, the “Crossfire” Republican, the talking points purveyor (even if he purveyed them with a little more irony than most).

Then something changed — after the Iraq war, after Jon Stewart helped kill “Crossfire,” he gradually became disillusioned, radicalized. You could see it before his Fox News gig came along, in the way he wrote about Donald Trump in 2016, and then you could see it in the way he ran his show.  . . 

Carlson wasn’t like the right-wing personalities who surrendered to Trumpism reluctantly because that’s where their listeners wanted them to go. He was a Trumpist only insofar as Trump went where he himself was heading anyway — toward a rejection of everything the Western political establishment stood for, an extreme open-mindedness toward everything that it ruled out of bounds.

Which is why his show was the farthest right on cable news but also sometimes the farthest left. You could assemble a set of Carlson clips — encompassing everything from his frequent interviews with Glenn Greenwald to his successful opposition to a U.S. conflict with Iran in 2019 and 2020 — that made him seem like a George W. Bush-era antiwar activist given a prime-time show on Fox by some mischievous genie. You could assemble a similar array in which he sounded left-wing notes on economics.

These forays were not in tension with his willingness to entertain the far right’s “Great Replacement” paranoia about immigration or fixate on a possible F.B.I. role in instigating the Jan. 6 riot. They were all part of the same hermeneutic: For any idea with an establishment imprimatur, absolute suspicion; for any outsider or skeptic, sympathy and trust.

When somebody asked him about  his greatest regret, Carlson said

… for too long, I participated in the culture where anyone who thinks outside these pre-prescribed lanes is crazy, is a “conspiracy theorist.” And I just really regret that. I’m ashamed that I did that. And partly, it was age and the world I grew up in. So when you look at me and say, “Yeah, of course [the media] is part of the means of control.” That’s obvious to you because you’re 28, but I just didn’t see it at all — at all. And I’m ashamed of that.

This suspicion is indeed become one of the great themes in American politics, cutting across left-right divides, religion, class, age, all the other ways of dividing the electorate.

It more and more seems to me that the combination of the War on Terror and the 2008 financial crisis poisoned Americans' trust in all their institutions in a way that we will be living with for a long time.

Monday, April 24, 2023

In the Woods Today

Our old friend the mostly white deer with another member of her herd. I was discussing her with one of my neighbors last week, using the female pronoun. She said, "How can you tell it's a girl?" Sigh.

I found a whole meadow of jack-in-the-pulpits.

I love these tiny white flowers; no idea what they are, but they were everywhere along the mill race trail.

Also geraniums.

After a warm week, the forest along the river is almost to its summer jungly self.

Archaeologists as the Bad Guys

El Mirador

Yesterday in Los Angeles:

A melee broke out at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books on Sunday evening when activists rushed the Español stage to protest a talk by archaeologist Richard Hansen.

The protesters were targeting Hansen’s decades of excavation and research at a vast ancient Maya complex in Guatemala called El Mirador.

The group of about 15 masked protesters rushed the small stage where Hansen was being interviewed by L.A. Times en Español columnist Alejandro Maciel. . . .

The protesters toppled chairs, shouted “this is stolen land!” and “f— imperialism!” and unveiled a large banner that read “Gringo colonizer fuera del Mirador.”

As stunned spectators looked on, a tussle broke out between the demonstrators and some of the event crew who were desperately trying to clear the stage. One stage crew member emerged with a bloodied nose as police arrived quickly at the scene.

Hansen is one of the archaeologist trying hard to do everything right: he hires and trains locals, works closely with local leaders, supports cultural tourism programs, works against illegal loggers. The LA Times reporters who wrote this article tracked down somebody from an entity called Maya View who told them, "We totally believe in the work of Dr. Hansen."

So what's going on?

I suppose one should make some allowance for regular differences of opinion; Hansen is working with one faction of Maya leaders, but there could be others who disagree with the approach his friends are taking.

But what this really represents is that for many activists these days, archaeologists are bad guys, plain and simple. They are arrogant outsiders stomping on sacred ground, digging up ancestral graves, imposing their own views over local traditions, and generally acting as agents of imperialism. These activists think archaeology is another word for colonialism.

Archaeologists do have a lot of sins to answer for: looting, smuggling, grave-robbing, arrogance, etc. Archaeology really did develop as a colonial enterprise. People like Hansen, who represents the more usual sort of archaeologist these days, think they can make up for past archaeological sins by working with locals and using cultural tourism to help them economically. But there are some people too angry for that.

There is also a serious philosophical difference in play. Archaeology considers itself a branch of science, devoted to the truth. It shares, therefore, in the arrogance of science: the belief that the methods of science are the best way to learn about the world. Archaeologists think they can learn things about past cultures from their physical remains that the living descendants don't know and could not figure out on their own. Imagine how galling it is for people who have spent their lifetimes learning local lore for some white man from a thousand miles away to show up and say, sorry, what you believe about your history is wrong, and we're going to set you straight.

The thing is, I think the archaeologists are right. People around the world believe all sorts of false things about the history of their cultures, from Lakota who think the gods gave them horses at the creation to Southerners who think the Civil War had nothing to do with slavery. But if you, like most anthropologists, think ancient cultures are wonderful things that should be preserved, then shouldn't you be writing down their stories rather than digging in the ground to find out what really happened?

What is the value of knowing the truth about el Mirador, compared to the self-esteem and cultural integrity of modern Maya? If what archaeologists dig up hurts people by violating their notions of their past, what is being gained to outweigh that damage. What is the truth worth?

People like our protesters in Los Angeles say, your archaeology has no value at all, it is only destructive of our lives and our ways. It is only a new kind of imperialism, colonizing our minds with your "scientific" ideas about our past. We don't want it, and if we have to, we will fight you to keep you from attacking our right to tell our own story in our own way.

Me, I don't much care, I propose to go on searching for the truth no matter who objects. But for anthropologists whose profession and identity are built around working with and advocating for indigenous people, it is a very hard problem.

Sunday, April 23, 2023

What's Happening in Higher Education

This chart pretty much explains it all. From the CIRP freshman survey. Of course they are only reflecting the overall values of our society.

Saturday, April 22, 2023

The Ksar Draa

This fabulous fortress in the Sahara Desert of Algeria appears on several exotic destination travel sites, none of which tell us anything about it. In fact they all just repeat English translations (of varying quality) of the text on this French site, from which most of the photographs also come.

The site, 50 kilometers from the closest town (Timimoun), is remote and desolate, with dune fields stretching in every direction. Measurements I made on Google Earth give the size as roughly 100 by 70 feet (30x21m).

The name is uninformative; Ksar is just the north African version of the ordinary Arabic word for fortress, and Draa is the name for this part of the desert. The only information any of the travel sites offer is that the place may be a thousand years old (which of course means that it might not be), and that locals say it was once occupied by Timimoun's Jews. Which would be weird and wonderful, a Jewish caravanserai in the middle of the Sahara, but I can't think of any reason to believe the story. Some of the web sites also say that archaeologists have visited the site but that their investigations have not revealed anything substantive about the site's history, which I find bizarre; it's hard to imagine a habitation site of the past thousand years from which competent archaeologists couldn't learn something. This French site, to the contrary, says that if archaeologists ever do visit they will no doubt learn much about its past, so maybe it hasn't really been investigated at all and the manager of one of those travel sites just made it up and a bunch of others copied it.

I did finally track down a brief article in Maghreb Magazine that had a bit more information. (Or perhaps I should say, made a few more assertions, since I know nothing about the publication and the piece is unsigned.) You can get a better idea of the internal structure from the photograph above, which shows the double exterior walls and something of the interior. The interior walls are all adobe, which is the local tradition, with only the exterior wall built of stone. The unsigned article says that the structure dates to the 14th century, which seems plausible, and that its design is unique:
The ksar is made up of a labyrinth of narrow alleys, winding staircases, and hidden courtyards, all connected by a series of intricate arches and domes. The design of the ksar is not only aesthetically pleasing but also serves a practical purpose. The narrow alleys and tight spaces help to keep the buildings cool during the hot summer months, while the domes and arches provide stability to the structure. The Ksar Draa was built to accommodate the town’s inhabitants, and as such. It also includes a variety of living spaces, including houses, mosques, communal kitchens, and even a school. The houses are typically small, one-story structures with thick walls, small windows, and low doorways. The communal kitchens, or Zawiyas, are located throughout the ksar and were used to prepare meals for the town’s inhabitants. The mosque, which is located in the center of the ksar, is one of the largest and most impressive structures in the citadel.

I don't see an impressive structure in the center, and given that the whole thing is only 70 feet wide there isn't much room for anything impressive, anyway. But maybe the reporter was easily impressed. This article says nothing about Jews, supporting my suspicions about the local gossip on that score. (And this French site has "En l’absence de références écrites laissées par les historiens ou par les chroniqueurs d’antan, les spéculations en tous genres vont bon train," that is, in the absence of written records, people just make stuff up. Including, this site tell us, legends about treasures guarded by djinns.)

Anyway it is delightful to ponder that the earth still holds many fortresses and other sides stranded in the middle of nowhere, almost unknown to history

Something Happening in Sudan

More than 20 US military cargo planes have flown to Djibouti since April 19, and all the OSINT folks on Twitter think this is preparation for US military intervention in Sudan. At least one of those flights went well out of its way to avoid European airspace, so this might be something our allies aren't on board with. And they aren't there just to bring Americans out, since most of the planes unloaded and immediately went back to the US. This observer noted that several flights came from places where special forces are based. Of course, this might be a "just in case" mission that Biden ordered to make ready in case the Sudanese government looks about to fall, so they might not actually cross the border. We'll see.

Friday, April 21, 2023

Parrots on Video Chat

Very strange feature in the NY Times about parrots who place videocalls to each other, engineered to be as hard to share as possible. I did track down the experimental protocol for this fascinating bit of bird science here, via the web page of one of the study leaders, Rebecca Kleinberger.

Anyway the way it works is that the birds are shown other parrots on a device like an iPad and taught a series of behaviors. They learn to ring a bell when they want to chat. They are then shown a series of images of other participating birds, from which they select another bird to call. The call is placed and the birds then interact over video.

Once the birds learned the system they began asking to call their feathered friends. A lot. 

They seemed to enjoy it and stayed focused on the screen. They tracked their partners around the screen; but they did sometimes look behind the device when their partner disappeared from the screen. sometimes they mirrored each other's behavior, for example grooming together. Some developed "friends" that they wanted to chat with over and over again, even sleeping with their friends sleeping on the screen.

Not only did the birds seem to like the calls, but some owners reported that they seemed happier and more energized in general. Which raises a lot of questions about, for example, keeping social species like parrots as solo pets.

I find the differing degrees to which animals will interact with video screens fascinating. I've never known a dog that would pay a video image any mind; visual stimuli of that sort just don't seem to resonate with them without smell and the missing wavelengths of sound. Cats are variable; none of my cats has ever watched television, but I have seen others stare at fish or birds on the screen.

In general this probably has to do with how visual the animal is; parrots are after all highly visual animals. As you would expect from this metric, some monkeys watch television and seem to enjoy it. But some refuse to take an interest.

I find myself very curious what will happen if people bring parrots who have gotten to know each other over video together.

Links 21 April 2023

Hassan Massoudy, Towards Another Land, 2012, calligraphy of a text by Rumi

Chinese researchers say they have made major improvements in the efficiency of incandescent light bulbs, enough that they are similar to LEDs in their energy consumption.

Speeded-up video shows a boat trip from Rotterdam to Amsterdam in 10 minutes. An amazing maze of waterways, and a remarkable number of drawbridges. I wonder if there are boat lovers who watch videos like this at normal speed, like train fanciers and their "cab rides."

The old town of Dunwich on the coast of Suffolk, England, eroded into the sea over the whole period from 1600 to 1922. Many, many English painters and writers fell in love with the place and with the idea of old towns disappearing beneath the waves.

Weird bit of research concerning how bacteria communicate, and whether unrelated types of bacteria can communicate "cross culturally."

If you wind up bedridden due to illness or injury, you are at risk from blood clots that form in your legs but can travel to your brain and kill you. But if you are paralyzed, this risk eventually goes away; it is an acute problem that fades over time. Plus, why don't animals that hibernate get blood clots? Researchers in Germany have found a possible explanation involving proteins in the blood.

Technical paper arguing that Neolithic agriculture in the Middle East was more complex and involved many more crops than the usual picture.

Florida woman drives over Damien Hirst sculpture with her Rolls Royce.

Here's a very negative essay on the biomedical job market, with far more Ph.D. students than academic jobs and some people spending 20-years as grant-funded post-docs, hoping that an academic position may one day materialize.

Twenty-five things found frozen in Europe's mountain ice. Some have already been featured here, but not all.

Snippet of the Gospel of Matthew in Syriac found under two other texts in a parchment in the Vatican library. Where the usual modern text has, "at that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath; and his disciples became hungry and began to pick the heads of grain and eat," this text says the apostles "began to pick the heads of grain, rub them in their hands, and eat them." The detail about rubbing grain in their hands appears in at least one other old text of this Gospel, and nobody seems to know what it means. Is it a religious act, or just a way to make the grain easier to chew?

A glimpse of the future, with world population set to decline: Japan has more than 10 million empty houses or akiya. (NY Times) Part of the Times story focuses on Jaya Thursfield and his Japanese-born wife Chihiro, who moved to Japan from Australia and have a Youtube channel about restoring the empty house they bought in 2018.

Some octopi start acting in self-destructive ways after they reproduce, and even eat pieces of themselves; researchers think they have some biochemical insight into what is happening.

Restoration of a "secret" staircase in Florence's Palazzo Vecchio, supposed to be a clandestine route from the lord and lady's apartments to the street, has revealed grotesque 16th-century frescoes.

Something else to blame on the Romans: smush-faced dogs.

And a lavish Roman villa with a wine fountain uncovered near Rome.

“We have been underestimating what is happening in terms of fertility change in Africa. . . . Africa will probably undergo the same kind of rapid changes as east Asia did.” Some projections now show Africa's population peaking around 2060 and then beginning to fall; the UN recently revised its prediction for the population of Nigeria in 2100 downward by 150 million. (Economist)

Just wanted to mention here the pronatalist tech power couple who named their baby girl Titan Invictus.

Did you know there was a world record for the largest GPS drawing by bicyclists?

But here's an even better art gimmick: painting on ice floes.

This week's random past post: Lucy, Yard Sale, Satan, and Roofless, 2010

Casas de Turuñuelo and Tartessos Spain

Interesting archaeological news from a site southwestern Spain known as Casas de Turuñuelo:

Around 2,500 years ago, close to what is known today as the municipality of Guareña in Spain’s Badajoz province, locals gathered in an enormous two-story building for a banquet and a ritual ceremony in which they sacrificed dozens of valuable animals. Afterwards, they burned the building and buried the remains before abandoning the site.

The animals identified so far are "22 horses, three cows, two pigs, two sheep and one donkey," one of the largest collections of sacrificed beasts in the whole Mediterranean world. It is also interesting that these victims were not laid out in a tomb, but on the lower floor of a large building, perhaps a palace. The archaeologists think the sacrifice marked the abandonment of the building; it seems to have been burned and pretty thoroughly wrecked at the same time, and then never used again. They speculate that the gods needed serious propitiation after some disaster, perhaps a plague, so this building and all its contents were sacrificed along with the animals. I find myself wondering if people thought the cause of the gods' anger was centered in this  building, which leads me to imagine sordid palace intrigues and some sort of "people rebel against Rasputin" scenario.

The archaeologists are especially excited about the stone staircase you can see in this view, the only intact one from the region and the only clear evidence so far for a two-story building from this culture. 

Which is the culture known in the classical world as Tartessos; sometimes we call it Tartessian, but just as often Tartesos or Tartessos. This grew up in southwestern Iberia after the Phoenicians arrived some time around 900 BC. The Phoenicians were mainly after metals such as copper and silver; mining was carried out so intensely for so along in some parts of Spain that special subspecies of fish evolved to live in rivers tainted with acid and heavy metals.

Casas de Turuñuelo is back in the archaeological news this week because these "almost life-sized" sculpted heads have been assembled from fragments found in the ruins of the palace. Five heads were identified in all, the others less complete than these. The pieces came from separate rooms, reinforcing the idea that this place was thoroughly and purposefully destroyed. They are the oldest well-made human faces from this part of the world. They have inspired a lot of over-the-top rhetoric from Spanish nationalists along the lines of, "we have our own great civilizations, we weren't just barbarians who had to be civilized by the Romans." Like this from the English version of El Pais:

Every fresh discovery at the Casas de Turuñuelo archeological site in Guareña, Badajoz — where a huge 2,500-year-old two-floor building is being unearthed ­— makes it more difficult to sustain the accepted theory that the Tartessian culture that occupied the southwestern Iberian Peninsula between the 9th and 5th centuries B.C. was not a sophisticated civilization with its own entities. 

Which is a lot to hang on five fragmentary terracotta faces, and anyway the Romans never claimed that the people of southern Iberia were barbarians. But that's just how some people seem to approach the past.

Spanish and Portuguese archaeologists have long been fascinated by Tartessos, and the archaeological museum in Seville is full of Tartessian artifacts like this golden hoard, and the objects below. And it is just the kind of thing I love, a culture for which the written records give hints but no more, where some things may be interpreted using our knowledge of the Phoenicians but nobody knows how much the meanings may have been changed by these non-semitic people at the end of Europe, where strange things like the destructive abandonment of Casas de Turuñuelo made sense under a system of logic we can reach for but never grasp.

Thursday, April 20, 2023

Starship Blows Up

The first launch of the SpaceX Starship, the vehicle supposed to one day carry people to Mars, blew up today. The booster failed to separate from the second stage, the whole thing started spinning and then, boom.

Earlier a telescopic view showed that not all of the booster's 33 engines were firing, which seems like a bad sign even if it didn't cause the failure. I have wondered about all those engines ever since SpaceX announced they were going with this design. The reason the Soviets never got to the Moon was that they never got their 30-engine N-1 super-heavy rocket to work, and NASA engineers at the time pointed to the difficulty of making so many engines work together. But I guess computers and controls and such are a lot better now than they were in the 1960s, so maybe SpaceX can do it.

The strange thing about the video of the disaster that SpaceX immediately uploaded to Youtube is the excited atmosphere. The video starts with clips of other SpaceX failures, and when Starship blew up the assembled crowd cheered.

Elon Musk is of the "move fast and break things" school of engineering, and he made SpaceX in that image. His whole approach is that space can be reached much more cheaply if we cut back on the bureaucracy and take more risks. And on the whole it seems to be working; SpaceX launched around the same time as other private space companies but has progressed much faster; its Falcon 9 rocket has made 217 launches, of which 152 were reflights, making it by far the leader in commercial satellite service. Its Dragon capsule is now the main way people and gear reach the International Space Station. Starship, when and if it actually reaches space, will be the most powerful launch vehicle ever made.

Falcon 9 launch vehicle landing on the droneship

So in a sense the whole mission is based on accepting the chance of failure. I don't think the cheerful, excited tone of SpaceX's failure video is all fake. I think that is genuinely the culture they are trying to cultivate, and I have no trouble believing that many of their employees buy into it.

Whether that sort of spirit can really get us to Mars, I have my doubts. I don't have the passion for crewed space flight that animates Musk and people like him, so I am not all that charged up for the mission. If I were in charge of the space budget I would blow up the ISS tomorrow and put an end to all this nonsense about going back to the Moon. We've been there and already know there's no reason to go back. Instead I would send highly capable robots to the moons of Jupiter and Saturn, where there are still discoveries to be made.

But other people feel differently, and if they want to cheer the launch of Starship and then its self-destruction, I wish them all the best.

Witchcraft Persecution in Africa

Across much of Africa, the persecution of witches is still a terrible problem. Estimates of the number of accused witched murdered with or without trial go into the hundreds of thousands, although as I will explain these numbers beg a lot of questions. The persecution of witches draws on a range of problems: belief that misfortune can be causes by black magic; suspicion of anyone who "gets ahead" by means that seem mysterious to the neighbors; fear of mental illness; sexual jealousy; distrust of the government and its ability to provide justice; occasional encouragement by ambitious political leaders or ministers.

One of the strange offshoots of this problem is the phenomenon of "witch camps." When I first read about these I thought it must be a lie, or maybe a mistranslation, but no. Here is wikipedia's description of the camps in Ghana:

Witch camps are settlements where women in Ghana who have been accused of being witches can flee for safety. Women in such camps have been accused of witchcraft for various reasons, including mental illness. Some camps are thought to have been created in the early 20th century. . . . There are at least six witch camps in Ghana, housing a total of approximately 1,000 women.

From what I have been able to read, mostly news articles, it seems that the protectors of "witch camps" are exploiting the women as cheap labor, making them an odd sort of protection racket.

I have written here about this problem before, noting that some witch hunters have claimed protection for their activities under "freedom of religion." But what got me started on it again this week was my discovery that the Catholic Church is trying to right one of its historic wrongs by fighting the persecution of African "witches":

Those accused of witchcraft have now found a perhaps unlikely charity ally in their fight for justice: the Catholic missionary society missio, which is part of the global Pontifical Mission Societies under the jurisdiction of the Pope, has declared August 10 as World Day against Witch Hunts, saying that in at least 36 nations around the world, people continue to be persecuted as witches.

While the Catholic Church encouraged witch hunts in Europe from the 15th to the 18th century, it is now trying to shed light into this dark practice. Part of this might be a sense of historical obligation — but the real driving force is the number of victims that witch hunts still cost today.

Historian Wolfgang Behringer, who works as a professor specializing in the early modern age at Saarland University, firmly believes in putting the numbers in perspective. He told DW that during these three centuries, between 50,000 and 60,000 people are assumed to have been killed for so-called crimes of witchcraft — a tally that is close to being twice the population of some major German cities at the time.

But he says that in the 20th century alone, more people accused of witchcraft were brutally murdered than during the three centuries when witch hunts were practiced in Europe: "Between 1960 and 2000, about 40,000 people alleged of practicing witchcraft were murdered in Tanzania alone. While there are no laws against witchcraft as such in Tanzanian law, village tribunals often decide that certain individuals should be killed," Behringer told DW.

Other counts of the number of witches killed during Euroupe's witch hunts go as high as 200,000, but the number cited by Behringer is probably close to the average of what historians think, so I have no issue with it.

It is equally hard to get a good count of the "witches" killed in contemporary Africa. This is because in many places "witchcraft" is an accusation thrown around so much that it's hard to get a handle on what it means. Sometimes it seems like a justification for trying to cut a relative out of an inheritance, or something to throw at unfaithful women, or at crazy people, or religious heretics, and many other such cases. So when you read that someone was persecuted as a witch you can't easily tell if people really think sorcery is involved or if they are just very angry and using the worst insult at hand. But if you take all the accusations seriously, you indeed get numbers in the tens of thousands per decade.

African witchcraft persecutions are the sort of problem that gives some leftists fits. On the one hand, the persecutions are brutal, sexist, patriarchal, and oppressive, falling most heavily on poor women. On the other, the people opposing them do so almost exclusively in the name of either western ideas about science and human rights, or else modern, western notions of Christianity. For the Catholic church to fight witchcraft in Africa is about as neocolonial an act as you are ever likely to see, besides being open to accusations of hypocrisy. If you really believe that Africa's problems were mainly caused by westerners and that we should back off and let Africans run their own lives, then the Catholic church is making a mistake. But I disagree, because I don't think it matters at all if beliefs are European or African, black or white, colonial or anti-colonial; I care only if they are true or false, just or unjust, good or evil.

Gwern Wonders about Furries

Gwern, one of the core online Rationalists, has put up a list of questions to ponder, which is worth reading. But meanwhile, here is Gwern on Furries:

One of the core demographics of Patreon, by amount spent, is the “furries” subculture commissioning artwork & other things catering to their fetishes; furries are also well-represented on image boorus, providing some of the largest & best tagged databases (even larger than Danbooru), and historically were (along with fanfiction) one of the most extreme userbases of; further, furry conventions are surprisingly robust, catering, among other things, to fursuit makers selling extremely expensive (and often custom) fursuits; even further, furries appear to be extremely overrepresented among tech workers (an autism spectrum connection?). 

I’ve kept noticing furries within a few degrees of me (an artist acquaintance does SFW furry commissions, an online acquaintance learned English thanks to furries, another told me of furry IRC channels for just techies coordinating projects & trips & donations, yet another told me that it was not uncommon to see furries suited up in datacenters, the Damore lawsuit materials mention furry groups in Google along with ‘otherkin’, and so on), public examples of furries like SonicFox are increasingly common, and I’ve begun to wonder. In general, furries seem to be bizarrely rich, well-connected, and capable—the Quakers of fetishes. . . .

If this is true, why are furries so rich and well-funded, and why tech, specifically? Why so many so recently, not just offline, but in their safe spaces online? When did ‘furries’ become a thing? I have yet to run into a clear reference to them before the 1970s–1980s, typically vaguely ascribed to convention dynamics, and they may primarily postdate even that. . . .

I wonder if the appeal is simply that Furry is a way for grown-ups to "play" as they did in childhood, which many people seem to miss. The suits provide a sense of anonimity that helps let those feelings free while forcing a certain level of sexual innocence.

Monday, April 17, 2023

The Roots of Football, Rugby, Etc.

An excerpt of an excerpt from Nicholas Orme's Tudor Children, abut the games of old England:

Other handball and football games gathered in large numbers of boys or youths, and were therefore popular rather than aristocratic sports. They probably took different forms from place to place. The Cornish historian Richard Carew, writing in 1602, described one variety, which he termed “hurling” and was, in fact, chiefly a form of handball since he does not mention kicking. It could be done in two ways. “Hurling to goals” was played by teams of fifteen, twenty, or thirty players on either side. It took place in a limited area with two goals, each having two goalkeepers. Each player formed a pair with an opponent. On getting the ball, the player could hold or throw it, at which point his opponent could tackle him by holding him and be fended off with punches. If he fell on the ground, he had to yield the ball. Having escaped the opponent, anyone could try to stop him. There were recognized rules, including an offside convention. Carew gives these for east Cornwall, which he knew, but others no doubt prevailed in other places. The matches in his own county commonly took place after weddings, which brought together enough youths or men to form teams.

Carew describes a second form of the game as “hurling to the country,” which was a larger and less structured activity. It was organized by two or more gentlemen who brought together men from as many as six parishes to play it. The goals were houses three or four miles apart, and there was no restriction on the number of players or much in terms of rules. A ball was used, small and of silver, which could be held or thrown, and the player could be attacked by any number of opponents but, if forced to the ground, had to surrender the ball. It was even possible to riders to join in and seize the ball if they could. The struggle went “over hills, dales, hedges, ditches, yea, and through bushes, briars, mires, plashes, and rivers, so as you shall sometimes see twenty or thirty lie tugging together in the water.” Carew commended the game for the manliness and courage required, but admitted that the result was often “bloody pates, bones broken and out of joint, and such bruises as serve to shorten their days.” . . .

Richard Mulcaster, writing in 1581, called it the activity “of a rude multitude, with bursting of shins and breaking of legs…neither civil nor worthy the name of any train [passage] to health.” Two years later, the Puritan writer Philip Stubbes added his condemnation of it as more of ‘a bloody and murthering practice than a fellowly sport or pastime.” Men lay in wait for their enemies and attacked them, “so that by this means sometimes their necks are broken, sometimes their backs, sometimes their legs, sometimes their arms.” He dismissed it as having any place as a Sunday recreation (and by implication at any other time) because, so he claimed in a fine array of synonyms, it leads to “envy, malice, rancor, choler, hatred, displeasure, enmity, and what not else!”

It was indeed possible for communal games of action to turn into mimic wars, under the inspiration of contemporary events. Children in London had chosen kings and fought battles in 1400, six months after Richard II was overthrown by Henry IV. In 1548 the boys of Bodmin School in Cornwall, who were accustomed to divide into sides for their games, formed two religious parties: the old religion and the new. This was at the time that the Protestant Reformation under Edward VI was being enforced across the country. The division, which Richard Carew remembered long afterwards, led to rough conflicts, “each party knowing and still keeping the same companions and captain.” It ended when one boy made a gun from an old candlestick, charged it with gunpowder and stone, and succeeded in killing a calf, after which the schoolmaster intervened with a good whipping of those concerned. This affair had a sequel in London in March 1554, after the failure of Wyatt’s rebellion against Mary Tudor. Boys gathered in Finsbury Fields outside the city “to play a new game, some took Wyatt’s part and some the queen’s and made a combat in the fields.” The city authorities took immediate action over such a sensitive matter, and many of the participants were arrested and shut up in the Guildhall.

The Shift to Solar Continues to Accelerate; or, Technological Change as it Happens

Solar photovoltaic (PV) power is the cheapest in the world, and the price is still falling. But how did that happen?

Solar photovoltaic is not really a new technology. The first solar cell was built in 1881, the first rooftop solar panel was installed in 1884, and all modern PV cells follow a pattern laid down by Bell Labs in 1954. For the next twenty years much of the engineering was done for satellites and other space craft; in 1974, 96% of the solar PV cells sold in the US went into spacecraft. From there solar moved into being a power source for remote installations like lighthouses and radio signal repeaters in the Australian Outback. Ironically, one of the first big terrestrial uses of solar cells was to power offshore oil rigs. From there the technology kept getting better and cheaper, expanding into new niches as the cost fell. The story is basically just one small engineering improvement after another until by around 2010 they added up to a system cheap enough to compete with other power sources, launching the solar boom.

Solar PV’s low cost is the result of its steadily falling in price over many decades. In 1957 solar PV electricity cost roughly $300,000 per megawatt-hour in 2019 dollars. By 2019, in the sunniest locations that had fallen to roughly $20 per megawatt-hour, 15,000 times less. And it's still getting cheaper. In 2021, the DOE set a goal to reduce the cost of solar PV by another 50% by 2030.

Because of its low cost, while solar PV is still a small fraction of overall electricity generation (around 6% in the US), it’s an increasingly large fraction of new electricity generation capacity. Of the 151 gigawatts of planned electricity generating plants tracked by the EIA, 49% of them are solar PV projects.

Similar trends are happening worldwide. Globally, installed solar PV capacity is increasing by roughly 20% to 30% per year. Worldwide solar PV generation went from 34 terawatt-hours in 2010 (around 0.2% of total electricity use) to over 1000 terawatt-hours in 2021, close to 5% of world capacity.

That's a 2940% increase in 11 years. The explosion of solar power is not happening because utility companies suddently got woke; it's just simple economics. As soon as the cost fell below that of other systems, the market responded as markets do.

It's also worth noting that both government initiatives and private companies played major roles here; the modern photovoltaic cell was not created by either goverment or private industry, but by both working together.

Icaronycteris gunnelli and the Evolution of Bats

A wonderful fossil from the Green River formation in Wyoming has been identified as a new species of bat, Icaronycteris gunnelli. It dates to around 52 million years ago, making it the oldest bat fossil yet identified. This was a small animal, weighing less than an ounce (25 grams), roughly the size of a modern little brown bat.

The Green River Formation is the remains of three huge lakes that once covered parts of Utah, Wyoming, and Colorado. They endured for around 12 million years, which is a long time for lakes, gradually accummulating sediment and preserving many wonderful fossils. The Green River formation spreads across around 65,000 square kilometers or 25,000 square miles and reaches 600 meters (2,000 feet) in thickness. Which is a lot of rock.

The remains of Fossil Lake have proved (no surprise) to be particularly rich in fossils; this slab shows two small fish, a snail, and a bird.

The formation looks like this; much of it is exposed in canyon walls along the Green River, hence the name.

The Field Museum has a delightful slide show of specimens from Fossil Lake.

This small carnivorous mammal has the first known prehensille tail, and in fact its tail has more verterbrae than any other known species.

But to get back to bats! This one is from wikipedia, found in 2021 and not yet identified.

Paleontologists are avidly pursuing ever older bat fossils because their evolution remains a complete mystery. We have made much progress in recent decades understanding other evolutionary puzzles, such as the evolution of whales, birds, and turtles. But so far there are no transitional fossils for bats. They just pop up in the record 50 million years ago, fully formed. By 50 mya they are also distributed around the world, with some fine fossils from India. So nobody knows where they arose, either. All we can say with certainty is that they were part of the great explosion of mammals that took place after the dinosaurs were wiped out 65 million years ago.

But it would be boring if we understood everything, right?