Saturday, September 30, 2023

Valerian the Fallen

Lactantius, On the Deaths of the Persecutors, c. 315 AD

Emperor Valerian, having been made prisoner by the Persians, lost not only that power which he had exercised without restraint, but also the liberty of which he had deprived others, and he wasted the remainder of his days in the vilest condition of slavery. Shapur, the king of the Persians, who had made him prisoner, whenever he chose to get into his carriage or to mount on horseback, commanded the Roman to stoop and present his back; then, setting his foot on the shoulders of Valerian, he said, with a smile of reproach, "This is true, and not what the Romans boast of." Valerian lived for a considerable time under the insults of his conqueror.
Valerian the Fallen

They wonder, I know, why I endure my fate, why I have not rebelled and forced Shapur’s guards to end my life.

They do not know that on the plague-stalked field beside Edessa where my army met the God of Death and I was taken

The heavens opened unto to me and gave this fallen king a vision such as gods have sent to few men dead or living.

I have never since beheld the world as other men behold it; I do not see the trodden dirt beneath my captor's steed but times to come.

I see mighty Rome laid low, its walls broken, Goths and brigands dancing in the Forum while noble women wail and rend their robes.

I see order overturned: emperors bow down to holy men in rags and call them by the blessed name of Father, while scholars write the words of starving women in barren cells and call them truth.

I see small ships that cross the ocean and upend the world, casting down old empires and raising new.

I see philosophers with lenses and crucibles burning libraries of old wisdom and building temples to new revelations.

I see machines like iron bulls that belch forth smoke and do the work of fifty men.

I see plebeians breaking down the palace gates, not to name a new man king but to proclaim an end to kingship.

When the shah’s foot stomps my back I see ships of fire sailing to the stars, and men walking on other worlds.

I do not choose to die because even as a footstool I behold the wonder and majesty of creation, and with every breath I praise the gods who brought me here to share their gift.

– John Bedell, September 2023

Friday, September 29, 2023

Wonderful Finds from La Cueva de los Murciélagos

Archaeologists exploring Spain's Cave of the Bats have found wonderfully preserved artifacts, like these small baskets that date to around 7950-7360 B.C.

These were grave goods; the nineteenth-century miners who first explored the cave reported finding dozens of skeletons, along with bear's teeth, boar's tusks, and baskets. Amazing that new discoveries are still being made in this disturbed site.

These woven grass sandals date to around 4370-3740 B.C., making them the oldest found in Europe.

Wooden mallet, same date as the sandals.

How Russia Prepared for War: Through Book Publishing

Amazing long thread on X by Sergej Sumlenny about the big push made by Russian book publishers to rehabilitate Stalin and prepare readers for war with the West:

One of the first indicators of Russia preparing for a full-scale turn into dictatorship and a global war was the mass production of books praising Stalin and Stalinism and welcoming upcoming war against the West. These books appeared on Russian bookshelves in early 2010s. [The titles included] "Be proud, not sorry! Truth about Stalin Age" "Stalinist's Handbook", "Stalin's Repressions: A Great Lie" and "Beria: Best XXCent Manager."

Later came a wave of titles depicting war with the west over Ukraine:

Soon after, Kremlin started publishing what they called "battle fantastic". Mass-produced low-quality books about Russian military superiority in all possible conflicts. Then whole book series appeared. 

Above, the cover for Ukraine on Fire from the "Battlefield Ukraine" series, which features lots of Azov Nationalists.

Here is what Sumlenny says is an entirely typical back-of-the-book summary:

WW3 starts on Kyiv Maidan! Nato "Peacekeepers" start Baderites genocide of Russians, wiping out the whole cities. Polava does not exist anymore. Novorossiya fights back, Russia helps! We take Kyiv! It is our final battle!

This is so wild that I spent about half an hour researching Sumlenny before I posted it; so far as I can tell he is a legitimate analyst who has appeared at the Foreign Policy Research Institute and so on. In other tweets he covers Russian movies with similar themes.

As so often, it turns out that regimes telegraph their upcoming evil moves years in advance.

Links 29 September 2023

Frederick Stuart Church, Portrait of a Woman in Green, Detail

Strange trapezoidal stone tomb found in Kazakhstan, dates to the Bronze Age.

Tyler Cowen on Bronze Age Pervert and how badly evolution explains most of what humans do these days: "People spend so much time not having sex."

Using ChatGPT to write a viral essay on grief.

Mistrust leads to more regulation, even when what people mistrust most is the government.

"Having more money leads to less loneliness."

The Greek economy, hammered by a near default on its debts in 2009 and then harsh austerity imposed by the EU, is finally coming back, with a tourism-driven building boom (NY Times). This is a semi-triumph for the tough-love financial policies pioneered by the IMF, since corruption and government profligacy in Greece really had gotten out of control. Amusing that one of the photos they use in this piece to illustrate the boom was previously used in a different story to illustrate the threat posed by new construction to important archaeological sites.

Microsoft is moving ahead with building small nuclear reactors to power its data centers.

Law student cheats by carving answers onto ball-point pens in tiny letters (Fox News, X)

Global culture watch: Russian soldier refers to their counter-attacks near Bakhmut as "Zerg rushes." The Zerg are an alien race in Starcraft 2 that can raise a lot of weak units very quickly, and players typically use tham like suicide bombers.

A claim that crows use statistical reasoning.

"Scientists have created a new type of vaccine that instead of activating the immune system, selectively suppresses it. The so-called inverse vaccine, which has only been tested in mice so far, could one day be used to treat autoimmune diseases, in which the immune system attacks the body, the researchers say."

Large Language Models have some issues with basic logic: "For instance, if a model is trained on 'Olaf Scholz was the ninth Chancellor of Germany', it will not automatically be able to answer the question, 'Who was the ninth Chancellor of Germany?'" Of course which logical propositions can be reversed in this way is one of the oldest topics in western logic (Aristotle is mortal, but not all mortals are Aristotle), so I don't find it surprising that it is hard for AI to extract such rules from ordinary prose.

Liberal feminist rant against the "marriage plot," seeing calls to get married as an excuse not to reform the economy in fundamental ways so single parents aren't so poor.

Orcas that have learned to feed on fish already collected for them by fishing nets are now dying in record numbers from net entanglement. I would say that whether they eventually sort this out will be a good measure of their actual intelligence and ability to communicate.

This week's Sign of the Apocalypse: throwing slices of cheese at your baby's face, and then uploading the video. Shame on all you buffoons. (NY Times, Youtube compilation) There are a few babies whose response is, "Mmmmm, cheese" but many more find it upsetting; I wonder if in 20 years we will have a study like the famous marshmallow test arguing that how babies responded to cheese in the face predicted their future lives.

According to data collected by the College Board, while the posted tuition costs at American Universities have soared, the actual tuition paid by the average student has remained essentially unchanged for 30 years.

The  NY Times reports, of the swift Azerbaijani conquest of Karabakh, that "amost no one saw it coming," even though all the observers whose stuff shows up in my OSINT feed on X predicted it; on September 10 this guy wrote, "Azeri forces almost blatantly ticking through indicators and warnings for immediate military action." Incidentally, all the OSINT guys also say that the leadership of the self proclaimed Armenian Republic of Karabakh brought this on themselves by radical intransigence, rejecting multiple compromise peace plans proposed by the US and the EU; even the government of Armenia said publicly that they were washing their hands of Karabakh and would do nothing to help them. And they didn't.

Vis Scott Siskind, a piece on an unusual French anti-anxiety medication called Etifoxine.

Bronze Age arrow with a stone tip melts from the ice in Norway. Note that in the "Bronze Age" bronze was expensive and people still used stone and bone for many tools; not until much cheaper iron came along did we really enter a metal age.

Experiments at CERN confirm that antimatter reacts to gravity in exactly the same way as normal matter, sadly obliterating two generations of sci-fi antigravity schemes. (NY Times, Nature)

The hoopla surrounding the launch of Taiwan's first domestically-produced submarine includes liquor sold in submarine-shaped bottles. In case you wondered, yes Taiwin is massively increasing its defense spending in response to Chinese threats, as are Japan and the Phillipines. The cost of this new Age of War continues to rise.

Ukraine Links

Interview with Ukraine's spy boss, Budanov, in Washington, DC. Budanov is extremely careful about everything he says so he gave this inverview for a reason, to send some message to somebody. One thing he says is that winter weather won't stop the fighting, since it is being waged without vehicles anyway.

Kyiv Independent story on what some military experts say is a long-term Ukrainian campaign to degrade Crimea's air defenses and attack its military infrastructure.

Many Armenians in Karabakh expected that Russia would come to their defense against Azerbaijan, which didn't happen. And then Tuesday night Russian television presenter Solovyov called on the Armenians of Karabakh to come fight for Russia against Ukraine.

The Majority Never Had It So Good: why support for Russia's war is strong is rural areas.

Satellite tracking of fires in Ukraine suggests that September 27-28 saw the most intensive shelling of the war so far.

On the subject of estimating Russian equipment losses, a note that Russia had 180 T-80U tanks at the start of the war, and Oryx data confirms the loss of 89, but no more have been reported lost in weeks nor are any showing up in video from the front; so where did the other 91 go? Most are probably undocumented losses of one sort or another. OSINT guys are also reporting that Russians are getting better at not posting videos of their own equipment losses, which on the one hand means they are getting better at OPSEC but on the other means the ratio of actual to documented losses is getting even higher than it used to be.

AI and the New Writers Guild Contract

In the NY Times, Adam Seth Litwin says the new Writers Guild of America contract may provide a template for other workers threatened by artificial intelligence:

The W.G.A. contract establishes a precedent that an employer’s use of A.I. can be a central subject of bargaining. It further establishes the precedent that workers can and should have a say in when and how they use artificial intelligence at work.

It may come as a surprise to some that the W.G.A. apparently never wanted, nor sought, an outright ban on the use of tools like ChatGPT. Instead, it aimed for a more important assurance: that if A.I. raises writers’ productivity or the quality of their output, guild members should snare an equitable share of the performance gains. And the W.G.A. got it.

How did it achieve this? In this case, the parties agreed that A.I. is not a writer. The studios cannot use A.I. in place of a credited and paid guild member. Studios can rely on A.I. to generate a first draft, but the writers to whom they deliver it get the credit. These writers receive the same minimum pay they would have had they written the piece from scratch. Likewise, writers can elect to use A.I. on their own, when a studio allows it. However, no studio can require a guild member to use A.I.

These negotiations were likely aided by the fact that studios have their own concerns about A.I. Material generated by A.I. cannot be copyrighted, which presents several challenges to studios, since they typically own the copyright on material from writers they’ve hired. By assuring that human writers will be involved in any writing that also involves A.I., the studios start to insulate themselves from those copyright concerns.

Thursday, September 28, 2023

Luigi Pesce in Iran

Luigi Pesce (1828 –1864) was an Italian colonel and photographer who traveled to Iran in 1848, during the reign of Naser al-Din Shah Qajar, to help train Iranian army. Pesce brought a camera to Iran in 1852 and took what are said to the first first photographs taken of the country. These photos, now in the Met, were in an album that Pesce presented to the Shah in 1858. That's the Shah above.

Views of Teheran; immediately above is the "ordinary" throne.


Medieval ruins.

Relief, and detail showing the shah hunting flying pigs.

Robert Oppenheimer on Communism

From his very interesting Reith Lecture on the BBC, 20 December 1953

It is a cruel and humourless sort of pun that so powerful a present form of modern tyranny should call itself by the very name of a belief in community, by a word 'communism' which in other times evoked memories of villages and village inns and of artisans concerting their skills, and of men of learning content with anonymity. But perhaps only a malignant end can follow the systematic belief that all communities are one community; that all truth is one truth; that all experience is compatible with all other; that total knowledge is possible; that all that is potential can exist as actual. This is not man's fate; this is not his path.

Tuesday, September 26, 2023

J.D. Vance's Political Map of America

From an interesting interview in the NY Times:

When I asked how Mr. Vance defined his political positioning, he abruptly popped out of his chair and hurried over to his desk. He returned with a yellow sticky note on which he drew a large grid. Along the bottom of the paper he scrawled “culture” and on the left side, “commerce.” He started drawing dots as he explained: “I think the Republican Party has tended to be here” — top right quadrant, indicating a mix of strong cultural and pro-business conservatism. He added, “I think the Democratic Party has tended to be here,” pointing to the bottom left quadrant, which in his telling represents a strong liberal take on both. “And I think the majority, certainly the plurality of American voters — and maybe I’m biased because this is my actual view — is somewhere around here,” he said, placing them on the grid to suggest that people are “more conservative on cultural issues but they are not instinctively pro-business.”

Plausible, although abortion and gay marriage seem to be a major exceptions, and I would say the contemporary position on for example women's rights would have been radical in 1970. Still, I do see a strong "why don't people get married, settle down and stop whining" party in America. I also thought this was interesting:
voters are fed up that “nothing changes” even when they “elect successive waves of different people."
In other words, people aren't frustrated so much with particular things the government does as with the fact that no matter who they vote for, nothing much changes. I think that is exactly why many Americans are frustrated. I would say, however, that the real source of that frustration is 1) we really don't know of any alternatives to our mixed economic system that would make things hugely better, and 2) politics in America are so finely balanced between competing visions that neither party ever gets a mandate for real change.

Ophelia and Me

I had an absolutely marvelous tropical storm over the weekend. Gentle Ophelia flooded us with four to five inches of rain, half of it falling in an intense 12-hour period but the rest spread out across four days. It was a blessing for Maryland, after a dry winter, a very dry spring, and an average summer left us eight inches behind normal rainfall for this year, and just before Ophelia blew in the state posted drought warnings for five counties.

It was especially delightful for me because I am writing a new book. With the rain pattering on the windows behind me I pounded out 8,000 words bewteen Friday afternoon and bedtime on Sunday. If I can keep going at this pace I will have a 100,000-word draft by Thanksgiving, and maybe a shareable text by Christmas. This is genre fantasy story, first of a projected three or four book series. 

I mention this because blogging is likely to be on the light side this Fall. The explosion in blogging over the summer was born partly from being stalled on all my other writing projects. This fantasy novel had reached 20,000 words by January but then languished untouched until August, and my attempts to start a sequel to The Raven and the Crown never got very far. Then in August I found new inspiration for this book and got back into it. 

I find that when it won't come writing is thoroughly frustrating and miserable, but when it flows it is as much fun for me as anything ever has been. So I had a very good weekend indeed.

Marriage, Happiness and Priorities

Happiness research is, I think, a dubious field, full of questions about cause vs. effect, about whether you can trust what people say on surveys, about what words like "happy" and "fulfilled" even mean. But to the extent that happiness researchers have discovered anything, it is this: by far and away the most important factor in happiness is your relationships with other people. The most miserable thing is loneliness; the best things are marriage, family, and friends.

David Brooks has spent a lot of time trying to figure out why he, despite a very successful career, is not happier and more fulfilled. This has led him to happiness research, and he recently wrote another column about it. Some of what he heard from researchers:

Economist Sam Peltzman published a study in which he found that marriage was “the most important differentiator” between happy and unhappy people. . . . As [professor Brad] Wilcox writes in his vitally important forthcoming book, Get Married: “When it comes to predicting overall happiness, a good marriage is far more important than how much education you get, how much money you make, how often you have sex, and, yes, even how satisfied you are with your work.”

Here is something that resonated with me; Brooks says that when he talks to young people,

The common operating assumption seems to be that professional life is at the core of life and that marriage would be something nice to add on top sometime down the road.
This reminds me of something a good friend of mine once said:

When I was younger I thought my career would be the inside of my life and my family would be the outside, but it is very much the other way around.

So anyway Brooks argued in his column that young people should think less about their careers and more about getting married:

My strong advice is to obsess less about your career and to think a lot more about marriage. Please respect the truism that if you have a great career and a crappy marriage you will be unhappy, but if you have a great marriage and a crappy career you will be happy.

And the reason I am writing about this is the comments the Times received on this piece (they collected a sample here) because I think they express ideas that are destructively rampant in our society and explain a lot of why young people are not following this advice. First, there is this nonsense:

Mr. Brooks’s advice that ambitious college graduates prioritize marriage over career could only come from a privileged male.

Yeah, like no mother ever told her daughter to find a husband. This whole habit of interpreting everything anybody says in terms of sex and "privilege" really needs to stop. If there is any kind of advice that is truly global, it is parents telling their children to find a good mate.

But most of the people who disagree with Brooks say something like this:

Finding the right marriage partner is often a matter of luck and serendipity, over which we have little or no control. By contrast, a successful career typically requires constant effort and hard work. . .

This is, I think, how many young people see the world: finding a marriage partner is luck, whereas a career is something you can achieve by your own efforts. I find myself wondering in what senses and to what extent that is true.

I would note first that controlling your career is a middle class fantasy; if some blue collar people had been consulted they could have told this writer that most people do not have careers that are under their own control. Even people who earn good livings in blue-collar professions – construction supervisors, factory foremen, truck drivers – regularly lose their jobs and go through periods when work is scarce and money is very tight. Brooks himself wrote a column several years ago about a factory worker in Kentucky who raised a family while getting and losing half a dozen jobs, only one of which paid what most Americans would consider a good salary. As he said, such a career has a different narrative than, say, pursuing your dreams, something more like "life threw a lot of curveballs at me but I adapted as best I could and fulfilled my responsibilities despite it all."

One of the things driving the intensely negative tone in America is a sense among many people that even middle class careers are not all that secure, and that there is no kind of education you can get that will guarantee you a stable life. Lydia Polgreen:

There was a terrific episode of “The Daily” this week about this sort of rethinking about the value of college, that there was this kind of grand bargain that if you get a four-year degree, you get that college wage premium, and you’re kind of set up for a life that is largely non-precarious. And I think that there’s been a real rethinking of that bargain. . . . You talk to young people, for example, like the podcast producers who worked for me at Gimlet, and they felt like having a college degree in a highly specialized set of skills was no guarantee that they were going to have a secure economic future.
I have written here about the people who got Ph.D.s in demanding areas of science, like microbiology, and still find that they can't have the careers they imagined.

So that's the first thing, that having a good career really is not entirely under your control. I will admit, though, that it is something you can work at in fairly obvious ways, and that the people who work the hardest often go farther and get richer than slackers.

But why is finding a marriage partner a matter of luck?

Consider a story I read several years ago about a woman who decided to find a spouse. She pursued every sort of dating path available, "interviewed" (her word) over a hundred men, dated half a dozen, married the one she liked best, and claimed to be, at the time of writing, happily married. If you're the kind of person who finds that description revolting, trust me, you would have liked the whole essay even less.

But why is that revolting? Given that a "good" marriage is so important to life in our age, why not pursue it with the same kind of determination some people put into the careers? 

We have a sense, or at least I have a sense, and used to believe very strongly, that a good relationship has to start with a romantic spark. Too much systemization and effort, I would posit, is death to romance. There is some data to back this up, too, in the form of studies showing that the best predictor of whether a marriage will last is how much the partners love each other (or say they love each other) at the start. Besides, the wonder stage of romantic love is one of the best things humans can experience, and it would kind of suck to choose a life path that avoids it.

I think the same thing is true for many people about friendship. Everyone agrees that friends are one of the best things you can possibly have in life, but many people would be dubious of any deliberate plan to make a bunch of friends.

There is a sense in which any kind of concerted plan or extended effort is magic-killing. 

But maybe you can fool yourself by using an indirect strategy. Thing one about finding a spouse or making friends is that you can't do either sitting home alone. So the number one piece of advice about seeking connection is to get out and meet people. I met some of my closest friends playing Dungeons and Dragons, and another playing on a club soccer team. This led Scott Siskind to formulate the concept of "micromarriages," that is, every time you engage in an activity that gets you out to where you might a potential mate you earn a few thousandths of a marriage, and eventually they ought to add up to a whole one. (Worked for him.)

At the risk of being horribly anti-romantic, I think any notion that marriage is all luck is just as foolish as a belief that your career is entirely under your control. There are things you can do to raise your chance of success in both, and both can fail due to things that just happen in a world full of imperfect people and a great deal of chaos and pain. 

It seems to me that if you want anything, you should have a plan for getting it rather than throwing up your hands and saying it's all in the hands of fate.

Sunday, September 24, 2023

Starseeds at the Revolution

Noelle Cook has spent a lot of time over the past two years interviewing the middle aged women who were at the Capitol on January 6. In a thread on X (and Threadreader), she summarizes what she has discovered:

The women I talk to have a lifetime of trauma. Sexual abuse, family violence, and addiction are common. Mental health care is hard to find and often too costly. In many cases the result has been dissociation and delusion.

Their alternative realities have moved far beyond Donald Trump, QAnon, and the long-debunked myth of a "stolen election." Most have found "Conspirituality," a set of new-age-apocalyptic conspiracy theories based on ETs and "love and light."

Some believe they are advanced beings sent to Earth to help "awaken" humanity. Two of the women I talk to identify as "starseeds." Another says she may be a "ascended master." Two more believe they are angels.

They spend most of their time combing social media for videos to post and messages to share. Their social networks are made up of virtual friends who share the same beliefs.

They find comfort in authoritarian figures and conspiracy theories that make them feel like heroes and give them hope that things will magically be ok.

For the women I talk to, participation in online communities has become their identity. In these spaces they find the acceptance, belonging, and purpose that the real world no longer provides.

Now, don't get me wrong, there are sane people who support Donald Trump because they like the kind of tough-guy nationalism he projects. But the people who showed up on January 6 and otherwise dominate the hard core of his support are a strange and motley crew. I wrote here before about how many had suffered bankruptcy. Based on Cooke's research and some other stuff I have seen, quite a few have a weak grasp on reality. The people who ran the Michigan focus group I mentioned while back, featuring people who had voted for Obama and then for Trump, described them as "people who had led rough lives." Half knew someone who had died of an opiate overdose.

The operating assumption in any democracy has to be that the sane people will outweigh the crazies, or maybe that the crazies will not have a coherent enough political position to move the needle much. Looking around America right now, I wonder if maybe the biggest danger to our system is in our massive mental health problems. Will some combination of anti-vaxx, vitamin guzzling, wifi-phobic paranoids, non-binary communists, and angels who think Donald Trump is our alien savior/divine prophet come together to wreck the country? Will some evil genius (n.b.: not Donald Trump) use them to seize power in the name of a purer, holier America?

I still tend to doubt it, but I do think that there may be real danger lurking in the places where rough lives, insane conspiracy theories, and the internet come together.

Saturday, September 23, 2023

Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin, "American Prometheus," Part I: Robert Oppenheimer's Self Transformation

American Prometheus is a first-rate biography, thorough, judicious, full of telling anecdotes, drawing on an astonishing range of sources (including Oppenheimer's 7,000-page FBI file), etc., fully deserving of its Pulitzer Prize. I'm going to split my review into two parts, because I want to deal first with the thing that fascinates me about Oppenheimer. The questions about Oppenheimer's political involvement and eventual expulsion from the government will be covered in a later post.

Around the middle of 1942, the US government began to get serious about the atomic bomb program. That meant thinking about who to put in charge of it. The Army tapped Colonel Leslie Groves, fresh from building the Pentagon, to head their side of things, sweetening the deal by offering him promotion to Brigadier General. But who would lead the scientists?

For many people there was only one answer: J. Robert Oppenheimer. He was widely considered to be America's smartest physicist and knew as much as anybody about the physics involved in making a bomb. The German nuclear program was led by Werner Heisenberg, a towering genius whose name is written into physics at the most fundamental level, and people thought that among Americans only Oppenheimer had a chance against him. Oppenheimer also knew everybody in physics; this was partly because he was a wealthy, well-travelled man who loved intellectual conversation, and partly because he had cooperated with so many other physicists in his work. (Because, people said, he was great at generating ideas but lousy at doing the detailed mathematical work necessary for formal publication, so he always had one or more co-authors to do that.) Nobody disliked him; he is completely free of that aura of stolen ideas, collaborators not acknowledged, obnoxious behavior, and so on that hangs around many successful scientists. He was also a great teacher who offered the first seminar on quantum mechanics outside of Europe, which made him a key shaper of a generation of younger physicists. Many of his students became his lifelong friends. Plus he was already working in the program, running a group making calculations on fast neutron propagation. So wherever Groves went and whoever he asked about leading the bomb program, the answer he got was "Oppenheimer."


Oppenheimer had never led anything bigger than a seminar. He had never shown any interest in administration even at the level of department chair, and was not much involved in regional or national scientific associations. He never taught a class before 11 AM because he liked to stay up late every night drinking and socializing. His desk was always a mess, covered with piles of paper, grocery lists mixed in with important calculations. He also had a long history of involvement with left wing organizations, and although he denied ever having been a member of the Communist Party the FBI did not believe him. According to American Prometheus, when Groves mentioned Oppenheimer's name to the S-1 committee, the high-level group in charge of the atomic program (Secretary of War Stimson, Vannevar Bush, James Conant, etc.), they said, no chance. Groves said, ok, who then? After a month in which people suggested numerous other names that were immediately shot down, the committee ended up back where Groves and most of the physics community had landed: Oppenheimer.

At a date that is not recorded but must have been in November 1942, Groves tapped Oppenheimer. It was a rocky transition. Oppenheimer did make one excellent decision right away, to establish a secret town in a remote part of New Mexico where the scientists would work together in isolation. But he bungled much else. His early interactions with Army counterintelligence were disastrous in a way that later came back to haunt him. He first said that the program would need only six physicists, a number that very rapidly ballooned into the hundreds. First he wanted no organizational structure at all, then when he decided that there would be four divisions he tried to be both the overall director and head of the theoretical section, and he resisted having either an org chart or an assistant director. People began to murmur that he was a bad choice after all.

But Oppenheimer realized that he was screwing up, and then, somehow, he did the thing that fascinates me: he transformed himself into the leader the program needed. He began arriving at his (clean) desk every day at 7:30 AM. He became adept at choosing leaders for the various parts of the program and he arranged a staff for himself that got the project up and running. He was everywhere, talking to every single one of the 400 physicists and engineers about his work, impressing all of them with his grasp of what they were doing. Over the objections of the Army he set up colloquia where there was free-ranging discussion of all parts of the program, which many participants said was vital for success. He set the project schedule and pushed everyone to meet it. He had an excellent sense of which problems raised by others were serious and demanded extra resources and which would sort themselves out. When disputes broke out at Los Alamos he brought everybody together and cajoled them toward agreement; when they could not be made to agree he made the decision himself. He had insisted from the beginning that the scientists must be able to bring their families with them to Los Alamos, and he made sure there were programs for families and a school for the children. He was a father figure to all the young physicists in the program; if you have read Richard Feynman's famous memoirs you may have noticed that Feynman was in awe only of one man in his life, and that was Oppenheimer. When Feynman was sent to check on the progress of Uranium work at Oak Ridge, Oppenheimer took the time to coach him on how to act and what to say. In interview after interview (American Prometheus cites at least twenty) veterans of Los Alamos said that without Oppenheimer there is no way they would have finished a bomb before the end of the war. 

As part of this transformation Oppenheimer, hitherto known mainly for mumbling, made himself into a public speaker. His first appearances before Los Alamos crowds were mediocre to awful, but over the course of the war he found his voice, and by 1945 people were describing his speeches as "riveting" and "inspiring."

Wikipedia says that Oppenheimer "at first had difficulty with the organizational division of large groups but rapidly learned the art of large-scale administration after he took up permanent residence at Los Alamos." As if, you know, this were not especially noteworthy, just something that one does. But I disagree; I think that of all the remarkable things that Oppenheimer did, the most remarkable was to turn himself into the man the moment required. In the face of world war, determined to win a race with the Nazis for the ultimate weapon, Oppenheimer made himself into something he had never been before, something most people who knew him doubted he could become or would ever want to become. He saw what was needed and became it. 


One thing cited by many people at the time was ambition. Oppenheimer was overtaken by a very powerful desire to make an atomic bomb before the Nazis, and he just as badly wanted to lead that effort. His old friends were startled; Oppenheimer's only real ambitions before 1942 were scientific, and he got along so well with other physicists partly because he never sought power, accolades, or attention for himself. This ambition was noticed by the FBI and Army counterintelligence men who worried about Oppenheimer's politics. In secret memos they said that they could insure his cooperation by threatening to remove him from the program, because he obviously wanted to write his name in the history books as the father of the bomb.

And what was that about? Oppenheimer had long been anti-fascist, supporting the Republican cause in the Spanish Civil War and working to help Jewish physicists escape from Germany. Did he want to be remembered as a great fighter against Fascism? Did he, like many other Jewish physicists, believe that this was the best way for Jews to fight back against Hitler? Did he want to be famous? Had he simply looked around and decided, like Groves and many others, that he was the best man for the job, so he had damn well better do it? We don't know, because he never said. But we can see that it happened.

As I wrote here back in 2013 about Barack Obama turning himself into a debater when it seemed essential to his re-election, I have a strong sense that the most successful people are the ones who refuse to give in to their natural weaknesses, but overcome them.

I wonder, though, about the price Oppenheimer paid for his transformation. Did he, perhaps, simply exhaust himself? Not only did he put in extraordinary hours for four straight years, much of his effort was spent on things he was not good at and which might have been contrary to his nature. By the end of 1946 he had lost the struggle over control of nuclear technology and the Cold War arms race was on. He was saddled with the burden of being the man who built the bomb but then failed to control it. And, I think, he was very, very tired.

Maya Angelou, "Come and Be My Baby"

The highway is full of big cars going nowhere fast
And folks is smoking anything that'll burn
Some people wrap their lives around a cocktail glass
And you sit wondering,
Where you're going to turn.
I got it.
Come. And be my baby.

Some prophets say the world is gonna end tomrrow
And some give it a week or two
The paper is full of every kind of blooming horror
And you sit wondering'
Whay you're gonna do.
I got it.
Come. And be my baby.

Friday, September 22, 2023

Links 22 September 2023

Cheng Kang, Australian Darter

Study of whalebones from European archaeological sites shows that right and gray whales were once common in European waters but had been driven nearly to extinction in the north Atlantic well before the modern whaling era got under way in the 1600s. (NY Times, original article) Human impacts on the world did not begin in modern times.

The sex lives of the Shoguns.

More discoveries in the sunken city off the coast of Egypt, and more evidence that Graham Hancock-style theories about submerged Ice Age civilizations that archaeologists are too blinkered to discover are baloney. Incidentally the main reason people keep diving into Thonis-Heracleion when there are plenty of under-explored, undrowned ancient cities in Egypt is that it makes for great video.

The names of Assyrian dogs.

Another incoherent NY Times story about how big a problem it is that so many American children live with a single parent, but we shouldn't "blame and shame" or "stigmatize" anyone; instead we should "bolster parents' own capacity to thrive." These days my reaction to all such laments is, everybody knows about this problem, show me a real plan to help or go home.

Kevin Drum on the real villains in CO2 emissions: not oil companies, but us.

Burial of a Frankish warrior found in Germany.

A video titled "Ladies, many of you do not realise how often men think about the Roman Empire" launched a viral explosion on TikTok in which men say they think about Rome "every day" or "constantly." I think I'm in the "every day" camp. (NY Times, Washington Post, Rolling Stone)

Small hoard of gold found in Norwegian temple dating to around 550 AD. (Newsweek, with 30-second video; Heritage Daily)

NY Times story on elite runners and GPS-equipped-heartbeat-monitoring-etc watches. Some love them, but some have tried them and found them to be a distraction and a bore; one says they "drain the fun" from running. I mention this because I think in some ways we have reached peak tech, with as many people abandoning digital tools as adopting them.

Interesting Canaanite architecture from 1800 BC unearched in Israel.

Danish artist takes too literally the widespread sentiment that modern art is a scam.

Here's a story that one hears all too often these days: "Booted up my 16-yr-old high school laptop to open a WWII database that lives on a CD, works only on Windows 98, & exists no where else. The creator is dead. Need help to save the data from technological oblivion."

Donald Trump is talking in terms of allowing abortion nationally for some number of weeks; his numbers have been all over the place but the one he has mentioned most often is 15 weeks. Can he move Republicans on this issue? And what is wrong with America when the only prominent person trying to find a compromise on some issues is Donald Trump?

Scott Siskind's amusing review of The Alexander Romance, which, as I noted here, was the repository of many of medieval Europe's most fantastic stories.

In the category of "I can't believe I am reading this," a NY Times essay arguing that "Oppenheimer" is really about the trials of being a "girlie," defined as "women who treat Instagram stories an art form." The mind boggles.

To no one's surprise, "95% of NFTs are now worthless."

From Zambia, news of a wooden structure 476,000 years old. I would wait for confirmation before revising your theories of human cultural evolution.

The clay tablets from the Hittite capital Hattusas are written in several languages, mainly Hittite but also Hattian, Luwian, Palaca, etc. This is mainly because the Hittites like to record snippets of foreign language text in their own documents, for example the formal salutations of ambassadors or, especially, foreign invocations of their gods. I mean, if these gods had any power, it would be good to know how to adress them, right? So linguists have been pouring through the Hittite records in search of these remnants of otherwise forgotten tongues. German scholars have just announced the discovery of another, tentatively dubbed Kalašma, which appears to be another Indo-European language of the Anatolian group.

Alex Taborrok against pharmeceutical price regulation, saying new drugs actually save us money even when they are expensive. But the example he uses is Harvoni, a true breakthrough drug that cures Hepatitis C infection in most patients. What drives anger against Big Pharma is not actual breakthroughs but scammy moves like patenting reformulations as new drugs, refusing to sell drugs in convenient packages so some patients are forced to buy much more than they need, jacking up the price of drugs when competing products are taken off the market, and so on. I am all for rewarding real breakthroughs but pharmaceutical pricing is a rigged game and the government should not play along.

Ukraine Links

Andriivka after "liberation"

Interesting article arguing that Russia's defense in the south has been incoherent because the designer of their defensive lines, Surovikin, was sacked for being too unaggressive, and his replacement is not using the defenses in the way Surovikin planned, leading to very heavy Russian losses incurred defending front-line positions Surovikin intended to give up as part of a defense-in-depth.

Russian recruitment video in which soldiers in a trench discuss whether they want to buy property in Kyiv or Odessa after the war.

All you ever wanted to know about ATACMS, including how many exist.

Reuters and Forbes went exploring in the Russian Treasury's online budget portal and found that since the start of the war Russia has paid out $25.6 billion on compensation to families of deceased soldiers and $21 billion on compensation to the wounded. Based on published figures for the amount of the payouts, this translates to 372,093 killed and 508,474 wounded. This is far more than even Ukraine's estimates, and three times the Pentagon's estimate, so most likely much of this money has been stolen or diverted to secret projects. One the other hand, some people who have been trying to count how many soldiers Russia has sent, how many we know have gone back, and how many are still in Ukraine, are coming up with losses in the 750,000 range.

And another number: "Russia’s Ministry of Labour has requested 230,000 certificates for family members of deceased combat veterans." Also 936,000 certificates for combat veterans, which are supposed to go only to those who were actually in combat. 

And one more number: in the first half of 2023, 15,000 Ukrainians have had limbs amputated. That's more amputees than the UK suffered in all of WW II.

Boris Johnson: "Do not believe for one second that these Ukrainian soldiers – or the wider population of Ukraine – could be persuaded somehow to lay down their weapons or do a deal with Putin. They are not fighting at our behest, and will not stop because we say so."

Ukrainian journalist Illia Ponomarenko on why a land for peace deal with Russia can't work.

To counter the newest threat in warfare, drones, Ukrainian soldiers are turning to their oldest weapons, water-cooled maxim machine guns, still built exactly as they were in WW I.

Claims of Ukrainian progress in Zaporizhzia, with armored vehicles past the obstacles of the main Surovikin line.

What happened to Russia's 72nd Brigade at Andriivka? Their commander was sacked after series of Telegram posts so gloomy that I might have fired him, too, but then Ukraine claimed to have surrounded the brigade, killed its new commanders, and forced the rest to surrender. (They also reported that when the Russians started to surrender Russian artillery began bombarding the whole town, attacking Russians and Ukrainians alike.) The former 72nd brigade commander posted on September 17 that "the enemy exaggerates everything, but there is no reason for joy," and noted that even he was not sure of the extent of the losses because he could not reach a single one of his former comrades. Someone on X called him "oddly self-aware for a Russian soldier."

Wednesday, September 20, 2023

Placozoans and the Origins of the Nervous System

A Much-Magnified Placozoan Stained to Reveal Different Cell Types

Some fascinating new science concerning the primitive nervous systems of the nearly miscroscopic, pancake-shaped animals known as placozoans. Placozoans have no neueons, yet they make "coordinated responses to stimuli." Scientists have suspected for a long time that they use some kind of chemical signaling to achieve this, and it was confirmed a few years ago that they use small peptides – short chains of amino acids – for this signalling. 

NY Times:

Placozoan bodies are simple, only three cell layers thick. But that’s enough to glide around, absorb and digest food, and respond to their surrounding environment. Instead of being controlled by neurons, some of these behaviors are regulated by peptidergic cells, which release short chains of amino acids that activate surrounding cells.

Because the activity of peptidergic cells is reminiscent of more complex nervous systems — like the one in humans — Dr. Grau-Bové and his colleagues were intrigued by the possibility that these cells and their connections might represent the nervous system of an ancient animal ancestor.

The research team began by analyzing gene expression — which bits of DNA are converted into RNA used to make cell proteins — in more than 65,000 individual cells across four placozoan species. They discovered that placozoans have 14 types of peptidergic cells that are also important for building neurons in cnidarians and bilaterians. However, they also found that peptidergic cells were not true neurons given their lack of electrical activity and inability to receive messages.

The researchers then created a map showing potential interactions between peptidergic cells and other cells in placozoans. They identified a complex signaling network as well as specific pairs of neuropeptides and receptors. These cellular relationships support what scientists call the chemical brain hypothesis, the idea that early nervous systems evolved as networks of cells connected through chemical signals that would diffuse across an animal and bind to specific protein receptors.

They then compared what they had found to the nervous systems of more complex animals like cnidarians and simple bilaterians (we are bilaterians) and found a lot of similarities. Some scientists are now speculating that the ancestor of all animals with nervous sytems was a placozoan, or something like one.

Of course chemical signaling is a lot slower than electrical signalling, which is why placazoans have remained so small. Sponges, which use a similar system, do grow large but they have a sedentary, low-energy lifestyle that makes slow responses (usually by only part of the organism) a viable approach. To grow larger, animals had to evolve proper neurons and a faster signalling system.

The understanding of these primitive "nervous systems" fills in yet another "missing link" in the evolution of animals, showing how yet another supremely complex system could have evolved from very simple origins. As the original paper puts it, "peptidergic volume signaling may have pre-dated synaptic signaling in the evolution of nervous systems."

Tuesday, September 19, 2023

"Forvandling:" Christianity in Medieval Norway

Poking around the new web site of the Norwegian Historical Museum – you have your hobbies, I have mine – I found the remarkable materials for an exhibt titled Transformation: Faith and Sacred Objects in the Middle Ages. These are late medieval works, mostly 1350 to 1500, the part of Norwegian history that nobody outside the country knows anything about.

Above and top, the Tretten Crucifix

The text says,

In this exhibition you will be able to view some of the objects that gave people hope in the Middle Ages. Faith transformed the objects, and served as a bridge to the sacred and holy.

From a young age, people learnt that life on Earth was brief and difficult, but that something different and better awaited them, both in their daily lives and in the hereafter, if they lived as good Christians. Churches were designed to provide a foretaste of paradise, a small part of God’s kingdom manifest on Earth. 

Renderings of the Holy Family

Pilgrim Badges

Here's a fascinating object, a runic calendar that lived for years in the church at Åmot, Hedmark. Around this object on both sides are carved runes signify the days of the week, the whole making a cycle of 52 weeks; extra notes plot the dates of twenty different saints' days. The curators make much of the way this object represents the year as an ever-repeating cycle; I keep thinking that it's wrong, in that it implies the saints' days would fall in the same place and the same day of the week every year. Are we to suppose that is how they did things in Åmot?

Delightful carving of pilgrims on the road to Jerusalem.

And a wonderful bit of folklore:

Curse bundles (pjåtrepakker) have been found under several church floors. These are  pieces of cloth tied up in various ways. The old Norwegian verb pjå-tre means to mumble or speak softly or indistinctly: What one did was to mumble a magical formula into the cloth. The bound-up cloth could then be clandestinely inserted in between the wallboards of an enemy’s house, or by the side of a road where the enemy would walk. He or she would then suffer terrible stomach pains. When a curse bundle was put by the roadside, it was called “throwing evil across someone’s path”. When it was placed beneath the church floor, it was probably in order to bring it into the Christian sphere and thus break its magical effect. A parallel to this is the “black book” (a collection of spells) that was discovered under the floorboards of Vinje Church in Telemark.

But the glory of the exhibit is the ceiling of the former stave church at Al, dating to 1375 to 1400. It is installed as the ceiling of the main exhibit room.

What a wonderful series of paintings, and a splendid look at the kind of documents from which medieval people learned much of what they knew about their religion. 

Imagine if you had grown up in a tiny town on a Norwegian fjord, and for the first dozen years of your life these were the only paintings of this size and quality you had ever seen. These would dominate your imagination, and bring the stories of the Bible to life for you in unique way.

Monday, September 18, 2023

The Le Câtillon Hoards

What was then the largest hoard of Celtic coins ever discovered turned up on the island of Jersey in 2012. The finders were two metal detectorists, Reg Mead and Richard Miles, who started searching for it around 1980:

Over 30 years ago a lady told Reg that when she was a girl, her father was removing a hedgerow between fields when he disturbed a small pot of silver coins. She remembers following the tractor after each ploughing and picking up more coins which she took to school and swapped for comics. From her description of the coins Reg knew they were from the Iron Age. The search was on.

This comes from a pdf brochure for school children put out by Jersey Heritage. which actually has a lot of good information. The story is wonderful on many levels; imagine some sinister, mustache-twirling villain saying, Little Girl, how about trading that worthless little coin you can't even use in a shop for this slightly used Spider Man 45? Wikipedia adds the detail that the farmer would only let the metal detectorists on his property "once a year for 10–15 hours after the crops had been harvested," which adds to the picture of their grim determination. I imagine Reg and Richard consulting anxiously by phone every year as the date approached, driving by the field every day to make sure they didn't miss the harvest.

This discovery is sometimes called the Grouville Hoard, after the parish within which it was found, but its more usual name is Le Câtillon II. As for Le Câtillon I, well, that is something the good people of Jersey do not talk about. About that discovery they feel only embarrassment for letting a valuable hoard discovered in 1957 disappear into private collections around the world. Wikipedia says the current status of the hoard is "dispersed, but the La Hougue Bie Museum has a few coins." For shame. I cannot even find out if Le Câtillon I was the same as the pot full of coins reported by "a lady." I would show you a picture but I can't find any; if you Google "Le Câtillon I" you get "Showing Results for Le Câtillon II."

Incidentally the location of the Le Câtillon II discovery was supposed to be secret, but somebody let on, because Jersey Heritage recently applied for a permit to thoroughly explore the whole area around it, because they fear looting by metal detectorists they referred to as "night walkers."

As soon as they found the hoard, Reg and Richard notified the authorities – another victory for the British Antiquities Scheme – and archaeologists arrived. The hoard was buried in a pit a meter deep. It was found fused into a mass measuring approximately 140cm by 70cm, and 15cm thick. From the outside the excavators could already see that it contained gold torcs and other goodies besides coins. They also found pottery, post holes, and daub, so they think it may have been buried under a building. After pondering the massive block of metal they decided to remove the whole thing at once with a hoist and take it back to the lab for processing.

Because the massive thing looked so cool, the archaeologists actually considered leaving it intact and displaying it as it. But the desire of scholars for the details of the contents won out over the prospect of a blockbuster display object, and it was disassembled and conserved over a period of three years. Jersey purchased the hoard from its discoverers for £4.25m.

Incidentally the mass of corroded metal also preserved a lot of botanical data, like this fern, which the conservators say will allow them to determine the season when it was buried and what the surrounding area looked like.

The hoard was originally dated to around 50 BC, and the discoverers wanted it to have been buried during Caesar's conquest of Gaul. But then some British coins were found that have traditionally dated to 40 to 30 BC, which would push the date forward. Reading between the lines I think the hoard's excavators have not given up on their dating, since they keep repeating that those British coins have been "traditionally dated to 40 to 30 BC." 

The whole thing is now on display in the La Hougue Bie Museum. I have to imagine that these bags are mostly full of styrofoam, and the point of this exhibit is just to make you fantasize about bags full of loot. Still, if the size of the bags is accurate this is a good way to help people imagine the size of the hoard.

Love these gold baubles.

What a remarkable thing to have found in a field, and how delightful that its discovers followed up on their clues so doggedly.