Friday, April 19, 2024

Links 19 April 2024

Thomas Maybank, The Court of Faerie,  1906

Detailed look at how three works of art came to be made, from Adam Moss's new book, The Work of Art.

The 17th-century garden maze at Bufalini Castle in Italy re-opens after years of closure, looks amazing.

The Federal Bureau of Prisons closes a women's prison in California that was notorious for the sexual abuse of inmates; four new wardens in four years had been unable to halt the abuse. Sometimes organizations get so corrupt that there isn't anything to do but shut them down. (As with the Camden police.)

Interesting glimpse of a US Marine strategy called "Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations," involving drones, fighter jets, and small Pacific islands.

Update on the progress of 3D-printed houses; still not cheaper than balloon framing.

Via Marginal Revolutions, an article describing the astonishing gains in the production of strawberries via selective breeding and other techniques. Of course for a while they were kind of tasteless but I find that in recent years the strawberries in my grocery store have been pretty good. (I used to grow my own, so I know what they're supposed to taste like.)

How a sophisticated attempt to hack millions of computers was exposed almost by accident.

Murder rates are falling in US cities, back to the levels before the pandemic or even lower. Still puzzles me that the pandemic led to a surge in murders in the first place, especially since it was mainly concentrated in certain urban neighborhoods.

The crazy house of Isaiah Robertson, who called himself the second coming of the prophet Isaiah and said God guided his hands to make his art. The Kohler Foundation recently put up money for conservation.

Interesting NY Times feature on how argeli is grown in Nepal for use in Japanese banknotes; Japanese people love their paper money, and it is paper made from argeli bark that gives their bills their crisp heft. Shorter version at the Times of India, and a story on the same topic at Global Voices.

Solid, balanced review at Vox of the evidence on social media and teen mental health.

Just to show that obsessing about politicians' clothes isn't pure sexism, here's a NY Times feature on how Joe Biden – always a natty dresser – "dresses young." This presumably costs a lot, since the White House refuses to comment on where the president gets his clothes. And did you notice that the blue tone Biden favors for suits matches the blue in the American flag? Nerds like me think politics is about policy ideas, but pros like Biden know its really about how you look with flags behind you.

Interview with David Dunning on the Dunning-Kruger Effect. 

The social lives of viruses.

More on those alleged mafia-style Neolithic human sacrifices.

Spitalfields Life visits the roof of St. Paul's Cathedral in London, amazing graffiti.

Historically Taiwan has recorded an increase in births of at least 10% in each Year of the Dragon, the most auspicious year to be born; but not even that helped this past year, when births still fell by 6.1%. 

Maryland teenager, who has already spent time in a psychiatric facility, is arrested after writing a 129-page "fictional memoir" about his school shooting. The police called it a "plan."

During Iran's missile and drone attack on Israel, the US Navy finally got to use its 20-year-old anti-ballistic missile interceptor, the SM-3, and it worked fine. Relatively old-fashioned weapons like ballistic missiles and subsonic cruise missiles could only hurt a US carrier group if they were launched in overwhelming numbers. Which explains China's focus on hypersonic weapons. Honestly I have the impression that a lot of warfare in the near future is going to be countries throwing huged piles of money (in the form of attack missiles or interceptors) at each other to see who runs out or blinks first. The Navy recently said it has used a billion dollars worth of weapons this year shooting down missiles and drones in the Middle East. 

Noah Smith admits he was wrong about missile defense, which he wrote many times was an expensive boondoggle. In a new essay he asks why he and so many others were wrong; basically, the people who knew how good the weapons were getting couldn't talk about them, leaving the field to loudmouth outside critics.

The Telegraph says our global conflicts are part of one "world war," very much like Tom Friedman's take here. (Brief summary of Friedman's position here.)

drone pilot is the US Marines' "Aviator of the Year."

Article at Foreign Affairs (free when I checked) on the failed peace negotiations that took place early in the Ukraine war. Shashank Joshi summarizes: "Russia continued to make new & unacceptable demands that would have turned Ukraine into a weak & undefensible vassal state." Also, they discussed security guarantees from western states that had not ever been mentioned to those states.

Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Population Peaks

Via Birth Gauge on Twitter/X, a map showing when each US county peaked in population. Dark blue means the population is still rising. 

Lots of people have left the plains.

You have to love Nassau County in western Long Island, where the population would be booming if it were legal to build any kind of housing there.

The Prepper Dream

Stephen Marche in the NY Times:

When I attended prepper conventions as research for my book, I found their visions of a collapsed American Republic suspiciously attractive: It’s a world where everybody grows his own food, gathers with family by candlelight, defends his property against various unpredictable threats and relies on his wits. Their preferred scenario resembled, more than anything, a sort of postapocalyptic “Little House on the Prairie.”
I think this fantasy lies behind a lot of apocalyptic thinking; people want our system to fall because they imagine it would fall into a rural idyll rather than a real post-industrial wasteland.

Monday, April 15, 2024

The First Hot Day

I was back on the Potomac today for what turned out to be our first hot day of the year, 88 degrees (31 C).

It seemed like I could feel green leaves bursting out all around me.

I was startled by these pinkish new oak leaves.




I was not feeling so great after an exciting weekend meeting with a kidney stone, but I did take one pleasant walk. Besides the garter snake I saw an Osprey very close, and then three pairs of crows squabbling over territory.


Every time I read that wisteria is a destructive invasive species I find myself wishing that all our problems were this pretty.



And then back in my neighborhood, the season of pink trees.

Sunday, April 14, 2024

Today's Place to Daydream about: Bologna

Bologna has had a rough history.

Founded by Etruscans, it was conquered by Gauls, then Romans. The Goths sacked it when they conquered Italy, and during Justinian's reconquest of Italy they sacked it again. Tradition records that after those slaughters the city had to be refounded by a certain Bishop Petronius, who also founded the Basilica of St. Stephen and is still the city's patron saint.

Then it was sacked by the Lombards, then by Charlemagne's Franks. Charlemagne attached the city to the papacy, which ruled it for a significant part of the time from then down to 1868.

Factional fighting in Bologna, from a 14th-century chronicle

But that didn't make the city's existence peaceful. It was caught up in wars between Popes and Emperors and developed stubborn Guelf and Ghibbeline factions that fought each other and regularly betrayed the city to their favored outside power. 


The leading families of each faction built the crazy towers that defined its image in the Renaissance.

Bologna was also fought over during the Napoleonic Wars and the wars of Italian independence, and during World War II big parts were bombed to rubble. After WW II it became known as the Red City because it was dominated by the communists; Italy had Western Europe's largest Communist Party in those days partly because while many Italians hated the fascists, the communists were the only ones who actually fought them.


The University

Yet, and this is an important point, the city nonetheless thrived, especially in the high Middle Ages. The university claims to have been founded in 1088, making it the oldest in the world. It was for centuries Europe's leading center for the study of Roman law.  

Across the 1100s and 1200s the economy boomed. One result of the medieval boom was the famous sanctuary of the Madonna of San Luca, the construction of which began in 1193. It sits on a hill 1000 feet (300m) above the town, and the climb is a famous walk. It is now surrounded by a 17th-century collonade with 666 arches, which puzzles me, but then I freely confess that I know nothing about 17th-century Catholicism.


Map of the city in 1575, installed in the Pope's dining room in Rome



Construction of the current Basilica began in 1390. It was paid for by the townspeople in defiance of the Pope; the first stone bore the communal coat of arms. But it turned out that the city's leaders dreamed bigger than their purses could reach, and the unfinished shell was shut up for a century; it was not formally opened until the 1700s.


The Basilica holds several works by Michelangelo, including a famous image of Saint Petronius.

Bologna is particarly proud of its many porticoes; the local tourist authority has helpfully laid out a walking tour to help you sample them.

The 18th-century Villa Spada has a famous garden.


Bologna is not high on the list of Italian cities people want to visit, but I have always been intrigued.

Saturday, April 13, 2024

A Dreamland

A writing experiment, my response to stories like Lovecraft's "The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath" and E.T.A. Hoffmann's "The Golden Pot.".

The old professor welcomed me to his office with a formal politeness that did not hide his clear desire to be left alone. He lifted a stack of files off the chair before his desk, somehow finding another place for them in the fortress of books that surrounded him. I introduced myself and he said that he had heard of me as a formidable student. Pleasantries behind us, I pulled out the stack of papers I had brought and laid them in front of him. They were interlibrary loan slips from four different universities, signed with four different names but all in the same handwriting, and in a range of languages that I knew only he of all the scholars in Boston had mastered.

“So,” he said, “you have found me out. Why have you done this? What business is it of yours how a retired scholar spends his time?”

I said, “I think I understand what you are doing, but I need to know.”

He sighed and then looked at me for an uncomfortable time. His expression shifted from annoyance to something I eventually recognized as pity.

He said, “I suppose I must. If you have already guessed, then you know it is the tradition for all sufferers from this affliction to pass on their stories before they leave this earth. The great book in which I had planned to reveal all will never be written, so you will have to serve as the conduit of my knowledge.”

He leaned back, crossed his hands over his stomach, and stared at the ceiling. Then he began to speak. He never once looked at me during the whole long tale. His eyes were focused elsewhere.


When I was eighteen years old, I fell severely ill. Some kind of fever, they tell me. For two weeks I lay on death’s door, hardly breathing, eating nothing, although sometimes they were able to make my limp body drink a little water.

Then my body recovered. My fever cooled, my breathing steadied, the pallor of death left my skin. Yet I did not awaken. I still lay in my bed, unreachable. The doctor feared my brain had been damaged. My grandmother summoned an exorcist who had learned his craft in the old country, sneaking him in while my mother slept. He examined me but refused to do the rite. He said, my grandmother told me on her own deathbed, “He is not possessed. He has gone away.”

I did not awaken until another month had passed. My younger sister injured herself and cried out in pain, and I ran to her and found her burned by hot oil. I was alert, coherent, able to run water on her wounds and then call the ambulance when my mother was too hysterical to speak in English.

People called it a miracle, and they held a special mass for my recovery. All the old women in the neighborhood came. Everyone assumed that I had been unconscious and remembered nothing, so they asked me no questions and I did not have to lie. But the old exorcist was right. I had gone away. 

He paused again then, for several minutes. When he resumed, he said,

It is different for everyone. The monk Gregorius journeyed to a fortress that guarded the lands of light against the forces of darkness, a place where gold-helmed heroes did endless battle against armies of demons and the great fell beasts that served them. He was their physician, healing their wounds with outpourings of love. 

The scholar al Halam dreamed of a long flight on the back of a gigantic bird and woke to find himself in a vast and beautiful city full of learned, cultivated men. There he frequented coffee houses and pleasure gardens where he debated philosophy with all the sages of past times. Their thoughts, he said, soared to heaven with their words. When they tired of debate, they listened to music, watched splendid dancers, ate of delicacies that took the physical body to the same heights as their learning. 

For me, it was a garden.

I woke in a pleasant glade surrounded by leaves of a hundred shapes and shades of green, on a bed of moss dotted with tiny flowers. After I sat up, I realized I was thirsty. I heard water trickling, and brushing aside a branch I found the stone head of some grotesque creature with a gentle stream of water flowing from his mouth. After I had drunk my fill, I explored and found that this head was one piece of a crumbling stone fountain. Pushing through the bushes I found other faces, other bits of strange and marvelous sculpture.

I was drawn on. I never questioned where I was or how I had come there. In that place there are no doubts, no nagging questions. One simply goes on from one delight to the next. When I felt hungry, I found a grove of bushes hung with red and purple berries sweeter than a mother’s love. When I wanted to rest, I found more beds of moss softer than cotton, or carved stones that made splendid seats.

In that place there is no north or south. One simply moves toward what one wants and finds it. When I felt lonely and wanted company, I turned in that direction. I found a grove of vast trees with wide spaces between them where two dozen young people were dancing. They welcomed me among them, for of course they were lacking one man, and I danced and ate and laughed with them.

When I wished to be alone again I turned in a different direction and resumed exploring the vast overgrown ruin. In it I found a colony of scarlet birds nesting in the nooks of a vast relief carving depicting some ancient battle. They spoke to me in musical tones that I could understand, and they told me about the joys of flight and the secrets of the trees. Later on I felt an urge for something different, so I climbed toward the mountains visible in the distance. I entered a grove of dark hemlocks where the rocks took eerie shapes, and voices whispered in the breeze. I reached a great rock shot through with veins of crystal and climbed atop it. Looking out over the valley I saw that the garden went on to the horizon, cut by gleaming rivers and dotted with striking towers. In the distance I saw a great storm looming up. As it came toward me the air cooled and the wind shook the hemlock branches. The voices did not now whisper, but shouted curses and warnings. Lightning burst forth and thunder boomed, and in the air I saw two great armies battling. The fury of their fight was astonishing, and when the storm reached me the rain and wind had the same fury.

But then it passed, and the garden gleamed in the sun. As I stood on the rock, looking around me in wonder, a wolf came out of the trees. It came up to me gently and nudged me with its long snout, scratching the ground with its huge paws. When I looked into its eyes I understood that it was summoning me to follow. I leaped away with it, and together we ran through the forest and across the mountains, deer and rabbits and animals I could not name fleeing before us. We came to a secret valley where we joined the rest of his pack, and I played with wolf cubs and shared their meal of warm flesh.

When I turned from the wolves’ valley I felt a sudden desire to be at once back in the familiar garden around the crumbling fountain, and so I found a route that brought me back quickly and easily from a journey that had taken over a day.

So it went the whole time I was there. I was never sad or bored, but went on exploring and learning, making friends with animals of a dozen kinds. For company there were my new friends, who lived in a town that surrounded a plaza where an event of some kind was always taking place, dance or play or musical performance. Among them was a woman who took me as her lover. After one of our dances she grasped my hand and leapt into the air, and we flew as falcons to a splendid chamber in a high tower where we passed the night. 

You may be thinking that this was my dream, a boy’s dream so different from those of the monk and the scholar. And so it was. But consider that I was a boy, and not a bookish one. My passion was natural history, collecting insects and classifying snails. What did I know of paradise? I had read no stories of armies battling in the sky, knew nothing of ruined cities or the grotesque faces on ancient fountains. What did I know of love, who had never even kissed? And who ever had a dream so long, so consistent, so detailed? I believe the place I travelled to was real.

I believe the other worlds are vast, so vast that our earth is only a little corner of their vastness, and that is how all who journey there find places where their souls are at home.

I have spent the rest of my life struggling to return. All the work I have done, the languages I have learned, the studies I have undertaken, the travels to remote monasteries, all were part of my quest. Which has led nowhere. In all the years since then I have had only brief glimpses, mostly in dreams. This great career of mine, the books, the awards, they had meaning to me only as steps along a journey that I see now I will never complete. My colleagues often marveled at how long and hard I worked. But of course they could never understand what drove me.

He turned his eyes on me again and grew grimly serious. He said,

My body is failing, and soon I will go to my death. I tell you, with all my heart, do not do as I have done. Do not seek the path, for you will not find it. It is not in your power. It happens, or it does not; the door opens without your knocking, or it never opens at all. Find some other kind of life than the pathetic one I have lived. 

I left him then. His advice had been sincerely given, but I knew I would not follow it. For I had also been given a glimpse of paradise, and knew I would never rest until I either found my way back or died as he was dying, a sad old man amidst the piles of paper that were all that was left of his dream.

Friday, April 12, 2024

Links 12 April 2024

Paul Evans, Frosted Evening

An argument that there are so few bones on battlefields of the Napoleonic period because of "grave robbing on an industrial scale."

Vietnamese businesswoman sentenced to death for $44 billion financial fraud.

Unusual Neolithic monument discovered in France. (English, French original at INRAP.) 

Also at INRAP, another medieval rural house site with an extensive network of underground tunnels and rooms. Sometimes historical archaeology can surprise us; I am not aware of any documentary evidence for underground medieval refuges, but half a dozen or so have now been explored.

Awesome commercial for an Indian steel company, wonderful blending of the old and new Indias.

Sabine Hossenfelder on how she failed at academic science and now thinks most of it is bullshit. (13-minute video) Many scientists are finding the long march through graduate school to grant-funded post-doc to winning your own grants to be soul-sucking, but I've never seen a promising plan to make things better. Meritocracy has costs.

Mattel introduces a new version of Scrabble that is less competitive, aimed at Gen Z buyers who, it seems, don't like competitive games.

Perun on the "terrifyingly rapid" evolution of drone technology in Ukraine, 71-minute video.

The Vindelev Treasure was found by a Danish metal detectorist in 2020. It consists of 23 gold pieces dating to between 385 and 500 AD, some incorporating Roman coins. The History Blog has some analysis, with huge photos.

Norway announces a huge increase in defense spending, directly aimed at Russia, includes purchasing five or six new warships and five new submarines.

Liquid metamaterials.

News from Japan: "In sobering move, booze makers shift to milder beverages." Weird article but it seems young Japanese don't drink as much as their elders and distillers are having to adapt.

Archaeologists claim to have found a fortified hilltop settlement to which some Mycenean people fled as their civilization was collapsing, around 1100 BC.

Sales of electric rickshaws continue to soar in India. For some kinds of vehicles, electric power is already clearly better; it won't be long before gasoline-powered buses and delivery vans are nearly extinct.

In the US, the curve relating fertility to income is now U-shaped: total fertility is around 2.1 for the poorest families, goes down to around 1.6 at $200,000 a year, but then rises back up; the group with the highest fertility is families making more than $1 million a year. I wonder how much of that is driven by athletes?

The sort of thing we talk about over dinner in my house: why are the words for "butterfly" in the Romance languages so different? (mariposa, papillon, farfarelle, etc.) Possible explanations here and on Quora here. The guy on Quora notes that 1) a lot of the words have a fluttery sound with repeated consonants, and 2) the etymologies for many of these words relate to how the insect features in local folk culture, which has often overridden ancient names. Butterfly comes from a belief that they drank butter, or possibly (Jakob Grimm said) a belief that witches changed into butterflies and stole butter in that form. "Dragonfly" is the same, lots of diverse names based on folklore, like the Swedish trollsl√§nda, "troll's spindle." Love the Middle English adderbolt. The internet is terrible in some ways but on the other hand you can sometimes whip out your phone and find, within a few minutes, two really smart people discussing the problem on your mind.

A claim that some skeletons found in European Neolithic sites represent people killed via a cruel strangulation method used by modern Mafiosi. The authors think this was human sacrifice.

Rereading Benedict Anderson's famous 1983 book about the rise of nationalism, Imagined Communities, in the light of nationalism's recent resurgence. Anderson was a Marxist whose main goal was to explain how socialist states could fight each other, which 19th-century Marxist theory held to be impossible, but this reviewer finds it still relevant.

Archaeologists find a fox skeleton buried with a bunch of people at a 1500-year-old site in Patagonia, speculate that these foxes were companions of humans. (NY Timesoriginal article)

In 1931, Henry L. Stimson made a remarkably accurate prediction about the course of World War II.

That's from this Noah Smith piece arguing that we could well be in the lead-up to World War III right now, with Ukraine and various Middle Eastern conflicts playing the part of the Spanish Civil War and Japan's seizure of Manchuria. I think this is a legitimate fear but I am betting against it.

Excavations in Pompeii have uncovered a new banquet hall with frescoes.

Interesting piece by Charles Blow on the racial divide over the OJ Simpson trial (NY Times): "It’s not that most Black people thought him innocent or another Rosa Parks. For them, it was the system itself that was on trial. The question wasn’t whether the justice system would work equally in the service of justice but whether its inherent and inveterate injustices would also be applied equally."

And Kevin Drum reprints something he wrote at the time: "Yes, OJ was guilty and got off. So have lots of white guys. But that's missing the point. Why did the jurors unanimously believe it quite plausible that the LAPD planted evidence and lied on the stand?"

Also from Drum, a quick summary of the Cass Review of gender care for British teens, which says there is no high quality evidence about any of the issues involved.

Our theories hold that massive elements are created when giant starts go nova, but analysis of the debris ejected from the brightest nova observed by modern astronomy finds no massive elements.

From this review of the mystery of general anesthia I found this technical article, which puts forward a mathematical model of anesthesia and suggests that tests on people who are undergoing general anesthesia might be a great way to understand consciousness in general.

Thursday, April 11, 2024

OJ Simpson and the Question of "Misogyny"

The death of OJ Simpson reminds me of something I've been thinking about for a long time: what his murder case says about the generalized notion of "misogyny." It used to be very common for feminists to attribute crimes like rape and spouse abuse to "misogyny" as if the problem were just that men hate women. I heard more than one person say that the murder of Nicole Brown Simpson was "misogyny." But OJ Simpson seemed to me like the perfect case of a man who actually loved women and ended up brutally killing one partly because he had loved her very much.

Anyone who ever watched OJ on "Wide World of Sports" saw his comfort with women on regular display. He was friends with all the black female runners and some of the white women as well. He could talk about women's issues like training after pregnancy and childbirth that left his fellow male reporters sitting in embarassed silence. Watching him one never got any sort of impression that he disliked women.

I think OJ killed Nicole because of a particular problem, the homicidal jealous rage that afflicts so many men.

What may be the oldest claim in the field we now call evolutionary psychology is an explanation of precisely this problem. Chimps don't have families in our sense. They have mother-child bonds, and bonds between female friends, and coalitions among males, but there are no relationships between males and females. No male chimp knows or cares if a baby is his. The argument goes that one of the crucial early steps in hominid evolution was the formation of the nuclear family, in which the father invests very heavily in the support of his offspring. He will only do this if he has good reason to believe the child is his. Hence, the jealous rage, and the thousands of years of men trying to control female sexuality.

This theory is a century old now but still hangs around because 1) we honestly have no clue how humans came to practice permanent pair-bonding and involved fatherhood, both of which are a lot more common in birds than mammals; 2) male jealous homicidal rage is such an ancient worldwide problem that it presumably has some explanation in terms of human fundamentals; and 3) the theory puts the nuclear family, which so many humans worship, at the center of our identity.

Whether it is true or not I won't hazard a guess; I don't think we know much about the events of two million years ago. I just mention this to point out that OJ Simpson-style murderous rage is a problem that humans have been pondering for a long time.

Changing directions: what is misogyny, anyway? There are men who just seem to despise women. This was always my idea of misogyny, the kind of guys who think women are crazy emotional wrecks you're better off staying far away from.

But maybe I'm wrong. Feminists have used the word in a lot of other contexts, for example, men who seduce lots of women. This one used to puzzle me; wouldn't men who hate women prefer to avoid them rather than spend a lot of time in bed with them? Or OJ-style murderers.

So maybe an alternative definition of "misogyny" might be, "a desire to control women and a refusal to treat them as free, equal people." This fits the problematic cases I have mentioned, and I think it probably gets closer to what most feminists have in mind than just disliking women.

The thing is, this is an awful explanation of male behavior. It takes a particular, emotionally intense situation and generalizes it to a species-wide problem of belief. "You killed a woman in a fit of rage, therefore you have a generalized view that women are inferior" is a terrible syllogism. After all, men kill each other even more than they kill women, and they presumably do not do this because of some general view that men are inferior. 

I maintain that there is no necessary connection at all between what a man believes and what he will do in a fit of violent rage. I think it is simply false to assert that what people will do in an extreme emotional situation is any kind of guide to what they are like the rest of the time. 

I want to push this generalization hard. These days the complaint, "I'm lonely and can't find a girlfriend" is likely to be met with, "you think women owe men sex." But the statement "I am lonely" is not in any way a statement about how women ought to act. It is a statement about a particular person in a particular situation and cannot be generalized into anything.

I want to fight this generalizing habit. I want to fight the notion that people who did one bad thing, even one terrible think like murdering your ex wife, are bad in every way. I think that nobody is bad in every way, or good in every way. I violently resist this way of understanding humans. That a man killed one woman says absolutely nothing about how he feels or acts toward other women.

I want to fight any kind of thinking that goes, "You did X, therefore you are Y." 

I would have sent OJ to prison, but not because he is a misogynist, whatever that means. 

The Anson Street Ancestors

Site of the Anson Street Burying Ground

In 2013, a construction crew working in Charleston, South Carolina uncovered a cemetery. This turned out to hold the remains of 36 people, mostly of African ancestry. They were almost certainly slaves. This event inspired the creation of the Anson Street African Burial Ground Project, which has led a wide range of social, religious, and historical events and investigations. 

Among other things the Project staged an event in 2019 when a Yoruba priest came over and assigned African names to all the nameless people they refer to as Ancestors.

The Project decided to carry out DNA and elemental analysis of the remains to learn as much as possible about the Ancestors. This choice is why I am writing about the project, because the question of how to balance the desire to know with the desire to be respectful to the dead is huge in archaeology right now. American Indians have generally opted for respect and have blocked any scientified study of remains. However, many African American communities are opting for knowledge.

As I wrote here last year about the Catoctin Furnace burying ground, paleogenetics is providing a way for African Americans to pierce the veil that surrounds their ancestor's African origins and years of slavery. The US census never recorded the names of slaves, and many of the records that do list slaves by name, such as wills and probate inventories, use only their first names. (Until after 1820 or so many had no last names anyway.) After they achieved their freedom many black Americans tried to forget about their years of enslavement, so they passed on no stories about those years. The end of slavery also led to a vast geographic reshuffling, as millions of people moved away from the plantations and toward cities or just to somewhere else. It has therefore been impossible for most African Americans to trace their ancestry back past 1865.

Paleogenetics can often make that possible. The Charleston study has not identified any living descendants, but the Catoctin study found 2,000 people who might be related to the bodies in that cemetery. The genetics also provides a way to connect people in the Americas to the parts of Africa from which their ancestors came. One of the Anson Street Ancestors was almost certainly Fulani, an ethnic group from around Senegal, and may of the others could be traced to particular regions in Africa. One was majority African but nearly half Native American. The published material on the project seems to be deliberately vague about the dating of the cemetery, but from what I have seen it probably dates to the later 1700s.

Key to both the Catoctin and Anson Street studies has been for investigators to work closely with black communities and do only the studies they support. This may limit what can be done, but without people's support it would never be done at all. Paleogenetics is, I think, a wonderful tool that opens up vast new areas of knowledge. For its potential to be realized it must be done in a way that makes people feel empowered and enlightened rather than just used as research subjects.

Monday, April 8, 2024

Mid Spring


I think we're past the danger of frost now, and I started planting seeds today, surrounded by beauty.



Listening to Nietzsche

During my latest round of "monitoring" I had a long commute and needed something to listen to in the car. I had been doing mainly novels lately and wanted something else. Nietzsche's Human, All Too Human came up, and I had never read it, so I thought, why not? I never tried listening to philosophy before. But that's how all the ancients did it, so I gave it a try. I thought it went really well. I'm sure I missed a lot, but on the other hand I never bogged down and proceeded quickly to the end, which I think might be a better way to experience some books than slogging through a few pages a day for months.

Human, All Too Human was one of Nietzsche's earlier works, from the stage he later called "philosophizing with a hammer." A decade after its first publication in 1878 he reissued it bound together with two other short books, and he wrote a very interesting preface that explained how the book fit into his overall development.

Nietzsche's project his whole career was to stare down the grim reality of human existence, as he saw it – life sucks and then you die, more or less – but to emerge happy. Like many young Romantics he first looked for the answer in art. He especially loved the ancient Greek tragedies because he thought they achieved his goal, boldly confronting the human condition but refusing to be saddened or made afraid. He first came to prominence as an acolyte of Richard Wagner, writing a whole book arguing that Wagner's tragic, pagan operas had recaptured this Greek sense of the tragedy and beauty of life. But then Wagner wrote Parsifal, a sappy Christian opera in which everyone good goes to heaven. Nietzsche felt personally betrayed. More than that, he began questioning European Romanticism as an answer to anything, deciding in the end that it was really just another elaborate scheme for avoiding reality.

So what, then? That is the question he posed in Human, All Too Human: A Book for Free Spirits. The "free spirits" of the subtitle were the ones who could confront human reality in a spirit of joyous discovery. In that later preface he explained his mindset like this:

So there is a will to the tragic and to pessimism, which is a sign as much of the severity as of the strength of the intellect (taste, emotion, conscience). With this will in our hearts we do not fear, but we investigate ourselves the terrible and the problematical elements characteristic of all existence. Behind such a will stand courage and pride and the desire for a truly great enemy. 

The great enemy he found was, as he summed it up concisely, "the metaphysical significance of morality." 

Many philosophers, he argued, started from the morality they wanted to defend and erected a metaphysical scaffolding – gods, angels, devils, sin, commandments, categorical absolutes, etc. – to hold it up. But Nietzsche had been reading Darwin, and reflecting on human evolution over hundreds of thousands of years he found the claims of the Bible and the Koran rather silly. Surely things that appeared so late in human history cannot be the point of the whole story. He had also been reading physics and chemistry and questioned whether they left any room for anything like free will. Humans do, he decided, whatever they think will help them survive. He found support for this view in the writings of skeptics like La Rochefoucauld, a 17th-century Frenchman whose specialty was pointing out how much of what we interpret as piety or honor is really mere vanity.

Besides the openly religious, there were philosophers in the mid 1800s who claimed to base their  metaphysics in science, but Nietzsche wasn't having it:

The Metaphysicians' Knapsack —To all who talk so boastfully of the scientific basis of their metaphysics it is best to make no reply. It is enough to tug at the bundle that they rather shyly keep hidden behind their backs. If one succeeds in lifting it, the results of that “scientific basis” come to light, to their great confusion: a dear little “God,” a genteel immortality, perhaps a little spiritualism, and in any case a complicated mass of poor-sinners'-misery and pharisee-arrogance.

I find Nietzsche's hammering powerful; he hunted down and called out faith-based ideas and murky spiritual prose wherever he found them, exposing them to his scorn. And he wasn't just skeptical about religion, but went after nationalism, anti-semitism, and various other intellectual castles in the air. As for the second half of his project, finding reasons to be happy about the Death of God, that didn't go so well. So far as anyone can tell, he was never a happy person, and rather than achieving any sort of enlightenment he instead went slowly mad. At first this was a sort of artistic, metaphorical madness, involving lots of opium; one product of this phase was a strange book called Thus Spoke Zarathustra, in which Nietzsche tried to become the prophet of his own religion. But things progressed until he went flat-out crazy, and he died in an institution. Most likely this was an organic disease, rather than some fable about a man driven mad by his overly dangerous ideas, but there is no agreement about his actual diagnosis.

Anyway I recommend audiobooks as a way to force yourself through difficult texts you haven't ever gotten around to reading. Worked very well for me in this case.

Friday, April 5, 2024

A Nice Surprise

I was monitoring again today on the bluffs overlooking the Potomac, where the trees are just starting to put out leaves. The point of monitoring is actually avoid discovering things; theoretically one only allows monstrous machines to dig in places where either nothing is really expected or you have already cleared it out of the way. 

But today, standing around watching the slow place of outfall reconstruction, I found this in a bit of soil churned up by caterpillar treads. It's a javelin or dart point, maybe about 5,000 years old.

And when I moved on to a different site a few hundred yards up the road I found myself surrounded by artifacts. This stuff was all outside the work area, so it was all left in place. This point is hard to date because the shape is such an obvious one for a dart point, but at least 1500 years old and likely more than 5,000.


The forest floor in this area was scattered with flakes of a kind of stone archaeologists call rhyolite. Rhyolite is interesting because it occurs only in certain, limited areas, and the closest rhyolite sources to Washington, DC are at Catoctin Mountain, about 70 miles away. The people who lived around the Falls of the Potomac between about 500 BC and 800 AD really loved rhyolite, used it over all other stones. I subscribe to the theory that says this means their territory extended as far as Catoctin Mountain, and that their seasonal round took them at least that far every year. (Besides the stone, there are camp sites not far from Catoctin with pottery identical to that found along the Potomac in DC.)



So it turned out to be a pretty good day.