Friday, May 31, 2024

We're All Doomed Etc.

As a share of US electrical consumption, renewables have doubled in just five years:

March 2024 21.2%
March 2023 18.7%
March 2019 10.5%

Meanwhile, as I have covered here, the first new nuclear units in decades have gone online, with others in the works; the first US offshore wind farms are starting to produce; and the Bureal of Land Management has just put in place a fast-track policy for all geothermal energy projects. (Typical Biden: no announcement, no fanfare, just a quiet word to all the players in the industry.) Projections show that by the end of the year fossil fuels will be producing less than half of US electricity for the first time ever. If I weren't bound by confidentiality agreements I could give you a list of solar projects under way in North Carolina and Virginia that you literally would not believe.

Links 31 May 2024

Roman Terracotta Drain Spout in the Shape of a Panther's Head

China rolls out a Large Language Model "based on Xi Jinping thought." The mind boggles. Short summary on Twitter/X.

Review of a new book about "cunning folk" in late medieval and early modern Europe.

Sabine Hossenfelder on the closest thing we have to a universal equation, 13-minute video.

Eastern Europe is Not Real: 22-minute video from Austrian YouTuber Kraut arguing that "Eastern Europe" is a nonsensical concept, invented by the Germans to justify their conquests and then taken over by the Soviets to justify their own regional hegemony. Nobody who lives there thinks of himself as an "Eastern European."

Adele Renault, large murals of plants, quite striking.

Wooden door from Dover Castle in Britain covered with carved graffiti from the Napoleonic Wars.

Ron DeSantis' school voucher program in Florida is very popular, with so many parents opting for charter schools that some traditional schools may be closed. Which is only what you would expect in a nation where a majority of people consider themselves (and their children) special.

Major lithium lode found under Pennsylvania by analyzing the wastewater from fracking.

Adulatory review of The Gulag Archipelago, useful if you don't know much about the book. But note that recent research has revised the death numbers down quite a bit, because more people survived Stalin's Gulags than we thought.

Vox piece on the State Department's in-house intelligence agency, INR, which despite its modest budget keeps getting things right that the CIA and military intelligence get wrong. Most recently, they said Russia would not conquer Ukraine easily when some US forecasters thought Kyiv would fall in three days.

Ninety-Five Theses on AI from Samuel Hammond, seems intelligent.

Via Alex Tabarrok, a call to "Build Monaco on the Marin Headlands." If people tried I think they might find that building on a cliff over the Pacific Ocean is a little different than building on a cliff over the Mediterranean. 

How animals get their patterns: how has Alan Turing's theory held up?

How Iran will choose a new Supreme Leader.

The stegosaurus skeleton known as Apex is being auctioned by Sotheby's, expected price $4 million to $6 million. Some paleontologists hate this, but on the other hand the chance for such a sale is motivating a lot of professional digging. (Sotheby'sNY Times, Guardian)

Vox explainer on Dopamine, from which you can learn about the many extreme claims being made for its importance.

"Pushing the Boundaries of Hummus Flavor Innovation."

We hear all the time about new materials being developed, with extraordinary claims about how they will change the world, but then nothing happens. Benjamin Reinhardt explains why.

A claim for a new method of making concrete without CO2 emissions, using recycled concrete. And a quite nice new studio built using hempcrete.

The "serial slingshot shooter" who has been harassing a California neighborhood for years turns out to be an 81-year-old man. (NY Times, police press release)

Remarkable short video on Twitter/X showing a modern Russian air defense missile battery getting destroyed by ATACMS missiles, which spray the area with small projectiles.

Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Modern Versions of Ancient Questions

Scott Siskind:

In Matthew 22, the Sadducees (a sect of anti-afterlife Jews) gave Jesus a puzzle. If a man’s wife dies and he remarries, then who will the man be married to after the Resurrection - the first wife, or the second? Jesus responded by saying that people will not be married in Heaven. 

Matthew 22: "You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God. At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven." Which is one of the key texts the Catholics long used to argue for the superiority of celibacy, and which Mormons have done a lot of hemming and hawing to explain away.

Siskind continues:

Anyway, I was interested to learn there’s now an atheist version of this conundrum. Robert Ettinger, considered “the founder of cryonics”, had his body frozen after his death in hopes of being resurrected in the far future. His first wife died, he remarried, and both his first and second wives are also cryopreserved. There’s no evidence Ettinger was anything other than monogamous during life, so what happens in the far future? His second wife was an “author, feminist, and marriage counselor”, so I bet she’ll have strong opinions on this.

Sunday, May 26, 2024

Mass Horse Sacrifice from the Gallic Wars

Doing routine work in advance of highway construction, in a place where they had no reason to expect anything very interesting, French archaeologists made a remarkable discovery: a series of nine mass animal burial pits. Of the first three excavated, two contained horses and the third held two dogs. Radiocarbon dates came out between 100 BC and 100 AD; the investigators have connected the burials to Caesar's conquest of Gaul, which took place in 58 to 51 BC.

The first pit, which contained ten horses. All of the animals are mature males, and all were carefully laid on their right sides, facing south. The were laid in the grave in sequence, first one row and then the other, which can be worked out from the overlaps.

Work at the site was ongoing when INRAP posted about it, and they say 28 more horses have already been found.

The pits are in Villedieu-sur-Indre, central France. The site is not far from a fortified town (oppidum) where a battle took place in this period; Caesar didn't mention it, but Roman sling bullets and other signs of fighting were found when the town was excavated. (This sites is known as "Caesar's Camp," but that was a mistake by 19th-century archaeologists.)

What is this about? The archaeologists considered an epidemic, but then why would all the animals be mature males? War casualties seems unlikely, because none of the animals have broken legs or other obvious wounds. (Horses break their legs easily and it happens a lot when then are wounded or knocked down in combat.) So the investigators surmise that this was a sacrifice.

We know that the ancient Gauls went in for horse sacrifice. Other pits similar to these have been found before, although none on the same scale. Above is an example from Orcet uncovered in 2002, also dating to the first century BC.

Other examples have been found in the Gergovian Plain, where the Gauls defeated the Romans in a major cavalry battle in 52 BC.

And here is a fascinating find, also from 2002, a pit containing eight horses and eight men found near the fortified town of Gondole in Auvergne. You might think that these men and horses died together but, again, there were no obvious wounds on the horse skeletons. Perhaps the horses were sacrificed to accompany fallen warriors to the afterlife? Or were both  the horses and the men sacrifices?

I find it wonderful to imagine these events. Facing the threat of Roman conquest, the Gaulish chieftains solemnly bring forward their most valuable horses as offerings to the gods. They lead the beasts past thousands of warriors standing in their battle lines, weapons drawn, perhaps chanting, perhaps in profound silence. Then, to the wild music of drums and horns, the throats of the noble animals are slashed and they crumple to the ground one after another. As the warriors sing and shout they are laid in the ground, a treasure dedicated to the Gods in hopes that with their aid the Romans could be driven from the land.

Friday, May 24, 2024

Links 24 May 2024

Grandma Moses, The Yellow Birds, 1950

Vidoes of the commet fragment exploding over Portugal on May 20: NY Times, YouTube.

Almost unbelievable Scott Siskind post on "Internal Family Systems" therapy, which sometimes involves recognizing your bad thoughts as literal demons and exorcising them. Oy. On the other hand, "One thing Falconer talks about again and again is that trauma patients - or the Parts of their mind, or the spirits inside them, or whatever - just want to be witnessed and validated. Getting an exorcism seems like the strongest way possible to say yes, you’re completely right, all of your pain is 100% real, but now you’re allowed to stop having it without it invalidating how traumatized you were."

Kevin Drum has more on the remarkable disconnect between how the US economy is doing and how Americans feel about it; 49% of Democrats think we're in a recession, even though unemployment is at 3.7%.

The latest from Berenike on the Red Sea is a papyrus that lists the names of Roman centurions, from a room that may have been an army office.

A claim that the population of Çatalhöyük was much smaller than previously thought. Estimates to date, based on assuming the whole mound was occupied at once, range from 3,000 to 10,000; the new paper argues that many fewer houses were occupied at once and estimates the population as 600 to 800. This would solve a lot of problems – how did 10,000 people live to gether with no sign of a government? – but raises another, why there would be so many unoccupied houses. Lots of theories about the Neolithic have based on the high population counts, so if this is true, lots of theories have to be revisited.

The astonishing success of Taylor Swift, via the New York Times. Among other things, she is the only artist ever to have all ten top ten Billboard pop hits at the same time, and she has done it twice, in 2022 and 2024. She accounts for about 1.3% of all the music streamed in the US.

Big new installation from Belgian artist Wim Delvoye, lots of weird sculptural stuff.

Review of a new book about medieval minstrels.

Noah Smith on the decline of the Internet, which cheap, AI-generated content is likely to make worse.

Yale Review article trying to take some kind of clever, sophisticated, hyper-cool approach to polyamory: "polyamorous people appear to like talking about sex more than they like having it."

Kevin Drum reviews a major study that finds internet access promotes happiness. They did try to correct for income.

The Milky Way photograph of the year contest.

Today's unjustified weirdness: "The train station has a mystery vending machine where you can buy whatever is in the unclaimed packages from delivery lockers."

To help them train guerilla fighters for WW II, the OSS relied on men who had been trained by the Soviets during the Spanish Civil War.

Amazing aerial photographs of Iceland's glacial rivers by Ben Simon Rehn. If the ads at that site are too annoying, you can extract these images from the feed on his web site.

Possible victim of Iron Age human sacrifice found in Dorset, England.

Amazing Han Dynasty tombs in Shandong Province. More pictures at the Chinese source.

Detailed 3-D mapping of the neurons in a small piece of human brain reveals surprising patterns.

David Bromwich ponders the relationship between two banes of our public discourse, the rise of outrageously insulting speech and the parallel rise of censorship. He finds censorship much more dangerous.

David Corn asks, how crazy is RFK Jr.? "In May 2022, Kennedy appeared on the podcast of comedian and reality TV star Theo Von, and he presented a harrowing tale: A global elite led by the CIA had been planning for years to use a pandemic to end democracy and impose totalitarian control on the entire world. He claimed to have proof: the ominous-sounding Event 201."

Orcas have been ramming and even sinking boats off Spain and Portugal, and now a committee of alleged experts finally has a theory as to why: they're bored teenagers looking for something to do.

Random fact I learned in a corporate presentation this week: in Virginia, data centers account for 25% of all electricity consumption.

Some scientists have argued that within 25 years new sensor technologies will render submarines easily detectable, creating a so-called "transparent ocean." In this 62-minute video, Perun asks if that is likely to be true and what it might mean for the future of naval conflict. One clue is that the nations investing most in new detection technologies (China and the US) are also investing heavily in the industrial base for future generations of submarines, so they don't seem to think the game is up.

Sunday, May 19, 2024

Augustine's Restless Longing

Fra Angelico, The Conversion of St. Augustine

I read once that there are only two people from the ancient world about whom one can write a real biography: Cicero and St. Augustine. This was my motive in finally taking on Peter Brown's famous biography, Augustine of Hippo (1967): given that there are only two people from that whole era one can truly get to know, I thought I might as well get to know both of them. But while Augustine's life is a fascinating window into his time, I found myself captivated by something else: the way Brown portrays Augustine's intellectual journey. In this telling he evolved from a questioning young philosopher who thought he could personally solve the problems of human existence to an old man convinced that humans, by themselves, can achieve nothing. We are, the mature Augustine believed, completely dependent on God, and any attempts we make to save ourselves are doomed to failure. Indeed God has already decreed whether we will be saved or damned before we are even born. Because he wrote so openly about his struggles, and made no effort to hide the many changes in his thinking over his long life, we can trace this evolution. Because the old Augustine became the Catholic Church's most famous and powerful apologist for the violent suppression of heresy – one of his sobriquets is "the father of the Inquisition" – the story of his life may help us come to grips with other people who end up defending authoritarian violence.

The reason one can write a biography of St. Augustine (354-430) is that so many sources about his life survive. His philosophical and theological works fill seven fat quarto volumes, and his writings make frequent reference to events of his life: works he has read, famous men he has met, troubles he has encountered, contemporary issues to which he is responding. We have a substantial biography from a contemporary who knew him and could include snippets from letters Augustine wrote to him in the text. We have more than a hundred sermons he his is supposed to have preached to his congregation in Hippo, 269 private letters, and his own spiritual autobiography, the famous Confessions. It is more than we have for all but a few people of modern times, and it allows for an amazingly detailed portrait of both his thinking and his material circumstances.

Augustine was born into the kind of family one meets so often in the novels of Jane Austen and the Brontës, the people clinging to the bottom of the genteel class. He received a good education but then had to scramble to earn some kind of living from it; several of his friends became teachers of rhetoric. What he loved above all things was to hang out with his friends and talk. They were a bunch of aesthetes who loved music, sunsets, literature, and philosophy. They kept hatching schemes to withdraw from the world together, perhaps to some country estate, where they would cultivate perfect friendship with each other and seek perfect understanding of the universe and the human soul. They disagreed on many things. Some were Catholics, some Manicheans, some pagans. This did not matter; what mattered was free, open-hearted discussion, all sharing equally in their quest to know.

In this period Augustine became for a while a follower of the Neoplatonic philosopher Plotinus. I personally find Plotinus' writing to be an impenetrable mishmash of mysticism and jargon, but Augustine was one of thousands who have found this particular mishmash irresistible. Plotinus believed that we could come to understand the universe through logic and introspection. Our interior worlds are vast and enormously complex, and if we come to understand them fully we will come to know what our souls are, where they come from, and where they are going. When God made us, he left enough of himself in our makeup for us to be able to understand his whole creation and our place in it.

That entranced Augustine for a while, but it did not last. He eventually decided that he could not really reason his way to perfect understanding; obstacles kept arising, and he could not honestly say he had overcome them. Brown:

The mold into which Augustine had poured his life as a convert was capable of holding educated Christians of different temperaments, in different parts of the Roman world, for the whole of their lives. Yet Augustine broke this mold in a decade — one suspects, partly because it could not withstand the terrific weight of his own expectations of it. . . . Augustine followed Plotinus in believing that the inner world was vast and complex, but while Plotinus was confident that the wise man could become master of this universe, Augustine had doubts: "There is, indeed, some light in man; but let them walk fast, lest shadows come." (178)

 Augustine once described the place he sought as "a place of rest . . . the full enjoyment of the absolute and true good; breathing the clear air of serenity and eternity." (150) Unable to reach this Eden via philosophy, Augustine tried faith. He threw himself into the study of Scripture, had himself baptized into the Catholic fold, became a priest and then a bishop. Christianity gave him a physical place, and a community, but it did not still his restless soul. He kept worrying over certain problems, especially that of evil: "Above all, there was the burning problem of the apparent permanence of evil in human actions." (148) He realized that he did not really understand human will or human freedom, could not figure out why we can know the right thing to do but still fail to do it, over and over.

He is a man who has realized that he was doomed to remain incomplete in his present existence, that what he wished for most ardently would never be more than a hope, postponed to a final resolution of all tensions, far beyond this life. (156)

He grew obsessed with death. In one of his sermons,

He reminds his listeners that while they are listening to him, their hair is growing, and they are getting older: "while you stand around, while you are here, while you do something, while you talk — you are passing away." (246)

Eventually he ended up with the theological position he argued for in The City of God and Of Grace and Free Will: we are entirely helpless and can only be saved by God's grace, which we can do nothing to merit. We can do nothing but what God wills, which was all fixed at the dawn of time.

Ruins of Hippo, with the Basilica of St. Augustine behind

When Augustine became the bishop of the North African town of Hippo, it was divided between two kinds of Christians: Catholics and a local sect called Donatists. As the Catholic bishop, Augustine preached against the Donatists, and he wrote a tract refuting their arguments, but he did not really do anything about the situation. Then, for reasons of imperial politics, the reigning western Emperor declared the Donatists to be heretics and ordered their suppression. This put Augustine in a tough spot. He was on record arguing that it was wrong to use force in matters of faith, because God only wanted love and devotion that was freely given. But he decided, given his new theological position, that all talk of freely given devotion was meaningless. It would be better for everyone, he thought, if there were only one Christian church to which the whole community belonged. So he lent his weight to the persecution of Donatists, which he justified in two substantial tracts.

People have been arguing ever since about whether Augustine's theology of predestination and his enthusiasm for persecution were related. So far as I can tell, Peter Brown did not take a firm position. But I think they are absolutely linked. Both rely on a dismissal of freedom as an important value. Augustine's personal journey had taught him that his own freedom was meaningless; by himself he could not will himself to happiness or a sense of salvation. Only surrender could save him. Thus it was pointless to care about the freedom of Donatists, since they could not save themselves, either.

I also see in Augustine a contempt for ordinary human life. From his youth he sought to withdraw from human concerns into some rarefied realm of perfection; as a Christian he longed for heaven. This hostility toward life as we generally know it drives many human ambitions, among which is the longing for apocalyptic political change. 

The piece of Augustine's puzzle that most interests me is the way his best characteristics dovetailed with his worst. Intellectually he was the most honest of philosophers, ruthless with his own ideas, always ready to discard his own past work; in the end this drove him to positions that I and many others have found dismaying. He sought, not power or riches, but truth; he struggled all his life toward a blissful vision of human happiness. But in the end he was unable to solve his problems except via surrender, which feels to me like an expression of despair. He accepted cruelty toward Donatists, I think, partly because he was so sensitive to human pain, and so aware that he could not think his way to a better kind of world.

As I see it, what drove Augustine to embrace violence was, ultimately, his inability to reach his "place of rest" by his own free efforts. 

This strikes me deeply because I see in Augustine a perfect paradigm of much that I consider illiberal and antidemocratic: an insistence on finding final answers to question that I think will always remain open, a need for completion in a world where we will always be incomplete, a desire for perfect community in a world of difference. Yes, life is hard, and people do evil; yes, distant political powers hem us in with their decrees. It is true that we cannot will ourselves into heaven. But that is no reason to give up on making the world better and kinder when we can, one small act at a time.

I think Augustine longed too much for heaven. Perhaps that made him a saint, but it made him a very dangerous philosopher.

May Garden

After one hot week it has been a cool, damp May, and the flowers are loving it.

Friday, May 17, 2024

Links 17 May 2024

Dilwara Jain Temples, Rajasthan, India

The teens who have made friends with chatbots.

Scott Siskind looks into the people trying to eliminate pain and suffering via biomedicine.

Liam has been the most popular boys' name in the US every year since 2017.

Isaaac Asimov's predictions of the future, from 1981. Another reminder that things haven't happened as science futurists imagined.

Tara Donovan, sculptures made from discarded cds, kind of cool.

Interesting review  of a book about the intersection of radical left politics with mental illness: "Your therapist is right: You are a social deviant, a hopeful freak, a heretic. And your burning desire to change the world is making you suffer, contributing to your feelings of alienation and even your actual ostracization."

Photoset of Venice, focusing on glass, very impressive. On Flickr

Chuck E. Cheese is phasing out their creepy animatronic band (NY Times, Hoodline)

Interesting sculpture-park-type art installation from the collective known as HYBYCOZO.

Multi-Lingualism and language study in the later Middle Ages.

Last year Democrats in Congress said that the US was facing a "child care cliff" when pandemic aid expired, and that millions of women would have to leave the workforce as their child care options disappeared. Nothing was done, but there was no child care crisis, and the number of women in the workforce continues to rise.

Interview with author Diana Pasulka about the spiritual side of belief in UFOs and aliens. It is indeed interesting that many high-functioning people report encounters with non-human beings, but it is also interesting that the nature of those encountered beings changes with the culture.

Interesting review of the work of British historian Raphael Samuel, who liked marginal groups like poachers and itinerant workers. He was also interested in all the British industries that did not mechanize in the 19th century, from sewing to brick-making.

Long, rather grim essay comparing the current global military situation to the the late 1930s, which led to world war, and the 1950s, which did not. In the current situation, "I believe the anti-American partnership has probably decided to double down. They are probably preparing in earnest for a period of major confrontation."

Large Language Model artificial intelligence is fundamentally vulnerable to hacking, because it makes no separation between data and commands. Thus, somebody was able to trick a car dealership's AI into selling it a car for $1. As LLMs are currently configured, there is no easy fix.

Detailed study finally published on the Roman woman found in a lead coffin in the Netherlands in 2001.

Many Americans want the government to do something about housing, but many have no idea what that would be. Those who do have ideas don't support free mark solutions: "homeowners and renters alike support price controls, demand subsidies, restrictions on Wall Street buyers, and subsidized affordable housing."

The US Marines have announced a comprehensive strategy for combating light drones.

Tuesday, May 14, 2024

Dynamic Nominalism

In the May 13 New Yorker, Manvir Singh takes on the DSM and the problem with classifying and naming psychiatric conditions:

In DSM: A History of Psychiatry's Bible (2021), the medical sociologist Allan Horwitz presents reasons for the DSM-5's botched revolution, including infighting among members of the working groups and the sidelining of clinicians during the revision process. But there's a larger difficulty: revamping the DSM requires destroying kinds of people. As the philosopher Ian Hacking observed, labelling people is very different from labelling quarks or microbes. Quarks and microbes are indifferent to their labels; by contrast, human classifications change how "individuals experience themselves – and may even lead people to evolve their feelings and behavior in part because they are so classified." Hacking's best-known example is multiple personality disorder. Between 1972 and 1986, the number of cases of patients with multiple personalities exploded from the double digits to an estimated six thousand. Whatever one's thoughts about the reality of M.P.D., he observed, everyone could agree that, in 1955, "this was not a way to be a person." No such diagnosis existed. By 1986, though, multiple personality disorder was not only a recognized psychiatric lable; it was also sanctioned by academics, popular books, talk shows, and, more importantly, the experiences of people with multiple personalities. Hacking referred to this process, in which naming creates the thing named – and in which the meaning of names can be affected, in turn, by the name bearers – as "dynamic nominalism."

On the subject of identifying with your DSM label, this is from a discussion of a memoir by Paige Layle about being autistic and how much the label has meant to her:

One of the few big changes implemented between the DSM-IV and the DSM-5 was the collapse of "pervasive developmental disorders," including Asperger's, into "autism spectrum disorder." The act that Layle considers such a violation – being deprived of her diagnosis and thus her identity – was inflicted on the entirety of the "Aspie" community. What's more, many people once diagnosed as having Asperger's learned that, under the new criteria, they wouldn't qualify as having as having autism spectrum disorder. The change caused fear and confusion, and, for some, felt like a denial of nature itself. "It surprises me that they'd remove that label when it's very clearly something that exists," a British man formerly diagnosed as having Asperger's told the psychologist Bethan Chambers. "I'm now a member of an endangered species."

Sunday, May 12, 2024

The Philosophers' Stolen Castle

Matt Levine explains:

I have always kind of thought that a clever form of effective altruism would be “we build a giant casino for crypto gambling, we skim a percentage of the handle, and we use it to buy mosquito nets to save poor people from malaria.” I once suggested to Sam Bankman-Fried that this might be what he was up to at FTX, his crypto exchange. Just moving money from low-valued uses to high-valued ones, very neat and utilitarian.

A less clever — but faster? — form of effective altruism would be “we build a giant casino for crypto gambling, then we steal all the money and use it to buy mosquito nets.” Arguably that is closer to what Bankman-Fried was actually up to, though that’s not quite right either. FTX actually recovered most of the client money, but also it does not seem to have notably devoted a ton of customer money to effective charitable works on behalf of the world’s poorest.

“We build a giant casino for crypto gambling, steal the money and use it to buy a castle for effective altruist philosophers” is even weirder? Like that’s a good assignment for a philosophy class? “Explain, using utilitarianism, how this is Good.”

Because one of the things that was done with Sam Bankman-Fried's donations to the Effective Ventures Foundation was to buy Wytham Abbey (photo at top) in England for around $18 million. The plan, apparently, was to use the manor house as a retreat where the thinkers of effective altruism would meet with their billionaire funders and come up with ways to make the world better. Unfortunately for that dream, after FTX went bankrupt Effective Ventures decided to return the money Bankman-Friend gave them, and to do that they had to put the house back on the market.

Levine's blog isn't set up so you can link to individual posts, but this is part of his post dated May 9.

Saturday, May 11, 2024

W.H. Auden, "If I Could Tell You"

Time will say nothing but I told you so,
Time only knows the price we have to pay;
If I could tell you I would let you know.

If we should weep when clowns put on their show,
If we should stumble when musicians play,
Time will say nothing but I told you so.

There are no fortunes to be told, although,
Because I love you more than I can say,
If I could tell you I would let you know.

The winds must come from somewhere when they blow,
There must be reasons why the leaves decay;
Time will say nothing but I told you so.

Perhaps the roses really want to grow,
The vision seriously intends to stay;
If I could tell you I would let you know.

Suppose all the lions get up and go,
And all the brooks and soldiers run away;
Will Time say nothing but I told you so?
If I could tell you I would let you know. 


The Danville Adventure, Conclusion

Finished out the fieldwork near Danville Friday afternoon and then drove home to Baltimore. The week was exhausting and physically rough but worth it. Above is an oak tree growing near one of our house sites. You can see how much older it is than the forest around it.

This impressive stone chimney looks quite old, certainly pre-Civil War. We suspect this was the home of a plantation overseer.

I tried to take a picture of this amazing little swamp every time I walked by, but none of them really came out. It was quite sublime.

Black rat snake in a recently logged area.

As I have said, the loggers mostly stayed away from the old house sites. But the first archaeological survey missed this tobacco barn foundation, which was a good two hundred yards from the house it probably belonged to. You can see the crumbled brick remnants of the hearth.

Two different signs of severely disturbed areas: subsoil that should be a foot deep exposed on the surface, and hummocks left by loggers in a forest.

Vultures nested in the top floor of this house earlier this year.

Collapsed 20th-century tobacco barn, built with wire nails and 2x4s.

Here I am at the old mill site I wrote about in Part I.

What an adventure it was.

Part I, Part II

Friday, May 10, 2024

The Danville Adventure, Part 2

Here's an interesting house foundation on one of our sites near Danville, originally built of stone but with repairs made using concrete block.

Nearby is this outbuilding foundation. You may be able to see that this "foundation" was made by setting a line of rocks on the surface of the soil, no digging at all. See, people in the past did not consider the needs of future archaeologists, so they often did important things in ways that left little evidence for archaeologists to find. This foundation only survives because nothing has happened on this spot since the owners moved away; almost any kind of activity (agriculture, logging, parking pickup trucks) would very quickly erase all traces of this structure. And many other ways people have found to house themselves.

One thing that often does survive around house sites from the past 150 years is plants. These are blackberry lilies, the ancestors of which were probably planted between 1900 and 1920. We also find ornamental shrugs like mock orange, and of course many of these houses had a single big oak tree growing nearby.

Here's a screenful of nineteenth-century artifacts from one of these sites.

Here's a little surprise we stumbled on while crossing a creek; a previously unsuspected mill, likely dating to before the American Revolution. (Because the stones are an old style, and this property is well-documented in the nineteenth century.) We were just walking along when somebody said, "Wait, isn't that a millstone?" Why yes, it is. And there are other traces of the mill round about.

Like this second stone, sunken under the creek, which someone spotted the next time we came by.

Something that was long known about this property was the existence of this large cemetery. (It is being preserved.) Most of the two hundred or so graves are now unmarked, which means they were probably marked with wooden posts. But several have these crude, unworked headstones; they bear no names or dates, but they testify to someone's desire to remember.

As we remember all who lived here, and recover what they can of their lives as the land they called home is transformed yet again.

Links 10 May 2024

Gustav Klimt, Apple Tree I, 1912

An Orangutan observed eating medicinal plants and rubbing their juice on his wound. Very cool, but the claim that this is the first such case observed by scientists is absurd; I have written about this myself several times.

Lump of Tyrian purple dye found in Cumbria, England.

Kevin Drum complains about the belief that women's health care is somehow slighted, when there is now a lot of evidence that this is not so.

Spitalfields Life chronicles Beltane among east London's neopagans.

Vox reviews recent developments in longevity research.

Major article titled "Frequent Disturbances Enhanced the Resilience of Past Human Populations" published in Nature. It argues, by estimating long-term human populations from the amount of datable charcoal, that over time societies that experience regular catastrophes get better at surviving them. Interesting but I am not impressed because I don't think the archaeological data is good enough. As I have explained here before, estimating the size of human populations from archaeological data is very hard, even for 600 years ago, so I find these long timelines unpersuasive. (NY Times, Nature)

Among the African objects kept in Belgian museums is the skull of Lusinga Iwa Ng’ombe, who was killed in 1884 resisting Belgium's conquest of the Congo. Seems to me like maybe that should be repatriated? On the other hand, he is said to have been a slave trader. (NY Times, wikipedia, Royal Museum for Central Africa)

Iron Age necropolis found near Rome.

Before he created The Twilight Zone, Rod Sterling was a paratrooper in WW II, and a story he wrote about combat in the Phillipines is now being published. Like many others, Sterling started writing about the war to get it "out of his gut."

Dmitri Alperovitch, who predicted Putin's invasion of Ukraine, says Xi Jinping will invade Taiwan within four years.

Sam Bankman Fried was sent to prison after the FTX crypto exchange collapsed, for various actual financial crimes but really because he was thought to have lost billions of his customers' money. Now it turns out that they will get almost all of it back, and some investors will make a profit.

What did Assyrian artists mean when they carved, repeatedly, a lion, eagle, bull, fig tree and a plow on various temple walls?

Another nuclear power plant went into service this month in the US. Meanwhile wind energy production declined last year for the first time since the 1990s. Right now developers much prefer solar, and big plans for offshore wind have been scaled back or abandoned.

Fewer and fewer childred read for fun.

Fictional portrayals of palentologists Richard Owen, who was a very controversial figure in 19th-century Britain.

Ben Pentreath on tulips in his garden, with a trip to Copenhagen.

The ideology of Putin's Russia from Austrian Youtuber Kraut, 54 minutes but very intelligent and sophisticated.

Videos on Twitter/X of Russian tanks covered with extra armor to deter drones, which people are calling Turtle Tanks. It strikes me that in peacetime armies often buy lightly-armored vehicles saying they have superior mobility, but when a war starts the soldiers all start bolting on extra armor.

Crazy thread analyzing how many infantry fighting vehicles and APCs Russia has pulled out of storage since the war started: more than 4,000. On the other hand, they still have 10,000 left, although nobody know what their conditions is.

Thursday, May 9, 2024

The Danville Adventure, Part 1

Spending the week helping to close out a two-month field project on a big development site near Danville, Virginia. This area all used to be tobacco farms, down into the 1960s, but then that faded away and this country went to timber. Scattered through these hills are the remnants of homes where the tobacco farmers lived. Before the civil war, a majority were slaves; after it, some were sharecroppers, then cash tenants. Right now historians are devoting a huge amount of attention to Reconstruction and the transition from slavery to tenancy, so there is a lot of interest in these sites.

The ruin in the top photo is a collapsed tobacco barn, likely built in the early 20th century. Besides the general shape and size, we know this is a tobacco barn because of the small brick hearth for heating the barn to help the tobacco dry in damp, cool autumns. 

Here is an interesting house. The core is a one-room log house made with ax-shaped logs, possible as old as 1840, definitely before 1880. But the core is almost completely surrounded by more recent frame additions in various stages of collapse. A squatter was living here as recently as a decade ago.

Nearby tire dump. One problem with digging on these sites is that many of them were used as dump sites at some point after they were abandoned. We have found bottle dumps, tire dumps, a refrigerator dump, and a pile of personal computers from the 1980s. Computers are easy to identify but when it comes to bottle glass it can be hard to tell the 1870s from last month.

Our location has been logged at least twice since tobacco farming ceased. The loggers have mostly stayed away from the house sites but the rest of the landscape has been, um, changed. Here is a typical stretch of forest now, just pines and young sweetgums.

And it is being logged right now, so a lot of it looks like this. The impact of this kind of logging is not just on the surface; if you tried to walk across this expanse, as I did, you would discover that under all that wood trash is just one deep rut after another, the soil churned up and nothing left that resembles topsoil. It makes for a bit of a surreal experience, hiking across these huge clear-cuts to little islands of trees where we step back in time a century or more.

But nature, you know, is pretty tough, and within a few weeks of what looks like devastation new life is emerging.

Areas that were logged last year have been taken over by wildflowers.

Including moth mullein, one of my favorites.

Plus, where the surface is bare we can find things like this stone scraper, undatable but surely more than a thousand years old. More to come!