Thursday, December 8, 2016

Dinosaur Feathers in Amber

Chinese paleontologist Xing Lida bought this piece of amber in a gem market in norther Burma. The seller thought it had a piece of ancient plant inside, but that isn't a plant; it's the tail of a small predatory dinosaur that lived 99 million years ago.

Detail. This dinosaur was about the size of a sparrow. The piece of amber is, according to CNN, "about the size of a dried apricot."

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

People Worry Too Much about the Result of One Election

Here is one example from a whole genre:
Whether or not Trump can or should attempt to reverse the decline in manufacturing jobs is not the big story here. He can’t. The real story is that he continues to tap into the anger of his voters about being left behind. That will give him much more power than our criticisms will take away.

Politicians, aided by economists, have long ignored the negative impacts of trade-induced structural change. Indeed, they have even cheered it on. After all, the process “releases resources” for use in other, more productive parts of the economy. Those workers are just “low-skilled” workers. The US needs more “high-skilled” workers anyway.

Fact: Workers hate being referred to as “low-skilled.”

How we respond to Trump is important. If we simply fall back on our standard numbers, we lose. If we confidently predict that TPP is a big win because it will add 0.5% to GDP by 2030, we lose. If we just use this as an opportunity to reiterate the importance of a college degree, we lose. We have been doing this for decades, and it helped deliver Trump to office.
I think this is hysteria.

Elections do matter; I wish Trump weren't about to be President. But just because things are important doesn't mean they have any deep meaning in historical terms, or that we have much control over them. In fact lots of really important events, from the asteroid impact that wiped out the dinosaurs to the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, have been pretty much random.

Trump won the election because of a bunch of transient factors that have no relationship to the long-term direction of the country: fear of terrorism, Hillary's unpopularity, a reaction against eight years of Obama, slow job growth in a handful of key states, Facebook's current news algorithm, Trump's personal rapport with a certain sort of working class voter, etc. Exit polls showed that a substantial majority of Americans favors free trade, so it is not clear to me what would be accomplished by aligning the Democratic party with anti-trade forces just because we lost one election.

If support for protectionism and other ways of propping up dying industrial regions is so important, then why have voters in those states been electing Tea Party Republicans to Congress? Somebody like Michigan representative Justin Amash is a free-trader absolutely opposed to any sort of program for helping workers who lose their jobs – really for any program that helps anybody. To think that something like trade policy effects votes is to make people out as far more rational than they really are.

Democrats absolutely need to tone down the contempt for working class folks, and it would be nice to have a candidate who resonates better with those voters. But there are other ways of showing support for the working class than protectionism. After all, Obama and Bill Clinton did very well with those same voters without saying a word about Chinese competition.

The Freed Slaves of St. Helena

In 1807, the British Empire banned the slave trade. For the first few years after that the Royal Navy was busy fighting Napoleon, so they didn't do very much about it. But once Napoleon was safely moored on St. Helena, in the middle of the south Atlantic Ocean, they found themselves with time on their hands. They spent a great deal of it enforcing their ban on slave trading from Africa.

Over the course of the next 50 years, down to 1867, the Royal Navy intercepted hundreds of slave ships and liberated tens of thousands of slaves. They freed so many slaves that figuring out what to do with them became a huge problem. Dropping them off on the African coast seemed like a bad idea, since they might be captured again by the coastal states that had just sold them once and would be happy to do so again. More than 24,000 of them ended up on St. Helena, sharing Napoleon's exile. Weakened by their ordeal on the slave ships, many died within weeks. Others survived. Some of the survivors were eventually taken to British colonies in the Caribbean, but many lived out their years on St. Helena. Records indicate that at least 8,000 Africans were buried on the island.

St. Helena is not a very big island and most of it is steep and rocky, so the flat parts tend to get re-used again and again. So when crews began clearing ground in 2006 for the island's first airport, they of course stumbled across ruined buildings and other traces of the island's past. Including graves. Archaeologists were called in to deal with them, and in the course of building the airport and associated roads they excavated 325 burials.

Now these burials are back in the news because DNA studies are being carried out on the bones. Historians have long wanted to know where the 12 million Africans kidnapped and shipped to the New World came from. Written records help, but the surviving records represent only a fraction of slave voyages and they note only the point of embarkation. Since we know that some slaves had been brought hundreds of miles from the interior before they were sold to the ships, the port of embarkation is a very general sort of clue. In principle DNA study of slave skeletons might reveal much more precisely where these people came from. The burials on St. Helena are also an ideal population to study, since they represent a sample of the whole trade, not just the slaves destined for any particular port, and they were all born in Africa, avoiding the complications of later mixing that confuse the results from New World slave cemeteries. The biggest obstacle is actually the poor genetic record of modern Africa, where there have been few studies compared to Europe or North America. Still, results are starting to come in. Geneticists
collected DNA from the teeth of 63 individuals and sequenced partial genomes from 20 of the best-preserved samples. Comparisons with contemporary African populations suggested that the liberated slaves came from diverse African backgrounds. A few individuals shared ancestry with contemporary West and Central African ethnic groups such as the Bamoun and Kongo, but for most, none of the African groups that the team compared them with was an especially close match. Schroeder attributes that to a lack of genomic data from places such as Angola and Mozambique.
After polling the views of people on St. Helena, the government is arranging for the reburial of all these people near where they were found. Which is what ought to happen. But it would be nice if more DNA samples were collected first.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Donatella Bucci

Coastal dunes at Maranhenses National Park Brazil. From National Geographic.

Modern Races are Recent Mixtures

One of the many fascinating aspects of David Reich's recent talk on archeaogenetics at the NIH (see here for discussion) is his account of how modern races took form. If you look at Eurasia now, you see a great deal of genetic similarity across two broad regions. Across West Eurasia, from Pakistan to Norway, people are genetically very similar. The same is true in East Asia, from Indonesia to northeast Siberia, including Japan. This is the data that nineteenth-century scientists were drawing on when they defined the Caucasian and Oriental or Mongoloid races. These nineteenth-century scientists imagined that the modern races were all descended from common ancestors.

But modern archaeogenetics reveals something different. By examining the DNA extracted from old skeletons, we see that 12,000 years ago West Eurasia contained at least four very distinct populations that Reich calls West European Hunter Gatherers, East European Hunter Gatherers, Early Anatolian/European Farmers, and Early Iranian Farmers. These populations were, in statistical terms, as different from each other as modern races; the genetic difference between hunter gatherers in eastern Europe and farmers in the Levant was greater than the genetic difference between modern English and Han Chinese populations.

The modern Caucasian "race" was created by the mixing of these four (and possibly other) populations. Compare the two bar graphs above, which illustrate this mixing.

The data suggest that most of this mixing took place before 2000 BCE, largely as a result of the spread of agriculture. The data for East Asia are at present not nearly as good, but Reich believes that they will show the same process, with the modern East Asian race created by the mixing of distinct pre-Neolithic populations.

The "pure" race is a myth; all human populations are mixtures. Genetic data allows us to show that the characteristics of an archetypical northern European are drawn from diverse populations. For example, blue eyes come from the ancient hunter-gatherers of western Europe, but they had dark skin; the genes for light skin come from early farmers in the Near East.

Otto Rieth, Villa Staudt, 1900

Regentenstra├če 1 /Tiergartenstra├če 9, Berlin. Destroyed during World War II.

Mistrusting Our Own Minds

The more we learn about psychology, the more irrational we seem. Consider the basic intellectual question, "Why do you believe that?" For any sophisticated problem, from whether string theory is good physics to whether the Mountain Goats are a good band, the real answer is going to have at best a minor component of rationality. Over the past 30 years I have been on a quest to purge my thinking on technical questions of my personal prejudices. I find, though, that I am constantly uncovering strong feelings, unmotivated by data, about what ought to be rational questions. On the other hand I have also been trying to stop pretending that my feelings about art are anything but irrational; you like the Mountain Goats, I don't, and that's pretty much all there is to say.

I was thinking about this because of this review of Michael Lewis' new book on Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman, two academics who have done a lot to uncover the irrational bases of human decision making. (My favorite piece of their work exposed how deep our habit is of telling stories to explain patterns that are really random.) Lewis writes of one of Tversky and Kahneman's followers,
He suggested a new definition of the nerd: a person who knows his own mind well enough to mistrust it.

Monday, December 5, 2016

David Reich, The State of Research in Ancient DNA

David Reich, who leads one of the five or so top labs in the world for extracting and studying ancient DNA, gave a talk at the NIH on September 21 in which he reviewed the state of ancient DNA studies. You can watch the whole, hour-long talk here, if you're interested; I thought it was amazing. Some highlights:

The Explosion of Data

Over the past 6 years, the amount of ancient human DNA we can extract from a typical bone sample has increased by more than 10,000 times.

As a result of that technological leap, the amount of data available has simply exploded. In 2010, three high-quality (at least 5% of a complete genome) ancient DNA samples were published. In 2014 there were about a dozen. In 2015, 350 were published. Now, Reich's lab alone has more than a thousand ancient DNA samples they haven't gotten around to publishing yet. The dramatic increase in available data in just a few years has transformed the sort of conclusions we can draw about the past.

No Switch for Modern Humanity

The first people with skeletons like ours, what we call fully modern humans, emerged sometime around 200,000 to 150,000 years ago in East Africa. But so far as we can tell they were behaviorally just like other sub-species of Home sapiens, making the same kinds of tools as Neanderthals and others. No major change in behavior is visible until after 60,000 years ago, when more complex tools, decorations, rituals and so on start to show up in the archaeological record. Some people have speculated that this dramatic change might have been the result of a small group of mutations or even a single mutation that acted as a "switch," turning on modern human behavior. Reich said that so far efforts to find this switch have turned up nothing; there are no changes in the genome around that time that might account for major behavior changes, and furthermore many modern human groups seem to have separated from the rest of us tens of thousands of years before modern behavior appears in the record.

Indo-Europeans and the Plague

The thing that most blew my mind was something about the population history of Europe. Reich spent a fair amount of time explaining how the genetic data shows that modern Europeans are derived from three sources: hunter-gatherers who were in Europe before 9,000 years ago, farmers from the Middle East who migrated to Europe between 8,500 and 6,000 years ago, and a third group that arrived from the steppes around 4,500 years ago. (It seems fairly certain that this last group spread Indo-European languages.) It's an amazing presentation, very clear and thorough, although unfortunately you can't make out his graphics very well in the video.

At the end of his talk, when he was discussing the directions of future research, Reich asked the question: how were the pastoralists from Ukraine able to invade densely settled regions of Europe and leave such a strong genetic imprint? Well, he said, studies of the source culture in Ukraine, which we call Yamnaya, have shown that about 10 percent of Yamnaya had plague bacteria in their bones. (Which means they probably died of the plague.) This is the same organism that caused the Black Death and other great European plagues, although apparently not as virulent as the later form. But it seems to have been endemic on the Bronze Age steppe.

So what if Yamnaya herders, moving west, brought the plague with them and spread it to European populations that had no resistance? Perhaps it killed huge numbers of people, creating the spaces into which the Indo-European peoples moved. This could also account for the other weird European event of this period, the spread of the Beaker folk across the Atlantic fringe; perhaps they were moving into areas where the population had been battered by disease, accounting for their remarkable genetic success.

And that is just a sample of the idea Reich tosses off in this lecture. I feel privileged to have witnessed this amazing revolution in our understanding of the past, and I feel certain that it will continue to answer many questions that had seemed impossible to answer before.


I have discovered that you can download the lecture in a high-resolution format from the NIH web page, and if you watch that the graphics are legible. But it's an 800 mb file.

Voters and the EU

Fabulous sentence:
It is a strange development that the greatest alliance of democratic states in modern history, the European Union, has come to fear democratic votes and elections.
The EU has always been an elite project with only tepid support from voters, who have rejected many referendums on EU membership and never given it more than 53% support.

The latest electoral blow to the EU comes from Italy, where a vote on constitutional changes that strike most observers as sensible came to be seen as a referendum on the policies of the EU and the Renzi government. The changes were voted down and Renzi resigned. This leaves Italy with no government and no clear path forward at a time when youth unemployment is 40%.

I have no idea what will happen. I would like to see the EU unwound a little and the common currency abolished, but I don't think anybody knows how this might be done; even in Britain, which never joined the EU core and kept its own currency, they are having a terrible time figuring out how to extract themselves from all their ties and obligations.

As to why this is happening, no need to think very hard about that: because in Italy just as everywhere else, millions of people feel that the current global order is not working for them, and nobody in power cares.

Amber Boar, Roman 2nd Century CE

An Analysis of Rising College Costs

Jonah Katz posted this comment in a thread on Scott Alexander's blog:
The rising cost of higher education isn’t quite so mysterious, at least for the last 10-15 years. The Delta Cost Project has put together some fairly comprehensive data about this. What you see across most categories of post-secondary institutions is that basically *everything* is becoming more expensive, but ‘student ‘life’ and ‘academic support’ are rising fastest, followed by ‘institutional support’. Student life is all of the bells and whistles (athletic centers, movie theaters, etc.) that colleges use to try to entice prospective students into paying huge amounts of money to enroll in their institutions, and I believe it also includes health and mental health services, which I would imagine have become exponentially more expensive over the past couple decades (this is probably unavoidable, because health costs are going up in general and universities are enrolling a far wider range of students with more mental and physical health issues who wouldn’t have gone to college in the past). Academic support includes a mix of stuff that is crucial to the academic mission of a university (libraries, IT systems), stuff that is arguably not part of the core academic mission at all (Dean’s Office personnel, museums), and stuff that is well intentioned but tends to be useless in practice (central offices for teaching and curriculum development). Institutional support is administration proper. Note that these data come from 2003-2013, so they don’t capture the explosion in university administration that is generally agreed to have occurred from roughly the 1970s to 1990s. I’ve never been able to find categorized data that goes back that far, but I imagine the change in spending on administration during that period must have been astronomical. The cost of instruction is still the largest single category of expenditure, and accounts for the majority of absolute price increases, but proportionally it is not rising as fast as these other categories.
Some of the Delta Cost Project data is in the tables here; for public research universities above, and public colleges below. Lost more at their site.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Today's Sentence

The "first lady of nerdcore," rapper MC Router, (responsible for the song "Trekkie Pride"), never achieved the critical success for which she had seemed destined, instead ending up on the Dr. Phil show after an acrimonious dispute with her family over her unexpected conversion to Islam.


Saturday, December 3, 2016

Louis Comfort Tiffany, Stained Glass Windows

Louis Comfort Tiffany (1848-1933) grew up wanting to be a painter. From a wealthy family, he spent his twenties traveling the world, painting among other things some decent orientalist views of Tangier, Morocco. (View of Oyster Bay, 1908)

In the 1870s he got interested in interior design, which in that era often included stained glass windows. His first surviving window is this one, done around 1880 for his own studio apartment in New York City. You can already see the way he was experimenting with different types of glass.

Window from the ballroom of the Tiffany family home in New York, 1885-1992.

In 1892 Tiffany opened a glass house in the Corona neighborhood of Queens, working with English glass-blower Arthur Nash. They developed a form of blended, opalescent glass they called Favrile, and they used this in conjunction with traditional clear pieces to create a great variety of colors and looks. You can clearly see the opalescent, semi-transparent glass in this famous work, Magnolias and Irises, 1908.

Within a decade their studio was world famous and a huge financial success. Most of the money came from the mass production of vases and lamps, but Tiffany himself continued to put much of his own effort into windows. (Parakeets, 1889, and detail)

A religious man but not much of a sectarian, Tiffany created many windows for churches, synagogues, Universalist meeting halls, and other places of worship. This array of windows is at St. Michael's Episcopal Church on Amsterdam Avenue in Manhattan.

The Angel of the Resurrection, from the First Presbyterian Church, Indianapolis, 1905

Dogwood, 1915.

Hudson River Landscape from Rochroane, 1905

Panels from the Presbyterian Church, Norfolk, Connecticut.

Snowball panel, 1904.

Field of Lillies from the Tiffany Chapel, Laurelton Hall, New York c. 1892-1900.

Greek Earrings from Colchis, 4th Century BCE

Truth, Lies, and Power, Part 2

Jacob Levy ponders the meaning of Donald Trump's outrageous lies, such as this tweet from November 27:
In addition to winning the Electoral College in a landslide, I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally.
Why lie? Why call into question the legitimacy of the election that he won? Riling up nativist and racist populist anger isn’t especially tactically useful at this moment.

To understand this kind of political untruth, I think we have to look to theorists of truth and language in politics. The great analysts of truth and speech under totalitarianism—George Orwell, Hannah Arendt, Vaclav Havel—can help us recognize this kind of lie for what it is. Sometimes—often—a leader with authoritarian tendencies will lie in order to make others repeat his lie both as a way to demonstrate and strengthen his power over them.

Saying something obviously untrue, and making your subordinates repeat it with a straight face in their own voice, is a particularly startling display of power over them. It’s something that was endemic to totalitarianism. Arendt analyzed the huge lies and blatant reversals of language associated with the Holocaust. Havel documented the pervasive little lies, lies that everyone knew to be lies, of late Communism. And Orwell gave us the vivid “2+2=5.”

Being made to repeat an obvious lie makes it clear that you’re powerless; it also makes you complicit. You’re morally compromised. Your ability to stand on your own moral two feet and resist or denounce is lost. Part of this is a general tool for making people part of immoral groups. . . . In a gang or the Mafia, your first kill makes you trustworthy, because you’re now dependent on the group to keep your secrets, and can’t credibly claim to be superior to them.

But in totalitarian and authoritarian politics, there seems to be something special about the lie, partly because so much of politics is about speech (and especially public speech) in the first place. Based on the evidence of his presidential campaign, I think Donald Trump understands this instinctively, and he relished the power to make his subordinates repeat his clearly outlandish lies in public.

Truth, Lies, and Power, Part 1

The result of a consistent and total substitution of lies for factual truth is not that the lie will now be accepted as truth, and truth be defamed as lie, but that the sense by which we take our bearings in the real world – and the category of truth vs. falsehood is one of the mental means to this end – is being destroyed.

– Hannah Arendt

The Media and the Economy

In the two hours that President-elect Donald J. Trump spent flying to Indiana on Thursday to boast that he saved 1,000 jobs, about 6,000 private-sector jobs in the United States were probably destroyed.

It’s a surprising statistic — one that speaks to the constant state of change in the labor market. My calculation is based on government data that shows that every three months roughly 6.7 million private-sector jobs are destroyed, which in an expanding labor market is offset by the creation of nearly 7.2 million jobs.

Over a full presidential term, more than 100 million jobs will be destroyed. Mr. Trump can’t expect to stanch much of that flow.
Since 2010, 302,000 new jobs have been added in Indiana.

I think that understanding an economy of 150 million jobs is a task for which both our minds and our media are totally unprepared. This drove me crazy during the 1992 election. TV news had decided that the recession was selling, and night after night the first item would be, "Today in Indiana another factory closed, eliminating 250 jobs. . . ." I had to stop watching the news altogether because it made me so mad. I think the drumbeat of bad news about what was really a moderate recession did a lot to elect Bill Clinton and create Ross Perot. It also scared people needlessly; I remember chatting with a 20-year-old clerk in a grocery store who said she was surprised to see so much business at Christmas because "everybody's getting laid off and nobody's got any money" – this when unemployment in Maryland was about 6 percent. It would have been ludicrous if she hadn't seemed so distressed.

Seeing the whole picture of a huge economy requires a real mental effort, and it requires looking beyond your own surroundings to other parts of the country and other kinds of people. This can only be done statistically, using weak parts of our brains that are easily overwhelmed by compelling stories and images. We typically understand big, complex phenomena mainly through symbols. So that is what the media gives us, usually in a very misleading way.

Wrangling firms like Carrier may work out very well for the President politically, since most of us think in symbols and 1000 jobs saved may turn out to be a potent one. But economically, it is a waste of time. Or worse; several economists have written essays recently arguing that putting pressure on individual firms over their business decisions is a terrible way to run an economy. If Trump wants to make a long-term difference he will have to change the calculus in a deeper way, for example by big tariffs. But the economists also think that would be a long-term disaster, more likely to spark a trade war that hurts everyone than to help American workers.

My hope is that the president-elect will stick with his roots in showmanship and continue to emphasize the symbolic, rather than really trying to overhaul the economy. Because I don't think anyone understands the world economy well enough to know what changes would really help ordinary people enmeshed in a global system, and I am certain that Trump does not.

Friday, December 2, 2016

Today's Advice

From General James Mattis, Trump's nominee to be Secretary of Defense, to his soldiers in Iraq:
Be polite, be professional, but have a plan to kill everybody you meet.

A Little More Fall

Washington, yesterday.

Prices for Solar Power Still Plunging

In September, Abu Dhabi Water and Electricity signed a contract to purchase solar power from a new plant at 2.42 cents/kwh. That's less than half the going price for natural gas power, and is in fact the the cheapest contract for electricity ever signed, anywhere on planet earth, using any technology. The previous record, also for solar power, lasted only five weeks.

Fewer Serial Killers Killing Fewer Americans

Here's another piece of good news about contemporary America: murders by serial killers are way down. The data comes from the FBI and Dr. Mike Aamodt, a forensic psychologist who has been intensely studying serial killers for decades. Note that the FBI's definition of a serial killer just means killing people in at least two separate incidents, so it includes lots of gang enforcers and the like. But there are certainly many fewer maniacs of the John Wayne Gacy type. And not only is the number of serial killers going down, they are claiming fewer victims; killers with five or more victims have declined from 42% of the (decreasing) total to 13%.

The steep rise in the graph from 1950 to 1980 has something to do with better record keeping and more awareness. But the steep decline is probably real. Asked why, Dr. Aamodt offers this:
“One of the keys here is a change in parole laws — longer sentences, things like the three strikes rule,” he says. “If you take a look at serial killers in our database prior to 1980, 22 percent had killed someone, gone to prison, been released, then killed again when they got out. You get a big reduction in that after 1980.”

Aamodt also cites improved forensic science (“We’re getting better at catching criminals after one murder instead of three or four,” he says”), as well as a culture that generally engages in less risk-taking. It used to be acceptable to hitchhike or let a child ride her bicycle alone in a park; today, it is more difficult for serial killers to find vulnerable victims like this.

Paul Ryan's Priorities

The latest from the leader of the normal Republicans:
Regulatory relief....Obamacare relief....reforming the tax code....foreign policy, rebuilding the military....securing the border....And then while we work on that, we want to work on poverty and restoring our constitutional separation of powers....So those are effectively the six pieces that we’ve been talking about.
As Kevin Drum points out, just "regulatory relief" and "reforming the tax code" are huge jobs that could occupy the House for all of the next two years, and if you add in trying to find some sort of replacement for Obamacare they will be very busy. And notice that there is nothing on this list about Ryan's pet project, reforming Medicare. He seems to have decided that since Trump promised not to touch the entitlements of his elderly voters, he is better off staying away from that for now.

Good luck "restoring our constitutional separation of powers" with Trump in charge.

John Singer Sargent, Statue of Perseus by Night

c. 1902

Fraud and False Identity in Afghanistan, and Colonial North America

Amusing story in the Times about a man who posed as an Afghan government official so successfully that he got himself flown around the country in a government helicopter, protected by elite troops. Afghanistan, a place where most of whatever records there were have been blown up or burned in 30 years of war, has a huge problem with fraud and false identity. Sometimes this is tragic, as when men who claim to be Taliban peace emissaries turn out to be suicide bombers. Other times it is farce:
One shopkeeper made it as far as the presidential palace posing as the Taliban’s deputy leader and was rewarded with cash for a willingness to talk peace.
This reminds me of many stories I have read about colonial America. A whole string of Europeans showed up in the New World claiming to be everything from princes to doctors of philosophy, and how was anyone to check? If they could act the part, these men might find a willing reception in many corners of the colonies. A Swiss land speculator who called himself the Baron von Graffenried left a trail through the middle colonies, eventually earning a place in history as co-founder of New Bern, North Carolina. Some of the first German churches in America, from South Carolina to New Jersey, were taken in by a preacher who called himself Carl Rudolf and claimed to be the rightful Prince of Wuerttemberg, getting entertained by each German community along the road before stealing cash or jewelry and disappearing into the night, one step ahead of news about his crimes.

In a slow-moving traditional world identities are established by tight-knit communities where everybody knows everybody else's business. In the 20th century identities came to be established by governments, with records and passports and ID cards. But where there are neither stable communities nor rigorous bureaucracies, chaos and fraud often reign.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

When Cows Can Milk Themselves

For generations, dairies have been hooking cows to milking machines twice a day. But now there are robot milking machines that allow cows to enter whenever they want, and it turns out that some cows want to be milked a lot more than twice a day. The average is three times a day, and for the highest producers it is four to five times a day. It seems that we have bred cows to make so much milk that being milked twice a day is not enough to relieve the pressure. Empowering cows to make their own decisions also leads to more milk production, an increase of 8 to 12 percent. So the cows are happier and the farmers get more milk.

Of all the strange things.

Shamanism and Sanity

One thing primitive tribes around the world have in common is the pursuit of ecstasy, the complete escape from the external world into a dreamscape universe. For some reason most advanced agricultural societies turned against the hallucinogenic drugs and savage rituals that generate these states; since the Bronze Age humans have mostly limited themselves to mild stimulants and the numbing effects of alcohol.

Recently scientists and doctors, frustrated by their inability to cure the widespread anxiety and depression that are among the worst banes of modern life, have taken renewed interest in mind-altering drugs. Study after study has shown that in certain circumstances they make certain people feel much, much better. I have written here about using ketamine to treat depression, and just yesterday MDMA to use post-traumatic stress disorder. Today there is news of a new study that found success using psilocybin to treat depression in cancer patients.

I feel certain that there is something to these studies. After all the desire for mind-altering drugs is so widespread among humankind (and also other species) that it must be a response to a biological need. Evolution, it seems, does not care how you feel, and in fact it sometimes achieves its ends by making you feel really awful. And sometimes there is nothing we can do to resolve those stresses through action. Hence, drugs.

But I would make two big caveats about all this good news. One is that while these drugs may help some people, they don't help everyone, and sometimes they hurt a lot. The "bad trip" is a big part of LSD lore because it really happens. Sometimes the bad effects persist for a long time. Richard Feynman, a bad-boy physicist who reveled in defying the man, recounted in his memoirs that although he was always fascinated by ecstatic experiences he decided in the end not to try LSD. He had read and heard too many believable accounts of people who suffered long-term mental damage to take the risk. Of course if you are so crippled by depression or anxiety that you can't function, or if you are slowly dying of cancer, your calculus might be different.

The other caveat is that making these drugs available medically will inevitably make them more available on the street, and it will also inevitably invite more people to self-medicate with them rather than seeking professional help. Any drug that helps you feel better can lead to dependence. We are living with the profound bad effects of making pain medication more available for people who are really suffering, and making psilocybin a common crutch for the troubled would probably be another disaster.

There are few unalloyed goods in the world; everything else comes with a downside. Given how many people suffer now from mysterious mental woes, and how many of them have already screwed themselves up with alcohol or opiates, I think making hallucinogens and hypnotics more available is worth the risk.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Johannes Fried, Charlemagne

Charlemagne (748-814) was one of the greatest European rulers, but he has few biographers. This is because, as German historian Johannes Fried explains in the preface to his very long and amazingly learned account, we really know very little about him:
The following book is not a novel, but it is a work of fiction all the same. . . . It is impossible nowadays to fathom the depths of a life lived more than twelve hundred years ago, so the only thing remaining for a writer to fall back on is his own imagination. (vii)
What, exactly, do we know? We have narratives of Charlemagne's long reign, but, says Fried, these are paltry, biased, and tell us little about the king's motives or aims. We have a large body of laws and administrative orders enacted by his council, and an even better record of church councils over which he presided. Scattered among the documents saved by Europe's oldest monasteries are copies of some of these decrees marked with corrections, as if this were the very parchment brought into the royal council for final debate and approval. We have a handful of official letters from Charlemagne to the Pope and other worthies, and a fair sample of letters by churchmen who knew the emperor well. We have poems written to praise him. We have two dialogues written by Alcuin, a priest who was one of Charlemagne's closest advisers, that take the form of conversations between Alcuin and emperor himself; some historians think these might vaguely approximate actual discussions between the two men, or at least cover topics they actually discussed. Most famously we have a brief biography written by a man who knew Charlemagne well, the courtier Einhard. But Einhard is oddly silent about most of the things modern readers would like to know, which makes his text as much a frustration for biographers as a help.

These sources show us two very different sides of the man. On the one hand there is the secular warlord of a semi-civilized tribe, who loved fighting and listening to "stories and deeds of olden times," whose favorite food was roast game fresh from the hunt, who married and divorced a series of women as his impulses and political needs dictated, besides taking numerous concubines. It is Charlemagne the warrior who appears most clearly in Einhard's Life, defeating one enemy after another, bedding the women who pleased him. Fried reviews this material but really he does not add very much beyond what one can read in Einhard and the Frankish Royal Annals. That is because two centuries of obsessive research into Charlemagne has turned up very little else about the military side of his reign, and nothing at all that can add to Einhard's two paragraphs on his private life. Fried has dug up some excellent material on matters like who served in the army, how they were summoned, and so on. For example he tells us that gear for an armored warrior – helmet, coat of mail, sword, leg armor, spear, shield, stallion – cost 40 pence, equal to 18 to 20 cows. To put it another way, it took 12 small farmsteads to support one armored, mounted warrior. (38)

The other Charlemagne was a pious son of the church who worked all his reign to spread the Christian faith, reform and purify the church, uphold the authority of the pope, and educate his people in the basics of Christian doctrine. This is the Charlemagne who interests Johannes Fried. Fried is an expert in the intellectual history of this era, and he knows the ins and outs of every text. Fried is out to show that the church reforms and educational programs launched by Charlemagne were crucial to intellectual life in Europe over the next several centuries, that Charlemagne was personally involved in all of this, and that his immersion in Christian thought and church administration completely change the emperor's approach to ruling.

Early in his reign, when he was marching to war almost every year, Charlemagne may have been something like the warrior king portrayed by Einhard. But Charlemagne actually withdrew from active campaigning after 778. For most of his reign he left the fighting to other men, including his sons. Instead, Charlemagne focused on diplomacy (for example with the Byzantine Emperor and Caliph Harun al-Rashid), justice, education, and reform of the church. Fried's Charlemagne imagined a new sort of kingdom, sustained not by force of arms but by Christianity. Charlemagne and his advisers wanted to bring a religious order to the realm, beginning with the church itself but eventually spreading beyond it. To begin with, all priests must be able to read the Bible, and they must have accurate Bibles to read (or at least the parts that appear in the liturgy); they must be trained in the basics of Aristotelian logic, so they can understand and expound theology. Schools to train them must be established in all the major monasteries, besides which the monasteries must be brought to order, all following the same rule. Everyone must use the same calendar, so all the feasts are celebrated on the same day. Orthodoxy must be enforced and heresy wiped out. Only then can secular society be brought to some kind of order; only religion can really bring justice to the violent, savage world. Fried is not very good at summing up his arguments, preferring to expound them gradually over dozens of pages with hundreds of citations, but this gives the flavor of his approach:
This renaissance in knowledge and aptitude was not sought for its own sake, nor was competence in Latin revived just for the purposes of logic. The purpose of both, as the Church Father St. Augustine had stressed in his writings, was to promote the soul’s redemption, the true faith, the correct observance of sacred rites, and the understanding of the Holy Scriptures and of the world order ordained by God, and thereby to support a form of rule that was pleasing to God and included welfare provision for the poor and disadvantaged, another key requirement of religion. Religious motives really did drive Charlemagne’s concern for education, and along with this his desire to establish the first step in the rationalization of European intellectual culture. . . .

This culture of learning was meant to shape every aspect of life, including divine worship, the Church in general, and even the decisions taken by the royal council. The defense of the faith, resistance to heresy, and order within the realm all cried out for it; grammar was needed for prayer, rhetoric for ruling, and dialectics for faith, while the sum total of knowledge was required to maintain the divine order of the world. These arts provided a theoretical grounding for real life, for the philosophy and exercise of power, and for Charlemagne’s Frankish Empire as a whole. (284)
These are radical ideas, but Fried has some strong arguments. For example, Charlemagne's council enacted several laws over the years trying to keep the free men who made up his army from being turned into serfs by powerful lords, each law prefaced with a statement saying that the old laws had been ignored. The counts, the chief secular officials of the empire, were criticized on this point again and again. In his last set of laws Charlemagne enacted that henceforth no count could strip a man of his freedom unless a bishop were also present and concurred in the ruling. This seems like a clear attempt to rectify the shortcomings of secular justice with the church's help.

Later in the Middle Ages there would be centuries-long conflicts over the boundaries of secular and church power, marked by several wars between popes and emperors. During the course of those disputes the popes used a number of documents that were supposed to date to the reign of Constantine or not long afterword, which established the superiority of the pope over the emperor. Fried shows that some of the most violently pro-church, anti-secular documents did not come from the papacy; they were forged in monasteries under the control of Charlemagne and his close friends, either at the end of his reign or during that of his son Louis the Pious. (E.g., the Decretals of Pseudo Isidore, and the first version of the document that evolved into the Donation of Constantine.) It was the men around Charlemagne who gave the popes the strongest arguments for their superiority.

Fried's Charlemagne despaired of secular power. He gave up thinking that he could bring his great empire to order by more laws and more wars. He came to believe that only divine order, flowing through a perfectly ordered church, administered by learned priests and bishops, backed by the great learning of the Church Fathers, could bring peace and justice to this fallen world. Captured by the logic of theology and canon law, he saw in the rationality of Catholic learning and the holiness of the church the only hope for his fractious age.

I can't decide what to make of Fried's Charlemagne. If Charlemagne really turned against the whole basis of his ancestors' rule, it seems odd that his friend Einhard would have failed to mention it. It has happened many times in history that the court of an aging king was taken over by a faction of ideologues, and I can imagine that this might have happened to Charlemagne; perhaps the imperial acts that fascinate Fried were more the product of a cabal of churchmen than of the emperor himself. But on the other hand the subsequent history of Europe to some extent bears out the views that Fried attributes to Charlemagne: secular authority did fail to maintain order, the empire collapsed into civil war, and whatever order, justice and learning survived in the crumbling Frankish empire was maintained by the church.

This is a thick book dense with learning, not for the faint-hearted. But the writing is good and there are lots of interesting little stories and small triumphs of research to keep things moving, so anyone with interest and plenty of time can learn a lot about the Carolingian age from Fried. Even more, you can see in this book the mind of a great scholar at work. Fried displays here the kinds of arguments and insights that are possible for someone who has mastered the vast apparatus of historical scholarship on an intensely studied period. Fried has also delved deeply into the available sources, squeezing them to the limit for the stories they can tell. It is an amazing performance. If it fails to completely convince, that is partly because Fried is honest about the limits of our understanding. He has, as he warned in his preface, gone beyond what can be proved to what can only be imagined; and he has done this in a very impressive way.

Johannes Fried, Charlemagne. Translated by Peter Lewis, from the Harvard University Press, 2016; German original 2013. 554 pages of text, 75 pages of notes.

Meet the New Boss. . . .

Matt Levine pointed out two weeks ago that the two men reportedly being considered for Treasury Secretary in the Trump administration were not exactly populist outsiders:
Donald Trump's closing argument in this presidential campaign was a two-minute advertisement blaming America's problems on a conspiracy of global financiers like George Soros and Goldman's Lloyd Blankfein, so it seems fitting that the two leading candidates to be his Treasury Secretary are Steven Mnuchin and Wilbur Ross. Mnuchin is a former Goldman Sachs Group Inc. partner, used to work with Soros, and is in Skull and Bones. Ross was literally the president of a secret Wall Street fraternity that holds black-tie dinners where they perform in drag and make fun of the less fortunate. If you voted for Trump to kick the Illuminati out of Washington, this must be a disappointment.
Now it looks like Mnuchin is getting the nod for Treasury, which is in a way hilarious; you campaign against the power of international bankers like Goldman Sachs, and then bring a Goldman Sachs partner into your cabinet.

The Loneliness of the Adult Male Sperm Whale

The caption to this National  Geographic photo, by Mike Korostelev, is
In the Azores, an archipelago approximately 900 miles off the coast of Portugal, a group of sperm whales huddles beneath the surface. While adult males are solitary creatures when not breeding, females and juveniles assemble in pods of 10 to 20 members, often vocalizing and touching each other when socializing, as seen here.
And this set me wondering. What is it like for an adolescent male sperm whale to leave the pod and set off on his own? Is he lonely? Does the longing for companionship drive him to fight other males for access to the females during mating season? Or is he happy to be free? Does maturation among male sperm whales cause them to lose the need for companionship they had in their youths? I am convinced that all mammals have feelings, so I'm sure that sperm whales feel something. But I cannot imagine what a male sperm whale feels during his decades of lonely life in the deep ocean.

A Real Trial of Using MDMA to Treat PTSD

MDMA, better known as Ecstasy, was actually used by therapists before it ever become a street drug. But once it spread to the dance clubs and began to kill people the authorities clamped down, and it became a Schedule 1 drug with no legal uses.

Some therapists never lost their interest in the drug, though, hoping to use its mind-opening properties to speed the therapeutic process:
Research has shown that the drug causes the brain to release a flood of hormones and neurotransmitters that evoke feelings of trust, love and well-being, while also muting fear and negative emotional memories that can be overpowering in patients with post-traumatic stress disorder. Patients say the drug gave them heightened clarity and ability to address their problems.
In particular there has been interest in using it to treat Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The idea is that reviewing the horrible memories under the influence of the drug's flood of good feeling can loosen their hold on the mind and render them less terrifying. Enough anecdotal accounts of people self-medicating themselves with the street version have emerged to make some psychiatrists long for a real trial.

Now, finally, this is getting under way. The Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies has completed six small, Phase 2 studies of the drug involving 130 patients, and the results have been good; in one of these studies 2/3 of the patients ended up no longer meeting the diagnostic criteria for PTSD. Some of the patients have raved about their results. "If it weren't for MDMA, I'd be dead," one said. So now there will be a larger, more formal, Phase 3 trial, opening the way for eventual approval of MDMA as a prescription drug.

That might be great for many sufferers, but other people look at our experience with expanding the prescription of opiates for pain and see another drug crisis looming. After all, MDMA is both fun and dangerous, and vulnerable people can get addicted. In the recent studies MDMA is given in a doctor's office, under supervision, so the idea is not to give people a bottle of pills they can take home or sell. Even so, legalizing the drug will increase the supply, and perhaps also convince many people that self-medicating with it might be a good idea.

But then just about everything is dangerous if misused, and I say if it helps any of the wounded, we owe them a chance to try this cure.