Monday, October 24, 2016

Amathus Sarcaphogus

From Cyprus, dating to 475-450 BCE, part of the Cesnola Collection in the Met.

Ok, sure, the main panels are nice, and it's cool that some of the polychrome paint survives, showing that the thing must once have been quite gaudy.

But it's the ends that fascinate me. On one end you have four images of Astarte, a Phoenician fertility goddess.

And on the other end you have images of Bes, an Egyptian fertility god. Demonstrating that the owner was obsessed with sex and reproduction in a truly multicultural way.

I Live in the Best State

Take that, Massachusetts. You think you're so liberal, but Hillary's chance of winning your state is only 99.8%.

Deep Thinking on Foreign Trade

Love this chart from Gallup showing that most Americans favor foreign trade when the economy is good and suddenly think it is dangerous during recessions. And you'd never know from coverage of this election that people in favor of trade are the majority.

Vox notes that Republican Senator Rob Portman, former lobbyist, former Trade Representative, strong advocate of international trade deals, is running far ahead of Trump in Ohio.

Business Decisions

There is a fantasy out there, sometimes referenced by economists and Republican politicians, that businesses are run in a more rational way than governments. In my experience, this is poppycock. The author of this analysis of AT&T's bid for Time Warner agrees:
When word leaked on Friday that AT&T, the wireless carrier that also owns Direct TV and the smallish U-Verse wireline fiber optic service, was preparing to purchase Time Warner, shares of the telecom utility immediately plummeted and those of the media conglomerate soared. . . .

It’s worth taking that initial market reaction seriously. The combined company, if it comes together, may well prove to be a well-managed and profitable conglomerate. But in order to purchase Time Warner, AT&T and its shareholders are going to have to pay a premium over the current price of its stock.

But there’s no reason to believe Time Warner’s shares are undervalued. There’s also no reason to believe useful synergies will flow from combining Time Warner’s portfolio of television and movie content with AT&T’s portfolio of cell towers, satellites, and fiber optic cables.

AT&T’s board and management, in other words, appear to be simply wasting AT&T’s shareholders’ money. What’s in it for them isn’t so much the opportunity to build a great new business as to break out of the dreary reality that their current business is boring. As the leaders of larger conglomerate, they’ll be able to pay themselves higher salaries and hang out with movie stars.
While I know nothing particular about AT&T's management, my experience of business tells me that this is spot on.

Bear's Head Rattle from Bronze Age Siberia

Clay rattle containing stones, from the Vengerovo-2 archaeological site near Novosibirsk. About 3,800 to 4,000 years old. One ear is broken off, but if you imagine that ear it does look like a bear's head.

Change You Can Believe In

In Riviera Beach, Florida, the road once known as Old Dixie Highway, where the KKK burned crosses as recently as 1950, has been renamed President Barack Obama Highway. I know, I know, it didn't get anyone a better job or a better school. But it matters.
Older black residents of Riviera Beach recall a time, not so long ago, when you avoided the east side of Old Dixie Highway after dusk because that was the white side of town, and no good would come from lingering.

West of the tracks was for black residents, the men who worked mackerel down at the docks, the women who worked as domestics in swanky Palm Beach homes. The only slice of white on the black side was a subdivision called Monroe Heights, which was bordered, or protected, by a high cinder block wall built in the 1940s. If your ball bounced over that wall into whiteness, you found yourself another ball.

“They put the wall up to keep us from looking at them,” says Dan Calloway, 78, a former deputy sheriff and athlete revered in Riviera Beach for his half-century of mentoring and coaching local children.

The glaucoma affecting Mr. Calloway’s sight has not dimmed the vividness of the Riviera Beach of his youth: the guava and mango trees, the chickens, the horse-riding lawman who would snap his whip at black people; that is, until a man named Shotgun Johnny pulled him from his horse and beat the hate out of him. Mr. Calloway remembers, too, how the “black” beach was moved up to Jupiter when Singer Island suddenly became desirable, and how the Ku Klux Klan occasionally announced itself.

“They burned those crosses,” Mr. Calloway says. “We had to blow the lamps out and hide under the bed.”

Dora Johnson, 88, remembers one cross that set Old Dixie Highway aglow. It was around 1948, and she was married with two babies.

“My God, it was way up in the air,” she says of the symbol of her faith set aflame. “It was very upsetting. I’m a deep Christian, but seeing it, you’d break down and want to do something you shouldn’t do.”

Sunday, October 23, 2016

The Samaritan Ten Commandments

A real piece of history is up for sale at Heritage Auctions in Dallas: a marble tablet inscribed with the Ten Commandments in Samaritan. The Samaritans are people of Palestine whose religion is very similar to Judaism, so close that the two must be offshoots of the same root. Some Samaritans believe that theirs is the faith of the Jews who remained in Judea when the leadership was take to Babylon in the Exile; rabbinical Judaism, they believe, was altered by reactions to that experience, making theirs the older and truer faith. Their language was closely related to Hebrew. Today fewer than a thousand Samaritans survive.

The Samaritan version of the commandments is recorded in only half a dozen texts from before the Muslim conquest, and this stone is one of them. It measures about 2 by 2 feet (60x60 cm) and weights 115 pounds (52 kg). It was carved between 350 and 650 CE. It was excavated in 1913 near Yavneh, Israel.

According to Heritage Auctions, the text on the stone translates as follows (with line numbers):

1. Dedicated in the name of Korach
2. I will call you to remember for goodness forever
3. God spoke
4. all these words
5. saying I am the Lord
6. your God you shall not have
7. for yourself other Gods
8. besides me; you shall not make
9. for yourself a sculptured image or any likeness;
10. for I the Lord
11. your God am an impassioned God;
12. Remember the Sabbath day
13. keep it holy; honor
14. your father and your mother;
15. you shall not murder; you shall not commit adultery;
16. you shall not steal; you shall not bear [false witness] against your neighbor
17. you shall not covet; you shall erect
18. these stones that
19. I am commanding you today
20. on Mount Gerizim rise up to God

Baobab Alley, Madagascar

By Bogdan Comanescu, from National Geographic.

Hillary and the Elite Consensus

Ross Douthat:
The dangers of a Hillary Clinton presidency are more familiar than Trump’s authoritarian unknowns, because we live with them in our politics already. They’re the dangers of elite groupthink, of Beltway power worship, of a cult of presidential action in the service of dubious ideals. They’re the dangers of a recklessness and radicalism that doesn’t recognize itself as either, because it’s convinced that if an idea is mainstream and commonplace among the great and good then it cannot possibly be folly.

Almost every crisis that has come upon the West in the last 15 years has its roots in this establishmentarian type of folly. The Iraq War, which liberals prefer to remember as a conflict conjured by a neoconservative cabal, was actually the work of a bipartisan interventionist consensus, pushed hard by George W. Bush but embraced as well by a large slice of center-left opinion that included Tony Blair and more than half of Senate Democrats.

Likewise the financial crisis: Whether you blame financial-services deregulation or happy-go-lucky housing policy (or both), the policies that helped inflate and pop the bubble were embraced by both wings of the political establishment. Likewise with the euro, the European common currency, a terrible idea that only cranks and Little Englanders dared oppose until the Great Recession exposed it as a potentially economy-sinking folly.
All too true. As I often complain, in American politics there seem to be only two kinds of candidates, the boring establishmentarians and the lunatics. Of the boring establishment it can at least be said that they know how to keep the country running; they may have created the great crash of 2008, but they also staunched the wound and kept the world from sliding into another Depression. The ongoing collapse of Venezuela is a useful teaching example in this regard. Whenever you are tempted to disregard the corrupt and boring old guard in favor of some radical experiment, Venezuela should remind you not to assume that any government can keep the nation functioning on a basic level.

Looking around America, I get the impression that a lot is going wrong, and I sometimes long for a radical change in our whole approach to life and work. But what would the radical change be? Socialism has been tried and found wanting, from China to Sweden. I think the return to a nationalist manufacturing state pushed by Trump and Sanders is plain denial of reality; you may not like Davos globalism, but at least they have a worldview rational enough for us to debate its pros and cons. I can imagine lots of little fixes to our system but I can't even conceive of a radically different way to live.

So the boring establishment it is, even though I am fully aware of its failures.

For Back Pain, Placebos Work Better than Painkillers

In this one study, anyway:
Portuguese researchers recruited 83 people with chronic back pain. They explained to them that a placebo was an inactive substance, like a sugar pill, that contained no medication. Then they randomly assigned the patients to either treatment as usual (in almost all cases, this was pain medication), or treatment plus the placebo. The pills were provided in a prescription medicine bottle marked “Placebo pills. Take 2 pills twice a day.” The study is in the journal Pain.

At the start and end of the three-week trial, patients filled out questionnaires describing pain intensity and degree of disability.

The group that got their regular treatment had an average 9 percent reduction in usual pain and a 16 percent reduction in maximum pain. But the placebo group averaged a 30 percent reduction in both usual and maximum pain. The placebo group also reported a 29 percent reduction in disability, while the usual treatment group reported none.
More evidence for my theory that in many people back pain – or perhaps being disabled by back pain – is a response to overall misery rather than some particular injury.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Il Cimitero di Staglieno

The Staglieno Cemetery was opened in 1851. It is Genoa's version of the great 19th-century cemeteries found in all European cities, like Pere Lachaise in Paris or Highgate in London.

Except that compared to those others, Staglieno has much more sculpture; in fact it seems like a cross between a cemetery and a sculpture garden.Most of the sculptures were made between 1851 and 1930.

Some of Italy's top sculptors worked on these monuments; this is a famous angel by Giulio Monteverde.

Another famous angel, by Pietro da Verona. At least, people say it's an angel.

Neogothic chapel for the Ottone family.

The number of works is staggering; Wikimedia alone has more than 500 images of tombs, chapels and sculptures here.

What a remarkable place.

The End of the Summer Garden

I love my garden in every season, but I have a special fondness for the semi-wreckage at the end of the summer, when just a few vibrant blooms are left.

Minimum Wage Increase Coming

According to The Hill, Republican opposition to raising the Federal minimum wage is "crumbling." Republicans' own polls of their supporters show that most Americans support raising the minimum wage, including small business owners. Republicans seem to be coalescing around the $10/hour proposal made by Trump and many others. Hillary switched from her old $12/hour plan to $15/hour during the primaries, probably thinking that $15/hour would never get through Congress anyway. So I would expect a raise to somewhere in the $10-$12/hour range next year.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Giden Knight, Crow in a Tree

Winner of the youth prize in a nature photography contest in Britain.

How People Choose their Mates

How do people make decisions? This post is going to be about choosing your spouse, but I think the results apply to anything. My basic view of human behavior is that hardly anyone makes such decisions rationally or according to any criteria the decider could explain. In fact my view of life is that things like the "choice" of marriage partners and careers are often pure accidents, and that even when they feel like carefully made decisions they are actually mostly determined by circumstance. As Ecclesiastes puts it, "time and chance happeneth to them all."

Consider: I had been reading about archaeology for much of my life and taken a few courses in college, but at 22 I was certain I would one day be a history professor. I got my first job in archaeology because an acquaintance who heard I was looking for work pointed me to an archaeological project that was desperate enough to hire people with next to no experience. Turns out, he was mainly trying to get me out of town so he could hit on my girlfriend while I was gone. Up until that point I did not even know there was such a thing as non-academic archaeology and certainly had never considered a career in it.

But let's get back to the subject, starting at the level of basic physical appeal: why are some people attracted to one kind of face or body and not another? It is a bit of common wisdom that men like women who look like their mothers, and women like men who remind them of their fathers. But why? Freudians of course think we imprint on our opposite-sex parents (the ones who raise us, biological or no), so family relationships are all important. Geneticists think, no, men like women who look like their mothers because half their genes come from their fathers, who chose their mothers. I would say, though, that the basic proposition is just folklore anyway, and for every case you can find of men who seem to have married their mothers I can find another case of something very different. These notions of personal preference also compete with generalized ideals of beauty, I mean, some men like women who look like their mothers and some like women who look like Scarlet Johansson.

And, anyway, how much does that basic sort of attraction have to do with marriage?

Scott Alexander has a new post exploring the evidence on whether genetics or imprinting has a bigger impact on who we find attractive.  The evidence, as Alexander shows, is mostly bad, and the best studies seem to find no real impact at all:
[We find] near-zero genetic influences on male and female mate choice over all traits and no significant genetic influences on mate choice for any specific trait. A significant family environmental influence was found for the age and income of females’ mate choices, possibly reflecting parental influence over mating decisions. . . . We also tested for evidence of sexual imprinting, where individuals acquire mate-choice criteria during development by using their opposite-sex parent as the template of a desirable mate; there was no such effect for any trait.
So according to this study, people tend to marry people who resemble their own families in terms of income and other basic class characteristics, which is easy to explain sociologically without invoking either genetics or imprinting. As to anything else – large vs. small breasts, beards vs. clean-shaven, tall vs. short, whatever – they find no evidence of any impact at all from either genes or imprinting. Other studies do find some relationship, but the effects are not very big and most of the variation looks like pure chance. The authors of the study I quoted from above conclude,
If we provisionally accept our interpretation of these data, we are left with a curious and disquieting conclusion: Although most human choice behavior lawfully reflects the characteristics of the chooser and of the choice, the most important choice of all, that of a mate, seems to be an exception…we outline a theory that is compatible with these interpretations, namely that human pair bonding is relatively adventitious, based on romantic infatuation which, as Stendhal observed, “is like a fever that comes and goes quite independently of the will.”
So, these scientists say, your guess is as good as mine.

A point made by many people studying this subject is that most of us have more than one romantic interest before settling down, and these lovers often don't look much like each other. Maybe this means we really don't have strong preferences, or maybe it means that we don't order our lovers from a pattern book and that whether they match some imprinted ideal of beauty doesn't matter very much. I have read about men who obsessively pursue a certain ideal of feminine beauty and don't care about other characteristics, but for me that just seems silly. Do you really think that would make you happy? Insofar as psychologists can turn personality into measurable statistics (via the Myers-Briggs or what have you), they find that people are not any more consistent in the personality traits of their lovers than what they look like. (Nor do such measurements predict which relationships will succeed.) As to why people get together, I think circumstances matter enormously; of the billions of potential mates on the planet, how many are you going to meet? And then there is timing. Lots of people simply marry the lovers they have when they reach the stage of life at which they want to get married. Two people have admitted to me that they had previous lovers they much preferred to the ones they eventually married, but "the timing wasn't right."

As with so much about life, we grope our way through the darkness of love, dreaming of paradise but making the best of what and who we find.

Corruption, Realism, and Rebuilding Afghanistan

I've seen several stories like this one over the past two or three years:
American officials received persistent, stark warnings that Afghanistan’s entrenched culture of official corruption would undermine their efforts to rebuild that country after the West’s military invasion 15 years ago, according to recently declassified diplomatic cables and internal government reports.

The diversion of Afghan resources and Western aid for private gain would, the public and private reports all said, drain vitally needed funds from the country’s reconstruction and alienate its citizenry. That would in turn fuel renewed public support for the West’s enemy—the Taliban, whose social brutality notoriously included draconian punishments for official corruption.

But the U.S. officials in charge of rebuilding the country largely failed to heed these alarms, according to their own assessments. “The ultimate point of failure for our efforts,” said Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador from 2011 to 2012, in a newly released interview with a team of official auditors, is Afghanistan’s corruption.
Suppose we all agree that corruption in Hamid Karzai's government and other Afghan power centers ultimately made it impossible to create a stable, more-or-less democratic Afghanistan.

What was any American supposed to do about it? Blaming American decision makers for "ignoring" Afghan corruption seems ridiculous to me. What else could they have done? The US put a huge effort into building Karzai up as Afghanistan's legitimate ruler, partly because there just wasn't anyone else available to fill that role. One reason Karzai had as much success as he did was that he was very much  plugged into the traditional Afghan power structure. And that power structure was and probably always has been corrupt. I have never seen any credible alternate scenario to going all-in with the only Afghan friends we had.

Various American agencies came up with various anti-corruption plans, which were never really implemented. They were never implemented because 1) Karzai refused to cooperate, and 2) implementing them would have meant taking serious action against the very people we needed to fight the Taliban. I am reminded of a point David has made several times in the comments here, that small client countries can be very skilled at manipulating their great power backers. Any time we tried to interfere in the way Karzai and his friends were operating, he went on a nationalist tear, delivering anti-US speeches and making it clear he would rather lose US support than accept American dictates. Maybe he was bluffing, but really our leverage was very limited. Ultimately we cared more about fighting the Taliban than Karzai did; he would be very happy to let them rule the southern half of the country and export as much opium and terrorism as they want in return for control of Kabul and the north.

The notion that we could have simultaneously fought the Taliban, built up an Afghan government friendly to our interests, and completely remade the political culture of Afghanistan is the worst kind of neocolonial hubris. Spare me this sort of armchair moralizing.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Nikon Small World Photomicrography Competition 2016

First place: Dr. Oscar Ruiz, Four-day old zebrafish embryo (10x)

Fifth place: Dr. Igor Siwanowicz, Front foot (tarsus) of a male diving beetle (100x). The exquisitely complex design of insect feet has always amazed me.

Seventh place: Dr. David Maitland, Leaves of Selaginella (lesser club moss) (40x). Many more here.

Potomac Mists

Arlington, Virginia, today.

Hillary Romps Through the Debates

Ezra Klein:
The third and final presidential debate has ended, and it can now be said: Hillary Clinton crushed Donald Trump in the most effective series of debate performances in modern political history.

The polling tells the story. As Nate Silver notes, on the eve of the first presidential debate, Clinton led by 1.5 points. Before the second, she was up by 5.6 points. Before the third, she was winning by 7.1 points. And now, writing after the third debate — a debate in which Trump said he would keep the nation "in suspense" about whether there would be a peaceful transition of power, bragged about not apologizing to his wife, and called Clinton "such a nasty woman" — it’s clear that Trump did himself no favors. Early polls also suggest Clinton won. . . .

The dominant narrative of this election goes something like this. Hillary Clinton is a weak candidate who is winning because she is facing a yet weaker candidate. Her unfavorables are high, her vulnerabilities are obvious, and if she were running against a Marco Rubio or a Paul Ryan, she would be getting crushed. Lucky for her, she’s running against a hot orange mess with higher unfavorables, clearer vulnerabilities, and a tape where he brags about grabbing women "by the pussy."

There’s truth to this narrative, but it also reflects our tendency to underestimate Clinton’s political effectiveness. Trump’s meltdown wasn’t an accident. The Clinton campaign coolly analyzed his weaknesses and then sprung trap after trap to take advantage of them.

Clinton’s successful execution of this strategy has been, fittingly, the product of traits that she’s often criticized for: her caution, her overpreparation, her blandness. And her particular ability to goad Trump and blunt the effectiveness of his political style has been inextricable from her gender. The result has been a political achievement of awesome dimensions, but one that Clinton gets scarce credit for because it looks like something Trump is doing, rather than something she is doing — which is, of course, the point. . . .

Each debate has followed the same pattern. Trump begins calm, but as Clinton needles him, he falls apart, gets angrier, launches bizarre personal attacks, offers rambling justifications for his own behavior, and loses the thread of whatever question was actually asked of him.

Clinton, meanwhile, crisply summarizes the binders full of policy information she absorbed before the debate. The gap in preparation, knowledge, and basic competence has been evident in every contest, and it’s led to polls showing that even voters who loathe Clinton recognize she’s far more qualified and capable than Trump. Nor does Clinton make mistakes — she’s often criticized for being careful and bland in her answers, but here it’s helped her, as she’s never taken the headlines away from Trump’s own gaffes.
Hillary knows a lot and works hard. I think we are about to find out how far those will take a president.

A Possible Neolithic Map from Vasagård, Denmark

Vasagård is an archaeological site on the island of Bornholm in Denmark, which I wrote about last year. Between about 3500 and 2700 BCE is was a religious site that archaeologists think was dedicated to the sun. The site is in the news again because of the stone shown above, recently found by excavators in an old ditch. An archaeologist named Flemming Kaul thinks it is a map of the island, and that the different types of scratches indicate fields of grain or other types of vegetation. The stone is only about 5 cm long,

This is going to be controversial because a lot of scratched stones have been found at Vasagård, and the rest have been interpreted as images of the sun. It is true that the alleged map stone looks rather different from the sun stones, but to make solar images and island maps in such similar ways is a bit puzzling. Then again the site was occupied for centuries, and five hundred years is long enough for a lot of things to change.

The new map stone is not the first stone from Vasagård that has been interpreted as a map; this one seems to be in the National Museum of Denmark.

If true, this would be really fascinating. Making maps as pictures of the earth from overhead is not natural, and it had to be discovered; the oldest maps I know of are from Sumer and Egypt, and they are younger than these stones.

In Which I Praise Marco Rubio for a Principled Stand

I have over the years featured here statements I agree with from Donald Trump, Mitt Romney, George W. Bush, and even Sarah Palin. I now take time to commend some remarks about the Clinton campaign emails delivered by one of Florida's most handsome suits, Marco Rubio:
As our intelligence agencies have said, these leaks are an effort by a foreign government to interfere with our electoral process and I will not indulge it. Further, I want to warn my fellow Republicans who may want to capitalize politically on these leaks: Today it is the Democrats. Tomorrow it could be us. . . . I will not discuss any issue that has become public solely on the basis of Wikileaks.
Note that Rubio is not talking about journalists, who will of course use their own judgement in cases like this. He is talking about elected officials, and people campaigning to be the same. It seems to me that for candidates to use material leaked by a foreign government with the obvious intent of influencing the election is pretty dubious. And Rubio is right that since the shoe will soon be on the other foot, it behooves Republicans to tread carefully here.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Changing the World with Computers

Two of my sons were discussing the new version of a game. One said, "The only real difference is that it adds jiggle physics."

I raised my head. "Jiggle physics? Is that a real thing, that game designers talk about?" As I spoke, I already knew the answer. Of course it is.

Yes, my sons confirmed. "It's really complicated and hard to do right," one said.

And indeed a quick search showed that it is a huge topic, with hundreds of thousands of hits. Here is an introduction.

So we have these amazing machines that can do millions of calculations per second, and this incredible technology of 3D rendering that can tell any story in stunning detail, and the height of the art is making breasts bounce convincingly.

One Thing that's Becoming Less Partisan

Many of us worry that political partisanship is increasingly dividing and paralyzing America. But one thing that is not being either divided or paralyzed is Wikipedia:
The findings show enormous heterogeneity in contributors and their contributions, and, importantly, an overall trend towards less segregated conversations. A higher percentage of contributors have a tendency to edit articles with the opposite slant than articles with similar slant. We also observe the slant of contributions becoming more neutral over time, not more extreme, and, remarkably, the largest such declines are found with contributors who interact with articles that have greater biases.
So Wikipedia, at least according to these economists, is becoming more diverse but simultaneously becoming less partisan. I think that's the best news I've read all month.

Cai Guo-Qiang 2: Painting and Sculpture

Cai Guo-Qiang was born in China, moved to Japan in 1986 to pursue his art education, and now lives mostly in the US. He is most famous for his fireworks displays which I wrote about a few days ago. Today I take up his painting and sculpture, which is also fascinating. His most famous paintings, like the one above, are made using actual gunpowder explosions. He carefully sets up the power and charge in such a way that the blast projects powder onto the canvas, and, boom. These are big canvases, mostly taller than the people who come to look at them, and Cai likes to fill whole galleries with hundreds of feet of them.

More explosions.

Other abstract paintings.

And two depictions of scenes.

Here is a fascinating work, an old fishing boat that Cai installed in a gallery room that he rigged to be always full of fog.

And a work that has gotten a lot of attention lately, titled The Art of War. Like it not, you have to admit that that is definitely something.