Sunday, September 25, 2016

Catapulting Snakes

In the naval battle between Prusias of Bithynia and Eumenes II of Pergamum in 184 BC, Hannibal, commander of the Bithynian fleet, used his catapults to fire pots filled with poisonous snakes onto the decks of the Pergamene ships. The initial amusement of Eumenes' men turned to horror when the contents of the pots were revealed, and the panic caused on the ships made them flee rather than fight, although their numbers were superior, and thus the stratagem helped to achieve a victory for Prusias' fleet.

The Cambridge History of Greek and Roman Warfare (2007)

Laura Knight

Laura Knight (1877-1970) had a bunch of firsts as a female artist Britain: the first female member of the Royal Academy, the first woman to have a major retrospective show at the Academy, etc. (Portrait of Ethel Bartlett)

This is probably her most famous work, Self Portrait with Nude Model, 1913, now in the Royal Portrait Gallery.

Knight had a pretty rough time growing up. Her father died when she was young. Her mother became a schoolteacher to pay the bills, but when Laura was 15 her mother fell ill, so she took over her mother's teaching job to support her sick mother and her two younger sisters. Amidst all this she struggled to get any real training in art. This probably explains why I have not been able to find any images of paintings she did before she was 30. She actually got her entrance into the art world by marrying another painter, Harold Knight, in 1903. (Portrait of Lubov Tchernicheva, 1921)

In the 1920s Bartlett painted dozens of images of circus performers and dancers. (Three Clowns)

An aquatint: Lady with Shawl, 1926.

During World War II she had another burst of creativity on war-related subjects, especially women in the war effort. (Corporal J.D.M. Person, WAAF, 1940, and Land Army Girl, 1939)

The Nuremberg Trial, 1946.

The artist in about 1910.

African Immigrants and African Americans

Some African immigrants and their children are doing very well in America. Measured by the usual metrics – high school graduation rates, test scores, income – immigrants from some African countries are not only doing significantly better than African Americans, they are doing better than native born whites. This has led to some complaints from African Americans that when an elite school wants to feature a minority student who has "beaten the odds," that star student is more likely to be a immigrant from Ghana or Nigeria than an American black. (One study found that although only 13% of black American 18-year-olds are immigrants or the children of immigrants, they make up 41% of the black students in Ivy League schools.) It also raises all sorts of questions about what racism is and how it works.

It is important to note that not all African immigrants are thriving. The immigrant blacks who get into Ivy League schools come overwhelmingly from Nigeria, Ghana, and the Caribbean; immigrants from Sudan, Somalia, Liberia, and Rwanda are doing notably badly. This seems easy to explain. Immigrants from Sudan, Somalia, Liberia, and Rwanda are mostly refugees who have been through terrible experiences, many from broken homes – like the "lost boys" of Sudan – whereas most immigrants from Ghana, Nigeria and Jamaica are from intact middle class families who choose to migrate in search of opportunity. Because of this difference you can't just look at numbers for "African immigrants" that lump all of these people together. The same patterns hold in Britain, where west Africans and many from the Caribbean are doing well, but refugees from war-torn nations are not.

I have been thinking about this issue because of what it says about race and racism in our world. These facts refute basic nineteenth-century tri-racialism, since it seems clear that west African immigrants are on average at least as smart and hard-working as whites. It is also hard on any sort of racial genetic model, since most African Americans are genetically a mix of west Africans and whites, with their white ancestors drawn disproportionately from the upper class. So what does explain the difference between African Americans and African immigrants?

Some African American activists have asserted that African immigrants simply don't face the racism that African Americans do. I am not aware of any good evidence for or against this proposition, but I still find it interesting. It suggests that modern American racism, at least in its harmful forms, is something quite specific: a response not to dark skin but to the particular mannerisms of African Americans. Immigrants and their children have different speech patterns and the like, so racist teachers do not respond to them in the same way. As I said, I am not aware of any good evidence on the question, but it bears thinking about.

Another way to think about the problem is by considering income rather than race. Most (but not all) of the differences in school performance and the like between African Americans and whites can be accounted for by income, that is, students from poor families always do worse in school than children from middle class families, and more African Americans are poor. Immigrants from Nigeria and Ghana have higher incomes than African Americans, so their children do better in school. But of course this is one of those explanations that just demands more explanations; why do west African immigrants have higher incomes?

I think using a broader notion of class, rather than simply income, explains even more. Many west African immigrants come from elite families; I have seen half a dozen stories over the years of people who are kings and queens in their Nigerian tribes but teachers or nurses in America. The Nigerian elite adopted the British attitude toward education, and they send their children to private schools and colleges on the British model. Nigerian immigrants to America maintain this tradition; in the 2010 census, 60.7% of Nigerian immigrants in the US held college degrees – that's more than twice the rate for whites – and 28% held graduate degrees.

Culture matters. People pass on to their children attitudes and expectations that have real weight. When it comes to education, Nigerian immigrants are more like Jews or Chinese than they are like African Americans, and this has a huge impact on how well people do economically and socially in the US.

The other thing I would say is that time matters. Cultures are after all hard things to change. I have seen a couple of studies lately showing that Europeans whose surnames were noble in the fifteenth century are still richer and better educated than people with peasant surnames. African Americans endured 150 years of slavery and then a century of Jim Crow, and that left a legacy that can't easily be erased. Even if Nigerian immigrants face some of the same short-term problems as African Americans, the way they respond to them is conditioned by entirely different backgrounds.

It seems inevitable to me that over time the distinctiveness of west African immigrants will fade. (I only know one African immigrant well myself, a Nigerian I play basketball with, and he has an African American wife.) I wonder, will their presence help blur the hard lines between the races in America? Will their attitudes toward education and success spread? Or will their children and grand-children move toward the African American norm, as the descendants of white immigrants have moved toward the white norm?

Real World Teaching

Scott Alexander:
When I was a student, I hated all my teachers and thought that if they just ditched the constant repetition, the cutesy but vapid games, the police state attitude, then everyone would learn a lot more and school would finally live up to its potential as “not totally incompatible with learning, sometimes”.

And then I started teaching English, tried presenting the actually interesting things about the English language at a reasonable pace as if I were talking to real human beings. And it was a disaster. I would give this really brilliant and lucid presentation of a fascinating concept, and then ask a basic question about it, and even though I had just explained it, no one in the class would even have been listening to it. They’d be too busy chattering to one another in the corner. So finally out of desperation I was like “Who wants to do some kind of idiotic activity in which we all pick English words and color them in and then do a stupid dance about them??!” (I may not have used those exact words) and sure enough everyone wanted to and at the end some of them sort of vaguely remembered the vocabulary.

By the end of the school year I had realized that nothing was getting learned without threatening a test on it later, nothing was getting learned regardless unless it was rote memorization of a few especially boring points, and that I could usually force students to sit still long enough to learn it if and only if I bribed them with vapid games at regular intervals.

Yet pretty much every day I see people saying “Schools are evil fascist institutions that deliberately avoid teaching students for sinister reasons. If you just inspire a love of learning in them, they’ll be thrilled to finally have new vistas to explore and they’ll go above and beyond what you possibly expected.”

To which the only answer is no they frickin’ won’t. Yes, there will be two or three who do. Probably you were one of them, or your kid is one of them, and you think everything should be centered around those people. Fine. That’s what home schooling is for. But there will also be oh so many who ask “Will the grandeur and beauty of the fathomless universe be on the test?” And when you say that the true test is whether they feel connected to the tradition of inquiry into the mysteries of Nature, they’ll roll their eyes and secretly play Pokemon on their Nintendo DS thinking you can’t see it if it’s held kind of under their desk.

I don’t think I used to be an optimist. I think I used to be a narcissist. I figured that when I was a teacher, everything would work out, my kids would be kind and attentive, my lessons would stick, and there would be no behavioral problems or if there are they would quiet down after I give them a friendly talk about why attention is important. I felt like the Universe owed it to me to have everything work out. I didn’t realize on a gut level that kids could just not cooperate.
I should note that Scott Alexander was not a teacher for very long and may not have been very good at it; skilled, experienced teachers do much better than this. But I have heard similar tales from others about their shocked encounter with the reality of student indifference, so I thought I would pass this along.

Who Wore Winged Helmets?

The Greeks, that's who.  Chalcidian-type helmet, 4th century BCE, recently sold by Christie's for $51,250.

It's a Big, Scary Universe

The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.

–H.P. Lovecraft

Saturday, September 24, 2016


We come into the world wide-eyed, ready to stare.

–Simon Schama

Painting the Library of Congress Dome

Edwin Blashfield painting the lantern of the dome of the Great Reading Room of the Library of Congress in 1898, Washington D.C.

In Case You were Confused about the Out of Africa News

Many news outlets are running headlines this week like this one in the Times:
A Single Migration From Africa Populated the World, Studies Find
But others are running headlines like this:
Mysterious Branch of Humanity Possibly Discovered
That story goes on to explain that a "new, ancient" branch of humanity was in Australia before fully modern humans.

Both stores are based on the same group of three articles just published in Nature. Those articles describe studies that analyze large samples of human genomes from indigenous people around the world, 787 in all. They use mutation counts to estimate the date of the common ancestry for all those people. For the most part they come up with dates between 50,000 and 75,000 years ago. Also, they find that all the people outside of Africa are more closely related to each other than they are to most people in Africa, hence, they descend from a single African group.

But wait – what about the skeletons found in Israel, apparently fully modern humans, that have been dated to between 90,000 and 120,000 years ago? What about the tools kits from Saudi Arabia that look like those of fully modern humans and date to 100,000 years ago? Modern human teeth from China dated to 80,000 years ago?

Two of these studies found no evidence for any such people; if they existed, these scientists suggest, they simply went extinct without leaving any descendants. But didn't modern humans interbreed with Neanderthals and Denisovans? Um, yes, they did. And why would they breed with semi-humans they encountered in their travels but not other modern humans?

Which brings us to the third study, based on genomes from Australia and New Guinea:
But on that question, Dr. Metspalu and his colleagues ended up with a somewhat different result. In Papua New Guinea, Dr. Metspalu and his colleagues found, 98 percent of each person’s DNA can be traced to that single migration from Africa. But the other 2 percent seemed to be much older. Dr. Metspalu concluded that all people in Papua New Guinea carry a trace of DNA from an earlier wave of Africans who left the continent as long as 140,000 years ago, and then vanished.
I have some personal history on these questions. When the first genetic arguments for the "one wave out of Africa" were made 15 years ago, I accepted them wholeheartedly. Back then the upper bound for this migration was set at 55,000 to 60,000 years ago, and I began to write and talk about how this date would effect studies of things like language and folklore, given that we now had an actual date for when all the non-African culture of the world diverged. And then came the steady drip of counter-evidence: the Israeli skeletons, the Middle Eastern tool kits, interbreeding with Neanderthals, different genetic calculations that made the date more like 120,000, and so on. That moment of certainty and clarity was, for me, gone. I've never been able to get it back, and these studies don't get me there. It seems quite clear now that all sorts of people and semi-people were wandering around Eurasia 80,000 years ago, leaving traces in Israeli caves and DNA from New Zealand. Plus, my confidence in these genetic dates has been drastically undermined by the work done on the population of the Americas, because it turns out that some geneticists have been calibrating their clocks by asking archaeologists what the date should be and then tweaking their models to get the right date.

So while all of this is very interesting, there is a lot of work yet to be done.

Drone Photos Reveal New Archaeological Sites in Italy

Amazingly clear building foundations in this photograph of fields near Le Pianelle in Italy's Apennine Mountains. This effect is created when just the right amount of rain falls to emphasize the difference between the wheat growing over stone walls and the rest.

Overall plan of the area, with all the newly-discovered foundations picked out in red. The buildings are probably all from Roman times

Friday, September 23, 2016

An Era of Weaponized Sensitivity

Lionel Shriver is not backing down from the controversial speech about Cultural Appropriation she made a few weeks ago at the Brisbane Writers' Festival:
Briefly, my address maintained that fiction writers should be allowed to write fiction — thus should not let concerns about “cultural appropriation” constrain our creation of characters from different backgrounds than our own. I defended fiction as a vital vehicle for empathy. If we have permission to write only about our own personal experience, there is no fiction, but only memoir. Honestly, my thesis seemed so self-evident that I’d worried the speech would be bland.

Nope — not in the topsy-turvy universe of identity politics. The festival immediately disavowed the address, though the organizers had approved the thrust of the talk in advance. A “Right of Reply” session was hastily organized. When, days later, The Guardian ran the speech, social media went ballistic. Mainstream articles followed suit. I plan on printing out The New Republic’s “Lionel Shriver Shouldn’t Write About Minorities” and taping it above my desk as a chiding reminder.

Viewing the world and the self through the prism of advantaged and disadvantaged groups, the identity-politics movement — in which behavior like huffing out of speeches and stirring up online mobs is par for the course — is an assertion of generational power. Among milliennials and those coming of age behind them, the race is on to see who can be more righteous and aggrieved — who can replace the boring old civil rights generation with a spikier brand. . . .

As a lifelong Democratic voter, I’m dismayed by the radical left’s ever-growing list of dos and don’ts — by its impulse to control, to instill self-censorship as well as to promote real censorship, and to deploy sensitivity as an excuse to be brutally insensitive to any perceived enemy. . . .

Ironically, only fellow liberals will be cowed by terror of being branded a racist (a pejorative lobbed at me in recent days — one that, however groundless, tends to stick). But there’s still such a thing as a real bigot, and a real misogynist. In obsessing over micro-aggressions like the sin of uttering the commonplace Americanism “you guys” to mean “you all,” activists persecute fellow travelers who already care about equal rights.

Moreover, people who would hamper free speech always assume that they’re designing a world in which only their enemies will have to shut up. But free speech is fragile. Left-wing activists are just as dependent on permission to speak their minds as their detractors.

In an era of weaponized sensitivity, participation in public discourse is growing so perilous, so fraught with the danger of being caught out for using the wrong word or failing to uphold the latest orthodoxy in relation to disability, sexual orientation, economic class, race or ethnicity, that many are apt to bow out. Perhaps intimidating their elders into silence is the intention of the identity-politics cabal — and maybe my generation should retreat to our living rooms and let the young people tear one another apart over who seemed to imply that Asians are good at math.

Andrea Frazzetta in Ethiopia

Part of a fine feature at the Times on the work of six travel photographers.

Charles Murray Worries about the Future of Conservatism

In an interview with Spiked, conservative crank Charles Murray worries about what support for Trump means:
Collins: You are a self-described libertarian, and your latest book is robust defence of freedom. Do you believe that Enlightenment values such as liberty are enough to stand up to the strong, often tribal, cultural forces at work today? Can they serve as a counter to those divisive forces?

Murray: A year ago, I would have given you a much more optimistic answer than I’d give you today. The thing about the Trump campaign that has been most disheartening has been the realisation that the electorate on the right, voting for Republicans, has many more people in it than I ever realised who don’t give a damn about freedom. They are motivated by the kinds of tribal instincts that you describe, and they are also populist in an authoritarian sense, in that they don’t want to limit government, they just want to use the powers of government for their own ends. In the short-term, then, I’m very pessimistic. I am very undecided about what will happen, but I suspect the Republican Party is going to go into serious decline. And, insofar as it does not go into decline, it is not going to represent policies that foster limited government and freedom. It will be a party that fosters a different kind of authoritarianism than the left does. The only difference will be in the type, not the authoritarian nature of the policies.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Caring for the Disabled in Hohokam Arizona

Back in 2006, archaeologists excavated a large cemetery in downtown Tempe, Arizona. These people lived in the village that was Tempe's predecessor, occupied between 700 and 1500 CE. The excavators recently published details about one of the graves, numbered 167, and it's a fascinating story. Archaeologist Eric Cox:
I was actually digging that one, and it was toward the end of the day when we started to uncover it. I got her skull uncovered, and I got to her left side, and … what stuck out to me was that her entire left side was gracile — it hadn’t developed as much as the right side had. It was like her left side was for a five-foot person, while her right side was for a five-foot-six person. Her skull was like every other skull that we had recovered, but her postcranial skeleton was all stained brown.
Closer inspection revealed that her spine was pockmarked with the pits left by severe bacterial infection.
Together, these signs suggest that the woman in Burial 167 suffered from a series of crippling conditions, each of which likely exacerbated the others.

The lack of symmetry in the woman’s skeleton, Cox explained, was the result of an acute case of scoliosis, or curvature of the spine. Indeed, the condition was so severe that at the base of her skull, her spine curved at an angle of nearly 55 degrees.

The discoloration of her skeleton, meanwhile, and the curvature found in her arms and legs were telltale signs of rickets, a bone disease caused by a deficiency of Vitamin D, most commonly associated with a lack of exposure to sunlight.

Finally, the lesions found along her spine and limbs are the hallmarks of severe tuberculosis, an infection of the lungs that, in the most severe cases, spreads to bone tissue.
This was a seriously sick woman, who had probably not been able to walk for years when she died. That probably explains her rickets: unable to walk, she spent almost all of her time indoors.

Another strange thing was her teeth:
A staple of the typical Hohokam diet, of course, was maize, a gritty starch that was ground on stone metates. Grit from the stone grinders was often ingested with the corn, which caused heavy wear on teeth, a trait found on human remains throughout the pre-contact Southwest.

But the teeth from Burial 167 showed no wear at all.

“Her molars and her other teeth were perfect, basically,” Cox said.

“She had none of this wear, so she had a specialized diet. She wasn’t eating the same stuff that everyone else was eating.”
And yet in terms of grave good this was one of the richest burials in the cemetery, with several pieces or very fine ceramics.

To me the obvious interpretation was that 167 was a very special person, kept alive by her community because of her spiritual significance. Deformed shamans were common around the world, and the crisis that made a shaman was often associated with severe illness. There are many shamans in American Indian lore who ate strange diets -- come to think of it there are also those Hebrew prophets who lived on locusts and honey. It all fits together amazingly well.

Most of the time archaeology is a lot of very dry facts, and it takes a great effort of imagination to see anything beyond flakes and sherds. But sometimes stories spring from the ground.

Nixon was as bad as you think

Or maybe worse. Here he comments on the prison riot at Attica in 1971, which was ended in an orgy of indiscriminate shooting, targeted assassinations, torture, and (eventually) lawsuits:
I think this is going to have a hell of a salutary effect on future prison riots, just like Kent State had a hell of a salutary effect.

Misericords from St. Katherine's Chapel, London

These carvings were done around 1360 to 1380 for the Royal Foundation of St. Katherine, a church and hospital near the Tower of London. That church was demolished in the nineteenth century and the carvings have moved twice since then; now they are back in the east end at St Katharine’s Chapel in Limehouse.

Edward III and Queen Philippa

Various monsters

Pelican and chicks

Green man. More at Spitalfields Life.

Alphonse Mucha

Death of Hasanaga's Bride, 1899. From a series of illustrations to Slavic folktales.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Modeling the Crisis in Big Science

Ed Yong:
This is not a new idea. In the 1970s, social scientist Donald Campbell wrote that any metric of quality can become corrupted if people start prioritizing the metric itself over the traits it supposedly reflects. “We realized that his argument works even if individuals aren’t trying to maximize their metrics,” says Smaldino.

He and McElreath demonstrated this by creating a mathematical model in which simulated labs compete with each other and evolve—think SimAcademia. The labs choose things to study, run experiments to test their hypotheses, and try to publish their results. They vary in how much effort they expend in testing their ideas, which affects how many results they get, and how reliable those results are. There’s a trade-off: more effort means truer but fewer publications.

In the model, as in real academia, positive results are easier to publish than negative one, and labs that publish more get more prestige, funding, and students. They also pass their practices on. With every generation, one of the oldest labs dies off, while one of the most productive one reproduces, creating an offspring that mimics the research style of the parent. That’s the equivalent of a student from a successful team starting a lab of their own.

Over time, and across many simulations, the virtual labs inexorably slid towards less effort, poorer methods, and almost entirely unreliable results. And here’s the important thing: Unlike the hypothetical researcher I conjured up earlier, none of these simulated scientists are actively trying to cheat. They used no strategy, and they behaved with integrity. And yet, the community naturally slid towards poorer methods. What the model shows is that a world that rewards scientists for publications above all else—a world not unlike this one—naturally selects for weak science.
So long as scientists are judged almost solely by their publications, this will be very hard to change.

Fragments of Roman Frescoes, in the Met

The Metropolitan Museum has a remarkable collection of ancient Roman wall painting fragments. So far as I can tell the information on where these came from is minimal, so they must be dated mainly by style. Above, bird and vines, 2nd-3rd century CE.

 Vine, 1st century CE

 Unknown plant, 1st century CE

Gorgon, Julio-Claudian period, 14-68 CE

Fragment of border, 1st century CE

Gates Trashes Trump

Robert Gates, former CIA Director and Secretary of Defense under both Bush and Obama, is not thrilled about Hillary Clinton, but is downright apocalyptic about Donald Trump:
When it comes to credibility problems, though, Donald Trump is in a league of his own. He has expressed support for building a wall between the U.S. and Mexico; for torturing suspected terrorists and killing their families; for Mr. Putin’s dictatorial leadership and for Saddam Hussein’s nonexistent successes against terrorism. He also has said he is for using defense spending by NATO allies as the litmus test on whether the U.S. will keep its treaty commitments to them; for withdrawing U.S. troops from Europe, South Korea and Japan and for the latter two developing nuclear weapons—a highly destabilizing prospect.

Mr. Trump has been cavalier about the use of nuclear weapons. He has a record of insults to servicemen, their families and the military, which he called a “disaster.” He has declared our senior military leaders “reduced to rubble” and “embarrassing our country” and has suggested that, if elected, he will purge them—an unprecedented and unconscionable threat. As of late, he appears to be rethinking some of these positions but he has yet to learn that when a president shoots off his mouth, there are no do-overs.

Mr. Trump is also willfully ignorant about the rest of the world, about our military and its capabilities, and about government itself. He disdains expertise and experience while touting his own—such as his claim that he knows more about ISIS than America’s generals. He has no clue about the difference between negotiating a business deal and negotiating with sovereign nations. . . .

The world we confront is too perilous and too complex to have as president a man who believes he, and he alone, has all the answers and has no need to listen to anyone. In domestic affairs, there are many checks on what a president can do; in national security there are few constraints. A thin-skinned, temperamental, shoot-from-the-hip and lip, uninformed commander-in-chief is too great a risk for America. . . .

At least on national security, I believe Mr. Trump is beyond repair. He is stubbornly uninformed about the world and how to lead our country and government, and temperamentally unsuited to lead our men and women in uniform. He is unqualified and unfit to be commander-in-chief.
I would describe Gates' record of judgment as mixed. He was peripherally mixed up in the Iran-Contra affair and supported the 2003 invasion of Iraq, but on the other hand he was an early advocate of open engagement with Iran on nuclear weapons and while he was Defense Secretary he generally worked against additional military adventures.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

A Blue Collar Career

David Brooks reviews the career of a man he met in Kentucky:
He grew up about 65 years ago on a tobacco and cattle farm, but he always liked engines, so even while in high school he worked 40 hours a week in a garage. Then he went to work in a series of factories — making airplane parts, car seats, sheet metal and casings for those big air-conditioning fans you see on the top of buildings.

Every few years as the economy would shift, or jobs would go to Mexico, he’d get hit with a layoff. But the periods of unemployment were never longer than six months and he pieced together a career. . . .

His best job came in the middle of his career, when he was a supervisor at the sheet metal plant. But when the technology changed, he was no longer qualified to supervise the new workers, so they let him go. . . .

He also had a narrative about his own life. It’s not the agency narrative you often find in the professional segments of society: I found my passion and steered my own ship. It’s more of a reactive, coping narrative: A lot of the big forces were outside my control, but I adjusted, made the best of what was possible within my constraints and lived up to my responsibilities.

There’s honor to that, too. Still, over the past many months speaking with people in these situations, I can’t help feeling that society is failing them in some major way, and not just economically.

There is often a sad, noncumulative pattern to working-class lives. In some professions as you get older, you rise to more responsible positions. And that was true under the old seniority-based work rules in factories.

But now there is a stochastic, episodic nature to many careers. As workers get older, potential employers become more suspicious of their skills, not more confident in them. As a result, you often meet people who had been happiest at work in middle age, and then moved down to a series of positions they were overqualified for and felt diminished in.
This downward movement in later life is not just a blue collar thing. I have met half a dozen archaeologists in their 50s or 60s who show up working on our field crew beside 23-year-olds, with stories about how they once sat in offices and wrote reports.

The faster the world changes, the less experience matters, and the less we need the old to lead the young.

Mosaic Glass Bowl, Roman, 1st Century BCE

In the Getty.

The King of Self-Promotion

Damon Baehrel is a chef who runs a tiny restaurant out of his house in upstate New York. These days he charges around $400 per person for his tasting menu, and people rave about the food; he has appeared on lists of the best chef in the world.

How did he get in the enviable position of being to earn his living by cooking lavish meals for half a dozen guests a night? By announcing that his restaurant was booked for five years in advance and he was no longer taking reservations.

Really; Nick Paumgarter documented the whole strange story in the August 22 New Yorker. When Baehrel made his announcement, hundred of big time foodies immediately began to scramble for places at the table; how, they asked, could we not have known about this? Eventually Baehrel called them back and said, "Oh, there's been a cancellation so I have an opening next week." They rushed to taste his food. There is no evidence that Baehrel has ever even now really sold out his restaurant for a week, let alone five years.

There is more. Baehrel claims to do a vast number of things himself, relying heavily on the produce of his 12-acre property. He says that he gathers wild food, everything from sycamore sap to acorn flour to cattail roots. Anyone who knows the first thing about gathering wild food knows that this is hooey; one person simply cannot feed even a tiny restaurant full of diners with ingredients gathered in the wild.

On the other hand, everyone agrees the food is amazing. So if the status-crazed foodies who trek to Baehrel's basement feel like they are getting their money's worth, what is he doing wrong?

Drug Use and the Greek Economic Crisis

How we moderns cope with stressful times:
The economic crisis plaguing Greece was expected to impact consumption of pharmaceuticals and illicit drugs – a priori to an unknown extent. We quantified the change of use for various classes of licit and illicit drugs by monitoring Athens’ wastewater from 2010 to 2014. A high increase in the use of psychoactive drugs was detected between 2010 and 2014, especially for antipsychotics (35-fold), benzodiazepines (19-fold), and antidepressants (11-fold). This directly reflects the perceived increase of incidences associated with mental illnesses in the population, as a consequence of severe socioeconomic changes. Other therapeutic classes, like antiepileptics, hypertensives, and gastric and ulcer drugs also showed an increase in use (from 2-fold increase for antiepileptics to 13-fold for hypertensives). In contrast, the overall use of antibiotics and NSAIDs decreased. For mefenamic acid, an almost 28-fold decrease was observed. This finding is likely related to the reduction in drug expenditure applied in public health. A 2-fold increase of methamphetamine use was detected, associated with a cheap street drug called ″sisa″ (related to marginal conducts), which is a health concern. MDMA (5-fold) and methadone (7-fold) use showed also an increase, while cocaine and cannabis estimates did not show a clear trend.
I am not clear on the exact relationship between drug use and drugs in the wastewater, but I imagine it would be fairly close. Mefenamic acid, incidentally, is a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory – I had to look that up.

Monday, September 19, 2016


So my 11-year-old daughter just asked me, "What can you tell me about World War II?"

Okinawan Fishhook, 22,000 years old

Yes, humans have been crossing the ocean to islands like Okinawa for 50,000 years, and fishing for large ocean fish for at least 40,000.

Protein Archaeology

I have written here before about Grotte du Renne, a famous cave in France that produced evidence of occupation between 45,000 and 21,000 years ago. The later layers represent fully modern humans. The excavators believed that the earliest material was Neanderthal. That early material included artifacts of what is called the Châtelperronian culture, such as ornaments made of teeth and bones (above).

All of this was questioned in 2010 by skeptics who said that 1) the dates from the cave, like all old radiocarbon dates greater than 20,000 years, were crap; and 2) that the layers in the cave appeared to be mixed, so that objects that should have been 5,000 years apart were found side by side.

Now there is new data, from the very new field of protein archaeology. Biochemists, led by Matthew Collins of the University of York, analyzed some small fragments of bone from the cave that might have been human. (But then again might not have.) First they searched for DNA but found hardly any. So then they searched for proteins:
When the protein analysis came back, it left little room for doubt: The bone was human. But was it an archaic human, like a Neandertal, or a modern human? Which species was really associated with the artifacts? Had the earlier discovery of Neandertal fossils in the Châtelperronian layer been an illusion based on sloppy digging and compromised evidence?

To answer that question, Collins and his team compared the chemical composition of the collagen in the fragments with the collagen produced by modern and archaic humans. Modern human collagen contains high amounts of an amino acid called aspartic acid, but the ancient collagen was once rich in a different amino acid, asparagine—and previously sequenced Neandertal DNA includes a collagen-producing gene that likely resulted in an asparagine-rich version. To double-check their finding, they sequenced the fragments’ mitochondrial DNA as well, finding that the bones came from individuals with Neandertal ancestry on their mothers’ side. “[The bone fragments] weren’t useful 10 years ago, but now we realize they’re a great molecular record,” Collins says.

In addition to being archaic, the collagen was a form found only in bone that is still growing. The bone fragment also contained a high proportion of certain nitrogen isotopes, which is associated with children who are breast-feeding. Those two lines of evidences led the researchers to conclude that at least some of the bone fragments likely came from the skull of a Neandertal infant. Direct radiocarbon dating of the sample shows that it’s about 42,000 years old—just when the Châtelperronian beads and tools were made. The team published its results online today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
File this under "fascinating if it turns out to be true." Remember, there are lots of questions about the stratigraphy of the cave, and whether the various artifacts found near each other are really related. Plus, even if they are of the same age, who is to say that the Neanderthal infant was the beloved child of the makers of these ornaments and not  their dinner? And, I am personally dubious about protein science, because I have seen it produce ridiculous results. The soil is full of proteins of a billion sorts, which seem to move around in alarming ways; you can take a newly made stone tool, bury in in the ground, dig it up five years later, and send it to a lab where it tests positive for llama blood. Nobody knows why.

But biochemistry is advancing with astounding rapidity, so maybe analyses that didn't work a decade ago work a lot better now; and if they don't work yet they probably will soon. Using these tools, we may be able to learn wonderful things about the past.

A Goddess Figurine from Catalhoyuk

The latest discovery from the amazing archaeological site of Çatalhöyük in Turkey is this small stone statue, about 8,000 years old. It is 7 inches (17 cm) tall.

A whole bunch of goddess and other figurines have come from Çatalhöyük over the years. Most have been made of clay and rather rough. They have also been found in trash dumps rather than any sort of ritual setting, which has led some people to question whether they had any religious meaning at all. But this one is stone, much better made than the others, and it was found buried in a clay platform in a house, the sort of place where Catalhoyuk folk liked to hide sacred objects.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

The Balmis Expedition

Something I just learned about tonight:
The Balmis Expedition (1803–1806) was a three-year mission to the Americas led by Dr. Francisco Javier de Balmis with the aim of vaccinating millions against smallpox. Vaccination, a much safer way to prevent smallpox than older methods such as inoculation, had been introduced by the English physician Edward Jenner in 1798.
Balmis was supported by King Charles IV of Spain, who had lost one of his own children to the disease.
The María Pita left the Spanish harbor of La Coruña on November 30, 1803, with the smallpox vaccination expedition team consisting of a director, Dr. Francisco Xavier Balmis; an assistant director, Dr. Jóse Salvany Lleopart; and several assistants and paramedics. The ship reached Puerto Rico in February 1804 with its cargo of vaccine serum preserved between sealed glass plates; also onboard were 21 children from the orphanage at La Coruña who carried the vaccine through arm-to-arm vaccinations performed sequentially during the ship’s journey, and thousands of copies of a treatise describing how to vaccinate and preserve the serum, recounts José Rigau-Pérez in an article on the smallpox vaccine in Puerto Rico.
The use of orphaned boys as carriers of the live virus has been widely praised as ingenious, but I doubt a modern medical review board would approve. Plus I can't find out what happened to them. When the expedition sailed from Mexico to the Philippines they took along 25 Mexican orphans for the same purpose.

I can't find any estimate for the total number of people vaccinated, but here are some numbers: 100,000 in Mexico, 56,000 in Colombia; 7,000 in Quito, Ecuador; 3,500 in the Peruvian village of Loja. The expedition also tried to set up vaccination boards in each colony to continue their work, and they distributed thousands of copies of a pamphlet for doctors and officials on how to do it.

We are, these days, so down on imperialism and western meddling blah blah, for lots of good reasons. But we should never forget that the Enlightenment remade the world in many amazing ways.

It might also be topical to point out that by far the greatest medical triumph of the modern age, in terms of lives saved, is vaccination.

Elephant Interbreeding

News from the study of ancient elephant genomes:
Scientists had assumed from fossil evidence that an ancient predecessor called the straight-tusked elephant (Paleoloxodon antiquus), which lived in European forests until around 100,000 years ago, was a close relative of Asian elephants.

In fact, this ancient species is most closely related to African forest elephants, a genetic analysis now reveals. Even more surprising, living forest elephants in the Congo Basin are closer kin to the extinct species than they are to today’s African savannah-dwellers. And, together with newly announced genomes from ancient mammoths, the analysis also reveals that many different elephant and mammoth species interbred in the past. . . .

Palkopoulou and her colleagues also revealed the genomes of other animals, including four woolly mammoths (Mammuthus primigenius) and, for the first time, the whole-genome sequences of a Columbian mammoth (Mammuthus columbi) from North America and two North American mastodons (Mammut americanum).

The researchers found evidence that many of the different elephant and mammoth species had interbred. Straight-tusked elephants mated with both Asian elephants and woolly mammoths. And African savannah and forest elephants, who are known to interbreed today — hybrids of the two species live in some parts of the Democratic Republic of Congo and elsewhere — also seem to have interbred in the distant past. Palkopoulou hopes to work out when these interbreeding episodes happened.
The more we learn, the more the boundaries between species crumble.