Friday, July 30, 2010

Power Corrupts

This is how power corrupts:
It is just a technical matter, the Obama administration says: We just need to make a slight change in a law to make clear that we have the right to see the names of anyone’s e-mail correspondents and their Web browsing history without the messy complication of asking a judge for permission.

It is far more than a technical change. The administration’s request is an unnecessary and disappointing step backward toward more intrusive surveillance from a president who promised something very different during the 2008 campaign.
From the outside, people resent being spied on. But once they are on the inside, they feel the burden of responsibility for keeping the country safe. They resent the time wasted applying for warrants. They want to follow up on every lead immediately. After all, they are good people who won't misuse their power; surely they can be trusted. This is inevitable; every administration, not matter how much they love civil liberties before they come into office, falls eventually into this trap. It is up to us the people to say no; it is up to us to pressure the President and our representatives to put a stop to the ever-increasing oozing spread of the security state and its tentacles of intrusive slime. We cannot count on any President to do this for us. I have already emailed the President and made my position clear, and I urge all of you to do the same.

Domenico Ghirlandaio

I spent last night in the home of my sister the art historian, perusing her book collection, and I stumbled across this painting by Domenico Ghirlandaio. This is Virgin and Child with SS. Michael, Justus, Zenobius, and Raphael, alias the San Giusto Altarpiece, painted in the 1470s. (click to enlarge) Something about the arrangement of soft faces around the infant draws me in and makes this stand out from all the other Renaissance Madonnas I have seen.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Now, the Thirteenth Amendment Brigade

The new platform of the Iowa Republican party has 374 planks, including one supporting the gold standard and another calling for “the reintroduction and ratification of the original 13th Amendment, not the 13th amendment in today’s Constitution.” You probably did not know that there was a proposed 13th amendment before the one we have now banning slavery, but there was. Its story:
Return with us now to the tumultuous years leading up to the War of 1812, when fear of “foreign influence”—by England or France, depending on whether you were a Republican or Federalist—was a dominating issue in American politics. Jerome Bonaparte, the younger brother of Napoleon, had recently spent several years in the United States, where he married Elizabeth Patterson, the beautiful, ambitious daughter of a wealthy Baltimore merchant. In 1810, Jerome was on the throne of Westphalia, while Elizabeth was in America with their son, Jerome Napoleon. (The couple would never see each other again.) According to historian Michael Vorenberg of Brown University, having a nephew of the emperor of France growing up on American soil might have made the pro-British Federalists uneasy, or, just as likely, suggested to them a way to tie the Republicans to the French Legion of Honor, the Trilateral Commission of its day. Desiring to get out in front of the issue—or possibly seeking to score points against the Federalists, who had their own embarrassing ties to the British aristocracy—Republican Sen. Philip Reed of Maryland introduced an amendment meant to strengthen the existing “emoluments clause” in Article I, Section 9, of the Constitution.

This clause reads:

“No Title of Nobility shall be granted by the United States: And no Person holding any Office of Profit or Trust under them, shall, without the Consent of the Congress, accept of any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign State.”

Reed’s proposed amendment extended the ban from office-holders to “any citizen of the United States” and made the penalty loss of citizenship:

“If any citizen of the United States shall accept, claim, receive or retain any title of nobility or honour, or shall, without the consent of Congress accept and retain any present, pension, office or emolument of any kind whatever, from any emperor, king, prince or foreign power, such person shall cease to be a citizen of the United States and shall be incapable of holding any office of trust or profit under them, or either of them.”

Reed’s bill passed both houses easily, and as of Dec. 9, 1812, had been ratified by 12 states and seemed headed for adoption, at which point war intervened. Here, histories diverge. The mainstream view is that the “Titles of Nobility Amendment” (TONA) never achieved the necessary 13 ratifications—three quarters of the 17 states as of 1810—and fell further behind as more states joined the union. That ought to have been the end of it, says Jol A. Silversmith, a lawyer in private practice who has written the definitive account of the “missing amendment.” And so it was until the 1980s, when a conspiracy-minded researcher named David Dodge came across an 1825 copy of the Constitution including this provision. Further research led Dodge to conclude that TONA had been ratified by Virginia no later than 1819 and was an accepted, if largely unnoted, part of the Constitution from then until its mysterious disappearance around the time of the Civil War. . . .

In the world of the Thirteenthers, though, it’s all a conspiracy, and the leading suspects are those shady characters who put “esquire” after their names. To quote the Web site Constitutional Concepts, “This Amendment was for the specific purpose of banning participation in government operations by attorneys and bankers who claimed the Title of Nobility of ‘Esquire.’ These people had joined the International Bar Association or the International Bankers Association and owed their allegiance to the King of England.”

Oh, man you just have to love these people. Just when you think they can't get any nuttier, they find a way to go even farther along the dark corridor into the locked ward.

Fortunately, Most Criminals Aren't This Smart

Hacking into ATMs and making them disgorge all their cash.

Visions of Our Solar System

Above, Jupiter's moon Io, and below, Mars, from a new exhibit at the Air and Space Museum titled Beyond: Visions of Our Solar System. Creating these images involved a lot of processing using various sorts of partial and filtered images. From the review at the NY Times:

Color was also an issue, as with the Hubble. “Almost all of these photographs,” Mr. Benson writes, “required substantial amounts of digital processing. Many had never been rendered into color before, or if they had they’d long since vanished.” In general, whether a spacecraft used video technology or digital sensors, three successive shots were taken in black and white, each using a different frequency filter, so color information might later be deduced.

But because the camera might be whipping by a planet at 35,000 miles per hour, these three raw images might not perfectly match. So Mr. Benson and his colleague, a planetary scientist and imagery expert, Paul Geissler, transformed them so they could be superimposed and used to create color pictures. In some cases color information was unavailable and had to be inferred from another mission’s shots of the same landscape. The show’s panoramic glimpse of a Martian dust storm, Mr. Benson explained in an e-mail message, took him months of work, drawing on about 100 images.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Another Cost of War

More evidence that combat is bad for you:
From 4 to 8 percent of adults report experiencing nightmares, perhaps as often as once per week or more, according to sleep researchers. But the rate is as high as 90 percent among groups like combat veterans and rape victims, Dr. Krakow said. He said treatment for post-traumatic stress needed to deal much more actively with nightmares.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

How many earths?

One of the scientists involved in the Kepler spacecraft's search for earthlike planets circling other stars says the team has identified 140 planets that are candidates to be "like earth," in that they are small, orbit sun-like stars, and are neither too close nor too far away. More data to come.

Wikileaks and the Afghan War

I agree with Matt Yglesias and Amy Davidson: these leaked documents don't provide any big news items about Presidential lies or the like. What they do is underscore the messiness of war. They speak about deaths from friendly fire, deaths from mistakes in bombing, deaths from fighting between the Afghan Army and the Afghan Police. They speak about bribes and fraud and an orphanage without orphans. They speak about the ambivalence of power in a land where everybody seems to be hedging his bets and some are flagrantly playing both sides to get whatever they can. We want wars to be neat clashes of one army against another, with the good guys winning, and these documents remind us that wars are never like that.

I am not a pacifist, and I supported our initial invasion of Afghanistan. But in every war the good that might be done has to be weighed against the very high price of war in chaos, death, and corruption.

Ediacara Fauna

Nice summary article on the strange fossil life forms of the Precambrian, by Sean Carroll at the New York Times. With slide show.

As the article indicates, the big mysteries of paleontology -- how did Cambrian life emerge from nothing, and why did the explosion happen when it did -- are becoming less mysterious. Such a wide diversity of life forms has now been documented from 635 to 542 million years ago that this epoch has now been formally dubbed the Ediacaran Period. It was once said that none of the Ediacaran life forms seemed to be related to modern life, but now paleontologists are positing possible relationships. And the emergence of Ediacaran life can be connected to the rapid rise in oxygen levels in the ocean at the end of the great ice age called "snowball earth."

There are mysterious in science, but there are also ways to make progress. And the more we learn about the distant past, the more sense evolution makes. However, the alleged fossil above is clearly the mark of the devil's cloven hoof, left during the age when he ruled the earth.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Language and Culture

These days linguists and psychologists are very interested in the question of how, and to what extent, the language we use influences our thinking. This is a cool example:

For example, in Pormpuraaw, a remote Aboriginal community in Australia, the indigenous languages don't use terms like "left" and "right." Instead, everything is talked about in terms of absolute cardinal directions (north, south, east, west), which means you say things like, "There's an ant on your southwest leg." To say hello in Pormpuraaw, one asks, "Where are you going?", and an appropriate response might be, "A long way to the south-southwest. How about you?" If you don't know which way is which, you literally can't get past hello.

About a third of the world's languages (spoken in all kinds of physical environments) rely on absolute directions for space. As a result of this constant linguistic training, speakers of such languages are remarkably good at staying oriented and keeping track of where they are, even in unfamiliar landscapes. They perform navigational feats scientists once thought were beyond human capabilities. This is a big difference, a fundamentally different way of conceptualizing space, trained by language.

I feel like the learning of languages and the study of other cultures has greatly influenced the way I think about the world. I can't imagine how anyone who really knew other cultures could espouse the sort of willfully ignorant nativism one commonly finds among American populists -- "we have nothing to learn from foreigners," "if you like the way its done where you used to live why don't you go back." And yet evidence suggests that I am wrong, and that some people can travel the world and come back more convinced that everyone else is wrong. So the causality my be reversed; I may have chosen to learn about other cultures because I am open to different ways of thinking and acting.

In the Waves

The Murkiness that is Afghanistan

Documents published by wikileaks show that American officials think Pakistani intelligence cooperates with the Taliban to oppose the US and the Karzai government in Afghanistan.

I suspect that many of the particular claims in these documents are not true, because Pakistani intelligence works very hard to create a cloud of uncertainty around its actions in Afghanistan and the tribal areas of Pakistan. They seem to be playing double, triple, even quadruple games. But it seems clear from this ongoing mess that the last thing they want is a stable, centralized, American-allied nation on their northwestern border. Their ambivalence is another reason I think we will never achieve our aims in Afghanistan.

$88,000 a Year for a Drug that Doesn't Work

More adventures in modern medicine: will the FDA have the guts to withdraw approval from a hugely expensive drug that doesn't work?

Language Politics in Indonesia

When the Dutch conquered Indonesia in the 1600s, the islanders spoke hundreds of different languages. In 1928, the leaders of the independence movement rather arbitrarily chose one, which they dubbed Bahasa Indonesia, to become the national tongue, and after independence required that it be taught in all schools. But many Indonesians, especially the poor, continued to speak their native languages (Javanese, etc.) and some of the elite continued to speak Dutch. Now much of the Indonesian elite prefers to send their children to private schools where they are educated in English, and there has also been a resurgence of some of the local languages. Bahasa Indonesia is squeezed in between, and some people worry that it is threatened. Before you fret about the spread of imperial English and the loss of local culture, remember that Bahasa Indonesia is not the native language of most Indonesians, but something they have to learn in school. Many of them are deciding that if they have to learn a second language it might as well be one that will help them get ahead in the world. There is also a political angle, because the Suharto dictatorship tried to force the use of Bahasa Indonesia and ban the local languages from public use, so some people see using their native tongues as an assertion of freedom.

I wonder if Bahasa Indonesia will fade away over the next few decades and Indonesia will become like India, where English is the common tongue for people who speak many different languages at home.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Storm Blowing In

What Liberal Elite?

What is it with all this "liberal elite" crap? Ever since Roosevelt, Democrats have been the party of the poor in America, Republicans the party of the rich. Take 2004, when Kerry won 63% of the vote among people with incomes under $15,000, while Bush won 63% of the vote among those with incomes over $200,000. Right down the line, the more money people have, the more likely they were to support Bush. Even in the rout of 2008, McCain/Palin won a slight majority of voters with incomes over $100,000. Ross Douthat makes what I suppose he thinks is a keen insight when he says the elite is "center-left and Clintonian rather than deeply left-wing," but in 1996 Bob Dole won all the income categories over $50,000, including 54% of those with incomes over $100,000. (You can get all these numbers off wikipedia and lots of other places. They aren't exactly secret.)

The "liberal elite" is a big lie. True, musicians and movie stars are probably more liberal than the rest of the population, but although they draw a lot of attention there aren't very many of them and their money is paltry compared to the wealth of the business elite. The real American elite sits in corporate offices, and they are overwhelmingly Republican.


Let's Have a Real Debate

So far, Obama and the Congressional leadership are hanging tough on their plan to let the Bush tax cuts on incomes over $250,000 a year expire. So far, Republicans are hanging tough on their plan to block such a proposal, insisting that all of the cuts be extended. Awesome. Let's have this one out. No compromise, no back room deal, just go to the voters with two plans -- tax the rich to provide services for everyone else, or give them the break they want and starve the government.

Demography and Democracy

Democracy only works well when people perceive themselves as belonging to one nation. When they prefer to think of themselves ethnically -- Pashtuns in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Masai in Kenya, Uighurs in China -- then democracy simply turns into a contest of who has the most people.

Consider Kosovo, in the news because the International Court of Justice recognized the legitimacy of its vote for independence from Serbia. Kosovo is the old heartland of Serbia, the location of its most important national monuments. For centuries there was an Albanian minority in Kosovo. Since World War II, the Serbs have become modern Europeans, moving to Belgrade and other cities and having small families. The Albanians remained peasants, remaining in villages and raising numerous children, with the result that they now outnumber Serbs in Kosovo. Because they modernized, the Serbs lost their homeland.

Or Tibet. The Chinese government has for decades been encouraging Han Chinese to move to Tibet--where there was always a significant Chinese population -- with the result that some towns in Tibet now have a Han majority. Tibetans are worried that they may eventually be outnumbered in their own land, and this has fed resentment against Han migrants. Already most of the other ethnic groups in China are minorities in their homelands.

Some other solution than majority rule is needed in these situations, but I don't know what that solution might be. Federalism? A defined power-sharing arrangement, like they used to have in Lebanon? Separate ethnic legal systems, like in the old Ottoman Empire? Whatever it is, a world in which politics is simply a contest in breeding can't be our future.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Vacation (2)

"The beach is the funnest place in the world."


I am leaving in a few minutes for a week-long vacation. Blogging, if any, will be very light. See you all soon.

A Little Graffiti

Secrecy and Incompetence

A few quick thoughts on the excellent series "Top Secret America" that Dana Priest and William Arkin produced for the Washington Post:
Some 1,271 government organizations and 1,931 private companies work on programs related to counterterrorism, homeland security and intelligence in about 10,000 locations across the United States.

In Washington and the surrounding area, 33 building complexes for top-secret intelligence work are under construction or have been built since September 2001. Together they occupy the equivalent of almost three Pentagons or 22 U.S. Capitol buildings - about 17 million square feet of space.
Secrecy is the perfect cloak for incompentence. If nobody knows what you are supposed to be doing, nobody can fault you for not doing it well. If you want to go after waste and fraud in the government, this is certainly the place to look. But how could you, when everything is secret?

Is all this new spending doing us any good? I doubt it. The basic principle of secrecy is compartmentalization. There are probably only three or four people in the government who have access to the work being done in all these organizations, and those people are all too busy to pay attention. The reason we didn't discover and stop the 9-11 plot was that various government agencies did not work together or share information. The bigger we make the intelligence apparatus, and the more of it gets done in secret, the worse that problem gets.

Secrecy is like toughness; it is hard to argue against it without looking like a leftist wimp. "You mean we should just share all of our secrets with al Qaeda?" But in itself, secrecy is not useful, and even when it is, it breeds a wide range of habits that are bad for thinking and make it much harder to get anything done.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Panatal, Brazil

From the National Geographic's Photo of the Day feature.

Black and White New York

A collection of photographs, mostly 1890-1910. This is the Woolworth Building, the tallest in the world when it was built in 1913.

Religious Freedom and the Mosque

We have, in this country, a document called the Bill of Rights. It says,
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
It does not say that religious freedom shall only be infringed when we don't like it. It does not establish any exception for Muslims, or for mosques in lower Manhattan. It says the free exercise of religion shall not be prohibited.

Given that American conservatives these days spend a lot of time waving around their copies of the constitution, on what basis do they support prohibiting Muslims from freely exercising their religious freedom?

Here is Newt Gingrich:
There should be no mosque near Ground Zero in New York so long as there are no churches or synagogues in Saudi Arabia. The time for double standards that allow Islamists to behave aggressively toward us while they demand our weakness and submission is over.
Ah, so we should just shred the constitution and adopt Saudi Arabia's approach to religious freedom. I thought conservatives hated it when we copied other countries' laws. (Perhaps, Mr. Gingrich, we should instead adopt the Saudi approach to adultery?)

Now we certainly do sometimes limit where large churches can be placed, based on zoning ordinances, environmental laws and the like. So one could imagine blocking a mosque from the actual WTC site. But this mosque, which is actually a "Muslim Cultural Center," is two blocks away. In lower Manhattan, two blocks in a long way; measured by the number of residences and businesses in between, this is more like a mile in suburban terms. This is a complete non-issue seized on by conservative demagogues who want to boil their followers' blood.

And yet there is, I think, a deeper issue. Gingrich seems to think, as Kissinger used to think, that we should fight evil by becoming more like it. I believe that we should fight evil by becoming as little like it as possible, and by instead re-affirming our own traditions. Especially the ones embodied in the Bill of Rights.

More from el Zotz

National Geographic has a slide show of artifacts and excavation photos from the recently opened Mayan royal tomb at El Zotz.

The Gift of Science

What we lose in mystery we gain in awe.

--Francis Crick

More Trouble in Afghanistan

The Washington Post:
The man who served as President Hamid Karzai's top intelligence official for six years has launched an urgent campaign to warn Afghans that their leader has lost conviction in the fight against the Taliban and is recklessly pursuing a political deal with insurgents. . . .

That view is shared by a growing number of Afghan minority leaders who once participated fully in Karzai's government, but now feel alienated from it. Tajik, Hazara and Uzbek politicians have expressed increasing concern that they are being marginalized by Karzai and his efforts to strike a peace deal with his fellow Pashtuns in the insurgency.

Afghanistan is really an impossible country, and I foresee a spiral back into chaos and civil war no matter what we do.

Maybe, Finally, Some Rational Defense Budgeting

Since 9/11, the Pentagon's budget has been rising 7% a year in real terms, and that's apart from the cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Our military spending is now about equal to that of the entire rest of the world, and nine times greater than that of our closest challenger, China. We all knew Obama couldn't do anything about this in the short term, with wars going on and Republicans eager to charge him with softness and not supporting the troops. But it seems that all the fooferaw about the budget deficit, along with the winding of US fighting in Iraq, has provided the cover to at least talk about cutting the defense budget. The NY Times:

Lawmakers, administration officials and analysts said the combination of big budget deficits, the winding down of the war in Iraq and President Obama’s pledge to begin pulling troops from Afghanistan next year were leading Congress to contemplate reductions in Pentagon financing requests.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has sought to contain the budget-cutting demands by showing Congress and the White House that he can squeeze more efficiency from the Pentagon’s bureaucracy and weapons programs and use the savings to maintain fighting forces.

But the increased pressure is already showing up in efforts by Democrats in Congress to move more quickly than senior Pentagon officials had expected in trimming the administration’s budget request for next year.

And in the longer term, with concern mounting about the government’s $13 trillion debt, a bipartisan deficit-reduction commission is warning that cuts in military spending could be needed to help the nation dig out of its financial hole.

There is no conceivable scenario in which we actually need all of the aircraft carriers, submarines, missiles, bombers, and satellites we already have, let alone all the ones in development and production. Let's exercise a little sense here and save the money for things worth doing.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Too Much of Anything is Bad For You

Chronic exposure to cannabinoids during adolescence but not during adulthood impairs emotional behaviour and monoaminergic neurotransmission.

The Purpose of Keeping Pets

Here we go again with another anthropologist who thinks that everything people do must have some evolutionary purpose. Anthropologist Pat Shipman has been trying to figure out why people keep pets. The weirdness of this particular act, which is nearly universal among humans, has occurred to a lot of people. Other animals sometimes adopt a baby of another species for a while, but living with and caring for adult animals of other species is a habit only among humans. Why?
Shipman suggests that the animal connection was prompted by the invention of stone tools 2.6-million years ago. "Having sharp tools transformed wimpy human ancestors into effective predators who left many cut marks on the fossilized bones of their prey," Shipman said. Becoming a predator also put our ancestors into direct competition with other carnivores for carcasses and prey. As Shipman explains, the human ancestors who learned to observe and understand the behavior of potential prey obtained more meat. "Those who also focused on the behavior of potential competitors reaped a double evolutionary advantage for natural selection," she said.
Really? What did we learn from keeping parrots or rabbits that helped us hunt better? And I should point out that while we certainly may have been keeping pets for millions of years, the earliest evidence pertains to dogs and goes back only 32,000 years.

Pet keeping is quite striking, but does it have to have a purpose? I think it could equally well be an unselected product of other changes related to life among a hunter-gathering band: curiosity, the habit of caring for little animals that aren't our own offspring, the intelligence to figure out how to care for and control members of other species, the desire for validating affection without the need to negotiate the complexities of human society.

Not everything we do has an evolutionary purpose.

More on that Possible Leonardo

In The New Yorker, David Grann looks closely at the man who says he found Leonardo's fingerprint on the "Bella Principessa." He seems to be a thoroughly unsavory character. And since I have never had much faith in fingerprint analysis, even when done by reputable scientists, I would say this leaves the question of authorship open.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010


Down in the bottom of this holler, at the end of a long, badly rutted gravel driveway, largely hidden behind the trees, is an abandoned farm. I would say the last residents moved away about a year ago. I spent the day there, checking the property out for the new owners.

What an utterly creepy place. It's like the set for a serial killer movie. Everywhere you look are weird signs of derangement and decay, a mix of the gross things you expect to find around an old farm and oddities that make no sense. The driveway is scattered with what look like vulture feathers, and the feet from the dismembered deer carcass lying next to a shed. One of the deer feet was covered by little orange and black butterflies.

The house itself has an old log core that probably dates to the late 1800s, with additions all around. The original part is on the right in this picture. About 40 years somebody moved in who showered the place with money and love, building additions, stables, sheds, and a concrete bridge over the little stream. The stream was dammed to make two little ponds, and the yard around the house was heavily landscaped. There is a row of corkscrew willows, rows of Norway spruces, a grove of birches, the biggest ornamental cherry tree I've ever seen, two Japanese maples, pear trees, a Russian olive, forsythia, and more. Sometime after that, things started to get weird.

"There used to be a little girl down there. Weird child -- never heard her say a word. Don't rightly know what happened to her, either. . . ."

From the front you can't really tell anything about the house's history because everything is hidden behind strange constructions. On closer inspection, these prove to be cages. The whole side porch of the house is a cage, made with wire mesh heavy enough to keep in a large dog. Next to the front door is this weird homemade thing, probably a bird cage. There is another large cage next to the walkway, the right size for a cockatoo or an injured owl. There were more cages and a couple of broken cat carriers in the back of the house.

Stepping into the house, the first thing I noticed was the buzzing sound. I thought, "flies on the corpse of the unburied last victim," but then I realized that it sounded more like bees. A few steps further in and the sound was so loud I was reminded of those X-Files episodes featuring giant hives that breed bees by the millions. But it wasn't bees, it was white-faced hornets. I never found the nest -- I think it was in the ceiling over the porch/giant cage -- but the house was full of hornets, flying around everywhere. Looking into the basement of the old house, I saw more hornets, and smelled skunk.

The farm has at least a dozen outbuildings. This includes a couple of nice stables, with signs that horses lived in them not long ago. The other buildings are mostly weird little sheds like these. They look like chicken coops or rabbit hutches, but some of them are full of stacked gerbil cages. In the basement of the biggest addition were more stacked cages. There must be a hundred scattered around the farm. Were these people hamster breeders? Dealers in exotic pets? Dealers in illegal, exotic pets? The farm would be the perfect for that. ("Psst, want to own an endangered species?") On one door is is a Visa/Mastercard sign.

About a hundred yards from the house across an overgrown pasture was a tiny house. From the outside it looked too small to live in, but through the broken window I saw evidence that they let their flower child friends crash here for a while.

All in all it was the weirdest place I have been in years. I spent a delightful day there with my crew, exploring and making up stories. Sometimes you want things to be orderly, sane, and beautiful, but sometimes a dash of chaos is more fun.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Rain Dance

One thing I have managed to teach my children, not to be afraid of the rain.

Total Eclipse at Easter Island, July 14

Sound Mind and Body?

From our friend Bundle Brent, one of the strangest wills ever, with clauses like:
Item: I give and bequeath Negro Cuff to the devil and himself as liberated from me and my heirs forever.
Item: I give and bequeath Negro Stephen to the Prince of Darkness and himself as liberated from me and my Heirs forever with three pounds a year for his travelling expenses in the Plutonian Regions to be paid out of my Estate during his life-
Imagine the scene when this was read out to the family!

Today's (Sort of) News

From The Onion:

Obama's Fifth Gulf Coast Visit Really Helps a Lot.

Boys, Girls, Mothers

This is probably too good a confirmation of our gender stereotypes to be true, but it's also too good to pass by in silence:
Male fetuses ignore their mothers' response to stress – unlike females, which are very sensitive to it.

The Politics of White Grievance

These days white conservatives like to complain that they are being discriminated against. Glenn Beck took the lead in this whining when he said America was turning "into the 1950s overnight, except the races are reversed."

Into this arena charges Ross Douthat, whose column "The Roots of White Anxiety" has been the most popular item on the New York Times web site for two days now. Douthat starts from an old claim of Pat Buchanan's, that America's universities discriminate against white Christians. As various liberals have pointed out (see here, here, and here), this is silly. Douthat is too clever and sane to defend Buchanan's broader claim, so he slides over to the claim that America's universities discriminate against poor, rural whites:
Last year, two Princeton sociologists, Thomas Espenshade and Alexandria Walton Radford, published a book-length study of admissions and affirmative action at eight highly selective colleges and universities. Unsurprisingly, they found that the admissions process seemed to favor black and Hispanic applicants, while whites and Asians needed higher grades and SAT scores to get in. But what was striking, as Russell K. Nieli pointed out last week on the conservative Web site Minding the Campus, was which whites were most disadvantaged by the process: the downscale, the rural and the working-class.

This was particularly pronounced among the private colleges in the study. For minority applicants, the lower a family’s socioeconomic position, the more likely the student was to be admitted. For whites, though, it was the reverse. An upper-middle-class white applicant was three times more likely to be admitted than a lower-class white with similar qualifications.

. . . cultural biases seem to be at work as well. Nieli highlights one of the study’s more remarkable findings: while most extracurricular activities increase your odds of admission to an elite school, holding a leadership role or winning awards in organizations like high school R.O.T.C., 4-H clubs and Future Farmers of America actually works against your chances. Consciously or unconsciously, the gatekeepers of elite education seem to incline against candidates who seem too stereotypically rural or right-wing or “Red America.”

I don't think this is ridiculous, but I think Douthat leaves out a lot of context. It is true that university admissions are unfair, in the sense that universities routinely consider things other than how good a student you are. If they did not, their student bodies would be very different. Back when I was at Yale, I was told that if the university considered only grades and test scores 2/3 of the students would be Jews from greater New York and the rest WASPs from elite prep schools. Nowadays I suppose the top academic candidates are Jews and Asians. But the university aspires to be something other than just a haven for New York nerds; they want to place graduates in leadership roles all across America. They know, for example, that black students are much more likely to end up volunteering or running for office in poor black communities than white students, and they want to support the diversification of America's ruling elite, so they give points to black applicants. They know that most people end up living near where they grew up, and they don't want to be a New York school, so they give points for being from the rest of the country. They give points to people who have special skills in the arts or sports. Etc.

Now it is almost certainly true that a white kid from Iowa will have to have a more impressive record to get into an Ivy League school than a black kid from East Saint Louis. But he will have a much easier time than a Jew from Long Island. I suspect that I benefited from this arithmetic as a white kid from a small town in Missouri. I am willing to have a discussion about the merits of various types of affirmative action, especially the possibility that we ought to be using class rather than race to pick students for special treatment. But let's be clear that if elite universities admitted solely on the basis of academic qualifications, white Christians would not be the beneficiaries. Jews and Asians would.

Monday, July 19, 2010

A Note About Historical Causality

During this blazing hot summer, in the midst of an oil spill catastrophe in the Gulf, I have not noticed that public opinion is moving toward belief in global warming, or toward investment in alternative energy, or toward environmentalism more generally. Rather the opposite, I would say.

So the next time you read that some event caused some intellectual trend -- e.g., the Lisbon earthquake caused the Enlightenment to turn more negative, or the Tet Offensive caused the American people to give up on the Vietnam War-- don't believe it. The broader cultural impact of events, if any, depends on the circumstances.

The King is Dead

by Marianne Moore

“No water so still as the
dead fountains of Versailles.” No swan,
with swart blind look askance
and gondoliering legs, so fine
as the chintz china one with fawn-
brown eyes and toothed gold
collar on to show whose bird it was.

Lodged in the Louis Fifteenth
candelabrum-tree of cockscomb-
tinted buttons, dahlias,
sea-urchins, and everlastings,
it perches on the branching foam
of polished sculptured
flowers—at ease and tall. The king is dead.

More Supervillainy

Building submarines at secret bases in the swamps of Ecuador -- the world of cocaine barons gets more like Johnny Quest every day. And this submarine seems capable of diving to a depth of 20 meters.


I stumbled across a news article this week that mentioned the discovery, in Britain, of an image of Harpocrates, "god of secrecy and silence." I confess that I had never before heard of Harpocrates, so I looked him up. Wikipedia:
In late Greek mythology as developed in Ptolemaic Alexandria, Harpocrates is the god of silence. Harpocrates was adapted by the Greeks from the Egyptian child god Horus. To the ancient Egyptians, Horus represented the new-born Sun, rising each day at dawn. When the Greeks conquered Egypt under Alexander the Great, they transformed the Egyptian Horus into their Hellenistic god known as Harpocrates, a rendering from Egyptian Har-pa-khered or Heru-pa-khered (meaning "Har, the Child") . . . .

In this way Harpocrates, the child Horus, personifies the newborn sun each day, the first strength of the winter sun, and also the image of early vegetation. Egyptian statues represent the child Horus, pictured as a naked boy with his finger on his mouth, a realization of the hieroglyph for "child" that is unrelated to the Greco-Roman and modern gesture for "silence". Misunderstanding this sign, the later Greeks and Roman poets made Harpocrates the god of Silence and Secrecy.

Note that our basic vocabulary of gestures seems to go back to ancient times. Raising the middle finger has been an offensive act since the Romans, and from this research on Harpocrates I discover that the "shhh" gesture of lifting the finger to the lips was also goes back at least to the 300s BC.

I can't find anything about what Haropcrates meant to the Greeks and Romans who displayed his image. Probably people liked him for the same reason they were fascinated with "mystery" cults: their assumption, widely shared in our species, that truly important or divine information will not be public, but kept secret. I have always been fascinated by the way the Greeks and Romans liked to equate gods from different traditions with their own, giving us constructions like the temple of Zeus/Ra/Ahura Mazda. Or the image below, which seems to combine Harpocrates with Eros, perhaps as a statement about discretion in love:

In the Renaissance Harpocrates was rediscovered by the magi, who found in him an appropriate symbol of their own obsession with secrecy. They believed that there must be some secret, hidden knowledge that would reconcile the apparent conflicts between different religions and different schools of thought, kept hidden because of its potency. They also lived in real danger of persecution by the inquisition or other authorities for their heretical thought and as a result they were almost always elusive or allegorical in their writing. The image below connects Hermes Trismegistus, the pseudo-god of occult wisdom, with Harpocrates.

Sunday, July 18, 2010


Above, a larval jellyfish, and below, a young scorpionfish. From a collection of photographs of transparent animals.

Ten of My Favorite Nonfiction Books

Roberto Calasso, The Ruin of Kasch. Italian original 1983.

By exploring everything from Talleyrand’s sex life to African folk tales, Calasso tries to understand what went wrong with our civilization that led to Hitler and Stalin.

Keith Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic. 1971.

A panorama of everything strange and magical in Elizabethan England, from upper class astrologers to a peasant woman who foretold the future from the croaking of frogs.

James Gleick, Genius: the Life and Science of Richard Feynman. 1982.

This biography of Richard Feynman is a model of how to narrate the life of a thinker, and also to get at the reality of a man who created many different public personae. It includes a great section on how one gets to be thought of as a genius even among physicists. (One trick: only publish part of your work, so that when someone else does publish it, you can say, “I derived that result a few years ago but didn’t think it was very important.”)

Nikolai Tolstoy, The Quest for Merlin. 1985.

The argument of this book is not very convincing, but it is an amazing compendium of obscure Celtic lore and its relations to ancient myth and British history.

Edmund Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom. 1975.

Morgan set out to answer the question of how Americans came to be slave-owning devotees of liberty, and in the process wrote the best book about seventeenth-century Virginia.

Richard Rhodes, The Making of the Atomic Bomb. 1985.

A remarkable narrative of this remarkable event, full of fascinating characters and situations.

Weston La Barre, The Ghost Dance: the Origins of Religion. 1970.

La Barre was both an anthropologist and a psychologist, and in this book he looked at how religions begin through the question of what religion is for: “material culture, technology and science are adaptations to the outside world; religion, to the inner world of man, his unsolved problems and unmet needs.”

Melvin Konner, The Tangled Wing: Biological Constraints on the Human Spirit. 1982.

My favorite exploration of what we now call “evolutionary psychology,” that is, the way the conditions of life among our distant ancestors influenced the way we think and act today. Konner is both a scientist and a humanist, the sort of man who explores both physiology and what it feels like to have a small child.

Sebastian Junger, The Perfect Storm: a True Story of Men Against the Sea. 1997.

Journalism at its best, this little book explores the culture of New England fishermen, the physics of waves, and the heroism of some men in times of crisis, through the story of one storm and the people caught in it.

Carlo Ginzburg, Ecstasies: Deciphering the Witches’ Sabbath. Italian original 1989.

When they were put to the torture, European peasants all told similar stories about flying to the witches’ sabbath on brooms or goats. Ginzburg asks where this vision came from, a question that leads him through medieval heresies to the most ancient myths of Eurasia.

Rock Cut Shrine

Somewhere in Asia, by Steve McCurry.

Cambodian Ruins

Part of a wonderful collection of photographs by Kenneth Parker.

Louisiana as a Petro State

Louisiana is America's petro state, with some of the same problems as Venezuela and Nigeria:
Americans may be torn up by the BP oils spill and its destruction of the Gulf of Mexico's natural habitat -- and torn up we should be -- but that habitat has not been pristine for decades. In many ways, Louisiana made its deal with the devil long ago.

And what a bad deal it was. Long before the oil spill, the state's embrace of the petroleum industry cast it under what economists call "the resource curse": the paradox that countries rich in minerals or petroleum tend to grow more slowly and have lower living standards than other nations. Simply put, Louisiana is the closest thing America has to a petro-state.

Instead of blessing Louisiana with prosperity, the oil industry fostered dependency, corruption and an indifference to environmental damage. Our Cajun sheikdom's oil and gas riches -- like those of the Niger Delta, the Orinoco belt in Venezuela and the Iraqi marshes -- also stunted its development, leaving it far behind states with fewer natural resources.

According to the Census Bureau and Harvard University health data, Louisiana ranks 49th among the states in life expectancy, has the second-highest rate of infant mortality, comes in fourth in violent crime, ranks 46th in percentage of people older than 25 with college degrees, and ties for second in percentage of people living below the poverty line.

Oil riches didn't create these problems, of course, but it is striking that they didn't ameliorate them.
Wealth that comes from the skills of the people is much better for any community than wealth that comes from what happens to be under the ground.

How you make your money matters.

Complaining about Spoiled Kids, Again

Nice article by Alfie Kohn in the Washington Post pointing out that people have been complaining about soft parents and their spoiled kids for over a century:

The revelation that people were saying almost exactly the same things a century ago ought to make us stop talking and sit down -- hard. So let's consider three questions: Are parents unduly yielding or overprotective? Are kids today unusually narcissistic? And does the former cause the latter?

Everyone has an anecdote about a parent who hovered too close or tolerated too much. But is it representative of American parents in general? Does research tell us how pervasive permissiveness really is? My efforts to track down national data -- by combing both scholarly and popular databases as well as asking leading experts in the field -- have yielded absolutely nothing. . . .

What we do know about discipline is that corporal punishment remains extremely popular in this country. In a 1995 Gallup poll, 94 percent of parents of preschoolers admitted to having struck their children within the previous year, a fact that's not easy to square with claims that parents have become softer or more humane.

I think the big change in how parents treat their children took place in Victorian times; it was the Victorians who spread the modern idea that a family is more a temple of love than an economic or political unit. Since then we have had a slow trend from rural to urban living -- farm kids still do more chores than urban or suburban kids -- and toward more and more education. But otherwise I see little evidence for much difference between the generations.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Tiny Houses

A fad I would like to see catch on: tiny houses. Surely many of the people living in big American houses don't need all that space.

In Washington, the tiny alley houses that were built for servants have become a big thing with gay guys.


The butterflies always come later in the summer than I expect. They usually miss the first blooming of my butterfly bush, and I spend June and early July wondering where they are. But this week they have finally come, and my garden is swarmed by swallowtails.

Still no sign of a monarch, though, even though I have been letting milkweed grow wherever it sprouts.

A Face from the Tomb

A fragment of Mayan pottery from a royal tomb recently discovered in El Zotz.

Ideology and Taxes

As Paul Krugman points out here, and Matt Yglesias here, leading Republicans have lately been saying very strange things about taxation and the economy. Here is Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell on why he wants to extend the Bush tax cuts:
There’s no evidence whatsoever that the Bush tax cuts actually diminished revenue. They increased revenue, because of the vibrancy of these tax cuts in the economy.
This is false. Either McConnell is lying, or he has completely lost touch with reality. (Thoughts?) Here is the data, from the Federal Reserve, showing that Bush's tax cuts led to a major shortfall of revenue compared to what had been projected before the election:
So the assertion that tax cuts raise revenue, a central plank of the conservative movement, is wrong.

What about the economic effects? I have no particular ideological conviction about what levels or taxation or spending lead to the best economy. (As opposed to, say, torture and free speech, about which I have very strong views.) So my approach is to look at the historical data and see what works. What I see is that the American economy has never been stronger than it was in the 1990s. Therefore, the levels of taxation and spending we had in the 1990s are at least compatible with rapid economic growth. Bush sold his tax cut with the idea that it would make the economy even better -- he talked about extending the boom into areas like urban slums and the rural south that had done badly in the 90s -- or at least keep the boom going. Actually, of course, the economy performed much worse after the tax cuts than it had before. I don't think the tax cuts were responsible for the problem, but this history shows that tax cuts are no magical formula for economic growth.

Once more I am impressed by how far modern conservatives have wandered from reality.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Maria de Tassis

Portrait by Anthony Van Dyck, 1629-1630. Is that feather a fan, or is it for something else?

Volcanoes and Squid

This deep sea squid, possibly a new species, was photographed during a recent expedition to a massive undersea volcano off Indonesia. National Geographic has lots of pictures.

Another Rumor of Poison

In my ongoing quest to find out what is behind the endless rumors of poison that run like a knotted, miscolored thread through the fabric of European history, I pass on this news item:
Scientists who exhumed the remains of several members of the Medicis, the clan that dominated the Florentine Renaissance, have conclusively dismissed the theory of family murders, solving a more than 400-year-old cold case.

Malaria, not poison as long rumored, killed Francesco I de' Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, and his second wife, Bianca Cappello, according to research to be published in Transactions of the Royal Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene.

The couple died a few hours apart in October 1587 after 11 days of agony. Their almost simultaneous deaths led to speculation that they had been murdered.

"It appears it wasn't poison. We carried an immunologic investigation and found evidence of the protozoan parasite Plasmodium falciparum. ... We are talking of the most deadly of the Plasmodium species that cause malaria," Gino Fornaciari, professor of forensic anthropology and director of the Pathology Museum at the University of Pisa, told Discovery News.

A Red Letter Day

Yesterday seems to have been a banner day for America, with the capping of the leaking oil well in the Gulf and the passage of a serious financial regulation bill. Yay us.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

What is the Problem?

Gail Collins puts her finger on what's wrong with the current politics of grievance:
Palin been on a political roll — raising money, making some prescient picks in the Republican primaries. She’s got a hot “mama grizzlies” video out, in which she touts a new wave of conservative women, rising up to protest ... the bad thing. Palin is really, really vague about exactly what the threat is. (The closest she gets is “the fundamental transformation of America.”) But there’s really no need to be specific because, as she says in the video, “Moms kinda just know when something’s wrong.”
What is the complaint? What has Obama done that makes him like Hitler? Bailed out the banks? That was Bush. Threatened to take people's guns away? Um, no, he hasn't said one word about gun control during either his campaign or his administration. Health care? Lots of people oppose it in the abstract, but if you ask them about the particular provisions, most support them. Wall Street regulation? Who doesn't think that something should be done to prevent a repeat of the last crisis?

It makes no sense. People are upset about the recession, but Tea Partiers are enraged that Obama has tried to do anything about it (e.g., the stimulus bill). People are suddenly outraged about the budget deficit, after 8 years of soaring deficits under Bush; and the people most outraged about the deficit angry about the most important deficit reduction bill in decades, health care reform.

If people would only think -- but then they never do, do they?

A Little Justice

Goldman Sachs has agreed to pay $550 million to settle complaints relating to those deals in which it sold bundles of mortgages to its customers while simultaneously betting against the securities it was selling.

This represents a novel way to fund government activity: bail out the banks that are in danger of failure and, once they are restored to profitability, recoup the money by fining them for sleazy deals.

Yves Klein

In the New Yorker, Peter Schjeldahl explains in one paragraph about French artist Yves Klein everything I hate about contemporary art:
Hanging in a gallery near the St. Rita piece, in a sumptuous retrospective at the Hirshhorn Museum, in Washington, D.C., is a drawing in which the word “humility” is repeated twenty times.

It’s not easy now to associate humility with the perpetrator of such audacities as monochrome paintings in a color he patented as International Klein Blue (it is ordinary ultramarine pigment, with a polymer binder to preserve its chromatic intensity and powdery texture), big pictures made by I.K.B.-smeared naked women pressing or rolling their bodies against canvases, and a heavily promoted Paris gallery show that consisted of exactly nothing (“The Void,” 1958). There was also the rigged photograph of himself apparently leaping from the second story of a building, with an expression of rapt confidence in continued flight (“Leap Into the Void,” 1960); a chamber-orchestra “symphony” that held a single note for twenty minutes, followed by twenty minutes of silence; paintings made with the aid of torches, or by exposing canvases to wind and rain; fountains combining water and fire; and assorted architectural ideas, including one for a city under a weather-deflecting roof of blowing air. Then, there were the Immaterials. For these works, a collector paid Klein a set price and was given a receipt for the sum. Klein then spent the money on gold leaf, which he strewed over water—most often, the Seine. At that point, the collector burned the receipt, consigning the work to mere memory.

Conservative critics sometimes say that what happened to art in the twentieth century was that it lost its soul, and substituted the artist's ego for the divine vision. The career of Klein suggests that this was not quite the problem, because he combined serious, lifelong Catholicism with an omnivorous hunger for spiritual enlightenment that took him into studies of Buddhism and the Rosicrucians. At least in some of his work he had a serious spiritual purpose. IKB was supposed to be the color of eternity, and his monochrome blue paintings were supposed to lead the viewer's mind up to heaven. I think Klein's work shows that the problems with contemporary art lie elsewhere than spiritual poverty: contempt for outsiders, excessive intellectualism, and a shift of focus from the work of art to the life of the artist as an ongoing performance piece.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The Swing

Here it is, about two weeks after I opened the box: the new swing. Assembling it should have taken about ten minutes, except that it was built by clumsy orangutans. The holes in the foot rests didn't line up with the holes in the upright pieces, so I had to redrill them, which was such a laborious task that it drained the battery in my drill, which is what stopped my momentum the first time. The resulting new holes are way too close to the old holes and they are bound to break through soon, but I thought that since it was just the foot rests it didn't matter too much. When I finally got around to recharging my drill and finishing the holes, I discovered that the bolts that attach the hand grips were too short. So I set it aside again until I got to Home Depot to buy new bolts, which I finally did tonight. Lisa did a little online searching and found lots of similar complaints from other buyers of this absurdity. The manufacturers offered to replace it for us, but I figured the new one was likely to have the same problems, and since is the one that goes with our swingset I didn't feel like trying another brand. And now that it is up, it seems to work fine.


by Peter Campion

After the cling of roots and then the “pock”
when they gave way
the recoil up the hand
was a small shock
of emptiness beginning to expand.

Milk frothing from the stems. Leaves inky green
and spiked.
Like blissed-out childhood play turned mean
they snarled in tangled curls on our driveway.

It happens still. That desolating falling
shudder inside and then our neighborhood
seems only sprawling
loops... like the patterns eaten on driftwood:

even the home where I grew up (its smell
of lingering wood-smoke and bacon grease)
seems just a shell
of lathe and paper. But this strange release

follows: this tinge like silver and I feel
the pull of dirt
again, sense mist uncurling to reveal
no architecture hidden behind the world
except the stories that we make unfolding:

as if our sole real power were the power
of children holding
this flower that is a weed that is a flower.

In the Graveyard

I spent the morning at this charming little church, where, before we got rained out, I was making sure that unmarked graves aren't disturbed during the ongoing restoration. During the inevitable waiting around, I explored the graveyard.

I was much intrigued by these stones. Eddie -- you remember Eddie, right? Why does he need any further introduction? And grandma has been grandma for so long nobody even remembers her name. . . .

And then there is the mysterious case of Mrs. Windsor, who seems to have become a vampire.