Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Shamaness

In an Israeli cave called Hilazon Tachtit, archaeologists have uncovered the burial of a woman who died at the end of Paleolithic times. She was just under five feet tall, about 45 years old, and she was a very special person:

Some 12,000 years ago in a small sunlit cave in northern Israel, mourners finished the last of the roasted tortoise meat and gathered up dozens of the blackened shells. Kneeling down beside an open grave in the cave floor, they paid their last respects to the elderly dead woman curled within, preparing her for a spiritual journey.

They tucked tortoise shells under her head and hips and arranged dozens of the shells on top and around her. Then they left her many rare and magical things—the wing of a golden eagle, the pelvis of a leopard, and the severed foot of a human being.

The discoverers interpret their find as the tomb of a shamaness, and I am sure they are right. The eagle wing, representing flight to the Other World, is particularly evocative. Shamans in many traditions walk with a limp or have problems with one leg or foot -- among some Siberian tribes a shaman who has the misfortune of being healthy will fake a limp during rituals. And this shamaness fit the type perfectly:

Analyses showed that this woman had suffered from a deformed pelvis. She would have had a strikingly asymmetrical appearance and likely limped, dragging her foot.

This great religious leader was laid to rest with all the ceremony her people could manage. Next to her tomb they held a great feast that included the meat of wild boars and the dangerous aurochs, the wild ancestor of modern cattle. In later years they returned to bury others of their people in her cave, and held more feasts.

It is an amazing find, the kind that takes us back across thousands of years and brings us face to face with people long dead, and a world nearly forgotten.

Education as Power

I have been musing, since I wrote this post about Susan Jacoby and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, about education. Everyone who works with women in the poor parts of the world says that education is the key to improving their status. Education, says Nick Kristof in his review of Hirsi Ali's new book, is "the best way to open minds, promote economic development and suppress violence." Educating women improves the health of their children, their incomes, their self-esteem; it reduces the number of children they have and the likelihood that they will be victims of violence. From some of these accounts, learning to read, write and do arithmetic operates by a kind of magic to make everything about life better.

This is fascinating to me because, as my friends know, I am full of doubts about education as it is practiced in America. The education my own children are receiving in public schools sometimes seems strange and pointless to me, corrupted by politics, teacher ignorance, and the need to somehow keep the attention of disdainful students. The only thing my eldest son had to say about his first day of school this year was a rant about how lunch has been ruined because they can't go outside any more. College seems, sometimes, equally strange to me, a world in which professors teach whatever interests them to students who have no idea why they are learning it.

And yet somehow from this mess of bureaucracy, bad textbooks, bored students, teachers with every degree of competence and energy, and a near complete lack of coherent goals, something quite wonderful emerges. People learn, and they are changed by it. How this works remains, to me, a mystery, but I cannot deny that it does happen.

Burning Man

A collection of interesting arty photos by Christina Garcia Rodero.

Eros in Mourning

This Roman cameo, just found in Jerusalem, depicts the young god of love weeping for the dead. The stone was probably part of an earring worn during funeral services, or during mourning.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Mount Sinabung Erupts

This large Indonesian volcano is showing signs of a much more violent eruption to come. And you have to love that church in the foreground, which has Muslim crescents on the steeple.

The Eye of the Sun

A sunspot, the most detailed image ever taken in visual light.

The Deadliest Catch

Statistics for on-the-job fatal accidents for the most dangerous occupations in America. Note that fishing is more than three times as dangerous as logging, its closest competitor, and 60 times as dangerous as the average American job.

August Walk

Off the moose path now, it's an old farm you seek:
rock piles from last century's sheepfolds;
inward-lapsing cellar hole;
a tumble where the chimney stood;
at the threshold, by the granite doorslab,
a cluster of weed-choked lilies sprouted from lilies
the farm wife planted before the Civil War.
The road is a soft cesarean scar in tufted grass.
Each rain-glossed leaf emits a stab of green.
Somewhere here survives the idea of home.

-- Rosanna Warren

The Archaeology of Love

This morning on my way to work I found this faded bunch of roses lying half hidden in a bush a block from the Dupont Circle Metro. How did it get here? Perhaps it was cast aside by a frolicking romantic couple as they waltzed through the city in elegant clothes, their romantic passion already raised to such a pitch that the flowers that started the evening had become superfluous, and throwing them into the bush was another erotic gesture. Or perhaps it was quietly dumped by a frustrated suitor, who either never got the chance to give the flowers to his intended or lost his nerve and grimly cast them aside as he set off to walk the sidewalks alone. Or perhaps the suitor did present them, but to an intended who did not want them and took the first available chance to slip away, ruefully or angrily discarding this symbol of love's perversity.

More on Beckstock

Ross Douthat has a very intelligent take:

To this rally-goer, though, the most striking thing about “Restoring Honor” was the way the pageant effortlessly tapped into the same rich vein of identity politics that has given us figures as diverse as Palin and Howard Dean, George W. Bush and Barack Obama — but did so, somehow, without advancing any explicitly political agenda.

Now more than ever, Americans love leaders who seem to validate their way of life. This spirit of self-affirmation was at work in evangelicals’ enduring support for Bush, in the enthusiasm for the Dean campaign among the young, secular and tech-savvy, and now in the devotion that Palin inspires among socially conservative women. The Obama campaign raised it to an art form, convincing voters that by merely supporting his candidacy, they were proving themselves cosmopolitan and young-at-heart, multicultural and hip.

In a sense, Beck’s “Restoring Honor” was like an Obama rally through the looking glass. It was a long festival of affirmation for middle-class white Christians — square, earnest, patriotic and religious.
I agree that this need for constant affirmation of our own choices is one of the biggest forces in American life. The more freedom we have to choose, the more we need validation that our choices were good ones. Nobody can say "I am really happy with the life I have chosen" without a dozen people who made different choices leaping up to defend their own lives. Not that anyone has attacked them directly -- merely praising another kind of life sets some people off. A few years ago our local paper ran a column on the "quiet cars" recently added to the MARC trains to Washington, which inspired people who like to talk on the train to write impassioned letters bristling with wounded pride about the great friends they have made.

If you combine this sensitivity about our own choices with the desire to fit into something, you get the passionate attachment to small subcultures that is another hallmark of our age -- dog people, motorcycle people, people who enter their five-year-old daughters in beauty pageants.

And all of this, while it is sometimes annoying, is perfectly harmless and probably inevitable. The danger comes from combining sensitivity about choices with nationalism. Nationalists long for a sense that the whole country is working together toward common goals. They want their community to be equal to the nation. It is not enough for them that all their neighbors or all the people in their football watching club think like they do; they want to belong to a whole nation that thinks like they do. People who don't think like they do must not be "real Americans." This outlook has only a loose connection to any particular political program, as you can tell from the way its adherents have lately been both defending Medicare and attacking Obama's health plan as socialism. But it can be mobilized for many causes, and right now it is being mobilized to fight higher taxes on the rich, health care for the poor, decent treatment of immigrants, and cuts in defense spending. It is the cause of liberalism in our time to resist this narrow definition of America, and to resist the equation of patriotism with a particular right-wing agenda.

The Danevirke

The Danevirke, The Work of the Danes, was a stone wall that separated medieval Denmark from the German empire to the south. About 19 miles long, it was first built in the 7th or 8th century and regularly rebuilt until the end of the Middle Ages. Archaeologists recently found the remains of a great stone gateway that was, our sources tell us, the only one through the wall. Nearby was an inn for travelers. Article here, with lots more pictures.

It goes rather against our image of the Vikings to think of them building a 19-mile-long stone wall, but the kings of Denmark were quite powerful from an early period. Individual Viking lords could mount raiding expeditions with one or two ships, and they sometimes worked together to launch larger raids, but those huge Viking invasions of England and Normandy were organized and led by kings.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Scenes from the Beck Rally

From the Washington Post, two people who sum up the incoherent sense of loss that energizes Glenn Beck's supporters:

John Sawyers and Linda Adams said they flew in from Colorado because they are frustrated at what they call the "ruling class," at the health-care bill they say few supported, at schools that no longer require that students say the Pledge of Allegiance, and at elected officials who run on one platform and govern on another.

"We want our country to get back to its original roots," said Adams, 52, a university administrator who said her ancestors were on the Mayflower and fought in the American Revolution.

"It's not anger," said Sawyers, 47, an engineer who grew up on a farm in Virginia. "It's more, 'Guys, why are we going this way?' It's time for the silent majority to say it's wrong."

Sawyers, a registered Republican, and Adams, an independent, said they were moved to attend by Beck's theme of honor.

"Both of us are unhappy with the perception Obama is apologizing for everything we ever did," said Adams wearing a T-shirt with the slogan "Does the Constitution say we the sheeple?"

"We feel the United States is the greatest country," Adams added. "And we felt we had to do something."
I wonder if either one could name anything that Obama has apologized for. And then Sarah Palin with more bizarre rhetoric about impending doom:
"But here today, at the crossroads of our history, may this day be the change point," Palin said.
The crossroads between roads leading where? I suppose some of the attendees would say between honor, patriotism, God, and individual initiative on the one hand, and, on the other, socialism, atheism, and embarrassment about America. Since, as I keep pointing, neither Obama nor anyone else in the Democratic party supports socialism or atheism, and only a few fringe types really want the President to go around apologizing, the whole thing remains mysterious.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Aerial Photos by Yann Arthus-Bertrand

A collection.

Gustav Vigeland

Norwegian sculptor, 1869-1943. These reliefs are in the Vigeland Sculpture Park, Oslo.

As an aside, I have always felt a little bad for old people who died in the midst of WW II, not knowing whether the Nazis would be defeated.

What Childhood Should Be

I was just reading an essay about childhood depression that began, "Childhood should be a carefree time of happiness and discovery." It struck me that this sentence, tossed off as if it were obviously true, expresses a gigantic assumption about what childhood should and should not be. Why should childhood be "carefree," instead of, say, a time when we are gradually exposed to cares and responsibilities? Would you let a "carefree" child ride a bike in the street? And while I hope that every human being knows his or her share of happiness, I think a life without sadness, anger, and loss would be inhuman. And even if I accepted that childhood should be free of care and sadness (which I don't), I think anyone who imagines that childhood might actually be happily carefree has forgotten what it is like to be a child.

The Real Question about American Conservatives

A comment at Andrew Sullivan's blog:
For all their talk about freedom and liberty, the enthusiastic embrace of the military and security culture by many conservatives makes that seem like a lot of empty rhetoric to me. . . . I honestly don't understand how you can cast yourself as a defender of liberty on one hand, while be fully in support of expanding the government's ability to physically remove your liberty on the other.
Exactly. If you feel that paying taxes erodes your liberty, how about looking for ways to reduce the defense budget? And how can you square a desire for freedom from the government with support for the government's right to intercept your emails, check your library records, and, if they find anything suspicious, imprison you without charges?

I know the answer: because American conservatives are really most interested in defending a white, middle-class culture that they feel is under siege by various nefarious enemies, and they want their government to smash those enemies by any means necessary. It is my hope, though, that if we let them talk enough about liberty and threats to it they will eventually realize that the national security state is one of those threats, and make common cause with liberals to reduce this threat.


From the 14th-century Taymouth Hours.

Frugal Sexy

The Your Money column at the times Times was recently fretting about how a frugal man can get a date, apropos of a poll that showed most women find "frugal" to be a very unsexy word. As a public service, I offer the following ways that a man can be a complete skinflint and still get plenty of action:
  • Pose as an artist or intellectual who is far beyond material things.
  • Emphasize romance: "As long as I have you, I don't need money." "Let's just stay home tonight, light a candle and share our souls." "A jug of wine, a loaf of bread, and thou is all I could ever want."
  • Become a surfer bum and live in a shack by the beach.
  • Become an anarchist revolutionary, squat in an abandoned factory, and rant about how everyone else has been enslaved by the corporate hierarchy and their propaganda.
  • Emphasize adventurous fun, like searching the city (on foot) for the best cheap ethnic food, backpacking vacations, and scouring the racks at Amvets for rare vintage clothes.
  • Become an eco-fanatic and focus on reducing your carbon footprint to zero; this is best when combined with:
  • Pose as a deeply spiritual person who is far beyond material things.
The key is, never be nervous about money; instead, become indifferent to the things it can buy.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Roman Glass Beads

These are drawings of glass beads unearthed from a Frankish cemetery in the unfortunately named French town of Herpes. They date to around AD 500. I assume they were made by surviving Roman glass factories, probably in the south of France. What I find striking about these beads is that some of these types are still made. Look, for example, at no. 115 in the top photo; I am sure you can buy that one at Beadworks. The manufacture of glass beads must be a very conservative art.

Today's Headline

From the Guardian, the old threat meets the new:


The Besieged Conservative

Congressman John Fleming (R-LA):
We have two competing world views here and there is no way that we can reach across the aisle -- one is going to have to win. We are either going to go down the socialist road and become like western Europe and create, I guess really a godless society, an atheist society. Or we're going to continue down the other pathway where we believe in freedom of speech, individual liberties and that we remain a Christian nation. So we're going to have to win that battle, we're going to have to solve that argument before we can once again reach across and work together on things.
What I find striking about this little rant is that it sounds to me like a perfect formula, not for culture war, but for bipartisan cooperation. Fleming seems to assume that his opponents want socialism, an end to free speech, restrictions on liberty, and the creation of a godless society, where as I don't know a single Democrat who wants either socialism or more limits on liberty, and the ones who want a godless society know they're not going to get it. Where is the argument?

As I have said before, the weird thing about the whole Tea Party movement is that while they are really angry about something, they either can't say what they are angry about or they list things that mostly aren't issues. For example, their right to own guns, which Tea Partiers seem to think is under assault from a President who has never mentioned gun control. Fleming's notion of a "Christian nation" may include things like an abortion ban and restrictions on gay rights that most Democrats oppose, but he doesn't say that, and George W. Bush showed there are several issues on which Christian conservatives and liberals can work together, like homelessness and school reform. And if he wants to protect liberty, I would happily work with him to repeal the Patriot Act and curtail the ridiculous searches we inflict on airline passengers.

No matter how hard I search, I just can't find real issues dividing the parties that justify the volume of angry rhetoric.

Advertising for Love

Great site that posts historical personal ads, like the one above. Even more intriguing is the ad below. Do you suppose he got any calls?

Still Life with Dice Bag and Headless Orc

What I found on the dining room table yesterday morning, the remains, I suppose, of a Warhammer battle that took place in the night after I had gone to sleep.

The Ten Commandments

It seems that the Supreme Court is going to take up, once again, the question of posting the Ten Commandments in public buildings. Given the more conservative nature of the current court, they are likely to approve the Kentucky legislature's creation of
“Foundations of American Law and Government” displays, which included the Ten Commandments along with nine other documents, including the lyrics of “The Star-Spangled Banner” and the texts of the Declaration of Independence and Magna Carta. An explanation informed viewers that “the Ten Commandments have profoundly influenced the formation of Western legal thought and the formation of our country” and have provided “the moral background of the Declaration of Independence.”
These "Foundations" displays have spread around the country and were recently endorsed by the South Carolina legislature. Once the Roberts court approves them, they will be sprouting up everywhere.

And I don't care. I have never understood why secular people -- and there is nobody more secular than I am -- get so upset about putting the Ten Commandments on a courtroom wall. Who reads them, or even notices that they are there? The Ten Commandments have nothing to do with either the history of our law or Christianity as practiced in America. They influence nothing. They change nobody's thinking about anything. Hardly anybody in America can list more than three of them. What's the big deal?

A large swath of Americans believes that our nation is in trouble because we are not sufficiently godly. These folks want some things that I think would be deeply pernicious, like a ban on all abortions; some things that I find moderately offensive, like prayers at high school football games; and some things that don't bother me at all, like hanging the Ten Commandments on the wall and leaving "In God We Trust" on our money. For democracy to work, everybody has to get something from the system. If religious Americans feel like the system never works for them -- that secular courts hold some kind of non-democratic power that blocks them at every turn --then they will turn against democracy, with bad consequences for everyone. So why not let them post the commandments, if it makes them feel better about the government?

Besides, if the Magna Carta gets posted in enough public places, there is a chance that I will one day overhear some puzzled person saying, "I wonder what disseize means?" and I can step in and say, "Excuse me . . . ."

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Remedial Education

Long, very interesting letter sent to Conor Friedersdorf, who is filling in at Andrew Sullivan's blog, by a former math professor at one of those "dropout factory" colleges, Cal State Hayward:
The common denominator in all of these cases is an assumption the students had that education consists of indulgences bestowed upon the student by a more socially privileged teacher or administrator who pities them. These students were uniformly astonished when other considerations, such as merit, trumped pity. When we lower the bar of merit to admit the underprivileged, the message we send is that merit does not apply to them. Then we fail them by failing to disabuse them of this assumption.

What, Exactly, Do They Want?

The other day I was driving some teenagers around, and one said that her father keeps asking why President Obama still hasn't made his birth certificate public. I said, "Yes he has, you can see it on the internet." "That's not what he says."

So, here you go, courtesy of Factcheck.org, one Hawaiian birth certificate in the name of Barack Hussein Obama. (click to enlarge) You can read all about the provenance of this document here. And, as a bonus, a birth announcement that ran in the Honolulu Advertiser on August 13, 1961:

Nothing in recent years has made it so clear how impervious opinion is to fact as this ridiculous "dispute."

Liberals and Evil Cultures

Susan Jacoby, feminist, atheist, and crusader for human rights, has a bone to pick with liberals who dislike condemnation of other cultures. And it is certainly true that the left in both Europe and the US has issues with forcefully criticizing how people live and think in other parts of the world. Opposition to colonialism was one of the left's main causes for a century, and having campaigned so hard to free Africans and Asians from their European and American masters it is not easy to switch gears and lecture them on their faults.

On the other hand Jacoby says she is "lonely" on the left because only she is standing up for the rights of women in the Islamic world, and all I can say to that is, look around a little harder. She has no trouble producing numerous examples of leftists who attack people for criticizing patriarchal cultures. As I said, it is an issue for many on the left. But there are many on the other side of this question as well. I am not really a leftist, but I am certainly no conservative, and I have no trouble condemning the abuse and confinement of women. Genital mutilation is wicked. It is wrong that women should need the permission of their husbands to get a job or go to school.

But, really, there is more at stake here than taking the right positions and placing ourselves on the right side of various lines. The actual lives of millions of people are involved, and in such circumstances we have to ask, what are the real consequences of our actions?

To take a deliberately extreme example, consider the situation of Armenians under the Turkish empire. Western governments were constantly harassing the Turks about the treatment of Armenians, and they used the pretext of defending Armenians from persecution to install monitors inside Turkey, and they gave lots of money to Armenian groups to build churches and the like. Instead of helping the Armenians, this led to many Turks who never had feelings about Armenians before to hate them and regard them as symbols of their humiliation at the hands of Europeans, and persecution of Armenians actually intensified, culminating in the genocidal murder of hundreds of thousands of Armenians. In moral terms it may be wrong to blame those who sought to help Armenians for their deaths, but that is what happened, and in the face of such a mountain of corpses claims of good intentions ring a little hollow.

What good does it do when white Americans or Europeans lecture Africans or Middle Easterners about how they should live? Does it in any way do any good at all? Or, if it does some little good by helping to buck up women in those countries who want to push for more freedom, is that undone by angering nationalists and religious conservatives who then launch anti-western, anti-feminist pogroms? In a world where anti-western, anti-capitalist, pro-Islam sentiment is very strong, does rhetorically focusing the conflict on the rights of women help women or hurt them? After all, feminism is so well entrenched in the west that support for women's equality is almost automatically part of any westernizing agenda, and I think it might work better in practical terms to let the more universally popular things about western culture, like economic growth, draw people into the western world.

I have the strong feeling that to be lectured about the faults of one's own culture by outsiders never has any effect but the reverse of the one intended. When white westerners denounce Middle Easterners for how they treat women, their response is most likely to be outrage and an increased determination to celebrate their traditional patriarchy.

One of Jacoby's heroines is Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who fled her traditional Muslim home in the Sudan rather than accept marriage to a stranger and has become a strident anti-Muslim activist. Jacoby's leading example of a liberal who won't take a stand against patriarchy is Nick Kristof, who reviewed Hirsi Ali's Nomad for the New York Times. I found this weird, because while Kristof certainly does criticize Ali, but he also praises her and the review is on the whole positive. Besides which, Kristof devotes his life to trying to actually help people in poor parts of the world, and he is the author, with his wife, of a book about how to help women win equality. Kristof's main complaint with Hirsi Ali is that strident denunciations of Islam as a whole only antagonize those Muslims who want to create humane societies. If the choice is set up as "Islam or rights for women," which is how Hirsi Ali frames it, most Muslims will choose Islam. To help Muslim women, we have to get away from that sort of thinking. The particular argument of Nomad is that Islam leads to toxic family life, and I agree with Kristof that this argument is both objectively false -- surely even the most rabid anti-Muslim must admit that many Muslim families are loving and successful -- and calculated to be as offensive as possible. And it's not like westerners have any special success in creating loving, lasting families that we can share with the world.

It seems to me that any thinking, feeling person ought to have a strong ambivalence about these questions. Many things about traditional patriarchal cultures are offensive to anyone with democratic sensibilities. But it takes a special ignorance not to see how moral criticism from westerners looks to people in those cultures, and to understand how lectures on family values from people whose cultures have massive problems with divorce, out-of-wedlock pregnancy, drug abuse, and crime only play into the hands of conservative imams. And yet, is it ever right to be silent in the face of evil? In cases like these I reach for the old wisdom, that has been handed down the longest: speak in love, not anger; feel compassion, not contempt; look first to the problems of your own house, and learn humility from them before condemning another.

The Forks of the Road

Between 1800 and 1860, hundreds of thousands of black Americans were "sold down the river" to plantations in the newly developing areas of the Gulf Coast, the Mississippi Delta and east Texas. This internal slave trade is not very well known -- how many people know that for 20 years the busiest slave port in the new world was Wheeling, West Virginia? -- but in the past few decades historians have been working to document the trade and preserve important sites associated with it. I did my own small part in this cause by excavating at Joseph Bruin's slave jail in Alexandria, Virginia, one of many collection points in the old South where slaves were gathered for shipment west. The most important slave markets in the west were in New Orleans and at the Forks of the Road near Natchez, Mississippi. The Forks of the Road market has been the subject of a particularly intensive effort to document and memorialize what happened there, and now there is a very informative little brochure on the site that you can read here.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Microhyla nepenthicola

A new species of frog just discovered in Borneo.

Castle Luz, in the French Pyrenees

People Aren't All the Same

I have been complaining for decades now about psychological studies that use American undergraduates to stand in for the entire population of humanity, apparently on the theory that because they can be forced to serve as experimental subjects as part of their Psych 101 classes they are a representative sample. Now I have another ally, Joseph Henrich of the University of British Columbia. He thinks educated westerners are psychologically very different from most people of the world, and he has some evidence:

The Ultimatum Game works like this: You are given $100 and asked to share it with someone else. You can offer that person any amount and if he accepts the offer, you each get to keep your share. If he rejects your offer, you both walk away empty-handed.

How much would you offer? If it's close to half the loot, you're a typical North American. Studies show educated Americans will make an average offer of $48, whether in the interest of fairness or in the knowledge that too low an offer to their counterpart could be rejected as unfair. If you're on the other side of the table, you're likely to reject offers right up to $40.

Which has led to some pontification in print about the innate human demand for fairness, supposedly evolved among primitive hunter gatherers who had to share food to survive. Except that in most parts of the world, including among the hunter-gatherers who have been studied, people will take whatever you give them and think it is really weird that Americans would reject free money because of silly concerns about fairness.

Culture even affects perception in some fundamental ways, like how we divide up colors and whether we see certain optical illusions:

Take the well-known Muller-Lyer optical illusion, which uses arrows to trick the viewer into thinking one line is longer than another, even if both are the same length.

"No matter how many times you measure those lines, you can't cause yourself to see them as the same length," Dr. Henrich says. At least that's true for a Westerner. For some hunter-gatherers, the Muller-Lyer lines do not cause an illusion. "You do this with foragers in the Kalahari and they just see the lines as the same length."

Journals should stop publishing all the nonsensical claims made about humanity on the basis of studies in one country, and in the meantime we should all stop reading them.

Arab New York

Fifty years ago lower Manhattan was home to a vibrant Arab community dubbed Little Syria. David Dunlap in the Times:
Conjure, for a moment, a place just steps from City Hall but a world apart. Salaam.

Yes, that is the fragrance of strong coffee in the air, of sweet figs and tart lemons, of pastries that remind buyers of childhoods in Damascus and Beirut. Bazaars abound with handmade rugs and brass lamps and water pipes. Men wear fezzes. A few women retire behind veils. Al-Hoda is the leading newspaper. Business signs — at least those legible to a non-Arabic speaker — proclaim “Rahaim & Malhami,” “Noor & Maloof” and “Sahadi Bros.”

This is not what the lower west side of Manhattan would look like if the much-debated Islamic community center were built two blocks from the World Trade Center site. This is what it looked like decades before the World Trade Center was even envisioned. This is its heritage.

New York is like that, and many other places in America are like that. Before some neighborhoods were what they are today, they were Greek enclaves or Jewish enclaves and before that maybe they were warehouse districts or African burying grounds or Indian villages. I have done a lot of archaeology on Civil War battlefields, and most of what you find comes not from the battle but from the homes of people who lived there before and after the few days of fighting. The claim of any one group of people or one event to a particular plot of land is always questionable, always subject to other, competing claims.

The American Voter

A voter comments on the Arizona senate primary, where John "I never said I was a maverick" McCain defeated challenger J.D. Hayworth:
“I don’t like either of them,” said Blanche Kinsley, 84, a retiree, who voted for Mr. McCain without much enthusiasm. “But I used to hear J. D. Hayworth on the radio and he annoyed me.”
Never mind that Hayworth is a fascistic anti-immigrant fanatic, I'm voting against him because he annoys me.

This business of "I don't like any of them" bothers me. There are sometimes elections, like the upcoming Maryland governor's race between moderate Republic Bob Ehrlich and moderate Democrat Martin O'Malley, in which the candidates are nearly indistinguishable. And I can see somebody sitting out this one, thinking that his vote just doesn't matter. But much more often in America the parties present us with a clear choice. You might not have "liked" either McCain or Obama, but you have to be blind not to see that the election presented the country with an important choice. As voters, it was our duty to make that choice, not to sit home complaining that neither candidate lived up to some impossible standard of political and moral excellence.

What is it that people who don't "like" any of the candidates are looking for? Is it some kind of magical charisma that makes them feel uplifted and understood, like Kennedy gave to many Catholics and Reagan to many conservatives? If so, I say, get over it, because that kind of charisma has very little to do with governing the country. Is it perfect agreement with all of their positions? This is democracy, and that means compromise; nobody gets everything he wants. Is it answers to all of their problems? Well, then, wake up, because government can only solve a few of your problems, and that at very great cost. You're on your own about the rest.

My favorite example of voter confusion has to do with partisanship; polls seem to say that two thirds of the voters are upset about excessive partisanship and want politicians to work together to solve problems, while the other two-thirds wants politicians to stand up strongly for what they believe in.

Whenever people start ranting about American politics, I remember the old saw that "every nation gets the government it deserves." If our politicians are confused, shallow, two-faced, greedy, or mean-spirited, it is because we are.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Today in History

On August 24, 410, the Visigoths under Alaric entered the city of Rome and began to sack it. Rome had stood unconquered for 800 years.

Tuesday 9:00 AM

A man standing at the bus stop
reading the newspaper is on fire
Flames are peeking out
from beneath his collar and cuffs
His shoes have begun to melt

The woman next to him
wants to mention it to him
that he is burning
but she is drowning
Water is everywhere
in her mouth and ears
in her eyes
A stream of water runs
steadily from her blouse

Another woman stands at the bus stop
freezing to death
She tries to stand near the man
who is on fire
to try to melt the icicles
that have formed on her eyelashes
and on her nostrils
to stop her teeth long enough
from chattering to say something
to the woman who is drowning
but the woman who is freezing to death
has trouble moving
with blocks of ice on her feet

It takes the three some time
to board the bus
what with the flames
and water and ice
But when they finally climb the stairs
and take their seats
the driver doesn't even notice
that none of them has paid
because he is tortured
by visions and is wondering
if the man who got off at the last stop
was really being mauled to death
by wild dogs.

--Denver Butson

Genetic Engineering to Save Bananas

The bananas we eat are all sterile crossbreeds of wild species, incapable of making fertile seeds. All the plants of each variety are genetically identical, which makes them extremely vulnerable to disease. The main variety eaten in the United States in the early 1900s, the Gros Michel, is nearly extinct now because it was vulnerable to a fungus called Panama disease.

Now the bananas we eat today are threatened by another disease, a virus called BMX. BMX has wiped out hundreds of banana plantations in Africa and it is spreading rapidly. Since bananas don't breed, conventional breeding is useless in creating resistant varieties. The only option is genetic engineering. And scientists working in Uganda have just announced that by splicing in two genes from green pepper plants they have created bananas that seem to be immune to BMX.

I wonder what opponents of genetically modified food think of this. Bananas are a staple crop in much of the tropics, and BMX threatens hunger for millions. Do anti-gm food activists think we should just let the bananas die?

(The picture shows Gros Michel bananas. Since some survive, I wonder if somebody will engineer a version resistant to Panama disease; I have read that people pay up to $10,000 for a chance to eat real Gros Michels.)

Dropout Factories

A disturbing report on the nation's worst colleges, which have graduation rates under 15%.

Transforming Tysons Corner

I just learned about the plan, launched by Fairfax County earlier this year, to transform the beltway exit known as Tysons Corner into a real place. There are 100,000 jobs in this pile of unconnected office buildings, but despite the urban density of the building it is nearly impossible to walk anywhere. I once visited a friend who was working there for lunch, and to walk from his building to a cafe in the next building we had to cross an immense parking lot, climb a concrete wall, slip through a gap in a chain link fence, and cross another parking lot.

But construction is finally beginning on the Metro Silver Line, which will include four stations in Tysons Corner, and the plan is to turn Tysons into a livable urban area with 100,000 residents and dozens of street level shops and restaurants. The first major private project to follow the new guidelines has just been announced by Capital One, which hopes to turn its vast parking lots into a campus of residential and commercial buildings.

It seems that at least some of America is recovering from the Era of Ugly Buildings and Uglier Parking Lots and moving toward building places where people will be happy to live.

Digital Peer Review

Academic peer review is one of those things that everybody hates but nobody knows how to change. It is cumbersome and time-consuming and can delay the publication of scholarly articles for months or even years. It depends on the willingness of professors to work without pay, and while some do it because they are interested or care about the state of their fields, some do it because they have axes to grind. Smaller journals rely on small pools of reviewers, and once you know who they are you can slant your piece to get their quick approval. Editors can also game the process by sending articles to people they know will like or dislike it. A friend of mine who has taken a public position against a certain kind of research was recently sent an article in exactly the vein he has spoken out against, and he asked my opinion about whether it was even ethical for him to review the article. I said, the editor wouldn't have sent it to you unless he wanted to reject it.

Now some journals are experimenting with electronic review, posting articles online and inviting comment. One of the experimenters is Shakespeare Quarterly:
Mixing traditional and new methods, the journal posted online four essays not yet accepted for publication, and a core group of experts — what Ms. Rowe called “our crowd sourcing” — were invited to post their signed comments on the Web site MediaCommons, a scholarly digital network. Others could add their thoughts as well, after registering with their own names. In the end 41 people made more than 350 comments, many of which elicited responses from the authors. The revised essays were then reviewed by the quarterly’s editors, who made the final decision to include them in the printed journal, due out Sept. 17.
This seems promising to me, although it raises the question of why we need journals at all.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Renaissance Guardian

This relief is on a garden wall about four blocks from my office, but I never noticed it until last week.

John Adams on Thomas Paine

John Adams on Paine's The Age of Reason, a salutary reminder of how nasty our public discourse was when the Founding Fathers walked the stage:
I am willing you should call this the Age of Frivolity, as you do, and would not object if you had named it the Age of Folly, Vice, Frenzy, Brutality, Daemons, Bonaparte, Tom Paine, or the Age of the Burning Brand from the Bottomless Pit, or anything but the Age of Reason. I know not whether any man in the world has had more influence on its inhabitants or affairs of the last thirty years than Tom Paine. There can no severer satire on the age. For such a mongrel between pig and puppy, begotten by a wild boar on a bitch wolf, never before in any age of the world was suffered by the poltroonery of mankind, to run through such a career of mischief. Call it then the Age of Paine.

The Empty Suit and the Mosque

Back when Rick Lazio snagged the Republican convention's support to run for governor of New York, I dubbed him "America's foremost empty suit." Since he is my least favorite politician, it was inevitable that he would latch onto what I regard as the most ridiculous political issue of the decade, the Manhattan mosque. As the New York Times reports:
“We do not believe in turning our back on the victims of 9/11,” he said to enthusiastic applause. As the Republican primary for the governor’s race approaches, Mr. Lazio is making his vigorous opposition to the project a centerpiece of his candidacy, assailing it on the campaign trail, testifying against it at public hearings, denouncing it in television commercials and even creating an online petition demanding an investigation into the center and its organizers. “Defend New York,” says the giant headline above the petition on his Web site.
Of course the really irritating thing is that the attacks are working; Lazio is getting lots of attention and becoming the leading voice against the mosque will probably help him win next month's Republican primary. Let's hope the fooferaw fades away before the November election.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Eric Fortune

Painter of surreal watercolors. More here.

A Long-Forgotten Athlete Sees the Light of Day

In Albania, archaeologists excavating the site of ancient Apollonia unearthed this bust of an athlete dating to the 2nd century AD. That was the golden age of the empire, the era of the "four good emperors," the richest and safest era Europe and the Mediterranean would see until the 18th century, a time like ours when people idolized star athletes and entertainers.

The Worst English Poet?

Anthony Daniels thinks the title goes to William McGonagall, author of lines like:
Beautiful new railway bridge of the Silvery Tay,
With thy beautiful side-screens along your railway,
Which will be a great protection on a windy day,
So as the railway carriages won’t be blown away,
And ought to cheer the hearts of the
passengers night and day
As they are conveyed along thy beautiful railway.

Bad Summers

Rebecca Traister thinks it's funny to say that the summer of 2010 was
. . . one of the most cheerless on record.

Now, I don’t want to get into any kind of bad-summer pissing match here. I give you 1968, and I’ve gathered that 1977 wasn’t much fun for New Yorkers. But I don’t need to prove unequivocally that 2010 has been the worst of the worst to know that it has been pretty damn bad.

1968? How quickly they forget, say, 1861, when the country was falling apart. Or 1939, as the Germans swallowed Czechoslovakia and escalated their threats against Poland, the Japanese swept across south China, and the looming world war had as yet done nothing to alleviate the ongoing depression in those places that weren't yet fighting. Or 1916, when half a million men died in the Battles of Verdun and the Somme. Or how about 1348, when about a quarter of the people in Europe died of the plague?

I don't just point these things out to be pedantic. I am a firm believer in the "count your blessings" school of happiness and contentment. I think it is a bad mistake for people to imagine that they live in uniquely bad times, or even in particularly bad times. It leads to a sense of powerlessness in the face of overwhelming misery, and it also leads to bad politics -- I mean the sort that leads people to vote for the Sharon Angles of the world as the only ones sufficiently determined to stand up to the uniquely awful current crop of leaders and fight their uniquely awful policies.

The reality is that even in the midst of recession this is the richest society in history, we are safer from violence than almost anyone in history, our politics are unremarkable, and we are in general extraordinarily privileged. I find that reflecting on this makes me feel much better about the outrages of our time, from rap to Sarah Palin. But if it really makes you feel better to imagine this as the worst of times, by all means, go ahead. You're wrong, but, hey, it's a free country.


The most active volcano in the Philippines puts on a show.

Frankish Jewelry

Searching for images of Frankish jewelry and weapons, to show to my students this fall, I found this picture on a French blog. I have never seen these lovely items, and I am not sure exactly what they are, but they certainly are beautiful. They seem to date to around AD 550.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Middle English Book Curse

Wher so ever y be come over all
I belonge to the Chapell of gunvylle hall;
He shal be cursed by the grate sentens
That felonsly faryth and berith me thens.
And whether he bere me in pooke or sekke,
For me he shall be hanged by the nekke,
(I am so well beknown of dyverse men)
But I be restored theder agen
More book curses on Carl Pyrdum's Got Medieval blog, here.

Greek Sculpture in Color

Greek sculpture was painted; in fact, pretty much all sculpture everywhere was painted (or otherwise decorated) until Renaissance classicists started trying to imitate the ancient art they were digging out of the ground. At Smithsonian, a slide show of classical sculptures recolored to show how they might have looked when new. Above, the famous "Alexander Sarcophagus" as it is exhibited today. Below, the Smithsonian's color reproduction. And, to show the ambiguity in the process, I have dug up someone else's coloration and posted that, too.


Zombie DNA

Less than half of our DNA codes for active genes. The rest is commonly called "junk", although I have always suspected that some of it does other things that we don't yet understand. Some bits of junk DNA seem to be inactive genes, or parts of them, inherited from our distant ancestors. The notion that some of them could come back to life and hijack our bodies has long interested science fiction writers, as in the Star Trek TNG episode where the crew all turns into various ancestral animals. And now science catches up, sort of:
The human genome is riddled with dead genes, fossils of a sort, dating back hundreds of thousands of years — the genome’s equivalent of an attic full of broken and useless junk.

Some of those genes, surprised geneticists reported Thursday, can rise from the dead like zombies, waking up to cause one of the most common forms of muscular dystrophy. This is the first time, geneticists say, that they have seen a dead gene come back to life and cause a disease. . . .

The disease, facioscapulohumeral muscular dystrophy, known as FSHD, is one of the most common forms of muscular dystrophy. It was known to be inherited in a simple pattern. But before this paper, published online Thursday in Science by a group of researchers, its cause was poorly understood.

The culprit gene is part of what has been called junk DNA, regions whose function, if any, is largely unknown. In this case, the dead genes had seemed permanently disabled. But, said Dr. Collins, “the first law of the genome is that anything that can go wrong, will.” David Housman, a geneticist at M.I.T., said scientists will now be looking for other diseases with similar causes, and they expect to find them.

The Latest Recession News

The Six-Figure Fish Tank Catches On

Friday, August 20, 2010

Digenis Akritis

Digenis Akritis is the hero of a number of Greek ballads going back to the 13th century. His name means "Two-souled frontiersman," two souls because he was half Greek, half Turk. I just learned about these stories, and I was intrigued, wondering if he might be a good hero for a multi-cultural world.

I can't yet speak to the whole corpus of ballads, but the first one I found was not promising:
And look, a fearsome lion came out of the wood
and also began to attack the girl.
She let out a shriek, calling me to help.
I heard her and got up from my bed with all speed;
when I saw the lion I promptly leaped forward,
brandishing my stick in my hand, and charged at it immediately,
striking it on the head. It died on the spot.
When the lion, and the serpent too, had been flung far away,
my girl swore upon her life, saying,
'Listen to me, my lord, if you would give me pleasure,
take your kithara, play it for a while
and distract my soul from fear of the wild beast.'
As I could not disobey the girl. . . .
So he saves her life, slaying the wild beasts that had threatened her, and she immediately demands that he get out his kithara and play for her? Women!

Things Americans Believe

Some context for that poll that says 18% of Americans think Obama is a Muslim:

PRINCETON, NJ -- About three in four Americans profess at least one paranormal belief, according to a recent Gallup survey. The most popular is extrasensory perception (ESP), mentioned by 41%, followed closely by belief in haunted houses (37%). The full list of items includes:

Believe in


Extrasensory perception, or ESP


That houses can be haunted


Ghosts/that spirits of dead people can come back in certain places/situations


Telepathy/communication between minds without using traditional senses


Clairvoyance/the power of the mind to know the past and predict the future


Astrology, or that the position of the stars and planets can affect people's lives


That people can communicate mentally with someone who has died




Reincarnation, that is, the rebirth of the soul in a new body after death


Channeling/allowing a 'spirit-being' to temporarily assume control of body


A special analysis of the data shows that 73% of Americans believe in at least one of the 10 items listed above, while 27% believe in none of them. A Gallup survey in 2001 provided similar results -- 76% professed belief in at least one of the 10 items.

Threave Castle, Scotland


Monte Reel, at Slate:
The most isolated man on the planet will spend tonight inside a leafy palm-thatch hut in the Brazilian Amazon. As always, insects will darn the air. Spider monkeys will patrol the treetops. Wild pigs will root in the undergrowth. And the man will remain a quietly anonymous fixture of the landscape, camouflaged to the point of near invisibility.

That description relies on a few unknowable assumptions, obviously, but they're relatively safe. The man's isolation has been so well-established—and is so mind-bendingly extreme—that portraying him silently enduring another moment of utter solitude is a practical guarantee of reportorial accuracy.

He's an Indian, and Brazilian officials have concluded that he's the last survivor of an uncontacted tribe. They first became aware of his existence nearly 15 years ago and for a decade launched numerous expeditions to track him, to ensure his safety, and to try to establish peaceful contact with him. In 2007, with ranching and logging closing in quickly on all sides, government officials declared a 31-square-mile area around him off-limits to trespassing and development.

It's meant to be a safe zone. He's still in there. Alone.

Yosemite Firefall

When the spring snowmelt is running off El Capitan at Yosemite, and the afternoon sunlight hits it just right, a lucky person in the right spot gets a view of the famous firefall.

The Inflation Phantom

Inflation in the US is running at less than 1%. The Federal Reserve, which used to have an inflation target of 3%, but lately for obscure reasons has reduced that target to 2%, is still worried about inflation even when their own stated policy indicates that they should be acting to raise it, not lower it. This is part of a weird longing for austerity that has gripped the world's financial leadership over the past year. Conservatives everywhere are howling for budget cuts and tightening the money supply, even as unemployment stays high and economic growth is sluggish, and many liberals are going along. But why? There is no economic pressure on the US or British government to cut spending. On the contrary, interest rates on government bonds remain at historic lows. There is no danger of inflation. What is it with the hard money yowling?

I think it is a psychological reaction to the economic crisis, or perhaps better a moral reaction. The crisis was caused, the argument goes, by excess -- too much borrowing, too much spending, too much easy money, too many unsound investments. To restore equilibrium, it is first necessary that we should atone for our excess. We must be purged by suffering before we can resume normal life. After feasting, we must fast. This sort of thinking is all the easier for bankers and economists to adopt because they are not suffering; as I have written about before, this recession has largely spared the well-educated. So they can soothe their souls with policies of austerity that don't hit their own pocketbooks. You can see how they would react to austerity measures that would actually impact their own lives by their policy on raising taxes; they are all on fire about reducing budget deficits, but only if it is done without asking them to pay another penny.

I believe that the business cycle is actually an emotional cycle. During boom times, people get excited and do irrationally exuberant things. When some of those crazy investments fail, or some of those expensive purchases become burdens, they over-react and plunge into gloomy austerity. It ought to be the job of central bankers and other economic leaders to smooth out the cycle with rational policies. As the current inflation hysteria shows, this does not work very well because bankers are just as subject to emotional currents as the rest of us.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

The Non-Mystery of Plastic in the Ocean

In the news today, an interesting study of the amount of plastic in the Atlantic Ocean:

The concentration of plastic bits floating on the surface of the Atlantic has held steady for more than 20 years, found a new study, even as people use and discard ever-increasing amounts of plastic.

With growing concerns about plastic in the environment, the surprising new finding raises questions about where all that stuff is ending up.

“We know that the global production of plastic has increased at a very high rate, and we know that plastics in the waste stream have also increased over time,” said Kara Lavender, an oceanographer at the Sea Education Association in Woods Hole, Mass.

“We infer that plastic in the ocean is most likely increasing,” she added. “So how come we’re not seeing increasing amounts of plastic in areas where the plastic is accumulating? That’s the mystery.”

Except that it isn't a mystery at all. The explanation was already discovered by other scientists several years ago: plastic dissolves in seawater. I know this; presumably many of my readers know this, since I blogged about it. Why don't these oceanographers know this? I have done a little internet searching to see if that original study has been questioned or proved false, but I can't find any such information. So, mysteries upon mysteries.


The Times today as a story headlined, "Tai Chi Eases Symptoms of Fibromyalgia."

Which reminded me of this story:
Fake acupuncture appears to work just as well for pain relief as the real thing, according to a new study of patients with knee arthritis.
Because so far as I can tell "fibromyalgia" is just a fancy name for "unexplained pain and fatigue." Which is not to say that people who think they have it are not suffering; we suffer from lots of things we don't understand. I am going to offend a lot of people when I say that I think fibromyalgia has a large psychological component, but I don't mean by that to dismiss anybody's misery. Because, see, all pain has a psychological component. ("Pain, Captain, is a thing of the mind," said Spock in a famous scene.) People with arthritis in their knees have an easily identifiable source for their pain, and nobody doubts that it is a physical thing, and yet some arthritis patients have been greatly relieved of that pain by wholly imaginary treatments. And, on the other side, psychological conditions like depression and anxiety can have serious physical symptoms.

Our brains are part of our bodies; to say that something is "in our heads" is not to say that it is not real. Psychic pain is not imaginary. I strongly suspect that many people who suffer from fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue, and other vague but debilitating conditions have problems that might be best described as spiritual: their lives are screwed up or unhappy, and that makes their bodies sick. That doesn't mean we shouldn't give them medical help if it works. After all, many people end up with heart disease for reasons that can be traced back to a screwed up, unhappy life, and they can still be helped by drugs or surgery.

Stone People of Guizai Mountain

Chinese archaeologists have announced the discovery of a large cache of stone statues, at least 5,000 in all, in the Nanling Mountains of Hunan. Guizai Mountain, where the stones were found, has been a sacred site for thousands of years, and the stone statues may have been deposited over a period that began around 3000 BC and extended into the Qin Dynasty.

Plankton from Space

This European Space Agency photograph shows plankton blooms of the coast of Ireland, a natural and apparently ancient phenomenon driven by changes in sea water temperature.


Analysis of the DNA in the mitochondria of our cells has long suggested that we are all descended from a single woman. Mitochondrial DNA descends only through women and there isn't very much of it. This simplicity makes it a very useful tool for the tracing of ancestry, so there have been a lot of studies of its diversity and the distribution of various mutations. Now there is a new meta-study that sets the date of our common ancestor -- "mitochondrial Eve" -- about 200,000 years ago. This is actually a little before the first good evidence for fully modern humans, but that's ok; the evolution of Homo sapiens sapiens from ancestral groups must have taken tens of thousands of years.

The Besiegers

Archaeologists working outside York in England have uncovered several mass graves that are probably the remains of Parliamentary ("Roundhead") soldiers who died of disease during the siege of York in 1644. During this siege the expected conditions were reversed. The royalists within the walls had plenty of food and shelter, but the besiegers outside went hungry and suffered terribly from cold and disease. The siege ended with the Battle of Marston Moor, a crucial victory for the Parliamentary side.

And while I'm on the subject, let me note for all you fans of romance novels, admirers of "cavaliers," doters on Bonnie Prince Charlie, and the rest of your slavish, reactionary, king-worshipping cabal, that all virtue was with the Parliamentary cause in that war. Anyone who wastes a tear for Charles I -- of whom let it be said, as it was said of old, "the memory of the wicked shall rot" -- deserves to languish under arbitrary dictatorship, deprived of all rights except that of watching kings and nobles parade by on public occasions looking grand in the golden finery paid for by your sweat and blood.

So there.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010


Photographer Murray Fredericks has been camping out for weeks at a time in Australia's vast, mostly dry salt lake, Lake Eyre. Amazing pictures.

American Conservatism

Will Wilkinson:
American conservatism is a movement consumed by protecting and asserting a certain fabricated conception of the traditional American way of life against imaginary enemies. Support for small government is no more than a bullet point on the Right’s “What We Believe” cheat sheet, mouthed at opportune moments.
And more:
The silly controversy over the downtown mosque is excellent evidence that the conservative movement has become obsessed to the point of derangement with a right-wing version of identity politics that sees everything through the lens of the assumption that American identity is under seige. The modus operandi of the populist right is patriotic semiotics gone wild. 9/11 was a Great Awakening and Ground Zero is a sacred scar representing the sacrifice of those thousands who died in fire in order to shake the rest of us into recognition of the great existential threat to the American Way of Life. To refuse to resist the placement of a mosque next to the grave of those martyred in the Great Awakening is to fail to have heard the call, to fail to understand the battle now underway, to complacently acquiesce to the forces slowly transforming America into something else, into something unAmerican, a place for some other kind of people, a place not worth fighting for. It is to, as they say, “let the terrorists win.”

More on the Failure of "Enhanced Interrogation"

Think Progress has a round-up of statements from American agents and leaders about the failure of the Bush administration's torture regime to produce useful intelligence. A sample:
Some may argue that we would be more effective if we sanctioned torture or other expedient methods to obtain information from the enemy. That would be wrong. Beyond the basic fact that such actions are illegal, history shows that they also are frequently neither useful nor necessary. Certainly, extreme physical action can make someone ‘talk;’ however, what the individual says may be of questionable value. [Gen. David Petraeus, Letter to Multi-National Force-Iraq, 5/10/07]

The Latest Hysteria

The news from Toronto:
A group of central Ontario parents is demanding their children's schools turn off wireless Internet before they head back to school next month, fearing the technology is making the kids sick. Some parents in the Barrie, Ont., area say their children are showing a host of symptoms ranging from headaches and dizziness to nausea and even racing heart rates.

They believe the Wi-Fi setup in their kids' elementary schools may be the problem.

The parents complain they can't get the Simcoe County school board or anyone else to take their concerns seriously, even though the children's symptoms all disappear on weekends when they aren't in school.

"Parents are getting together and realizing this is the pattern," said Rodney Palmer of the Simcoe County Safe School Committee. "We went to the school board and they did nothing."

The symptoms, which also include memory loss, trouble concentrating, skin rashes, hyperactivity, night sweats and insomnia, have been reported in 14 Ontario schools in Barrie, Bradford, Collingwood, Orillia and Wasaga Beach since the board decided to go wireless, said Palmer.

"These kids are getting sick at school but not at home," he said. "I'm not saying it's because of the Wi-Fi because we don't know yet, but I've pretty much eliminated every other possible source."

Every other possible source? Hmmm. What about, their kids just don't like school? Or, as Steven Novella suggests, sleep deprivation, which could explain all of these symptoms and which would go away on weekends when the kids sleep in. Whatever the problem, it isn't likely to be wi fi, which produces a very small part of the radio energy we are exposed to from myriad sources. On the brighter side, at least the school board is ignoring them.

The World Beneath

There is another world under this, and it is like ours in everything -- animals, plants, people -- save that the seasons are different. The streams that come down from the mountains are the trails by which we reach this underworld, and the springs at their heads are the doorways by which we enter it, but to do this one must fast and go to water and have one of the underground people for a guide. We know that the seasons in the underworld are different from ours because the water in the springs is always warmer in winter and cooler in summer than the outer air.

--Cherokee creation myth

Guns in America

I have given up on gun control as any kind of solution to our problems with violent crime. Too many Americans feel too strongly about their right to own and carry guns for gun control to make any headway as an issue. For Democrats to push the issue will just hand elections to Republicans, and what would that accomplish? And, philosophically, I think that it is generally a bad thing for a democracy to try to ban something that millions of generally law-abiding citizens think is their right. Guns creep me out, but I suppose I am just going to have to learn to live with them -- isn't tolerance a big part of what liberalism is about?

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Happy Birthday, Mary

My elder daughter is 16. Her mother made the cake.

Floods in Pakistan

Amazing collection of pictures.

Explaining the Rise in Autism

Sociologist Peter Bearman of Columbia and colleagues have completed a major study attempting to explain why the rate of autism has increased more than 500 percent over the past 20 years. They found that they could explain more than half of the increase with the following three factors:

Better diagnosis, that is, differentiating autism from mental retardation. They estimate this accounts for 26% of the increase.

Awareness. By comparing the rate of autism in children who live near another child with autism to the rate among those who don't, they estimate that increased awareness of autism accounts for 16% of the increase.

Older parents. The rate of autism is higher among children of older parents, and the age of parents is increasing. They estimate this accounts for 11% of the increase.

That adds up to 53%, leaving nearly half of the increase unexplained. I don't think this study is anything like the last word, but it is a serious attempt to quantify the skeptic's sense that the rise in autism is just about changes in diagnosis. That these statisticians were not able to account for all of the rise in autism leaves the lingering suspicion that something about modern life is the cause. With vaccines pretty much ruled out by a whole raft of studies, that leaves the disconcerting possibility that almost anything about our lives could be the culprit.

Power Corrupts

Jonah Lehrer:

From prostitution scandals to corruption allegations to the steady drumbeat of charges against corporate executives and world-class athletes, it seems that the headlines are filled with the latest misstep of someone in a position of power. This isn’t just anecdotal: Surveys of organizations find that the vast majority of rude and inappropriate behaviors, such as the shouting of profanities, come from the offices of those with the most authority. . . .

“It’s an incredibly consistent effect,” Mr. Keltner says. “When you give people power, they basically start acting like fools. They flirt inappropriately, tease in a hostile fashion, and become totally impulsive.” Mr. Keltner compares the feeling of power to brain damage, noting that people with lots of authority tend to behave like neurological patients with a damaged orbito-frontal lobe, a brain area that’s crucial for empathy and decision-making. Even the most virtuous people can be undone by the corner office.

Why does power lead people to flirt with interns and solicit bribes and fudge financial documents? According to psychologists, one of the main problems with authority is that it makes us less sympathetic to the concerns and emotions of others. For instance, several studies have found that people in positions of authority are more likely to rely on stereotypes and generalizations when judging other people. They also spend much less time making eye contact, at least when a person without power is talking.