Thursday, December 31, 2015

The Roman Wolf in Stone

The carved stone dates to the 1st century BCE; the setting is modern. From Archaic Wonder.

The Beard

This is rich:
Outside the Beltway, the right is livid with new Speaker Paul Ryan’s trillion-dollar spending deal with Democrats. Conservative pundit Ann Coulter says Ryan, just seven weeks on the job, is ripe for a primary challenge. “Paul Ryan Betrays America,” blared a headline on the conservative site And Twitter is littered with references to the Wisconsin Republican’s new “Muslim beard.”
Yes, the Republican Speaker of the House is being accused of converting Islam because he grew a beard.

Obama Taxes the Rich

Under President Obama, rich Americans really are paying more in taxes:
Data released by the I.R.S. on Wednesday shows that tax rates on the income of America’s 400 wealthiest taxpayers rose sharply to 22.9 percent in 2013, erasing a majority of the last two decades’ decline in their effective tax rate.

. . . tax rates on America’s 400 wealthiest taxpayers fell sharply from the late 1990s through 2012, when their average effective income tax rate fell to 16.7 percent from 26.4 percent.

The reason behind the reversal is instructive. Broadly, if tax shelters are a problem, there are two ways to fix it. One is to outlaw them. The other way is to change the tax rate rules, so money inside the shelter is not treated so differently from money outside the shelter.

The spike in the wealthiest people’s tax rates was mostly achieved the second way, and mostly through initiatives of President Obama. Two laws that he championed became effective in 2013, raising tax rates on high earners and limiting the value of tax deductions they are entitled to take.
So there you have the difference between the tax policies of Democrats and Republicans. Under Republicans, the tax rate of the rich fell from 26.4% to 16.7%; under Democrats it has been pushed back up to 22.9%.

If you are a real leftist, you scoff at this tiny difference and think it does nothing to break the hold of the elite on our nation's resources. If you are a small government conservative, you think this proves Democrats really are just about stealing from the rich to fund expansion of the bureaucracy.

My take would be that 1) there is a real difference between the two parties, and 2) within the whole spectrum of available political philosophies the difference between Democrats and Republicans is not really so great. For good or ill there are no revolutionary options in American politics.


Life is suffering — and yet.

—Ada Calhoun

(Actually, Calhoun says that this is a quotation from one of her instructors in Buddhism, and it does sound vaguely like several Buddhist sayings. But I've never seen it in exactly this form before, and I like it just this way.)


The number of births in the U.S. in 2014, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. That's one percent more than the year before. The mean age of the mother at first birth is now 26.3.

Besides the continuing rapid decline in the teen birth rate, which I already blogged about, there are two more pieces of good news: the number of pre-term births declined again, and is now down more than 10% since 2007. The rate of cesarean sections fell from 32% to 31.4%, the biggest drop in the whole history of the NCHS; the c-section rate has decline by 6% since its 2009 peak, after rising in every single year from 1960 to 2009.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Indo-Europeans in Ireland

From the Independent:
Researchers have sequenced ancient Irish human genomes for the first time. They discovered mass migrations to Ireland thousands of years ago resulted in huge changes to the ancient Irish genetic make-up. . . .

Researchers studied the genome of a woman farmer who lived 5,200 years ago near what is now Belfast. They also carried out DNA analysis of three men on Rathlin Island from 4,000 years ago in the Bronze Age after metalworking began. The female farmer had an ancestry originating in the Middle East, where agriculture was invented. She had black hair and brown eyes, like current south Europeans. The Bronze Age genomes of the men were different, with about a third of their ancestry coming from ancient sources by the Black Sea in modern-day Ukraine. They had the most common Irish Y chromosome type, the blue eye gene variant. There were also signs that they were lactose tolerant, and suffered from haemochromatosis - excessive iron retention - a disease commonly called the 'Celtic curse'.

The genomes of the woman farmer did not show these - highlighting that the genetic make-up of Irish people had changed dramatically in just 1,000 years.
It's only four people, but it is about the best possible evidence for a migration of Indo-European people into Ireland. This has been a hard problem (here and here) because the archaeology does not show any real breaks between the arrival of Neolithic farmers and the arrival of Christianity. To me the Irish language seemed like pretty conclusive evidence that there was a Celtic invasion, but many archaeologists (and Irish nationalists) rejected this. But as elsewhere in Europe the new genetic evidence is undercutting all theories that Europe's peoples evolved in place.


Abstract to the original article:
Neolithic and Bronze Age migration to Ireland and establishment of the insular Atlantic genome

Lara M. Cassidy, Rui Martiniano et al.

The Neolithic and Bronze Age transitions were profound cultural shifts catalyzed in parts of Europe by migrations, first of early farmers from the Near East and then Bronze Age herders from the Pontic Steppe. However, a decades-long, unresolved controversy is whether population change or cultural adoption occurred at the Atlantic edge, within the British Isles. We address this issue by using the first whole genome data from prehistoric Irish individuals. A Neolithic woman (3343–3020 cal BC) from a megalithic burial (10.3× coverage) possessed a genome of predominantly Near Eastern origin. She had some hunter–gatherer ancestry but belonged to a population of large effective size, suggesting a substantial influx of early farmers to the island. Three Bronze Age individuals from Rathlin Island (2026–1534 cal BC), including one high coverage (10.5×) genome, showed substantial Steppe genetic heritage indicating that the European population upheavals of the third millennium manifested all of the way from southern Siberia to the western ocean. This turnover invites the possibility of accompanying introduction of Indo-European, perhaps early Celtic, language. Irish Bronze Age haplotypic similarity is strongest within modern Irish, Scottish, and Welsh populations, and several important genetic variants that today show maximal or very high frequencies in Ireland appear at this horizon. These include those coding for lactase persistence, blue eye color, Y chromosome R1b haplotypes, and the hemochromatosis C282Y allele; to our knowledge, the first detection of a known Mendelian disease variant in prehistory. These findings together suggest the establishment of central attributes of the Irish genome 4,000 y ago.
And a key sentence:
Third, we followed the methods described in Haak et al. (9), which use a collection of outgroup populations, to estimate the mixture proportions of three different sources, Linearbandkeramik (Early Neolithic; 35 ± 6%), Loschbour (WHG; 26 ± 12%), and Yamnaya (39 ± 8%), in the total Irish Bronze Age group. These three approaches give an overlapping estimate of ∼32% Yamnaya ancestry.
Yamnaya is the early Bronze Age culture of the Ukrainian steppes, the possible Indo-European invaders. For an invasive group to make up 32% of the new population is quite a big impact, much greater than that of the Turks in Turkey, the Roman in Gaul, or the Arabs in Egypt.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Police Body Cameras Work

The first ever large, randomized control trial of police body cameras found that their use cut both the use of force and citizen complaints in half.

Alex Tabarrok:
Police cameras will have some negative effects. When a police officer is accused of something will lawyers have the right to subpoena years of camera footage looking for anything problematic? Think about the OJ case. Perhaps tape should be erased after one year. Nevertheless, the results of the study are impressive. More generally, I worry that there is no solution to the problem of government mass surveillance but at the very least we can turn the cameras around and even the playing field.
Amen to that.

This is from the list of the ten most popular posts of the year at Marginal Revolution, which is a fascinating grab bag of ideas.

America and Me

Americans routinely tell pollsters that while things are ok in their neck of the woods, the rest of the country is going to hell. E.g., my local school is good, but American education is a disaster. Congress is awful, but I like my own Congressman.

Now, via Kevin Drum, comes this weird poll that included questions about whether 2015 was better or worse than 2014 for you and for the country, and also whether people expected to do better in 2016. It shows that a large majority thought 2015 had been better than 2014 for them personally, and a bigger majority expected 2016 to be even better for them. Yet most thought 2015 was worse than 2014 for the country as a whole.

What could be behind this, except for the media? The relentless attention of mass shootings, terrorists, refugees, and so on, things that directly affect only a handful of people? The relentless negativity of presidential candidates and other newshogs?

When it comes to their own  lives, people can judge for themselves how things are going. But nobody has any personal sense of life across a vast nation of 300 million. For that, we rely on the media and our leaders, and for various reasons they prefer to accentuate the negative. Pessimism and anxiety are the result.

My Mysterious Russian Readers

I have become puzzled of late by the large (relatively) number of readers that Blogger tells me I have in Russia. Russia has long been one of the top 5 countries in these statistics, but in the past few months it has surged far past other non-U.S. countries; above is the statistics for the past week.Yet when I look at referring sites I see numerous hits for the French and German versions of Google but none for the Russian. Is this all bots, doing insidious bot things?

If any actual Russian readers could enlighten me I would be grateful.

The Comedy Wildlife Photography Awards

The winner, by Julian Rad.

And some of the honorable mentions. Alison Butigieg.

Graham McGeorge.

William Richardson.

Julie Hunt. More at the contest web site.

Could Manipulating Search Engines Influence Elections?

Maybe. This study showed that when test subjects knew little about the candidates, re-arranging the order of search results could increase the vote for the favored candidate by 48%; in another test, they found that they could get up to 80% of undecided voters to choose the preferred candidate even when they knew a fair amount about the choices.

Monday, December 28, 2015

RIP Andy Stewart

Where are you tonight, I wonder?
Where will you be tonight when I cry?
Will sleep for you come easy
Whilst I alone can't slumber?
Will you welcome the morning
At another man's side?

How easy for you the years have slipped under
And left me with a shadow the sun can't dispel
For I built for you a tower full of love and admiration
But I built it so high I could not reach it myself

The view from my window is a world full of sadness
The face in my mirror is the one face I know
You have taken all that's in me, so my heart is in no danger
Oh my heart is in no danger, but I'd still like to know

There is a silence and it cannot be broken
There is a pure heart, it's there I will go
Time will work its healing, and my spirit will grow stronger
But in the meantime, I would still like to know

- Andy M. Stewart (of Silly Wizard)

Has Cultural Change Slowed?

Back to the Future Day -- 10/21/2015 -- was the day to which Marty McFly was catapulted into the future in 1985's Back to the Future II. In the original, McFly went back to 1955, and the whole movie was basically about how much America had changed in those 30 years. Thinking about this Ross Douthat was inspired to ponder how little has changed between 1985 and now, compared to the 30 years before that:
The power of the first Back to the Future depended not just on an arbitrary 30-year period, that is, but on how radically America had changed across those decades: Marty’s adolescence and his parents’ courtship lay on opposite sides of (among many other things) rock ’n’ roll, civil rights, Vietnam, the sexual revolution, drug culture, the moon landing, feminism, the apocalyptic ’70s, and, finally, the conservative turn of the Reagan years.
Of course the future projected in Back to the Future II was full of flying cars and flying skateboards and other cool future stuff.

Douthat thinks this means that cultural change has slowed to a crawl:
In the original Back to the Future, Marty McFly invaded his father’s sleep dressed as “Darth Vader from the planet Vulcan.” Thirty years later, the biggest blockbuster of 2015 promises to be about . . . Darth Vader’s grandchildren. It will be directed by a filmmaker who’s coming off rebooting . . . Star Trek. And the wider cinematic landscape is defined by . . . the recycling of comic-book properties developed between the 1940s and the 1970s.
I wonder about this a lot, and we have discussed it here before. Has the personal computer, internet, smartphone revolution really been no big deal? Or has it been, in its way, as profound as anything that happened between 1955 and 1985, or between 1925 and 1955, or between 1895 and 1925? I tend to think that recent changes have not been particularly impressive, and that most of life's basics -- how we work and where we live and what we eat and so on -- have changed very little over the course of my adult life. Thoughts?

Iran Sends Away its Enriched Uranium

I thought this deserved a much bigger headline:
A Russian ship left Iran on Monday carrying almost all of Iran’s stockpile of low-enriched uranium, fulfilling a major step in the nuclear deal struck last summer and, for the first time in nearly a decade, apparently leaving Iran with too little fuel to manufacture a nuclear weapon.
A great victory for peace, diplomacy, and sanity, and a personal triumph for our president.

Giant Squid

A giant squid on the order of 18 feet long (5.5 meters) swam into Japan's Toyama Bay last week, and some intrepid divers dove in with it to get pictures. Video here.

A Bit of Bipartisan Good Cheer

What do you know,  sometimes Congress works:
A bill to protect the environment was introduced in the House in March. In early December, the House passed the bill. A week later, the Senate passed it as well, without changing a word and by unanimous consent, just before Congress left town on Friday.

That is the strangely charmed life of the Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015, which sailed through Congress in an age when most legislation plods. The new law bans tiny beads of plastic that have been commonly added as abrasives to beauty and health products like exfoliating facial scrubs and toothpaste.

Under the law, companies will have to stop using beads in their products by July 2017.
As the Times notes, one reason this bill sailed through is that several states have already passed bans on microbeads, and the industry decided to support the Federal ban rather than deal with 50 different state laws. Microbeads are not really such a huge threat, but they are hazardous to water-dwelling animals and they just seem like a frill, since they are used mainly in cosmetics and less dangerous alternatives are available.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Minster Court, London

This photograph has been making the rounds of art blogs, under the wrong name, and it took me a while to figure out that it is really part of Minster Court in London. This office complex was designed by GMW Partnership and completed in 1991.

I love these buildings; in fact this is a good example of what I would like to see more of in contemporary architecture. I loathe spare modernism but I don't really expect architects to put up slavishly neo-gothic or neo-classical buildings like we did in the Victorian era. But I do want them to do something to make the buildings interesting, especially as they are lived at the human scale.

Of course, since I like it, most architecture critics hate it:
The Independent described it as ‘one of the great walking nightmares of postmodern architecture, an aftershock that rose like Dracula’s castle from the ashes of the recession.’ According to the Guardian it looks ‘as close to Batman as the Middle Ages’ and Simon Bradley sees it as a ‘vast and bewildering American influenced flagrantly populist pile of peaks and gables’. The film 101 Dalmatians gave it the backhanded complement of use as the headquarters of Cruella De Ville. The City Guides architectural expert, Paul Taylor, feels that it is a rather dishonest building, as its fantastical complexity is achieved by appearing to stick on features that serve no practical and little symbolic purpose.
And here is what I hate about contemporary architecture and its critics: what is wrong with making an office building "flagrantly populist"? Why shouldn't people like the buildings they work and live in? Why should people be forced to endure, day in and day out, various sculptural experiments with form because that is what architects admire? Architecture is not like painting or chamber music, something created and consumed by small groups of insiders. It is a mass art for the mass of the people. And, damn it, architects should strive to create buildings that the people who see them every day will enjoy.

Plus, who cares if decorative details are "dishonest" or serve no practical purpose? They're pretty and make life more pleasant. That is justification enough, as far as I am concerned.

The main entrance is adorned with Althea Wynne’s statues of three large horses, meant to evoke the horses on  the facade of St Mark’s Cathedral in Venice. Lovely.

So to heck with critics who can't stand pretty building that ordinary people like. More interesting, pretty buildings, please.

Jens Jensen, The Boy on the Wall

Gothenburg, Germany, 1973. Now in the Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Losing Faith in Democracy

For decades now Americans have had little faith in most of our institutions -- Congress, unions, big business, etc. -- and this has now begun to erode our faith in democracy itself. Vox summarizes the polling:
For Americans born in the 1930s, living in a democracy holds virtually sacred importance. Asked on a scale of 1 to 10 how important it is to them to live in a democracy, more than 70 percent give the highest answer. But many of their children and grandchildren are lukewarm. Among millennials — those born since the 1980s — fewer than 30 percent say that living in a democracy is essential. . . .
Among Americans born since 1970, more than 20% rate democracy as a "bad" or "very bad" way to run America. The number of Americans who think it would be better if the country were run by the military has climbed from 5% in 1995 to 15% today.

Rich Americans are especially down on democracy, more than 40% now saying that we would be better off having a "strong leader".

I don't view any of this as an immediate threat to democracy in America -- or in Europe, for that matter. What would we do instead?

But I do think that this shows our actions and our words matter. Over the past 15 years western democracies have failed in some major, significant ways -- in preserving peace, preventing terrorism, and organizing the economy to help ordinary people. If politicians want the respect of the people, they need to make government work better. In America we also have the problem of increasingly rigid partisanship, in which both parties exert themselves as much to keep the other side from achieving its goals as to accomplish their own, leading to grim gridlock. Right now the notion that everyone in the government should work together to help Americans seems ridiculously naive.

America's public discourse has also shifted away from the center. The sort of bland nationalism that we were fed by Time magazine back in the day has slipped into the background, replaced by Rush Limbaugh and the Daily Show. One of my favorite facts about contemporary America is that more Americans tell pollsters they would be unhappy about their children marrying someone from the opposite political party than someone of a different race.

On the right especially, but also to some extent on the left, the tone of politics has become less rational and more apocalyptic. Politicians talk more about losing the America they grew up, or even losing America altogether, than about the great things we will achieve in the future. I was struck to hear Sean Hannity, no great optimist himself, pausing during the last Republican debate to wonder what had happened to Reagan's "city on a hill." That sort of optimism is hard to find in contemporary America.

I think the rise of libertarianism is particularly destructive. The notion that we are lone wolves struggling for personal advantage in a dark forest is both wrong and damaging to democracy. Our future depends absolutely on our ability to work together and take care of each other, and the existence of millions of people who deny this has become corrosive. You can see this especially among the rich, who have started to believe in the lie that they achieved everything by their own efforts and owe nothing to the rest of us. They are wrong, and if we are going to preserve the liberal world we inherited, a world that takes democracy and human rights for granted, we need to answer them.

If we care about democracy, we need to argue back against the oracles of selfishness, the prophets of doom, and the sirens of resentment. We need to stand up for reason, for humanity, for our common weal. Because our free, democratic world, for all that ails it, is our greatest creation, and we absolutely should not let it slip away. Hold fast to the light.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

What do Student Protesters Want?

The statisticians at 538 toted up all the demands issued by student protesters at 51 colleges this year, and got the graph above. I find this underwhelming.

Increasing the diversity of professors is hard because professors tend to stay in their jobs for decades, so even the biggest universities hire only a few every year, and in some fields the applicant pool is overwhelmingly white. Diversity training is a waste of time. I don't have any problem with cultural centers, if  that is what students really want. Increasing the diversity of students is hard in the current legal climate, since quotas are pretty much illegal, although the "top 10% of every high school class" rule that the University of Texas came up with is a clever approach. And anyway there are only so many minority students to go around, and some of them go to historically black colleges or other places where they are the majority.

Tracking race-related offenses is a devil-in-the-details problem; track what offenses, as reported by whom? I imagine most colleges already track offenses that result in a formal charge against someone. What others should be considered?

Expanding mental health resources is something every college that can afford it has already been doing, yet another reason why tuition keeps going up and every college has more administrators.

Every college would also love to retain more minority students -- in fact to retain more white students, too -- but this is another hard problem.

I expect that some colleges will be renaming buildings and changing mascots over the next few years, but this is only going to happen slowly, after administrators have had time to feel out alumni and so on.

I find public apologies for long-past actions to be rituals as bizarre as anything done in New Guinea, but if that's what people want, whatever.

Maybe some college officials need to be removed, but I suspect most of this is scapegoating.

None of this is going to eliminate racism or sexism in America or make college a happier place.

Michael Davies, Frozen Tea

Via This is Colossal:
Ontario-based photographer Michael Davies timed this impressive shot of his friend Markus hurling a thermos of hot tea through the air yesterday in -40°C weather. At such frigid temperatures water freezes instantly to form a dramatic plume of ice.

Algorithmic Campaigning

New Hampshire reporter Scott Conway on his meeting with Marco Rubio:
We had roughly 20 minutes with him [Rubio] on Monday, and in that time, he talked about ISIS, the economy, his political record and his background. But it was like watching a computer algorithm designed to cover talking points. He said a lot but at the same time said nothing. It was like someone wound him up, pointed him toward the doors and pushed "play." If there was a human side to the senator, a soul, it didn't come across.
I have always had exactly this feeling about Rubio.

Friday, December 25, 2015

Michael Sowa

Michael Sowa (born 1945) is a German artist, illustrator, and author of children's books. He also regularly contributes cartoons to satirical magazines. Above, School of Fish.


Pigs on a Wire.

 Sheep with Laptops

 Happy Easter. 

 Runaway Pig.

The Outing.

The Last Days of Pompeii.

Fowl with Pearls.

Emily St. John Mandel, Station Eleven

I just finished listening to Emily St. John Mandel's 2014 book, which got a lot of buzz and won some science fiction and literary awards in 2014. It interweaves the lives of a small group of contemporary people with the events that led to the collapse of civilization (a flu pandemic that killed almost everyone) and an account of the world 20 years after the collapse. I very much enjoyed her telling of the apocalypse and what came after but I didn't really love the contemporary parts. The main character there is a star actor, along with his ex-wives and friends, and I am just not very interested in Hollywood. But it is well written and the whole tale held my interest.

I found her account of the post apocalypse world more believable than most I have read. Why do so many people assume that the collapse of civilization would make most people into raging evil monsters? I had to stop watching The Walking Dead because I got tired of everyone being so pointlessly, purposelessly evil. In Station Eleven there is much turmoil and there are some bad people, but most folks are just trying to survive and welcome help wherever they find it. The main focus in that era is on the Traveling Symphony, a few dozen folks who wander the world playing music and putting on Shakespeare, the motto "Survival is Not Sufficient" painted on their caravans. Loved them.

The title comes from a sci-fi graphic novel that one of the contemporary characters was writing when the world ended. This was mildly interesting, but what really struck me was the fictional author's explanation for what she was after: she wanted, she said, to recreate the feeling she got as a child reading the Spaceman Spiff bits from Calvin and Hobbes. I knew immediately what she meant. Bill Waterson gave us a science fiction world sprung straight from a boy's imagination, all wonder and adventure, a rocket ship ride that leaves everything mundane behind. The in-book story of Station Eleven didn't really achieve that for me, and Station Eleven is not that sort of  book at all. It is quieter and more reflective, a novel about adult people rather than a thrill ride. I think I would give it a B+.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

The Nativity



Giotto (in the lower church at Assisi)

Le Nain brothers

Zanobi Strozzi



Francois Boucher

Spoleto Cathedral

Gerard van Honthorst


Nerds Gotta Be Nerds

I just discovered that there is a long-running debate among physicists and engineers, waged with long papers full of equations, over whether the explosion of the Death Star at the end of Return of the Jedi would have destroyed all life on Endor.

The general consensus: "the Ewoks are dead. All of them."

Hans Burgkmair

Hans Burgkmair (1473–1531) was an artist and printmaker from Augsburg. He did a huge amount of work and hundreds of his woodcuts survive, along with quite a few paintings.  Above is a scene from a procession staged for Burgkmair's most important patron, Emperor Maximilian I.

And a painting of the emperor himself.

Portrait of a man who may or may not be Ulric Fugger of the famous banking dynasty.

Center panel from the Altar of Sigismund and St. Sebastian, 1505.

Famous rendering of a Brazilian native.

More strange foreign people.

Portrait of Sebastian Brant.

Renaissance copy of another Burgkmair painting, a portrait of Martin Schongauer. The original was lost in some war or another.

And a series of illustrations from Burgkmair's biggest project, The White King, which the Met describes like this:
Der Weisskunig (the white king) is a loosely biographical account of the life of Emperor Maximilian I. The text, composed by Maximilian's secretary Marx Treitz-Sauerwein, is accompanied by illustrations by Burgkmair, Leonhard Beck, Hans Schäufelein, and Hans Springinklee, with the proofs completed between 1514 and 1516. However, they remained unpublished until the blocks were rediscovered in 1775, at which point they were published as a book by Hoffstätter in Vienna. It includes 236 woodcut illustrations.
I have to say that I was surprised by the number of battles and sieges in this book that I never heard of. But then Maximilian hardly appears in English-language histories, except for his clever marriage to the heiress of Burgundy and as the bad guy in stories of the Swiss revolt. (Above, the young king surrounded by secretaries, commanders, and assorted other functionaries of the court. Imagine living like this, never alone, constantly attendant by a small horde of people.)

 Battle near Naples.

 The king enters an Italian city.

 Maximilian meets Charles the Bold of Burgundy.

Siege of Gradisca.

Detail showing Maximilian with a wonderful helmet.