Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Today's Place to Daydream About: St. Jean de Buèges, France


Our Linguistic Innovators are Middle School Girls

The Times notices something linguists discovered 20 years ago, that the leaders in how our speech changes are young women and especially girls 11 to 15:
The idea that young women serve as incubators of vocal trends for the culture at large has longstanding roots in linguistics. As Paris is to fashion, the thinking goes, so are young women to linguistic innovation. “It’s generally pretty well known that if you identify a sound change in progress, then young people will be leading old people,” saidMark Liberman, a linguist at the University of Pennsylvania, “and women tend to be maybe half a generation ahead of males on average.”

Less clear is why. Some linguists suggest that women are more sensitive to social interactions and hence more likely to adopt subtle vocal cues. Others say women use language to assert their power in a culture that, at least in days gone by, asked them to be sedate and decorous. Another theory is that young women are simply given more leeway by society to speak flamboyantly.

But the idea that vocal fads initiated by young women eventually make their way into the general vernacular is well established. Witness, for example, the spread of uptalk, or “high-rising terminal.” (pronouncing statements as if they were questions? Like this?) Starting in America with the Valley Girls of the 1980s (after immigrating from Australia, evidently), uptalk became common among young women across the country by the 1990s.

Romney Stumbles On

After a huge effort, in terms of both time and money, Mitt  Romney pulled out a win last night in his home state of Michigan, keeping his edge over fundamentalist home boy Rick Santorum. Every non-fundamentalist American ought to cheer this result. I know some Democrats salivate over a match-up between Obama and Santorum or Newt Gingrich, and barring disaster that race would be a Democratic landslide. But the gain of a few more House seats has to be balanced against the chance that there might be a disaster -- another worldwide financial crisis, say, or a massive Middle Eastern war that sends gas prices past $10/gallon. If something like that happens, you want Romney heading the Republican ticket.

Via Andrew Sullivan, I see that some conservatives are asking themselves why Romney keeps going:
What, if anything, could convince Romney to drop out? If he underperforms on Super Tuesday, would that do it? What about the primaries after that? I find myself wondering more and more why he’s so determined to win when he receives so much negative feedback at every turn. He has few passionate supporters and many passionate detractors; he has no big cause or grand issue that animates him; his victories are owed chiefly to carpet-bombing his rivals with negative ads rather than stirring up enthusiasm for his candidacy. It’s almost a test of wills with the base, or some sort of exceptionally complex organizational problem he’s determined to solve. Is Mitt so skillful a manager that he can propel a candidacy built on virtually nothing to the Republican nomination despite resolute opposition from activists?
I think wanting to be President is a form of mental illness, so pointing out that Romney's behavior is strange does not really differentiate him from other candidates. But the one thing that you have to put on Romney's plus side is that he has always been, throughout his life, determined and successful. I think vulture capitalism is wicked, but Romney was certainly very good at it, amassing a huge fortune in a very risky trade. He did a good job with the Olympics and was a good governor. And once he decided to become President, you had to know he would put his all into it. If Romney, with his moderate background, sane demeanor, and lack of connection with evangelical voters, can win the nomination in this Tea Party year, that would be another remarkable accomplishment. So of course he won't quit. And likely he will win, if only to lose to Obama in November amidst a strengthening economy.

Meanwhile, his struggles with Santorum remind us of some important things about the modern world. The Enlightenment gospel of freedom and tolerance has not won over everybody, and there are still big pockets of resistance to an open, secular society. There is also a big reservoir of resentment waiting to be tapped by demagogues. Some of it seems to be about the unfairness of life, and this can blast out toward the rich, political insiders, the beneficiaries of affirmative action, or people who collect disability when they could still work if they had to. More of it, though, seems to be about respect, and a sense that other people are looking down their noses at you. Rick Santorum hates being treated as a yokel by liberal professors so much that he rails in public against college, no matter that every economist of every party thinks more education is the key to the future. Dislike of busybodies like environmentalists and feminists seems to be a core trait of Americans. Thinking over it all I end up with a sense that a happy human society is in some deep sense impossible. We can't live without each other but we can't live with each other, either, and the strains of getting along wear on us in ways that democratic politics may manage but cannot cure.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The President Lays it on the Line

Obama was in great form at the UAW conference yesterday:
Because, I've got to admit, it's been funny to watch some of these folks completely try to rewrite history now that you're back on your feet. The same folks who said, if we went forward with our plan to rescue Detroit, "you can kiss the American automotive industry goodbye." Now they're saying, we were right all along.

Or you've got folks saying, well, the real problem is -- what we really disagreed with was the workers, they all made out like bandits -- that saving the auto industry was just about paying back the unions. Really? I mean, even by the standards of this town, that’s a load of you know what.

About 700,000 retirees had to make sacrifices on their health care benefits that they had earned. A lot of you saw hours reduced, or pay or wages scaled back. You gave up some of your rights as workers. Promises were made to you over the years that you gave up for the sake and survival of this industry -- its workers, their families. You want to talk about sacrifice? You made sacrifices. This wasn't an easy thing to do.

Let me tell you, I keep on hearing these same folks talk about values all the time. You want to talk about values? Hard work -- that’s a value. Looking out for one another -- that’s a value. The idea that we're all in it together, and I'm my brother's keeper and sister's keeper -- that’s a value.

They're out there talking about you like you're some special interest that needs to be beaten down. Since when are hardworking men and women who are putting in a hard day's work every day -- since when are they special interests? Since when is the idea that we look out for one another a bad thing?
And without a teleprompter!

Grand Bazaar, Istanbul

By Michelle Sonnega. From National Geographic.

Santorum's Bad History

I'm trying to swear off the Santorum bashing, but I couldn't resist this story because of its broader ramifications. In a recent speech in Gerogia, Santorum expressed the false view, common among Religious conservatives, the America's founding fathers were Christian fanatics:
America and our founders understood that if we were just a bunch of folks that cared about stuff, we have a very, very narrow view of freedom. We have a very, very narrow view of what God’s call is in our lives. Because that’s why He gave us these rights. To pursue happiness.

…..‘Happiness’ actually had a different definition, way back at the time of our founders. Like many words in our lexicon, they evolve and change over time. ‘Happiness’ was one of them. Go back and look it up. You’ll see one of the principal definitions of happiness is ‘to do the morally right thing.’ God gave us rights to life and to freedom to pursue His will. That’s what the moral foundation of our country is.
Setting aside the creepy notion that "pursuing happiness" means "doing God's will," this is simply wrong. Will Wilkinson:
As a matter of historical fact, the dominant conception of happiness at the time of the founding was the empiricist hedonism of John Locke. Locke had it that we are moved by our beliefs and desires, and that the master desire is to enjoy pleasure and avoid pain. As for happiness, Locke said, "Happiness then in its full extent is the utmost Pleasure we are capable of..." "Property" almost took the place of "the pursuit of happiness" in the Declaration precisely because the founders' notion of happiness was so materialistic. Happiness is pleasure, and property or "stuff" is such an indispensable source of pleasure and bulwark against misery that the pursuit of property and the pursuit of happiness almost come to the same thing. For Christians such as Locke, and many of the founders, it was so important to heed God's will not so much because divine commands are inherently authoritative, but because Heaven's promise of infinite pleasure made Christian virtue a prudent bet.
I don't how we are going to convince American conservatives that Santorum's view of the founding is wrong, but it seems to me very important that we do it somehow.

A History of Ireland in 100 Excuses

Frank McNally:
1. Original sin.
2. The weather.
3. The 800 years of oppression.
4. A shortage of natural resources.
5. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak
.  .   .
9. It was taught badly in schools.
10. The Modh Coinníollach.
 . . .
26. April Fool's Day.
27. Halloween.
28. Stag parties.
29. The stony grey soil of Monaghan.
. . .
32. The pipes (the pipes) were calling.

That Explains a Lot

Rob Hornung:
In his 1976 book The Twelfth Planet, independent scholar Zecharia Sitchin drew on his heterodox studies of archeology, biology, anthropology, and ancient Sumerian to put forward the thesis that an alien race from the planet Nibiru came to earth thousands of years ago and enslaved the human species and forced them to mine precious metals, instilling in our ancestors a religious respect for metallurgy and an insatiable love for gold. As I remember it from Sitchin’s appearances on the Art Bell show in the 1990s, the original political hierarchies in ancient times derived from the appointed intermediaries to the Nibiru people (known in various human mythologies as the Nephilim or the Annunaki); these became the earliest human kings, with access to supernatural power that justified their rule, the purpose of which was essentially to expedite the greatest amount of precious metal extraction possible.

From "Asphodel, that Greenery Flower"

My heart rouses
thinking to bring you news
of something that concerns you
and concerns many men.
Look at
what passes for the new.
You will not find it there but in
despised poems.
It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
for lack
of what is found there.

--William Carlos Williams

The Establishment Sharpens its Knives for Santorum

Back when Newt Gingrich was the big threat to Romney's nomination, the Washington Post was full of nasty attacks on Gingrich and rather nice things about Rick Santorum.

But now Santorum is on the rise, and within reach of a victory in Romney's home state of Michigan that would, the pros say, make it hard for Romney to lock up the nomination before the convention. So now the Post is full, and I mean full, of attacks on Santorum. Besides an editorial from the board attacking Santorum's religious rhetoric, and a piece pointing out that Santorum has received next to no endorsements from elected officials, we have a whole fusillade of blasts from columnists on the right (Jennifer Rubin, Kathleen Parker) and the left (Eugene Robinson, Jonathan Capehart, Richard Cohen). Today's biggest headline is "Santorum Takes Heat for 'Snob' Comment." Santorum has certainly said a lot of things this week worthy of attack, like:
President Obama once said he wants everybody in America to go to college. What a snob. . . .
But, really, Santorum is the same guy now that he was in December, advocating the same policies. He has always been a religious fanatic, opposed to the very notion of liberty. Anyone surprised by his latest statements has paid no attention to his career.

Like Gingirch, Santorum is finding it hard to compete with the whole establishment lined up against him. The Republican establishment has been slow to throw its whole weight behind Romney this time, for fear of alienating primary voters who despise the man, but at crunch times, like now, they are there for Romney. Of course I think this is a good thing, but if I were a religious conservative this would make me wonder (again) if the Republican party has really done anything with their support besides use it to get the pro business policies and low taxes on the rich that seem to be their real agenda.

Gingrich Tells it Straight about Afghanistan

When you've pretty much lost, you can afford to tell it like it is:
Speaking at a Republican luncheon here on Monday, Mr. Gingrich amped up his criticism of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan after a string  of attacks by Afghan soldiers on American troops. ”We’re not going to fix Afghanistan,” the former House speaker said. “It’s not possible.”

His prescription:”What you have to do is say, ‘You know, you’re going to have to figure out how to live your own miserable life… Because you clearly don’t want to learn from me how to be unmiserable.’”

Monday, February 27, 2012

Nineteenth-Century Gold from the Ivory Coast


Why People Love Ron Paul

While the rest of the Republicans are insulting each other and saying increasingly inane thing about America, Ron Paul is courting Muslims in Detroit:
Paul has an outside shot of winning the 13th district here, a nearly Republican-free zone. But the focus on Muslims and a final election day stop in a Detroit church is meant to prove something else: Paul can talk libertarianism anywhere. . . .

Arab Republicans in the Detroit area say they are planning to announce a joint endorsement of Paul with about 150 mostly Muslim business leaders. In interviews with Yahoo News, those signing onto the pending endorsement expressed dismay with candidates like Newt Gingrich, who refers to Palestinians as an "invented people"--Arab Americans here jokingly call Gingrich "the invented candidate"--and Rick Santorum, for his hawkish stance on Iran and his stalwart defense of Israel.

"They've come out against practically every position that the Arabs in the community support," said Nasser Beydoun, the former head of American Arab Chamber of Commerce in Dearborn. "I don't think Republicans are focused on immigrants in general or Arab Americans. They're too busy catering to the fringes of the party."
The way things are in America now, only a fringe candidate like Ron Paul will even say that he wants Muslim votes.

Kids Having Fun

Ben and Clara playing in Richmond this weekend.

And Mary posing for a tumblr called "Goths in Trees."

The Eisenhower Monument and the Overestimation of Ourselves

As the Eisenhower monument controversy rages on, with contributions from George Will, David Frum, and now Ross Douthat, I find myself wondering why. Could this be just a pleasant way for conservatives to distract themselves from the wreckage of the Republican Presidential campaign? An excuse to branch out from punditry to art criticism? Something to fill a column? What all these gentlemen argue is that the design of the monument matters because Eisenhower was a great man and Americans need to be reminded of his accomplishments. I am myself an admirer of Eisenhower's modest approach to the presidency, and while he was no military genius he did get the job done in World War II. But what does this have to do with his monument?

It seem to me that political writers who dislike Gehry's design are relying on a very shallow understanding of both art and memory. It should first be said that Eisenhower's place in our national memory does not depend on the design of his monument in Washington. Douthat laments that Eisenhower is less famous than, among others, Truman and Kennedy. Can anybody name a monument to either? They probably exist, but I can't remember ever seeing one. Lincoln and Jefferson are not famous because they have temples on the Mall, and George Washington has managed to stay famous despite his awful obelisk, which I despise. By suggesting that the design of his monument matters to how we remember Ike, these columnists commit the hubris they extoll Eisenhower for avoiding. Our choices don't matter that much. And, as I keep pointing out, the monument will also be a physical thing in a particular neighborhood of Washington, and I think that how the monument will affect its place matters as much as what it says about Eisenhower.

These criticisms also rely on a strange artistic theory, which seems to be 1) Literal depictions of things leads to 2) People remembering those things better. So to get people to remember Eisenhower as a great man he has to be depicted as a great man. For centuries there was a vocabulary for these things, heroes on horseback and all that, but that vocabulary is absurdly out of date. Nobody speaks that language any more -- except, it seems, certain conservative intellectuals. The development of modern art shows that memorable images can be created in many ways, and that relying on a stock vocabulary of images can get in the way of really communicating with viewers. Is any statue of a hero on horseback as memorable as Dali's melting watches? Just by being intriguing, Gehry's monument would draw more attention to Eisenhower and get people to think about him more than some depiction of him striding ashore at Normandy.

Frum, Will and company also seem to have lost touch completely with young urban people. The people who will live near the monument and see it most often find conventional, classical monuments ridiculous. They will think it is cool to have a unique monument by Frank Gehry in their neighborhood. Some of Gehry's fans will come from all over the world to see the monument -- and I almost hate to mention this, but Gehry has, these days, a lot more fans worldwide than Eisenhower. The monument will also be added to a city that is already full of monuments, and one could argue that it will emphasize Eisenhower' greatness by being different from all the others. And, as I said before, I think it is interesting to put up a monument to Eisenhower that focuses on his overall vision of American as a place informed by rural values rather than on his particular accomplishments.

I find my feelings about this debate to be a nice microcosm of my relationship with American politics. I am not a leftist, but I feel pushed ever farther to the left by the madness of the contemporary right. I am not a fan of Frank Gehry, in fact I hate most of his buildings, but I do recognize that he is an important artist with a unique vision. I don't love his design for this monument. At least it is interesting, though, and I think that yet another statue of a man in uniform would only be lost in Washington. Putting up a big, unique monument by the famous Gehry has plusses for the city, and for the memory of Eisenhower, that another typical monument would not. So on the whole I lean toward going ahead with the Gehry design. And the more people on the right fulminate in vague terms about what an insult this is to Eisenhower's memory, the more I think that they are nuts and we should go ahead with the Gehry design just to spite them.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Lead Poisoning and the Fall of Rome

That lead poisoning somehow caused the fall of Rome is an old idea that still circulates among cynical adolescents. The Romans certainly did use lead for many purposes, including curse tablets, jewelry, and water pipes (illustrated above) as well as cosmetics, cooking pots, and defrutum, wine that was sweetened by boiling it down in lead pots.

In recent decades we have acquired some data on lead poisoning in history, from studies of bones. They do show high levels of lead; some Roman skeletons have 30 mg of lead per kg of bone, 30 times the level that the WHO considers unsafe. On the other hand, you can see from the graph above that the Roman levels were nothing unusual in history. The average level of lead in late medieval skeletons from Britain is higher than the level of skeletons from Rome (that's the floating point), and much higher than the level in Roman Britain. That line kept going up into the early nineteenth century; Europeans in their period of dynamic expansion and world dominance had higher levels of lead than the Romans, which makes it unlikely that lead poisoning was much of a threat to Roman power.

These graphs also provide another way of measuring the collapse of Roman civilization in the fifth to 7th centuries. If you consider lead contamination as a proxy for industrial production, it looks like industrial production in Britain fell by at least 60% after the Romans withdrew.

Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

Yesterday I was in Richmond for a family party at my father's house. I continued my 50th birthday celebration by taking my daughter Mary to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. The pretext was the Gothic Mourner exhibit, sculptures from the tomb of John the Fearless of Burgundy. These were delightful -- I love Gothic sculpture -- but it was a small exhibit, leaving plenty of time for other things.

 Like their classical collection.

This Hellenistic head of Dionysus was my favorite object in the classical room.

We wandered through their Art Deco and Art Nouveau rooms, full of the sort of objects you remember from movies about the super rich made in the middle of the Depression. Like this appalling bedroom set, and wild Tiffany punch bowl.

And the modern rooms, where they have a decent collection that includes this Anselm Kiefer, Landscape with Wing (1981).

It was quite fun, and I love sharing these things with my daughter.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

On the Mall, February 24, 2012

Above, I try out one of the amazing benches in front on the old Smithsonian building. Below, blooming witch hazel, and the most loaded holly bush I ever saw.

Ancient Chinese Artifacts at the Sackler

Since the ancient Iran exhibit was small, I followed it up with a tour through the ancient Chinese rooms. The Freer and the Sackler -- two adjacent Smithsonian museums, based on two famous private collections of Asian art-- both have good collection of bronzes from the Shang Dynasty, beginning around 1400 BC, to the Han (200 BC to AD 200). Most of these pictures come from a slide show at the museum web site. Love those tigers.

Below is a collection of stone ritual implements, with jade blades and turquoise-covered handles. I think I would have identified these as Aztec if I had seen them out of context.
Here I am with an antlered tomb guardian of the Eastern Zhou, ca. 300 BC.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Ancient Iran at the Sackler

I spent part of this afternoon at the Freer and Sackler Galleries in Washington, part one of my planned four-day 50th-birthday celebration. I went to see an exhibit called "Feast Your Eyes: a Taste for Luxury in Ancient Iran." I love ancient Iranian art, so I was very excited, and the exhibit was quite good. I find that these objects have the same happy mix of barbaric splendor, primitive energy, and civilized refinement that I love in Scythian or Sumerian art.
There were about 50 objects, dating to between about 500 BC and 651 AD, many from the Sassanian Empire (ca. 224-651). Most had some relation to eating or drinking, hence the "feast" pun in the title.

This gold pitcher is probably the most spectacular item. Sorry about the pictures, but there isn't much about this exhibit online, so I'm having to make do with what I took myself through the glass.

I love these drinking horns, with lion and lynx heads.

Some of the objects have an Indian look.

These elegant pitchers should be on my shelf.

Rick Santorum vs. University Education

Ok, so maybe I'm going too far with beating on Rick Santorum, but there is still a chance that he might win the nomination, and that is simply horrifying. Ed Kilgore:
Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum said Thursday that President Obama wants more young adults to go to college so they can undergo “indoctrination” to a secular world view.
In an hour-long interview with conservative television host Glenn Beck, Santorum also defended his record on abortion and his vote in favor of President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind education law.
On the president’s efforts to boost college attendance, Santorum said, “I understand why Barack Obama wants to send every kid to college, because of their indoctrination mills, absolutely … The indoctrination that is going on at the university level is a harm to our country.”
He claimed that “62 percent of kids who go into college with a faith commitment leave without it,” but declined to cite a source for the figure. And he floated the idea of requiring that universities that receive public funds have “intellectual diversity” on campus.
So there you have it. Keep the women pregnant and the whole country ignorant, and we can get closer to God!

American Insiders Don't Want War with Iran

Reporter Tom Ricks has excellent connections at the top of the American military and in the State Department. He recently sat down with one of his highly placed insider friends, who told him this:
The worst possible thing to do is go to war with Iran. The key is the people -- and they are sick of the mullahs. Right now the pressure is working to separate the people from the regime. A limited strike would undercut all that.

Also, any attack would cause us to maintain a heightened, more expensive defense posture, and give them moral standing to retaliate.

So an attack is counter to all our long-term objectives. We are having more effect right now through economic pressure than ever before.

There is no doubt [that there is a huge divergence between U.S. interests and those of Israel].  We want to stop Israel from attacking so the issue is how to persuade Israel that we are serious about stopping Iran from having a weapon-like a congressional finding that we will take all steps necessary to stop Iran. It means we will define red lines that can't be crossed.

But the bottom line is, I don't know a single person in government, civilian or in uniform, who thinks it is in our national interest to go to war with Iran now.

If we do go to war, it will not be small. Iran could reconstitute its nuclear program in maybe five years, but if we go after its abilities to project military power, we'd open a 15-year window.

Ocean Dwelling Amoebae

From the Census of Marine Life. Above, a cluster of Chlamydophrys. Below, an acantharia.

Kharaneh IV

Results from this amazing site in Jordan, about 20,000 years old, have just been published in PLoS One by Lisa Maher and colleagues. There has been much archaeology of a more recent period in this region, the "epipaleolithic" or Natufian culture of around 15,000 to 11,000 years ago. The Natufians had stone houses and semi-permanent villages, they harvested wild grain and hunted wild sheep, and most theories about the origin of agriculture and settled life in the Middle East give the Natufians a prominent place. On a more speculative plane, anthropologists interested in the central place of the Home, or the Hearth, or the Ancestral House, or whatever you want to call the permanent association of a family with a particular dwelling, point to the Natufian as the time when this complex of beliefs and rituals may first have arisen.

The problem with pinpointing the origins of anything is that somebody always comes along and finds an earlier example. Now Kharaneh IV can be added to a small group of sites where houses have been found much older than those of the Natufian. Houses do not imply settled life; there are modern hunter-gatherers who live for part of the year in fairly well-built houses, or who repeatedly rebuild flimsy houses on the same stone foundations every time they visit a site. But the difference between Kharaneh IV and a Natufian settlement looks more like one of degree rather than kind, and the same can be said for the difference between a Natufian settlement and a neolithic farming village. It becomes more clear by the year that there was no agricultural "revolution" in the Middle East, just a very, very slow transition to more settled life and more dependence on increasingly domesticated plants and animals. To quote the excavators, "searching for the ‘first’ huts, houses, sedentary sites or ritual behaviors, as we currently understand them, may be a futile enterprise."

Plus, this is just a really cool site. It is quite large, more than 20,000 square meters (5 acres), rises almost 2 meters (6 feet) above the surrounding landscape, and according to the excavators "it is easily identifiable by its staggering concentration of stone tool debris and animal bones." The houses excavated in 2010 were surrounded by all sorts of wonderful evidence for how the inhabitants lived, like caches of worked stone and bone. The pictures above show two views of a flint core surrounded by four fox paws, probably the remains of a fox-skin pouch. Those are tiny bones that would not survive a century in the soils I usually work with, but these are 20,000 years old.

Above, a gazelle skull with the horn cores still attached. The horn cores of antelope and goats are very hard, and they were used to manufacture a wide range of tools and implements down into the nineteenth century. (In Europe and the US, that is; they are probably still used in a lot of places.)

Marine shells covered with ocher.

The remarkable archaeology of the late Paleolithic in the Middle East continues to teach us about the distant origins of our civilization, and the extremely slow process by which it arose.