Friday, June 29, 2012

Dark Clouds in Aquila

These dark dust clouds, 600 light years away, are part of the dust barrier that mostly hides our galaxy's center from our eyes.

Itchô Hanabusa, the Butterfly Picture Book

A book of woodblock prints, circa 1778. The prints were made by Suzuki Rinsho after paintings done by Itchô Hanabusa nearly a century before. From BibliOdyssey.

Ancient Chinese Pottery and the Neolithic "Revolution"

Not so long ago archaeologists thought that the invention of pottery was part of a Neolithic "revolution" that included agriculture, the domestication of cattle and sheep, and the first permanent villages, all arriving more or less together as a single package. Over the past thirty years, though, the evidence has mounted that these things happened thousands of years apart and have no necessary connection to each other. The latest piece of this puzzle is the discovery that people in northern China made pottery around 20,000 years ago, 10,000 years before the first evidence of agriculture in the region. The sherds above, from Xianrendong Cave, right now hold the record for the oldest found.
“The early onset of pottery making meant that food preparation intensified during the last glacial maximum,” says Harvard University archaeologist and study coauthor Ofer Bar-Yosef.

Wu, Bar-Yosef and colleagues gathered 45 samples of bone and charcoal from previously excavated soil layers at Xianrendong Cave. Radiocarbon measurements of bone and charcoal generated by three labs — one in China and two in the United States — point to initial human use of the cave from about 29,000 to 17,500 years ago. Xianrendong Cave pottery contains burn marks from being placed over fires and is 2,000 to 3,000 years older than pottery from another Chinese cave, which had previously held the age record. . . .

“Chinese pottery appeared long before animal domestication and has no obvious connection to the origins of agriculture or sedentary living,” remarks archaeologist T. Douglas Price of the University of Wisconsin – Madison.

East Asian hunter-gatherers may have set up seasonal camps 20,000 years ago, where they made pottery, proposes archaeologist Zhijun Zhao of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing. “Xianrendong pottery probably had many purposes, including boiling clams and snails,” says Zhao, who participated in a 1993 excavation of the cave. Numerous clam and snail shells were unearthed in pottery-bearing soil at Xianrendong Cave and at other ancient Chinese sites, Zhao says.
Until about 1700 CE, change in human history was always gradual, and "revolutions" actually took centuries or millennia to unfold.

Thursday, June 28, 2012


The blazing heat has me longing for a good storm.

Affordable Care Act Upheld Amid Storm of Nonsensical Commentary

Can I just say that headlines like this one:
Supreme Court deals big victory to Obama
sum up everything that is wrong with politics and the media in America? Reforming American health care is not a game where Republicans or Democrats score points. It is an urgent need. Legislators ought to vote on bills without caring who wrote them, courts should certainly rule on their constitutionality without caring who wrote them, and news organizations should cover them without caring who wrote them. They are good or bad, constitutional, or unconstitutional, regardless of their political implications. Treating every idea as just a partisan weapon feeds public cynicism and prevents us from ever really grappling with serious problems. The Supreme Court did NOT "hand a victory to Obama." It endorsed an approach to reforming our health care system that did not originate with Obama and that has been pursued at various times by both Republicans and Democrats. I find it quite interesting that both Presidential candidates have pursued this same reform while in office. Like it or not, it is the only reform approach on the table, and the only feasible alternative, for now, is doing nothing. I think our system, the world's most expensive but only its 20th best, desperately needs shaking up, and I endorse the Obama/Romney approach because it's all we've got.

Andrew Sullivan has been rounding up reactions to the verdict. He has found a lot of tweets and posts that have the tone of these:
Congratulations, Americans: The government owns your bodies.

This is the greatest destruction of individual liberty since Dred Scott. This is the end of American as we know it. No exaggeration.
I cannot decide if these are alarming or merely amusing. How can anyone think that a modest reform of our health insurance marketplace will lead to the death of freedom? What possible logic could run those things together? Are these people unhinged?

Or this just the end result of the party mentality: the verdict was a big victory for Obama, Obama is the enemy, therefore this is a catastrophe?

People need to relax. I think the basic Obama/Romney approach to health care reform is worth trying, and I think the bill also includes a lot of lesser provisions that might help control costs and improve care. So I am glad it survived review. But I don't love it -- no liberal I know does -- and it would not have been the end of the world had it been struck down. It will not miraculously end our health care woes, nor will it destroy our liberty. It is a bit of managerial tinkering with a major sector of the economy, and it should help a few million people get health care they otherwise could not afford. It is simply not worth the apocalyptic rhetoric being thrown around today.

The Side Effects of PPIs, or, Today's Lesson in the Limits of Medicine

Proton-Pump Inhibitors, PPI's --Nexium, Prilosec, Prevacid, etc. -- are among the most prescribed drugs in America. Millions take them. But the evidence is growing that overuse of these drugs has side effects as serious as the acid reflux they treat. The drugs work by limiting the production of acid in the stomach. But the stomach tries to compensate by creating more acid-making cells, so that when people go off the drugs they often feel worse than they did before they started taking them. "It's like an addiction," one doctor told the Times. So people stay on PPI's for years or decades.
“When people take P.P.I.’s, they haven’t cured the problem of reflux,” said Dr. Joseph Stubbs, an internist in Albany, Ga., and a former president of the American College of Physicians. “They’ve just controlled the symptoms.” And P.P.I.’s provide a way for people to avoid making difficult lifestyle changes, like losing weight or cutting out the foods that cause heartburn, he said. “People have found, ‘I can keep eating what I want to eat, and take this and I’m doing fine,’” he said. “We’re starting to see that if you do that, you can run into some risky side effects.”
Even the manufacturers say it can be dangerous to take these drugs for more than six months. They can block the absorption of nutrients such as iron and Vitamin B-12, lead to serious stomach infections, weaken bones, and more, and they also have dangerous interactions with some other drugs. People who take them for years are running a serious risk.

The cycle of medical interventions leading to side effects that lead to more interventions is becoming one of the major medical issues of our time. Drugs cannot substitute for leading a healthy life, and the more we try to make them serve this function, the worse the problem will get. I am personally very skeptical of weight loss drugs, for example, because I am sure that any drug that can defeat our body's ancient, evolutionarily vital mechanisms for storing fat will have side effects every bit as serious as being overweight.

Profit and Risk on Wall Street

The latest from Wall Street is that JP Morgan's losses in risky bets made in credit markets will probably be closer to $9 billion than the $2 billion they originally announced. Why, so soon after the great collapse of 2008, would a major bank be making such risky bets?

Because it is the only way they can find to make the kind of profit they have come to expect.

So much money is now sloshing around world financial markets, looking for investment opportunities, that the yields on any sort of reasonable investment have been driven down to 2 or 3 percent. US treasury bonds have lately been trading at a loss for investors. The stock market is treading water, with no new segment like the internet to provide exciting opportunities. Companies have already wrung as much profit as they can out of their existing operations, and their efficiency in doing this, mainly by firing workers or cutting their benefits, has become a drag on the overall economy. So there is little opportunity to snap up companies and increase their value by restructuring them.

So what is an investment bank to do? Holding lots of bonds and blue chip stocks generates meager returns and is, frankly, boring as hell for the bankers. So they make crazy bets. They will continue to do so, because they don't know what else to do. This situation will persist until the world economy grows enough to restore some sort of balance between the needs of growing companies and the vast pool of capital available for investment.

And this is why we must impose regulations on the trading undertaken by big banks. Frustrated bankers are too much of a threat to the world economy to let them run wild.

A Neolithic Handbag Decorated with Dog Teeth

Archaeologists in Germany were excavating a grave in the late Neolithic village site of Profen when they encountered a mass of dog teeth. Careful excavation showed that they are all aligned and in a single layer. They must have been attached to a piece of leather or cloth that had long since rotted away. That hole in the middle was probably gouged by some unfortunate excavator who wasn't being very careful, until he noticed that his trowel was covered with teeth. He then carefully uncovered the rest. (Which is not a criticism -- if you always proceed with maximum caution, as if you might at any moment encounter some momentous find, you will never get anything done.) The graves dates to between 2,500 and 2,200 B.C.E.

The excavators think the dog teeth were attached to the flap covering opening to a bag, likely a bag that would have been attached to a shoulder strap -- a handbag, we would say. The excavators are calling this the oldest purse yet found, but you need not take that literally; who could possibly know whether an earlier one had been found somewhere in the world, the citation buried in Volume XXII of the Proceedings of the Somewhere or Other Anthropological Institute? It's certainly a cool find.

Researching this find I discovered that although the English press accounts all call this a Stone Age site, the original German sources correctly identify it as the Übergangshorizont zwischen der Steinzeit und der Bronzezeit, that is, the transition between the Stone and Bronze Ages. This culture is known in the best German style as the Schnurkeramik- und - Glockenbecherkultur. Above, some other artifacts from graves of this period at Profen.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Science and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle

A few weeks ago, Japanese researchers published their discovery that radiocarbon dates coming from the growth rings of cedar trees corresponding to the year 774 CE were way out of whack, suggesting that there had been some celestial event causing a burst of high-energy radiation that year. But they could find no record of a supernova or similar event in that year. Enter Jonathon Allen, an undergraduate biochemistry major at the University of California Santa Cruz. By searching the internet, he found that some texts of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle include this entry:
A.D. 774. This year the Northumbrians banished their king, Alred, from York at Easter-tide; and chose Ethelred, the son of Mull, for their lord, who reigned four winters. This year also appeared in the heavens a red crucifix, after sunset; the Mercians and the men of Kent fought at Otford; and wonderful serpents were seen in the land of the South-Saxons.
Was the red crucifix the missing supernova? Maybe so. And maybe it was behind the sun -- it was seen just after sunset -- which is why more people didn't notice it and write about it.

#@$%&#! Deer

They came last night. Look closely at these pictures and you can see how perfidious they are. They don't wreak wholesale destruction -- no, my deer are gourmets. They nibble daintily on their favorite morsels, which include the flower buds on daylilies and phlox.

Sherrick Farm, Antietam Battlefield

Hard to imagine this scene with a thousand Federal troops from Christ's Brigade marching up over that hill, on their way from Burnside's Bridge to Sharpsburg during the afternoon fighting.

Sullivan is Back at UVA

The University of Virginia Board of Visitors reversed itself yesterday and reinstated Teresa Sullivan as the university's president, an announcement greeted by cheers from student protesters and whoops of triumph from some faculty.

Now what?

If I were the governor, I would fire the whole board, something he threatened to do last week. Certainly Rector Helen Dragas has to go; how can she and Sullivan work together in the future? More broadly, what authority will the board now have to do anything?

And what authority will the president have, beholden as she is to the faculty and students for her job?

An optimist might hope that this event will inspire everyone to work together to find new ways to teach better  while spending less, but such an optimist would be mad. Likely the event will inspire greater caution and inertia in everyone. Rising costs and declining learning will remain the order of the day. As I said before, I don't think the president of UVA can do much about these trends herself, but it would be nice to hear her talk about how to make sure the students learn instead of how to shore up the university's reputation.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Britain from Above

A collection of 16,000 early aerial photographs of Britain, the earliest from 1919, has been put online by a consortium of British preservation groups. Above, Rye, 1920.

Vickers Works, Sheffield, 1922.

Old Man of Hoy, Orkney, 1920.

Buried with a Cow

Anglo-Saxons didn't much go in for animal burials of any sort, which makes the recent discovery of a high-status woman buried with a cow all the more interesting:
Archaeologists excavating an Anglo-Saxon cemetery in Cambridgeshire say the discovery of a woman buried with a cow is a "genuinely bizarre" find.

The grave was uncovered in Oakington by students from Manchester Metropolitan University and the University of Central Lancashire. At first it was thought the animal skeleton was a horse. Student Jake Nuttall said: "Male warriors might be buried with horses, but a woman and a cow is new to us." He added: "We were excited when we thought we had a horse, but realising it was a cow made it even more bizarre."

Co-director of the excavation, Dr Duncan Sayer, from the University of Central Lancashire, said: "Animal burials are extremely rare, anyway. "This is the first animal to be discovered with a woman from this period - the late 5th Century - and it's really interesting that it's a cow, a symbol of economic and domestic wealth and power." There are only 31 horse burials in Britain and they are all with men. "It's also incredibly early to find any grave of a woman buried with such obvious wealth." The skeleton was found with grave goods including brooches and hundreds of amber and decorated glass beads. "She also had a complete chatelaine [keychain] set, which is an iron girdle and a symbol of her high status," Dr Sayer said.
Perhaps she was a priestess of some kind. Or maybe she just really loved her cow.

Mitt Romney is a Liar

Michael Cohen in the Guardian:
Quite simply, the United States has never been witness to a presidential candidate, who lies as frequently, as flagrantly and as brazenly as Mitt Romney.
Cohen documents this at some length in the column. One example:
My personal favorite in Romney's cavalcade of untruths is his repeated assertion that President Obama has apologized for America. In his book, appropriately titled "No Apologies", Romney argues the following:

"Never before in American history has its president gone before so many foreign audiences to apologize for so many American misdeeds, both real and imagined. It is his way of signaling to foreign countries and foreign leaders that their dislike for America is something he understands and that is, at least in part, understandable."

Nothing about this sentence is true.

President Obama never went around the world and apologized for America – and yet, even after multiple news organizations have pointed out this is a "pants on fire" lie, Romney keeps making it. Indeed, the "Obama apology tour", along with the president bowing down to the King of Saudi Arabia, are practically the lodestars of the GOP's criticism of Obama's foreign policy performance (the Saudi thing isn't true either).
It remains to be seen whether Romney will pay any price for this. If he wins despite his weak relationship with the truth, watch for lying to become the dominant campaigning style in America.

Francis A. Gregory Library by David Adjaye

Washington, DC has just opened two new branch libraries, both designed by British architect David Adjaye. The more interesting is the Francis A. Gregory Library in far Southeast. I love this little portico behind the structure.

The structure looks a little like the Kennedy Center.

On the whole I think this is a fine building. What makes me wonder, though, is whether DC can keep it up. They had enough trouble maintaining the plain concrete and brick boxes that Adjaye's buildings are replacing, and at least one architect who has looked at this structure thinks it won't last long. Still, new buildings were needed, and I give full credit to the city for trying to add something to the city rather than just throwing up another ugly box.

No More Life Without Parole for Juveniles

All of today's Supreme Court headlines are about immigration, a decision that seems to me pretty much irrelevant -- local cops don't have the time or money to enforce immigration laws, no matter what state laws say. I think the decision finding that giving juveniles life-without-parole sentences is cruel and unusual punishment is much more important. The U.S. is (or was) the only democracy that imposes such sentences. These laws were a product of the fear produced by the great crime wave of the 80s and 90s, and they were always both cruel and stupid. What sense does it make to keep a 65-year-old man in prison for something he did when he was 15?

UPDATE: What do you know, George Will and I agree on this one. Although dubious of the court's legal reasoning -- how, he wants to know, can something be "cruel and unusual" when it is mandated by 29 states? -- he agrees very much that life sentences for juveniles ought to be unusual, and he gratuitously adds that he feels the same way about extended solitary confinement. Perhaps legal reforms will be the great area of left-right cooperation over the next decade.

No Blitz: a Counterfactual Exercise about 1940

I am listening to a book about WW II by British writer Max Hastings, and I am fascinated by an idea that he passes along about German strategy in 1940. Having conquered France, Poland, Denmark, Norway, Belgium, and the Netherlands, but allowed most of the British army to escape at Dunkirk, what should Hitler have done?

What he actually did, of course, was to launch an air war against Britain while making half-hearted plans for an invasion of the island. The result of this was to make Winston Churchill a hero for his steadfast resistance and to unify Britain's people in opposition to Fascism.

But what if, instead, Hitler had done nothing? If he had publicly renounced any desire to invade Britain and taken no measures to do so, while keeping his aircraft at home? If he launched a propaganda offensive proclaiming his desire for peace?

The situation that Churchill faced in the summer of 1940 was that he desperately wanted to contest Nazi domination of Europe but lacked any credible means of doing so. By attacking Britain through the air, Hitler rather perversely gave Churchill a means to fight him, and a cause around which to rally the British people for war. Nothing made the case for war with Germany like the Blitz. Churchill played up the risk of invasion as a way to unify his nation, and he kept this up into 1942, long after the British military knew there was no such risk. Millions of people were recruited into the war effort as air raid wardens, coast guards, volunteer medics, and so on. The "Battle of Britain" was largely a creation of Churchill's propaganda; Hastings found several RAF pilots who were puzzled both by the notion that they were fighting a "battle," and that they had won a great victory when the Luftwaffe finally gave up.

Without the Blitz, what could Churchill have done? Nothing, is Hastings' conclusion. (Which he freely admits is not is own, just an old idea that I had not encountered before.) The war would have drifted along as a repeat of the "phony war" of the winter of 1939-1940 --during which, according to Hastings, public morale in France and Britain was badly sapped by boredom and frustration. The war would have meant nothing but shortages, blackouts, and speeches about sacrifice. Churchill would have looked increasingly a fool, talking on and on about fighting Hitler but lacking any means or opportunity to do so. After months or perhaps a year of this those British leaders who never wanted the war, of whom there were many, would have begun to demand negotiations. Churchill would never have caved in, but he could easily have been voted out of office if the British people soured on his militarism.

By doing nothing, Hitler might really have sapped the morale of the British people; by bombing them, he only made them more determined.

I find this a fascinating notion, and one that has wide application. In particular it reminds me of the current impasse between the US and Iran. Right now the Iranian government wants to stand up to the U.S., but the confrontation has brought their people only shortages, oppression, and rhetoric that grows more tiresome with every passing month. If we attack them, the regime suddenly has a real cause around which to rally their people. Why give them the chance to become heroes? Why not, instead, let them languish as failed militarists whose belligerence is beneath the notice of their would-be enemies?

The principle here seems to be, never attack a nation when you lack the means or the will to fight the war through to the end. Unless we want to invade Iran, overthrow the government, and set up a new one -- which, I would argue, is a completely mad notion  -- we should not start a shooting war.

Monday, June 25, 2012


These are a new addition to the garden this year. Last fall I found a bag of twenty for sale in the grocery store for $6.99 and thought, why not? I think they're grand. I confess that I just now learned the plural of gladiolus. Since everybody seems to pronounce the singular and plural the same, I sort of thought the plural was gladiolas.

Coyotes and Lyme Disease

From Science News:
Coyotes expanding into new territories across North America may be driving a surge in Lyme disease.

It’s often deer that municipalities blame for raising the risk of human infection with the tick-transmitted Lyme bacteria. Yet records from the past three decades link rising numbers of Lyme cases not with booming deer populations but with spreading coyotes, says ecologist Taal Levi, now at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook, N.Y.

As coyotes have trotted into new ranges, red foxes have retreated, Levi and his colleagues find. Coyotes don’t pack a landscape as tightly or kill and cache rodents in flush times as foxes do. So a red fox fade-out allows more little rodents to survive, including white-footed mice and others known as hospitable hosts for the Lyme pathogen and the ticks that spread it. This scenario — coyotes in, foxes out, small rodent numbers up — could be fueling the spread of Lyme disease, the researchers suggest online June 18 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
I don't buy it. And the reason I don't buy it is that the places where I and my friends have gotten Lyme disease -- Quantico, Virginia, Bear, Delaware, St. Marys County, Maryland -- have no coyotes but lots of deer and red foxes. I suspect the correlation between the spread of coyotes and the spread of Lyme is an accident of timing.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

The New Generation Gap

David Leonhardt:
Throughout the 1980s and ’90s, younger and older adults voted in largely similar ways, with a majority of each supporting the winner in every presidential election. Sometime around 2004, though, older voters began moving right, while younger voters shifted left. This year, polls suggest that Mitt Romney will win a landslide among the over-65 crowd and that President Obama will do likewise among those under 40.

Beyond political parties, the two have different views on many of the biggest questions before the country. The young not only favor gay marriage and school funding more strongly; they are also notably less religious, more positive toward immigrants, less hostile to Social Security cuts and military cuts and more optimistic about the country’s future. They are both more open to change and more confident that life in the United States will remain good.
The optimism of young Americans is especially striking, since they are doing much worse economically than older Americans. We see once again that money is not everything. Older Americans have the money but fear a future in which white Americans cease to be a majority, gay culture goes mainstream and the world of the 50s disappears forever.

Hans Van Bentem's Mad Toyland

Until today, the only works I had seen by Dutch artist Hans Van Bentem (born 1965) were the crystal chandeliers he sells to people like Madonna, which do nothing for me. But his new exhibits, which come under the title "Keep on Dreaming," are something quite different. The installations at the Gemeentemuseum mix figures from a fantastic toyland with aliens, droids, and similar bits of contemporary imagery, and think they're fun.

 I also like these glass puppets, which he has exhibited at various places around the world.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Profits Up, Wages Down

According to figures from the St. Louis Fed, corporations are making more profit per dollar of sales than every before in history. Corporate profits are now nearly 11% of GDP.

Meanwhile, wages have fallen the their lowest share of the economy in history.

And yet Republicans still say the economy is faltering because the President is too anti-business. The decline of wages and the rise of profits is the long-term story of America right now. And as you can tell from our economic performance, nothing will go right until wages start rising again.

Bernini's Portrait Busts

Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680) was surely one of the greatest portraitists ever. These figures amaze me with their  personality.

 His mistress, Constanza Bonarelli. More on their relationship here.

Louis XIV, capturing his monumental vanity.

Cardinal Richelieu.

It should be noted that Bernini ran a large studio and his assistants did a lot of the actual carving, but given how distinctive his works are, the master surely exercised close control.