Thursday, October 19, 2017

Another Potomac Morning

Foggy on the river today.

Until it lifted.

Giant sycamore tree, more than 10 feet (3 m) in diameter at the base.

And some actual archaeology, a quartz arrowhead and three potsherds from a new site we discovered yesterday. Sorry about the picture, but it was a phone photo taken in dim morning light.

Rock Art from Tuva

Tuva is a Russian autonomous Republic on the border of Mongolia. It holds some rocky ridges where nomads of the steppes left pictographs for thousands of years. Love this winged horse.

Chariot from the Bronze Age.


Scythian deer. More at the Siberian Times.

Coal Still Losing the War Despite Trump's Help

The Trump administration has worked harder and with more focus on helping the coal industry than on anything else I can think of. The result:
Last week, the Texas utility Luminant (owned by Vistra Energy) announced the retirement of two coal plants — Sandow Power Plant and Big Brown Power Plant — by early 2018. The reasoning was simple, and familiar: They just can’t compete with cheap natural gas and renewables.

With that announcement, a milestone was reached: More than half of the total 2010 US coal fleet has retired or set a firm retirement date.
Unlike the rest of the country, Texas has an entirely free market in energy – no subsidies, hardly any regulation of price. In Texas, wind power will surpass coal power some time around January.

For some important issues, who wins the election matters a lot. For others, hardly at all.

Artificial Intelligence is Beating Us

The "constraints of human knowledge" are falling:
Google’s latest AI efforts push beyond the limitations of their human developers. Its artificial intelligence algorithms are teaching themselves how to code and how to play the intricate, yet easy-to-learn ancient board game Go.

This has been quite the week for the company. On Monday, researchers announced that Google’s project AutoML had successfully taught itself to program machine learning software on its own. While it’s limited to basic programming tasks, the code AutoML created was, in some cases, better than the code written by its human counterparts. In a program designed to identify objects in a picture, the AI-created algorithm achieved a 43 percent success rate at the task. The human-developed code, by comparison, only scored 39 percent on the task.

On Wednesday, in a paper published in the journal Nature, DeepMind researchers revealed another remarkable achievement. The newest version of its Go-playing algorithm, dubbed AlphaGo Zero, was not only better than the original AlphaGo, which defeated the world’s best human player in May. This version had taught itself how to play the game. All on its own, given only the basic rules of the game. (The original, by comparison, learned from a database of 100,000 Go games.) According to Google’s researchers, AlphaGo Zero has achieved superhuman-level performance: It won 100–0 against its champion predecessor, AlphaGo.

But DeepMind’s developments go beyond just playing a board game exceedingly well. There are important implications that could positively impact AI in the near future.

“By not using human data—by not using human expertise in any fashion—we’ve actually removed the constraints of human knowledge,” AlphaGo Zero’s lead programmer, David Silver, said at a press conference.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad

I just finished listening to The Underground Railroad, which won last year's National Book Award for fiction. It's a strange, sad book, and I can't say that I really recommend it. But it is certainly different from any other book you have read.

The central conceit is that the underground railroad is an actual network of train tunnels running under America, connecting the South to the free states. The central character, Cora, is a slave on a Georgia plantation who escapes with the railroad's help. But it doesn't carry her to freedom; instead, it transports her through time as well as space, to endure the different sorts of oppression and crushed hopes African Americans experienced over the course of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This allows Whitehead to explore the legacy of slavery in a broad sense, showing how Cora suffers from it no matter where she goes and how things look on the surface.

I looked up a couple of reviews before I wrote this and they said pretty much the same thing: that Whitehead exposes the reader to slavery's evil in new and striking ways. I didn't feel it. But then I am probably not the reader Whitehead was aiming at. I have read a stack of nonfiction books on slavery and done my own research on slave life, and nothing in any fiction has ever affected me the way the plain records of the past do.

So I wasn't all that impressed by the horrors Whitehead presents, and I found the fictional parts of the book only so-so. Cora is a rather flat character, which is intentional, but not much fun. The plot is predictable, because you know things are never going to work out for the black characters. One of the other running characters is a slave catcher named Ridgeway; I suppose he was supposed to be the villain, but he struck me as no more interesting than Cora, either in his wickedness or his small courtesies. I enjoyed the minor characters much more, including Cora's grandmother, her lazy, dissipated owner, and some of the station masters and conductors Cora meets on the underground railroad. I thought much the best part was the last section, in which Cora has arrived at a free black community created by abolitionists and runaways, where they explore the limits of their freedom and debate what to do about rising tensions with their white neighbors.

But if you want to read a novel about slave life, I much preferred Marlon James' The Book of Night Women.

Are these Faces a Prehistoric Shrine?

Bulgarian archaeologists are calling these human faces, discovered by photographer Miroslav Shobanov, a shrine dating to between 3500 and 3000 BCE.

What do you think? They certainly look like faces, but so do lots of natural rocks.

On the other hand these niches, found nearby, look definitely human-made to me. Pottery was also found nearby, and given that this is a pretty inaccessible spot, maybe it is an ancient shrine.

And while we're on the subject of Bulgarian archaeology, here is a very definite petroglyph, an Orpheus Lyre likely carved by Iron Age Thracians.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Morning on the Potomac

Dawn on the river.

Chimney from an old cabin, likely built in the 1910s.

The dark tower.

Actually that was an old concrete flood gauge, seen more clearly from this angle.

Das Rheingold in Beijing

I spent a good part of Saturday afternoon listening to this production of Wagner's Das Rheingold at the China National Opera House in September 2016. The singing is quite good, but it was really the staging that grabbed me. No stripped down modernism here; this is a folkloric production that mingles European myth with Chinese elements. Sadly there are no subtitles, and I suppose if there were they would be in Chinese anyway. Here are the Rhine Maidens, looking very Chinese.

The dwarf Alberich, who starts the plot by stealing the Rhine Maidens' golden treasure. To do this he has to renounce love, which he does because the Rhine Maidens keep teasing and then rejecting him.

Fricka, Wotan's wife.


The giants. They have built Valhalla for Wotan according to the terms of their contract, and now they have come to collect their payment: the goddess Freya.

Freya clings to her brother Froh, who is dressed as the perfect Chinese prince.

Donner, the god known to the Norse as Thor. He wants to drive off the giants with force, but Wotan stops him, saying that he gave his divine word and breaking it will lead to BAD THINGS.

Loge (Loki), god of fire, who has a clever plan to solve the dilemma: steal the Rhine Maiden's treasure from Alberich and give that to the giants instead.

Mime, Alberich's brother, whom Alberich has enslaved using the power of a mighty ring found in the treasure.

Loge and Wotan get Mime to explain the situation in Nibelheim.

Mime has forged for Alberich a helm called Tarnhelm that allows him to become invisible or assume any shape. Loge and Wotan feign disbelief and get Alberich to demonstrate Tarnhelm's power. First he becomes a dragon. The gods says, that's cool, can you also make yourself smaller?

Alberich assumes the form of a today, and Loge and Wotan capture him.

First the gods demand the gold, which Alberich's slaves, the Niebelungs, deliver. Then they demand the Tarnhelm, and finally the ring of power. After much woeful singing Alberich finally gives up the ring, but he curses it, saying it will bring its bearer only ruin.

The climactic scene: the gods pay the gold to the giants to obtain Freya's release.

But Wotan does not want to give up the ring. The struggle over giving up the ring does not, so far as I know, appear in any traditional source, so this must be where Tolkien got the idea for his ring scenes.

Then the goddess Erda appears and prophesies that if Wotan keeps the ring, it will doom him. She then hints that she has seen many other bad things, but she refuses to give details. Wotan relents and surrenders the ring. The giants immediately fall to fighting over it, and one kills the other. The survivor departs with the treasure.

The conclusion: the gods sing in front of their new home.

Is Mayim Bialik Blaming Victims or Empowering Women?

I am curious how my readers feel about Mayim Bialik's op-ed on the Harvey Weinstein matter:
I always made conservative choices as a young actress, largely informed by my first-generation American parents who were highly skeptical of this industry in general — “This business will use you up and throw you away like a snotty tissue!”— and of its men in particular: “They only want one thing.” My mom didn’t let me wear makeup or get manicures. She encouraged me to be myself in audition rooms, and I followed my mother’s strong example to not put up with anyone calling me “baby” or demanding hugs on set. I was always aware that I was out of step with the expected norm for girls and women in Hollywood. . . .

I still make choices every day as a 41-year-old actress that I think of as self-protecting and wise. I have decided that my sexual self is best reserved for private situations with those I am most intimate with. I dress modestly. I don’t act flirtatiously with men as a policy.

I am entirely aware that these types of choices might feel oppressive to many young feminists. Women should be able to wear whatever they want. They should be able to flirt however they want with whomever they want. Why are we the ones who have to police our behavior?

In a perfect world, women should be free to act however they want. But our world isn’t perfect. Nothing — absolutely nothing — excuses men for assaulting or abusing women. But we can’t be naïve about the culture we live in.
Bialik's general idea seems to be that while sexual harassment is bad and sexual assault unforgivable, actresses who trade on their beauty are in some sense participating in this culture by objectifying themselves. If you expect to get ahead by displaying your body to filmgoers and flirting with producers, why are you surprised that some of them want to go farther than you do?

It's an old argument, of course, which is why I bring it up. I have long had trouble over how to feel about it. If you say to a girl leaving for college, "don't drink around men, don't have them in your room, don't dress too sexy and don't flirt with strangers," is that sound advice or (proactive) victim blaming? Where is the line between pointing out what the world is like and using the threat of that reality to control women? Can you be really disgusted by the men involved and still think that some of the women are foolish? Or does even a glance at the way women dress or act put you on the side of those jurors who think promiscuous women can't be raped, because they are just asking for it? Or on the side of the rapists?

Or is blaming everything on the man, and implying that the woman has no part, a radical sort of disempowerment for women?

So, anyway, what do y'all think?

Monday, October 16, 2017

Dina Brodsky's Sketchbook

 Wouldn't it be nice to be able to travel around the world and record what you saw like this?


And here is one finished drawing from her series The Secret Life of Trees.


The news has me thinking about Napoleon again.

Harvey Weinstein is just the latest Great Man to be exposed as a complete and utter toad: a rapist, a bully, an appalling hypocrite. As with many others, the thing that baffles me most about the story is the way his underlings stayed loyal to him through all of it, helping him hatch his sexual schemes, putting up with his abusive bullying.

To me the most disturbing thing about my species is the way so many long to become the followers of Great Leaders. A typical Great Leader, so far as I can tell, is a complete narcissist who has no regard for anyone else whatsoever. And yet millions are perfectly happy to serve such men, giving them loyalty in return for disdain. Their very selfishness is inspirational to some followers.

Why are Trump rallies full of small businessmen who must know that Trump has made a habit of stiffing people just like them? Women who know how he talks about women? People smart enough to know that he is a dangerously unstable liar?

The answers are surely complex, but I suggest that one part is the thrill of submitting to the Great Man's dominance, of being swept along in the wake of a great ship going somewhere exciting and grand. The supreme confidence of the narcissist who cannot even recognize when he has been wrong is irresistible to far too many humans.

Judged by either our norms or those of their own societies, a great many of the most famous people in history have been insane. Their ability to transcend the limits that bind ordinary people is part of their appeal: unlike the rest of us, they can ignore the truth in front of their noses, deny with straight faces that they have any flaws or have ever made mistakes, lie without compunction, believe that their grand and crazy schemes will come to pass. And the sick thing is, sometimes it works.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Noble Women of Iron Age Siberia

Recent excavations in the Republic of Tuva, a part of Siberia adjacent to Mongolia, uncovered the graves of several noble women dating to the 1st to 2nd centuries BCE.

The setting.

The most elaborate items were belt buckles; this one is made of coal, carved with designs that resemble Scythian art.

Bronze buckles in situ.


One of the women's costumes was decorated with these flames on the shoulders.

These people were heavily influenced by Chinese civilization; the dating comes from Han Dynasty bronze mirrors. More at the Siberian Times.