Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Butterflies on the Igazu River, Brazil

By Daniel Pinheiro. From National Geographic.

Y-Chromosome Maps of Europe

I'm going to be teaching this spring at Hood College, the same "Celts to Vikings" class I taught three years ago. So I am updating my materials, including the slides I will be showing. The one branch of scholarship I deal with that has changed a lot in the past three years is genetics. I talk about this mainly because one of the big questions about the early Middle Ages is how much people moved around: was there an Anglo-Saxon migration to Britain, and if so, how many people migrated? How many Goths went to Italy, and where did they come from? And so on. In the course of this I stumbled across a wonderful set of maps of Y chromosome distribution in Europe. Above is a map of the R1 haplogroup, which probably originated in eastern Europe or western Asia around 18,000 years ago and is the most common clade in Europe.

The R1 group is divided into two main lineages, east and west, as you can see in these maps. One school of thought is that R1a represents the Indo-Europeans; you can see that it originated on the Ukrainian steppe, but then spread westward.

Here, by contrast, is a map of the haplogroups that we are pretty sure came from the Middle East with the first waves of Neolithic farmers.

As our understanding of the genetic history gets better, we can get even more specific; this is lineage R-S21, which some people think originated among the German tribes of Frisia or the Netherlands around 2000 BCE. This map does't tell you when people migrated across the North Sea, but it tells you that they did.

As I Was Saying about Home Genetic Testing

Before you spend any money on genetic testing, read Kira Peikoff's story:
23andMe said my most elevated risks — about double the average for women of European ethnicity — were for psoriasis and rheumatoid arthritis, with my lifetime odds of getting the diseases at 20.2 percent and 8.2 percent. But according to Genetic Testing Laboratories, my lowest risks were for — you guessed it — psoriasis (2 percent) and rheumatoid arthritis (2.6 percent).

For coronary heart disease, 23andMe and G.T.L. agreed that I had a close-to-average risk, at 26 to 29 percent, but Pathway listed my odds as “above average.”

In the case of Type 2 diabetes, inconsistencies on a semantic level masked similarities in the numbers. G.T.L. said my risk was “medium” at 10.3 percent, but 23andMe said my risk was “decreased” at 15.7 percent. In fact, both companies had calculated my odds to be roughly three-quarters of the average, but they used slightly different averages — and very different words — to interpret the numbers. In isolation, the first would have left me worried; the second, relieved.
As the FDA kept insisting about 23andMe, none of these companies can present any evidence showing that their tests are accurate or meaningful.

Germany after World War II

As the defeat of Hitler approached in 1944 and 45, Allied diplomats, politicians and generals engaged in a long and fierce debate about what to do with Germany after the war. Many were captured by fantasies like the Morgenthau Plan, which proposed completely disarming and de-industrializing the whole nation. Others, remembering what had happened to a humiliated Germany after the First World War, argued that this would only lead to a resurgance of fascism in Germany, or else a turn toward the Soviet bock. The only possible approach, they argued was to support the rebuilding of the country and welcome Germany fully into a new Europe. As former president Herbert Hoover told Harry Truman,
You can have vengeance, or peace, but you can't have both.

Monday, December 30, 2013

The Hobbit: the Desolation of Smaug

Just back from taking two 20-year-olds, one teenager and two children to see the new Hobbit. All the reactions were positive; everybody enjoyed it, and nobody complained that it was too long, even at 2 hours 40 minutes. It was a fun evening.

Peter Jackson's biggest weakness as a director is his inability to let anything stand still. He is great at battle scenes and armies on the march, but not so hot at quiet moments of reflection. His Hobbit is even more frenetic than his Lord of the Rings; almost all the padding needed to stretch it to three movies takes the form of fighting. Many of Tolkien's most magical moments came in times of quiet or stasis, but Jackson has changed many of these to furious battles. One of my least favorite moments of Jackson's LOTR came when the hosts of Mordor broke the gate of Minas Tirith. In the book the Lord of the Nazgul rides in alone, and only Gandalf opposes him. I think it would have looked great on film, a simple, stark confrontation. But Jackson changed it to another frantic battle.

Likewise Jackson has drained some of the magic out of the Hobbit by not taking enough time with the slow, quiet parts. The passage through Mirkwood is changed from a dreary slog through a nearly lifeless forest to a mad dash. Tolkien's verbal humor is mostly gone, too, replaced by slapstick that made my children laugh out loud, and me a couple of times, but is something quite different. I don't have any problem with changing the story; I know the book by heart, so I was happy for some changes and surprises. In one important way Jackson has improved Tolkien, giving Thorin a plan that actually makes sense. But I got tired of unnecessary battles.

Jackson's greatest strength is his visual sense, and The Desolation of Smaug is just as beautiful, sublime, creepy and terrifying as his other Tolkien movies. I loved Dol Guldur. Smaug himself is quite fine, although again there was a whole lot of action taking away from the purely verbal exchanges between Bilbo and the dragon that are so great in the book. Lake Town is terrific.

On the whole, I say it was highly entertaining but not magical or mythic enough for my taste.

Shaman Badger by Jackie Morris

Artist and children's book author Jackie Morris -- whom we already featured here -- wrote on her blog this December 20,
Meanwhile I went to fetch kittens, and doodled some badgers, and painted a shaman badger.
And what a shaman badger it is. Below, her studio.

26 Years in Shanghai

Shanghai's Pudong business district in 1987, above, and in 2013, below. From the Atlantic.

Faith in Technology

Nikolai Berdyaev, 1932:
For the contemporary European all faith has weakened. He is more free from optimistic illusions than the man of the XIX Century, set facing the bare, unadorned and severe realities. But in one regard modern man is optimistic and filled with faith, and this is his idol, to which everyone offers sacrifice. We herein come nigh to a very important moment in the spiritual condition of the contemporary world. Modern man believes in the might of technology, of the machine, and sometimes it would seem, that this is the one thing, in which he still believes.

And there seems to be a very serious basis for his optimism in this regard. The dizzying successes of technology in our epoch is a genuine marvel of the sinful natural world. Man is shaken and crushed by the might of technology, making all his life topsy-turvy. Man himself has created it, it is the product of his genius, of his reason, of his inventiveness, it is a child of the human spirit. Man has succeeded in unlocking secret powers of nature and using them for his own ends, of introducing a teleological principle into the activity of mechanical-physical-chemical powers.

But to master the results of his work man has not succeeded. Technology has come to seem more powerful than man himself, it subjugates him to itself. Technology is the sole sphere of the optimistic faith of man, his greatest achievement. But it brings man, however, much grief and disappointment, it enslaves man, it weakens his spiritualness, it threatens him with ruin.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Scientism vs. Humanism, Pinker vs. Wieseltier

Earlier this year The New Republic hosted a debate between Steven Pinker and Leon Wieseltier about the proper relationship between science and the humanities, and David Brooks gave this one of his journalism awards. I found it fairly interesting, although as much for what is not said as for what is.

Pinker leads off by noting that many philosophers and historians of earlier eras were very interested in science, kept abreast of new discoveries and even offered their own scientific theories (Hume, Descartes, Locke, Kant, etc.) Pinker wants to bring this world back; he wants humanists to know the science of our day as well as Locke or Plato knew that of their own times and to incorporate this knowledge into their work:
One would think that writers in the humanities would be delighted and energized by the efflorescence of new ideas from the sciences. But one would be wrong. Though everyone endorses science when it can cure disease, monitor the environment, or bash political opponents, the intrusion of science into the territories of the humanities has been deeply resented. Just as reviled is the application of scientific reasoning to religion; many writers without a trace of a belief in God maintain that there is something unseemly about scientists weighing in on the biggest questions. In the major journals of opinion, scientific carpetbaggers are regularly accused of determinism, reductionism, essentialism, positivism, and worst of all, something called “scientism.” The past couple years have seen four denunciations of scientism in this magazine alone.
This last gets to Pinker's real motivation for engaging in this debate: he feels aggrieved by all the attacks on science. The title of his first essay is, "Science is not Your Enemy," and he seems offended that anybody should dislike or fear science. But he keeps trying to have things both ways. He says religious people should not think that science is anti-religion, but then he crows that science
requires a radical break from religious conceptions of meaning and value. To begin with, the findings of science entail that the belief systems of all the world’s traditional religions and cultures—their theories of the origins of life, humans, and societies—are factually mistaken.
He says that science is responsible for the modern world, but then takes exception when environmentalists or conservatives blame science for the world's failings. It is all a bit confused, but one thing comes through clearly: Pinker loves science, loves the certain knowledge it can give of the universe, and thinks anybody who doesn't appreciate the beauty and power of science is either a reactionary or a fool.

Wieseltier counters by accusing Pinker of assuming that all knowledge is science. If we really know it, says Wieseltier's Pinker, then it is science, because that is the only way we can really know things. To Wieseltier science is an important way of knowing but not the only one; philosophy, literary criticism, and other humanistic studies also produce knowledge. There are whole fields of scholarship, for example ethics and art criticism, about which science has nothing to say, and he easily pokes fun at certain scientists who have strayed into those realms:
What Pinker [and others] deny is that the differences between the various realms of human existence, and between the disciplines that investigate them, are final. For these scientizers, they are not differences in kind; they are differences only in appearance, whereas a deeper explanation, a scientific explanation, will expose the underlying sameness. The underlying sameness is the presumption of scientism. The scientizers do not respect the borders between the realms; they transgress the borders so as to absorb all the realms into a single realm, into their realm. They are not pluralists. With his uniform notion of intelligibility, Pinker rejects the momentous distinction between the study of the natural world and the study of the human world.
So Wieseltier's real goal is preserving the independence of theology, philosophy, and humanistic scholarship in the face of scientific imperialism. In the short term Wieseltier is certainly correct, since even Pinker admits that science has nothing to add to debates over the origins of World War I, let alone debates about what art is. In the long run Pinker expects all such questions to be subsumed into the science of the mind, but I think history will safely maintain its independence for at least the rest of this century.

Wieseltier also plays both sides of some questions in annoying ways. For example he says that science may have refuted the literal meaning of Genesis, but that very few believers have ever taken what that text says literally. This is false, and it also minimizes the extent to which modern scholarship has undermined religious teachings. Modern science denies the possibility of miracles, denies the existence of non-material beings such as angels or ghosts, denies that the self or soul is in any way separate from he physical operations of the brain. Modern Biblical criticism has, I would say, made it impossible to be certain what Jesus said about anything, and shown that several of the alleged letters of Paul cannot have been written by the man who wrote the Epistle to the Romans. Modern anthropology has shown how many different ways there are of organizing human society, making mockery of phrases like "traditional marriage." More broadly, modern scholarship has undermined age-old certainty, replacing firm faith with probability and flux.

I think about these questions all the time. What I believe about science makes it impossible for me to accept vast amounts of what has long passed for human knowledge. This includes beliefs about gods, spirits, magic and miracles but goes far beyond it. Once you know history and anthropology, you understand that artistic taste is a product of a certain time, place and class, and long-raging debates about the eternal forms of Beauty and Art become downright silly. The same goes for many other cultural artifacts: attitudes about marriage, sex roles, war, honor, and so on lose all firm footing and become merely discussions about preferences.

This is the way I think and the only way I have ever been able to think. And yet I worry about a world without traditional beliefs. Not that I think we are in one now; there is a huge amount of traditional baggage still hanging around in our societies. But what if we lost it altogether? Even the resolutely pro-science Pinker does a lot of dancing around the question of what a thoroughly scientific worldview would mean for us psychologically or as a society. Honestly the results so far are not all that encouraging. The freedom we have created for ourselves has led to as much anxiety as celebration. Religion's central place in life has been taken over, not by science or freedom, but entertainment. The new ideologies of our age -- communism, libertarianism, fascism -- have been uniformly destructive, leaving millions yearning for a past world of less freedom, more certainty, and less stridency. I am not at all sure that people can thrive without the guidance of tradition. But if we all come to understand that our own tradition is just one of thousands, its rules either arbitrary or designed to preserve the power of old elites, can we just choose to live in one anyway?

The pre-scientific world was human in scale, and it assigned great importance to us, our needs, and our place in God's plan. The scientific world is vast beyond our imagining, and in it we are smart apes living on an average planet circling an average star in one of a trillion galaxies. Whether we have any more of a role than bacteria or space dust remains an open question. Can we live with that? If we really incorporated that understanding into everything we think and do, where would we be?

Weird Skeletons from the End of Harappan Civilization

One of the most fascinating things about the Harappan civilization of the Indus Valley is its mysterious and sudden end. Some time around 1900 BCE, all of the great cities went into decline. Parts of the cities were abandoned, and within the still-occupied portions, the sewers were no longer cleaned out, the larger houses were divided into smaller structures by shoddily made walls, and the evidence for long-distance trade dries up. By 1700 BCE the cities had been almost completely abandoned. And it wasn’t just the big cities; careful surveys have shown that many villages also disappeared; in some regions the total area of all the known settlements fell by 80 percent. The civilization simply vanished, leaving no obvious heirs. This may have had something to do with climate change, and perhaps with the entry of Indo-European speakers ("Aryans") into India. Or not. Anyway, it's a great mystery.

Enter Gwen Robbins Schug and her colleagues, who have studied 115 skeletons from the site of Harappa. These come from two cemeteries and an ossuary that produced 20 human skulls and a few other bones. The earlier cemetery dates to the "Urban Phase," 2500 to 2050 BCE, the later one to the "post Urban" period, 1900 to 1300 BCE. The ossuary has not been radiocarbon dated, but ceramics found with the burial suggest that it dates to around 2000 to 1900 BCE. This is a tiny sample for a community that had as many as 50,000 inhabitants, but it is what we have.

Insofar as I can understand their horribly written and abominably organized paper, what Schug et al. found was evidence of a population under a lot of stress from disease and low-level violence. They found evidence of leprosy in all the populations, which they had been curious about; since Harappan civilization had sizable cities and was tied by trade to the cities of Mesopotamia, they suspected that leprosy, the great scourge of poor, crowded people, would have migrated to the region. And it did. Rather than declining as the city emptied out, it seems to have been more prevalent among the pitiful bands huddled within the ruins than it had been before. So, it seems, was tuberculosis. This raises the possibility that one cause of the decline of these cities was disease; perhaps they became so sickly that they could not reproduce their populations.

Harappan civilization presents us with little evidence of warfare -- no impressive fortifications, few weapons, no violent iconography, no burial evidence of a military caste. But analysis of these skeletons by Schug and colleagues (published separately, and available here) shows that peaceful is a relative term. The skeletons did not show many major wounds of the kind you get from swords or war hammers. Instead they show a frightening level of minor trauma, especially blows to the head, and especially among women and children. The rate of injury among women was much higher in the ossuary and in the post Urban cemetery. In the ossuary, half the skulls showed evidence of battering. These skulls were deposited outside the walls in a marshy area and probably represent some sort of outcast population: perhaps recent immigrants or an oppressed class of the poor and despised. Whoever they were, they were beaten a lot. The high rate of skull injuries in the post Urban cemetery, especially women and children, argues for severe social stresses of some kind. The picture of life in Harappa's ruins gets more miserable all the time: to the little apartments walled off within what were once grand houses, the clogged sewers, and the abandoned public spaces we can now add leprosy, tuberculosis, and the frequent, severe beating of servants, women, and children.

The end of a civilization is never a pretty sight. These findings do not really explain Harappa's fall, but they add detail to our understanding of what its last citizens had to endure.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Capitalism by Gaslight

The Philadelphia Library Company has posted a wonderful online exhibition about the seedier side of nineteenth-century urban life in America, full of dark details and fascinating images.

The contrast between the safe Victorian world of daylight and the criminal underworld of the night was a constant theme at the time.

Among the best features is a "Rogues Gallery" of American criminals.

The title of the exhibit comes from this 1850 book by newspaper reporter G.G. Foster, who documented the world of New York's bowling alleys, sleazy bars, whorehouses, and gambling dens. Although he protested the hypocrisy of men who lived respectably by day while whoring and gambling at night, Foster does not seem to have been much different from them, and he later did time for passing forged bank notes.

A satire on the many, many stock swindles and similar investment frauds of the time. A "gull" was an easy mark for the swindler.

A shoplifter.

A guide to the brothels of Philadelphia.

A gang of young criminals photographed in Philadelphia in 1915. For much more, visit the exhibit.

56 Leonard Street by Herzog & De Meuron

In today's fusion of high style, high technology, and big money, I give you 56 Leonard Street, New York, a condominium tower designed by Herzog & De Meuron.

This is one of those buildings that I have to admit is clever and striking even though I despise it.

The entrance is supposed to be enlivened by that steel blob, a "sculpture" by Anish Kapoor. Spare me.

At the top, high above the realm of the mere mortals paying $2 to $6 million for condos, are ten Unique Sky Villas, going for around $30 million each, the most expensive for $47 million.

And they do mean villas. This is the Great Room of one, with 200 feet (60m) of continuous window walls. Click on this picture to see it larger and you will notice that the Greet Room is populated by Stuffed Sheep. I am puzzled. Do billionaires have a thing for sheep? Are stuffed farm animals in vogue this year? I feel so cut off from the culture of the rich and famous.

Behold the kitchen, with its "Herzog & de Meuron custom-designed grand piano-shaped island and a custom-sculpted range hood." Sure. Great. I am going to betray my petit bourgeois roots here, but shouldn't a kitchen feel at least a little bit cozy and comfortable? Is this space age monstrosity with its painful-looking stools anybody's idea of the ideal kitchen? Oh, wait -- if the owner of this place wants cozy, he simply calls for the helicopter and dashes out to the 18th-century farmhouse in Connecticut. How silly of me.

Recently an owner of one of these paid $300,000 for a 200-square foot storage unit in the basement. And after that, what else is there to say?

Pottery and Pollution

Here's a source of pollution I had never considered: coal-fired kilns for making pottery. These pictures show the skies over Trent-on-Stoke, Staffordshire, England during the heyday of the English pottery industry. Wags used to say of this area that on a clear day you could see across the street.


Bonsai, along with the related Chinese Penjing, is the iconic art of very patient East Asians. The basic goal is to train a tiny tree to look like a full grown one, but along with that comes a lot of stuff about harmony and inner beauty and whatnot. I just love them. Above is a bald cypress in the formal upright style, established (or "trained" as they say) in 1987.

This juniper, established in 1905, makes extensive use of both jin (deadwood branches) and shari (trunk deadwood).

Japanese white pine in the informal upright style. The illusion of bonsai works best using trees with small leaves, so most Japanese bonsai are from a small group of species; small-leafed pines are the most common. This one is in the National Arboretum, one of the most important American collections. I noticed that while this used to be the national bonsai collection, now it is the National Collection of Bonsai and Penjing. I imagine that this started during the detente of the 70s when some Chinese diplomat toured to arboretum and said, "Bonsai? You know, we invented that."

A Japanese maple, another common species.

A group of atlas cedars in the forest style.

Another juniper, this one in the cascade style.

Of course now that bonsai has spread around the world,people are using trees native to all sorts of places; this is a bonsai banyan tree.

Wonderful they are.