Sunday, January 31, 2016


My thirteen-year-old son just said to me, "I remember most of your stories. You tell good stories."


Kasich Gets the Kiss of Death from the Times

I see that the New York Times has continued their peculiar habit of endorsing a candidate in the Republican primaries. Poor John Kasich; if the Times supports him, is there any chance Republican voters will? Who do you suppose was the last Republican who wanted to be endorsed by the Times; Gerald Ford? I don't think Trump has bothered to mock Kasich very much, but if Kasich does as well in New Hampshire as some polls suggest, Trump now his line of attack ready. The candidate from the liberal media establishment!

Eric Jager, Blood Royal: A True Tale of Crime and Detection in Medieval Paris

Eric Jager's Blood Royal: A True Tale of Crime and Detection in Medieval Paris (2014) is a good book. I am having trouble keeping my review positive, though, because it starts out as a great book, and I hoped it might measure up to his last, excellent book, The Last Duel. Sadly, it does not. But anyway it is still quite good, and I recommend it.

In November, 1407, Louis d'Orleans, the brother of King Charles VI, was hacked to death by assassins in the streets of Paris. Charles VI was the famous King of Glass, and Orleans had been the leader of the government during the king's bouts of madness. His murder was therefore a matter of the highest significance for France.

The job of investigating the murder and identifying the culprit fell to Guillaume de Tignonville, the provost of Paris. Jager begins his book focusing on de Tignonville, using chronicles and also a remarkable chance survival from the medieval records: the scroll on which de Tignonville's scribes recorded the progress of the investigation as it unfolded. This scroll was found in the private collection of a noble family in the 1660s, no doubt because one of their ancestors had seen the value of the thing and purloined it. As Jager tells the story, de Tignonville went about solving the case in a very modern way. While he inspected the body, he sent men to search the house rented by the assassins and others to interview all the neighbors. Once he had established which way the assassins fled he sought witnesses on each successive block, tracing the killers' route through the city toward their safe house.

Jager also has a great eye for what makes medieval history weird and interesting. He takes us on a tour of the old castle known as the Châtelet that had become the Paris prison, a frightening place where accused criminals were often tortured to extract confessions. All the cells in the prison were named, from the well-lit rooms on the upper floor where aristocratic prisoners could have sumptuous meals brought in for themselves and their visitors (the Good View, the Little Glory) to the horrible pits in the basement into which the most abominable murderers and traitors were lowered by rope (the Hole, the Well, the Gourdaine). He stages a scene at Montfaucon, the execution place of Paris, where the huge gibbet stood that could accommodate more than fifty men. He has some marvelous scenes set in the gloomy, paranoid court of the mad king, where accusations of sorcery and poisoning were a routine part of the struggle for influence.

The problem Jager faces is the story, which gets a lot less interesting as it goes on. The assassination was ordered by one of France's greatest nobles, the king's cousin, and from Parisian crime the matter quickly escalated to an affair of state. The civil war that resulted is a far bigger story than can be told in a book such as this; in fact that civil war set the stage for Henry V's invasion of France, Agincourt, and fifty more years of the Hundred Years' War. Jager, whose expertise is in the microhistory of particular, revealing events, cannot begin to cope with all of this.

But the first half of the book is excellent, and the rest is ok, Jager is a very accurate historians and a good writer. So if you are looking to spend a few hours in medieval Paris, get a copy of Blood Royal from the library and curl up in your coziest chair.

More from the Neolithic Death Pit of Bergheim

Last month I posted news of a gruesome discovery from the Neolithic site of Bergheim in eastern France: a burial containing seven victims of violence and also a deposit of violently severed limbs.

LiveScience has now posted an extensive set of photographs, showing in detail the violence meted out to these poor people. You can see that the severed limbs were not randomly tossed into the pit, but placed in a single pile in the center. And is it significant that there were seven complete skeletons and also seven severed arms?

View of severed upper arms, likely cut through with an ax.

If you think in a big picture way about the European archaeology I have posted here over the past six years, you will detect a focus on violence, migration, and the possibility that the distant past was shaped by events like wars. This represents a big change from the archaeology of 1945 to 1990. After World War II, violence and migration were out; everybody talked about adaptation to the environment, slow evolution in place, peaceful change, and trade. Things that had always been called "hill forts" or "castles" became "ritual enclosures;" languages were imagined to spread via trade networks or to have evolved in parallel across vast distances. Elite behavior changed by emulation, not violent replacement.

To me, much about the archaeology of the postwar period was simply wrong, and the current swing is a necessary correction. So far as I can see, the distant past really was full of violence, conquest, and migration, and probably slavery and human sacrifice, too. But I do wonder at the political side of this. The change in archaeological theory has exactly paralleled the retreat from socialism and the welfare state that has taken place across the Atlantic world. As our societies have moved back toward the freewheeling capitalism and grotesque inequality of the Gilded Age, our archaeology has also moved in the same direction, emphasizing things one could have read about in the journals of the 1890s.

From my perspective the pacifist archaeology of the postwar years was a desperate, doomed attempt to imagine a human past more suited to the needs of social democracy. I hope that the practice of working for a just society can be separated from the theoretical nonsense that accompanied it, and that we can be realistic about the world without giving up on economic democracy.

Sometimes I wonder, though. Sometimes it seems to me, watching things like the Trump campaign, that the motivating ideas are always crazy, and that wholly rational people would never accomplish much of anything. Maybe left-wing politics really is inseparable from left-wing philosophical nonsense, and only people with Che posters and Visualize World Peace bumper stickers will really work for a more equal world.

Saturday, January 30, 2016


Elite chess players make six time more errors when they are losing.

Today's Best Headline

Lebanon Returns Israeli Vulture Cleared of Spying

The problem, it seems, was that the bird is part of a bioloical study and has an attached tracking device, which made Lebanese security people nervous. And who can blame them? If the Israelis haven't figured out yet how to use vultures as spies, they will soon.

The Menai Suspension Bridge, 1826

Connecting Wales to the Isle of Anglesey, one of the first great modern suspension bridges.


It is foolish
to let a young redwood
grow next to a house.

Even in this
one lifetime,
you will have to choose.

That great calm being,
this clutter of soup pots and books –

Already the first branch-tips brush at the window.
Softly, calmly, immensity taps at your life.

–Jane Hirshfield

Griffin, 1250-1300 CE

From somewhere in the Balkans.

You Have to Wonder about Tennessee Legislators

In Tennessee, the majority whip of the house of representatives got in trouble for sending late-night messages to female staffers. He resigned as whip but, for now anyway, remains in the legislature. The speaker issued a statement saying that he is working on a sexual harassment policy, and meanwhile
As a precautionary measure, I have instructed the Director of the Internship program that interns are not to attend receptions or events related to the legislature, and they are not to give their cell phone numbers to members.
So the speaker doesn't think interns should give their phone numbers to his own members or even go to receptions, a bizarre mix of blaming the victim and showing zero trust in the men who have Tennessee in their care.

Poverty and Child Abuse

And now for something depressing.

Jill Lepore has a long essay in the latest New Yorker about, on the one hand, two sensational murders of young children in Boston, and, on the other, the long-term problem of child abuse. The best thing about the article is that Lepore knows how long we have been wrestling with this problem; public policy swings between removing children from troubled families and trying to keep troubled families together have been going on since at least the 1860s. One reason we don't hear more about the problem, except when there is a sensational murder, is that everyone is tired of what seems to be an unending, hopeless crisis. The major newspapers all have articles and editorials from decades ago that they could re-run with only the names of the officials changed.

Lepore and the people she interviews all seem to think that fighting child abuse in the way we do is hopeless, because the real problem is poverty. And there is a sense in which this is true. According to the Children's Defense Fund,
Poverty is the single best predictor of child abuse and neglect. Children who live in families with an annual income less than $15,000 are 22 times more likely to be abused or neglected than children living in families with an annual income of $30,000 or more.
That number is misleading in some ways, as I will explain, but I can tell you that I just spent the past hour searching for information on the question and found a whole lot of numbers from many sources that say pretty much the same thing.

The question is, why? What is the actual causal link between poverty and child abuse?

First, the number I cited lumps together "abuse" and "neglect," two quite different categories. The separate numbers are that very poor children are 14 times more likely to be abused and 44 times more likely to be neglected. "Neglect" is sometimes a word for being too poor to meet our standards of family life; for example, parents can be charged with child neglect for being homeless. When single mothers can't find or afford child care and leave their children at home alone, the children can be considered "neglected" and taken away from them. (Even if they have been ordered to get jobs by state welfare officials.)

So part of the disparity does arise simply from lack of resources to give children things our society thinks they ought to have. On the other hand "abuse," meaning physical harm, is still vastly more common among the very poor. Perhaps this is partly because of reporting differences, in that middle class families are better able to keep their problems private, but child murder is a lot harder to conceal and it shows the same disparity.

So why are very poor Americans more likely to abuse their children?

The most obvious answer to me is mental illness, along with associated drug abuse. In America there is a very strong association between mental illness and poverty, and crazy, drug-addled people are more likely to hurt their children. People who have been in prison are also more likely to hurt their children, and prison is also strongly associated with drug abuse and mental health problems.

Stress is another factor. When single mothers get jobs they become more likely to abuse their children, even though their economic situations improve, and I suppose this is because being a working single mother is just very stressful.

Which gets me to another factor that I wonder about, even though I haven't found any studies that show it is a problem: loneliness. In traditional societies new mothers get lots of help with their babies from relatives and neighbors, but in our atomized world many parents seem to be pretty much alone. That has to make it much harder for them to cope and much more likely that they will abuse or ignore their children. The only sort of intervention that has been shown to decisively reduce child abuse is very long term family visitation, beginning during pregnancy and continuing for more than two years. People involved in Yale's Mind the Baby program say that the key is helping mothers communicate with their babies, something one assumes is done by relatives for people who have them around.

All Americans know how hard it has been to break up the multi-generational cycle of poverty, child abuse, addiction, and prison. One thing we know is that these problems often start young; children who have had any sort of contact with child protective services, even the briefest visit, are more than twice as likely to end up in prison. For what we spend keeping drug users in prison, we could easily provide every poor mother in America with monthly home visits by a pediatric nurse. If we are serious about the pathologies of American poverty, that is the kind of intervention we need to focus on.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Modern Genetics and the Anglo-Saxon Invasion of Britain

Rui Martiniano and colleagues have an interesting article in Nature Communications based on the analysis of DNA from nine skeletons from Iron Age and Roman York. They find that the people of Roman York were genetically much more like the modern people of Celtic Britain than they are like the people of England, which they attribute to Anglo-Saxon colonization. I love these three little maps, which show three different ways of mapping the difference between Roman and modern populations. Above, a statistical measurement of overall DNA similarity; below, Blood Type O and Y Chromosome type R1b-M269, the most common type in Ireland. These three maps all clearly show the arrival of new genes in the southeast, where they are most common, and then their spread across the islands. The findings of this study support the growing consensus that the population of England is 25% to 40% Anglo-Saxon.

Martiniano et al., Genomic signals of migration and continuity in Britain before the Anglo-Saxons. Nature Communications 19 January 2016.

The Corporate Morass

Tom Monahan:
Most business activity is slowing down, not accelerating. In benchmarking the speed of key processes across the corporate sector, we find again and again that decision-making at even the most basic level has slowed materially over the past five to 10 years. A few examples from our research illustrate this trend.

Hiring a new employee, for instance, now takes 63 days, up from 42 in 2010, according to a 2015 study we did with 400 corporate recruiters. Meanwhile the average time to deliver an office IT project increased by more than a month from 2010 to 2015, and now stands at over 10 months from start to delivery. . .  The time required for one company to sell something to another, for example, has risen 22% in the past five years, as gaining consensus from one or two buyers has turned into five or more.
American corporate life is getting more bureaucratic by the day. Everyone seems to be nervous, which leads to more reviews of every decision, more documents subjected to scrutiny by lawyers, and so on. As to whether this is better or worse for the companies or the economy as a whole, I won't venture to guess, but it sure is miserable for the people who have to put up with it.

Monahan places some of the blame on the electronic tools that are supposed to encourage cooperative work, which have
created an environment in which 60% of employees must consult with at least 10 colleagues each day just to get their jobs done.
Saving time with technology, again.

Log Boats and Cultural Connections in Bronze Age Europe

According to this article, Bronze Age log boats from all across northern Europe look very much the same. Above, one from the Must Farm site in Britain; below, from Denmark. You might think that is unremarkable, because how many way are there to make a boat from a log? But actually these look nothing like log canoes from North America. So perhaps the argument that the similarity of these boats implies close cultural contact makes sense. And anyway I always enjoy it when archaeologists stretch the frame of the argument a little, using artifacts that people generally don't know what to make of.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Excess Intelligence; or, Astronomy in Ancient Babylon

News today about higher math in ancient Babylon, used to calculate the future motions of the planet Jupiter:
What is perhaps more surprising is the sophistication with which they tracked the planet, judging from inscriptions on a small clay tablet dating to between 350 B.C. and 50 B.C. The tablet, a couple of inches wide and a couple of inches tall, reveals that the Babylonian astronomers employed a sort of precalculus in describing Jupiter’s motion across the night sky relative to the distant background stars. . . .

Mathematical calculations on four other tablets show that the Babylonians realized that the area under the curve on such a graph represented the distance traveled.
In more detail:
Early Babylonian mathematicians who lived between 1800 B.C. and 1600 B.C. had figured out, for example, how to calculate the area of a trapezoid, and even how to divide a trapezoid into two smaller trapezoids of equal area. . . .

When Jupiter first appears in the night sky, it moves at a certain velocity relative to the background stars. Because Jupiter and Earth both constantly move in their orbits, to observers on Earth, Jupiter appears to slow down, and 120 days after it becomes visible, it comes to a standstill and reverses course.

In September, Dr. Ossendrijver went to the British Museum, where the tablets were taken in the late 19th century after being excavated. A close-up look of the new tablet confirmed it: The Babylonians were calculating the distance Jupiter traveled in the sky from its appearance to its position 60 days later. Using the technique of splitting a trapezoid into two smaller ones of equal area, they then figured out how long it took Jupiter to travel half that distance.
I confess that I don't really see the radical significance of this discovery, which after all might date to after Archimedes, who did much more sophisticated geometry than this. I am mainly fascinated that ancient humans put so much effort into mathematical astronomy. Most of the time, life as a hunter, barley farmer, or corporate drone doesn't make much use of the more impressive capabilities of our brains. So those who enjoy stretching their minds are always dreaming up yet more elaborately irrelevant mental exercises to do so: chess, go, sudoku, archaeology, blogging, n-dimensional topology.

Hillary Clinton, Political Realist

Interesting article by Ezra Klein about Hillary's pessimistic to approach politics. Back in 2008, she dismissed Obama's hopes for a better America like this:
I could stand up here and say, 'Let's just get everybody together, Let's get unified. The sky will open. The light will come down. Celestial choirs will be singing. And everyone will know we should do the right thing and the world will be perfect.' Maybe I've just lived a little long, but I have no illusions about how hard this is going to be. You are not going to wave a magic wand and have the special interests disappear.
And recently, talking to Black Lives Matter activists, she said:
I don’t believe you change hearts. I believe you change laws, you change allocation of resources, you change the way systems operate. You’re not going to change every heart. You’re not.
This creates a real problem for her as a candidate, because she won't tell voters what they want to hear.

Personally I paid very little attention to Obama's "hope and change" rhetoric back in 2008; I supported him because he opposed the Iraq War and because I admire his calm, persistent, hyper-rational approach to governing. I discovered only later that millions of apparently sane Democrats really thought he could deliver some kind of radical change and were severely disappointed when he didn't. Hillary must have laughed bitterly over that.

Now Hillary faces the same dynamic in her race against Bernie Sanders. Sanders is telling liberals what they want to hear: we can have single-payer health insurance, we can banish big money from politics, we can make the country work for the little guy. We can have a peaceful revolution. Hillary doesn't believe any of that and refuses to lie about it. She believes that in the current American political climate even small progressive victories will come only after intense effort and bitter conflict.

The difference this time is, first, that the Iraq War has lost its salience among Democratic voters; second, Sanders is in some ways just a much less appealing candidate than Obama was; and third, many Democratic activists are not falling for the revolutionary hype this time:
In mid-2014, Noam Scheiber tracked down 10 former Iowa precinct captains for Barack Obama and asked whom they were supporting in 2016. The answer? Overwhelmingly, they were backing Hillary Clinton — the very candidate they had worked so hard to beat in 2008. Seven of the 10 ex-Obama organizers told him they'd become "enthusiastic" Clinton supporters, and an eighth said she was "slowly coming around."

The reassessment of Hillary Clinton was driven in part by the disillusionments of the Obama years. "Watching the system not change really made an impact on these people," Scheiber told me. "I don't think they want to get burned again."
Which is part of why I still expect Hillary to win.

It All Comes Down to the Grid

As I have mentioned before, power experts have long thought that the key to weaning the U.S. off fossil fuels is a better electric grid. The wind power is on the plains or out at sea, the sun is in the southwest, and most of the people are somewhere else. To tap the wind potential of the plains, in particular, we need a vastly improved power infrastructure. Not only that, but according to a new paper in Nature Climate Change, a better grid would relieve us of most of the need for energy storage; it's always windy somewhere.

The problem, of course, is that nobody wants to live next to a high-voltage power line, and people fight like mad to keep them out of their neighborhoods. Of all the power line projects I have been involved with over the years, only about half have been built. But that is changing. Backed by Congress and the last three presidents, FERC, the federal agency that overseas interstate power lines, has been pushing much more aggressively to complete new projects. Even the National Park
Service has had to allow major new lines across parks. So the better grid is already taking shape. (This is a good example of the things that proceed by government inertia across several administrations and changes of control in Congress, regardless of election results; a lot of the federal government is actually like that.)

Another thing about the new Nature paper is that the author argues for a new generation of super-high voltage lines, using direct current. This is an old argument going back to Edison and Tesla and the first long-distance power transmissions. Tesla wanted to use extremely high voltages, but he was unable to make that work with the technology of the time. On the other hand  he always supported alternating current, as against Edison's DC system. So technological fashion has shifted over the years. But at any rate it seems that we could do better than the existing systems if we really cared.

The Lullingstone Bowl

Excavated in Kent, England in the 19th century, dated on stylistic grounds to the 7th or 8th century CE. Bronze and silver. Now in the British Museum.


These drawings give a clearer idea of the the design. Double axes covered with Celtic interlacing seem like the concoction of a modern artist, but no, this is a real medieval object.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Pertsov House, Moscow

Pertsov House is an Art Nouveau maserpiece in the heart of Moscow, built in 1905 to 1907. According to several Russian art blogs, Trotsky lived there for a brief time in the 1920s. Now it houses some offices of the Russian foreign ministry.

The apartment building is named for Pyotr Pertsov (1857-1937), a wealthy railroad engineer and  patron of the arts. He purchased an undistinguished structure built in 1885 and held a competition for designs to remodel it. He wanted it to be a residence for himself that would include apartments and studios for artists. He asked that the designs "reflect the ideals and characteristics of the Russian arts."

The winning design was this one from the artist Sergei V. Malyutin (1859-1937), designer of, among other things, dolls based on Russian folk art. Malyutin knew little about architecture, so he teamed with civil engineer Nikolai K. Zhukov to make sure the design would hold together.

The building is decorated with majolica tiles using folk art motifs and scenes from Russian folk tales; it came to be known as the Fairy Tale House.

Besides the homes of several artists, the building held for a while a satirical cabaret called The Bat, which had a theme song that went like this:
A whirling bat takes off
Among nocturnal fires,
We weave a gaudy pattern
Against the monotony of life.
Pertsov lived in he house for 15 years. In 1922 he tried to defend the church against the Bolsheviks, and for his trouble got a five-year-prison sentence. He was released after only one year, but his house was seized for the state.

Malyutin also designed much of the interior, of which I can only find black and white photographs from 1907. This might be a bit much decoration even for me.

Love the doors.

Eight Arrests and One Death in Oregon

So Ammon Bundy is in jail, where he no doubt belongs, and without a massacre. Bothers me that one man was killed, though. First, because I hate to see anybody die over such a farce, and second, because he becomes a martyr for the rest of them. All of them face a federal felony charge of 
conspiracy to impede officers of the United States from discharging their official duties through the use of force, intimidation or threats.
Which sounds like it probably carries a lot of jail time. Remains to be seen what happens to the folks left at the refuge.

I wonder what inspired the FBI to act now? Did they get tired of waiting for negotiations that were going nowhere?

As I have said, I can't take these people seriously, and I find the rage they inspire in some quarters baffling. Why send a SWAT team to arrest clowns?

But there is a very serious issue here, the sense among many Americans that their own government is an occupying force. Hundreds of thousands and maybe millions of Americans fear Washington much more than they fear Teheran or Pyongyang. The weird blow up over the Jade Helm 15 exercise showed how many there are, and how deep their paranoia runs. I worry that this distrust might over time grow into a real threat to our democracy, and I worry that responding with overwhelming force to Bundy-style provocations would only spread and deepen that distrust.

I'm glad the Citizens for Constitutional Freedom were broken up without too much violence, but I really wish somebody had been able to talk them into going home.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Nydam Mose

Nydam Mose is a bog in southern Denmark that was an Iron Age holy site where offerings were made to the gods of battle. Archaeology was first carried out there in 1859 to 1863, under the direction of archaeologist Conrad Engelhardt. (Crystal ornament, probably from a sword hilt)

The finds included a great mass of weapons

and also tools, clothing, personal ornaments, and ordinary household items like ceramic pots and wooden bowls. You can see that Engelhardt published a very detailed account of his finds.

The most spectacular finds made by Engelhardt's team were two complete clinker built boats and pieces of a third. Above is the larger boat, made of oak. It is 75 feet long (23 m) and 13 feet (4 m) wide, set up to be rowed by a crew of 30 men. It had no mast. It has been tree-ring dated to 310-320 CE. It now resides at Gottorf Castle in Schleswig, Germany.

This is the largest and most complete vessel preserved from the pre-Viking north. It must have been a very valuable object. Roman historians tell us that Germanic warriors routinely sacrificed to the gods all the booty they took in battle, and several other sites of sacrifice like Nydam Mose are known. The sacrifice of this entire vessel shows how seriously some warriors took that their religious duty.

Archaeologists returned to the bog in 1989, this time as a project of the National Museum of Denmark. As before, a staggering amount of stuff was found. The modern excavators date it to between 250 and 550 CE.

The finds include pieces of amazing beauty, especially from scabbards and sword hilts.

And even some preserved scabbards of wood and leather.


But my favorite object from Nydam Most is this carved post. It was found near the larger boat and seems designed to hang over the side of the boat, facing outwards.

As on this reconstruction of the larger boat. (The steering oar also matches one found in the excavation.)

Trying to imagine how two boats ended up sacrificed in the holy pond, I come up with this: the local people were attacked by raiders who came by water. Forewarned or just lucky, they drove off the attackers and killed so many that when they fled the raiders had to leave two of their boats behind. So while captives were hung from trees in the sacred grove, their souls offered to Odin, the victors loaded piles of swords and spears into the boats and dragged them to Nydam Mose. Perhaps they were laughing and carrying on, or perhaps they were chanting solemn prayers, as the leavings of battle sank beneath the still waters, descending toward the watery netherworld where dead spirits roam and the dragon of darkness gnaws on the roots of mighty Yggdrasil.