Saturday, December 31, 2016

A Two-Horned Approach to Bringing Back the Aurochs

The aurochs, the European wild cattle that appears in so many cave paintings, survived much longer than most great beasts of the Ice Age; the last one died in Poland in 1627. In the early Middle Ages, kings hunted them and drank mead from their horns.

In Europe there is a movement that people call "Rewilding," dedicated to turning what was once settled country back into wilderness. After all people are leaving big swathes of the European countryside in such great numbers that wolves and black bears are coming back to some depopulated areas on their own. But for some, the animals likely to come back by themselves are not enough, and they mourn for the vanished beasts that once walked these forests. First on the list to bring back is the aurochs.

The effort to bring back the aurochs combines what we might call the traditional and high-tech approaches. The traditional approach involves cross-breeding modern cattle that seem to have aurochs DNA to create a creature that looks more like the wild ancestor:
Since 2009, European science teams have been breeding cattle which still carry aurochs DNA. Two programmes are attempting to revive a version of the aurochs through breeding.

One is Operation Taurus, which has selectively bred 300 calves with auroch DNA via a process called back-breeding. They select breeds of cattle which have certain aurochs characteristics and each generation of calves gets closer to the original aurochs in appearance, behaviour and genetic makeup.

There are several breeds of cattle the scientists use which have characteristics closest to the aurochs, including the Maremmana from Italy and Podolica and Busha breed from the Balkans.

"They have the highest percentage of aurochs genetic material," Professor Donato Matassino from the operation told the Telegraph."I don't think we'll ever be able to create an animal that is 100% like the aurochs, but we can get very close."
But of course there is a way to get back to 100% aurochs DNA: cloning. We have all the aurochs DNA we could ever want, since there are horns aplenty in European museums and even a couple of stuffed specimens. So once we have a beast that is 80% aurochs, it ought to be simple to clone that DNA into one of its eggs and get a 100% aurochs calf. Its mother ought to recognize and be capable of caring for it, too.

Since we know that aurochs survived fine in European forest of the Middle Ages until they were hunted to extinction, that revived beast ought to thrive in our world. I can't think of any reason not to do this, and I fully expect it to happen in my children's lifetimes.

Friday, December 30, 2016

The Hildesheim Treasure

The Hildesheim Treasure is a trove of Roman silver that was unearthed by Prussian soldiers in 1868 near the small town of Hildesheim in Hanover. That puts it well outside the empire, spawning lots of speculation as to how it got there.

The treasure probably dates to the 1st century CE. So was it taken from Publius Varus after the disastrous Roman defeat in the Teutoburger Wood? That view has it defenders among scholars who think the whole assemblage of 70 vessels form a set of sorts.

But others think the pieces are too disparate in design to have been used as a set by such a rich, cultivated man as Varus, and that they were more likely accumulated over time. But how could that have been done? So the origin of the collection remains something of a mystery.

The most famous piece is the Minerva Bowl, above and at the top of the post.

But there are other amazing pieces.

And more.

Dish depicting the baby Hercules strangling the serpents.

The second most photographed item in the treasure is this krater.

Considering how poorly silver survives in average soil, we are very lucky that so much silver remains from the ancient world.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

A Moderate Man in a Partisan Age

In 1760, Benjamin Franklin was one of the most ardent royalists in the whole British Empire, happier in London than in Philadelphia. But after the Stamp Act crisis of 1765-66, things started to change:
For the next four or five years after 1766 Franklin was ambivalent about the nature of England's relation to America. He felt himself caught in a widening gulf, one that he tried desperately to bridge. "Being born and bred in one of the countries, and having lived long and made many agreeable connections of friendship in the other" he could only "wish all prosperity to both." Being unideological in an intensely ideological age made him seem a man apart and out of touch with his times. He talked and wrote and sought to explain each side to the other until he was weary with the effort – especially since he seemed to have no effect in either country, "except that of rendering myself suspected by my impartiality." The English thought him too American, while the Americans thought him too English. Inevitably he was accused of having no fixed principles at all.
Part of the problem, Franklin thought, was the behavior of the press, which published the most inflammatory screeds because those seemed to sell the best:
Scurrilous attacks in the press, he said, were not helping the situation at all. He told his partner David Hall that he agreed wholeheartedly with Hall's decision to avoid printing inflammatory pieces in the Pennsylvania Gazette at the time of the Stamp Act crisis. He would have done the same, even if he had held no crown office. The colonists had to realize that such incendiary writing was only making matters worse. "At the same time that we Americans wish not to be judged of, in the gross by particular papers written by anonymous scribblers and published in the colonies," Franklin wrote to his son in 1767, "it would be well if we could avoid falling into the same mistake in America in judging of ministers here by the libels printed against them." He saw his role as a reporter of the arguments of both sides. He had an obligation to lower the heat and lessen the passions of opinion – "to extenuate matters a little."

Franklin was especially appalled by all the talk of consipracy and hidden designs that existed on both side of the Atlantic. . . .
Eventually of course the gulf between England and America grew so wide that Franklin was unable to straddle it, and he like everyone else was forced to choose sides. He threw in his lot with the American rebels and lent his great reputation and ability to their cause. But he could easily have ended up on the other side, as did his only son, because he could see more clearly than most others that both sides had arguments in their favor, and that intemperate passion was leading people in dangerous directions that all might one day regret.

It's a sobering situation to ponder: a nation once united, but in the end so divided by mutual suspicion and anger that it could not hold together.

Quotations are from Gordon Wood,  The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin, pp. 125-126.

Somniloquy: Selected Passages

In the end, everything matters,
even rain on the hills, though it won’t
save a splintered boat from sundering

or release the shark in the net.
Bathing my sick child in milk couldn’t
calm her fever. Nailing myself to a tree

didn’t bring God any closer,
but when I looked a serpent in the eyes
I felt a common salvation.


The day after I buried my daughter
I heard knocking and opened a drawer
to find a dozen eggs, one of them rocking.

I held it in my mouth to make two snakes
break from the shell and lick my neck. The god
hanging on the wall commanded, Watch me suffer.


I dreamt my daughter dove
for whale bones on the abyssal plains,
surfaced from the sea floor bearing

spines, ribs, colossal skulls.
They grinned at me from the waves,
gods of a different history.

– Tracy Brimhall

Barbara Ehrenreich's Wild God, or, Mystics and Theologians

Barbara Ehrenreich is a well-known left-wing activist, anti-war, anti-capitalism, author of books like Nickeled and Dimed about poverty and oppression. In 2014 she published a different kind of book, Living with a Wild God. This is a sort of memoir that recounts the mystical experiences she has been having since she was 17 and tries to make sense of them within her basically rationalist worldview. She described that first experience like this:
At some point in my predawn walk—not at the top of a hill or at the exact moment of sunrise, but in its own good time—the world flamed into life. How else to describe it? There were no visions, no prophetic voices or visits by totemic animals, just this blazing everywhere. Something poured into me and I poured out into it. This was not the passive beatific merger with “the All,” as promised by the Eastern mystics. It was a furious encounter with a living substance that was coming at me through all things at once, and one reason for the terrible wordlessness of the experience is that you cannot observe fire really closely without becoming part of it. Whether you start as a twig or a gorgeous tapestry, you will be recruited into the flame and made indistinguishable from the rest of the blaze.
At the time she simply buried the experience, lest she have to question her atheistic worldview. But after other such experiences, she dragged out her old journals and confronted the world that her visions seemed to reveal.

Reviewers have reacted very differently to this effort; in the Times, Dwight Garner said that the first half of the book is an "agonizing slog" and summed it up by quoting Kingsley Amis:
Religion and masturbation are alike in one regard. Feel free to practice them, but no one really wants to hear you go on about it.
But the conservative Catholic critic at First ThingsFrancis Spufford, called the book "exhilarating", and was inspired by it to write a fascinating meditation on the relationship between raw mystical experience and organized religion:
One thing Ehrenreich is sure of, though: Whatever it is that lobbies for her attention in thunderheads and thrift-store windows, whatever it was that set the world on fire in Lone Pine, it cannot be the God of Christianity, Judaism, or Islam. Partly, this is a matter of continuing family loyalty. Whatever her parents’ drawbacks, they raised her in a tradition of defiant working-class unbelief, which represents to her a precious commitment to this-worldly good. Partly, on the other hand, it’s that her experience decisively fails to match what she understands of monotheism. For her, ought and is are entirely separate categories. Religion is preeminently the domain of ought, of do’s and don’ts, which her skeptical eye very readily interprets as convenient cover stories for power. Meanwhile she believes that her Other, burning away, is not moral at all: “My own ‘epiphanies,’ to overglorify them, had nothing to do with right or wrong, good or evil, kindness or cruelty, or any other abstractions arising from the human tribal life that I had only recently entered into.” A couple of traditional antireligious themes play a supporting role, too—an argument from theodicy, a repulsion at the prospect of eternal life—but this is the core of her refusal. “Whatever I had seen was what it was, with no moral valence or reference to human concerns.” With a God of ethics or creed or scripture consequently ruled out, what she is left with is a kind of freelance or zoological theism. The world may be infested with one or many amoral spirit-beasts, bulging under the ontological skin of things. Wild in her title turns out to mean not just unconditioned but feral. At this conclusion, of course, monotheists and atheists will swivel round together in rare unanimity to glare at her. Neither side wants this picture she arrives at, by being too honest to deny her experience, and too stubborn to accept any organized, existing description of it.
A Christian, says Spufford, is likely to find much of Ehrenreich's rambling frustrating:
A familiarity with the psalms would correlate her startled reflection that “I was not afraid of dying, because it was obvious that the Other . . . would continue just fine without me” with the stern comfort of “As for man, his days are as grass . . . but the mercy of the Lord is from everlasting unto everlasting.” The presence who only “was what it was” could be linked with the Presence that announces itself, in a circular affirmation of bare being, as “I am that I am.” And above all, her insistence on the amorality of the Lone Pine vision, its ethical unproductiveness, seems to rest on a literal and limited demarcation of what it might mean for an experience to have an effect in a life. Before it, she was a desperate solipsist. After it, she was set on a course that would lead back toward her fellow humans and eventually, in the second half of the 1960s, into antiwar activism. That sequence again: The bush burns, and some time later you find yourself trying to guide an unruly crowd toward the promised land. . . .
But this is to let ourselves off the hook too easily. If someone as open as this, with such a strong working sense of the tragic possibilities of existence, recognizes nothing in the descriptions of faith she has encountered, then we are not describing it rightly. If the “rage of joy” she has felt seems to have nothing to do with goodness, then we have been misrepresenting virtue. If what we have managed to extend in her direction seems to be only an offer of authoritarian parenthood, or a resistible politics, then we have made a mistake of our own about the place we allow for the wildness of God. . . . Faced with somebody like Ehrenreich, who knows she does not share the conservative politics that seem inseparable from American Christianity as she views it, and therefore is prevented from seeing what essential thing she does have in common with Christians, we are called to distinguish much more loudly between theism and the systems into which we build it. If God is universal (if God is God), then he is the God of liberals and radicals as much as of conservatives. Christianity is not just a religion for those temperamentally inclined to be reassured by firm systems, rigorous rules. It is also for the wild at heart. God himself is both rule-maker and rule-breaker. He is therefore the ground on which human rule-makers and rule-breakers ought to be able to meet.
This is certainly my main gripe about religion as I know it: that the spark of inspiration gets lost in a forest of laws, a fog of theology, or a morass of dubious politics. I always wonder, why can't we leave well enough alone? Why, when confronted with the absolute, the unknowable, the mysterious, do we have to wrangle about eating rock badgers or spend 2,000 years parsing the exact meaning of "this [bread] is my body"? The only theologians I like are those medieval Muslims who said that we can make no statements about God at all, because all human words limit him unacceptably.

The universe is vast beyond our understanding, each human life an incomprehensible mystery. When religious writers stick to that ground, they often move me. But when they somehow work their way from I am that I am to doctrinal wrangling and bans on birth control, they lose me. More, they anger me. They impose their small human obsessions on the vastness beyond, trying to bring the infinite down to their level. Even worse is when they imply that a meaningful life is not possible outside their little system – for some of them it's either empty hedonism or the church in all its rigor.

But outside the church and the temple and the mosque the sky is a star-strewn vastness stretching beyond our knowing, beyond our systems and our theologies, beyond our smallness, out into a universe that might as well go on forever; close at hand are wonders of life and art beyond counting. If you like rules and systems, they are there for you; if you do not, don't let the rigor of the lawgivers and the theologians dissuade from seeking your own meeting with the burning bush.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

New Power Plants in the US

Preliminary numbers for new power-generating capacity built in the US in 2016

Solar:                 9.5 gigawatts
Natural Gas:    8.0 gigawatts
Wind:                  6.8 gigawatts
Coal:                    0 gigawatts

The figure for new solar power is three times the amount built in 2015, which was twice the amount built in 2014. Of course even at that rate of growth, solar power only accounts for just over one percent of total power production in the US. But that is changing fast.

Obama and Trump

In explaining Trump's rise I have already referred to the advice Obama got from his political guru, David Axelrod, back in 2007: that Obama had a great chance to become president in 2008 because people are always looking for the opposite of what they have. I was reminded of that again today. I was re-reading David Goldberg's great Atlantic article on Obama's foreign policy, to which David Brooks just gave one of his Sidney Awards for the best long-form journalism of the year. Goldberg several times comments on Obama's “Spockian”, preternaturally calm response to foreign provocateurs like Hugo Chavez and Putin:
The president’s unwillingness to counter the baiting by American adversaries can feel emotionally unsatisfying, I said, and I told him that every so often, I’d like to see him give Vladimir Putin the finger. It’s atavistic, I said, understanding my audience.

“It is,” the president responded coolly. “This is what they’re looking for.”
Obama's famous reluctance to engage emotionally with America's fears – over Ebola, terrorism, Chinese expansionism, etc. – may soothe diplomats and doctors, but it does not resonate with many Americans, and maybe they have turned to Trump as a man who feels what they feel and will respond and they might, with anger, insults and demands for satisfaction.

The Last Man in the Village

In Russia’s Kostroma region, a forested area northeast of Moscow, hundreds of villages have been abandoned, more than 200 in just the past six years. More than a third of the villages in the region are now empty, and hangers-on call this area The Desert. Russian journalists Liza Zhakova and Dima Zharov heard that in several villages just a single house is now occupied, and they set out to track these people down and find their stories. Some of them are farm families who just want to go on farming as they always have, and others are off-the-grid stalwarts like this man:
Lecha lives in the village of Spirdovo. A miner from Donbass, he says he feels most comfortable living far away from other people. When he’s not drinking in the neighboring village, Lecha picks berries and hunts for wildlife. His house is a mess.

“I arrived here when I was twenty-something. Closed my eyes, pointed at the map and hit Kostroma. I get a minimum pension payment, but it’s enough for me. We have groundwater, I don’t need to pay an electricity bill. All the money I get I spend on food and alcohol. If you want to earn something, pick berries or mushrooms, go fishing, set traps, do as you wish–no need to go anywhere. I don’t know why everyone is leaving! They had everything they needed there. Perestroika came, and everybody fled to the city.”
Which struck me as exactly the fantasy of many civilization-sick Americans. It is possible to live this way, if you don't mind spending Russian or Alaskan winters in a hut with a metal roof and holes in the walls.

And then it struck me as telling that none of the tens of thousands of people swarming out of Syria, Sudan, Eritrea, and other miserable places are trying to get to Russia, where is plenty of room for them.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

RIP Carrie Fisher

I was 15 years old when Star Wars came out, and she was my princess, as she was to a generation. I felt redeemed in my 15-year-old crush when she started writing books.

RIP Richard Adams

All the world will be your enemy, Prince with a Thousand Enemies, and whenever they catch you, they will kill you. But first they must catch you, digger, listener, runner, prince with the swift warning. Be cunning and full of tricks and your people shall never be destroyed.

― Richard Adams, Watership Down

A Prayer for the New Year

I asked for wonders instead of happiness, Lord, and you gave them to me.

–Abraham Joshua Heschel

The Twilight of the Svans

The Svans are a small ethnic group, numbering about 40,000, who have long lived in a mountainous part of northwestern Georgia. I wrote back in 2014 about their famous tower houses.

Today I was reading a little travelogue of a trip to the region, and from it I discovered that the Svans still maintain a distinct religion with many interesting features.
They also practice their own religion, a fusion of early Christianity and paganism. The day we met, Valeri showed me his family church, a tiny, fourth-century hut littered with sacrificial bones and notched, wooden staffs, each of which represents a local family.
That intriguing hint led me to look further into Svaneti religion. Georgia was converted to Christianity in the 3rd and 4th centuries and became a bastion of Orthodoxy. But then somehow the highlands of Svanetia came to be ignored by the church hierarchy – some blame the Mongol invasion – leaving the Svans to go their own religious path under the leadership of ill-educated and often illiterate priests. As a result the religion practiced in Svan churches came to be a mishmash of Christianity, Zoroastrianism, and folk paganism. I haven't found any explanation of the wooden staves, but I have found several accounts of the belief system and the rituals:
The chief Svan deities are Khosha Ghêrbet ("Great God"); Jgeræg (Saint George), the chief protector of humanity; and Tëringzel (archangel). Important female figures include Barbai (Saint Barbara), a fertility deity and healer of illnesses; Dæl, goddess of the hunt and protector of wildlife in the high mountains; and Lamæria (Saint Mary), protector of women. Christ (Krisde or Matskhwær, "savior") presides over the world of the dead.
Saint George is a mighty figure throughout the Caucasus, taking on some attributes of Christ (including the title "savior") as well as ancient gods of war and the hunt. Anthropologists consider him the patron of those activities in which men leave the community to seek their fortunes: war, trade, hunting, collecting wild honey. Saint George was generally honored with offerings of alcohol, wine in the lowlands but vodka among the mountain-dwelling Svan.

More distinctive to the Svans is their great interest in the goddess Dæl. She is the goddess of wild animals and in particular of the ibex, the horned mountain sheep that dwells in the highest and most remote places.
As described in Svan folklore, Dæl resembles a woman of extraordinary beauty, with long, golden-colored hair and radiant white skin. She dwells high up in the mountains, usually out of the reach of humans. Her home is a cavern, and by day she watches over the herds of wild animals under her protection, as a human shepherd would guard sheep or goats. Some accounts even picture her milking an ibex. At the same time, she is not adverse to sharing animals from her flock with hunters, as long as certain conditions and taboos are respected. Hunters must not kill more ibex than they can carry back to the village, nor may they take aim at specially-marked animals believed to be a transformation of the goddess (e.g. an ibex with golden horns). If a hunter is successful, certain body parts from the slain beast must be offered to Dæl in thanksgiving. Dæl is particularly sensitive to violations of the purity of the mountains, by which is meant pollution from women's menstrual blood. A man may not go on a hunting expedition, for example, if one of the women in his household is in childbirth or having her period. The penalty for violations of the conditions imposed by Dæl range from lack of hunting success to a fatal fall from a cliff.
Many stories feature the relationships between Dæl and a great human hunter:
The basic plot, of which there are numerous variants, begins with an encounter between the goddess and a legendary hunter who has been chosen by Dæl to be her lover. She gives him a token of their love — a bead, ring or charm — and requires him to avoid all contact with human females, including his own wife. As long as he remains in the goddess's good graces Betgil enjoys remarkable success, never once returning home empty-handed. One day, however, he breaks his promise, sleeping with either his wife or his sister-in-law. The goddess changes herself into a white mountain goat, and comes down into the village square where Betgil and his kinsmen are dancing in a circle. The goat runs between his legs into the middle of the circle, then doubles back toward the mountain with Betgil in hot pursuit. The hunter and his prey climb higher and higher, even as the path beneath them crumbles away. On reaching the summit the goddess resumes her original form and confronts the terrified Betgil, who is by now clinging for dear life with only his right hand and left foot. 'Where is the bead I gave you?' she demands, knowing full well that the hunter's wife had stolen it after they slept together. She vanishes, leaving the doomed Betgil to fall to his death on the rocks below.
Svan men, 1890
These stories reflect a strong division between men's and women's spheres that is still maintained among the Svan, especially in ritual matters; women traditionally did not enter the tiny huts that serve as Svan churches, although some say this has changed. But women had their own rituals from which men were excluded, many of them focused on the hearth and on special domestic deities that protected the home.

A few interesting details:
  • Some rituals took place at a large stone called the lamzer bæch that was placed in the grain storage area of the house or barn; 
  • Among the key annual feasts was the festival of torches (limp'ari), when the protection of the gods was sought against disease;
  • Into the 20th century some Svan healers diagnosed diseases as the result of a ritual lapse which had to be repaired by sacrificing animals to the right deity or saint;
  • The Svan believed that dying people could see into the future, farther and farther as their deaths got nearer, up to three years at the very threshold, so families gathered around the dying to ask questions about their fates;
  • The spirits of those who died away from home were held to linger at the location of death until a "soul-returner" (kunem met'khe) could be summoned to locate the soul and escort it back home; this was done with the aid of a rooster, which was believed to see souls.
Most recent articles on Svan religion focus on fears that it may disappear:
Valeri worries that if more people leave the villages, their faith will disperse and die. “We understand the rules of the religion, but no one else does,” he says.
Besides the destructive forces of modernity, Svan religion is under attack by a the Orthodox church; as in Russia, post-Soviet nationalism in Georgia has been accompanied by a resurgence of the national religion. A recent attempt by Norwegian do-gooders to organize a festival of Svan culture was quashed after objections by church leaders.

Svan village in 1890
But the Svan are not going without a fight. In recent decades thousands of Svan have moved south onto the plains of Georgia, but many of them have settled in a few villages that have become a sort of little Svanetia. According to an article by Stephane Voell that I found on, the residents regularly gather together and swear oaths on icons (a Svan tradition) to preserve their old ways and most families have established altars for animal sacrifice in the surrounding woods. So it seems that Svan culture will be with us for many years yet.

The Highest Melting Point

Hafnium carbide (HfC) is a ceramic developed specifically to withstand high temperatures. It has taken some time to determine its melting point because it's hard to generate the necessary temperatures in a laboratory. Now experiments with laser heating have shown that the melting point is 4232 ± 84 K, which is about 3959 C. (The melting point of elemental iron is 1538 C.) Compound ceramics made of Hafnium carbide and Tantalum carbide are being considered for high temperature applications like the nose cones of hypersonic aircraft.

Monday, December 26, 2016

Mind Reading

The first true brain-to-brain communication in people could start next year, thanks to huge recent advances. . . . Researchers have managed to get two people, sitting in different rooms, to play a game of 20 questions on a computer. The participants transmitted “yes” or “no” answers, thanks to EEG caps that monitored brain activity, with a technique called transcranial magnetic stimulation triggering an electrical current in the other person’s brain.
So with lots of wiring and computers and who knows what else, researchers have managed to get one person to say "yes" or "no" to another.

Which we have been doing for at least 60,000 years using this arcane technology called "language."

I simply don't understand why people are so excited by the prospect of telepathy. Why not just say it? And no this won't help you read someone else's true thoughts unless 1) they are wearing exquisitely sensitive eeg caps and 2) you're only trying to extract a yes or no. Even that probably won't work if they're trying to fool you.

The Yugoslavian Mariachi Craze

After World War II, the Tito regime in Yugoslavia banned almost all western music and film as decadent. Then in 1949 they fell out with the Soviets and banned Russian entertainment, too. With few other options, they turned to Mexico and imported piles of both Mexican music and Mexican film. And this led to a little boom in the local production of Mariachi music that lasted into the 1960s:
Explore the many shelves in Belgrade’s Yugovinyl store today and you can quickly amass a pile of ‘Yu-Mex’ records. The faded photographs on their sleeves depict men with names like Ljubomir Milić and Đorđe Masalović, proudly wearing sombreros and glittering charro suits. On the turntable, these records sound straight out of Guadalajara, except that the lyrics are in Serbo-Croat. For the Mexicans that ruled the radios here were, in fact, Yugoslav.
Today this music is making a little nostalgic comeback. Many Yugloslav Mariachi songs have been posted to Youtube, and you can hear Mariachi bands on the Belgrade bar circuit.

Amazing. And I nominate this for the strangest sentence you are likely to read today:
Croatian avant-garde poet Boro Pavlović penned lyrics for a track called Sombrero.

Armand Point: Drawings

Armand Point (1860-1932) was a French painter and engraver allied to the Symbolist movement. His paintings are mostly weird in the way that Symbolist paintings often were, but I love these drawings.

Fake News and the Truth Problem

"Fake News" entered the discourse as a term for propagandistic internet stories that had been entirely made up, a way to single out the worst offenders in a time of media misbehavior. But right-wing voices like Rush Limbaugh and Breitbart have taken it over as a way to refer to the mainstream media, denouncing every anti-Trump story as "Fake News."
Rush Limbaugh has diagnosed a more fundamental problem. “The fake news is the everyday news” in the mainstream media, he said on his radio show recently. “They just make it up.”

Some supporters of President-elect Donald J. Trump have also taken up the call. As reporters were walking out of a Trump rally this month in Orlando, Fla., a man heckled them with shouts of “Fake news!”

Until now, that term had been widely understood to refer to fabricated news accounts that are meant to spread virally online. But conservative cable and radio personalities, top Republicans and even Mr. Trump himself, incredulous about suggestions that that fake stories may have helped swing the election, have appropriated the term and turned it against any news they see as hostile to their agenda.
This problem is not going away, partly because the mainstream press has not exactly covered itself with glory lately. Consider the campus rape stories from Virginia and Duke that made headlines before turning out to be fabricated. If those weren't fake news, why not? Or all the stories on pre-election polls. If a thousand headlines proclaiming Hillary the likely winner turned out to be wrong, were they fake news? Why not? Because they relied on the calculations of professional pollsters, who as card-carrying members of the establishment have the credentials to be taken seriously, whereas ordinary Trump supporters who just felt in their bones that he was going to win do not? What about all the news stories about the findings of so-called "dietary science"? What about all the famous experiments in psychology that have failed replication? And what about all the news stories that treat one failed replication as proof that the original finding was wrong, without making any attempt to compare the details of the two experiments?

I think the scientific community is making a terrible mistake by proclaiming the certainty of climate projections that are nothing but educated guesses. As I have said many times, I worry about the effects of filling the atmosphere with carbon dioxide and wish we would stop this mad experiment, but I think models of the climate future are no more reliable than election polls. I really wish people would be more careful with their claims, because not even pushing for action to protect the planet is more important than defending the whole notion of truth.

My readers know that I try to be careful in figuring out what is true and what is not. I regularly preface claims about cancer treatments and archaeogenetics with "wonderful if it turns out to be true." I cannot think of anything to do in the face of truth's erosion except to double down: to work even harder to sort the probable from the possible from the false, the slanted from the exaggerated from the lie.  It simply won't do to put stories from the NY Times in one category and tweets from Trump in another, because sometimes the Times is wrong and sometimes Trump is right. The lazy news habit of just citing what spokesmen from both sides say has to be abandoned, because recent experience shows that spokesmen lie, and it is absolutely the business of journalists to figure out who is lying and call them on it.

In a world of ever more brazen lying, it falls to those who care about the truth to defend it as an absolute value, more important than partisan politics. As the elite consensus collapses, it falls on believers in reason to put it back in the center of our discourse.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Today's Place to Daydream about: Orvieto, Italy

Orvieto is one of the famous hill towns of Umbria. It is an ancient place; indeed its name comes from the Latin urbs vetus, "old city." It sits on top of a great volcanic rock, high above the surrounding plain.

It was a major site in Etruscan times; the Etruscans had a thing for building on inaccessible hilltops, no doubt a wise precaution when your neighbors include both Celts and Romans. The city has an archaeological museum with many Etruscan artifacts. After the Romans conquered all of Italy it faded in importance, only to be re-occupied when the empire fell and the peninsula descended again into violence. A bishop who had once lived in some more convenient but more exposed place fled there in the 7th century, and it has been a cathedral city ever since.

The city's natural defenses were reinforced with stone walls, large stretches of which survive. This was a large town in the Middle Ages, with a population of up to 30,000.

The most impressive building in the city is the cathedral. The cornerstone of this structure was laid in 1290, and the facade was constructed in the 14th century.



Municipal building. The city had its own government by 1157, when a surviving papal bull confirms their privileges. During the twelfth and thirteenth centuries the town was divided by the same conflicts that rocked most of Italy, but then it settled down as a mostly loyal part of the Papal dominion. Thomas Aquinas taught for a while at their university.

Papal palace, built in 1297-1303.

Street scenes.

Orvieto has been a center of ceramic production since the 12th century at least.

Famous well in the city.

The volcanic stone that underlies the city is easy to tunnel through, and the rock is full of deep cellars, catacombs, water tunnels, and other underground  chambers; tours of the undercity are now a regular feature of tourist visits.

Most of the city is built of the same yellow stone, quarried from under its streets, and in the right light it glows. People say it is one of the most beautiful and charming places in Italy, and it certainly looks that way from here.

Defending Leptis Magna

Charming story from Libya:
Ali Hribish stands by the Arch of Septimius Severus which dominates Libya’s ancient city of Leptis Magna, brandishing letters of thanks for his efforts to protect the site.

The former electricity company employee who is in his 50s has become the Roman city’s unlikely saviour, protecting it from looting and vandalism amid the chaos that has rocked the country since the 2011 downfall of former leader Muammar Qaddafi.

Despite having no background in archaeology, Mr Hribish gathered a band of fighters who dedicated themselves to preserving the ancient Roman city, a Unesco World Heritage site.

While others set up armed groups to protect banks and public buildings, "we immediately thought of Leptis Magna," says Ashraf Mohammed, 33, one of the first fighters to join Mr Hribish’s group.

"A bank can be rebuilt, but our monuments and our history are things we can’t replace."
This is the sort of thing I like to imagine I might do in such circumstances.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Cookie Decorating

Ben and Clara hard at work.

The results.

And two Christmas bats, made in honor on the missing elder daughter, who is working in Hawaii this week.