Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Tom Friedman Thanks the People of Alabama

Friedman is gushing:
Thank you to the majority of Alabamians for loving our country more than you hated Democrats. Thank you for voting as citizens, not as members of a tribe. Thank you for understanding that sending a credibly accused child molester to represent Alabama in the U.S. Senate would not only have denigrated your state, it would have denigrated that whole legislative body. Thank you for seeing the decency of Doug Jones, even though he is a Democrat, and seeing the indecency of Roy Moore.

And most of all, thank you for sending a message to Donald Trump and Stephen Bannon that you are not as dumb as they think you are. That you see what they are up to — trying to use divisive tweets and racist dog whistles to get as many Americans as possible so aroused and inflamed that they won’t think about the real issues, they won’t think about the actual candidates, they won’t think about the national interest, or even their own self-interest, but just how much they dislike “the other” — and you’re not buying it any more.

God bless every one of you. Yours was a deeply patriotic act.
I do find it encouraging that even given our deep divisions, not everybody would vote for a yella dog of his own party over a saint from the other.

It probably helped Jones that Roy Moore has been making trouble in Alabama politics for a long time, so many voters have had time for their dislike of his shenanigans to harden.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Our Strange, Agenda-Free Radicalism

David Brooks:
We’re living in an age of radicalism.

But today’s radicalism is unusual. First, we have radical anger without radical policies.

Stylistically and culturally, Trumpian populism screams “blow it up” and “drain the swamp.” But Donald Trump’s actual policies are run-of-the-mill corporatist. The left-wing radicals talk a lot against the systems of oppression and an institutionalized injustice. But they are nothing like the radicals of the 1930s or the 1960s.

Today’s radicals do not want to upend the meritocracy, which is creating a caste system of inherited inequality. They don’t want to stop technical innovation, which is displacing millions of workers. They don’t have plans to reverse individualism, which atomizes society and destroys community. A $15 minimum wage may be left wing, but it’s not Marxist-Leninism.
The level of anger in America is indeed completely unrelated to the agendas of our political parties. A few years ago we had a screaming debate about taxes, accompanied by charges of "fascism" and "socialism," but the issue was really whether the top income tax rate would be 33% or 38%. Sometimes it seems like the loud rhetoric serves partly to hide the smallness of the actual differences between the parties.

So far as I can see there are no new ideas in our politics. Nobody knows how the meritocracy might be improved or what might replace it, and nobody has a plan for restoring the lost community solidarity that Brooks spends so much time bemoaning. Nobody knows what to do about the coming rise of robots and artificial intelligence. Nobody knows how to heal the rifts in our nation.

So we shout empty slogans and accuse each other of sin.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Philip Beesley, Astrocyte

Cross between a work of art and an experiment in material science.


Irish Genes

Ross Byrne et al. have just posted the pre-print of a new article on Irish genes, based on studies of the modern population. They find, first of all, that the Irish are clearly distinguishable, genetically, from the rest of Britain; the biggest division in their dataset is between the two islands. The Xes in the diagram above are representations of individual genomes arranged according to variation; the colors represent groupings in the data. You can see that the distance between the genomes, by variation, roughly maps out the British Isles. Note that while southern Britain is a long way from southern Ireland, northern Ireland and western Scotland overlap.

Close-up of northern Britain and Northern Ireland, with marks for two genetic types that were found in both region. This clearly shows mixing of these populations. It does not show, however, when the mixing took place. Some could be early medieval migration from Ireland to Scotland, some from the Scots migration to Ireland in the 16th century (the Ulster plantations), and some from the economic migration of Irish people to Scotland in the 18th and 19th centuries. In this study they used the genomes of people who lived in the same district as their grandparents, to exclude recent mobility, but that doesn't reach far enough back to catch people whose ancestors relocated in 1800 or 1848.

Cladogram showing how the various populations are related to each other. The authors think their data shows a strong "east-west cline," that is, the farther you get from London, the more different people's genes are from those of the bright red Anglo-Saxon heartland.

Note that Orkney is a serious outlier, quite different from England, Scotland, or Ireland. And this is not just because of the Vikings; even excluding their genes, Orkney still stands out.

The authors also found a lot of variation within Ireland. They knew that some of the difference between Dublin and Ulster and the rest of the island would be because of British immigration in recent centuries, so they worked to exclude that contribution from their calculations. The result is a map of variation that, once again, roughly maps out the island. Even more remarkable, it seems to map out the ancient division of Ireland into five kingdoms known as "fifths." So if you exclude Vikings, Ulstermen from Scotland and English who settled Dublin and Waterford, it looks like many families of rural Ireland have been in the same districts for 1,500 years.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Iraq Declares Victory over the Islamic State

Yesterday Iraq's Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi went on television to make this announcement:
Dear Iraqis, your land has been completely liberated, and your towns and villages have been returned to the homeland. The dream of liberation became a reality. . . . Our forces fully control the Iraqi-Syrian border, and thus we can announce the end of the war against Daesh.
Of course there are still thousands of radical soldiers on the loose, so terrorism will continue. But considering that the Islamic State once controlled a third of the country, this counts as a victory for civilization.

A Skull from Colonial Delaware

European man of middle age from the Avery's Rest site in Delaware. The space in his teeth was worn by habitually smoking a clay tobacco pipe.

Peter Gardiner, Things on Fire

Peter Gardiner (born 1965) is an Australian artist who might have a bit of an obsession. Above, Swamp Lantern III, 2012.

House III, 2016

Untitled, 2016.

Lightning Study 2, 2017

Exotic Instrument, 2017

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Jo Walton, Among Others

I just finished re-reading Jo Walton's Among Others (2010). I was about halfway through and caught up in the story when it occurred to me that this is the only the second time I have re-read a fantasy novel in twenty years, and a lot closer together than my two readings of Game of Thrones. This is a book that grabbed my imagination and carried it away.

It's about a girl, Morwenna Phelps, who is 15 years old in the Britain of 1980. There are two things about her: she is a smart kid in love with science fiction and fantasy; indifferent to the concerns of her classmates, she ignores sports and music but reads ten or more books a week. And, she talks to fairies and learns from them how to stop her mother, a mad witch, from becoming the Dark Queen of some big part of the earth.

It is the more prosaic parts of the story that grabbed me. Mor (as she calls herself) reads like I did at times when I was 15, going through stacks of sf and fantasy that I got from the library or the 25-cent bin at One Horse Books in Rolla. Her voice as she pours scorn on the other 15-year-olds rang true to me. She is perhaps a bit too calm and self-possessed for a real teenager, but I loved the way she looked at life. A creature of books, she sees the world through a reader's eyes, using words and categories from her favorite stories. When stressed she recited the "litany against fear" from Dune, something I once did myself. She and her sister name the old industrial ruins around her home in Wales after places in Tolkien: Osgiliath, Ithilien. She finds her first real joy in the story when she joins the sf book club at her local library; finally, people she can talk to about what she really loves and cares about! The first time I read the book I had a little trouble with these parts, because she mentions dozens of sf novels from the 60s and 70s and I kept trying to remember which ones I read and whether I had liked them, and it bothered me that except for a few favorites I had largely forgotten. This time I let it go and liked it better.

Most of the magic is the sort that could be taken for something else, maybe luck or fate, and the fairies slide between being real and serving as a sort of synecdoche for imagination. It is possible to read the story and think of it all as metaphor: for creativity, for a determination not to be like everyone else, for the way Mor expresses her growing understanding of the world, for the way she breaks away and finds her own path. But it is also possible to read the fairies as real and the magic as darkly powerful. In the wonderful ending, the two interpretations come together perfectly.

I love it. If it sounds like the sort of thing you might like, get it.

Ippolito Caffi, the Colosseum

With fireworks, 1844

In daylight, 1855.

Friday, December 8, 2017

Shower Thought


Gay Marriage and Party Loyalty in Australia

As in the US, the issue of gay marriage divides Australians in a different way than most other political issues. Former Liberal (=conservative) Party PM Tony Abbott tried to stall a Parliamentary vote on the question by demanding a national referendum, which returned a 60 percent majority for legalizing gay marriage.
But while the outcome of the postal survey may not have been a big surprise to Australians, the district-by-district results were a different story, revealing demographic and political changes that will reverberate through Australian politics long after the debate on same-sex marriage fades. The data make it clear that Australian attitudes on race, gender and sexuality do not fit neatly into the traditional conservative-progressive divide. . . .

In Mr. Abbott’s own safe Liberal Party seat in Sydney, 75 percent of respondents to the survey favored same-sex marriage. That is a serious repudiation of his years long campaign against same-sex marriage from voters who are otherwise sympathetic to his conservative policy positions. And it’s a pattern that repeated itself to varying degrees in seats held by the loudest opponents to same-sex marriage.

Meanwhile, politicians on the left face a related problem. The responses against same-sex marriage were disproportionately concentrated in Western Sydney’s immigrant communities, in districts dominated by the Labor Party, which has been pro-marriage equality.
I wonder what happens in the longer term to the alliance between white liberals and Mexican Catholic, Muslim or Hindu immigrants? Will something happen one day that will make them all switch to voting for conservative parties? Or will the issues of race and immigration continue to dominate, for them, over everything else?

Thursday, December 7, 2017

On Feeling like an Outsider

This is from Nathan Heller's account of Tina Brown's reign as New York's top editor of glossy magazines:
Every New York bildungsroman has essentially the same plot. A wide-eyed outsider drifts among the city's urbane and jaded lions with fear and amusement, acutely aware that she is not one of those powerful, entrenched, kind-of-terrible, New York people. . . Brown's version is complicated by a sense of doubleness that she has from the start and never sheds.
And this is from a review of Pamela Paul's new memoir:
As a child Pamela Paul, editor of the NY Times Book Review, loved rainy days, when she could curl up on the sofa with a book. . . . Pamela's mother named her after one of the first novels in English, and whenever they went to a bookstore, her father indulged her. Pamela came out with a pile of books. . .

Escaping her Long Island suburb by going to Brown, she was disappointed when The Faerie Queene failed to transport her, but continued to read voraciously beyond the assigned reading lists, "trying to find out what it was that everyone else seemed to know already."
Everybody feels this way, even the kind of people who end up editing Variety and the NY Times Book Review. I eventually figured it out, but from all of the angsty articles I read by former students, many never do. Would it help them if they knew? Or would they, in the way of unhappy teenagers, insist that their own problems were unique and grownups who say otherwise just don't understand?

Soviet Bus Stops

Photographs by Christopher Herwig, who has published a whole book of these. More at This is Colossal.



The Robots are Coming, at Least for Your Chess Trophies

The latest:
The game of chess is the most widely-studied domain in the history of artificial intelligence. The strongest programs are based on a combination of sophisticated search techniques, domain-specific adaptations, and handcrafted evaluation functions that have been refined by human experts over several decades. In contrast, the AlphaGo Zero program recently achieved superhuman performance in the game of Go, by tabula rasa reinforcement learning from games of self-play. In this paper, we generalise this approach into a single AlphaZero algorithm that can achieve, tabula rasa, superhuman performance in many challenging domains. Starting from random play, and given no domain knowledge except the game rules, AlphaZero achieved within 24 hours a superhuman level of play in the games of chess and shogi (Japanese chess) as well as Go, and convincingly defeated a world-champion program in each case.
We're getting more useless every day.

Little Foot

"Little Foot" is what the discoverers call an amazing, largely intact skeleton of an Australopithecus found in South Africa. Now a new dating technique suggests that it may be 3.6 million years old, about half a million years older than "Lucy". National Geographic:
Previous attempts to date Little Foot have yielded highly uncertain results, ranging from 2.2 million years to over 4 million years old. The dating technique used in the new study, called isochron burial dating, calculates the age of a specimen based on when it was last on the surface, exposed to cosmic radiation that produces radioactive isotopes of the elements aluminium and beryllium. When the sediments washed into the cave, the isotopes stopped accumulating, and instead begin to decay at a steady rate. Nine out of eleven samples from rock surrounding the skeleton gave an age of 3.67 million years.
I think paleontologists spend too much time an energy fighting over which fossil was first and which species they belong to. The long-running South vs. East Africa debate is irritating and probably unresolvable. But the ever-growing number of old human and human-like fossils is fascinating, and the diversity of their shapes shows evolution in action in a compelling way. The broad distribution of Australopithecus afarensis is also interesting, since fossils have now been reported from South Africa to Chad. This was not a shy, rare species, but a very successful one that used its slightly-smarter-than-a-chimp brainpower and upright posture to spread across the continent, hinting at the future dominance of its lineage.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

The Foremost Preoccupation of the City's Rulers

Whoever rules the city must have the beauty of the city as his foremost preoccupation, and in fact our city must be honorably decorated and its buildings carefully preserved and improved, because it must provide pride, honor, wealth, and growth to the Sienese citizens, as well as pleasure and happiness to visitors from abroad.

–Siena's constitution of 1309

The Piazzo del Campo, above and below, was built by that government, so they weren't kidding.

Remember Shaken Baby Syndrome?

I never thought much of the notion, but it was used to send many caregivers to jail:
There used to something close to a medical consensus that certain patterns of injuries can only be caused by shaking. In particular, a “triad”—swelling of the brain, bleeding on the brain’s surface, and bleeding behind the retinas—was believed to be solid proof that a baby had been abused in this way. The theory was put forward in the early 1970s by doctors trying to explain the deaths of infants and children with no outward signs of abuse. The diagnosis soon became accepted as scientific fact and has since been used to convict hundreds of people of harming or killing children.

But over the past 20 years, a body of new research has shown how diseases, genetic conditions and accidents—including short falls—can produce the same constellation of injuries. As a result, faith in shaken baby syndrome is unraveling.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommended in 2009 that doctors stop using the term. A 2015 investigation by the Washington Post found at least 16 shaken baby syndrome murder convictions that have been overturned.
Horrible cases make bad law. Jurors, confronted with the death of such young and innocent little people, wanted to punish someone, and the pseudo-science of Shaken Baby Syndrome gave them a way to do so.

On the other hand some of these babies probably were abused, which makes the question complicated; scientists no longer believe in a simple test for abuse by shaking, so everything is up in the air and the freedom of some innocent people may also lead to some baby shakers getting away with murder. But honest science is like that.

Incidentally Dr. Norman Guthkelch, one of the originators of this diagnosis, gets one of my coveted Public Mind Change awards; Slate reports that he
recently stated that it is “high time every case of a parent in [prison] for this had his or her case reviewed" because “we went badly off the rails ... on this matter.”

The World's Coolest Aerosol Simulation

NASA video showing dust of various kinds over the Atlantic last year. Hypnotic and fascinating.

Vilhelm Hammershoi

Vilhelm Hammershoi (1864-1916) is one of Denmark's most celebrated artists. Which might say something interesting about Denmark, given that most of his pictures show quiet white rooms with paneled doors and a bit of furniture; sometimes there is also a woman, almost always wearing black, almost always shown from the back.

Like this one, Woman Seen from the Back. Some critics love these because of the intensity of the unseen. NY Times art critic Ken Johnson:
What marks Hammershoi’s paintings as modern isn’t style as much as a searching, melancholic mood. . . . Something is hidden, and it’s not just whatever it is that she is doing. Hammershoi’s rooms are spaces of spiritual inquiry animated by transcendental vibes that are felt but not seen.
And the doors: if they are closed, what is behind them? If they are open, what might be coming through them? Johnson again:
Interior: An Old Stove (1888), an early example, represents a dim room vacant but for a hulking black furnace to the left. Through an open door to the right is a closed white door on the other side of a more brightly lighted hallway. What lies beyond that further door? Probably just another room, but there’s a poetic suggestiveness about it. If the painter could have opened that door, maybe he would have discovered another, more colorful, world.
Then again, probably not, given the utter absence of color in his whole oeuvre.

To give you an idea, here is a screen shot from the first page of images you get from Google.

But Hammershoi didn't only paint interiors! No, he also painted exterior scenes, with the same lifeless, color-draining eye: St. Peter's Church, Copenhagen. I like this a lot, and it was this image that got me researching Hammershoi.


But how much of this can one take?

His portraits are done with the same palate; this is a self-portrait of 1911.

This blogger says:
To me, one of the exciting things about Hammershøi’s art is the way in which he takes a motif that seems to depict nothing at all and then turns it around so that you find that it contains everything. That a point of no interest becomes a place laden with great significance.

For example, take a painting of a wall in a light-filled room where there are only very few objects ... this might seem dull and boring at first, but if you pay close attention or dedicate some time to standing in front of the painting you can feel it resonating with your body.

Hammershøi’s very painstaking mode of painting and the time and effort he poured into the canvas is almost transferred to the spectator. Many brushstrokes are visible, and each of them holds a small world of understated colour and light or shade. Once you start noticing this, the painting opens itself up to you.
Well, ok, if that's your thing.

And apparently it is a lot of poeple's thing; Interior with Two Candles was sold by Sotheby's in 2012 for £1,105,000.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Amazing if True: Spiders Spinning Graphene Webs

What could possibly go wrong with this?
These are not your friendly neighborhood spiders: scientists have mixed a graphene solution that when fed to spiders allows them to spin super-strong webbing. How strong? Strong enough to carry the weight of a person. And these spiders might soon be enlisted to help manufacture enhanced ropes and cables, possibly even parachutes for skydivers, reports The Sydney Morning Herald.

Graphene is a wonder-material that is an atomic-scale hexagonal lattice made of carbon atoms. It's incredibly strong, but it was definitely a shot in the dark to see what would happen if it was fed to spiders.

For the study, Nicola Pugno and team at the University of Trento in Italy added graphene and carbon nanotubes to a spider's drinking water. The materials were naturally incorporated into the spider's silk, producing webbing that is five times stronger than normal. That puts it on par with pure carbon fibers in strength, as well as with Kevlar, the material bulletproof vests are made from.

The Roman Economy

Economists and economically-minded historians have devoted a lot of attention in recent decades to creating a quantitative picture of the Roman economy. Mark Koyama has a summary of a few recent arguments here:
Some recent estimates make the Roman economy about as productive as the richest parts of western Europe in the 17th century; some say Rome was as rich as the Netherlands in 1600, at the beginning of the long expansion driven by global trade, and some say it was as rich as the Netherlands in 1700, after a century of expansion, but before industrialization.

Whether measured in terms of the size of its largest cities — Rome in 100 AD was larger than any European city in 1700 — or in the volume of grain, wine, and olive oil imported into Italy, the scale of the Roman economy was vast by any premodern standard. Quantitively, then, the Roman economy looks as large and prosperous as that the early modern European economy.
I'm skeptical of this whole line of research, mainly because economic historians have a hard time agreeing on how to compare today's economy with that of 1970, let along that of 2000 years ago. But that is what the numbers we have seem to be telling us, and it matches the sense you get from Rome's awe-inspiring physical remains.

This would imply that the early medieval period did see a catastrophic economic collapse, since we know very well that from 900 to 1600 the European economy grew A LOT.

This also raises the question of why the Roman economy did not grow more. The economy of early modern Europe must have been the same size as the Roman economy at some point, but whenever that was it didn't stay so for long. Because after about 1700 Europe began the exponential economic growth that created the modern world. Why didn't that happen in classical times? The Mediterranean world of the second century AD had the basic factors needed for economic growth: political stability, widespread trade, a huge pool of skilled workers, a highly educated elite, vast mineral and other resources, and so on. Why did it stagnate? Was it excessive dependence on slavery, the concentration of power in too narrow an elite, a deep social scorn for business? All these arguments have their defenders.

I think the difference was mental. By 1700 Europeans had shed the conservative outlook that dominated in the ancient and medieval worlds and come to believe in a future different from the future or the past. Ancient thinkers tended to imagine that change could only make things worse, and in fact had been making them worse since some golden age. So I say the Romans did not create the modern world because they didn't want to; because their energies were focused on preserving what they had, not creating new things. As to why the modern world came to believe so much in change, I don't know, but I suspect it has something to do with the voyages of exploration and the opening up of whole new worlds unknown to the wise men of the past.

A Catalan for Spain

Catalan politician Albert Rivera calls for greater union, not independence:
As most Spaniards do, a majority of Catalans want to participate in a common project for the future of Spain. I cannot resign myself to seeing an isolated Catalonia in a globalized world, nor can I resign myself to seeing more borders in the era of open societies.

Faced with those who promote rupture, I demand dialogue. Faced with exclusion, I ask for coexistence; federalism and union, not provincialism and division; the rule of law, not arbitrariness; and pluralism and freedom against dogma and imposition.

I was born in Barcelona. Catalonia is my homeland, Spain is my country, and Europe is our future.
Since I am neither Catalan nor Spanish nor even European, this is not really my business, but I have a deep suspicion of all separatist movements. Very few of them ever solve the problems (economic stagnation, corruption, a sense of being ignored by leaders) that drive them. Many of them have an "if I can't win I'm taking my ball and going home" feel, for example, you hear a lot more about Southern secession when the Democrats are in power, and many Scots really only want to leave Tory-land, not Britain. More deeply, secessionist movements support the division of the world into smaller and smaller groups, which I think is the opposite of what we need.

Monday, December 4, 2017

Wonders and Oddities from Classics Week at Christie's

A few things I found perusing the online catalogs for "Classics Week" at Christie's in London. Above, Portrait of a Man in a Fur Hat, attributed to Abraham Bloemaert, 17th century.

David Teniers the Younger, The Temptation of Saint Anthony, detail. Circa 1650. Looks to me like the leader of the demons tormenting the saint is his housekeeper.

Roman portrait bust dated to the 2nd century CE based on the resemblance of its hair and beard to Hadrian's.


Joseph Wright of Derby, Portrait of Old John, Head Waiter at the Kings Arms. He looks like one of those waiters who was always better dressed and more dignified than the people he served.

Africa, a bust from late 17th- or early 18th-century Italy. Presumably once part of a set of the personified continents.

A different view, in case you were having trouble figuring out what she's wearing on her head.


Jan van Goyen, View of a City Gate – possibly the oostpoort, Delft – 1651

Piranesi, from Imaginary Prisons, The Lion Reliefs.

John Atkinson Grimshaw, Lovers on a Moonlit Lane.

Love the painting of the branches.

Bust of Homer, Italy, 17th century.


Workshop of Jan van Scorel, Portrait of a Knight of the Jerusalem Brotherhood. Circa 1540. If this was really done by the assistants rather than the master, he had some seriously talented assistants. Based on a quick perusal of what comes up in an online search, I would say that this is better than almost anything else van Scorel did; maybe the reason it is attributed to his assistants is that it is too good to be his. Whoever did it, I love it.


Francesco Maria Schiaffino, Neptune, circa 1740-60.

Giovanni Battista Gaulli, study of one of the three magi.

James Smetham – one of the original members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood – The Mandolin, 1866. Wikipedia has about twenty of his paintings, but I like this better than any of them.