Thursday, August 17, 2017

Racton Man's Fatal Dagger Dueling

Racton Man is what the British press calls a warrior of the early Bronze Age whose grave was found near Racton, Sussex in 1989. A detailed study of his remains has just been published, and it is quite interesting.

Racton Man was buried around 2300-2150 BC. He was big for the time, six feet tall (1.85 m), and about 45 years old. The only object in his grave was this bronze dagger.

The dagger would have been riveted to a wooden or leather handle, as in this example.

But not only was Racton Man buried with a dagger, he might have been killed with one. His left arm was certainly gashed shortly before he died, since the wound never healed, and he was likely stabbed under the right arm as well. Just the sort of wounds you might get in a knife fight.

The excavators speculate that Racton Man was a tribal chief killed in a fight over leadership. That, it seems to me, is pushing speculation pretty far. Given his size he was likely an aristocrat, but maybe knife fighting was just the way aristocrats of his time handled any slight to their honor, as later aristocrats dueled with swords or pistols. There's no reason to assume that his people fought over the chieftainship with knives like the outlaws of the Hole in the Wall Gang.

Then again, maybe they did; might make for an interesting scene in a Bronze Age historical novel.

The Genetic History of Apples

Chinese and European apples have long been thought to be descended from a wild species called Malus sieversii that grows in central Asia, but they are actually quite different. Why?
The team say the finding suggests that modern cultivated apples have their roots in the trees of Kazakhstan, growing to the west of the “Heavenly Mountains” – the Tian Shan.

Previous research has also suggested that these apples were brought westward by traders along the Silk Road. But the trees which took root, either from deliberate planting or from discarded apple cores, did not grow in isolation: they cross-pollinated with wild species in the area. In particular, researchers have said, the European crabapple, whose small, sharp-tasting fruit is used to make cider.

The new study, says Bai, suggests the resulting apples were large – a trait passed on from Malus sieversii – while the crabapple contribution appears to have made the apples firm and tasty.

Indeed the new research suggests about 46% of the genome of modern, domestic apples is likely passed down from M. sieversii plants from Kazakhstan, with 21% from the European crabapple and 33% from uncertain sources. As the trees were subsequently selected and bred by humans, the apples’ traits continued to be refined for larger size, better flavour and firmness.
Chinese apples are also hybrids, and the difference between Chinese and European apples was created mainly by the different local species with which Malus sieversii  interbred. Fascinating.

Charlottesville Vigil

For victims of violence. They sand This Land is Your Land in front of the Rotunda.

Steve Bannon's Strategy

Steve Bannon, in a phone call with Robert Kuttner, the editor of The American Prospect:
“The Democrats,” he said, “the longer they talk about identity politics, I got ’em. I want them to talk about racism every day. If the left is focused on race and identity, and we go with economic nationalism, we can crush the Democrats.”


Mapperton House in Dorset is thought by some to be the finest private house in Britain. The residents are the Earl and Countess of Sandwich — that is, when they are not off practicing the glamorous careers that most European aristocrats aspire to these days. (He has held various government and foundation jobs in international development; she is a journalist.)

The oldest part of the house was built in the 1540s by Robert Morgan; it sports these fine twisted chimneys and heraldic guardians. Morgan's descendants inherited the estate in direct line down to 1919, although the family names kept changing when a daughter was the heir.

But as you can see from this photo the house grew by accretion over the centuries.

What shows as the central block in this view was built in the 1660s by Richard Brodrepp; you can see the gable end of the surviving Tuodor structure to the left.

Tudor "great chamber" with original mantle and 16th-century ceiling.

Much of the interior was remodeled in the 18th century by another Richard Brodrepp, with the help of two prominent west country builders known as Bastard Brothers of Blandford. The bones of the gardens were established at the same time, although they were much altered in the 20th century.

In 1955 the property was purchased by Victor Montagu, heir to the Earldom of Sandwich. A Joshua Reynolds portrait of his ancestor the 4th Earl hangs in the drawing room near a portrait of the 4th Earl's mistress, Martha Ray. This was the Earl who rather than get up from the gaming table put a slice of meat between two slices of bread and somehow got credit for inventing a way of eating that must have been done pretty much since the invention of bread.

Views of the formal garden behind the main house.

More garden views. The gardens are open to the public through most of the summer, the house only on weekend afternoons.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Explaining Extremism

I'm wondering to what extent this is true, or true beyond a superficial level:
“The process and structure of radicalization and extremism,” J.M. Berger, a fellow with the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism in The Hague, wrote via email, “are the same in different kinds of movements, even when the content of the extremist belief is different (such as with neo-Nazis and jihadists).”

Scholars have often observed a radicalization process that goes something like this: After a first contact with the ideology, a person’s curiosity drives them to seek out more information, often through social media. After trying it on for size, they decide that the ideology sufficiently addresses their grievances, usually by framing it as the result of their group—their Muslim brothers and sisters, or their brothers and sisters in the white race—are being victimized by another group, say infidels or non-white immigrants. Then, the new adherent will consider whether he or she is doing enough to advance the cause, and if the answer is no, the person will act. “Extremist groups rely on a crisis-solution construct,” says Berger. “The in-group”—the ideological group, say, neo-Nazis or ISIS members—“is afflicted with a crisis that is blamed on the out-group”—people excluded from that group as enemies and threats, say, non-believers or non-whites—“and the extremist movement is presented as offering a solution to that crisis, which is often violent. The crisis is defined as being intrinsic to the identity groups involved, rather being than situational or temporary.” . . .

Violence isn’t always the result; few people radicalize in the first place, and still fewer commit attacks after doing so. But what can lead to violence is the many ways in which the process of radicalization is constricting: It alienates you from family and friends, and posits an acute problem to which the ideology demands a solution. After a while, it feels like an emergency every day. “The general psychological process of moving to those movements is very much the same,” says Koehler, who is also a senior fellow at George Washington University’s Program on Extremism. “It is a process of de-pluralization and isolation. There is a grievance or perceived threat, and it gets more and more intense until you don’t see any other solution but violence.”
I feel doubts because to some extent all politics works this way; don't Democrats and Republicans identify enemies they claim are making them suffer? Doesn't the language of crisis and solution permeate every political campaign?

I don't see how this account usefully discriminates between people who become socialists or join the Moral Majority from those who become suicide bombers.

I have likewise seen definitions of a "cult" that seem to describe all organized religion.

Movements are extremist because they are extreme, not because they are like all other movements. And what makes them extreme is not at all touched by this definition.

Midnight Monument Removal in Baltimore

I have an acquaintance in Baltimore who has for the past year been giving tours of the city's four Confederate monuments, trying to raise awareness of them and lay the groundwork for removal. He wasn't having much luck, until events swept along and POOF, all the statues are gone. After a unanimous city council vote for removal last week, the mayor brought in a crane and whisked them all away in one night. She said, “I did not want to endanger people in my own city. I had begun discussions with contractors and so forth about how long it would take to remove them. I am a responsible person, so we moved as quickly as we could.” Probably a wise decision, considering what has happened in other places.

The most appalling of Baltimore's monuments was this statue of Roger B. Taney, the Supreme Court justice who is famous for only one thing: authoring the Dred Scott decision. No sugar-coating this with talk of his being a war hero or saying he really cared about state's rights, since the Dred Scott decision was intended to prevent any state from expanding the rights of black men.

Yes, it was once considered a good idea in Maryland to put up not one but two prominent monuments to the man who tried to deny citizenship even to free black people. But it's gone now, and it looks like its twin in Annapolis will be gone soon.

One of the possibilities that occurred to me when Trump won the election was that it might really shake up the country, breaking people loose from old coalitions and driving events forward in unpredictable ways. Until the past few weeks, this had not really happened. Trump won the election mainly because he got almost all the Republican votes, and he has been trying to work with the Republican Congress on traditional Republican issues.

But now the system has been shaken up in at least two ways. The Congressional health care brouhaha has led to a big shift in public opinion in favor of Obamacare and national health insurance in general. And now the Charlottesville blow-up seems to be generating a huge wave of revulsion against white supremacists and neo-Confederates, made worse by the president's ambivalence.

Maybe nothing will come of these things, either; maybe health care will settle back into the usual partisan grind, and maybe the anti-Confederate wave will break quickly like others have before it. But I think it is clear now that Trump poses at least as much of a threat to conservatives as he does to liberals.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Vaccinating Prairie Dogs against the Plague

Biologists are testing a new oral vaccine to treat the Plague in prairie dogs. Most news accounts refer to this as the Sylvatic plague, but don't be fooled; this is our friend Yersinia pestis, the same bacterium that causes Bubonic plague in humans. There have long been vaccines for the plague, but it is very expensive to catch thousands of prairie dogs and give them shots. They also used to spread pesticide dust to control fleas, but nobody much likes the idea of spreading tons of flea-killing dust across what are supposed to be wild prairies. So everybody is happy that tests of the new oral vaccine, given by spreading peanut-butter flavored kibbles from airplanes or trucks, seem to be working out.

The point of vaccinating is not so much to protect prairie dogs, who have lived with the plague for centuries and so can obviously survive it, but to protect humans – about a dozen people get the plague every year in the US, mostly from hanging around wild rodents in the West – and endangered black-footed ferrets.

Plus, if we get good enough at this sort of thing it might have all kinds of uses, like controlling Lyme disease by vaccinating mice.

And while I'm on the subject, the answer to the dread question, what happens when the bacteria all evolve resistance to all our antibiotics, may turn out to be vaccines. There are effective vaccines against many bacterial diseases, and they work fine despite the minor evolutionary changes bacteria can pull out of a hat whenever they encounter an obstacle..

Again on Confederate Monuments

I've recently read several conservative writers who used to oppose the wholesale removal of Confederate monuments now taking the tack that if neo-Nazis are going to make them the focus of their movement, they have to come down. Rich Lowry:
The monuments should go. Some of them simply should be trashed; others transmitted to museums, battlefields, and cemeteries. The heroism and losses of Confederate soldiers should be commemorated, but not in everyday public spaces where the monuments are flashpoints in poisonous racial contention, with white nationalists often mustering in their defense.
Ryan Booth:
Those of you who want Lee's statues to remain don’t need to defend them from the Left — you need to defend them from the alt-Right! They are the ones who are ruining any chance you have for keeping them.

If there are so many of who are not racist who honestly honor Southern culture and heritage so much, why wasn’t there a giant protest group in Charlottesville, pushing away the Nazis while chanting “heritage, not hate”? Why did you leave the opposition to the Left?

. . . . The Confederate flag and Confederate monuments have become gods to a group of people bent on hate and violence. As such, we’re better off without them.
Indeed it seems that if the racists are determined to make the defense of Confederate monuments their rallying cry, those monuments are not long for this world. If city governments don't remove them, mobs will.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Half a Fairy Ring

In my front yard.

Crown Shyness

Crown shyness (also canopy disengagement, canopy shyness, or intercrown spacing) is a phenomenon observed in some tree species, in which the crowns of fully stocked trees do not touch each other, forming a canopy with channel-like gaps. The phenomenon is most prevalent among trees of the same species, but also occurs between trees of different species. There exist many hypotheses as to why crown shyness is an adaptive behavior, and research suggests that it might inhibit spread of leaf-eating insect larvae.
Fascinating planet we live on.

Toward Compromise on Gay Rights and Religious Freedom

Jonathan Rauch thinks there are compromises to be made between gay rights advocates and defenders of a religious right to oppose homosexuality. He thinks the ground for compromise has already been laid out in existing nondiscrimination law, which is a lot less black and white than many people think:
The landmark civil-rights bills that broke the back of racial segregation in the 1960s were not absolutist. They provided exemptions for religious organizations. They exempted "Mrs. Murphy," the landlady renting a room in her own house. At the time, civil-rights advocates in Congress made the pragmatic argument that exemptions were needed to pass the bill, but they also made the politically principled argument that exceptions would increase social comfort with the legislation while still covering the vast majority of cases — a trade they deemed worth making. So not even in those dire days, a time of genuine social emergency, did we insist on a policy of zero-tolerance.

Since then, anti-discrimination law as enacted in countless jurisdictions and as interpreted by the courts is nothing close to being as absolute as today's activists and popular culture typically suppose. Employment-discrimination law offers exemptions for bona fide occupational qualifications, a conceptually elastic category that has proved, in practice, quite workable. State and federal nondiscrimination laws — as written, as judicially interpreted, and as further inflected by RFRA and its non-federal equivalents — are shot through with religious exemptions, most of which are so uncontroversial that only a few specialists even know they're there. Age-discrimination rules allow pension plans to treat old people differently than young people, and sex-discrimination rules allow single-sex elementary and secondary schools. Sexual-orientation anti-discrimination laws, where enacted legislatively, include religious carve-outs as a rule.

Then there is disability-discrimination law, which is one immense tangle of exceptions, because its "reasonable accommodation" standard is, by definition, entirely contextual. When the Americans with Disabilities Act passed in 1990, many thought it would be a bottomless pit of litigation and expense, but in practice it has proved to be surprisingly stable, affordable, and uncontroversial. In general, for every accommodation or exception that sparks a public argument (like the Hobby Lobby controversy), there are thousands that no one notices.

In fact, the pop-culture ideal of zero-tolerance nondiscrimination is possible only because of the underlying reality of ubiquitous accommodation. "The world would fall apart if you tried to pursue the logic of racial anti-discrimination into all these other areas," observes Walter Olson, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. He is right: If Americans actually practiced nondiscrimination remotely as inflexibly as they preach it, the whole edifice would collapse.
This is what I think. I think that if people on both sides stopped shouting and stopped demanding clear victory in principle for their side, they would find that they can easily get most of what they want. They just have to give up on their (generally not disclosed) goal of defeating, humiliating and punishing their opponents.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Inside the Hermitage, St. Petersburg

Views of the galleries at the Hermitage, once the world's most ironically named palace and now one of its most opulent museums.

Below, two images by Antony Gormley, from a series titled Still Standing, 2011.

Riot in Charlottesville

The question for me about the fight in Charlottesville is: is this the future? Is this where the ever-increasing division of America into conservative and liberal camps is heading?

Against this we can say that neither side in this brawl was representative of America; white nationalists are a small minority, and violent antifascists are a not much bigger one.

But for it is the underlying trend in the country, the ever more rigid division in warring factions that can speak to each other only in insults.

Maybe, though, this is actually an opportunity. So far most conservatives have come out hard against the white nationalists, like this from Ted Cruz:
The Nazis, the KKK, and white supremacists are repulsive and evil, and all of us have a moral obligation to speak out against the lies, bigotry, anti-Semitism, and hatred that they propagate. Having watched the horrifying video of the car deliberately crashing into a crowd of protesters, I urge the Department of Justice to immediately investigate and prosecute this grotesque act of domestic terrorism.
Or this from Southern Baptist theologian Russell Moore:
"Blood and soil" = the idolatry of the flesh fueled by the dark spirit of the age. The wrath of God is revealed from heaven against such. The so-called Alt-Right white supremacist ideologies are anti-Christ and satanic to the core. We should say so.
What is needed now is a response from the Left acknowledging that many conservatives don't like Richard Spencer and David Duke, either. We need a national coalition against the real purveyors of open hate, and we can't have it unless we exercise a little tolerance for people on the other side of other important battles.

This is a chance to step back from the edge. I hope we take it.

David Duke and the Meaning of Racism

Any American who tells you that he has no feelings about race is lying. But I was reminded yesterday that there is such a thing as Racism at a whole different level. Consider David Duke, who did a lot of talking and tweeting during the fight in Charlottesville. First he took the tone that white nationalists were just following up on the election:
This represents a turning point for the people of this country. We are determined to take our country back. We are going to fulfill the promises of Donald Trump. That's what we believed in. That's why we voted for Donald Trump.
But then when Trump refused to back the white nationalists and even sort of denounced them, Duke went after the president on twitter:
So, after decades of White Americans being targeted for discriminated & anti-White hatred, we come together as a people, and you attack us?

I would recommend you take a good look in the mirror & remember it was White Americans who put you in the presidency, not radical leftists

White Americans are so afraid to speak out that we've allowed our country to be invaded and our children to be propagandized by marxists.
I divide the people of the world in lots of ways, and race is one of them. But for me it is only one of many: gender, nationality, religion, region, politics, stands on various intellectual issues, tastes in food and movies, driving habits, skill with words, general obnoxiousness, and so on. To people like David Duke, race is the fundamental division. The basic division in society is between "White Americans" and everyone else. Marxism, a political philosophy devised by white people and attacked by other white people, shows up here as a sort of adjunct to the racial question, a way of being against the wishes and interests of White Americans.

One of the problems with denouncing every sort of behavior and belief as racist and every conservative as a Nazi is that we would then lack words for the real thing.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Gliding Mammals of the Dinosaur Age

Among the many spectacular mammal fossils that have emerged from Jurassic quarries in northeastern China are some that resemble modern flying squirrels. These include Maiopatagium, above;

and Vilevoledon. Both about 170 million years old. These are not placental mammals, so they are not related to flying squirrels; just another case of convergent evolution.

There were no flowering plants yet, so no fruit; perhaps they fed on conifer seeds.

These gliding animals are a good example of the great diversity of mammals that lived in Jurassic times, something we knew nothing about until the 1990s. Besides gliders, Chinese paleontologists have also found mammals that swam like otters and mammals with claws like those anteaters use to pull open insect mounds.

Marijuana in West Virginia

According to NORML, the biggest cash crop in West Virginia agriculture is marijuana, and has been for twenty years.

Now a group of young legislators is pushing for full legalization in the state, hoping that it would help with several of the state's pressing problems: the budget crunch, the lack of jobs, and especially the opiate epidemic. I'm not generally a fan of drugs, but if people on disability are determined to ease their woes with something, better cannabis than Oxycontin or whiskey. And there is evidence that it can work that way.

Last year the state passed a medical marijuana law, but it is so restrictive that it may not lead to much legal use.

I think full legalization is certainly worth trying, but then I've never thought marijuana should have been banned in the first place. Whether West Virginia's increasingly conservative legislature will ever see things that way is another question.

The Marxist Corporate Insurgency

H.R. McMaster has been cleaning house at the National Security Council, and he recently fired a protege of Michael Flynn named Rich Higgins. Rumor had it that Higgins was fired partly because of a memo he wrote about the opposition to Trump's administration. (Others add that McMaster suspected Higgins of being the main source of leaks from the NSC to right wing news outlets.) Somebody leaked the memo to Foreign Affairs, and they printed the whole thing. It's quite amazing.

Trump, says the memo, is under attack by cultural Marxists using “political warfare as understood by the Maoist Insurgency model.” His enemies hate Trump because he represents “an existential threat to cultural Marxist memes that dominate the prevailing cultural narrative.” Those threatened by Trump include “‘deep state’ actors, globalists, bankers, Islamists, and establishment Republicans.”

It's the full John Birch conspiracy come back to haunt us. A selection:
While the attacks on President Trump arise out of political warfare considerations based on non-kinetic lines of effort (as discussed below), they operate in a battle-space prepared, informed and conditioned by cultural Marxist drivers….As used in this discussion, cultural Marxism relates to programs and activities that arise out of Gramsci Marxism, Fabian Socialism and most directly from the Frankfurt School. The Frankfurt strategy deconstructs societies through attacks on culture by imposing a dialectic that forces unresolvable contradictions under the rubric of critical theory…. These attack narratives are pervasive, full spectrum and institutionalized at all levels. They operate in social media, television, the 24-hour news cycle in all media, and are entrenched at the upper levels of the bureaucracies and within the foreign policy establishment. They inform the entertainment industry from late night monologues, to situation comedies, to television series memes, to movie themes.

….While there is certainly a Marxist agenda and even Islamist motivations that must be seriously addressed in their own right, these motivations alone seem inadequate to explain the scope and magnitude of the effort directed against the president. The economic drivers behind the Marxist and Islamist ideologues are enormously influential and seek to leverage these ideological movements for their own self interests. While beyond the actual scope of this document, the benefactors of these political movements include; Urban Real Estate who depend greatly on immigrant tenants, International Banking who seeks to maintain US debtor status so as to control the application of American power, and elements of the business sector that depend upon immigrant labor or government infrastructure. The overall objective of these economic forces is the forced urbanization of the populace, thereby necessitating a larger, more powerful government. In summary, this is a form of population control by certain business cartels in league with cultural Marxists/corporatists/Islamists who will leverage Islamic terrorism threats to justify the creation of a police state.
One of the interesting things about American politics is that the Right and the Left are always accusing each other of wanting the same thing, an authoritarian police state. Both sides think that the other side's money comes from giant corporations, which nobody trusts. Both sides fear that with corporate backing the opposite fringe (Marxists or the Alt-Right) will somehow come to wield great power.

This is the paranoid American fantasy: an alliance of sinister forces that includes Big Business, International Banking, smug intellectuals with weird ideas, and elements of the government is using terrorists to create the conditions for an authoritarian takeover that will strip me of whatever freedom I have left and make my life even more unbearable. Millions of Americans share some version of this fear.

I suspect that this paranoia is the inevitable product of life in a giant nation and an interconnected global economy. Many things about our lives really are under the control of distant forces we barely understand and powers over which we have little influence. So we get various political movements designed to restore some sense of control: libertarianism, which holds out the myth that we could abolish government and each become a sovereign power; Trumpian nationalism; White Power. But they're all illusions. Any entity big enough to have influence on world affairs is going to be too big to be truly unified, and too big for you alone to have any say.

We can't change these facts about the world; we can only ride the global surf as best we can.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Walter Mittelholzer in Africa

Walter Mittelholzer was a Swiss aviator, aerial photographer, and travelogue producer, famous in the 1920s and 1930s for his world-spanning adventures.These photographs come from two of his expeditions, the first flight north to south across Africa (1929-1930) and the first flight from Africa's west coast to Lake Chad (1930-1931). Above, City in the Desert, 1930, from the Chad expedition.

Wikimedia has more than a thousand of Mittelholzer's photographs as large tif files, and some of them are amazingly detailed. Desert and Lake, 1930.

Graveyard in the Desert, 1930.

Foot of the Atlas Mountains, 1930

Citadel of Cairo, 1929

Village near Lake Chad, 1931

King of the Masai, 1930

Monastery Ruins in Egypt, 1929

Egyptian Fortress, 1929

Western edge of the Nile Valley, 1929

Gate of Fez, Morocco, 1930