Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Chateau de Guedelon

In France, a new castle is being built using the methods of the thirteenth century, with stone quarried on the spot and mortar made from sand and lime.

Dell Crashes

Dell, the once mighty computer manufacturer, is crashing. The accounting tricks they used to make themselves look financially healthy and keep their stock price up have been exposed by the SEC, and fraud changes could soon be filed against founder Michael Dell. But the reason for the financial shenanigans was to cover up a deeper problem: their computers were breaking down. Millions of machines sold by Dell in 2003 to 2005 had capacitors on their mother boards that were prone to break and leak fluid across the board. (In fact, one Dell study suggested that the problem would affect 97% of its OptiPlex machines.) They didn't make the capacitors, and they could have -- should have -- recognized the problem, issued a recall, and kept their reputations. Instead, as the NY Times has documented, they did what is always disastrous for any business and tried to cover up the problem:

But Dell employees went out of their way to conceal these problems. In one e-mail exchange between Dell customer support employees concerning computers at the Simpson Thacher & Bartlett law firm, a Dell worker states, “We need to avoid all language indicating the boards were bad or had ‘issues’ per our discussion this morning.”

In other documents about how to handle questions around the faulty OptiPlex systems, Dell salespeople were told, “Don’t bring this to customer’s attention proactively” and “Emphasize uncertainty.”

“They were fixing bad computers with bad computers and were misleading customers at the same time,” said Ira Winkler, a former computer analyst for the National Security Agency and a technology consultant. “They knew millions of computers would be out there causing inevitable damage and were not giving people an opportunity to fix that damage.”

Hence the massive lawsuit Dell is now facing over its faulty computers, which may force the company into bankruptcy.

I keep wondering when businesspeople will get the message that covering up a problem is always the worst thing they can do. But I guess that just goes against the grain of people who have succeeded in their careers by going along with the flow, putting profits first, and always putting the best face on whatever happens.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

IQ and What Else?

Jonah Lehrer:
Unfortunately, despite the best efforts of Howard Gardner, Robert Sternberg and others, the IQ test remains the singular test of individual cognitive ability. The mysterious entity that it measures - g, for general intelligence factor - is still seen as the dominant variable in determining the intellectual performance of our brain. . . . The first thing to say about g is that it's an incredibly robust statistical phenomenon. This means that the same person will get a similar score on an IQ test at the age of 12, 20, and 50. Furthermore, his score will correlate nicely with his academic performance, at least in certain subjects. For instance, a 2007 study by psychologists at the University of Edinburgh found that general intelligence accounted for 58.6% of the individual variance in math performance, 48% of the variance in english, and 18.1% of the variance in art and design. Of course, that still leaves a lot of variance unaccounted for, even in those academic subjects, like math, that are supposed to depend on the very mental skills measured by IQ tests. This helps explain why Lewis Terman, the inventor of the Stanford-Binet IQ test, eventually became frustrated with his measurement. Terman spent decades following a large sample of "gifted" students, searching for evidence that his test of intelligence was linked to real world success. While the most accomplished men did have slightly higher scores, Terman eventually concluded that other factors played an even more important role.
Lehrer goes on to discuss "implicit learning," the intuitive side of knowledge -- for example, even when we can't remember the answer to something, we can have a "feeling" that we do know it. There are now crude tests that measure some aspects of implicit learning, and it seems to be an important variable in accomplishment.

I would point to something else: energy. Drive, focus, ambition, the ability to keep working on a problem until it is solved and then move onto another. One friend of mine once remarked, "I find that intellectual energy always wins out in the end."

Flowers

I dragged myself home sick from work today, worrying about Lyme disease, but I was greeted by this huge daylily and immediately felt better. I planted this two years ago in an empty spot in the herb garden where it ended up hidden behind tall cosmos. I wanted it to be seen, so in April I moved it to my smaller perennial bed near the street corner. It made the transition fine and is already spreading wonder in its first year here. And the purple coneflower is also making a show.

Art for the Present Moment

Over the past year I have seen reproductions of Piranesi's "Imaginary Prisons" in at least three different places. Giovanni Piranesi produced this series of 14 ominous etchings in 1750, then reworked them and added two more for a second edition in 1761. The first series, less detailed and darker, is more popular now than the more detailed images of the second edition, and even more popular are the preliminary sketches (below). I have been musing on why these works seem to fit our current mood so well, or at least the moods of certain editors. I suppose the images connect to Steampunk with its fusion of the mechanical and the fantastic, to the dark tone of vampire stories and zombie plagues, and to the sense that government and industry are vast, out-of-control machines. We prefer them unfinished because we like our fantasies suggestive rather than complete, are more interested in the act of creation than the creation itself. Or so I muse.

The Last Pasha of Marrakech

Marrakech is an ancient city in Morocco, on the edge of the Sahara desert. Its last ruler, T'hami el-Glaou, called himself the Lord of the Atlas and gained notoriety for helping the French gain control of Morocco in 1912. He died in 1956, the year Morocco regained its independence, and his fortress fell into ruins. This unsigned BBC piece describes a recent visit to the Kasbah of Telouet, half ruined and half restored. Marvelous.

In Ireland, Hard Times Again

The first economic boom in modern Irish history has crashed into dust, leaving the country full of bankrupt banks and half-built housing projects. Article and slide show at the NY Times.

I guess the good news is that since prosperity is so new to Ireland, dating back only to the 90s, most people are used to hard times and know how to cope. The bad news is that the Irish are falling back on the expedients of their ancestors and thousands are moving abroad; since the birth rate in Ireland has fallen to below the replacement rate, that means the tiny nation will shrink even further.

Archaeology in the Amazon

More evidence is coming out that the Amazon was densely populated in prehistoric times. Hi-tech mapping is documenting networks of causeways and canals, and complexes of large mounds, in areas still covered with dense jungle:
In a study to be published later this summer, scientists detail an ancient system of monumental public works in a swath of the Amazon in eastern Bolivia. The researchers relied in part on satellite pictures to penetrate the thick jungle, allowing them to inventory vast earthen mounds 25 to 30 feet high and tidy networks of canals and causeways, all built centuries ago.

The sheer volume of dirt that had to be moved to build these structures suggests that the area was densely populated and politically organized, the researchers say. And the neat patterns of mounds, canals and other features on the landscape indicate that the infrastructure was highly planned and well-organized -- not exactly the handiwork of villagers leading a hand-to-mouth existence.

The Mummies of Germany

I learned something new today: the aristocracy of 17th and 18th century Germany mummified their corpses and put them in specially prepared mausoleums. Knowledge of the practice seems to have been completely lost, until conservators and church officials began finding the mummified corpses during restoration projects:

About 1,000 mummified bodies in German noblemen's graves have been discovered and cataloged so far. The vaults contain children as well as adults, their clothes are sometimes still in remarkably good condition. Often the tombs also contain burial objects: Combs, spices, coins, and in one case, a shaving brush.

The surprising number of tombs containing mummified remains leads researchers to the conclusion that it was not random. "For a long time, I believed that mummification was more of an accidental corollary of the way people were buried in those days," Ströbl says. New evidence suggests something different: In this early modern period did many of the rich and aristocratic deliberately have themselves buried in this way so that their remains would be preserved?

I foresee a new genre of mummy movies, in which the corpse brought back to life is, not an ancient pharaoh, but a Prussian aristocrat. Much scarier.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Victorian Goth

My daughter Mary tries on her outfit for Otakon. And then the little ones join in.

Educated Women and Childbirth

I like this graph a lot. I think the rising number of well educated women with children is a sign of progress on some fundamental social problems. We are creating a world in which women can more easily have both an advanced degree and a family, in which family-minded men are not afraid to marry women with serious educational credentials, and in which our most intelligent and accomplished women are not removing themselves from the gene pool.

Temple Grandin

We just watched Temple Grandin, directed by Mick Jackson for HBO, and we all really liked it. Claire Danes, who plays the title character, is fantastic. Temple Grandin is an autistic woman who has become a major expert in humane livestock handling because, she says, of her ability to see things from a cow's point of view. She is an accomplished woman but very strange, and Danes brings out her strangeness -- her extreme social anxiety, her odd emotional responses, the flatness of her speech -- as well as the other obstacles she faced, like convincing grizzled cattlemen to take seriously her ideas about how they should change their methods. Highly recommended.

William James

Jonathan Ree has an excellent appreciation of William James at New Humanist, on the centenary of his death. James is one of my favorite intellectuals, a brilliant man never infatuated by his own brilliance, with a tentative, open-minded attitude toward all important questions. Even when I disagree with him I always feel that it would have been fascinating to discuss the question with him. James and Sigmund Freud both believed that instead of one unitary self our minds contain several different principles, but compared to Freud's dogmatism James is refreshingly candid about our ignorance:
Principles of Psychology, published in 1890, was one of the first works to take up and generalise the idea of a secondary or “sub-conscious” self, first proposed by the French neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot. Apart from his early advocacy of a notion later appropriated by Sigmund Freud, James’s principal objective was to discredit what he called “psychological atomism” – the idea that experience consists of a succession of distinct ideas and that perception, intellect, emotion and will are separate mental faculties, complete and entire in themselves. For James, there could be no such thing as a permanent, substantial anchor for our personal identity – no “self,” but only the changing kaleidoscope of “what we back ourselves to be and do”, and the mind as a whole was simply a “theatre of simultaneous possibilities” or a “field” of fluid forces animated by our bodily engagement with the world.
His most famous book, The Varieties of Religious Experience, is a classic that I heartily recommend for leisure reading, a view of religion that is both rigorously scientific and movingly open hearted:

The feeling most fundamental to religion was a sense of reverent wonder in the midst of the world as we find it, and its defining characteristic was, James said, “a willingness to close our mouths and be as nothing.” The opposite of religion was not so much atheism as the adoption of a “trifling, sneering attitude” towards everything, after the manner of the 18th-century French cynic and tedious, tinder-dry chatterbox Voltaire. Religion meant being able to turn your back both on ironic frivolity and on ponderous complaint: “it favors gravity, not pertness,” James wrote, and “says ‘hush’ to all vain chatter and smart wit.”

From a purely psychological point of view it was obvious that religion – with or without a belief in God – did people good: it made them less self-centred, more willing to forgo personal advantage, and better able to live a simple life and find satisfaction in friendship, devotion, trust, bravery and patience. But it also gave life a fresh charm – “an enchantment which is not rationally or logically deducible from anything else.”

William and his brothers were raised by wealthy parents who "gave them more culture than education" dragging them around Europe from hotel to hotel and museum to museum instead of sending them to school. The result was two men generally acknowledged as geniuses, William and the novelist Henry James, and two men who accomplished nothing of note and saw themselves as failures. It is sometimes said that the other two brothers, who bought fought in the Civil War, were scarred by their wartime experiences, but other observers thought they were poisoned by jealousy of their successful siblings. However it was, family stories like this one remind us that no sort of parenting works for everyone.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Amelia Earhardt, Island Castaway?

From Discovery News:
Amelia Earhart, the legendary pilot who disappeared 73 years ago while flying over the Pacific Ocean in a record attempt to fly around the world at the equator, may have survived several weeks, or even months as a castaway on a remote South Pacific island, according to preliminary results of a two-week expedition on the tiny coral atoll believed to be her final resting place.
Searchers found a camp site with "nine fire features containing thousands of fish, turtle and bird bones" as well as two buttons, a pocket knife, and fragments of a glass jar. They are testing for human DNA.

I see a new movie coming.

Heat Wave

It was 99 degrees today in Baltimore. The high temperatures for the past week look like this:

Monday: 95
Tuesday: 96
Wednesday: 97
Thursday: 100
Friday: 93
Saturday: 94
Sunday: 99

And not a drop of rain. But with enough water, the daylilies love it.

The Anarchist Paradise

Stumble Upon led me to this manifesto for the future "sustainable" society, where everything will be small-scale, local, and organic. From their description of the political system:
The third essential characteristic of the alternative way is that it must be very communal, participatory and cooperative. Firstly, we must share many things. We could have a few stepladders, electric drills, etc., in the neighbourhood workshop, as distinct from one in every house.

We would be on various voluntary rosters, committees and working bees [like "sewing bees" or barn raisings] to carry out most of the windmill maintenance, construction of public works, child minding, nursing, basic educating and care of aged and disadvantaged people in our area, as well as to perform most of the functions councils now carry out for us, such as maintaining our own parks and streets. In addition working bees and committees would maintain the many commons. We would therefore need far fewer bureaucrats and professionals, reducing the amount of income we would have to earn to pay taxes. (When we contribute to working bees we are paying some of our tax.)

Especially important would be the regular voluntary community working bees. Just imaging how rich your neighbourhood would now be if every Saturday afternoon for the past five years there had been a voluntary working bee doing something that would make it a more pleasant place for all to live.

There would be far more community than there is now. People would know each other and be interacting on communal projects. Because all would realise that their welfare depended heavily on how well we looked after each other and our ecosystems, there would be powerful incentives for mutual concern, facilitating the public good, and making sure others were content. The situation would be quite different to consumer-capitalist society where there is little incentive on individuals to care for others or their community.

One would certainly predict a huge decrease in the incidence of personal and social problems and their dollar and social costs. The new neighbourhood would surely be a much healthier and happier place to live, especially for older people.

Our life experience will mainly be enriched not by personal wealth or talents, but main by having access to public things like a beautiful landscape containing many forests, ponds, animals, herb patches, bamboo clumps, clay pits, little farms and firms, and leisure opportunities close to home, a neighbourhood workshop, many cultural and artistic groups and skilled people to learn from, community festivals and celebrations and a thriving and supportive community.

The political situation would be very different compared with today. There would be genuine participatory democracy. This would be made possible by the smallness of scale, and it would be vitally necessary. . . .

Most of our local policies and programs could be worked out by elected unpaid committees and we could all vote on the important decisions concerning our small area at regular town meetings. There would still be some functions for state and national governments, but relatively few, and there will be a role for some international agencies, treaties etc.

How can anyone read this and not find it unbelievably dismal? This plan is for us all to become medieval villagers, what we have been struggling for 500 years to get away from, although first we're going to have to slaughter the 90% of the population that would never go along with this arrangement. Are the people who write this sort of thing insane, or are they just in la la land? Some of them probably think that the coming planetary collapse will make living this way necessary whether we like it or not, to which I say: hogwash. The only way forward for humanity is more technology, more science, more division of labor, and more centralization, not less.

Vampires

All the dead are vampires, poisoning the air, the blood, the life of the living, contaminating their body and their soul, robbing them of their sanity.

--
Marie-Hélène Huet

Lawrence Yang

An entertaining and whimsical artist with a lot of paintings and drawings online.

Keith Thomas on the University

Keith Thomas, author of my favorite scholarly book (Religion and the Decline of Magic) has an excellent essay in the May 7 Times Literary Supplement on the situation of British universities. Alas, you can't read it without a subscription, so I will summarize. Thomas starts from the financial crisis of the British government, which is cutting every part of its budget. All universities in Britain are state run, so this means the universities will be facing budget cuts. Nothing surprising there. But as Thomas explains, this will drive the universities further along the path they have been traveling since the 1980s, toward becoming economic powerhouses focusing on scientific research and economic development:
In these circumstances, painful choices have to be made. The Labour government's priorities were clear. What must be defended at all costs, it said, are the so-called "STEM" subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics). They are the most important, by virtue of their contribution to the "knowledge economy." All publicly funded research at universities should have an identifiable "impact" on our economy and society. In a document entitled A Vision for Research, the Prime Minister's Council for Science and Technology recommended that "universities should seek to professionalize their capabilities and structures . . . so that they operate more like consultancy organizations."
In this environment, departments that do not win big research grants or have lots of students are vulnerable:
In the unlovely words of a memorandum in King's College London, it has become necessary to "create financially viable academic activity by disinvesting from areas that are at sub-critical level."
So big cuts in humanities faculties are proposed.

Thomas then gives a quick history of the British universities from their medieval origins to the present, noting that they have changed their missions several times in response to political and social demands. Even in the Middle Ages, as he quotes Richard Southern, "No single cause had so much influence on the development of higher education as the demands of government." What many of us think of as the traditional curriculum at Oxford and Cambridge was developed in the 19th century to train civil servants for the empire. Research was hardly part of the universities' missions at all until the 1890s. After World War II, as in the US, the university system was enormously expanded, from educating 3% of young people in 1939 to 43% today:
History thus shows that the universities have repeatedly changed (or, more often, been made to change) their nature in order to meet new social needs. To their original function of advancing the Christian religion, they added that of educating a governing elite. Subsequently, they embarked upon the advancement of knowledge; and in the late twentieth century they began to provide mass education to the citizens of a democracy. Now that this vast edifice of higher education has become harder to sustain, do they need to change their nature again?
Thomas then makes what I think is a marvelous defense of education and scholarship as worthy activities in their own right. He writes, "Only a minority of academics can hope to achieve any real advance in their discipline, but all have the possibility of making an enduring 'impact' on the minds of their pupils." Thomas is put off by the pressure to publish "whether one has anything to say or not," and like other critics of the "publish or perish" university he wants the professor's role to be more broadly defined:
Humane scholarship is a vital activity, for without it we would quickly relapse into ignorant solipsism, with no knowledge of the past or comprehension of other languages and cultures. We need scholars to resist the annihilation of our intellectual inheritance, to expose myths and to remind us that there are other ways of thinking and acting than those with which we are familiar. Not all such work can be described as "research." When scientists do research, they aim to find out things which have never been known. But much activity in the humanities is concerned to rediscover and re-interpret what once was known but has subsequently been forgotten. A better word for this is "scholarship," with its emphasis less on new knowledge than on fresh understanding. . . . The new government should affirm its commitment to the notion of universities as places of humane scholarship as well as of scientific research.
I think Thomas is right in almost everything he says. Humane scholarship is a vital activity, and since Britain produces such a large share of it -- more than a third of all publishing in the humanities emanates from Britain -- the state of its universities has global significance. There is a budget crisis, so there will be cuts, but I agree with Thomas that it would be a terrible mistake to make all of the cuts in humanities departments, as if they were a frivolity the nation can easily do without.

Besides, there is something downright weird about the economic emphasis of the British government. Since Thatcher's time every British administration has been obsessed with making Britain more like Japan and Germany, and they have focused their education and research dollars on high technology. Meanwhile, Britain's tech sector has continued to languish, and British manufacturing has grown only modestly. The British economy as a whole has continued to prosper because of expertise in other areas. The industries in which the UK is among the world leaders are insurance, financial services, business consulting, shipping, publishing, aerospace, broadcasting, and brewing. The only major British company that is a world technology leader is Rolls Royce aircraft engines, but many British firms are world leaders in services and London is the second largest financial center after New York. A quick check of the government's online statistics shows that last month the UK had a 7 billion pound trade deficit in goods, but a 4 billion pound surplus in services.The real leaders of the British economy are not engineers or factory workers but the Oxbridge toffs who wear those awesome suits to their posh offices in the City. I have been following British education debates since I lived there in 1990 and I have never seen any British writer mention this. British exports of culture -- music, theater, film, books, news (what company of any sort has a better brand than the BBC?), television, and so on -- are also large enough to be economically important, but I have never seen any mention in these debates of the need to train more writers, cameramen and producers. Another British advantage is their ability to attract wealthy and highly skilled immigrants; among other things, London has for decades been the world center for Arabic language publishing.

As Thomas says, if we are going to judge professors and academic department on the basis of their "impact on society," we need a deep understanding of what "impact on society" means.

The Power

Forget all that end-of-the-pier
palm-reading stuff. Picture a seaside town
in your head. Start from its salt-wrack-rotten smells
and raise the lid of the world to change the light,
then go as far as you want: the ornament
of a a promenade, the brilliant greys of gulls,
the weak grip of a crane in the arcades
you've built, ballrooms to come alive at night,
then a million-starling roost, the opulent
crumbling like cake icing. . . .

Now, bring it down
in the kind of fire that flows along ceilings,
that knows the spectral blues; that always starts
in donut fryers or boardwalk kindling
in the dead hour before dawn, that leaves pilings
marooned by mindless tides, that sends a plume
of black smoke high enough to stain the halls
of clouds. Now look around your tiny room
and tell me that you haven't got the power.

--Paul Farley

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Slavery and the Complications of Human Nature

Atlantic blogger Ta-nehisi Coates posted this ex-slave narrative, recorded in 1937:

White folks you can have your automobiles, paved streets and lights. You can have your buses, and street cars, and hot pavement and tall buildings cause I aint got no use for em no way. I tell you what I do want--I want my old cotton bed and the moonlight shining through the willow trees, and the cool grass under my feet while I run around catching lightening bugs. I want to feel the sway of the old wagon, going down the red, dusty road, and listening to the wheels groaning as they roll along. I want to sink my teeth into that old ash cake.

White folks, I want to see the boats passing up and down the Alabammy river and hear the slaves singing at their work. I want to see dawn break over the black ridge and the twilight settle over the place spreading an orange hue. I want to walk the paths through the woods and see the rabbits and the birds and the frogs at night...

But they took me away from that a long time ago. Weren't long before I married and had children, but don't none of em contribute to my support now. One of them was killed in the big war with German, and the rest is all scattered out--eight of em. Now I just live from hand to mouth. Here one day, somewhere else the next. I guess we all gonna die iffin this depression don't let us alone. Maybe someday I'll get to go home. They tell me that when a person crosses over that river, the Lord gives him what he wants. I don told the Lord I don't want nothing much---only my home, white folks. I don't think that's much to ask for. I suppose he'll send me back there. I been waiting a long time for him to call.

I would make a few observations about this apparently happy recollection of slave life. First, this is a lonely old woman in a grim city remembering her girlhood in the country when she was surrounded by family. We all recognize the forgetfulness of nostalgia in such circumstances. Second, while I assume that very few slaves "liked" slavery, I suspect that they reacted to it in different ways. Some hated it with a furor that shaped their lives, while others made the best of a bad situation and took whatever opportunities came their way -- becoming foremen or learning skilled jobs, for example -- even if that meant acting obsequious to the man. Some slaves formed bonds of friendship or even love with their masters. I have already noted somewhere the slaves who were observed searching the battlefield of Gettysburg for their masters' bodies. It is also worth pointing out that while slavery was a bad thing for most, its elimination did not solve the problems of ex-slaves, who remained poor and suffered severe discrimination.

The complexity of human life is so great that very few general statements describe all of it, even one so basic as "freedom is better than slavery."

Parenting and the Case Against Happiness

Tony Woodlief commenting on those surveys that show children don't make people happier:
Any parent will tell you children are difficult, and they wear you out, and they likely will just break your heart in the end. And who knows -- maybe when we believe we are feeling deep joy from parenthood, we are simply sentimentalizing the whole ordeal to keep ourselves from rooting out our unused passports from the sock drawer and dashing off to Europe, never to be heard from again. . . .
And here's where I wonder if we ought to re-examine our commitment to happiness. It seems to me that there's possibly some merit -- if we persevere and have the sense to learn from it -- in the other-orientation that is (good) parenting. It's fine to go through life happy, in other words, but I suspect we also want to go through life without becoming big fat self-absorbed jackasses. Children really help in that regard.

To be sure, there are too many parents who, despite their children, remain narcissistic nimrods. But the nature of parenting is to beat that out of you. There's just no time to spend on ourselves, at least not like we would if we didn't have babies to wash and toys to clean up, usually in the middle of the night, after impaling our feet on them.

People are inherently self-centered, and especially in a peaceful, prosperous society, this easily leads to self-indulgence that in turn can make us weak and ignoble. There's something to be said for ordeals -- like parenting, or marriage, or tending the weak and broken -- which push us into an other-orientation. When we have to care for someone, we get better at, well, caring for people. It actually takes practice, after all. I'm still trying to get it right.
"Happiness" is a slippery term. If it means how you feel in the moment, then surely the stress of dealing with children will probably depress your score. But if it means how you feel about your life as you look back over its course, and how you feel about your eventual death, then having children may move your score in a different direction. You can think of raising children as something like a long Outward Bound adventure, grueling and painful but ultimately deeply satisfying.

I have noticed that in our world the main goal of life is to accumulate experiences -- as in those BMW ads about the ten things you should do before you die, or movies like "Bucket List." It seems to me that people contemplating parenthood should consider it this way: if you have two children three years apart and live to be 80, then you can fit most of the work of parenting into a quarter of your life. Is having a family worth a quarter of your life to you?

Summer

After a week with temperatures above 90 degrees every day and no rain, my neighborhood is looking withered. That's the grass in my front yard above. But in my garden, thanks to daily watering, the summer flowers are coming in. it would look even better if the deer hadn't eaten all my phlox and half my lilies, but it still makes an island of loveliness in an increasingly brown and gray world.

Meanwhile in Washington

It's the "Battle of the Law Firm Bands," a charitable event in which bands made up of partners, associates, and summer interns compete to raise the most money for Washington's homeless. The bands have names like "The Precedents" and "Dangerous Communication Device," and according to the Post's critic, some of them were pretty good. "The rock dream never dies," says one attorney. Another adds, "I'm down to a few shows a year. I have a four year old at home."

Demographic Change and the Political Future

Rudy Teixiera's new paper on demographic change and American politics has been getting a lot of attention from bloggers and columnists. The basic thrust is that current demographic and social trends are all bad for Republicans and good for Democrats: the rising number of Hispanics and Asians (who voted overwhelmingly for Obama), the increasing number of secular people who list their religion as "unaffiliated" (a strong Democratic group), the increasing number of unmarried adults (75% of unmarried women voted for Obama), and the turn of young people toward the Democrats (66% of people under 30 voted for Obama, largely because of environmental concerns and social issues such as gay marriage).

So what we have here is another exercise in projecting current trends far into the future, which I regard as a dubious exercise at best. For one thing, another trend that Teixiera identifies is the weakening of party loyalty and the rise of independent voters. This suggests to me that today's young voters are more likely to change their voting preference as they age than, say, the famously loyal Democrats who came of age under Roosevelt. As a lot of people have pointed out, all these predictions about a "majority minority" nation are called into question by the rise in mixed marriages -- half of Asians marry non-Asians, and more than a quarter of Hispanics marry non-Hispanics, and nobody yet knows the political outlook of their children. It seems likely to me that in a generation many offspring of Hispanic and Asian immigrants will have lost their ethnic distinctiveness. After all, Irish-Americans used to be a reliable Democrat group, but I haven't seen anything about their voting preferences lately.

I see the Tea Party as a spasmodic response to changes that are threatening to older white Americans -- increasing ethnic diversity, acceptance of homosexuality, economic changes that render many old skills useless. So I do think that the particular issues that dominate the rhetoric of today's Republicans will become outdated in a generation or so. But conservatism is very common emotional outlook in every society, and it will remain so in America. Coupling this with the long-standing American tradition of conservative activism, our fondness for free markets and the rhetoric of standing on our own feet, and the enduring strength of religion in American society means that the Republican Party will come back in a new guise, and predictions of a future era of Democratic dominance will be disproved.

Friday, June 25, 2010

The Last Days

William Dalrymple reports from Afghanistan:
"Afghanistan is like the crossroads for every nation that comes to power," agreed Anwar Khan Jegdalek. "But we do not have the strength to control our own destiny - our fate is always determined by our neighbours. Next, it will be China. This is the last days of the Americans."

Financial Regulation

It looks like Congressional negotiators have reached a deal on a bill to regulate big banks and that it will pass both houses. The bill is actually tougher than the one first proposed by the White House; as the Wall Street Journal put it, "large financial companies are facing a tougher leash." I think this is great news for America and the world, making it much less likely that we will face another meltdown like the last one in the next twenty years.

I am also pleased to see that new Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown, who struck me during his campaign as an appealing character but a policy idiot, took a serious approach to this bill and will vote for it in exchange for some minor changes. I think it is good news that this new Republican star is participating in the legislative process rather than just shouting obstreperous slogans.

Young Imams

In Malaysia, the hot new tv show is a contest among aspiring imams, the winner to receive an all-expense paid Haj to Mecca and a job leading prayers at a mosque in Kuala Lumpur:

It's easy to see how the young imams might send Malaysian hearts aflutter. Dressed in matching robes or suits, much like a Western-style all-boy pop group, they were selected for the contest after months of rigorous auditions.

Most caught the producers' ear with the quality of their voices when reciting verses from the Quran. Some are still students, while others work in business or financial services. . . .

Each week, "Young Imam" goes out of its way to confront the contestants with situations they might have to face one day as real imams. In the first episode, the young contenders were sent out to prepare unclaimed corpses for burial—an essential rite in Islam.

[One contestant] says, "It's a tough contest, but if we want to be imams and lead our community, we should expect to face difficult challenges any time, any place."

The Apostles of the Catacombs

The networks of catacombs under Rome and other old European cities have become tourist traps and clichés, but they really do hold secrets and lost bits of the past. Italian conservators have used lasers to remove calcine deposits from the walls of a fourth century tomb, revealing some of the oldest surviving paintings of the apostles. Above, John; below, an unknown bearded figure.

Rights for Crooks and Rights for All

The headlines for this week's Supreme Court ruling in the prosecution of former Enron executive Jeffrey Skilling all took the tone of Slate's "It's a Great Day to be a CEO." But what the court did in curtailing "honest services fraud" prosecutions protects all of us from arbitrary government action. The NY Times:

Passed in 1988, the law made it a federal crime, under the mail-fraud statute, “to deprive another of the intangible right of honest services.” Intangible was right; almost no one knew what the phrase actually meant. Prosecutors most often used it when they suspected that a politician had done something wrong but were not sure they could prove outright bribery or corruption.

In the dubious 2007 prosecution, for example, of Don Siegelman, a former governor of Alabama, the Justice Department claimed that a political contribution to a campaign to adopt a state lottery was actually a bribe to get Mr. Siegelman to appoint the contributor to a hospital board.

Since Mr. Siegelman, a Democrat, never actually received any money, the bribery case was hard to make. Instead, he was convicted of five counts of honest services fraud, one of bribery and one of obstruction.
I regard the prosecution of Siegelman as a vicious legal coup stage managed by Karl Rove and other Republican operatives. How many important politicians in American have never done anything to help their campaign contributors? If Siegelman's conviction stands (it is on appeal, and this ruling should help him), every American politician will be in danger of the the same sort of attack. The existence of vague laws giving prosecutors the power to go after garden variety backslapping is a danger to all of us, and the court's ruling makes all of us more secure.

Too bad Jeffrey Skilling won't be serving his whole jail sentence. But court rulings that protect the rights of the accused often involve scumbags. A system that truly protects the innocent protects the guilty, too.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Art and Reality TV

I haven't seen "Work of Art," the new reality tv show/competition for artists. I figured it would be inane and also make my blood boil about what passes for art in our world. In The New Republic, Jed Perl explains that the art world and reality tv aren't really that far apart:
There was a time when I might have dismissed “Work of Art” as a case of the pop culture czars turning the art world into another one of their fiefdoms. But after I watched the first episode, I was tempted to reverse the equation. I began to wonder if the whole ludicrous phenomenon of reality TV could not be traced back to the art world, and the cult of pseudo-documentary filmmaking that began with Andy Warhol’s Chelsea Girls in 1966. Warhol pioneered a cinema verité that was dedicated to gossip, backbiting, boredom, and the general proposition that most people are rotten at the core and should be happy with their 15 minutes of fame, if they are lucky enough to have it. Doesn’t that more or less describe reality TV? It was Warhol who discovered the narcotic allure of cinematic literalism.
Later on Perl gets to the issues that I wonder about:
And this brings us to the other problem with “Work of Art,” a problem that has nothing much to do with reality TV. The high-end art world has been seriously unserious for so long that I doubt anybody involved can any longer recognize an artistic reality when they see one.
Maybe this show is really a brilliant idea, not a stupid one, because it will make the point that the contemporary art world is no different from reality tv.

Village of the Dead

Hire Benakal in southern India, one of the strangest archaeological sites I have ever seen. There are more than a thousand tombs dating to 1200 BC to AD 500. More pictures here.

American Health Care, Expensive and Mediocre

A nice chart comparing health care in some of the richest countries. We spend a whole lot for mediocre results.

George Will on Afghanistan

From his column today on our "Sisyphean agony":

The American undertaking in Afghanistan is a fool's errand, and McChrystal is breathtakingly foolish. Even so, he and it were badly matched. This, even though the errand is of the president's careful devising and McChrystal was the president's choice. . . .

It may be said that McChrystal's defect is only a deficit of political acumen. Only? Again, the mission in Afghanistan is much more political than military. Counterinsurgency, as defined by McChrystal's successor, Gen. David Petraeus, and tepidly embraced by Barack Obama for a year or so, does not just involve nation-building, it is nation-building.

This does not require just political acumen; it requires the wisdom of Aristotle, the leadership skills of George Washington and the analytic sophistication of de Tocqueville. But, then, the grinding paradox of nation-building is this: No one with the aptitudes necessary for it would be rash or delusional enough to try it.

Appeasement

Paul Kennedy defends appeasement, I think very well.

The word is forever associated with Chamberlain and Munich, but I think that is a mistake. As Kennedy explains, the British had done very well over the course of the nineteenth century by making deal after deal and only fighting when they had to. They appeased the US, the Japanese, the French, even the Venezuelans, and only grew more powerful.

Britain's situation of 1940 -- at war with Germany, Italy and Japan, without American or Soviet help -- was pretty much the worst-case scenario. Every player in British politics and diplomacy, including Churchill, thought it should be possible to avoid this situation. Most wanted to buy off or appease somebody to avoid fighting all their enemies at once, or to make every possible concession so that if Britain was attacked, the US would be more likely to intervene. It is easy to criticize British and French actions in retrospect, since the hell they were trying to avoid did come to pass, and when it came they were in a weaker position than they might have been. But who but a lunatic would not have tried to avoid World War II, possibly the greatest disaster in human history?

People need to get over the Hitler thing. Most enemies are not the Nazis, and most of the time diplomacy is better than war.

Unknown Unknowns

Errol Morris has a long feature in the NY Times about ignorance of ignorance. He calls this "anosognosia," a neurological term for a condition in which a patient seems unaware of his or her own illness. (For example, a woman paralyzed on her left side who would respond to a request to raise her left hand with vague evasions about being tired or constrained by her shirt.) Morris begins from the work of David Dunning, who is interested in how we might know if we are incompetent. After all, in many areas the skills we would use to evaluate our actions are the same skills we use to perform them. How would a bad doctor know that he is a bad doctor? How would a tone deaf man know that he can't sing?

I have not been particularly impressed by this piece, but I was interested to read that David Dunning and I had the same response to some famous words from Donald Rumsfeld:
ERROL MORRIS: Knowing what you don’t know? Is this supposedly the hallmark of an intelligent person?

DAVID DUNNING:
That’s absolutely right. It’s knowing that there are things you don’t know that you don’t know. Donald Rumsfeld gave this speech about “unknown unknowns.” It goes something like this: “There are things we know we know about terrorism. There are things we know we don’t know. And there are things that are unknown unknowns. We don’t know that we don’t know.” He got a lot of grief for that. And I thought, “That’s the smartest and most modest thing I’ve heard in a year.”
I never understood why Rumsfeld took abuse for saying this, because he was right. It can be a problem if you get so obsessed by your own ignorance that you can't act or make decisions, but obviously Rumsfeld never had that problem.

I believe that part of intelligence is constantly evaluating the state of our knowledge. My scientific heroes have all been keenly aware of the things they did not know, and all achieved success by focusing in on some small thing they could figure out. Newton disavowed any attempt to explain the causes of gravity. Darwin knew nothing about genetics, and he worried about it a great deal -- later editions of The Origin of Species included many more caveats about natural selection, because Darwin had been criticized for not being able to explain how a genetic trait can spread through a population and he knew the critics had a point.

In archaeology we have very little certain knowledge, and are always making guesses based on the evidence in the ground. Most interesting historical questions are the same way. To feel certain about many things is just foolish -- "doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is an absurd one", as Voltaire put it.

And so, to get back to where I started, I don't think Dunning's insights are as powerful as he thinks they are. Yes, there are idiots who don't know it. But many people are keenly aware of their faults and weaknesses, and most smart people are even more aware of them. There are many more Gerald Fords and Jimmy Carters among us, paralyzed by doubt, than Sarah Palins and George W. Bushes.

Bachelor Parties for Foodies

Who says nothing ever gets better?
“For the groom, carnal pleasure involved eating,” said Archie McAlister, 43, explaining why he reserved the chef’s table at the Breslin in Manhattan for a bachelor party he held earlier this month for Theo Peck, 38, a cook. “They brought the pig, then this slender girl came over and butchered it down for us and chopped it into little pieces. I don’t mean this in a leering way, but that was the female entertainment for the evening.”
I'd take a first-rate meal with my friends over drunken foolishness any time, although some of the $1000-a-person dinners described here strike me as an equally strange sort of excess. But to each his own.

Summer Solstice at Stonehenge

According to this report, Midsummer at Stonehenge seems mainly to be a summer festival like any other, with lots of bands, long lines at the facilities, and shenanigans in the campground. But then, what else could it be? Civilizations have templates that they impose on any sort of celebration, and this is ours for an outdoor party. Although a few people managed to make individual statements:

"This pink lady was standing on top of a caravan doing a lovely dance with her white scarf, and making all of us stop and stare. I have not the slightest clue why she'd do this (yikes, heights!) but I assume it must have been important to her, part of her Solstice celebration."

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Hohenzollern Castle

Part was built in the fifteenth century and most in the nineteenth, so what you see isn't really medieval at all, but it certainly is lovely.

Judge Throws Out Viacom's Youtube Lawsuit

In a major victory for sanity, a federal judge has thrown out Viacom's strange lawsuit against Youtube for copyright infringement. Viacom has been playing a sick double game for years, simultaneously complaining about copyright violations by Youtube while secretly uploading video clips of its shows to the site:
For years, Viacom continuously and secretly uploaded its content to YouTube, even while publicly complaining about its presence there. It hired no fewer than 18 different marketing agencies to upload its content to the site. It deliberately "roughed up" the videos to make them look stolen or leaked. It opened YouTube accounts using phony email addresses. It even sent employees to Kinko's to upload clips from computers that couldn't be traced to Viacom. And in an effort to promote its own shows, as a matter of company policy Viacom routinely left up clips from shows that had been uploaded to YouTube by ordinary users. Executives as high up as the president of Comedy Central and the head of MTV Networks felt "very strongly" that clips from shows like The Daily Show and The Colbert Report should remain on YouTube.

Viacom's efforts to disguise its promotional use of YouTube worked so well that even its own employees could not keep track of everything it was posting or leaving up on the site. As a result, on countless occasions Viacom demanded the removal of clips that it had uploaded to YouTube, only to return later to sheepishly ask for their reinstatement. In fact, some of the very clips that Viacom is suing us over were actually uploaded by Viacom itself.

McChrystal Out, Bad War Plan Still In

Obama today fired our top military commander in Afghanistan, using the excuse of his caustic, cynical, sophomoric comments on American and Afghan officials. Maybe that is the reason, but if McChrystal were winning the war that might have been forgiven. McChrystal has admitted, though, that he is not winning the war, and he seems to have no new ideas for improving the situation. So out he goes, and in steps David Petraeus. Petraeus is the apostle of counter-insurgency warfare of the type McChrystal was trying to carry out, and certainly nobody in the American military is smarter, no if anyone can improve things it would be him.

But I don't think this war can be won. The extra troops and money we are spending on the war are not making any difference, so far as I can tell. On the contrary the Taliban and their allies continue to get better at fighting Americans, and they continue to expand their influence across the country. I think the best possible solution right now would be some kind of peace deal and power sharing arrangement between Karzai and the Taliban leaders.

I wish Obama had used this event as an excuse to rethink his Afghan strategy, but he insists he has not -- "This is a change in personnel, but it is not a change in policy," he said. Too bad.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Southern Lights

The aurora australis photographed from the International Space Station.

Low Tech

I was helping today with an erosion control project in a very sensitive area where no heavy machinery was allowed. So the guys were building a long stone drainage ditch with nothing but wheelbarrows and their hands. When they got to the steep part they lowered the stone down in a hod attached to a rope. This ditch was more than two hundred feet long, containing about 180 tons of stone, and they built it in a week. I kept trying to take pictures of the process, but the light was terrible all morning and these were the best shots I got. Oh, the crew included two young black guys who obviously weren't told that they aren't supposed to work hard, because they moved stone without complaint all day long, and it was 92 degrees here today.

Education "Reform" in Texas

Via Stanley Fish, the disconcerting tale of higher education reform in Texas. The leaders of this reform push are the regents of Texas A&M University, a bunch of wealthy Republicans who want universities to be run more like car dealerships. In quest of "customer satisfaction," they have set up a voluntary program that rewards the professors whose students give them the best scores on course evaluations with bonuses of up to $10,000. They seem particularly outraged that professors publish in obscure journals hardly anyone reads.

My friends all know that I have my own doubts about higher education in America, and I sympathize with the notion that university professors often have their own interests much more in mind than those of their students or the taxpayers of their states. But you have to wonder about the agenda of this particular group of reformers. One wrote:
It's time for the Texas Legislature to stop writing 'blank checks' to our state colleges and universities for tenured professors to spend as they please. Instead, all state higher education funding should be directed to scholarships, so universities once again will have to answer to the people who pay the bills. That's the only way students, parents, and taxpayers will ever regain control of our universities.
First, switching university funding to a voucher system would not do much to change higher education. I went to school on scholarships, and I spent the money at a school where the professors do a lot of publishing in obscure journals. The value of a college degree depends a great deal on the reputation of the school that issues it, and those reputations change only very slowly.

And what is the deal with course evaluations? If you ask me, the notion that students know more than professors about what they should be learning is a strange one to hear from a bunch of self-proclaimed conservatives. What happened to tradition and discipline? Stanley Fish, who hates course evaluations, thinks people will not know until years or decades later which courses really benefited them, and there may be something to what he says.

The real questions is, what is the purpose of state universities? There are, I submit, several: to help the state's economy by preparing its citizens for lucrative careers; to help the state's economy by serving as engines of technological and business development; to educate the state's future leaders; to foster state and local pride; and to help the state's young citizens become the people they want to be. Which of these goals is being hurt by obscure faculty publications? And which will be furthered by handing out bonuses based on course evaluations? I don't sense much clear thinking behind this reform agenda, though, just a lot of anger at the thought of left-wing obscurantists wasting the people's money.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Warming in Greenland

In Greenland, people are excited about climate change, hoping for a return of the warm weather that allowed the Vikings to settle the island in the 11th century:

It's a small thing, the early ripening of turnips on a summer morning—but in a country where some 80 percent of the land lies buried beneath an ice sheet up to two miles thick and where some people have never touched a tree, it stands for a large thing. Greenland is warming twice as fast as most of the world. Satellite measurements show that its vast ice sheet, which holds nearly 7 percent of the world's fresh water, is shrinking by about 50 cubic miles each year. . . .

Yet in Greenland itself, apprehension about climate change is often overshadowed by great expectations. For now this self-governing depen­dency of Denmark still leans heavily on its former colonial ruler. Denmark pumps $620 million into Greenland's anemic economy every year—more than $11,000 for each Greenlander. But the Arctic meltdown has already started to open up access to oil, gas, and mineral resources that could give Greenland the financial and polit­ical independence its people crave. Greenland's coastal waters are estimated to hold half as much oil as the North Sea's fields. Warmer tem­peratures would also mean a longer growing season for Greenland's 50 or so farms and perhaps reduce the country's utter reliance on imported food. At times these days it feels as if the whole country is holding its breath—waiting to see whether the "greening of Greenland," so regularly announced in the inter­national press, is actually going to happen.

Things Not to Take Seriously

In the NY Times, philosophy professor Nancy Bauer deploys Hegel, Sartre, and Simone de Beauvoir to analyze Lady Gaga videos, hoping thereby to gauge the status of contemporary feminism. Here a sample of the material she is trying to understand:
In her “Telephone” video, which has in its various forms received upwards of 60 million YouTube hits since it was first posted in March, Gaga plays a model-skinny and often skimpily dressed inmate of a highly sexualized women’s prison who, a few minutes into the film, is bailed out by Beyoncé. The two take off in the same truck Uma Thurman drove in “Kill Bill” — à la Thelma and Louise by way of Quentin Tarantino — and stop at a diner, where they poison, first, a man who stares lewdly at women and, then, all the other patrons (plus — go figure — a dog). Throughout, Gaga sings to her lover about how she’s too busy dancing in a club and drinking champagne with her girlfriends to talk to or text him on her telephone.

Is this an expression of Lady Gaga’s strength as a woman or an exercise in self-objectification?
Oh, please. Is this an actual attempt at literary criticism or a satire on the academic's habit of taking everything too seriously? Does Bauer really think that the absurd images and bizarre costumes sprinkled through these videos mean anything, or did she decide that bringing together Hegel and Lady Gaga was just the way to get an essay placed in the Times? Bauer's stunning conclusion is that these videos have something to do with sex and power. Deep! And then she finishes with a little sermon on the "bad faith" (in Sartre and de Beauvoir's terms) of sexually pleasing men as a route to freedom and independence:
The goal of The Second Sex is to get women, and men, to crave freedom — social, political and psychological — more than the precarious kind of happiness that an unjust world intermittently begrudges to the people who play by its rules.
Sartre and de Beauvoir were committed revolutionaries, and they believed that "bad faith" was both something very bad and something that could be removed from the world by communism. They were wrong; there is no system that will allow us to escape from the myriad contradictions and paradoxes of human existence. The world will always be unjust, and while it is good to do what we can to make is less so, we should not fool ourselves into thinking that the Just City is on its way. We should, on the contrary, seize all we can of that precarious happiness the world begrudges us.

So, Professor Bauer, if what makes you happy is analyzing pop videos as symptoms of false consciousness, go right head, but please don't be bothered by the amusement of the rest of us. We get the joke.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Making the Blind See

From Bloomberg News:
Patients blinded in one or both eyes by chemical burns regained their vision after healthy stem cells were extracted from their eyes and reimplanted, according to a report by Italian researchers at a scientific meeting.

The tissue was drawn from the limbus, an area at the junction of the cornea and white part of the eye. It was grown on a fibrous tissue, then layered onto the damaged eyes. The cells grew into healthy corneal tissue, transforming disfigured, opaque eyes into functioning ones with normal appearance and color, said researchers led by Graziella Pellegrini of the University of Modena's Center for Regenerative Medicine.

The stem-cell treatment restored sight to more than three-quarters of the 112 patients treated, Pellegrini said this week at the International Society for Stem Cell Research meeting. The patients were followed for an average of three years and some for as long as a decade, Pellegrini said.

Does Marriage Make People Happier?

Yes, but only if the marriage is a good one. Bad marriages make people miserable:
people in self-assessed poor marriages are fairly miserable, and much less happy than unmarried people, and people in self-assessed good marriages are even more happy than the literature reports. We also find that the results differ importantly between women and men, with members of the former sex showing a greater range of responses to marriage quality than do men. A final set of results is that, when marriage quality is controlled for, the apparent marriage effects on other outcome variables, such as self reported health and trust, change significantly.
It is amusing that this confirms the received wisdom about marriage, that men always think things are fine.

Matthew Draper

A young British painter just starting to get big attention. These are two works in pastels, "Surge" (above) and "Swamped" (below).

Lilies

In the garden, today.

Fathers' Day 2010

My card from Ben.

Was Mars a Watery World?

This map of Mars was produced by two University of Colorado scientists using the latest imagery and published in Nature Geoscience. Tracing the ancient shoreline visible in photographs from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and other probes, they estimate that 3.5 billion years ago the lowlands of Mars were covered by an ocean up to 550 meters deep. But this remains very controversial.

Thought

There are many things for which no reason can be given, but that does not mean that there is none.

--St. Augustine

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Sperm Whales and Ocean Fertilization

From Not Exactly Rocket Science:

While the world wrangles over ways of reducing carbon emissions, some scientists are considering more radical approaches to mitigating the effects of climate change. Dumping iron dust into the world’s oceans is one such strategy. Theoretically, the iron should act as fertiliser, providing a key nutrient that will spur the growth of photosynthetic plankton. These creatures act as carbon dioxide pumps, removing the problematic gas from the air and storing the carbon within their own tissues. When the plankton die, they sink, trapping their carbon in the abyss for thousands of years.

It may seem like a fanciful idea, but as with much of our technology, nature beat us to it long ago. Trish Lavery from Flinders University has found that sperm whales fertilise the Southern Ocean in exactly this way, using their own faeces. Their dung is loaded with iron and it stimulates the growth of plankton just as well as iron dust does.

Sperm whales are prodigious divers, descending to great depths in search of prey like squid. When they’re deeply submerged, they shut down all their non-essential bodily functions. Excretion is one of these and the whales only ever defecate when they reach the surface. By happy coincidence, that’s where photosynthetic plankton (phytoplankton) make their home – in the shallow column of water where sunlight still penetrates. So by eating iron-rich prey at great depths and expelling the remains in the shallows, the whales act as giant farmers, unwittingly seeding the surface waters with fertiliser.

Indian Immigrants and American Identity

Every day that I walk the dog in the woods I pass by one of the biggest houses in my neighborhood. It's an extra-long 70s trilevel, with a perfect lawn, a plastic wreath of blue flowers on the door and huge deck with gas grill out back. There is a big Winnebago parked in the driveway, along with a BMW, and since each of the three or four resident college-age children has a car, there is often a long line along the curb. I have never met the residents except to say hello, but they are obviously south Asians, and I sometimes muse that they have gone American in a really big way.

I was thinking about this because Jesse Washington of the Associated Press has a feature today on Indian-American politicians running for Congress or governor -- there are eight this year, a record. Part of the story is about whether some of these people, especially governor Bobby Jindal of Louisiana and likely future governor Nikki Haley of South Carolina, have shed their Indian identities in their pursuit of power. Bobby Jindal was born Piyush, and Nikki Haley was born Nimrata Nikki Randhawa, and both converted to Christianity as teenagers.

Vidya Pradhan, editor of India Currents magazine, says Haley and Jindal

were really ambitious about their politics, and they could not do it being Hindu or their old religion. I do think it was a political move. They felt that not being a Christian would hurt them.
I think this is unnecessarily cynical. Consider my neighbors, who don't seem to be running for anything, and millions of other immigrants who have thrown themselves whole hog into becoming Americans. Many Hispanic immigrants have converted to Protestantism in America, so why assume that Sikhs and Hindus who convert must have political motives?

Posing as a White Businessman

A new career path for westerners in China:
Not long ago I was offered work as a quality-control expert with an American company in China I’d never heard of. No experience necessary—which was good, because I had none. I’d be paid $1,000 for a week, put up in a fancy hotel, and wined and dined in Dongying, an industrial city in Shandong province I’d also never heard of. The only requirements were a fair complexion and a suit.

“I call these things ‘White Guy in a Tie’ events,” a Canadian friend of a friend named Jake told me during the recruitment pitch he gave me in Beijing, where I live. “Basically, you put on a suit, shake some hands, and make some money. We’ll be in ‘quality control,’ but nobody’s gonna be doing any quality control. You in?”

I was.

And so I became a fake businessman in China, an often lucrative gig for underworked expatriates here. . . .

Loreena Mckennitt



The Mummers Dance, at the Alhambra in 2006.

The Red Rectangle Nebula

Hubble photograph. Click to enlarge.

Sarah Palin Makes Sense!

Sarah Palin offers the opinion that marijuana is a "minimal problem":

“If we’re talking about pot, I’m not for the legalization of pot,” Palin said. “I think that would just encourage our young people to think that it was OK to go ahead and use it.”

“However I think we need to prioritize our law enforcement efforts,” Palin added. “If somebody’s gonna to smoke a joint in their house and not do anybody any harm, then perhaps there are other things our cops should be looking at to engage in and try to clean up some of the other problems we have in society.”

This position has been criticized for insufficient rigor; your logical purists think that unenforced laws are silly, or invitations to selective enforcement by the police, so if Palin really thinks pot isn't such a bad thing she should support legalization. But she is a politician in a conservative party, this is probably as far as she can go in this direction. As she says, this is just not a problem we should be devoting a lot of attention to. I think it is perfectly reasonable for politicians to spend their energy on issues that matter, rather than taking potentially risky positions about things that really are minimal problems.

Weird Parenting Worries

As Matt Yglesias says, "The list of middle class child-rearing anxieties grows ever more baroque." Hilary Stout in the NY Times:

Most children naturally seek close friends. In a survey of nearly 3,000 Americans ages 8 to 24 conducted last year by Harris Interactive, 94 percent said they had at least one close friend. But the classic best-friend bond — the two special pals who share secrets and exploits, who gravitate to each other on the playground and who head out the door together every day after school — signals potential trouble for school officials intent on discouraging anything that hints of exclusivity, in part because of concerns about cliques and bullying.

“I think it is kids’ preference to pair up and have that one best friend. As adults — teachers and counselors — we try to encourage them not to do that,” said Christine Laycob, director of counseling at Mary Institute and St. Louis Country Day School in St. Louis. “We try to talk to kids and work with them to get them to have big groups of friends and not be so possessive about friends.”

“Parents sometimes say Johnny needs that one special friend,” she continued. “We say he doesn’t need a best friend.”

Note to parents and teachers: back off. Yes, it sucks to be left out, but a world in which children are only allowed to interact in ways approved by child psychologists would suck a lot worse.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Fieldwork

I was out in western Maryland all day with my crew, testing on an Indian village site dating to AD 1250-1500, finding things like the big piece of antler in the picture below.