Friday, December 31, 2010

Farewell, 2010

May your sorrows pass with the year, and your joys live on.

Tim Romano's "Wanderer"

Searching for a digital text of my favorite Anglo-Saxon poem, "The Wanderer," I stumbled across a new verse translation by Tim Romano. I have never heard of Tim Romano, but I like this version better than any other I have read. Excerpts:

A haven awaits
the homeless soul
waters serene
though wretchedly
on the ocean's lanes
long must he work the oars
in a wintry sea
fare as a fugitive.
Fate is decreed.
So said the exile
anguish recalling
ruthless killings
how his kinsmen fell.

. . .

on this dark earth
walls are standing—
homes overlaid
with layers of ice
halls falling apart
the powerful lying
their bliss all broken
brave ones fallen
proud by the wall.
War claimed some
and bore them away.
The water-bird took one
over high seas.
The hoary wolf
dealt one his death.

. . .

Where now the horse?
Where now the rider?
Where now the ring-giver?
Where now the high seats?
Where the hall-joys?
O bright chalice!
O chain-mailed warrior!
O the dignity of the people!
How those days went
to naught under night's helm
as though they had never been.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

At the MOMA has a nice collection of photos of the Museum of Modern Art in New York up today, but there doesn't seem to be any permalink so you had better look soon.

The Ice-Bound Lighthouse

Lake Erie, Cleveland Harbor.

No Libertarians at the Constitutional Convention

Christopher Beam wrote a long piece for New York Magazine about libertarianism, explaining why it will never be a mainstream political option. This piece isn't bad, but it includes one glaring error:
there’s no idea more fundamental to our country’s history. Every political group claims the Founders as its own, but libertarians have more purchase than most. The American Revolution was a libertarian movement, rejecting overweening government power. The Constitution was a libertarian document that limited the role of the state to society’s most basic needs, like a legislature to pass laws, a court system to interpret them, and a military to protect them.
After I read this, I thought, I should write something explaining why that isn't true. I never got around to it, but, fortunately, John Vecchione did the job for me.
The Founders believed in carefully delineated federal powers either broad (Hamilton) or limited (Jefferson, sometimes) but all believed in a more powerful state than libertarians purport to believe in. If ever there was a libertarian document it was the Articles of Confederation. There was no national power. The federal government could not tax. Its laws were not supreme over state laws. It was in fact, the hot mess that critics of libertarians believe their dream state would be… and it was recognized as such by the majority of the country and was why the Constitution was ratified. The Articles of Confederation is the true libertarian founding document and this explains the failure of libertarianism. . . . Libertarianism appears to be like arsenic, a stimulant in small doses but deadly poison when taken in large doses.
One can only be a libertarian by completely ignoring history. The libertarians I know pretend to be very rational and to weigh up the evidence about society and the law in a scientific way, but as it happens there is a lot of evidence concerning what happens to human societies without powerful governments: misery. There have been, in the course of human events, many states with very weak powers. They were all either conquered by their neighbors, split up, or overthrown, because no complex society can function for long without a government strong enough to keep order among its citizens. Medieval Iceland is a good example, a society with next to no government where things eventually got so bad that the Icelanders invited the King of Norway to take away their independence. As Vecchione says, we tried an experiment in weak government at the beginning of our own history -- weak national government, anyway, since the states had all sorts of powers libertarians want to refudiate. The Articles of Confederation were a failure, which is why we got the Constitution. How so many smart people can espouse libertarianism in the face of history remains, for me, something of a mystery.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Lisa Rinzler

Lisa Rinzler's most famous photographs are of suitcases abandoned in New York State mental hospitals -- above is "Attic Main Room, Willard." But this online exhibit shows that she has a wide range. I like the one below. "Family of Markers."

RIP Dennis Dutton

Dennis Dutton, founder of one my favorite web sites, has died. Arts & Letters Daily has been daily reading for me since I first discovered it, and I have found many wonderful things there. Dutton liked to throw out controversial ideas, and sometimes he tried to rile up his academic audience with silly conservative essays -- "We'd love Arts & Letters Daily to be the meeting place for critical thinkers from all over the map," he once said -- but the overall tone of his site was always interesting. He said this to an interviewer in 2000:
It's a grave mistake in publishing, whether you're talking about Internet or print publication, to try to play to a limited repertoire of established reader interests. A few years ago, Bill Gates was boasting that we'll soon have sensors which will turn on the music that we like or show on the walls the paintings we like when we walk into a room. How boring! The hell with our preexisting likes; let's expand ourselves intellectually.
The Chronicle of Higher Education, which owns the site, says it will continue, but since Dutton has done almost everything himself it will be a completely different publication.

A New City in Chicago

The new plan for the site of the South Works steel plant on Chicago's lakefront has people excited and hopeful. The Chicago Tribune and the NY Times both invoke the memory of famous Chicago designer Daniel Burnam, he of "make no little plans." The old steelworks, which once employed 30,000 people, closed down in 1992, and the 460-acre site has been vacant for a decade. The new plan envisages creating a new urban neighborhood connected to the existing street grid, including both high rises and townhouses, a marina, a network of parks covering 125 acres, and up-to-date environmental features like a separate, filtered sewer system for rain and melt water:
The plan calls for 13,575 market rate and affordable homes to serve 50,000 new residents, 17.5 million square feet of retail and commercial space, a high school and a marina with 1,500 slips, to be built in phases over the next 30 years. The estimated cost is $4 billion.
If this was what planners really did for a living (not, say, churning out yet more plans for suburbs where everyone lives on a cul-de-sac), I would have become one, because projects like this really capture my imagination.

The Twin Mysteries of Anasazi Abandonment and Archaeological Faddism

In the 13th century, the people we call Anasazi abandoned their towns at Mesa Verde, Chaco Canyon, and other sites on the Colorado Plateau and migrated to southern Arizona and Mexico. The Hopi and Pueblo, we think, are their descendants, as are many people of northern Mexico. Why did they leave their homes?

Thirty years ago archaeologists thought they had found the answer when they discovered that around AD 1250 the region was hit by a terrible, decades-long drought. This was one of the great successes of the ecological paradigm that dominated archaeology at the time and sought to explain the past in scientific terms. The thing is, as George Johnson explains in this fine article, the places they went to were even drier than the ones they left. And when wet weather returned to the Colorado Plateau in the 1300s, the Anasazi stayed away. So while the drought may have played a part in these events, in cannot be the whole explanation.

Now a new generation of archaeologists has come along practicing a new paradigm we might call Culturalism. The leader of this school, British archaeologist Ian Hodder, has hypothesized that neolithic towns in the Middle East grew up not so much for economic reasons, as centers of agriculture or trade, but as centers of religious and cultural life. Some of Hodder's followers have been studying the American southwest, and they see indications that cultural changes may have been behind the move:

By studying changes in ceremonial architecture and pottery styles, Donna Glowacki, an archaeologist at the University of Notre Dame, is charting the rise of what may have been a new puebloan religion. . . . Though the dogma may be irrecoverable, Dr. Glowacki argues that it rapidly attracted adherents. A center of the movement, she said, was the McElmo Canyon area, west of Mesa Verde. Excavations indicate that the population burgeoned along with the new architecture. An influx of different pottery designs suggests immigrants from the west were moving in. Then around 1260, long before the drought, the residents began leaving the pueblo, perhaps spreading the new ideology.

Other archaeologists see evidence of an evangelical-like religion — the forerunner, perhaps, of the masked Kachina rituals, which still survive on the Hopi and Zuni reservations — appearing in the south and attracting the rebellious northerners. . . .

Which is very interesting, but I confess that the way this fits in so neatly with the theories currently dominant in the field makes me wonder. I am waiting for the return of nineteenth-century style explanations based on invasions and migrations, since, after all, many Anasazi sites were obviously destroyed with great violence:

Villagers were scalped, dismembered, perhaps even eaten. Families were slain inside their dwellings, and the pueblo was burned and abandoned. Curiously, as was true throughout the region, the victors didn’t stay to occupy the conquered lands.

Is Cancer a New Disease?

A few months ago I posted about a study of ancient cancer that concluded it was quite rare in ancient times. Now the NY Times has a very interesting feature by George Johnson arguing that the evidence won't support this conclusion. After acknowledging that the authors of the previous study were only able to document 200 cases of cancer in the archaeological record, Johnson goes over all the reasons why this number is likely to be too low: most cancers don't affect bone and so leave little trace, many cancers are very rare, only very recently have archaeologists had the technology to look inside mummies or skeletons for evidence of tumors. And:

Even with all of that taken into account, there is a fundamental problem with estimating ancient cancer rates. Two hundred suspected cases may not sound like much. But sparsity of evidence is not evidence of sparsity. Tumors can remain hidden inside bones, and those that dig their way outward can cause the bone to crumble and disappear. For all the efforts of archaeologists, only a fraction of the human bone pile has been picked, with no way to know what lies hidden below.

Anne L. Grauer, president of the Paleopathology Association and an anthropologist at Loyola University of Chicago, estimates that there are roughly 100,000 skeletons in the world’s osteological collections, and a vast majority have not been X-rayed or studied with more modern techniques.

According to an analysis by the Population Reference Bureau, the cumulative total of everyone who had lived and died by A.D. 1 was already approaching 50 billion, and had nearly doubled by 1750. (The analysis refutes the oft-made assertion that more people are alive today than have ever lived on earth.) If those figures hold, the number of skeletons in the archaeological database would represent barely one ten-thousandth of 1 percent of the total.

Within that minuscule sample, not all of the remains are complete. “For a long time archaeologists only collected skulls,” said Heather J. H. Edgar, curator of human osteology at the Maxwell Museum of Anthropology at the University of New Mexico. “For the most part, there’s no way to know what the rest of those people’s skeletons might have said about their health.”

Not only is the evidence bad, but really don't know what portion of modern skeletons (or mummies, if we made them) would show evidence of cancer. Like most interesting questions, this one remains open.

Since I found this piece so interesting and could not remember ever hearing of this George Johnson before, I looked him up. He has been contributing to the Times on archaeological and scientific topics for years, and here you can find links to a lot of other things he has done.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

In Case You Were Feeling Too Good About Humanity

Archaeologists in Peru have found gruesome evidence of child sacrifice:
Eighty-two skeletons of the Muchik people—including 32 that were mostly or completely intact—have been discovered since 2003 at the Cerro Cerillos site in the Lambayeque Valley on Peru's arid northern coast.
All are children, say the archaeologists.

Seeds of a paralytic and hallucinogenic plant called Nectandra, which also prevents blood clotting, were found with the skeletons, suggesting the children were drugged before their throats were slit and their chests cut open.

During the sacrifices, sharp bronze knives were used to hack the children to death. One skeleton had more than 25 cut marks on it. A few had their hands and legs bound with rope.

"It is so beyond what is necessary to kill a person. It really gives you the chills," Klaus, an anthropologist at Utah Valley University in Orem, Utah, told National Geographic News. "But we are trying to understand this on their terms, not ours."

Which raises the question, do we really want to understand the terms on which this made sense?

Caves on Mars?

These two deep pits on Mars are getting a lot of attention these days as possible caves. One is 600 feet (180 meters) in diameter, the other 1,000 feet (310 meters). The Mars Odyssey spacecraft first recorded these last year using its infrared camera, THEMIS. So NASA sent the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter to take these images in visual light.

"When compared to the surrounding surface, the dark interiors of the holes gave off heat at night but were cool by day," said Alfred McEwen, principal investigator on the HiRISE camera. "So we then decided to target these with MRO because this thermal information may be evidence for these being caves—but the jury is still out on that."

The Mother of All Coin Hoards

Construction workers in northwestern China recently unearthed a hoard of copper coins dating to the Northern Song dynasty (AD 960-1279) that weighs more than 3 tons.

More on the Denisovan People

I already called to your attention the anomalous, 30,000-year-old DNA of the finger bone from Denisova Cave in Siberia, which seems to come from a human species neither ours nor Neanderthal. Now this discovery is back in the news because a second specimen has been identified, a tooth, and because of some extended genetic analysis. This analysis suggests that Denisovans (as they are now being called) interbred with modern humans, and that traces of their DNA can be identified in the genomes of contemporary people in New Guinea.

"We don't think the Denisovans went to Papua New Guinea," located at the northwestern edge of the Pacific region called Melanesia, explained study co-author Bence Viola, an anthropologist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany.

"We think the Denisovan population inhabited most of eastern Eurasia in the same way that Neanderthals inhabited most of western Eurasia," Viola said. "Our idea is that the ancestors of Melanesians met the Denisovans in Southeast Asia and interbred, and the ancestors of Melanesians then moved on to Papua New Guinea."

Keep in mind the caution I always offer about new genetic results, that it will all be very interesting if it turns out to be true.

Irish Monks in pre-Viking Iceland

The Viking settlers of Iceland recorded that when they reached the island around AD 870 they found it empty of people. However, later Icelandic writers mentioned rumors of European predecessors, possibly Irish monks, and Irish monks themselves also recorded hints of settlements on lands to the north. Here is Cicuil, an Irish monk writing around AD 825:
It is now thirty years since clerics, who live on the island [Thule] from the first of February to the first of August, told me that not only at the summer solstice, but in the days round about it, the sun setting in the evening hides itself as though behind a small hill in such a way that there was no darkness in that very small space of time...
Now archaeologists have found the first good evidence of an Irish presence in Iceland. In a man-made cave called Seljalandshellar they found a stone cross carved on the wall in the style of 9th-century stone-cut crosses from northern Ireland or the Scottish islands. Excavating outside the cave mouth they found what looks like debris from digging out the cave beneath a layer of volcanic ash from an eruption in 871; beneath that same layer they found what may be the hoof prints of sheep. It isn't much, but when you consider that these Irish monks were famously ascetic, and they ones who went to Iceland probably did so because the life in an Irish monastery wasn't rigorous and demanding enough for them, you wouldn't expect to find piles of pottery.

Monday, December 27, 2010

American Voter Behavior in One Cartoon

Tom Toles explains it all. From a wonderful collection of his best cartoons of the year.

The Cost of Military Spending

Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.

--President Dwight Eisenhower

No Help for Vicksburg

In the collections of the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond is a small bottle that contains a bullet and a scrap of paper. The bottle was given to the museum in 1896 by Confederate Capt. William A. Smith, of Virginia, who served in the Mississippi theater. This year curators finally opened bottle, and they found that the paper bore a six-line message in code. The code was a simple substitution cipher, easily broken by retired CIA and military intelligence officers contacted by the museum. It is dated July 4, 1863, and reads:
Gen'l Pemberton: You can expect no help from this side of the river. Let Gen'l Johnston know, if possible, when you can attack the same point on the enemy's lines. Inform me also and I will endeavor to make a diversion. I have sent some caps (explosive devices). I subjoin a despatch from General Johnston.
Lt. General John Pemberton was the commander of Vicksburg, and the date of the message was the day he surrendered the besieged city to U.S. Grant. The message came from some Confederate commander on the west side of the river, probably Major General John Walker of the Texas division, under whom Smith was serving. Walker could not help Vicksburg for the same reason Grant had so much trouble attacking it -- it was isolated on a high bluff and much of the surrounding country was treacherous swamp, besides which the river was patrolled by heavily armed Union gunboats.

It is interesting that nearby Confederates had no more idea that Vicksburg was about to surrender than Grant did. Conditions in the city were grim during the six-week seige, but the defenders could have held out for many more weeks if they had wanted to. Pemberton himself made the decision, for the humanitarian reason that without realistic hope of relief any further suffering by his men would be pointless. He chose to surrender on July 4th because he thought his men would be treated better on the national holiday. Some of Vicksburg's defenders thought Pemberton had betrayed them, and he is remembered more among the Civil War's many weak-willed generals than among its heroes.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Reindeer and Mushrooms

From a little post on animals that seek out psychedelic plants, this note about reindeer:
There is evidence from around the world of animals deliberately consuming such plants, and legends about plants used in sacred rituals often include references to animals introducing them to mankind.

One such species . . . is the reindeer, which goes to great lengths to search out the hallucinogenic fly agaric mushroom (Amanita muscaria) — the one with the white-spotted red cap that garden gnomes like to sit on. Eating the toadstool makes reindeer behave in a drunken fashion, running about aimlessly and making strange noises. Head-twitching is also common.

Fly agaric is found across the northern hemisphere and has long been used by mankind for its psychotropic properties. But its use can be dangerous because it also contains toxic substances. Reindeer seem to metabolise these toxic elements without harm, while the main psychoactive constituents remain unmetabolised and are excreted in the urine. Reindeer herders in Europe and Asia long ago learnt to collect the reindeer urine for use as a comparatively safe source of the hallucinogen.

I have long thought that the human craving for mind-altering substances says something profound about our minds, and even about evolution itself. (If it worked the way we wish it did, we wouldn't need drugs.) Knowing that many species of animals also seek out recreational drugs extends the analysis. Many animals, it seems, long to change how it feels to be alive, suggesting that it sometimes doesn't feel very good to them, either.

Boxing Day

Because Lisa worked the 24th and 25th, we opened our presents today. Our children were admirably patient and I heard no grumbling about the delay. It was quite a scene here this morning, with 14 people (7 children and 7 adults) in attendance.

Our snowstorm has been disappointing, just half an inch so far and another inch forecast for tonight. Darn.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Christmas Snow

We had a dusting of snow this morning, just enough to create a little holiday cheer. We have a snowstorm in the forecast for tomorrow. This figured prominently in the forecast five days ago but then the chance dropped to 20 percent. Now it is 100 percent, with a projected total of 3 to 6 inches. That will be fun.

The Greek Collapse

No, not the financial collapse, but the moral collapse that preceded it. For your reading on what I am sure for many of you will be a slow Christmas afternoon, I suggest Michael Lewis' amazing essay "Beware of Greeks Bearing Bonds." David Brooks just gave this one of his annual awards for magazine writing, and it is heartily deserved. Lewis has a consummate storyteller's eye for the perfect detail. Here, he describes the fundraising prowess of the monks who have restored the Byzantine glories of the Vatopaidi Monastery on Mount Athos:
That changed in the early 1990s, when a group of energetic young Greek Cypriot monks from another part of Athos, led by Father Ephraim, saw a rebuilding opportunity: a fantastic natural asset that had been terribly mismanaged. Ephraim set about raising the money to restore Vatopaidi to its former glory. He dunned the European Union for cultural funds. He mingled with rich Greek businessmen in need of forgiveness. He cultivated friendships with important Greek politicians. In all of this he exhibited incredible chutzpah. For instance, after a famous Spanish singer visited and took an interest in Vatopaidi, he parlayed the interest into an audience with government officials from Spain. They were told a horrible injustice had occurred: in the 14th century a band of Catalan mercenaries, upset with the Byzantine emperor, had sacked Vatopaidi and caused much damage. The monastery received $240,000 from the government officials.
But the core of Lewis' essay examines the decay of Greek civil society. In Greece, nobody pays taxes if he can help it, and people who get caught cheating simply bribe the tax collector. But the lack or revenue hasn't kept the government from spending wildly. Consider the state railroad:
The national railroad has annual revenues of 100 million euros against an annual wage bill of 400 million, plus 300 million euros in other expenses. The average state railroad employee earns 65,000 euros a year. Twenty years ago a successful businessman turned minister of finance named Stefanos Manos pointed out that it would be cheaper to put all Greece’s rail passengers into taxicabs: it’s still true. “We have a railroad company which is bankrupt beyond comprehension,” Manos put it to me. “And yet there isn’t a single private company in Greece with that kind of average pay.”
What is the effect of all this corruption?
The Greek state was not just corrupt but also corrupting. Once you saw how it worked you could understand a phenomenon which otherwise made no sense at all: the difficulty Greek people have saying a kind word about one another. Individual Greeks are delightful: funny, warm, smart, and good company. I left two dozen interviews saying to myself, “What great people!” They do not share the sentiment about one another: the hardest thing to do in Greece is to get one Greek to compliment another behind his back. No success of any kind is regarded without suspicion. Everyone is pretty sure everyone is cheating on his taxes, or bribing politicians, or taking bribes, or lying about the value of his real estate. And this total absence of faith in one another is self-reinforcing. The epidemic of lying and cheating and stealing makes any sort of civic life impossible; the collapse of civic life only encourages more lying, cheating, and stealing. Lacking faith in one another, they fall back on themselves and their families.

The structure of the Greek economy is collectivist, but the country, in spirit, is the opposite of a collective. Its real structure is every man for himself. Into this system investors had poured hundreds of billions of dollars. And the credit boom had pushed the country over the edge, into total moral collapse.
That any society functions at all is something of a mystery. Why don't we all just steal everything we can? If we all did it at once, the odds of getting caught or punished would be slim. Instead we all make a lifelong series of short-term sacrifices to keep the system going. I suppose we do this because we have internalized the belief that in the long run honesty works better. We believe that in some sense all of us are in this together, and that in cheating each other we are in some sense cheating ourselves. I believe that this is true, and that an honest and trusting society is a better and richer one. But how can such emotions be created in a society that lacks them?

Merry Christmas

May you be moved by the spirit of love.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Cookie Decorating


Yorkshire Sculpture Park

In the snow, this week. Above, The Family of Man by Barbara Hepworth; below, Red Column and Black Dome by David Nash.

Haikun Ekaka

Haikun Ekaka, 1685-1768, was a Japanese Zen master, author of the famous koan "What is the sound of one hand?" (Clapping, that is, in our version.) He did not begin to paint until he was in his 60s, but by the time he died he relied more on images to convey his teachings than words. Many of his images are humorous:

I think these are quite charming, although I can't extract any more wisdom from them than I can from pondering "What is the sound of one hand?" Many more here.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Book of Kells

St. Augustine's Confessions

I just finished listening to St. Augustine's Confessions, written around AD 400 about the first 35 years of his life. It is about seven parts sermon to one part memoir, so I found a lot of it tough going. But some of the things he says about his life are very interesting, and I am going to put a few of them here. Starting with his thoughts on infancy:
Afterward I began to laugh--at first in my sleep, then when waking. For this I have been told about myself and I believe it--though I cannot remember it--for I see the same things in other infants. Then, little by little, I realized where I was and wished to tell my wishes to those who might satisfy them, but I could not! For my wants were inside me, and they were outside, and they could not by any power of theirs come into my soul. And so I would fling my arms and legs about and cry, making the few and feeble gestures that I could, though indeed the signs were not much like what I inwardly desired and when I was not satisfied--either from not being understood or because what I got was not good for me--I grew indignant that my elders were not subject to me and that those on whom I actually had no claim did not wait on me as slaves--and I avenged myself on them by crying. That infants are like this, I have myself been able to learn by watching them; and they, though they knew me not, have shown me better what I was like than my own nurses who knew me.
A little later he asks himself the question, what does it mean to say that even infants are sinners, since no man is without sin?
"Hear me, O God! Woe to the sins of men!" When a man cries thus, thou showest him mercy, for thou didst create the man but not the sin in him. Who brings to remembrance the sins of my infancy? For in thy sight there is none free from sin, not even the infant who has lived but a day upon this earth. Who brings this to my remembrance? Does not each little one, in whom I now observe what I no longer remember of myself? In what ways, in that time, did I sin? Was it that I cried for the breast? If I should now so cry--not indeed for the breast, but for food suitable to my condition--I should be most justly laughed at and rebuked. What I did then deserved rebuke but, since I could not understand those who rebuked me, neither custom nor common sense permitted me to be rebuked. As we grow we root out and cast away from us such childish habits. Yet I have not seen anyone who is wise who cast away the good when trying to purge the bad. Nor was it good, even in that time, to strive to get by crying what, if it had been given me, would have been hurtful; or to be bitterly indignant at those who, because they were older--not slaves, either, but free--and wiser than I, would not indulge my capricious desires. Was it a good thing for me to try, by struggling as hard as I could, to harm them for not obeying me, even when it would have done me harm to have been obeyed? Thus, the infant's innocence lies in the weakness of his body and not in the infant mind. I have myself observed a baby to be jealous, though it could not speak; it was livid as it watched another infant at the breast.

Public Pensions and Bankruptcy

Prichard, Alabama:
This struggling small city on the outskirts of Mobile was warned for years that if it did nothing, its pension fund would run out of money by 2009. Right on schedule, its fund ran dry.

Then Prichard did something that pension experts say they have never seen before: it stopped sending monthly pension checks to its 150 retired workers, breaking a state law requiring it to pay its promised retirement benefits in full.

Since then, Nettie Banks, 68, a retired Prichard police and fire dispatcher, has filed for bankruptcy. Alfred Arnold, a 66-year-old retired fire captain, has gone back to work as a shopping mall security guard to try to keep his house. Eddie Ragland, 59, a retired police captain, accepted help from colleagues, bake sales and collection jars after he was shot by a robber, leaving him badly wounded and unable to get to his new job as a police officer at the regional airport.

Far worse was the retired fire marshal who died in June. Like many of the others, he was too young to collect Social Security. “When they found him, he had no electricity and no running water in his house,” said David Anders, 58, a retired district fire chief. “He was a proud enough man that he wouldn’t accept help.”

I think Prichard is the canary in the coal mine here. The cost of public pensions is weighing heavily on budgets all over the country, and I think reform is inevitable. Promises made when the life expectancy was 70 are not affordable with a life expectancy approaching 90. More broadly, I just don't think we can sustain an economy in which people only work for 40 years out of a 90-year life. It may be cruel to cut off people who worked their whole lives in expectation of retiring at 60, but it also seems crazy to me that states and counties will have to stint on services or raise taxes to pay for the pensions of healthy people who have already retired. And that is what is coming -- just look at California. Or Prichard.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Desborough Mirror

Robert Smalls

Via Ta Nehisi-Coates, a Civil War story I never heard before. Robert Smalls was a slave who was hired out by his master to various employers around Charleston Harbor, eventually working his way up to Wheelman --the guy who actually steered the boat. When the Civil War started he became wheelman of the CSS Planter, an armed Confederate military transport.
On May 12, 1862, the Planter's three white officers were spending the night ashore. In the early morning hours of the 13th, Smalls and several other black crewmen decided to make a run for the Union vessels that formed the blockade. . . . Robert was dressed in the captain's uniform and even had a hat similar to the white captain's. The Planter backed out of what was then known as Southern Wharf around 3 a.m. The Planter stopped at a nearby wharf to pick up Smalls' family and other crewmen's relatives, who had been concealed there for some time.

Once beyond the range of the Confederate guns, Smalls hoisted a white flag and steered straight for the closest Union vessel, the USS Onward. He offered the Planter as a contribution to the war effort, along with four extra guns and a Confederate codebook.

Because of his extensive knowledge of the shipyards and Confederate defenses, Smalls was able to provide valuable assistance to the Union Navy. He gave detailed information about the harbor's defenses to Admiral Samuel Dupont, commander of the blockading fleet.

Smalls became famous throughout the North. Numerous newspapers ran articles describing his actions. Congress passed a bill, signed by President Abraham Lincoln, rewarding Smalls and his crewmen with the prize money for the captured Planter. Smalls' own share was $1,500.

Smalls met Lincoln a few weeks later. He impressed both Lincoln and Dupont, and he began serving as a pilot on US Navy vessels. He remained a civilian throughout the war, however. The sources I have found don't say why, but presumably the laws at the time did not allow black men to serve in the Navy on terms compatible with the position of respect Smalls actually enjoyed.

In December 1863, Smalls became the first black captain of a vessel in the service of the United States. On December 1, 1863, the Planter had been caught in a crossfire between Union and Confederate forces. The ship's commander, Captain Nickerson, decided to surrender. Smalls refused, fearing that the black crewmen would not be treated as prisoners of war and might even be shot. Smalls took command and piloted the ship out of range of the Confederate guns. For his bravery, Smalls was named to replace Nickerson as the Planter's captain.

After the war Smalls entered politics, and he served five terms in the US Congress.

The President Explains His Strategy

I am persistent.
--President Obama, today.

Human Rights and the State

These days we often sum up our highest political ideal in the words "human rights." But this is a recent development; the phrase was not common until the late 1970s, and the idea was little discussed until after World War II. Before then, rights were more often discussed in the context of the state. A good example is the US constitution, which simultaneously lays out a structure of government and guarantees certain rights to the citizen. In a review of Samuel Moyn's The Last Utopia, John Gray argues that discussing rights in a sort of international vacuum is a terrible habit that has encouraged our clumsy interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan:
It is partly the loss of the insight that human rights can only be secured by an effective state that explains the failure of the regime-change policies promoted by neoconservatives and liberal hawks over the past decade. If rights are what humans possess in the absence of a repressive regime, all that needs to be done to secure human rights is to remove the despot in question. But if rights are empty without the state to protect them, then the nature of the government that can be reasonably expected to emerge when tyranny has been overthrown becomes of crucial importance. The political ideas that are taught in universities do not often shape political practice in any direct fashion. But there can be little doubt that those who promoted the Iraq War believed the removal of Saddam Hussein would allow something like liberal democracy to flourish in the country, and in believing this, they showed that their thinking had been molded by theories of rights that ignored the crucial role of the state.

A willed ignorance of history was also at work. If rights are universally human, embodying a kind of natural freedom that appears as the accretions of history are wiped away, the past has little significance. But if human rights are artifacts that have been constructed in specific circumstances, as I would argue, history is all-important; and history tells us that when authoritarian regimes are suddenly swept aside, the result is often anarchy or a new form of tyranny—and quite often a mix of the two.

Gray finds the notion of securing human rights particularly inappropriate for Afghanistan:

Afghanistan has never been ruled by a modern state. . . . Afghanistan is not so much a failed state as a pseudostate, in which power rests with tribes, warlords and drug dealers. The belief that human rights can be secured in these conditions is even more delusional than in the case of Iraq. Whatever else happens after the bulk of allied troops withdraw, the Taliban will be a potent presence in any government that is formed. Even if the pretense of democratic institutions is maintained, vital freedoms—not least of all for women, who have already been compromised by the Karzai regime—are likely to be extinguished altogether. Democracy cannot protect human rights when the most powerful political forces in the country reject them as illegitimate.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Red Letter Killer

The cover my 16-year-old daughter designed for the novel she is working on. She says she is going to finish it before I finish mine, even though I have a five-year head start. We'll see.

The Bones of El Sidrón

I cringe almost every time I read something about Neanderthal social structure or family life. With next to no evidence, anthropologists desperate to say something about the Neanderthals have launched many flimsy speculations and gone out on all sorts of absurd limbs. Now, in the Spanish cave known as El Sidrón, evidence has finally been found that may really tell us something about our close Neanderthal relatives. Carl Zimmer in the NY Times:
Deep in a cave in the forests of northern Spain are the remains of a gruesome massacre. . . . Scientists have found 1,800 more Neanderthal bone fragments in the cave, some of which have yielded snippets of DNA.

But the mystery has lingered on for 16 years. What happened to the El Sidrón victims? In a paper this week in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Spanish scientists who analyzed the bones and DNA report the gruesome answer. The victims were a dozen members of an extended family, slaughtered by cannibals.

The evidence of cannibalism is convincing; the bones have cut marks and marks of human teeth, the long bones have been split open, and the whole assemblage looks exactly like the archaeological remains of a messy feast. Bones from other sites add to the case that Neanderthals were cannibals, and this has generally been accepted for some years.

The new data from El Sidrón comes from genetic testing:

After spending years on these anatomical jigsaw puzzles, Dr. Lalueza-Fox and his colleagues could identify 12 individuals. The shape of the bones allowed the scientists to estimate their age and sex. The bones belonged to three men, three women, three teenage boys and three children, including one infant.

Once the scientists knew who they were dealing with, they looked for DNA in the bones. The cold, damp darkness of El Sidrón has made it an excellent storehouse for ancient DNA. Dr. Lalueza-Fox and his colleagues have published a string of intriguing reports on their DNA. In two individuals, for example, they found a gene variant that may have given them red hair. They launched an ambitious project to find DNA in the teeth of all 12 individuals. In one test, they were able to identify a Y chromosome in four. The scientists had already identified all four of them as males — the three men and one teenage boy — based on their bones.

The scientists then hunted for mitochondrial DNA, which is passed from mothers to their children. They looked for two short stretches in particular, called HVR1 and HVR2, that are especially prone to mutate from generation to generation. All 12 Neanderthals yielded HVR1 and HVR2. The scientists found that seven of them belonged to the same mitochondrial lineage, four to a second, and one to a third.

Dr. Lalueza-Fox argues that the Neanderthals must have been closely related. “If you go to the street and sample 12 individuals at random, there’s no way you’re going to find seven out of 12 with the same mitochondrial lineage,” he said. “But if you go to the birthday party for a grandmother, chances are you’ll find brothers and sisters and first cousins. You’d easily find seven with the same mitochondrial lineage.”

If these people were killed and eaten together, they presumably lived together. And thus, thanks to their love of human flesh, we finally have a picture of a Neanderthal community: an extended family of closely related men who had brought in some women (wives?) from outside the clan.

The Frozen River

Along the Potomac around Little Falls, today.

Happy Sunreturn

May the growing light be a blessing to you as the year goes on.

And this year the darkness of the longest night was deepened by a lunar eclipse, which I slept through blissfully.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Happy Secession Day

150 years ago today, South Carolina declared treason to defend slavery, seceding from the Union in order to preserve its ability to own, sell, rape, and murder black people. 4 1/2 years later and 500,000 dead Americans later, this treason was crushed.

--Erik Loomis

The Temple of Bel, Palmyra

Built in the 1st century AD, in a Greco-Roman style with many eastern influences.

Andrew Sullivan on Obama and DADT

Andrew Sullivan is both a lifetime gay activist and a self-proclaimed conservative. Sometimes it is hard to understand what his conservatism consists of, but he generally favors a quiet, methodical approach to solving problems over marches and shouting. He is ecstatic over the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, and awed by the quiet, methodical way Obama worked to achieve it:
[Obama's] rationale is an attempt to move past the paradigms of the boomer years to a pragmatic, liberal reformism that takes America as it is, while trying to make it more of what it can be. Now, there's little doubt that in contrast to recent decades, Obama has nudged the direction leftward - re-regulating Wall Street after the catastrophe, setting up universal health insurance through the private sector, recalibrating America's role in the world from preachy bully to hegemonic facilitator. But throughout he has tried, as his partisan critics have complained, not to be a partisan president, to recall, as he put it in that recent press conference, that this is a diverse country, that is is time we had a president who does not repel or disparage or ignore those who voted against him or those who have grown to despise him.

This is particularly important since so many of his opponents are white and disproportionately affected by this long recession. Trying to get them to see him accurately through the haze of Fox propaganda and cultural panic is not easy. But he seems to understand that persistence and steadiness are better tools in this than grand statements, sudden moves or grandstanding attempts to please his own base. He really is trying to be what he promised: president of the red states as well as the blue states. And a president who gets shit done.

The results after two years: universal health insurance, the rescue of Detroit, the avoidance of a Second Great Depression, big gains in private sector growth and productivity, three stimulus packages (if you count QE2), big public investments in transport and green infrastructure, the near-complete isolation of Iran, the very public exposure of Israeli intransigence and extremism, a reset with Russia (plus a new START), big drops in illegal immigration and major gains in enforcement, a South Korea free trade pact, the end of torture, and a debt commission that has put fiscal reform squarely back on the national agenda. Oh, and of yesterday, the signature civil rights achievement of ending the military's ban on openly gay servicemembers.

For anyone with strong views on just about any controversial issue, Obama can be maddening. Why won't he take a strong public stand and use some of his rhetorical brilliance to argue for his goals and attack his opponents? Why has he let those opponents get away with lying about his positions ("death panels")? Why is he always offering compromises to people who are going to vote against him anyway?

While I am not so gushy as Andrew Sullivan --I would say, actually, that I simply lack the capacity to gush about anything the way Andrew Sullivan routinely gushes about about all sorts of things -- so far Obama's record suggests that his approach is the right one. So far the record suggests that he has a far better idea of what is possible in our American than I do, or than any of his other liberal critics does. His remarkable reserve -- surely the man must be furious over the shenanigans of his opponents in the Senate, and over the things Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich say about him -- leaves him in the end seeming like the only grown-up left in American politics.


Above, the Sumerian city of Nippur under excavation in the 1920s; below, a map of canals around the city in the 17th century BC.

Best of the Mars Observer

Two of the photos picked out by National Geographic as among the best of this 10-year mission.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Slavery and Secession

I defy anyone to read the following, which is Mississippi's declaration of secession in its entirety, and tell me the Civil War was not about slavery:

A Declaration of the Immediate Causes which Induce and Justify the Secession of the State of Mississippi from the Federal Union.

In the momentous step which our State has taken of dissolving its connection with the government of which we so long formed a part, it is but just that we should declare the prominent reasons which have induced our course.

Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery-- the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth. These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun. These products have become necessities of the world, and a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization. That blow has been long aimed at the institution, and was at the point of reaching its consummation. There was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union, whose principles had been subverted to work out our ruin.

That we do not overstate the dangers to our institution, a reference to a few facts will sufficiently prove.

The hostility to this institution commenced before the adoption of the Constitution, and was manifested in the well-known Ordinance of 1787, in regard to the Northwestern Territory.

The feeling increased, until, in 1819-20, it deprived the South of more than half the vast territory acquired from France.

The same hostility dismembered Texas and seized upon all the territory acquired from Mexico.

It has grown until it denies the right of property in slaves, and refuses protection to that right on the high seas, in the Territories, and wherever the government of the United States had jurisdiction.

It refuses the admission of new slave States into the Union, and seeks to extinguish it by confining it within its present limits, denying the power of expansion.

It tramples the original equality of the South under foot.

It has nullified the Fugitive Slave Law in almost every free State in the Union, and has utterly broken the compact which our fathers pledged their faith to maintain.

It advocates negro equality, socially and politically, and promotes insurrection and incendiarism in our midst.

It has enlisted its press, its pulpit and its schools against us, until the whole popular mind of the North is excited and inflamed with prejudice.

It has made combinations and formed associations to carry out its schemes of emancipation in the States and wherever else slavery exists.

It seeks not to elevate or to support the slave, but to destroy his present condition without providing a better.

It has invaded a State, and invested with the honors of martyrdom the wretch whose purpose was to apply flames to our dwellings, and the weapons of destruction to our lives.

It has broken every compact into which it has entered for our security.

It has given indubitable evidence of its design to ruin our agriculture, to prostrate our industrial pursuits and to destroy our social system.

It knows no relenting or hesitation in its purposes; it stops not in its march of aggression, and leaves us no room to hope for cessation or for pause.

It has recently obtained control of the Government, by the prosecution of its unhallowed schemes, and destroyed the last expectation of living together in friendship and brotherhood.

Utter subjugation awaits us in the Union, if we should consent longer to remain in it. It is not a matter of choice, but of necessity. We must either submit to degradation, and to the loss of property worth four billions of money, or we must secede from the Union framed by our fathers, to secure this as well as every other species of property. For far less cause than this, our fathers separated from the Crown of England.

Our decision is made. We follow their footsteps. We embrace the alternative of separation; and for the reasons here stated, we resolve to maintain our rights with the full consciousness of the justice of our course, and the undoubting belief of our ability to maintain it.

Equal Rights for Gay Soldiers

Just when I was starting to think our legislative system could accomplish nothing, a major bill passes the senate with five votes to spare. And it was slippery war-monger Joseph Lieberman who helped lead the fight and celebrated the victory with the right words: "We righted a wrong."

Saturday, December 18, 2010

The End of the Semester

I just finished grading my final exams, and now I can look back across my semester-long teaching experiment. I have been teaching Medieval History, a 200-level course, at Hood College, a small, not-very-selective private school in Frederick, Maryland. I had 25 students in my class. After talking with some friends of mine who teach full-time, I decided to try the course with no textbook and as few facts as possible. I asked them to learn four dates, at least approximately: the sack of Rome in AD 410, the coronation of Charlemagne in AD 800, the First Crusade in 1096-1099, and the Black Death in 1348. I discussed only a handful of other events -- the founding and spread of Islam, the collapse of the Carolingian empire and the resulting spread of anarchy and castle-building, the great economic and cultural growth spurt of the high middle ages, and the establishment of national kingdoms in England and France. Otherwise what we did was read source documents and talk about them. Sixty percent of their grade was determined by two papers on original sources and class discussion, and the exams, all essay questions, focused on the themes we drew from the readings. We read a big chunk of Gregory of Tours' History of the Franks, the Life of St. Radegund, a little of the Koran, Einhard's Life of Charlemagne, some administrative documents from Charlemagne's time, a short Viking story from Iceland (Bolli Bollason's Tale), some bits of chronicles from the anarchic period of the 10th and 11th centuries, Peters' collection of sources on the First Crusade, some letters of Abelard and Heloise, some mystical writings by Hildegard of Bingen, a courtly romance by Marie de France, some chunks of Froissart's Chronicles covering the Hundred Years War and the English Peasants' revolt, and other short odds and ends. I put the emphasis in every class in trying to understand something about the past from what was written in the documents.

One reason I decided to take this approach was that I have recently watched three of my children go through middle school world history, and I noticed that they were expected to learn a lot of the basic facts of medieval history in the 8th grade. I decided to assume that my students remembered most of that or would readily recall it, and that I was certainly not going to spend my time restating things they should have learned at 13.

How did it go? Pretty well. It was certainly more fun for me than lecturing about serfdom and church reform would have been. After grading the exams, I can say that about half the class got much of what I was getting at. That half ended up with grades in the high B to A range, many of them falling in a cluster I will somehow have to split into B+ and A-. I am not an especially hard grader, and I could have made the grades lower, but all of those people certainly got something out of the class. Trailing down from there were people who either didn't care enough or weren't well enough prepared for the class, including 4 who barely passed. (Nobody failed.) Perhaps a more traditional class would have been more useful for those students, but I doubt it. Even if they had learned a lot of facts, they would soon have forgotten them, so if my approach taught them nothing about the Middle Ages they are not likely to be any worse for it, and at least they wrote two papers.

So I am pleased, on the whole, and if I teach this class again I will make adjustments but use essentially the same structure.

Ideology Trumps Reality, Again

I know all the liberals are blogging about this, but I can't resist commenting on the Republican version of the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission report. It fits so well with one of my constant themes, that our beliefs have a bigger impact on the way we interpret events than events do on our beliefs.

Having voted to issue a document without the words “deregulation,” “shadow banking,” “interconnection,” and “Wall Street,” the Republicans on the commission produced a nine-page memo nearly devoid of facts and numbers. After all, if they had included any facts or numbers, they would have shown that their own argument was garbage. That argument, such as it is, blames the whole mess on our meddling government. The problem started with the Community Reinvestment Act, which forced banks to lend to poor and minority people; then those insidious mortgage schemes, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, got involved, further pumping up the market for low-end mortgages and convincing people that the government was somehow guaranteeing the whole thing. All private bankers did was, as Paul Krugman put it, "get suckered into going along with this government-created bubble."

Where to start? First, other countries had real estate bubbles without any Community Reinvestment Act -- the NY Times has a great feature today on the ghost towns of Spain, and things were just as bad in Ireland and Latvia. Not that I expect Republican Congressmen to know any of this, since these are the people who know so little about Europe that they think our health care system is better than theirs. But mightn't people who were appointed to a commission to look into the financial crisis have noticed that it was a worldwide event?

The Republican version ignores the mechanisms that made the real estate bubble into a financial crisis, the whole web of connections and deals -- credit default swaps, mortgage-backed securities, etc. -- that made the failure of Lehman Brothers into a nearly fatal event for our whole banking system. It was the bankers themselves who went to the Treasury in the summer of 2008, saying that the whole system was about to go belly-up. Nobody at the time was blaming the CRA or Fannie Mae. That "explanation" was dreamed up later by Republican operatives desperate to keep the crisis from becoming the occasion for further banking regulation. And the thing is, it seems to be working. I have recently seen two comment posts on blogs that regurgitated this whole argument as faithfully as Marxists used to regurgitate the dialectic. Instead of being a fact that forces us to confront it rationally, the banking crisis has become another football of partisanship, kicked back and forth with a great deal of shouting, but having no great effect on how anyone understands the world.

Friday, December 17, 2010