Friday, September 30, 2011

Testing Eye Witness Testimony

Kathryn Schultz:
In 1902, a heated argument between two students in a college classroom turned violent. One of the students pulled a gun on the other, the professor leapt in to try to subdue him, and, in the ensuing chaos, a shot was fired. This was in the days before school shootings were all too common, but even by those bygone standards, this one was particularly unusual: it was fake. The whole thing was choreographed by a professor of criminology at the University Seminary in Berlin named Franz von Liszt. After the putative gunmen was led away, the shaken students were asked to provide individual accounts of what had happened, giving as much detail as possible. Von Liszt then compared their accounts to the actual script of the event, which the actors had followed to the letter.

The results of this study were disturbing then, and they remain so today. The best eyewitnesses got more than twenty-five percent of the facts wrong. The worst erred eighty percent of the time. As another professor who had observed the experiment wrote, “Words were put into the mouths of men who had been silent spectators during the whole short episode; actions were attributed to the chief participants of which not the slightest trace existed; and essential parts of the tragi-comedy were completely eliminated from the memory of a number of witnesses.”
Thousands of experiments done since all show the same thing: eye witnesses cannot be trusted.

Vasily Vereshchagin

Russian artist who traveled extensively in central Asia, India, and the Middle East. Above, Mausoleum of Gur Emir, Samarkand, 1869

Tombs in Samarkand, 1869

At the Fortress -- Let them in, 1871

The Apotheosis of War, 1871

Sudden Attack, 1872

The Doors of Tamerlane, 1872-1873

A Pause During Combat, 1873

Jerusalem, The Kings' Tombs, 1885

One Day, Bahrain Will Come Back to Bite Us

In Bahrain, we keep selling weapons to the Sunni government as they continue their disgusting crackdown on Shiite protesters:
A court in Bahrain sentenced a protester to death on Thursday for killing a police officer in March, and it issued harsh prison terms to medical workers who treated protesters wounded during the months of unrest there this spring, according to the official Bahrain News Agency. The punishments drew strong criticism from rights groups.

The agency reported that eight people it identified as doctors who worked at a central hospital in the capital, Manama, received 15-year sentences. Other medical personnel at the hospital, the Salmaniya Medical Complex, Bahrain’s largest public hospital, were given terms of between 5 and 15 years.

The sentences were the latest sign that the country’s Sunni monarchy would continue to deal severely with those involved in widespread protests this year, mostly held by members of its repressed Shiite majority. Much of that effort has been focused on the doctors and nurses who treated demonstrators.

At the height of the protests, security forces commandeered the Salmaniya hospital and arrested dozens of doctors and nurses. Rights activists have since accused the government of having made systematic efforts to deny medical services to wounded protesters. The international relief organization Doctors Without Borders stopped working in Bahrain last month after its offices were raided.

I know we are short of allies in a region increasingly dominated by Iran, but eventually the government in Bahrain is going to fall. When it does, we are going to regret having supported these thugs. To jail doctors for treating wounded people goes beyond your basic authoritarianism into seriously evil territory.

Who Won the Iraq War?

Iran. Peter Van Buren reflects on his experiences as a Foreign Service officer in Iraq:
The United States lost 4474 soldiers (and counting), with thousands more crippled or wounded, spent a couple of trillion dollars that helped wreck our economy at home, and did not get much in return. Blood for oil? Only in the sense that one of out of every eight U.S. casualties in Iraq died guarding a fuel convoy. Iraqi oil output is stuck at pre-war levels and will be for some time. A drop in world oil prices would wreck the Iraqi economy. Despite Panetta's patter about Iraq being a country willing to work with the United States, Iraq as a political entity follows its own path, virtually allied with Iran and unsupportive of American geopolitical dreams. The U.S. government will sell some military gear to the Iraqis and make some money, but in the end George Bush went to war and all we got was a low-rent dictatorship turned into a low-rent semi-police state. As this is written, it is even unclear if the United States will snag any permanent bases in Iraq, and whether any troops will be allowed to stay on past the end of this December.

As for Iraq being any sort of winner after being stomped on by the U.S. military, no. Iraq had its civil society shredded, underwent eight years of sectarian civil war, saw over 100,000 killed and is home now to a small but bustling al Qaeda franchise. The United States left without brokering a deal between the Kurds and the Arab Iraqis, leaving that kettle on full boil. The United States also failed to establish stable borders for the Kurds, such that the Iranians shell "Kurdistan" from the east, while Turkish jets drop bombs in the west. . . .

Iran sat patiently on its hands while the United States hacked away at its two major enemies, Saddam, and the Taliban, clearing both its east and west borders at no cost to Tehran. (Iran apparently reached out to the U.S. government in 2003, seeking some sort of diplomatic relationship but, after being rebuffed by the engorged Bush Administration, decided to wait and watch the quagmire envelope America). The long slog both wars morphed into dulled even the reliably bloodthirsty American public's taste for another war, and cooled off plans in Tel Aviv and Washington for airstrikes against Iran's nukes (if Cheney couldn't edge the United States into that fight, who can?).

A Ceiling in Samarkand

Post-Feminism and Domesticity

I have seen a couple of things online lately about the rising interest in traditionally female skills and crafts among young, middle-class women. Whether there is such a trend I do not know, but the Michael's in my neighborhood seems to be doing a good business, and I see women knitting on the Metro almost every day. Emily Matchar calls this "domestic reskilling," and notes that for some women their interest in home canning, quilting, and so on is related to environmentalism or a broader distaste for the corporate and the mass-produced. For others it is a way to reconnect with ancestors; for others just something to do. The suggestion that these activities are unfeminist or "soft" makes some of these crafty women really mad (see here and here); knitting, sewing, and canning are activities that defy ideological stereotyping, practiced by Christian conservatives, left-wing wiccans, and even the completely apolitical.

I approve, of course. In a world drowning in material things, there is "something of value about the handmade." And besides, I find it really sexy when women sew or quilt or scrapbook.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

The Pawpaw as an Exotic Fruit

Funny piece on NPR about the pawpaw that treats them as something truly strange and exotic:

Recently, I heard about a secret snack. Kayakers who paddle the waters near Washington, D.C., told me about a mango-like fruit that grows along the banks of the Potomac — a speckled and homely skin that hides a tasty treat.

A tropical-like fruit here, really? Yep. It's the only temperate member of a tropical family of trees. You can't buy the pawpaw in stores, so for years, the only way to eat them was straight from the tree.

I was intrigued. So I decided to hunt for a pawpaw myself.

D.C. nature guide Matt Cohen showed me how to find them.

We took the Billy Goat Trail on the Maryland side of the Potomac River. "Wow," was the first word out of my mouth when I tasted one we found on our hike. It's sort of mango-meets-the-banana ... with a little hint of melon.

Pawpaws grow all along the Potomac from Washington westward, so I have seen many and eaten a few while working in the C&O Canal Park. There are two ways to eat them. Before the frost they are firm-textured but not very sweet. After frost they come to their peak of flavor, but the texture softens to something like a badly bruised banana. (But with lots of big seeds, as you can see above.) They are fun to eat if you find them yourself in the woods, but deprived of that special thrill they probably don't stand up to bananas and pineapples.

That means they will not be successfully commercialized and will remain a secret woodland treat known only by those of us who frequent the riverbanks, and that is how I like them.

Lightning over the Grand Canyon

Click to enlarge.

Steven Pinker on the Decline of Violence in History

Steven Pinker's latest big idea is the decline of violence in human history. Several different categories of evidence suggest that the amount of violence in human societies has declined a great deal over the past few thousand years, even taking into account the wars and genocides of the 20th century. There are some problems with comparing the statistics, because while modern history packs most violent deaths into a few great spasms of horror, in the ancient world most violence was small scale, a matter of revenge killings back and forth between neighboring tribes, dueling, and the like. But insofar as we understand the matter, it seems that even a Russian or German who lived through both world wars had a lower chance of dying from violence than a member of the average Bronze Age tribe.

It is certainly true that the rate of everyday violent death has been falling for centuries. The average citizen of western Europe or Japan, born after 1945, has had a vanishingly small chance of dying from violence, far smaller than in any pre-modern society we know about. Americans fret about crime, but even in 1990, at the height of the post-1965 crime wave, our murder rate never approached that of medieval Europe or our own of 1790. Outside of a few great wars and episodes of mass murder, the modern world is vastly safer than any that came before.

I am not so sure about the calculations that show an overall decline in violent death, because I don't have much confidence in the numbers. Consider the slide above, showing the percentage of skeletons from excavated cemeteries that show signs of violence. Yes, these cemeteries reveal a violent world in which many people died violently. But how many? To make any calculation you have to assume that your cemetery is a representative sample of the population, and there is no reason to assume this. Archaeologists never find enough burials to account for whole ancient populations. Usually they find only a few burials, obviously unrepresentative of the society as a whole, and you have no idea why some people were carefully buried and some were not. (Or what happened to the others.) Probably members of any local elite were more likely to be buried, and if that elite was composed of warriors, that would make your calculation of a violent death rate too high. Some societies (including ours) also give extra attention and care to the bodies of soldiers killed in battle, which further skews your sample toward violent death. Because of these issues, I remain agnostic on the question of whether the 20th century was less violent, on average, than the 12th.

But despite these problems with the data, something important certainly is going on. In many ancient societies, it was assumed that all normal men were warriors and killers, whereas I am fairly certain that none of my male friends has ever killed anyone. In many ancient societies, war was the normal state of affairs, whereas now we consider peace the normal state and think all wars need causes and explanations.

Pinker links this change to broader political and psychological changes. On the one hand, the decline in violence is obviously related to the rise of states with police forces and the like, which protect us from violence so that we don't have to routinely kill in defense of our homes and families. It may also be related to the increasing squeamishness (to use a neutral term) or humanitarianism (Pinker's term) that we see in modern people. We are, on average, much less tolerant of killing, torture, slavery, and the brutal subjugation of inferiors than our ancestors were; we are even, in some ways, less tolerant of harm to animals (one of the radically new things about the modern world is the rise in vegetarianism).

There is nothing consistent about these changes. Contemporary Europeans who blanch at the thought of beating a dog eat more meat then their medieval ancestors, who watched bear baiting for fun. Modern Americans who can't imagine striking another person in anger support a government that assassinates Yemenis and Afghans with missiles fired from drones. Violence remains a major part of human life. Yet its importance seems to be declining for most of us. Most people seem to be getting nicer, and that is something worth thinking about.

Terrorists and Remote Control

An acquaintance of mine who used to work in counter-terrorism told me that if he wanted to blow something up, he would equip a small plane with a GPS guidance system, pack it with explosives, and program it to fly itself into the target. That terrorists had never done this, he said, was proof of their technical incompetence and lack of vision.

My friend's plan involved full-sized aircraft, so I am unimpressed by the small-scale plans of Rezwan Ferdaus. Ferdaus, according to the FBI, wanted to fly remote control model planes into the Capitol and the Pentagon. He was caught in one of those semi-entrapment operations that make me queasy, although in this case the FBI says that the model plane idea was his own. The one plane he had acquired would hold only a couple of pounds of explosives.

Since crashing a full-sized jet liner into the Pentagon damaged only part of one side of the building and killed just over a hundred people, I doubt Ferdaus could have achieved his goal of "decapitating"the "military center"of the US government. He would have had to get pretty lucky to kill one colonel.

Once again I have to say, if these are our enemies, what are we worried about? For fear of characters like the Model Airplane Guy, the Shoe Bomber, and the Guy Who Set His Underpants on Fire, we have subjected ourselves to humiliating searches, warrantless wiretapping, spying on our library records, and untold billions of dollars in expenses? For fear of this we are waging war around the world, sacrificing thousands of American soldiers and more untold billions? Why are we doing this to ourselves?

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

You Really Are What You Eat

MicroRNAs -- short sequences of RNA that can control the action of full-sized RNA strands -- from the plant foods you eat end up in your blood and can control the expression of your genes.

Today's World War II Statistic

In 1940, all 103 merchant ships of the British India Steam Navigation Company were nationalized for the duration of the war. By the war's end, 51 had been sunk, with a loss of 1083 lives.

The Silver of the SS Gairsoppa

Discovery News:

It was a stormy Second World War night when, on February 17, 1941, three lifeboats abandoned the SS Gairsoppa, a 412 foot-long British cargo ship en route from India to Liverpool, England.

In service of the Ministry of War Transport, the Gairsoppa was laden with tea, iron and tons of silver. Because of bad weather and insufficient coal, she was forced to break away from the military convoy off the coast of Ireland.

As the captain re-routed in emergency for Galway, on the west coast of Ireland, the merchant steamship and its crew of 86 men were hit by a torpedo from a Nazi U-boat. She sank in icy seas within 20 minutes.

Left at the mercy of the winds and waves, two lifeboats soon disappeared. A third boat managed to sail for 13 days, with only one person, second officer Richard Ayres, surviving the long journey to shore.

Odyssey Marine Exploration has found the wreck lying 3 miles down at the bottom of the Atlantic, using a robot sub, and they plan to bring up the silver next spring.

I have been trying to learn whose silver this was and why it was all on this one ship. So far all I have found out is that 4 million ounces belonged to the British government and 3 million was private property insured by the British government; they eventually paid out £ 325,000 to the private owners for their loss. Putting so much bullion on one ship at a time of such heavy losses to U-boats seems like folly to me.

New Genetic Data on the European Neolithic

I have been writing since I started this blog about the most exciting new development in historical studies, the use of genetics. A large amount of data about the past is coming from genetic studies now, and these data may one day answer questions that have seemed intractable using other methods. Studies of modern populations have told us much, but even more exciting is the ever-growing amount of DNA being extracted from ancient skeletons.

The latest major study looks at DNA from Neolithic burials in Hungary. The study shows that not only were Neolithic Hungarians genetically distinct from both Paleolithic and modern Europeans, they are genetically diverse themselves. Also, these Hungarian skeletons produced genetic types now only known in East Asia. As John Hawks summarizes,
Past populations had incredible dynamism across Eurasia.
Genes were shared from Ireland to Korea across the whole period from 50,000 BC to modern times. In no well-studied locale have the modern inhabitants proved to be the direct descendants of their Paleolithic or Neolithic forbears. (In Eurasia or Africa, anyway.) So far as we know, this result can only be explained by a combination of large-scale movements of people and evolution. Recall that when a new epidemic disease enters a population it may kill up to 90 percent of the inhabitants, creating a major genetic break; the appearance of new traits that improved adaptation to a peasant lifestyle (e.g., that make people able to better digest grain or fight with their neighbors less) may also have led to major genetic shifts. The movements of new groups of people into an area can also cause genetic change. These two processes are related, since sometimes the new people are able to spread because of some genetic advantage, or because the previous inhabitants have been devastated by disease.

The ancient world was not static, but just as full of dramatic population shifts and movements as the modern period has been.

Thank You George and Dick

From the AP story on the American hikers held for more than a year in Iran:
when they complained about their treatment, they said, the Iranian guards cited how U.S. authorities at the military base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, dealt with suspected terrorists there.

For the Man who has Everything: A Private Submarine

And this is no scrunched-up little submersible like your science geek uses to look for new species around sea floor vents. No, this is underwater cruising with style:

Clearly, the Phoenix provides its owner with substantially more capability than a simple yacht - the opportunity to explore the depths of the world's oceans in perfect comfort and safety. The Phoenix is capable of making trans-Atlantic crossings at 16 knots yet can dive along the route and explore the continental margins of some of the most fascinating waters on earth. And unlike surface yachts, when the water gets rough, the submarine can submerge into a perfectly smooth and quiet environment, continuing on toward its destination, providing a ride unsurpassed in quality-unequaled by the finest motor coach or the most luxurious executive aircraft.

At 65-meters (213 feet) in overall length, and with a beam in excess of 8 meters (26 feet), the Phoenix is a vehicle of formidable size. Yet despite its 1500-ton displacement, the submarine is quite streamlined. Given the significant waterplane area and ample internal volume, which allows for greater battery storage, the Phoenix will out-perform smaller counterparts in surface speed, submerged speed and submerged endurance. The large pressure hull diameter allows for very large acrylic viewports, making the undersea viewing capability truly extraordinary. The interior space, with the noted absence of structural bulkheads, provides for tremendous versatility in interior layout and space planning. And finally, the Phoenix's large size coupled with its integrated roll stabilization system makes surface transit quite comfortable in all but the worst conditions.

The Phoenix can dive to 305 m (1000 feet) and stay submerged for 360 hours. Could be yours for a mere $78 million. And if that is too pricey for you, U.S. Submarines offers three smaller but still luxurious submersible yachts.

Or how about this sporty two-person model from Triton Submarines, capable of diving to 1000 meters (3300 feet)? The brochure calls this the "sexiest deep submersible" in the world.

And if that's still too tame, you could go for the Triton 36000 FOD --Full Ocean Depth --which will take you to the bottom of the Marianas Trench in just 75 minutes.

Truly there has never been a better time to be a billionaire.

Twentieth Anniversary

On September 28, 1991, Lisa and I were married in the chapel on Jamestown Island. What a wonderful day it was.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Four Characters from an Opera

Drawing by S. Soudiekine for four characters from an opera by Paganini: Scandal, Gossip, Greed and Jealousy.

A Witches' Graveyard?

The picture shows a skeleton from an Italian cemetery, about 800 years old, that was buried with seven nails driven through her jaw bone:

The grim discovery was made during a dig on what is thought to be a 'witches graveyard' after another woman's skeleton was found surrounded by 17 dice - a game which women were forbidden from playing 800 years ago.

Experts say they believe the women are aged around 25 - 30 years old and were found buried in a simple shallow grave in the ground with no coffin or shroud.

The macabre remains were found during a dig close to the sea at Piombino near Lucca in Italy's Tuscany region and the woman had seven nails through her jaw as well as another 13 nails surrounding her skeleton.

Archaeologist Alfonso Forgione, from L'Aquila University, who is leading the dig, is convinced that the women were suspected witches because of the circumstances in which they were buried.

He said: 'It's a very unusual discovery and at the same time fascinating. I have never seen anything like this before. I'm convinced because of the nails found in the jaw and around the skeleton the woman was a witch.

'She was buried in bare earth, not in a coffin and she had no shroud around her either, intriguingly other nails were hammered around her to pin down her clothes.

'This indicates to me that it was an attempt to make sure the woman even though she was dead did not rise from the dead and unnerve the locals who were no doubt convinced she was a witch with evil powers.

'The second skeleton we have found was buried in a similar fashion but this time we found 17 dice around her - 17 is an unlucky number in Italy and also dice was a game that women were forbidden to play.

'The way the bodies were buried would seem to indicate some form of exorcist ritual and the remains will be examined to see if we can establish a cause of death for them.'

One puzzle that the archaeologists have been unable to explain is why the women if they were evil witches were buried in consecrated ground as the area is the site of an 800 year old church.

He said: 'The only possible explanation is that perhaps both women came from influential families and were not peasant class and so because of their class and connections were able to secure burial in consecrated Christian ground.'

I am not completely convinced, but it is intriguing. People have done all sorts of things to corpses over the millennia for all sorts of strange reasons.

Rules for Dictators

Rule 1: Rely on as few supporters as possible.
. . . suppress all political opposition, criminalize dissent and ensure that only close family and friends have any power.

Rule 2: Make sure essential supporters know there are plenty of replacements for them.

Rule 3: Control the revenue.
It’s always better for a ruler to determine who eats than it is to have a larger pie from which the people can feed themselves.

Rule 4: Reward your supporters so they don’t go looking for your replacement.

Rule 5: Never be nice to the people at the expense of your coalition.

From Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith

Monday, September 26, 2011

Medieval Bruges

Bruges, in Belgium, is a wonderfully preserved Renaissance town, with many buildings dating to the 15th century.

Fog on the Badlands

Click to enlarge.

Cutting Physics Programs

Nature News:

Texas higher-education officials delivered a stern message to physicists yesterday that the state is likely to stick to plans to phase out 'low-performing' physics programs within the next year or two if they cannot demonstrate compelling plans to improve.

Members of the American Physical Society requested yesterday's meeting with the state's Higher Education Coordinating Board (HECB) after announcements in recent weeks that nearly half of the 24 undergraduate physics programs at state funded universities could be on the chopping block if they fail to graduate at least 25 students every 5 years. . . .

Texas is not singling out physics, but trying to phase out all programs that don't have a sufficient number of students. Some physics professors say the small programs play an important role despite the numbers:

Statistics provided to Nature by the American Institute of Physics suggest that some 35% of the undergraduate physics degrees awarded in the United States go to students in programs that would not meet the Texas board's requirements for staying open.

But small schools in far-flung places are important to ensure diversity in science, says Lawrence Norris, managing director of the National Society of Black Physicists in Arlington, Virginia. "It's a mistake to paint every low-performing program with the same brush," Norris says.

Robert Thorne, a physicist at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, who has redesigned the university's introductory physics courses to increase their appeal to students, says that it is logical to consider closing some smaller physics degree programs. Faculty members could then refocus their efforts on teaching introductory physics and encouraging students to transfer to larger programs for advanced physics courses, he says. But he agrees that student diversity could suffer with the Texas approach.

I find it interesting that these American initiatives give no special status to science. Very different from Britain, which is trying to close humanities programs no matter how many students they have and force more students to study science.

Map Monsters

When it comes to map monsters, nobody beats Olaus Magnus. His 1539 Carta Marina, a map of Scandinavia and surrounding regions, has plenty of every sort. View the whole map here.

Day and Night

Tim Blanning reviews Craig Koslofsky's Evening's Empire: A history of the night in early modern Europe:
In 1710, Richard Steele wrote in Tatler that recently he had been to visit an old friend just come up to town from the country. But the latter had already gone to bed when Steele called at 8 pm. He returned at 11 o’clock the following morning, only to be told that his friend had just sat down to dinner. “In short”, Steele commented, “I found that my old-fashioned friend religiously adhered to the example of his forefathers, and observed the same hours that had been kept in his family ever since the Conquest”. During the previous generation or so, elites across Europe had moved their clocks forward by several hours. No longer a time reserved for sleep, the night time was now the right time for all manner of recreational and representational purposes. This is what Craig Koslofsky calls “nocturnalisation”, defined as “the ongoing expansion of the legitimate social and symbolic uses of the night”, a development to which he awards the status of “a revolution in early modern Europe”.

The case is well made, supported by an impressive range of archival and printed sources, mostly French, English and German. More than fifty years ago, Richard Alewyn published his study of court festivities Das grosse Welttheater (“The great theatre of the world”). It proved to be highly influential, not only in its own right but also because it supplied Jürgen Habermas with much of what little empirical illustration he provided in his even more seminal The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere. Alewyn’s main concern was the change that took place in the seventeenth century, as the grand secular festivals moved spatially from streets and public squares into palaces, and temporally from day to night. Now the carriages of courtiers going home to bed passed labourers going to work. Koslofsky gives due recognition to Alewyn’s insight but goes a long way beyond it. . . .

In the sixteenth century, he points out, the main media of royal representation were the jousts and tournaments held in the daytime, such as the Field of the Cloth of Gold, the Anglo-French spectacular of 1520. By the time of Louis XIV, all the major events – ballets de cour, operas, balls, masquerades, firework displays – took place at night (a major exception, of course, was hunting, about which Koslofsky has nothing to say). When was the “art of illumination” discovered in the Holy Roman Empire? asked a Saxon writer in 1736, and concluded that it must have been towards the end of the previous century. The kings, courtiers – and those who sought to emulate them – adjusted their daily timetable accordingly. Unlike Steele’s friend, they rose and went to bed later and later. Henry III of France, who was assassinated in 1589, usually had his last meal at 6 pm and was tucked up in bed by 8. Louis XIV’s day began with a lever at 9 and ended (officially) at around midnight.
Fascinating. I sort of thought that the shift to "night life" came with improvements in artificial lighting, like the whale-oil-burning "hurricane lamp" of the later 1700s. But perhaps the causality ran the other way, and a huge effort was made to develop new lighting sources because of the new fashion.

A Reporter from New York Asks Edith Mae Chapman, Age Nine, What Her Daddy Tells her about the Strike

We ain't to go in the company store, mooning
over peppermint sticks, shaming ourselves like a dog
begging under the table. They cut off our account
but we ain't no-account. We ain't to go to school
so's the company teacher can tell us we are.
We ain't going to meeting and bow our heads
for the company preacher, who claims it is the meek
will inherit the coal fields, instead of telling
how the mountains will crumble and rocks
rain down like fire upon the heads
of the operators, like it says in the Bible.
We ain't to talk to no dirtscum scabs
and we ain't to talk to God. My daddy
is very upset with the Lord.

by Diane Gilliam Fisher

Sacrificial Knives

From a recently excavated Mayan royal tomb, AD 600 to 700. The knives were daubed with blue paint, which implies they were used for human sacrifice.

Third Party Nonsense

Matt Miller has a column in the Post titled "Why We Need a Third Party." After reading this, the answer seems to be "because many Americans don't understand the parties we have." Miller starts out by complaining that the government isn't doing enough to put people back to work:
Our president calls himself “a warrior for the middle class” because he’s campaigning for a plan that might add 2 million new jobs next year at a time when 25 million Americans who want full-time work can’t find it. If that’s war, what would surrender look like?

Meanwhile, Republican zealots apparently feel that if they can’t cut 0.04 percent of the budget in the next few days they’d rather shut down the government. The party’s presidential candidates boast that a 10-to-1 ratio of spending cuts to tax increases isn’t good enough on a long-term debt deal — even though we’re about to double the number of seniors on Social Security and Medicare.

Why should we have to choose between timid half-measures and anti-tax fanaticism? Why doesn’t the president propose measures equal to the scale of our challenges? Why can’t Republicans acknowledge demography or math?

Ok, Matt, let me explain. Republicans reject the whole notion that it is the government's job to put people to work. They think, as George Will put it in the title of a recent column, that the government should "Get Out of the Way." If you think the government should be spending massive amounts of money to put people to work, you are a Democrat. As to why the President has not proposed bigger measures to get the economy moving, well, he has, but they have been whittled down by conservative Democrats or blocked by Republicans. Starting a third party is hardly a way to make the government more liberal.

Then we move on to education:

Democrats can’t say we need to fire bad teachers who are blighting the lives of countless kids, because teachers unions are the party’s most powerful interest group. But Republicans can’t say we need to raise salaries for new teachers substantially if we’re going to lure a new generation of talent to the classroom, because that’s admitting that money is part of the answer.
Actually the country's most prominent advocate of firing bad teachers as part of education "reform" is President Obama. It is true that at the local level many Democratic pols fight for teacher tenure, but at the national level the party has pretty much been captured by the reform faction. Been paying any attention to this, Matt?

Health care:

Republicans say the answer is to repeal President Obama’s reforms — but they won’t offer plans to insure more than 3 million of the 50 million Americans who lack coverage. Yet Democrats want to micromanage providers, protect the trial lawyers who bankroll their campaigns, and fully insulate people from the costs of their own care, assuring that there’s no consumer brake on runaway costs. Again, Democrats and Republicans can’t solve the problem.
The Affordable Care Act does not "micromanage providers." It does contain some pilot studies and the like of ways to reduce unnecessary care, but none of that is mandatory. And if, as Matt Miller seems to think, we should insure everybody, we need to find the money somewhere, and one obvious place is by reducing the amount we waste on useless medical care. As for the trial lawyers, well, that is a problem. But it is not a simple one; if Matt Miller has a way to simultaneously protect patients from medical malpractice and prevent lawsuit-driven medicine, he should suggest it. Come to think of it, the Affordable Care Act includes measures that are supposed to help, i.e., establishing "standards of care" and immunizing any doctor who follows them from suits. Most malpractice suits are at the state level, and reforms launched by Republican legislators in conservative states like Texas and Mississippi, advertised as radical measures that would all but do away with malpractice suits, have had no impact whatsoever on the problem.

But, see, this is all details. If you accept that the government should be trying to get health insurance to all Americans, you are a Democrat, and can squabble with other Democrats over exactly how. Republicans reject the whole notion.

Matt Miller has been captured by the fantasy of obvious solutions. He thinks -- and I have met many other Americans, mostly engineers, who think the same thing -- that the solutions to our problems are obvious. If we aren't implementing those obvious solutions, it must be because of corruption in the system. Miller:
First, both parties’ chief aim is to win elections, not solve problems. Second, both parties are prisoner to interest groups and ideological litmus tests that prevent them from blending the best of liberal and conservative thinking. Finally, neither party trusts us enough to lay out the facts and explain the steps we need to take to truly fix things.
No, that isn't it. We haven't solved our biggest problems -- educating poor people, reducing poverty, providing health care to everyone -- because they are hard problems, and the only way anyone has found to solve them is the creation of a European-style welfare state with high taxes and many freedom-reducing regulations. Since only a minority of Americans wants a European-style welfare state, we don't have one. A third party would do nothing to change this fundamental reality.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

More Writing Advice: Sonnet 1

Sir Philip Sidney

Loving in truth, and fain in verse my love to show,
That the dear She might take some pleasure of my pain,
Pleasure might cause her read, reading might make her know,
Knowledge might pity win, and pity grace obtain,—
I sought fit words to paint the blackest face of woe,
Studying inventions fine, her wits to entertain,
Oft turning others’ leaves, to see if thence would flow
Some fresh and fruitful showers upon my sunburned brain.
But words came halting forth, wanting Invention’s stay:
Invention, Nature’s child, fled step-dame Study’s blows,
And others’ feet still seemed but strangers in my way.
Thus great with child to speak, and helpless in my throes,
Biting my truant pen, beating myself for spite:
“Fool,” said my Muse to me, “look in thy heart and write.”

Writing Advice

Today Stumble took me to a list of 73 ways to become a better writer. Most of them are the usual stuff: read your work out loud, edit and edit again, write every day, listen to how people talk, and so on. We even have "Avoid the passive voice." And then we get to:
8. Live with passion.
Wait. What does this have to do with writing well? If I run off to join the Libyan revolt and have a passionate affair with a Berber woman I meet on the front lines, will that really make my prose better? Help me finish my novel about 14th-century England? Not that I have anything against passion, but why is it on this list, with avoiding the passive voice? You can't say it has been a characteristic of most great writers; for every Ernest Hemingway who sought out excitement, there has been a Marcel Proust who never did much of anything.

What my writing needs at this point of my career is not more passion, but persistent effort. I'm afraid running off to Libya won't help me there.

French Idioms

A great collection. Examples:

Avoir les jetons
To be scared (literally: "to have the tokens")

Avoir des casseroles au cul
To be haunted by a scandal (literally: "to have saucepans hung on the ass")

Donner sa langue au chat
To give up a riddle (literally: "to give one's tongue to the cat")

Enfoncer des portes ouvertes
To state the obvious (literally: "To break down open doors")

Il n'y a pas de quoi fouetter un chat
It is nothing to make a fuss about (literally: "It's no reason for whipping a cat")

Noyer le poisson
To evade an issue (literally: "to drown the fish")

Poule mouillée
Coward (literally: "wet chicken")

Sucer les pissenlits par la racine
Be dead (literally: "to suck the dandelions by the root")

Tirer des plans sur la comète
To build castles in the air (literally: "to draw plans on the comet")

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Caught in the Act

A furry thief flees from his post eating sunflower seeds at the sight of me and my camera.

Henry V Sets Sail for France

Thus with imagined wing our swift scene flies,
In motion of no less celerity
Than that of thought. Suppose that you have seen
The well-appointed king at Hampton pier
Embark his royalty; and his brave fleet
With silken streamers the young Phoebus fanning.
Play with your fancies, and in them behold
Upon the hempen tackle shipboys climbing:
Hear the shrill whistle which doth order give
To sounds confused; behold the threaden sails,
Borne with the invisible and creeping wind,
Draw the huge bottoms through the furrowed sea,
Breasting the lofty surge. O, do but think
You stand upon the rivage and behold
A city on the inconstant billows dancing;
For so appears this fleet majestical,
Holding due course to Harfleur. Follow, follow!


"Closure" is Hooey

Is there any evidence that executing murderers brings "closure" to the victims' families?


Dahlia Lithwick:
To the extent the data on the needs of victims suggest anything, it says there is no magical solution, no one-size-fits-all mechanism to afford closure to the victims and survivors of violent crime.
She cites a study by law professor Lynne Henderson:
Looking carefully at the existing psychological data on the needs of victims, Henderson discovered a wide array of victim responses to tragedy, responses that differ from victim to victim and that change significantly over a victim's lifetime. "In light of the existing psychological evidence," Henderson concludes, "common assumptions about crime victims—that they are all 'outraged' and want revenge and tougher law enforcement … fail to address the experience and real needs of past victims."
The government really played up the "closure" angle in the trial and execution of Timothy McVay, allowing victims' families to watch McVay's death via closed-circuit tv. Those who opposed his execution were shrugged off:
The survivors of the Oklahoma City bombings who didn't want to see Timothy McVeigh executed were not permitted to offer victim-impact statements at his sentencing. As Bruce Shapiro pointed out in this 1997 essay in Salon, the terror trial that made "victim closure" a national buzzword was structured such that "any victim or relative who wanted to play a part in the sentencing phase of the trial first had to pass a death-penalty loyalty test."
There is a voice for sanity here, an organization of people who have become death penalty opponents after executions they sought did nothing to bring peace to their lives. They call themselves "Murder Victims' Families for Human Rights." They have just issued a report arguing that executions only create more victims:
Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights released a report entitled “Creating More Victims: How Executions Hurt the Families Left Behind.” Families of the executed are victims, too, according to the new report, which draws upon the stories of three dozen family members of inmates executed in the United States and demonstrates that their experiences and traumatic symptoms resemble those of many others who have suffered a violent loss. “I don’t think people understand what executions do to the families of the person being executed,” says Billie Jean Mayberry, one of the family members featured in the report. Mayberry’s brother, Robert Coe, was executed in Tennessee in 2000. “To us, our brother was murdered right in front of our eyes. It changed all of our lives.”
There was an amusing moment in one of my family gatherings a few years back, when my conservative father and I started to argue about the death penalty and the whole room immediately emptied. But it turned out we had a lot of common ground, because we both think that if the state is going to execute people it should be for a state purpose, not because of some psychological crap about helping the victims' relatives.

Fast Neutrinos and Time Travel

The big science news this week comes from Italy, where a very careful experiment called OPERA seemed to show that neutrinos travel a little bit faster than light. Nobody can find a flaw in the experiment, and it confirms a less certain finding from an American experiment done back in 2007. Still, not everyone is convinced:
Many experiments have looked for particles traveling faster than light speed in the past and have come up empty-handed. Most troubling for OPERA is a separate analysis of a pulse of neutrinos from a nearby supernova known as 1987a. If the speeds seen by OPERA were achievable by all neutrinos, then the pulse from the supernova would have shown up years earlier than the exploding star's flash of light; instead, they arrived within hours of each other.
So the result may be wrong. If it is correct, then there is something wrong with Einstein's theory of special relativity. If there is something wrong with special relativity, there is a big hole in all of our physics, because special relativity is, in our models, the bookkeeping by which the universe make sure that effects follow causes, and that the laws of science are the same for everyone. If it does not hold, there may be ways in which those laws can be very different for some observers in some situations -- a very big can of worms.

A lot of the secondary news about this story focused on time travel. This is because in Einstein's model, the closer you are traveling to the speed of light, the slower time passes for you. If you could travel exactly the speed of light, the equations imply, time for you would be frozen. Some people think this means that if you traveled faster than light, you would be traveling backward in time.

But this is, as my wife says, "just math." At the speed of light the equations break down and generate zero or infinite results, so one shouldn't place too much confidence in them. And the whole business of particles traveling back in time is a purely mathematical construct. If you graph the relationship between a particle's speed and the passage of time, it approaches closer and closer to an axial line representing the speed of light. (Imagine the old x/y plane from high school algebra.) Mathematically, this curve also has a negative version on the other side of the axis, and this mirror image might (might) represent particles traveling faster than light. But since nobody has, until now (maybe), seen a particle traveling faster than light, it would be dangerous to assume that they obey laws we understand. Remember that the backward in time business is not Einstein's own interpretation of special relativity; he thought special relativity made faster than light travel impossible. So any predictions special relativity makes about things traveling faster than light should not be taken too seriously.

And yet one more caveat: neutrinos are weird little things that interact very weakly with other matter -- trillions of them pass through your body every second -- so even if they can sometimes travel faster than light, other kinds of matter (like us) still may not be able to.