Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Euro Death Watch

Ezra Klein: So is there any way to hold the euro zone together?

Austan Goolsbee: No, there probably isn’t. If you look at the history, there have been places where what would seem to be not-optimal currency areas have stayed together. North and South Italy would seem to be one. But those tend to entail large, permanent subsidies from the rich side to the poor side, and a general social willingness to put up with these vast differences, usually because they’re all of the same nation state, and you have that mobility aspect. It’s harder to apply that model to Europe.

Barney Frank is a Jerk

Barney Frank is really funny and has fought for a lot of things that I believe in, but amidst the all the accolades being passed around at his retirement, it is worth remembering that he is not a nice man.

Dana Milbank:
Barney Frank, liberal lion, gay pioneer and respected legislator, is also one mean and ornery S.O.B.

The media tributes to Frank have been generally glowing, praising his “authenticity and intelligence” and “his ability to cut the opposition in half without breaking an intellectual sweat.”

No question, Frank is one of the smartest on Capitol Hill and probably the most colorful. But he is also one of the most notorious bullies, known for berating staff, alienating allies and causing aides to cower in fear of his gratuitous and frequent browbeatings.

It is fun to watch all those video clips of Frank shouting down hecklers and tossing one-liners at Republicans, but that was not just his public personality. He was equally rude to just about everyone, from senators to waitresses.

Karl Rove, who knows as much about nastiness as anybody, recognized a kindred spirit in Frank:
Brilliant, but acid tongued and generally unpleasant, Mr. Frank ruled with an iron gavel, ran over critics with delight and treated committee members and especially Republican colleagues as lesser forms of life.
I mention this because of my ongoing effort to understand that people are complex and that good always comes mixed with bad. Frank was able to thrive as our first openly gay Congressman partly because he so much enjoyed shouting matches; if somebody called him a faggot, he shot back that the heckler's mother was a neanderthal. In an era when so many people have thin skins and are always getting offended by trivial slights, Barney Frank had a rhino's hide and an adder's tongue. This is partly why he seems so fresh and funny. Going for humor means taking a risk, and the funniest jokes are often the meanest or most disgusting. An expert in cutting humor, like Frank, will often cross the line and hurt people. When his victims are prominent politicians or obnoxious hecklers, we laugh, but imagine what it must be like to be one of his junior staffers. And if we really want Congressmen from the two parties to work together to get things done, Frank's absence will probably help.

I will miss Frank; I have a pretty thick skin myself and enjoy his cutting humor. But I'm glad I never had to work for him.

David Hockney

An entity called The Other Art Fair just commissioned a poll of 1,000 British artists, asking them which other British artists, living or dead, had the biggest influence on their own work. The second choice was J.M.W. Turner; the first was David Hockney. This warmed my heart because I despise many of the stars of 20th-century British art but really like David Hockney. A work like Garrowby Hill (above, 1998) strikes what I find to be a perfect poise between realism and abstraction, and it seems happy within feeling maudlin. Hockney was born in 1937 and is still very active. He has been painting for a long time and his style has changed over the years, as you can see in these pictures.

Above, an early work, Eccleshill (1957). Some of Hockney's paintings from this period have the intentionally shocking ugliness of so much 50s art, but, hey, he was young, and he grew out of it.

In the 60s Hockney did some weirdly cartoonish, slapdash-looking works like Grand Procession of Dignataries in the Semi-Egyptian Style, 1961.

He came to America in 1963 and lived in California for a few years, during which he painted swimming pools and beach scenes in acrylics, in a sort of slickly stylized realism, as in Nick Wilder, 1966.

Mt. Fuji and Flowers, 1972.

In the late 70s and 80s he did some cubist-looking works, like Large Interior, Los Angeles, 1988.

In the 90s, at the age of over 50, he began to paint in the style that does so much for me. Above, The Road to York through Sledmere, 1997. This is the work that heads off the paintings section of Hockney's web site.

Jonathan Silver, 1997.

A Bigger Grand Canyon, 1998.

The Mosque at Cordova, 2004.

Woldgate Woods, 2006.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Viking Age Cemetery at Bodzia, Poland

A cemetery consisting entirely of well-appointed chamber graves has recently been excavated at Bodzia in central Poland, not far from the Vistula River. The cemetery dates to the late tenth and early eleventh centuries, and based on the artifacts these people seem to have been Viking invaders:
Weapons were found in the men's graves, i.e. swords of Viking type, langsax (one-edged sword), pickaxe, as well as finds associated with trade. The quality of the grave equipment and features of the funeral rites indicate that the individuals buried in the cemetery were members of the elite — warriors and their family members settled in the Polish territory. Many aspects of the grave goods show close parallels with eastern territories (Kiev Rus) as well as a Scandinavian provenance. The quality of the weapons indicates the high social status of the individuals buried at Bodzia and a wide circle of commercial contacts.
The cemetery consists of rows of "chamber graves," which are like rooms dug into the soil, often lined with wood, within which coffins and grave goods are placed. The chamber is then roofed over, usually with wood, and buried. At Bodzia the coffins were wooden boxes with iron fittings. There was evidence of above-ground wooden enclosures over the tombs, "perhaps fences or houses of the dead." Above is the richest tomb, a young man who died by violence buried with a female companion:
This is shown by the high quality of his ceremonial sword, with silver incrustation and belt fittings which was covered at one end with braid ornaments, while the other end bears a tamga (kinship sign) representing a dvuzub (bident) with a cross — presumably indicating affiliation with the Rurikovitch dynasty. [Grand Princes of Kiev] The man died from injuries evidenced by traces of cuts on his skull and a broken jaw.
A silver pouch amulet or kaptorga. At top is a necklace made of silver, carnelian, and quartz.

Morris Davis, American Hero

Morris Davis spent 25 years in the Air Force legal service, ending up as the chief military prosecutor at Guantánamo. In that position he took the courageous position, in October 2007, of refusing to use evidence obtained through torture. Later that year a torture advocate was named his boss, and he resigned.

For that alone Davis deserves our admiration, but his further adventures in the government have given him another chance to stand up for all of us. After leaving the Air Force Davis became a researcher with the Library of Congress. Quietly plugging away at his job during the day, Davis spent some of his nights writing an op-ed that appeared in the Wall Street Journal and a letter to the Washington Post. The op-ed begins:
This past Sunday, Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the administration will decide by Nov. 16 which Guantanamo detainees will be tried in military commissions trials, and which of them will stand trial in federal courts. But a decision to use both legal settings is a mistake. It will establish a dangerous legal double standard that gives some detainees superior rights and protections, and relegates others to the inferior rights and protections of military commissions. This will only perpetuate the perception that Guantanamo and justice are mutually exclusive. . . .

Double standards don't play well in Peoria. They won't play well in Peshawar or Palembang either. We need to work to change the negative perceptions that exist about Guantanamo and our commitment to the law. Formally establishing a legal double standard will only reinforce them.
Peter Van Buren takes up the story:

In December 2008, Davis went to work as a researcher at the Library of Congress in the Foreign Affairs, Defense and Trade Division. None of his work was related to Guantanamo. He was not a spokesperson for, or a public face of, the library. He was respected at work. Even the people who fired him do not contest that he did his “day job” as a researcher well.

On November 12, 2009, the day after his op-ed and letter appeared, Davis was told by his boss that the pieces had caused the library concern over his “poor judgment and suitability to serve… not consistent with 'acceptable service'" -- as the letter of admonishment he received put the matter. It referred only to his op-ed and Washington Post letter, and said nothing about his work performance as a researcher. One week later, Davis was fired.

With the help of the ACLU, Davis is suing to get his job back. He will probably win, too since there is a clear precedent, the 1968 Supreme Court case Pickering vs. Board of Education.

What a disgrace that the leaders of Thomas Jefferson's library fire their employees for exercising the rights Jefferson defended so eloquently. I can't even see what is so inflammatory about Davis' piece; he didn't call for prosecution of Cheney and Addington as war criminals (as I have) or denounce America as the Great Satan, he just said the government should not decide what kind of trial to give detainees based on how good the evidence against them is. Fortunately, a man who stood up against the Bush-Cheney torture regime had plenty of guts to stand up to the Librarian of Congress.

Things that Come to Light when the Lake Falls

In Texas, the drought has caused the water level in some lakes to fall by more than 20 feet, and all sorts of sunken things have come to the surface:
On a recent Saturday, Mr. Mewbourn, a longtime rancher in this rural unincorporated community about 90 minutes southeast of Dallas, took a boat to the middle of the lake with two of his grandsons. They confirmed that the small object they thought at first might be a barrel was indeed a car. Mr. Mewbourn called a local constable, and with the help of a diver and a tow truck, the vehicle was slowly dragged out. Inside, still buckled into the driver’s seat, were the remains of Brenda Kay Oliver, who had been missing since July 2008. . . .

In East Texas at Lake Nacogdoches, which has dropped 12 feet in the drought, residents stumbled onto a much larger object in late July. It was a spherical aluminum tank, four feet in diameter, that was cracked on top and sat in the mud at the lake’s edge. NASA officials later determined that it was a piece of debris from the space shuttle Columbia, which disintegrated during re-entry in 2003, killing the seven astronauts aboard.

How Cheap Cocaine Makes us Safer

Llewellyn Hinkes-Jones has a new theory about why crime rates have fallen in America: cocaine is now so cheap that dealers find it no longer worth the time to fight for turf. The street price of cocaine in US cities fell from than 70 percent from 1984 to 1995 (it has fallen more since), and competition from meth, oxycontin, and other drugs led to falling demand. Business at some urban drug markets has gotten so slow that Post reporters found most of the street dealers they talked to made less than one sale a day, hardly worth risking death over.

I'm not convinced, but it's an interesting angle.

Sabotage in Iran?

On November 12, Iranian authorities announced that there had been an 'accidental explosion' at a missile base near the city of Malard. But recent satellite images show very extensive destruction at the site; take a look at these before and after photos:

I'm no expert, but that looks to me like the result of more than just an accidental explosion.

Iran has been hit by a rash of explosions over the past few years, especially at oil facilities. The authorities have called them all 'accidents,' but some observers say there have been too many for that:
. . . increasingly strict sanctions prohibiting Western companies from maintaining key installations in Iran could also be to blame. “Now, many projects are finished by Iranian companies without observing safety standards,” said Reza Zandi, an Iranian journalist who specializes in energy issues.

“There is clearly an increase in incidents in recent years,” said Mohammad Abumohsen, an inspector of oil and gas pipelines.

At least 17 gas pipeline explosions have been reported since last year, compared with three in 2008 and 2009. At the same time, nearly a dozen major explosions have damaged refineries since 2010.
Others think this is the work of saboteurs. Suspicion naturally falls on the Israelis and the CIA, but if so they must be covering their tracks well; Iran would surely trumpet any captured Israeli or American agents, or proof that they were at work in the country.

Very murky goings on, indeed.

The Pillar of Eliseg

The Pillar of Eliseg is a medieval stone monument in the narrow valley of the Nant Eglwyseg in northeast Wales. It was once a cross, but the arms were broken off long ago. It is near the ruins of the Valle Crucis monastery, which was named after this cross. The Pillar once bore a long Latin inscription saying that the cross was raised by Concenn, ruler of the kingdom of Powys, in memory of his great-grandfather, Eliseg. According to the Welsh king lists, Concenn died in AD 854. The Pillar seems to be within its original base, which is on an ancient mound. The Pillar was investigated by the local landowner, Thomas Lloyd, in 1773, and he is supposed to have found a burial in a small stone chamber, with a silver disc.

More excavations have been carried out at the site just recently, by Project Eliseg, a cooperative venture of two Welsh universities. Their works showed that much of the mound has been disturbed, presumably by the aforesaid Thomas Lloyd, but they did find intact areas that resembled the soils of neolithic mounds. Unfortunately, they found no artifacts.

The text of the pillar inscription is no longer legible, but it was transcribed by the seventeenth-century antiquary Edward Lhuyd. It celebrated the lineage of Concenn's dynasty, connecting them to various figures of Welsh history and legend, including the Roman usurper Magnus Maximus, the Dark Age ruler Guarthigirn (Vortigern) and Guarthigirn’s son Britu whom Saint Germanus blessed. Eliseg, or Elisedd as he appears in other texts, is celebrated for some sort of victory over the Angles. Surely that is a clue to the reason for the erection of the cross. Concenn must have wanted to emphasize his connection with an ancestor who fought the English invaders successfully, claiming the mantle of warrior against the Angles for himself -- was a new war brewing? Did he have a rival who favored peaceful relations? Was he asserting a claim to land Eliseg had conquered or defended? The choice of the ancient mound for the location is also interesting; no doubt this was a place around which many legends swirled of ancient times.

Lluyd's translation of the text:
† Concenn son of Cattell, Cattell son of Brochmail, Brochmail son of Eliseg, Eliseg son of Guoillauc.
† And that Concenn, great-grandson of Eliseg, erected this stone for his great-grandfather Eliseg.
† The same Eliseg, who joined together the inheritance of Powys . . . throughout nine (years?) out of the power of the Angles with his sword and with fire.
† Whosoever shall read this hand-inscribed stone, let him give a blessing on the soul of Eliseg.
† This is that Concenn who captured with his hand eleven hundred acres [4.5 km²] which used to belong to his kingdom of Powys . . . and which . . . . . . the mountain

[the column is broken here. One line, possibly more, lost]

. . . the monarchy . . . Maximus . . . of Britain . . . Concenn, Pascent, Maun, Annan.
† Britu son of Vortigern, whom Germanus blessed, and whom Sevira bore to him, daughter of Maximus the king, who killed the king of the Romans.
† Conmarch painted this writing at the request of king Concenn.
† The blessing of the Lord be upon Concenn and upon his entire household, and upon the entire region of Powys until the Day of Judgement.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Lynn Margulis in Her Own Words

Edge has up on their web site a complete essay by Lynn Margulis, a chapter titled "Gaia Is A Tough Bitch" that she wrote for a book on scientific controversies. (My thoughts on Margulis are here.) A sample:

The neo-Darwinists say that variation originates from random mutation, defining mutation as any genetic change. By randomness they mean that characters appear randomly in offspring with respect to selection: if an animal needs a tail, it doesn't develop this tail because it needs it; rather, the animal randomly develops all sorts of changes and those with tails survive to produce more offspring. H.J. Muller, in the 1920s, discovered that not only do X rays increase the fruit-fly mutation rate, but even if fruit flies are isolated completely from X rays, solar radiation, and other environmental perturbation, a spontaneous mutation rate can be measured. Inherited variants do appear spontaneously; they have nothing to do with whether or not they're good for the organism in which they appear. Mutation was then touted as the source of variation- -that upon which natural selection acted — and the neo-Darwinian theory was declared complete. The science remaining required filling in the gaps in a "theory" with very few holes.

From many experiments, it is known that if mutagens like X rays or certain chemicals are presented to fruit flies, sick and dead flies result. No new species of fly appears — that is the real rub. Everyone agrees that such mutagens produce inherited variation. Everyone agrees that natural selection acts on this variation. The question is, From where comes the useful variation upon which selection acts? This problem has not yet been solved. But I claim that most significant inherited variation comes from mergers — from what the Russians, especially Konstantin S. Mereschkovsky, called symbiogenesis and the American Ivan Emanuel Wallin called symbionticism. Wallin meant by the term the incorporation of microbial genetic systems into progenitors of animal or plant cells. The new genetic system — a merger between microbe and animal cell or microbe and plant cell — is really different from the ancestral cell that lacks the microbe. Analogous to improvements in computer technology, instead of starting from scratch to make all new modules again, the symbiosis idea is an interfacing of preexisting modules. Mergers result in the emergence of new and more complex beings. I doubt new species form just from random mutation.

Bat and Al-Ayn: Bronze Age Oman

Perusing a list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites, I stumbled across The Archaeological Sites of Bat, Al-Khutm, and Al-Ayn, an archaeological district in Oman. Bat is an oasis town in the interior of the country, and Al-Khutm and Al-Ayn are nearby sites notable for their impressive beehive tombs. The Bronze Age culture of this region is called Umm an-Nar, after a site in Abu Dhabi. Those are the tombs of Al-Ayn above.

The view of Bat from Al-Ayn; click to enlarge.

In the settlement of Bat, excavations uncovered numerous small, rectangular houses and several larger, round, fortified houses that might once have been towers. The site dates to 2600 to 2200 BC. Civilization developed in this area because of trade with Mesopotamia, especially in copper, which is common in the area.

These settlements in Oman were probably the land refered to in Sumerian texts as Magan:
In the 1950s Danish archaeologists excavating grave mounds in Bahrain, northwest of Oman, found 4,200-year-old settlements and temples of the city-state of Dilmun, known as the city of the gods in ancient Sumerian literature. Their 1959 discovery on the island of Umm an-Nar off Abu Dhabi of a second, previously unknown culture contemporary with Dilmun was unexpected. At the site an outer wall enclosed circular graves, 15 to 40 feet in diameter and often two stories high, in which as many as 30 people were buried. Spurred on by the discoveries at Dilmun and Umm an-Nar, Danish archaeologists excavated 200 single-chambered burial cairns in 1961 near Jabal Hafit on the Oman-United Arab Emirates border. There they discovered a culture earlier than that of Dilmun or Umm an-Nar. Excavation yielded jars with geometric designs painted in black, white, and plum red; copper and bronze pins; and stone and faience beads. The jars were the same type as those used in southern Mesopotamia around 3000 B.C. Unfortunately there is little trace of the ancient settlements associated with these tombs.

Was Oman the land of Magan, which appears in Sumerian cuneiform texts ca. 2300 B.C. as a source of copper and diorite for the flourishing city-states of Mesopotamia? These texts tell us that ships with a cargo capacity of 20 tons sailed up the Arabian Gulf, stopping at Dilmun to take on fresh water before continuing to Mesopotamia. They also say that Magan lay south of Sumer and Dilmun, was frequented by Indus Valley travelers, and had high mountains from which diorite or gabbro for black statues was quarried. Research since the 1970s has located significant copper deposits and more than 150 medieval Islamic smelting sites. Excavations by the German Mining Museum have identified numerous Magan-period (2500-2000 B.C.) slag heaps under tons of medieval slag and third millennium remains from mining and smelting at the oasis village of Maysar in central-eastern Oman. A hoard of bun-shaped copper ingots found in a small fireplace indicates the form in which copper was traded.

The "tower" of Al-Khutm.

Pondering President Gingrich

David Frum:
As Speaker of the House, Gingrich was notorious for his indiscipline. Where he does excel is in the use of rhetoric to divide and provoke. Take, for example, his musing last September in front of reporters: “What if [Obama] is so outside our comprehension, that only if you understand Kenyan, anti-colonial behaviour, can you begin to piece together [his actions]? … That is the most accurate, predictive model for his behavior.”

Back in the 1990s, Gingrich made himself one of the most disliked figures in the recent history of American politics. As American political commentator Jay Cost reminds us, within 24 months of becoming Speaker, Gingrich had forced a shutdown of the federal government and sunk to an approve/disapprove rating of negative 25. There Gingrich languished through ethics challenges, impeachment and the revelation that he’d been carrying on an extra-marital affair while attacking Bill Clinton’s own sexual misconduct.

A Gingrich presidency, if such a thing can even be imagined, would be a chaotic catastrophe. A Gingrich nomination would yield an Obama landslide.

The Crazy Ways Prosecutors Try to Avoid Admitting Error

Andrew Martin has a piece in the Times with more stories on the reluctance of prosecutors to admit that they convicted an innocent man:

More often, though, the fate of an inmate with powerful new evidence of innocence still rests with local prosecutors, some of whom have spun creative theories to explain away the exculpatory findings. In Nassau County on Long Island, after DNA evidence showed that the sperm in a 16-year-old murder victim did not come from the man convicted of the crime, prosecutors argued that it must have come from a consensual lover, even though her mother and best friend insisted she was a virgin. (The unnamed-lover theory has been floated so often that defense lawyers have a derisive term for it: “the unindicted co-­ejaculator.”) In Florida, after DNA showed that the pubic hairs at the scene of a rape did not belong to the convicted rapist, prosecutors argued that the hairs found on the victim’s bed could have come from movers who brought furniture to the bedroom a week or so earlier.

“They essentially argued that there were naked movers,” said Nina Morrison, a senior staff lawyer at the Innocence Project, a New York-based group that seeks to exonerate wrongfully convicted inmates.

Why prosecutors sometimes fight post-conviction evidence so adamantly depends on each case. Some legitimately believe the new evidence is not exonerating. But legal scholars looking at the issue suggest that prosecutors’ concerns about their political future and a culture that values winning over justice also come into play. “They are attached to their convictions,” Garrett says, “and they don’t want to see their work called into question.”

Challenged with evidence that seemed to show one convicted man's innocence, an Illinois prosecutor said, "The taxpayers don’t pay us for intellectual curiosity. They pay us to get convictions."

More on this subject here.

David Foster Wallace's Syllabi

Readers who have ever taught literature or writing might be interested in David Foster Wallace's syllabi for the courses he taught in modern literature, some of which are being posted online (here and here). He was a fan of the very long, very explicit syllabus. A sample follows, a three-page description of one paper assignment (click to enlarge).

As you might expect, given his fascination with pop culture, Wallace assigned books like The Silence of the Lambs, Carrie, and Lonesome Dove, as well as Kafka and D.H. Lawrence. On the other hand he had a very conservative approach to teaching literature: close reading, analyzing themes and symbolism, class discussion, lots of papers. His syllabi include grim rules about late papers and warnings about missing class, but on the other hand he says his average grade has been in the B to B- range. Some of Wallace's own stories are very free-wheeling in form and deal with strange people or obscure subcultures, which gave him the reputation of a rebel writer, but his paper assignments include precise rules about what must go on the title page and warnings that messy work will be handed back, unread, for revision.

Voting in Egypt

Egypt's first post-Mubarak election is under way. The system is complex and murky, with three rounds of voting for the Parliament and three others for a weak upper house, and I think it's safe to say nobody knows how this will work out. The complexity may be a mechanism to allow interference by the military or their friends in the judiciary, or it may be intended to keep any one party from winning an outright majority, forcing behind the scenes coalition building. So far observers report little obvious fraud or intimidation, and a high turnout.

Not the Best Healthcare in the World

Robert Samuelson has the numbers from the latest OECD report:
U.S. health spending (about $7,960 per person in 2009) is in a league of its own. It’s 50 percent higher than Norway’s ($5,352), the next costliest. U.S. spending is more than double Britain’s ($3,487), France’s ($3,978) and the OECD average ($3,233).

Despite this, Americans aren’t notably healthier than people in other advanced countries, the study reports. Life expectancy in the United States (78.2 years) lags behind Japan’s (83 years) and the OECD average (79.5 years). It roughly equals Chile’s and the Czech Republic’s. . . .

What propels U.S. health spending upward? The OECD’s answer comes in two parts: steep prices and abundant provision of some expensive services. In 2007, an appendectomy cost $7,962 in the United States, $5,004 in Canada and $2,943 in Germany. A coronary angioplasty cost $14,378 in the United States, compared with $9,296 in Sweden and $7,027 in France. A knee replacement was $14,946 in the United States, $12,424 in France and $9,910 in Canada. Knee replacements in the United States were almost twice as common per 100,000 population as in the rest of the OECD. So were MRI exams and angioplasties.

This is a devastating portrait. At times, the U.S. health care system delivers the worst of both worlds: pay more, get less. Unfortunately, the message isn’t new. America’s fragmented and overspecialized health system maximizes returns to providers — doctors, hospitals, drug companies — but not to society. Fee-for-service reimbursement allows providers to reconcile their ethical duty (more care for patients) and economic self-interest (higher incomes). The more they do, the more they earn. Restraints are few, because patients and providers both resist limits on their choices. Government regulators and private insurers are too weak to control costs.

I disagree with Samuelson about almost everything, but in this case I think he nails the choice we face: we can either try to create real competition between health care plans, which means giving private health insurers the freedom to cover only certain services, and to include only certain doctors and hospitals, or we go to a single payer system in which the government sets costs for all services and limits what it will pay for. For reasons I explain here, I think competition will never work in health insurance. That leaves a single payer system, or some other system in which the government fixes prices, as the only real alternative.

Either way, somebody other than doctors and patients has to decide which treatments will be covered. Americans' sacred faith that these decisions should always be made by doctors and patients, with somebody else picking up the tab, has to be abandoned.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Doors of 7 Gracie Square

Arthur Crisp was a Canadian who came to New York in 1900, in pursuit of artistic fame and fortune. He never did very well as an artist, but he did become a successful real estate developer. This allowed him to commission himself to create art works for his buildings. This is the front door Crisp designed for his building at 7 Gracie Square on East 84th Street, installed in 1929 and recently restored to its original glory.

We are a Social Species, Especially when it Comes to Raising Children

Melvin Konner reviews Mothers and Others: The Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding by Sarah Hrdy:
The ethnological record shows that the nuclear family, although not rare, has not been common either, and it has always occurred within a broader social setting. Polygynous families (with two or more wives), polyandrous families (with two or more husbands), extended families under a single roof, mother-child households in a compound comprising several wives of a powerful man, and other arrangements have long shown that isolated nuclear households—mom, dad, kids—are not necessarily the human norm.

Likewise, the working mother has always been a central part of the human scene, and the classic stay-at-home mom of 1950s television may have been limited to Western cultures in that era. Women gathered, gardened, farmed, fished, built huts, made clothing and other necessities, even hunted in some cultures, in addition to caring for children and performing other domestic duties. Mothers often could not discharge these duties without help. Our species is not unique in caring for offspring cooperatively, but our great ape cousins don’t do it, and we take it to extraordinary levels.

Hrdy on the experience of infants among the!Kung:

From their position on the mother’s hip they have available to them her entire social world…. When the mother is standing, the infant’s face is just at the eye-level of desperately maternal 10- to 12-year-old girls who frequently approach and initiate brief, intense, face-to-face interactions, including mutual smiling and vocalization. When not in the sling they are passed from hand to hand around a fire for similar interactions with one adult or child after another. They are kissed on their faces, bellies, genitals, sung to, bounced, entertained, encouraged, even addressed at length in conversational tones long before they can understand words.

Hrdy is much taken with an explanation of human evolution that focuses on cooperative child raising, and I think that is overblown. Humans do everything cooperatively, from baby care to war. Our cooperation is facilitated by our greatest invention, language, and made possible all of our achievements. I don't see why we should focus on any one type of cooperation as the evolutionary driver. Humans are also, as Konner hints in his list of family types, remarkably flexible, able to do even fundamental things like marriage and infant care in a thousand different ways. It is almost always a mistake to hold up one model of family life as the inescapable norm, because somewhere some human group has done it differently and gotten by quite well. The one thing that defines our experience across all human societies is our cooperative nature. Through language we connect to those around us, through culture and memory and writing we connect to others far away and long dead. The accumulation of shared knowledge made it possible for hunter-gatherers to survive in deserts, jungles and tundra, and it has now carried us to the moon. What is uniquely human resides, not in any individual, but in all of us together.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Curiosity Lifts Off for Mars

You can watch the flawless Atlas V launch here. Signals have been received by NASA indicating that the spacecraft is on its way to Mars and functioning properly. Arrival at Mars is scheduled for next August.

Furness Hoard

English metal detectorists are finding ancient hoards so fast that it is hard to keep them all straight. This Viking hoard, from the Furness Peninsula in Cumbria, northern England, seems to be different from another Cumbrian hoard announced last month, which I blogged about here. Preliminary analysis dates this hoard to around AD 955, when Vikings in the area were under attack by King Athelstan of England.

RIP Lynn Margulis

Lynn Margulis (1938-2011) was one of those rare people who managed to be both a Nobel-caliber scientist and a nut. She spent a great deal of time thinking about bacteria, and emerged with a view of life much different from the standard Darwinian picture. To Margulis, bacteria were the norm of life, and everything else an anomaly that needed to be explained. In her view most of the evolution that matters took place among bacteria, before cells with nuclei even existed. All of the crucial systems that sustain life, from photosynthesis to cell division, were pioneered by bacteria, and they developed the crucial organic molecules, like DNA, and RNA, proteins. As she liked to point out, all animals share one metabolic system in their cells, but among bacteria there are more than a dozen. Bacteria, she thought, evolved mainly by mechanisms other than natural selection, sharing useful genes with each other and forming symbiotic partnerships rather than competing to the death.

Margulis is best known for her theory about how eukaryotic cells (cells with nuclei) evolved. She believed that they are the result of an ancient symbiosis among bacteria, so that mitochondria and chloroplasts are the descendants of what were once free-living cells:
In addition to the nuclear DNA, which is the human genome, each of us also has mitochondrial DNA. Our mitochondria, a completely different lineage, are inherited only from our mothers. None of our mitochondrial DNA comes from our fathers. Thus, in every fungus, animal, or plant (and in most protoctists), at least two distinct genealogies exist side by side. That, in itself, is a clue that at some point these organelles were distinct microorganisms that joined forces.
This has become orthodoxy, but back in 1966 her original paper was rejected by 15 journals. Sex, she thought, might have begun when one bacterium tried to swallow another:
Sex began when unfavorable seasonal changes in the environment caused our protoctist predecessors to engage in attempts at cannibalism that were only partially successful. The result was a monster bearing the cells and genes of at least two individuals (as does the fertilized egg today) ... Those microbial ancestors that fused survived, whereas those that evaded sexual liaisons died.
Both of these famous theories are facets of Margulis' general idea that microbial evolution happens by cooperation more than by competition. Her ideas in this area have been widely accepted, and it has become common to imagine that the first stage of life's evolution happened among cooperate, gene-sharing organisms. Margulis' nuttiness came in when she argued that the evolution of animals and plants happens in the same way. For most biologists, multi-cellular life is the domain of Darwinism and survival of the fittest, and they reject the notion that gene-sharing is a significant driver of evolutionary change among birds or cacti. One of Margulis' books has an introduction by another biologist, inserted at the publisher's insistence, arguing that the kind of evolution she was positing had never been observed to occur.

Margulis was scathing about promoters of the neo-Darwinian systhesis, saying that it would one day be thought of as "a minor twentieth-century religious sect within the sprawling religious persuasion of Anglo-Saxon Biology." A view of evolution based on multi-cellular organisms, she thought, was "500 million years out of date." According to John Horgan,
She ridiculed the suggestion of Ernst Mayr, Richard Dawkins and other ultra-Darwinians that evolutionary biology might be nearing completion, in terms of not requiring any major additions or revisions. “They’re finished,” Margulis declared, “but that’s just a small blip in the 20th century history of biology rather than a full-fledged and valid science.”
Her general pose of opposition to orthodoxy carried over into politics, where she was an ally of 9-11 "truth seekers," and medicine, where she denied that HIV causes AIDS.

Margulis became a promoter of the Gaia hypothesis, not so much in the spiritual sense but in the sense that all life was to her an interconnected system in which mutual dependence is a more important factor than competition. Such a view requires a very remote perspective on life, since from the point of view of the individual or even the species competition matters very much -- when eaten by a tiger, we are unlikely to derive much solace from the notion that life is ultimately cooperative. A friend of mine and I both read an article by Margulis in which she says that organisms are just "vortices in the energy gradient by which solar energy is radiated back into space," and now whenever our conversation takes a grim turn one of us usually says, "But then, we're really just vortices in the energy gradient anyway." I suppose bacteriology encourages the view that individuals are of no importance, and that what matters is the long-term interactions of millions of organisms from thousands of species.

Margulis was married twice, the first time to astronomer Carl Sagan, another person who was both a successful scientist and a nut. Sad to think that two people so much alike could not get along, but maybe the ways that they were alike (stubbornness, fascination with new and radical ideas, impatience with orthodoxy) are not ways that are conducive to long-term marital happiness, and both were very devoted to their careers.

For science to progress, we need people like Lynn Margulis to develop and promote unorthodox ideas. But we also need boring, sane, rigorous people to test those ideas and reject the ones that don't match up with reality.

Supercommittee Finger Pointing

The Supercommittee Republicans have an op-ed out blaming the Democrats for their failure. Their own argument tell you all you need to know about the problem with today's Republicans:
Republicans offered a proposal that would have both reformed the current code and produced significant new tax revenue. . . . The essence of the plan was to dramatically reduce the deductions and credits wealthier taxpayers can claim to reduce their tax liability. That would generate enough revenue to both permanently reduce marginal rates for all taxpayers and provide more than $250 billion for deficit reduction.
But, see, $250 billion over ten years is not "significant new tax revenue." In exchange for accepting this pittance of a tax increase, the Republicans demanded that all of the Bush tax cuts be made permanent, which is, over ten years, a $3.8 trillion tax cut. Not only that, but their plan did not even specify which deductions and credits were actually going to be curtailed. It is not just a pittance but a mirage of a pittance. And because it reduces tax rates, it would mean a tax cut for billionaires, who are beyond the point where deductions mean anything to them.

According to this piece, the Democrats were insisting on at least $1 trillion in new taxes. The Republicans make this sound like a bad thing, but I think $1 trillion is not nearly enough. The plan Obama campaigned on, and won the election on, was to let the cuts expire for people with incomes over $250,000, and that would raise $1.4 trillion. Like Mayor Bloomberg, I think we should let all the Bush cuts expire. Without trillions in new revenue, there is no way we can move toward a balanced budget and keep the promises we have made to provide for the health care and retirement of older Americans.

The New Domesticity

Emily Machtar, chronicler of what she calls the "new domesticity," has a piece in the Post about the rise of home canning, knitting, and the like among women in their 20s:
My baby boomer mother does not can jam. Or bake bread. Or knit. Or sew. Nor did my grandmother, a 1960s housewife of the cigarette-in-one-hand-cocktail-in-the-other variety, who saw convenience food as a liberation from her immigrant mother’s domestic burdens. . . .

My grandmother died nearly a decade ago, but I can imagine how puzzled she’d be to behold my generation’s newfound mania for old-fashioned domestic work. Around the country, women my age (I’m 29), the daughters and granddaughters of the post-Betty Friedan feminists, are embracing the very homemaking activities our mothers and grandmothers so eagerly shucked off. We’re heading back to jam-canning and knitting needles, both for fun and for a greater sense of control over what we eat and wear. . . .

Jam-canning is just a tiny facet of our domesticity craze. Sales of home canning supplies have risen 35 percent in the past three years, and sales of the “Ball Blue Book Guide to Preserving” (the bible of home canning) have doubled over just the past year, according to the company. There’s the knitting resurgence, the homemade cleaning supplies made using white vinegar, the homemaker blogs. Then there’s all the “Little House on the Prairie” stuff, with its shades of ’70s hippie back-to-the-landism — the beekeeping, the cheesemaking, the urban chickens. When the magazine Backyard Poultry came out with its first issue almost six years ago, it printed 15,000 copies. Today, it prints 113,000.

Just another fad, yes, I know -- we are an easily bored species. But I see this particular fad as another sign that the life offered to us by contemporary capitalism is fundamentally unfulfilling. This may be what my kids would call a "first world problem," but it is a real problem nonetheless. "Getting ahead" -- a better job, more money, a bigger house, a nicer car -- is a sham.

Fortunately our fantastically large and diverse society offers a thousand different places to search for community, meaning, and real, hands-dirtying work, from knitting to home brewing to extreme rock climbing to vintage motorcycle repair. If your life feels fake to you, do something that feels real.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Picasso for Picasso Haters

I have noticed that many scorners of modern art (e.g., my three oldest children) have a particular dislike for Picasso. I suppose this is mainly because he is held up to them in school as a great genius, and they have the adolescent's love of despising whatever their teachers offer to them as great. Since some of Picasso's work looks clumsy and cartoonish, they guffaw -- We're supposed to be impressed by that? And, really, who can blame a 14-year-old with no knowledge of art history or the culture of the early twentieth century for thinking that cubism was stupid? (Above, The Woman with One Eye, 1904.)

I am myself not a huge fan, but I do respect Picasso's talent and I like some of his work. I here offer a sample of things that show his range and ability, and which I think are amazing. (Above, one of the series Scenes from a Bullfight, 1958.

Perhaps schools that want to teach Picasso should tell 14-year-olds that in school Picasso was taught, "you should paint like this and this and this," and he thought, "forget you, I am going to break every single one of your rules and paint however I want and show you that I can still make great art." Fourteen-year-olds might appreciate that. The Family of Saltimbanques, 1905.

Head of a Woman.

Maternity, 1905.

Maternity, 1930.

Study for Mother and Child, 1904.

Minotaur Caressing a Sleeping Woman.

One of the drawings with light Picasso did for Life photographer Gjon Mili in 1949.

Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, 1955.

Portrait of Leo Stein, 1950.

The Tragedy, 1903.

Paul Picasso as a Child, 1923.

Seated Harlequin, 1923

Portrait of Olga, 1919.


And two watercolors.