Saturday, March 31, 2012

Garden at the End of March

Featuring bulbs blooming a month early.




Friday, March 30, 2012

Nick Brandt

Nick Brandt was born in 1966 in London. He moved to the U.S. in 1992 and directed videos for, among others, Michael Jackson. According to wikipedia, it was while shooting a video in Tananzania in 1995 that he fell in love with Africa's wildlife, and for the past decade he has devoted himself to preserving these images of Africa's surviving wild places. Above, Lion under Leaning Tree, 2008.

Cheetah Looking Over the Plains, 2006.

Abandoned Ostrich Egg, Amboseli, 2007.

Elephant with Exploding Dust, 2004.

Many more at Brandt's web site.

Neural Pathways are not so Messy

This image of the left hemisphere of the brain was made by a new technique called diffusion magnetic resonance imaging. According to its inventors, this scant detects the direction of traffic flow along white matter tracts, which are major information conduits in the brain:
The scans revealed that these brain signals form a grid, made up of parallel and perpendicular tracts woven together into curved sheets.
If this is confirmed, it is quite fascinating.

Copyright Lasts too Long

This graph, from Matt Yglesias, tells you all you need to know about how copyright is hurting American culture. Books older than 80 years are pushed by all sorts of classics publishers and can sell well. New books sell well. Books more than 20 years old but less than 80, books that are still under copyright but forgotten by their first publishers, are dead. Why? Neither authors nor readers benefit from this.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Aphrodite at the Getty

Depictions of Aphrodite from a new exhibit at the Getty Villa in Malibu, California. We think of Aphrodite as the goddess of erotic love, but she was more than that: she was part of the divine feminine and had roles in childbirth, marriage, poetic inspiration, and even war. Above, a bronze mirror showing women bathing before a state of the goddess.

The "Bartlett Head," part of a marble statue of Aphrodite from about 300 BC.

This ring shows Aphrodite weighing spirits of love.

Aphrodite Wringing out her Hair, a standard image of which many examples survive. This one is probably from Syria, made between 100 BC and AD 70.

An image of the mysterious "armed Aphrodite," a figure of obscure import, found in southern Italy and dating to around 600 BC.

A relief found in Athens, 400 to 300 BC, showing worshipers approaching the goddess.

Wall fragment from the House of Jupiter at Pompeii, showing the judgment of Paris. This depiction shows Paris' problem: the poor man's brain was addled by the appearance of a naked goddess. No wonder he made such a disastrous decision.

Elitism, Conservatism, and Health Care

Most of you know that before Obamacare became the greatest threat to American freedom in a generation, it was a conservative idea, developed by conservative think tanks as an alternative to a single payer system. David Frum has found lots of conservatives heaping praise on the system in Singapore, which relies on a mandate to buy health insurance and required deposits to private medical savings accounts.

Frum: "The hard part isn't having principles. The hard part is remembering them."

Which brings me to the debate in the Supreme Court over Obamacare. All the conservative justices were expressing grave doubts about the constitutionality of any mandate to buy insurance, a concern that never seems to have surfaced during all the years that the mandate was a conservative idea. It remains to be seen how they will rule, but if they do strike down the law, they will undermine not just any plausible case for the Republican party, but also the case for elitism.

Parroting the current dogma of your party is what I expect from semi-educated primary voters or politicians involved in the thick of partisan combat. But Supreme Court justices are supposed to be better than that. I don't believe in a non-ideological approach to the law, and I expect that every judge will vote his principles. But I at least expect that the better sort of conservative will have a long-term view of what conservatism is. Fulminating against Obamacare may be good conservative politics, but as conservative philosophy it stinks. It amounts to saying that solving the problem of getting health care to all Americans is forbidden to our government. Nay, it is forbidden even to regulate the insurance market in a sensible way. Other governments across the world have managed to solve these problems while spending much less money than we do, but we must sit on our hands while our costs soar and more and more people lose their insurance. What kind of governing philosophy is that?

If Supreme Court justices can't see beyond the momentary partisan fray and vote the long view, what is the point of having a governing elite?

Cave Dwelling Bards, ca. 300 BC

This wooden object is the bridge of a lyre. It was found in a cave on the Island of Skye in Scotland, and radiocarbon dated to around 300 BC. The discoverers are, of course, trumpeting it as a major find:
It pushes the history of complex music back more than a thousand years, into our darkest pre-history. And not only the history of music but more specifically of song and poetry, because that's what such instruments were very often used for.
Actually it does nothing of the kind, since we can trace the European tradition in both music and poetry back long before 300 BC. The Celtic languages have words for stringed instruments that are closely related to the Greek words, which means that Celts and Greeks both had stringed instruments before their languages split, some time before 1000 BC. Ancient Celtic verse is closely related in meter, structure and vocabulary to ancient verse in both Greek and Sanskrit, which takes the Celtic poetic tradition back to before 1500 BC. And that's just what we can prove; poetry and music are hard to document in the Paleolithic record, but since there are no people anywhere in the world who don't have them, they must be tens of thousands of years old. I would be willing to bet that they are as old as Homo sapiens.

I was more interested in where this artifact was found. Iron Age people don't, as a rule, live in caves -- certainly not in miserably damp places like the Isle of Skye. Instead they use them as shelters when they are traveling, or when they are herding sheep in remote pastures. The cave where the lyre was found is called High Pasture Cave, and high pastures are likely places for shepherds to need a roof. That's the opening in the photo above.

Iron Age people also performed religious rites in caves, especially those related to the mother goddess, or the gods of the underworld. The long, narrow channel of High Pasture Cave seems quite suitable for an initiation ritual, or just a spiritually charged journey to a place of meditation.

Archaeological excavations around the mouth of the cave have been carried out for some years. They show that the cave once had a different entrance, which has been blocked. That entrance was improved, probably in the Iron Age, with stone steps. Butchered animal bones suggest that there was feasting around the cave entrance, perhaps preparatory to rites within.



Numerous artifacts have been found in the cave, dating to the Bronze Age and Iron Age periods. Above, an Iron Age potsherd, a granite quern, and a steatite spindle whorl.

Why were people in the cave? Sometimes for ritual reasons, I feel sure. Other times they may have taken shelter in the cave in times of danger. And perhaps at other times it was used by wanderers who needed shelter from a snowstorm. Whether that lyre was used to sing hymns to the goddess, or by shepherds keeping company, or by a lone bard trapped by a storm on the road between noble seats, it evokes for me the ancient past of Britain, and the way men's lives intersect with the landscape they call home.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Guédelon Update

Reading about the effort to build the Plan of St. Gall reminded me of the construction of the Chateau de  Guédelon in France, where work continues at a good pace. Since I last looked at pictures of the site, the roof of the main hall has been finished, and the main focus of stonework has shifted to the great tower.

The carpenters are finishing the interior of the hall.

And working on the doors, like this one for the lord's chamber.

The Plan of St. Gall

The Plan of St. Gall is a manuscript dating to the ninth century that contains a detailed plan for a monastery. It seems to be an ideal rather than an actual plan, and it was certainly never built. The plan was crafted by Abbot Haito of Reichenau, who dedicated it to Gozbert, Abbot of of St. Gall in modern Switzerland from 816 to 836.

This schematic shows the main features. (Click to enlarge.)


The plan has fascinated historians for centuries, and numerous renderings of the plan as both a drawing and a model have been made. Above, an 1877 model in a local museum and a 1965 drawing by Alan Sorrell.

Now a group of Germans is trying to build the plan at full scale, using only the methods of the ninth century. The project's leader, Bert Geurten, has raised enough money to get started, but since the project will take about 40 years, they will have to raise funds successfully for a long time to get this finished. They have no shortage of workers willing to work at sub-standard wages:
Despite the difficult conditions, the project has been swamped with applications. “I’ve had 85 stone masons apply already,” says Geurten. “They all dream of having the chance to work with their hands.” This also applies to the blacksmith. “They won’t be hammering kitschy horseshoes for tourists. The forge must supply the site with tools,” he adds.
Which is another indication of how fake our jobs seems to many of us, and how unfulfilling we find them.

The Domestication of Cattle, 10,500 Years Ago

According to a recent genetic study, all modern cattle, everywhere in the world, descend from fewer than 100 wild cattle domesticated in the Middle East about 10,500 years ago. This might mean that cattle were only domesticated once, by a handful of very brave and stubborn people -- wild cattle were very big and scary -- but then again it might mean that cattle were domesticated several times but one strain had some genetic quirk that made them especially suited for domestic life, so that they eventually replaced all the others.

Today's Scary Insect News: Megalara garuda

A new species of large wasp, Megalara garuda, has been identified in Indonesia. The males are about 6.4 cm (2.5 inches) long, which makes them among the biggest wasps in the world. Besides the usual poisonous stinger they have very large jaws.

Nobody knows what the jaws are for since, no scientist has seen a specimen of this species alive. But the discoverers speculate that the wasps may defend the sites where they bury their eggs against other insects -- in the bug-eat-bug world of the rain forest, there are insects that specialize in finding and eating buried wasp eggs and larvae.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Learning and Longing

"There are some who call my order the knights of the mind," Luwin replied. "You are a surpassing clever boy when you work at it, Bran. Have you ever thought that you might wear a maester's chain? There is no limit to what you might learn."

"I want to learn magic," Bran told him. "The crow promised me I would fly."

Maester Luwin sighed. "I can teach you history, healing, herblore. I can teach you the speech of ravens, and how to build a castle, and the way a sailor steers his ship by the stars. I can teach you to measure the days and mark the seasons, and a thousand things more. But, Bran, no man can teach you magic."
--George R.R. Martin, A Game of Thrones

Good Counsel

Tutor not thyself in science; go to masters for perfection;
Also speak thy thoughts aloud.
Whoso in the glass beholdeth nought besides how own reflection
Bides both ignorant and proud.

Study not in one book only: bee-like, rather, at a hundred
Sources gather honeyed lore:
Thou art else that helpless bird which, when her nest has once been plundered,
Ne'er can build another more.

Translated from the Turkish by James Clarence Mangan (1803-49)

No More Coal Fired Power Plants

The Post:
The Environmental Protection Agency will issue the first limits on greenhouse gas emissions from new power plants as early as Tuesday, according to several people briefed on the proposal. The move could end the construction of conventional coal-fired facilities in the United States.

The proposed rule — years in the making and approved by the White House after months of review — will require any new power plant to emit no more than 1,000 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt of electricity produced. The average U.S. natural gas plant, which emits 800 to 850 pounds of CO2 per megawatt, meets that standard; coal plants emit an average of 1,768 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt. 
Actually there aren't any coal-fired power plants being built anyway, because natural gas is cheap, nobody wants a coal-fired plant built near his house, and power company executives figured that a rule like this was coming eventually. And the rule will have no effect on existing coal-fired plants, some of which will last for decades. But it begins the phase out of coal power in America.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Chapel of the Bones, Evora, Portugal

The Sedlec "Bone Church," is the most famous ossuary in Europe, but there are many other marvelously creepy bone chapels on the continent. This is the Chapel of Bones (Capela dos Ossos) of the church of Sao Francisco, in Evora, Portugal.









Experiment and Theory

Dennis Overbye:
The British astrophysicist Arthur S. Eddington once wrote, “No experiment should be believed until it has been confirmed by theory”. . . .

Eddington’s dictum is not as radical as it might sound. He made it after early measurements of the rate of expansion of the universe made it appear that our planet was older than the cosmos in which it resides — an untenable notion. “It means that science is not just a book of facts, it is understanding as well,” explained Michael S. Turner, a cosmologist at the University of Chicago, who says the Eddington saying is one of his favorites. If a “fact” cannot be understood, fitted into a conceptual framework that we have reason to believe in, or confirmed independently some other way, it risks becoming what journalists like to call a “permanent exclusive” — wrong.  
There are uncountable ways that an experiment can go awry, and the most likely explanation of an anomalous result really is that it is an error. Results that overturn decades of theorizing are very, very rare, and mistakes are legion.

The Sultan's Death Race

This item of Ottoman lore is passed on as yet another example of human peculiarity:
When very senior officials were sentenced to death, they would be dealt with by the bostancı basha (head gardener, who doubled as chief executioner) in person, but—at least toward the end of the sultans’ rule—execution was not the inevitable result of a death sentence. Instead, the condemned man and the bostancı basha took part in what was surely one of the most peculiar customs known to history: a race held between the head gardener and his anticipated victim.

How this custom came about remains unknown. From the end of the eighteenth century, however, accounts of the bizarre race began to emerge from the seraglio, and these seem reasonably consistent in their details. Death sentences passed within the walls of the Topkapi were generally delivered to the head gardener at the Central Gate; and Godfrey Goodwin describes the next part of the ritual thus:

It was the bostancibaşi‘s duty to summon any notable.… When the vezir or other unfortunate miscreant arrived, he well knew why he had been summoned, but he had to bite his lip through the courtesies of hospitality before, at long last, being handed a cup of sherbet. If it were white, he sighed with relief, but if it were red he was in despair, because red was the color of death.

For most of the bostancıs’ victims, the sentence was carried out immediately after the serving of the fatal sherbet by a group of five muscular young janissaries, members of the sultan’s elite infantry. For a grand vizier, however, there was still a chance: as soon as the death sentence was passed, the condemned man would be allowed to run as fast as he was able the 300 yards or so from the palace, through the gardens, and down to the Fish Market Gate on the southern side of the palace complex, overlooking the Bosphorus, which was the appointed place of execution. (On the map, which you can view in higher resolution by double clicking on it, the Central Gate is number 109 and the Fish Market Gate number 115.)

If the deposed vizier reached the Fish Market Gate before the head gardener, his sentence was commuted to mere banishment. But if the condemned man found the bostanci basha waiting for him at the gate, he was summarily executed and his body hurled into the sea.

Ottoman records show that the strange custom of the fatal race lasted into the early years of the nineteenth century. The last man to save his neck by winning the life-or-death sprint was the Grand Vizier Hacı Salih Pasha, in November 1822. Hacı—whose predecessor had lasted a mere nine days in office before his own execution—not only survived his death sentence, but was so widely esteemed for winning his race that he went on to be appointed governor general of the province of Damascus.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Lian Hearn, Across the Nightingale Floor

I have lately been reading Lian Hearn's Tales of the Otori as fast as I can track them down in my library. They are slightly fantastic tales set in an imaginary medieval Japan, featuring the members of a noble clan called the Otori.  So far I have read three, the first (Across the Nightingale Floor), the second (Grass for his Pillow), and the fifth (Heaven's Net is Wide), which actually comes first chronologically. Liked them all, especially the fifth.

Hearn knows a lot about Japanese culture and folklore and puts it to good use. The world of the Japanese noble clans is nicely depicted, and the magical elements (fox spirits, ninja who turn invisible)  are all drawn from Japanese folklore. The characters are ok -- sort of a cross between the characters in a modern novel and epic heroes -- and the plots excellent. I highly recommend them for anyone who needs distraction.

Psychiatric Screening and Sgt. Bales

Army doctor Stephen N. Xenakis:
Ten years into the war in Afghanistan, and after nearly nine years of war in Iraq, we know that the defining injuries of these conflicts for our service members include traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder. We also understand that the all-volunteer force is stretched thin and that multiple deployments to combat zones are routine.

What military physicians don’t have a good sense of, however, is how to tell whether a combat veteran is still qualified for the battlefield. And the tragedy this month in Afghanistan, where Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, on his fourth combat tour, allegedly slaughtered 17 civilians and has been charged with murder, underscores the urgency of finding a better solution. . . .

Soldiers are, of course, screened before and after deploying. But although this process involves multiple questionnaires and a review of medical records, it varies from base to base. No physiological tests are used, and soldiers may or may not see clinicians. Assessments are highly subjective and have been criticized for relying on self-reports. After all, soldiers may not be honest about their problems. If injured or unstable, they may be unable to deploy with teammates who rely on them or may face delays in going home.
Gee, wouldn't it be nice if we had a standard test that told us who was about to embark on a mad shooting spree? Or who was likely to abuse children? Or anything else about future behavior?

But we don't. When it comes to predicting how people will behave, our "science" is mostly a sham. A huge amount of effort has been put into this by researchers, governments, and corporate human resources departments, with no meaningful results. My teenage son and his friends have been applying for jobs at places like PetSmart and Home Depot, and these days this involves filling out, online, hundred-item questionnaires full of intensely personal questions. They rage about what a pain this is, and I think, pity the people who think such tests have  any value in predicting who will work out and who won't.

One thing we have learned from psychological science is that how we act is strongly determined by the situations we are in. People who would not (for example) abuse helpless prisoners alone may get into it if their whole platoon is doing it. People who are great in civilian life may crack on the battlefield. And people who are extraordinary soldiers are sometimes complete failures in civilian life. To get back to PetSmart, I bet that whether new employees slack off or steal has more to do with the atmosphere in the store than whatever characteristics they bring with them.

Another thing we know is that combat is bad for your mental health. That long term study of the Harvard class of 1940 found a strong correlation between the amount of combat men saw in World War II and their mental health in later life -- the more combat, the more likely they were to suffer from alcoholism, depression, and even physical ailments like heart disease. As long as we are going to fight wars, somebody has to go into combat, but the politicians and generals who make those decisions ought to think harder about the long-term harm they are doing to their soldiers. The real culprits in Sergeant Bales' shooting are the leaders in the Taliban and Washington who launched this war and kept it going so long that somebody, somewhere, was bound to crack.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Rashad Alakbarov

Young  Azerbaijani artist. I know these shadow works are sort of cliché these days, but this guy is really good at them.