Friday, August 31, 2012

An Onyx Scepter from Babylon


Ca. 650 BCE.

How Did our Budget Deficit Get so Big?

Charles Blahous has the numbers that explain how the huge surpluses predicted by the CBO in 2001 turned into gigantic deficits. It is a complex tale, and I refer the reader to his article for the details. But it boils down to this:

As you can see, Bush's tax cuts were only about a quarter of the problem. Another quarter was the excessively rosy economic forecasts used by the CBO. (And I remember reading op-eds by pro-tax cut people who thought the CBO forecasts were too conservative.) Half was what Blahous calls "increased spending," which means mostly the trillion dollar Iraq War, increased defense spending, Homeland Security spending, and Medicare. As I have always said, the problem was not so much that Bush cut taxes, as that he cut taxes while simultaneously embarking on a hugely expensive war, a massive military buildup, and "compassionate conservatism" in the form of increased Medicare and education spending.

I hope we never again listen to a man who announces a tax cut and a new war in the same speech.

Artists Imagine Babylon

Back in January, I put up a selection of Renaissance and modern recreations of Babylon, but I was not satisfied with the images I found. Now I have found more and better pictures, so I go again. Above, the Tower of Babel from the Bedford Hours (15th century).

The Grimani Breviary, ca. 1510.

Peter Bruegel the Elder, Tower of Babel, 16th century.

Antonio Tempesta, The Walls of Babylon (1608)

Charles le Brun, Alexander in Babylon (1661).

Anasthasius Kircher, Turris Babel (1679).

J.A. Delsenbach, Spectacula Babylonica (1721).

John Martin, The Fall of Babylon (1831).

Frantisek Kupka, Babylon, 1906.

Film still from D.W. Griffith's Intolerance (1916).

Mario Larrinaga, Hanging Gardens of Babylon (1959-1962).

Raphael Lacoste, Sunset on Babylon (21st century)

The Statue's Eye

The eye of a marble statue of an Amazon, from Herculaneum, with surviving paint. Below, the whole head. From a fabulous picture book, Herculaneum: Past and Future, by Andrew Wallace Hadrill (2011).


Do Hungry Monkeys Really Live Longer? or, Quit Starving Yourself

Back in 2009, a study was published that said monkeys who received a very lean --ascetic, really -- diet lived significantly longer than monkeys fed a more generous diet. This matched with other studies of laboratory rats, and also with certain unscientific observations about humans, viz., that most of the very old people we can document in medieval societies were semi-starved monks.  So the grim word went out: to live longer, starve yourself.

(If that made you miserable, too bad.)

Now the results are in from a second, larger study of monkeys, and in this study the lean diet produced no prolongation of average life span. The researchers note that just the count of calories is not the only variable here, and suggest that "study design, husbandry and diet composition may strongly affect the life-prolonging effect of caloric reduction in a long-lived nonhuman primate."

People are reacting to this news according to their own tastes. One scientists told the Times, "This shows the importance of replication in science" and went on to claim that the earlier study "was not nearly as conclusive as it was made out to be." Others say things like "I wouldn’t discard the whole thing on the basis of one study, when another study in the same species showed an increase in life span. . . . I would still bet on an extension of life."

Personally I plan to use this result as an excuse to keep gorging myself on chocolate chip cookies whenever circumstances require it.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

More Trackhoe

Another long day today with my favorite archaeological tool. We had a little over a day's work for the machine, but it was wanted elsewhere tomorrow, so I agreed with the operator to stay until we finished, which turned out to be about an hour overtime. Nine hours following the machine is a long day. But we're finished stripping the plowzone, on time and within budget, so all is well.

A small pit feature as it was uncovered. This part of the site dates to about 1760 to 1820, and the pottery is Pearlware (1775-1840).


Emily found this sherd of "dendritic mocha," which made her very happy. Quite cool-looking, no?

Next we turn to mapping all of these features, and then to digging them.

Piling on Paul Ryan

At the moment the "Most Popular" list on the Post's Opinion pages looks like this:
1) Ryan full of falsehoods
2) Paul Ryan fails -- the truth
3) Mr. Ryan's misleading speech
4) Voters, are you bluffing?
5) Ryan: Flunking his own test
Is there a pattern here?

Personally I think it is quite important that Romney and Ryan can't tell the truth. Their main constituents are people who hate paying taxes, people who want more wars and military spending, people worried about the deficit, and old people who want things to remain exactly as they are, especially in terms of the benefits they get from the government. They can't tell the truth without telling at least two of those groups to take a hike. So they bluster, leaving us to wonder what they will actually do if elected.

I might add that in his speech to the Republican convention, which I of course did not watch because I would rather boil my face than listen to convention speeches, Ryan seems to have said that we should judge a nation by how well it treats its weakest and neediest. I suppose he thinks that treating the needy well means lecturing them on personal responsibility, kicking them in the ass, and telling them to get a job. Which is, I understand, a philosophically defensible position, but it is not what most people mean by the phrase "treating well," and it gets us back again to the horrible fear Ryan and Romney have of telling people what they really believe.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Ryan Talks Adam Smith but Follows Ayn Rand

Leon Wieseltier unloads on Paul Ryan:
“I swear—by my life and my love of it—that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.” That is how John Galt concludes his testament, which Paul Ryan demands that his staffers in Congress read. What a frail sense of self it is that feels so imperiled by the existence of others! This monadic ideal is not heroic, it is cowardly. It is also dangerous, because it honors only itself. In his Roadmap, the intellectual on the Republican ticket lectures that “the Founders saw [Adam] Smith not only as an economic thinker, but as a moral philosopher whose other great work was The Theory of Moral Sentiments.” Never mind that everybody else also saw Smith that way, because he really was a moral philosopher and he really did write The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Has Ryan ever opened The Theory of Moral Sentiments? Has he ever read its very first sentence on its very first page? “How selfish soever man may be supposed,” Smith begins, “there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it.” That is the least Galt-like, least Rand-like, least Ryan-like sentence ever written. And from there the conservatives’ deity launches into a profound analysis of “mutual sympathy.” So much for Ryan’s fiction of the isolato with a platinum card! If there is anything that Adam Smith stands for, it is the reconcilability of capitalism with fellow feeling, of market economics with social decency. But Ryan is a dismal student of Smith, because he likes his capitalism cruel.

Trackhoe Day

Sometimes a person sitting next to me on an airplane or some such will say to me, "Archaeology? That must be so tedious, having to be so careful." I like to answer, "My favorite digging tool is a giant trackhoe."

Today we were stripping the plowzone from one of our sites in Delaware. This is always exciting because after weeks of digging little hand units and seeing tiny pieces of the site, we suddenly see it all laid out in front of us. Here Lex cleans off one of the features we uncovered, this one probably a well.

It was a gorgeous day. But even on a day like this one, this is exhausting work. That machine moves a lot of dirt, and it uncovered a quarter acre in (over a thousand square meters) in seven hours. That left a lot of cleaning up for us to do, shoveling away the lose soil and troweling off the features, in the bright sun, accompanied by diesel fumes and the steady roar of the engine. And tomorrow I'm going back to do it again.

Figurines from Israel

Two figurines from the early Neolithic, roughly 9,000 years old, turned up during a road-building project in Israel.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The Nerd as Hero

I am, and ever will be, a white-socks, pocket-protector, nerdy engineer, born under the second law of thermodynamics, steeped in steam tables, in love with free-body diagrams, transformed by Laplace and propelled by compressible flow.

 --Neil Armstrong

From this great obituary at the Economist

Curiosity Zooms In

Curiosity tests the resolving power of its 100mm lens, shooting this terrific image  of the layered lower slopes of Mount Sharp from 10 kilometers (6 miles) away.

The Economist Sums up Mitt Romney

And why voting for him is a crazy thing to do:
Competence is worthless without direction and, frankly, character. Would that Candidate Romney had indeed presented himself as a solid chief executive who got things done. Instead he has appeared as a fawning PR man, apparently willing to do or say just about anything to get elected. In some areas, notably social policy and foreign affairs, the result is that he is now committed to needlessly extreme or dangerous courses that he may not actually believe in but will find hard to drop; in others, especially to do with the economy, the lack of details means that some attractive-sounding headline policies prove meaningless (and possibly dangerous) on closer inspection. Behind all this sits the worrying idea of a man who does not really know his own mind. America won’t vote for that man; nor would this newspaper.

Taxation and Inequality in America

Rich Americans have lately been complaining that they are exploited by all those poor people who don't pay income tax. Mike Lofgren:
Stephen Schwarzman, the hedge fund billionaire CEO of the Blackstone Group who hired Rod Stewart for his $5-million birthday party, believes it is the rabble who are socially irresponsible. Speaking about low-income citizens who pay no income tax, he says: “You have to have skin in the game. I’m not saying how much people should do. But we should all be part of the system.”

But millions of Americans who do not pay federal income taxes do pay federal payroll taxes. These taxes are regressive, and the dirty little secret is that over the last several decades they have made up a greater and greater share of federal revenues. In 1950, payroll and other federal retirement contributions constituted 10.9 percent of all federal revenues. By 2007, the last “normal” economic year before federal revenues began falling, they made up 33.9 percent. By contrast, corporate income taxes were 26.4 percent of federal revenues in 1950. By 2007 they had fallen to 14.4 percent. So who has skin in the game?
The weird contempt that many billionaires seem to hold for ordinary people is starting to bother me, too. Shouldn't it hurt Republicans, politically, that their policies only feed the aristocratic pretensions of people like Sheldon Adelson and Schwarzman? Why do Americans accept the ever-greater concentration of wealth in their hands?

Monday, August 27, 2012

Nikola Tesla's Wardenclyffe Tower

Inventive genius Nikola Tesla designed this tower to broadcast wireless telegraphy across the Atlantic, and to experiment with the wireless transmission of energy. Construction of the tower began in 1901, but alas it was never finished despite backing from J.P. Morgan and John Jacob Astor. It was torn down in 1917.

The tower was located in Shoreham, New York, on Long Island. The tower is gone, but the laboratory building remains, and the Tesla Science Center is trying to raise the money to turn it into a museum devoted to Tesla's work.

The most intriguing thing about Tesla's work in Shoreham is his plans for the wireless transmission of electrical energy. I just read some of Tesla's writing on the subject, but I don't find them at all clear. So I turned to some recent attempts at explanation, but alas I find them even less clear. But so far as I can tell Tesla's idea was not to shoot electrons from point A to point B (like lightning), but to induce fluctuations into the earth's electrical field that would somehow be picked up by a properly tuned receptor, similar to the way a properly tuned receptor picks up radio waves. Some of his more obscure notes speak of "telluric waves" that would pass through the earth, and he certainly experimented with using the earth's ionosphere as a transmission mechanism.

Tesla performed some famous demonstrations of wireless power transfer but never made it work on a large scale. Some of his fans insist that he was on the verge of achieving this before Edison's friends nefariously stopped him with lawsuits and withdrawals of funding, but since nobody else has made it work since I rather doubt this. Still, Tesla was sure it would work, and he was a lot smarter than I am, so who knows?

Getting Rich off Fake Book Reviews

Everything is for sale:
Suddenly it hit him. Instead of trying to cajole others to review a client’s work, why not cut out the middleman and write the review himself? Then it would say exactly what the client wanted — that it was a terrific book. A shattering novel. A classic memoir. Will change your life. Lyrical and gripping, Stunning and compelling. Or words to that effect.

In the fall of 2010, Mr. Rutherford started a Web site, GettingBookReviews.com. At first, he advertised that he would review a book for $99. But some clients wanted a chorus proclaiming their excellence. So, for $499, Mr. Rutherford would do 20 online reviews. A few people needed a whole orchestra. For $999, he would do 50.

There were immediate complaints in online forums that the service was violating the sacred arm’s-length relationship between reviewer and author. But there were also orders, a lot of them. Before he knew it, he was taking in $28,000 a month.
Incidentally, the FTC thinks that writing book reviews without disclosing that the author or publisher paid you to do it is fraud.

Crazy Checks and Opiates: the New West Virginia

An excerpt from a new book by Chris Hedges about the dead end parts of America, this part about McDowell County in far southern West Virginia:
About half of those living in McDowell County depend on some kind of relief check such as Social Security, Disability, Supplemental Security Income (SSI), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, retirement benefits, and unemployment to survive. They live on the margins, check to check, expecting no improvement in their lives and seeing none. The most common billboards along the roads are for law firms that file disability claims and seek state and federal payments. “Disability and Injury Lawyers,” reads one. It promises to handle “Social Security. Car Wrecks. Veterans. Workers’ Comp.” The 800 number ends in COMP. . . .

Joe and I are sitting in the Tug River Health Clinic in Gary with a registered nurse who does not want her name used. The clinic handles federal and state black lung applications. It runs a program for those addicted to prescription pills. It also handles what in the local vernacular is known as “the crazy check” -- payments obtained for mental illness from Medicaid or SSI -- a vital source of income for those whose five years of welfare payments have run out. Doctors willing to diagnose a patient as mentally ill are important to economic survival.

“They come in and want to be diagnosed as soon as they can for the crazy check,” the nurse says. “They will insist to us they are crazy. They will tell us, ‘I know I’m not right.’ People here are very resigned. They will avoid working by being diagnosed as crazy.”

The reliance on government checks, and a vast array of painkillers and opiates, has turned towns like Gary into modern opium dens. The painkillers OxyContin, fentanyl -- 80 times stronger than morphine -- Lortab, as well as a wide variety of anti-anxiety medications such as Xanax, are widely abused. Many top off their daily cocktail of painkillers at night with sleeping pills and muscle relaxants. And for fun, addicts, especially the young, hold “pharm parties,” in which they combine their pills in a bowl, scoop out handfuls of medication, swallow them, and wait to feel the result.

A decade ago only about 5% of those seeking treatment in West Virginia needed help with opiate addiction. Today that number has ballooned to 26%. It recorded 91 overdose deaths in 2001. By 2008 that number had risen to 390.
The existence of such islands of hopelessness is well known to most Americans. But what to do about them?

It seems to me that as with many things in America, political compromise between left and right has led to the worst possible situation. In the nineteenth-century such places would have emptied out, since people will move rather than starve. A generous state would provide jobs and education. (Memo to the American right: leftists don't want to give people welfare checks, we want to give them jobs.) Without the will to take either choice, we instead offer an assortment of benefits that provide just enough to get by, but not enough to raise anyone's spirits or provide them a secure foundation. In fact some of these programs seem designed to degrade the spirit rather than encourage it; in what reasonable world are people desperate to convince someone else that they are insane? And I don't mean that these people are lazy freeloaders. They probably really are "not right," living as they do with no hope for the future or pride in the past, surrounded by unemployed drug addicts, broken families, abandoned factories, boarded up mines, weed-choked farms, open-air drug markets ignored (or run by) the police, and people eager to do anything but give them decent jobs. I don't think, though, that a check that pays for only the bare minimum of subsistence is what they need.

(The pictures show, top, the old Gary District High School, and below, the nearby Iaeger Graded and Junior High School, from a ruin-obsessed photographer's tour of coal country.)

Americans would Rather Raise Social Security Taxes than Cut Benefits

According to a new AP poll, 53% of Americans prefer raising taxes to cutting benefits to shore up the Social Security system, while 36% say cut benefits. A majority also supports raising the retirement age.

According to the poll, 47% say Obama would do a better job of defending Social Security, while 44% prefer Romney. So at least 8% of these respondents need to look at Romney's tax plan and see what he is actually proposing.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

RIP Neil Armstrong, and Farewell to the Modern Era

As the moon landing, once the epitome of all that is modern, fades into the past, I find myself wondering about the future. Will people walk on Mars, before I leave the earth? I doubt it, but then perhaps it is too much to hope that one generation could see both milestones.

Will we ever even try, or will human space travel seem some day soon like just another fad of the Modern age, like socialism or go go boots?

At least our robots soar ever onward, and perhaps by the time we land a drilling rig on Enceladus it will carry some sort of virtual reality gear that will allow us to look on as if we were there. What if it found life, or something that might be life; would that rekindle the spark that sent us to the moon? Or is that dead and past, as irrelevant as jazz or the League of Nations? Have I lived past the time when the need to prove that anything was possible inspired nations throw billions at quixotic quests?

Perhaps I should instead feel relieved that the Cold War, which brought us so close to Armageddon, has faded away and left us with photographs of men on the moon rather than radioactive rubble.

Farewell, Neil Armstrong, and farewell to the crazy era that made his mission seem like an urgent national need.

Canto I

And then went down to the ship,
Set keel to breakers, forth on the godly sea, and
We set up mast and sail on that swart ship,
Bore sheep aboard her, and our bodies also
Heavy with weeping, so winds from sternward
Bore us out onward with bellying canvas,
Circe's this craft, the trim-coifed goddess.
Then sat we amidships, wind jamming the tiller,
Thus with stretched sail, we went over sea till day's end.
Sun to his slumber, shadows o'er all the ocean,
Came we then to the bounds of deepest water,
To the Kimmerian lands, and peopled cities
Covered with close-webbed mist, unpierced ever
With glitter of sun-rays
Nor with stars stretched, nor looking back from heaven
Swartest night stretched over wretched men there.
The ocean flowing backward, came we then to the place
Aforesaid by Circe.
Here did they rites, Perimedes and Eurylochus,
And drawing sword from my hip I dug the ell-square pitkin;
Poured we libations unto each the dead,
First mead and then sweet wine, water mixed with white flour.
Then prayed I many a prayer to the sickly death's-head;
As set in Ithaca, sterile bulls of the best
For sacrifice, heaping the pyre with goods,
A sheep to Tiresias only, black and a bell-sheep.
Dark blood flowed in the fosse,
Souls out of Erebus, cadaverous dead, of brides
Of youths and at the old who had borne much;
Souls stained with recent tears, girls tender,
Men many, mauled with bronze lance heads,
Battle spoil, bearing yet dreory arms,
These many crowded about me; with shouting,
Pallor upon me, cried to my men for more beasts;
Slaughtered the heards, sheep slain of bronze;
Poured ointment, cried to the gods,
To Pluto the strong, and praised Proserpine;
Unsheathed the narrow sword,
I sat to keep off the impetuous impotent dead,
Till I should hear Tiresias.
But first Elpenor came, our friend Elpenor,
Unburied, cast on the wide earth,
Limbs that we left in the house of Circe,
Unwept, unwrapped in sepulchre, since toils urged other.
Pitiful spirit. And I cried in hurried speech:
"Elpenor, how art thou come to this dark coast?
Cam'st thou afoot, outstripping seamen?"

And he in heavy speech:
"Ill fate and abundant wine. I slept in Circe's ingle.
Going down the long ladder unguarded,
I fell against the buttress,
Shattered the nape-nerve, the soul sought Avernus.
But thou, O King, I bid remember me, unwept, unburied,
Heap up mine arms, be tomb by sea-bord, and inscribed:
A man of no fortune, and with a name to come. 
And set my oar up, that I swung mid fellows."

And Anticlea came, whom I beat off, and then Tiresias Theban,
Holding his golden wand, knew me, and spoke first:
"A second time? why? man of ill star,
Facing the sunless dead and this joyless region?
Stand from the fosse, leave me my bloody bever
For soothsay."
And I stepped back,
And he stong with the blood, said then:
"Odysseus Shalt return through spiteful Neptune, over dark seas,
Lose all companions." And then Anticlea came.
 Lie quiet Divus. I mean, that is Andreas Divus,
In officina Wecheli, 1538, out of Homer.
And he sailed, by Sirens and thence outward and away
And unto Circe.
 Venerandam, In the Creatan's phrase, with the golden crown,
Aphrodite, Cypri munimenta sortita est, mirthful, orichalchi, with golden
Girdles and breast bands, thou with dark eyelids
Bearing the golden bough of Argicida.

 --Ezra Pound

Saturday, August 25, 2012

A Recent Impact on Mars

This picture, recently taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, shows an impact crater that was not present when the spacecraft last photographed this region two years ago.

Generational Misunderstanding

This spring a certain David McCullough, Jr. delivered a graduation speech that briefly made him the most famous curmudgeon in America. His refrain was "You are not special," and his point seemed to be that the students had been misled throughout their lives by excessive praise:
Contrary to what your u9 soccer trophy suggests, your glowing seventh grade report card, despite every assurance of a certain corpulent purple dinosaur, that nice Mister Rogers and your batty Aunt Sylvia, no matter how often your maternal caped crusader has swooped in to save you… you’re nothing special.
I confess that I actually found this speech rather amusing, although perhaps inappropriate for a commencement address. The lines about weddings are especially droll. Anyway, numerous grown-ups seem to have loved it in a much-too-serious way, as if it actually said something important about our society.

Somebody else who took it way too seriously was this kid, who fired off angry "open letter from a millennial" in response:
You have done our work for us, then called us lazy.
You have threatened our teachers, then told us “just an A” isn’t good enough.
You have gotten our jobs for us, and called us underachievers.
You have recorded everything we do, like researchers breeding a better mouse.
You have made us trophy-seekers, then mocked us for our walls of worthless awards.
You have pitted us against each other in a fight for success, which has become survival.
You have given us a world in which even our college degrees are meaningless because there are just too many of us.
You have made us depend on you. When we followed your instructions – went to the best schools, got the best grades, took the most internships and did the most independent study projects, met the right people and got into the right grad schools and chosen the right majors – we’ve ended up stuck in your basement because nobody in your generation is willing to pay us a living wage.
Then you called us the “boomerang” generation that refuses to grow up. When did we have the chance? . . .
If there is anything that defines our generation, it’s knowing exactly how miserably our lives have failed to satisfy you.
Not that our young blogger is necessarily wrong; there is something true being said here. And McCullough's speech also said something true. Where both are wrong is in assuming that this relationship between over-protective but somewhat scornful parents and resentfully coddled children is unique to our own time. Actually these speeches could have been written any time in the past 200 years. If my generation of parents has been a bit more thorough in our coddling, producing a generation of children just a bit more sullen, that is simply because we are richer and have fewer kids. The impulse that produced this intergenerational relationship is as old as the modern world.

The fundamental idea of modernity is progress. We believe that things ought to be getting better, and every generation of parents in the modern era has hoped that things would be better for its children. In the modern world, utopia is placed in the future rather than the past; it is the dwelling place of our descendants rather than our ancestors. Consider this famous line from John Adams, written in 1780:
I must study Politicks and War that my sons may have liberty to study Mathematicks and Philosophy. My sons ought to study Mathematicks and Philosophy, Geography, natural History, Naval Architecture, navigation, Commerce and Agriculture, in order to give their Children a right to study Painting, Poetry, Musick, Architecture, Statuary, Tapestry and Porcelaine.
This belief, that progress should create a world in which our children have opportunities that we did not, is the foundation of modern parenthood. It is also the source of many misunderstandings and conflicts. Grown-ups are always telling young people to pursue their dreams, and young people are always responding that their parents are trying to live through them. Which they may well be. Or, the young respond that they can't pursue their dreams because their lives are so hard, because the world they were born into is so much tougher, economically or otherwise, than their parents'. Our young blogger again, responding to advice about pursuing passion:
You know what? We don’t have that luxury. That idea is a relic of days gone by.
No, it is not, except in the sense that parents have been saying such things for several generations. I know this from personal experience, since when I was 19 I dated a girl whose mother was constantly telling her to let go and have adventures instead of settling down, while simultaneously listening to my classmates complain that they had no economic future. (This was during the 1981-82 recession.)

Obviously I am exaggerating when I say that "parents" have had this attitude. There have been and still are many parents determined to dragoon their children into profitable careers, passion be damned. But I believe that the pattern I describe is a real one. Many modern parents invest their children with their dreams of freedom, and while some children thrive on this expectation, others turn sullen. Consider the experience of 20th-century immigrants. It is often said that the first generation worked hard at thankless jobs to send their children to college so they could be successful doctors and bankers, but then the third generation has to figure out what they could do that might somehow be better than their parents' success. Many, stereotype has it, end up listless failures.

Progress may be real, but utopia is not coming. It is not easy now for young people to establish themselves in life, no matter how many "opportunities" we foist on them, and it will not be easy any time soon. If ever. The image some grown-ups have of youth, a time when the world is wide open and the right response is to become a bold, wildly successful adventurer/scholar/ entrepreneur, is just wrong. It is no easier for our children than it was for us, and quite likely it will never be. And should any young person happen to read this, let me assure you that your parents' generation struggled with the same burdens and the same obstacles as you.

Today's Conspiracy Theory: Obama is a Saudi Agent

Oh, this is the best. A certain Avi Lipkin, who says his wife is an Israeli spy, has been touring the country explaining that he finally knows the key to Obama's mysterious behavior: he is a Saudi agent! From Right Wing Watch:
Obama was made a Muslim man in Indonesia by age 11. He said, ‘I’ve got health care problems, I got economic problems in America, Muslims in Egypt and Muslims in the Muslim world, be patient, I will show you when the time comes what I am going to do to Israel.’ My wife picked up other broadcasts, for example the Saudis were saying, ‘we will have a Muslim in the White House in 2008.’ The Saudis also said, ‘Obama has three tasks: task number 1 is to destroy the Shiite threat in Iran, task number 2 is to destroy the Jewish threat Israel, task number 3 is to destroy the great Christian Satan America and turn America into a Muslim country.’ 
Mr. Lipkin also explains why some neocons are so upset about the Muslim Brotherhood's electoral victories in Egypt:
The Muslim Brotherhood is going to end up either killing, converting to Islam or expelling the remaining Christians of Egypt. When the Christians of Egypt are gone, the economy of Egypt is gone. When the economy of Egypt is gone, the 76 Muslims who remain are going to starve to death. What do people do when they starve? They leave. Where do they go to? America. Who’s going to bring them in? Obama. Where is he going to settle them? In the lands confiscated by Agenda 21.
Agenda 21! How could we have left that out? The Trilateral Commission was thinking far ahead on this one, dreaming up the global warming hoax to justify their anti-American Agenda 21 so they could use environmentalist cover to seize the suburbs and give them to their Muslim shock troops! Those clever bastards.

I know what you're thinking now: how does this relate to the deficit?
America will be Muslim by 2016. . . . So you have Agenda 21, you have Sharia law, by the way I’m going to throw out a real wildcard now. You have all those people who talk about the American debt being insolvable, where are you going to get $14 trillion from? The answer is very simple, you don’t think the Saudis have $14 trillion in cash? They’ll give you the cash and they will say ‘we own you now, we’re going to take over America.’ And Americans will say, ‘if we don’t do this we’re going to lose our economy and we’re going to lose our dollar and everything.’ The American economic problem is not a problem if the Saudis come in and bring in their cash. The problem here is America will surrender its Christianity.
Voila! It all falls into place.

And you thought Mormonism was weird.

Today's Indian Palace: Orccha


Orchha is a modest city in central India that was once the capital of one of the Rajput states. In the time of is glory its rulers built three palaces, side by side on an island in the Betwa River.

Construction of the first began in 1531.


The Jahangari Mahal, erected by Bir Singh Deo in the early 1600s.

Much of the palace garden is still largely intact.

The town also boasts this marvelous temple.

And these amazing tombs.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Creation Continues

We may imagine perhaps that creation was finished long ago. This is not true. It continues more gloriously than ever ... and we serve to complete it, even with the humblest work of our hands.

--Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

Science vs. Religion, or Something

Daniel Sarewitz has a background in geophysics and now teaches and writes about the intersection of technology with social problems. He recently wrote a strange little essay for Nature titled "Sometimes Science Must Give Way to Religion." It left me thinking that while training in geophysics may be useful in many ways, it certainly does not prepare anyone to write movingly about philosophical topics.

Sarewitz has toured the ancient temples of Cambodia and come back with the sense that religion does something science doesn't do very well:
The wonder invoked by the Angkor temples is not an accident or a modern conceit. It flows, at least in part, from the intention of those who designed the temples. “In each of the Angkor monuments,” the architect Maurice Glaize explained in his exhaustive 1944 guide to the temples, “a pre­occupation with symbolic order seeks to create a representation of the universe in reduction … realising a kind of correctly ordered model”. The overwhelming scale of the temples, their architectural complexity, intricate and evocative ornamentation and natural setting combine to form a powerful sense of mystery and transcendence, of the fertility of the human imagination and ambition in a Universe whose enormity and logic evade comprehension.
So far, so good. But then we get to the part that bothers me:
Science is supposed to challenge this type of quasi-mystical subjective experience, to provide an antidote to it. 
No, I say, no, no, no. Science does no such thing, at least not for me. What does science do? Science is supremely useful, of course, but beyond that science does for me exactly what the Angkor temples did for Sarewitz: evoke the wonder of the universe. I don't find that science in any way "challenges" the wonder of cathedrals and temples. No, it erects its own temples: the Pythagorean Theorem, Maxwell's Equations, the voyage of the Beagle, the Voyager spacecraft, Bernoulli's Principle, General Relativity. What better evokes the mystery of "a Universe whose enormity and logic evade comprehension" than the photos beamed down from the Hubble Space Telescope?

Sarewitz doesn't get the same sense from science that he got from the Angkor temples:
I am an atheist, and I fully recognize science’s indispensable role in advancing human prospects in ways both abstract and tangible. Yet, whereas the Higgs discovery gives me no access to insight about the mystery of existence, a walk through the magnificent temples of Angkor offers a glimpse of the unknowable and the inexplicable beyond the world of our experience.
Well, that's his business, and I hope he finds many more spiritual wonders to explore. But for me, the standing in a Bronze Age stone circle and learning about distant planets are very close to the same thing. Both lift out of my ordinary existence and into another plane. For me, there is no opposition, no challenge, just a world full of miracles. My view is closer to that of Jesuit paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who wrote, "Less and less do I see any distinction between research and adoration."

Hubble's Hidden Treasures

The European Space Agency has sponsored a contest for the best unfamous images from the Hubble telescope, and they just announced they winners in the Image Processing category. Above, star-forming region NGC 1763 by Josh Lake.

PK 111 by Josh Barrington.


XZ Tauri, a new star that exploded a decade ago, ejecting those two great lobes of gas. By Judy Schmidt.

Few things have brought more wonder to life on earth than the Hubble.

Brutal Prisons make Inmates more Brutal

New studies support what most criminologists have said for decades, that inmates who serve their time in pleasant, safe prisons with plenty of educational opportunities are less likely to commit new crimes than those who serve in rough, dangerous prisons.

What helps criminals go straight is not fear of tough prisons, but a glimpse of a better life and help in getting there.

More Data on Indo-European Languages

The question of where the Indo-European languages came from and how they spread is one of the best I know. The evidence comes from several different realms of scholarship -- linguistics, genetics, archaeology, history, even poetics -- and it all conflicts.

There are two main schools of thought. The older school held that the languages arose on the steppes around 4000 BCE and were spread into Europe, Iran and India by waves of horse-riding nomads. The problem with this theory is that there is very little archaeological evidence for the entry of new people into either Europe or India in that time frame. The new theory, advanced in the 1980s by Colin Renfrew, is that the languages arose in Anatolia (modern Turkey) around 8000 BCE and spread with farming. This also has problems, of which the most obvious is that while there is plenty of evidence the farmers walked from Anatolia into Europe, there is none they walked out onto the steppes, tamed horses, invaded Iran, and then slowly turned back into settled farmers; that is, the model works a lot better heading west than heading east.

Now a new study has been carried out by New Zealanders Russell Gray and Quentin Atkinson that examines the spread of languages using software designed to track the origin and spread of epidemics. Their conclusion is that the languages originated in Anatolia between 9,800 and 7,800 years ago.

Predictably, nobody on the steppes origin side is convinced. The Times looked up David Anthony, one of the current leaders of the steppes origin side:
A key piece of their evidence is that proto-Indo-European had a vocabulary for chariots and wagons that included words for “wheel,” “axle,” “harness-pole” and “to go or convey in a vehicle.” These words have numerous descendants in the Indo-European daughter languages. So Indo-European itself cannot have fragmented into those daughter languages, historical linguists argue, before the invention of chariots and wagons, the earliest known examples of which date to 3500 B.C. This would rule out any connection between Indo-European and the spread of agriculture from Anatolia, which occurred much earlier. “I see the wheeled-vehicle evidence as a trump card over any evolutionary tree,” said David Anthony, an archaeologist at Hartwick College who studies Indo-European origins.
I have to say that I am also unimpressed by this model. People don't spread like diseases do, leaping cultural and geographic  boundaries with ease, so I would have been dubious even before I heard the result. Now that I know the result, I like it even less. I think the genetic data from Europe, which shows that modern Europeans have genes that come from somebody other than the Mesolithic inhabitants or the Neolithic farmers, is best explained by the Bronze Age entry of people from the steppes.

The argument continues.

Today's Nightmare Fish: Mekong Giant Stingray

The giant stingray of the Mekong River, which may be the largest freshwater fish. This one was caught near the Vietnam-Cambodia border in 2002. From National Geographic.

The Academic Job Market in Europe

Archaeology blogger Martin Rundkvist, who finished his doctorate in 2002 and has been on the job market for ten years, just got his his first part-time teaching job, a single class.

Really one of the defining factors for academics of my generation is a sense that education is a route, not to advancement, but to irrelevance. Even the people who have teaching jobs moan about the lousy pay, curse administrative bloat, and swear they will never let their own children go to graduate school.

I suspect this is what happens when a field grows very rapidly for a whole generation, then stops growing while thousands of people are already in training to enter it. The oversupply of qualified applicants forces wages down, intensifies the competition for good jobs, and generally makes everyone cranky; the political swing toward conservatism and reduced spending on education only worsens the atmosphere, as does intensifying careerism among undergraduates. The oversupply of would-be professors must also be connected in some way to the broader crisis in our educational system, that is, the end to the sense that a higher education qualified you for some kind of interesting, well-paid work. If there ever was a smooth route from a good education to a good job, there isn't any more. The existence of a large class of underemployed academics strikes me as a symptom of this breakdown.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Easing the Way

Colin Dickey:
In September 1863, a local paper in Somerset, England, ran an article about a man and a woman from Taunton whose child had been stricken with scarlet fever. Depressingly common, a child suffering from the illness itself was not noteworthy—what made the news were the remedies proposed. Distraught, the parents had turned to a group of women for advice, and this “jury of matrons,” in the paper’s words, all agreed that there was no hope of survival. Instead, they suggested ways to prevent the child from “dying hard”: open all the doors, drawers, cupboards, and boxes in the house, untie any knots—perhaps in a shoelace, a curtain pull, or an apron sash—and remove all keys from their locks.

The Garden at the End of Summer

I've been neglecting it terribly while I try to finish my novel, but fortunately the flowers keep going about their business.



This lousy picture of goldfinches was taken a few weeks ago. I set these aside, hoping to get better ones, but never did. So here you have it.