Monday, June 30, 2014

Warcq, France: the Archaeology I Wish I Were Doing this Week

Archaeologists in Ardennes, France, working in advance of highway construction, have just begun the excavation of a Gallic chariot tomb that seems remarkably intact. It is a chamber burial, the top and walls of the tomb lined with wooden boards. This could date to any time between the 7th century BCE and the Roman conquest.

 A rim, I would guess.

 Gold foil; a chariot ornament or something else?

Horse skeleton. Oh, I wish I were there.

Employers vs. Workers, Health Care Edition

Depressing if expected news from the Supreme Court:
The Supreme Court ruled in a 5-to-4 decision on Monday that requiring family-owned corporations to pay for insurance coverage for contraception under the Affordable Care Act violated a federal law protecting religious freedom.

The decision, which applied to two companies owned by Christian families, opened the door to challenges from other corporations to many laws that may be said to violate their religious liberty. . . .

The health care law and related regulations require many employers to provide female workers with comprehensive insurance coverage for a variety of methods of contraception. The companies objected to some of the methods, saying they are tantamount to abortion because they can prevent embryos from implanting in the womb. Providing insurance coverage for those forms of contraception would, the companies said, make them complicit in the practice.
I think this verdict really has nothing to do with health care or religion or abortion. Instead, it is an affirmation of the right of capitalists to run their companies however they see fit, their workers' rights be damned. It holds the religious preferences of owners above the needs of workers. And note that these owners are not really "paying" for coverage of birth control, since health insurers are happy to provide that coverage for free as part of comprehensive plans. (Birth control costs less than babies.)

Meanwhile, this is another great reason to forget about employer-provided coverage altogether and move to a single-payer system.

Math Anxiety and Common Core

One of the central points of the Common Core educational reform is to teach fewer topics but teach them more thoroughly, so that students really understand them. The national Common Core standards are vague to the point that I can hardly fathom what they are about, but it seems that when it comes to math, New York state is interpreting Common Core math according to the tradition of the earlier reform movement known as New Math:
Ms. Nelams said she did not recognize the approaches her children, ages 7 to 10, were being asked to use on math work sheets. They were frustrated by the pictures, dots and sheer number of steps needed to solve some problems. Her husband, who is a pipe designer for petroleum products at an engineering firm, once had to watch a YouTube video before he could help their fifth-grade son with his division homework.

“They say this is rigorous because it teaches them higher thinking,” Ms. Nelams said. “But it just looks tedious.”
Math reformers have been saying for decades that students hate math because it is taught as the rote memorization of the multiplication table, without any understanding of the concepts behind the numbers. And they still are:
The guidelines are based on research that shows that students taught conceptually retain the math they learn. And many longtime math teachers, including those in organizations like the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics and the National Council of Supervisors of Mathematics, have championed the standards.

“I taught math very much like the Common Core for many years,” said Linda M. Gojak, president of the National Council of Teachers of Math. “When parents would question it, my response was ‘Just hang in there with me,’ and at the end of the year they would come and say this was the best year their kids had in math.”
Yeah, right. Loath as I am to agree with anyone who works for the American Enterprise Institute, I think this guy has it right:
“It is incredibly easy for these new instructional approaches to look good on paper or to work well in pilot classrooms in the hands of highly skilled experts,” said Frederick M. Hess, the director of education policy studies for the American Enterprise Institute, “and then to turn into mushy, lazy confusing goop as it spreads out to classrooms and textbooks.”
It can't be said enough that curricula and textbooks and standards and what-all are trivial in importance compared to the one really important thing in education, the interaction between teacher and student. And if the teachers are not comfortable with the material they are teaching and perhaps don't fully understand it themselves, the quality of that interaction will be damaged. Nor is it a small thing to exclude parents from the equation; how many children will see that their parents don't understand this stuff and decide that they don't have to, either? I don't doubt that Linda Gojak can be successful teaching conceptual math, but does that mean everyone should try?

Did these people learn nothing from the failure of New Math? Well, maybe they learned one thing, since I don't see any set theory or Venn diagrams in the new stuff. But speaking as someone who loves math and occasionally used fairly sophisticated statistics, I just don't see any reason why most people should know anything about the conceptual underpinnings of math. Even if it is true that students taught this way test better, is that worth spreading the notion that math education is about learning complex ways to do simple stuff, and that what the government does with tax dollars is spend billions trying to make people understand mathematical arcana instead of just memorizing the multiplication table?

I predict that this movement will flame out as spectacularly as New Math did. I hope it doesn't drag the rest of Common Core down with it.

The Gardens of Versailles

A picture of the Apollo Basin in a book from the library started me daydreaming about the immense gardens of Versailles, 800 hectares of beauty on the edge of Paris.

I just love this fountain, created in 1668-71 by Charles Le Brun. The image of this golden chariot emerging from the waters is one I can always call to mind.

And this is just one of many fountains and a vast array of other water features.

Plan of 1746.

The Orangery, one of the first garden features built. This is the sort of geometrical layout I used to imagine when I thought of Baroque gardens.

But Versailles has much more, including vast flower beds.

And an amazing array of sculpture.

But instead of Versailles, here I am at home again. . . .

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Adolescent Anxiety

But there is a darker side to adolescence that, until now, was poorly understood: a surge during teenage years in anxiety and fearfulness. Largely because of a quirk of brain development, adolescents, on average, experience more anxiety and fear and have a harder time learning how not to be afraid than either children or adults.

Different regions and circuits of the brain mature at very different rates. It turns out that the brain circuit for processing fear — the amygdala — is precocious and develops way ahead of the prefrontal cortex, the seat of reasoning and executive control. This means that adolescents have a brain that is wired with an enhanced capacity for fear and anxiety, but is relatively underdeveloped when it comes to calm reasoning.
My adolescence was certainly dominated by anxiety. I am full of regrets about that part of my life because I passed up doing so much out of fear. Anxiety kept me to a narrow path of school, home, study, and dreams of college. I could have done so much more, if I had not been afraid to.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Duilio Cambellotti

Duilio Cambellotti (1876-1960) was born in Rome, the son of a wood carver. He briefly studied accounting -- one of those many doomed attempts by born artists to go straight -- but then switched to design school, where he spent the years 1895 to 1898. Also like many other artists, he liked to claim that he was really self-taught and had learned nothing in school, and sometimes he even denied that he had ever studied art.

He did just about everything that might fall under the heading of applied art: illustration, stained glass, ceramics, furniture, poster design, engraving, theater and film sets. His work is usually classified at Art Nouveau, and he was a great admirer of William Morris and the Arts and Crafts movement. He has been called "a creative spirit of multiform ingenuity" and also one of the greatest artists of twentieth century Italy. This photo of the artist is on display in the Cambellotti museum, Latina.

I love these bowls, which I found on an excellent tumblr called Vertigo1871 -- it was these that started me researching Cambellotti.

Relief of horses, done by Cambellotti in plaster in 1910, cast in bronze in 1984 for a public fountain in Terracina, where Cambellotti spent much of his last years.

From the Arabian Nights.

Stained glass.


Poster design from 1917.

Mural in the Associazione Nazionale Mutilati ed Invalidi di Guerra (National Association of War Invalids), Siracusa, Sicily.

Stained glass from La Casina delle Civette (House of the Owls), Rome. About 1914.

I haven't found anything that explicitly describes Cambellotti's politics, although I have found a few of his works in collections of Fascist art. He doesn't seem to have been very active politically, although various more active fascists show up among his friends and collaborators. But one of the works he illustrated was a collection of the Legends of Rome, and based on these pictures I am going to go out on a limb and say that at least in 1927 he was a thoroughgoing Fascist. Amazing images, though.

Casino of Pius IV

Photo by Pirro Ligorio.

Judicial Shenanigans in South Florida

The Times:
MIAMI — Lawyers gawked from office windows last month when a BMW S.U.V. swiped a parked police cruiser in the parking lot of a courthouse in Fort Lauderdale, then slammed into a gate over and over again.

A judge was at the wheel.

As lawyers used smartphones to snap pictures of the morning spectacle, Judge Lynn D. Rosenthal became the third Broward County judge in six months to be arrested on charges of driving under the influence. A colleague, Judge Gisele Pollack, had been suspended five days earlier after getting arrested on a D.U.I. charge while already on leave for taking the bench intoxicated — twice.

Even for South Florida, where absurd news events are routine and the sheriff went to prison for corruption, the spate of judicial scandals has raised serious questions about whether the arrests in Broward are a bizarre coincidence or underscore a larger systemic problem. In a county where the judiciary is known for old-school nepotism and cronyism, and judges have been caught smoking marijuana in a park and found drunk and partly naked in a hotel hallway, some lawyers find themselves wondering: At what point do isolated instances of misconduct point to something bigger?
I am wavering between laughing this off and taking it as another sign that Americans are just not serious about really providing justice to accused criminals, especially accused poor, minority criminals. If we really cared, would we let someone remain a judge after presiding drunk for the second time?

Friday, June 27, 2014

Hokusai, Thunder God

What Hope for the Libertarian Age?

Mark Lilla ponders what has followed the end of ideology:
This is a libertarian age. That is not because democracy is on the march (it is regressing in many places), or because the bounty of the free market has reached everyone (we have a new class of paupers), or because we are now all free to do as we wish (since wishes inevitably conflict). No, ours is a libertarian age by default: whatever ideas or beliefs or feelings muted the demand for individual autonomy in the past have atrophied. There were no public debates on this and no votes were taken. Since the cold war ended we have simply found ourselves in a world in which every advance of the principle of freedom in one sphere advances it in the others, whether we wish it to or not. The only freedom we are losing is the freedom to choose our freedoms.

Not everyone is happy about this. The left, especially in Europe and Latin America, wants to limit economic autonomy for the public good. Yet they reject out of hand legal limits to individual autonomy in other spheres, such as surveillance and censorship of the Internet, which might also serve the public good. They want an uncontrolled cyberspace in a controlled economy—a technological and sociological impossibility. Those on the right, whether in China, the United States, or elsewhere, would like the inverse: a permissive economy with a restrictive culture, which is equally impossible in the long run. We find ourselves like the man on the speeding train who tried to stop it by pulling on the seat in front of him.
Although this account has a certain plausibility, I think it is wrong in many ways. First, there is no reason to assume, as many have, that capitalism in China will inevitably lead to democracy. On the contrary, I think the numerous democratic failures of the past 20 years (Egypt, Iraq, Thailand) will only further reinforce the hold of the Chinese party state; so far as I can tell, only a handful of Chinese activists are really pining for free national elections. The Chinese "right," if so it can be called, seems solidly in control.

Meanwhile I am not at all sure that western societies are marching toward ever greater freedom. Environmental and safety rules still seem to be proliferating, for example. As to whether a society as devoted to freedom as ours can restructure the economy in the pursuit of fairness, I would say that remains to be seen. I am certainly interested in trying.

Not Just One Possible Theory

Whenever a theory appears to you as the only possible one, take this as a sign that you have neither understood the theory nor the problem which it was intended to solve.

— Karl Popper

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Things I Don't Understand

The dogshaming craze.

Bronze Age Chariot Burial in the Caucasus

Archaeologists in Georgia, in the south Caucasus, have dug into a large kurgan (burial mound) and found a wooden chamber containing an elaborate burial. The finds date to the Bronze Age, around 2000 BCE. The mound was robbed long ago and the bones of seven skeletons were scattered around the tomb, the main one apparently a middle-aged man, the others either his relatives or sacrificed servants.

The robbers left a good deal of loot behind behind, including the remains of two wooden, four-wheeled chariots, and some wonderful artifacts:
ornamented clay and wooden vessels, flint and obsidian arrowheads, leather and textile artifacts, a unique wooden armchair, carnelian and amber beads and 23 golden artifacts.

Calling the Dead

Alice Robb reports on the work of anthrologists Borut Telban and Daniela Vavrova in the remote village of Ambonwari in Papua New Guinea:
When the mobile phone network provider Digicel began introducing cell phones to the village in 2007, the Ambonwari enthusiastically embraced the new technology. Even though their service was, and remains, sporadic—villagers travel to the hills of nearby towns to try to get a connection, and can rarely scrape together enough credit for a real conversation—they have found other uses for their phones: as watches, torches, music players, and simply toys. “They love playing with the phones,” said Telban. “They’ll look at the screen endlessly.”

The Ambonwari have also incorporated the new technology into their existing systems of thought. They have long been confident in their ability to talk to the dead, believing they can communicate with the world of spirits in dreams, visions, and trances induced by special rituals. The introduction of mobile phones has opened up new possibilities: The Ambonwari believe they can use them to contact their dead relatives, whose numbers they obtain from healers. And once they reach them, they can ask for anything. “It is a general conviction,” write Telban and Vavrova, “that once people know the phone numbers of their deceased relatives they can ring and ask the spirits to put money in their bank accounts.” I asked Telban if the villagers are discouraged that they never get through to the spirit world; he assured me that they’re not. They might assume the spirits aren’t available. And they ring random numbers so often that occasionally they do reach someone, whose voice they attribute to a spirit.

The Legal Logic of Same-Sex Marriage

The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals has upheld a lower court ruling that declared Utah's ban on gay marriage unconstitutional. The logic of the ruling is a little different than others I have read. It goes like this:

1) It is an old principle of U.S. and British law that if the government wants to discriminate between different groups of citizens -- in the simple sense of treating them differently -- it must have a reason for doing so. If the matter is an important one, like, the right to vote or marry, the government must have a "compelling interest" in discriminating. That is, to tell one group of people that it can't marry, the government must have a really good reason.

2) In a sensitive area of important rights, like the right to vote or marry, any law the government brings forward to meet its compelling interest must be narrowly tailored and logically consistent; it must pass "strict scrutiny" by showing that it does what it intends in a parsimonious way. That is, if the government wants to keep non-citizens from voting, it must pass a law that actually keeps non-citizens from voting but doesn't block citizens. It could not set up an English-language test on the theory that most citizens speak English and many citizens don't; such a law would be too scattershot to meet the strict scrutiny standard. The court cited Reno vs. Flores (1993):
The Due Process Clause forbids the government to infringe certain fundamental liberty interests at all, no matter what process is provided, unless the infringement is narrowly tailored to serve a compelling state interest.
3) The state defended Utah's law banning gay marriage on the grounds that marriage is supposed to be about procreation. The state says that they have a compelling interest in seeing that children are raised in families and therefore in maintaining the link between marriage and childbearing. Allowing gay marriage, the state argued, breaks this link, undermines the connection between marriage and raising children, and will lead to further family breakdown.

4) The 10th Circuit granted that Utah has a compelling interest in promoting family life and "maintaining public morality." They held, however, that a law banning gay marriage was too scattershot to meet the standard of review that must be applied when the government interferes with fundamental rights:
We will assume that the first three rationales asserted by appellants are compelling. These justifications falter, however, on the means prong of the strict scrutiny test. Each rests on a link between marriage and procreation. . . . The challenged restrictions on the right to marry and on recognition of otherwise valid marriages, however, do not differentiate between procreative and non-procreative couples. Instead, Utah citizens may choose a spouse of the opposite sex regardless of the pairing's procreative capacity. The elderly, those medically unable to conceive, and those who exercise their fundamental right not to have biological children are free to mary and have their out-of-state marriages recognized in Utah, apparently without breaking the "conceptual link between marriage and procreation."

Such a mismatch between the class identified by a challenged law and the characteristic allegedly relevant to the state's interest is precisely the type of imprecision prohibited by heightened scrutiny.
So, the court says, if Utah really wants to regulate marriage as a way of promoting family life, it must do so using laws that, first, really do promote family life, and second, do not discriminate between different groups of childless couples.

To me the most interesting thing about the verdict is the tour the court offered of past Supreme Court rulings on marriage and sexuality. Reading this makes it clear that gay marriage is not a bolt from the blue, but the culmination (so far) of fifty years of court rulings in these areas. The court has steadily whittled away all limits imposed by state and society on the right to marry. They have repeatedly affirmed that the right to choose your own spouse is a fundamental one that nobody else can interfere with. For example, the court quoted an earlier ruling (Turner vs. Safley) allowing prisoners to marry people outside the prison even if they could never even see each other:
Inmate marriages, like others, are expressions of emotional support and public commitment. These elements are an important and significant aspect of the marital relationship. In addition, many religions recognize marriages as having spiritual significance; for some inmates and their spouses, therefore, the commitment of marriage may be an exercise of religious faith as well as an expression of personal dedication. Most inmates eventually will be released by parole or commutation, and therefore most inmates marriages are formed in the expectation that they ultimately will be fully consummated. Finally, marital status is a precondition to the receipt of government benefits (e.g., Social Security benefits), property rights (e.g., inheritance), and other, less tangible benefits (e.g., legitimation of children). These incidents of marriage, like the personal and religious aspects of the marriage commitment, are unaffected by the fact of confinement or the pursuit of legitimate corrections goals.
The whole movement of our society over the past 200 years has been toward marriage as an expression of personal choice. We marry for our own interests, not anybody else's. The right of our parents, neighbors, or even the state to interfere in our choices is very, very limited. As to why we marry, raising children remains an important factor but has steadily slid down the list of reasons. We marry for personal fulfillment; we marry because we think that life would be better with a spouse than without one.

Once you have accepted that marriage is about love and happiness for the spouses, and not really anybody else's business, gay marriage is not so strange at all. So far, the courts have been unanimous in agreeing.

Sixteenth-Century Armor

Up for auction at Christie's. This interested me mainly because despite a lifetime of perusing books on arms and armor I had never seen it before, I supposed because it was in a private collection.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Police Need a Warrant to Search your Cell Phone

Great news from the Supreme Court:
In a major statement on privacy rights in the digital age, the Supreme Court on Wednesday unanimously ruled that the police need warrants to search the cellphones of people they arrest.
I consider this more fallout from the Snowden revelations and the general unease in the country over the vulnerability of our digital lives to snooping.

Why Chronic Stress Leads to Heart Attacks

Studies have long shown that chronic stress is bad for your heart. Now there is a detailed account of why:
Epidemiological studies have shown that people who face many stressors—from those who survive natural disasters to those who work long hours—are more likely to develop atherosclerosis, the accumulation of fatty plaques inside blood vessels. In addition to fats and cholesterols, the plaques contain monocytes and neutrophils, immune cells that cause inflammation in the walls of blood vessels. And when the plaques break loose from the walls where they’re lodged, they can cause more extreme blockages elsewhere—leading to a stroke or heart attack.

Studying the effect of stressful intensive care unit (ICU) shifts on medical residents, biologist Matthias Nahrendorf of Harvard Medical School in Boston recently found that blood samples taken when the doctors were most stressed out had the highest levels of neutrophils and monocytes. To probe whether these white blood cells, or leukocytes, are the missing link between stress and atherosclerosis, he and his colleagues turned to experiments on mice.

Nahrendorf’s team exposed mice for up to 6 weeks to stressful situations, including tilting their cages, rapidly alternating light with darkness, or regularly switching the mice between isolation and crowded quarters. Compared with control mice, the stressed mice—like stressed doctors—had increased levels of neutrophils and monocytes in their blood.

The researchers then homed in on an explanation for the higher levels of immune cells. They already knew that chronic stress increases blood concentrations of the hormone noradrenaline; noradrenaline, Nahrendorf discovered, binds to a cell surface receptor protein called β3 on stem cells in the bone marrow. In turn, the chemical environment of the bone marrow changes and there’s an increase in the activity of the white blood cells produced by the stem cells.
In other words, this is another explanation of the same class we have seen for other ways stress harms us. Our body responds to stress by arming for battle or preparing to rapidly repair damage, and while these responses can be helpful in a crisis they are very damaging if maintained for long periods.

North Korean Poetry

Horrific account by Jang Jin-sung, a former poet laureate of North Korea:
However, as I progressed through school, the demands of achieving good grades grew stronger and I had no choice but to immerse myself, like everyone else, in the Supreme Leader. My mother tongue – the one that I learned to read write, think in and understand the world through – was the language of our Revolutionary History. Even when I turned to novels or poetry, whatever book I opened, it was the same: the Korean language served to tell the story of two protagonists alone, Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il. . . .

In the strict apartheid of North Korea, the use of language is tightly controlled across different classes of people. Above all, the language used for reference to the Supreme Leader is set apart in its grammar and vocabulary. Kim Il-sung is always “great”, and “greatness” must always belong to the Supreme Leader alone. . .

There could exist no such novel, poetry or story created by a North Korean writer. All forms of culture remain under the law of Kim Jong-il’s “Juche Art Theory”, which dictates that all North Korean literature must be in the style of “socialist realism”, with “socialist” denoting not an ideology, but an interpretation of “reality” dictated by the regime: a reality in which the Supreme Leader’s Revolutionary History must be the only truth. The world may talk about the counterfeiting of dollar bills by the regime for the sake of maintaining its grip on power, but this regime has set up a more invidious system for the purpose of counterfeiting the thoughts of its people. This not merely influences or interferes with their most intimate thoughts, but enforces a state policy to fabricate them from conception to expression, from each individual to the consciousness of the nation.
The existence of North Korea is a slap in the face to everything I would like to believe about humanity.

A Career for My Eldest Son?

Atlas Obscura:
You would think that a theme park attraction called the Palace of Unicorns would be a charming fantasy world. You'd be wrong. Located within Suoi Tien Cultural Theme Park in Ho Chi Minh City, the Palace of Unicorns is a graphic depiction of Buddhist hell. But the sight of torture and violence being inflicted on drug addicts, gamblers, and adulterers is just one small part of Suoi Tien's diverse and colorful offerings.

Located next to a garbage dump, the amusement park, which opened in 1995, is full of huge sculpted dragons, tortoises, phoenixes, and Buddhas. Employees dressed as golden monkeys scamper around the grounds, tasked with creating mischief.
If only we lived near a Buddhist water park, my eldest son could happily dress as a golden monkey and scamper around causing mischief. He would be perfect.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The Pope on Torture

I repeat the firm condemnation of every form of torture and invite Christians to commit themselves to work together for its abolition and to support victims and their families. To torture persons is a mortal sin. A very grave sin.

– Pope Francis.
Still waiting for the bishops or any other part of the American church to take Catholic teaching on war and torture as seriously as they take Catholic teaching on abortion and birth control.

Wiliam Polk Summarizes the Results of U.S. Policy in the Middle East

Via James Fallows, veteran diplomat William Polk offers this assessment of U.S. Policy in the Middle East:
Starting in the west and moving east: in Libya, having destroyed the Qaddafi regime, we unleashed forces that have virtually torn Libya apart and have spilled over into Central Africa, opening a new area of instability. In Egypt, the "non-coup-coup" of General Sisi has produced no ideas on what to do to help the Egyptian people except to execute large numbers of their religious leaders; he has also made clear his suspicion of and opposition to us. In occupied Palestine, the Israeli state is reducing the population to misery and driving it to rage while, in Washington, its extreme right-wing government is thumbing its nose at its benefactor, America. Our relations have never been worse. In Syria, we are engaged in arming, training and funding essentially the same people whom the new Egyptian regime is about to hang and whom we are considering bombing in Iraq. In Iraq, we are about to become engaged in supporting the regime we installed and which is the close ally of the Syrian and Iranian regimes that we have been trying for years to destroy; yet in Iran, we appear to be on the point of reversing our policy of destroying its government and seeking its help to defeat the insurgents in Iraq. And on and on.
Polk has no helpful suggestions for extricating us from this mess, but his long-term policy recommendation seems clear: no more wars.


Pictures of stonework shot on lunch walks over the past few weeks. Embassy Row, Georgetown, Kalorama, Dupont Circle.