Sunday, September 14, 2014

The distinction between a civic nation and an ethnic nation

From Scotland’s epic vote on independence from the United Kingdom by George Will. An interesting distinction.
In “The Long Shadow: The Legacies of the Great War in the Twentieth Century,” Cambridge University historian David Reynolds notes that World War I, a breaker of empires and maker of nations, quickened interest in nationalism and the nature of nationhood, especially the distinction between a civic nation and an ethnic nation: The former is “a community of laws, institutions, and citizenship,” whereas an ethnic nation is “a community of shared descent, rooted in language, ethnicity, and culture.” France embodied civic nationalism, forged by its revolution; Germany, “steeped in Romantic conceptions of the Volk ,” exemplified ethnic nationalism.

The United States is a civic nation because it is a creedal nation — founded, as Jefferson said, on “truths” deemed “self-evident,” and dedicated, as Lincoln said, to a “proposition” (that all are created equal).

How prodigal the soul Lends the tongue vows

The much maligned Polonius in Hamlet (Act 1, Scene 3, Line 602) speaks eloquently of how passionate advocacy is no friend of the truth.
Ay, springes to catch woodcocks! I do know,
When the blood burns, how prodigal the soul
Lends the tongue vows. These blazes, daughter,
Giving more light than heat, extinct in both
Even in their promise, as it is a-making,
You must not take for fire.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

The king was at first amazed at the ready invention and daring of the fellow

From Herodotus, Rhampsinitus and the Thief. He picked up this short story in Egypt.
After Proteus, they told me, Rhampsinitos received in succession the kingdom, who left as a memorial of himself that gateway to the temple of Hephaistos which is turned towards the West, and in front of the gateway he set up two statues, in height five-and-twenty cubits, of which the one which stands on the North side is called by the Egyptians Summer and the one on the South side Winter; and to that one which they call Summer they do reverence and make offerings, while to the other which is called Winter they do the opposite of these things.

This king, they said, got great wealth of silver, which none of the kings born after him could surpass or even come near to; and wishing to store his wealth in safety he caused to be built a chamber of stone, one of the walls whereof was towards the outside of his palace: and the builder of this, having a design against it, contrived as follows, that is, he disposed one of the stones in such a manner that it could be taken out easily from the wall either by two men or even by one. So when the chamber was finished, the king stored his money in it, and after some time the builder, being near the end of his life, called to him his sons (for he had two) and to them he related how he had contrived in building the treasury of the king, and all in forethought for them, that they might have ample means of living. And when he had clearly set forth to them everything concerning the taking out of the stone, he gave them the measurements, saying that if they paid heed to this matter they would be stewards of the king’s treasury.

So he ended his life, and his sons made no long delay in setting to work, but went to the palace by night, and having found the stone in the wall of the chamber they dealt with it easily and carried forth for themselves great quantity of the wealth within.

And the king happening to open the chamber, he marvelled when he saw the vessels falling short of the full amount, and he did not know on whom he should lay the blame, since the seals were unbroken and the chamber had been close shut; but when upon his opening the chamber a second and a third time the money was each time seen to be diminished, for the thieves did not slacken in their assaults upon it, he did as follows:—having ordered traps to be made he set these round about the vessels in which the money was; and when the thieves had come as at former times and one of them had entered, then so soon as he came near to one of the vessels he was straightway caught in the trap: and when he perceived in what evil case he was, straightway calling his brother he showed him what the matter was, and bade him enter as quickly as possible and cut off his head, for fear lest being seen and known he might bring about the destruction of his brother also. And to the other it seemed that he spoke well, and he was persuaded and did so; and fitting the stone into its place he departed home bearing with him the head of his brother.

Now when it became day, the king entered into the chamber and was very greatly amazed, seeing the body of the thief held in the trap without his head, and the chamber unbroken, with no way to come in by or go out: and being at a loss he hung up the dead body of the thief upon the wall and set guards there, with charge if they saw any one weeping or bewailing himself to seize him and bring him before the king. And when the dead body had been hung up, the mother was greatly grieved, and speaking with the son who survived she enjoined him, in whatever way he could, to contrive means by which he might take down and bring home the body of his brother; and if he should neglect to do this, she earnestly threatened that she would go and give information to the king that he had the money.

So as the mother dealt hardly with the surviving son, and he though saying many things to her did not persuade her, he contrived for his purpose a device as follows:—Providing himself with asses he filled some skins with wine and laid them upon the asses, and after that he drove them along: and when he came opposite to those who were guarding the corpse hung up, he drew towards him two or three of the necks of the skins and loosened the cords with which they were tied. Then when the wine was running out, he began to beat his head and cry out loudly, as if he did not know to which of the asses he should first turn; and when the guards saw the wine flowing out in streams, they ran together to the road with drinking vessels in their hands and collected the wine that was poured out, counting it so much gain; and he abused them all violently, making as if he were angry, but when the guards tried to appease him, after a time he feigned to be pacified and to abate his anger, and at length he drove his asses out of the road and began to set their loads right. Then more talk arose among them, and one or two of them made jests at him and brought him to laugh with them; and in the end he made them a present of one of the skins in addition to what they had.

Upon that they lay down there without more ado, being minded to drink, and they took him into their company and invited him to remain with them and join them in their drinking: so he (as may be supposed) was persuaded and stayed.

Then as they in their drinking bade him welcome in a friendly manner, he made a present to them also of another of the skins; and so at length having drunk liberally the guards became completely intoxicated; and being overcome by sleep they went to bed on the spot where they had been drinking.

He then, as it was now far on in the night, first took down the body of his brother, and then in mockery shaved the right cheeks of all the guards; and after that he put the dead body upon the asses and drove them away home, having accomplished that which was enjoined him by his mother.

Upon this the king, when it was reported to him that the dead body of the thief had been stolen away, displayed great anger; and desiring by all means that it should be found out who it might be who devised these things, did this (so at least they said, but I do not believe the account),—he caused his own daughter to sit in the stews, and enjoined her to receive all equally, and before having commerce with any one to compel him to tell her what was the most cunning and what the most unholy deed which had been done by him in all his life-time; and whosoever should relate that which had happened about the thief, him she must seize and not let him go out.

Then as she was doing that which was enjoined by her father, the thief, hearing for what purpose this was done and having a desire to get the better of the king in resource, did thus:—from the body of one lately dead he cut off the arm at the shoulder and went with it under his mantle: and having gone in to the daughter of the king, and being asked that which the others also were asked, he related that he had done the most unholy deed when he cut off the head of his brother, who had been caught in a trap in the king’s treasure-chamber, and the most cunning deed in that he made drunk the guards and took down the dead body of his brother hanging up; and she when she heard it tried to take hold of him, but the thief held out to her in the darkness the arm of the corpse, which she grasped and held, thinking that she was holding the arm of the man himself; but the thief left it in her hands and departed, escaping through the door.

Now when this also was reported to the king, he was at first amazed at the ready invention and daring of the fellow, and then afterwards he sent round to all the cities and made proclamation granting a free pardon to the thief, and also promising a great reward if he would come into his presence. The thief accordingly trusting to the proclamation came to the king, and Rhampsinitos greatly marvelled at him, and gave him this daughter of his to wife, counting him to be the most knowing of all men; for as the Egyptians were distinguished from all other men, so was he from the other Egyptians.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Journalistic quirks and numeric versatility

Reading an Atlantic Magazine article, Always Make Promises: Living up to a social contract is inordinately valuable, and there's no pressure to exceed it by James Hamblin, I was just coming to the conclusion that it was just more of what they do so much of today, insubtantial click-bait. Then I came across this paragraph, which did not change my opinion but arrested my attention.
To make the point, Epley told me to think about an oil spill that kills a certain number of birds. I did, reluctantly. "How much should the oil company be fined?" he asked, rhetorically. "Well, if they killed 20,000 birds, they should obviously be fined more than if they killed only 2,000 birds. That's ten times more bird carnage." It's true; I did the math. But, he explained, if you ask people in experiments how much the oil company should be fined, and the people only see one of those numbers, the estimates are about the same.
What is Hamblin doing here with that sentence: "It's true; I did the math." Is he attempting to be humorous, cutesy, self-deprecating, serious?

I hope it is one of the former rather than the latter. But humor seems a stretch, cutesy unprofessional, and self-deprecating too much of a pose. But it seems almost as equally unlikely that he could be serious.

But it raises an interesting question. For me, and I am certain for anyone in many fields or professions, you simply look at those two numbers, 20,000 and 2,000 and without thinking you know that they are an order of magnitude different, i.e. one is ten times the other.

Are there people that actually do the math in order to recognize that relationship? I am feeling a little like the first time I met a person in a developed country (the UK) who could not count. I really could not comprehend how an employed person of a middle age and in other ways competent could not count. Incomprehensible.

I assume that Hamblin didn't actually do the math, that he just knew as one would expect. But are there educated professionals that are not so numerically versatile that they in fact do have to do the math?

Feminists and unexpected field experiments

Intriguing. Speculatively scientific investigation rather than anything that is rigorous, randomly selected, large population, replicated or any of the other attributes of more formal science. From Why Aren't More Women Feminists? by Ross Pomeroy
It's been called the "Feminist Paradox": Feminism's aim is to improve the lives of all women, yet only about a third of women in the United States identify as feminists. That disparity is even starker when you consider that surveys show three-quarters of women to be concerned about women's rights.

Why do most women eschew the feminist label? Perhaps it's because we don't like to categorize ourselves socially or politically. After all, far more Americans identify as independent rather than align themselves with a political party. It could also be that feminism is not clearly defined. There's liberal feminism, radical feminism, Marxist feminism, ecofeminism, womanism, and a boatload of other different brands, all espousing diverse ideologies and expressing varying levels of activism. The hodgepodge might lead women to remain agnostic. Another reason is the less-then-flattering image of feminists offered up in the popular media, which often depicts them as extremist, unattractive man-haters.
Fair enough. A reasonable scene setter.
Entering the controversial fray with a new eyebrow-raising explanation -- and even some empirical data to back it up -- is a team of psychologists from UmeƄ University in Sweden. They hypothesize that the activists who get the headlines and shape feminist attitudes are "generally more physiologically and psychologically masculinized than is typical for women." Basically, there may be "biological differences between women in general and the activist women who formulate the feminist agenda."
That's a bold claim. Not obviously wrong but certainly somewhat unusual.
The empirical data that was mentioned originated from a feminist conference in Sweden. The researchers visited the gathering and offered candy in exchange for participation. Subjects answered questions designed to measure social dominance and had their hands imaged with a high resolution scanner so that researchers could measure the ratio of the length of the index finger to the ring finger, which is the most widely used index of prenatal testosterone exposure. Men have a lower ratio (meaning the index finger is shorter than the ring finger) while women have a higher ratio (the index and ring fingers are more similar in length). Participation in the study was anonymous and no demographic data was collected. The researchers did not directly ask the subjects whether they were feminists, thinking that it would deter participation.
I had forgotten about that finger ratio thing. I wonder how well established it is.

But the results are startling, at least to me.

Not only did the (only 25 of them) feminists exhibit a more masculanized digit ratio than a reference population of women, but they had an even more masculanized ratio than a reference population of men.
25 women -- approximately 35% of attendees at the conference -- took part in the survey. The researchers found their index-ring finger ratio to be vastly more masculine compared to the average for Swedish women. (For the statistics lovers out there, the p values were <0.000001 for the right hand and 0.00016 for the left hand. That's remarkably significant.) The difference indicates that the women were exposed to higher levels of testosterone during development, engendering more masculine characteristics.

Obviously the experiment would have to be conducted again with a much larger population and with greater controls and then replicated by independent third parties. None-the-less, it is interesting. Not sure what it means, or even how to interpret it, but how interesting.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

You should be able to detect when a man is talking rot

From John Alexander Smith, Professor of Moral Philosophy at Oxford, 1914 in a lecture.
Gentlemen, you are now about to embark on a course of studies that (will) form a noble adventure…Let me make this clear to you. ..nothing that you will learn in the course of your studies will be of the slightest possible use to you in after life – save only this – that if you work hard and intelligently, you should be able to detect when a man is talking rot, and that, in my view, is the main, if not the sole purpose of education.

The political world relies on coercion. Most of the nation prefers cooperation.

An interesting take and I don't think he's wrong: Vox Explanation Highlights Gap Between Political World and Everybody Else by Scott Rasmussen. Using an example to illustrate how those within the beltway fail to understand the real world.
So, Vox included a question-and-answer attempting to explain why anyone would buy non-voting stock in a public company. “It’s a little mysterious,” according to Yglesias. The Vox blogger wrote that, “the value of a share of stock stems from the fact that owning it entitles you to a small slice of control over the enterprise.”

It’s understandable that a political junkie would think of stock ownership in terms of control. That’s especially true of a left-leaning blogger writing about a merger story involving Fox and CNN.

However, most people who invest don’t buy stocks with hopes of controlling the company. They do so because they want to make money. For some, it might be part of their retirement planning. Others are trading for shorter-term goals. But, with only rare exceptions, investors buy stocks in hopes of making financial gains.

Seen from this perspective, the value of a share of stock has nothing to do with voting rights.

The real value of a share of stock depends upon how much cash it will generate for the owner.
Rasmussen elaborates but it come down to:
The political world thinks of using their influence to control others. Whether it’s prohibiting pot or mandating specific health insurance requirements, the political process is about telling others what to do. Nothing else matters. Yglesias even writes that if you own stock without the ability to exercise, “You don’t really own anything of real value.”

While political types think of controlling others, that’s not something most Americans value.

Most think of what they can do every day to make life just a little bit better for themselves and their families. If they invest wisely, they prepare for the future. If they work together with others in their community, they make their community stronger.

At the end of the day, the difference is simple. The political world relies on coercion. Most of the nation prefers cooperation.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The yeggs of yesterday

A little out of the normal pathways of my reading but I just finished Public Enemies by Bryan Burrough. Excellent

History written something in the style of Walter Lord, lots of carefully selected detail which give you a more intimate sense of the events, but without so much detail as to be overwhelming.

From the blurb:
Public Enemies is the story of the most spectacular crime wave in American history, the two-year battle between the young J. Edgar Hoover and his FBI, and an assortment of criminals who became national icons: John Dillinger, Machine Gun Kelly, Bonnie and Clyde, Baby Face Nelson, Pretty Boy Floyd, and the Barkers. In an epic feat of storytelling, Burrough reveals a web of interconnections within the vast American underworld and demonstrates how Hoover's G-men secured the FBI's rise to power.
A number of observations from the account (which I found compelling reading).
* It reminds you of how recently America was primarily an aggregation of farmers and small towns.

* Interesting to note how heavily armed local law enforcement were.

* Interesting that in general, the bankrobbers had much better and faster cars than the police.

* None-the-less, cars were in general much more prone to breaking down at inconvenient moments than we are accustomed to today. The strides made in quality manufacturing are easy to overlook.

* It highlights the gritty reality that underpinned the romance and myth of John Dillinger, Bonnie & Clyde, Pretty Boy Floyd, and all the other yeggs (slang for bank robbers). Sleeping in the back seat of the car for days on end, eating old crusts, no bathing for long stretches, etc.

* Bank robbers and organized crime had a peculiar relationship with one another. Sometimes supportive and at odds other times.

* The FBI was incredibly incompetent. Huge resources poured in to the war on crime but much, if not most, of the effective work was done locally.

* Not only was the FBI incompetent, but criminal. Kidnapping and torturing suspects for information, killing civilians in wild shoot outs, knowingly convicting criminals of crimes they had not committed because they weren't able to get convictions on the crimes they had committed.

* Municipal Corruption! Wow! It is quite bad now, but I had not realized quite how bad it used to be. Tammany Hall and their ilk; sure. But I thought those were the rare exceptions and it was primarily a large city deal. No. It wasn't a problem everywhere but it sure was a lot of places. Police force detectives serving as moles for bank robbers, bribes, etc.

* The distances the yeggs travelled. Rob a bank in Dallas on Monday, do a bank in Iowa on Wednesday, if its Friday I must be in Indiana.
A fascinating story.

We need to work harder for our knowledge and stop being quite as shallow as our technology allows us to be.

From a book review of Curious by Ian Leslie. The book review is by Philip Delves Broughton.
Mr. Leslie writes that there are two major categories of curiosity. Diversive curiosity, the attraction to everything novel, is superficial and easily satisfied—little more than a temporary fix for boredom. Epistemic curiosity, a deeper desire to understand a subject from top to bottom, may lead to a lifetime's study and even profound discovery. Epistemic curiosity is the main subject of his book and the form most under siege by technology.

Epistemic curiosity depends on friction, on uncertainty, on being aware of our own ignorance—the very opposite of the quick-fix omniscience of a Google search. Those who are epistemically curious see life as a mystery to be patiently explored and dimly understood rather than mastered with a how-to list. They invest in acquiring the mental tools with which to tackle difficult problems. They bother to learn foreign languages and hard science and are always asking "why" as well as "what" questions. They use technology as a rapier rather than a crutch.

The sheer abundance of information at our disposal risks turning us into a society of glib know-it-alls, ignorant of our own ignorance. We may not all need to be like the 3-year-old John Stuart Mill pacing across Hampstead Heath with his father reciting ancient Greek, but we do need to know that being able to look up something on our iPhones doesn't make us smart. Mr. Leslie cites a question recently posted on the social-news and discussion site Reddit: "If someone from the 1950s suddenly appeared today, what would be the most difficult thing to explain to them about today?" The most popular answer was this: "I possess a device in my pocket that is capable of accessing the entirety of information known to man. I use it to look at pictures of cats and get into arguments with strangers."

Mr. Leslie's prescription for our curiosity deficit is to be more like Leonardo da Vinci, who would doodle in his notebooks the Italian word "dimmi" ("tell me"). We need to "forage like a Foxhog," Mr. Leslie says, a mix of Sir Isaiah Berlin's fox who knows many things and hedgehog who knows one big thing. We must be "thinkerers," people who both think deeply and tinker on the surface of problems, probing for answers. We need to work harder for our knowledge and stop being quite as shallow as our technology allows us to be.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Kennewick Man

Well, this turned out way better than I ever hoped for. From The Kennewick Man Finally Freed to Share His Secrets by Douglas Preston.
In the summer of 1996, two college students in Kennewick, Washington, stumbled on a human skull while wading in the shallows along the Columbia River. They called the police. The police brought in the Benton County coroner, Floyd Johnson, who was puzzled by the skull, and he in turn contacted James Chatters, a local archaeologist. Chatters and the coroner returned to the site and, in the dying light of evening, plucked almost an entire skeleton from the mud and sand. They carried the bones back to Chatters’ lab and spread them out on a table.

The skull, while clearly old, did not look Native American. At first glance, Chatters thought it might belong to an early pioneer or trapper. But the teeth were cavity-free (signaling a diet low in sugar and starch) and worn down to the roots—a combination characteristic of prehistoric teeth. Chatters then noted something embedded in the hipbone. It proved to be a stone spearpoint, which seemed to clinch that the remains were prehistoric. He sent a bone sample off for carbon dating. The results: It was more than 9,000 years old.


The storm of controversy erupted when the Army Corps of Engineers, which managed the land where the bones had been found, learned of the radiocarbon date. The corps immediately claimed authority—officials there would make all decisions related to handling and access—and demanded that all scientific study cease. Floyd Johnson protested, saying that as county coroner he believed he had legal jurisdiction. The dispute escalated, and the bones were sealed in an evidence locker at the sheriff’s office pending a resolution.
The Army Corps of Engineers wanted to turn over the bones without examination to local Native American groups for burial.

Kennewick Man was discovered the year before I went overseas for an extended stent. I was hopeful that wise heads would prevail, the bones would be examined and knowledge could be gleaned. But it certainly didn't look like that from the snips of new I occasionally received. I thought we were going to have another Peking Man incident.

I am so delighted to see that there has been a relatively happy ending. It is impossible to understand quite the Army COrps of Engineers has elected to be such an obstructionist ass. One of the participants in the case speculates:
I asked Schneider why the corps so adamantly resisted the scientists. He speculated that the corps was involved in tense negotiations with the tribes over a number of thorny issues, including salmon fishing rights along the Columbia River, the tribes’ demand that the corps remove dams and the ongoing, hundred-billion-dollar cleanup of the vastly polluted Hanford nuclear site. Schneider says that a corps archaeologist told him “they weren’t going to let a bag of old bones get in the way of resolving other issues with the tribes.”
No wonder people believe you can't trust the government to do the right thing. When they pursue their institutional interest over both the letter of the law and the obvious right thing to do, then it is not unreasonable to come to the conclusion that they won't do the right thing.

But now we know. Read the whole article for the details. The main items:
From these studies, presented in superabundant detail in the new book, we now have an idea who Kennewick Man was, how he lived, what he did and where he traveled. We know how he was buried and then came to light. Kennewick Man, Owsley believes, belongs to an ancient population of seafarers who were America’s original settlers. They did not look like Native Americans. The few remains we have of these early people show they had longer, narrower skulls with smaller faces. These mysterious people have long since disappeared.


What became of those pioneers, Kennewick Man’s ancestors and companions? They were genetically swamped by much larger—and later—waves of travelers from Asia and disappeared as a physically distinct people, Owsley says. These later waves may have interbred with the first settlers, diluting their genetic legacy. A trace of their DNA still can be detected in some Native American groups, though the signal is too weak to label the Native Americans “descendants.”


The food we eat and the water we drink leave a chemical signature locked into our bones, in the form of different atomic variations of carbon, nitrogen and oxygen. By identifying them, scientists can tell what a person was eating and drinking while the bone was forming. Kennewick Man’s bones were perplexing. Even though his grave lies 300 miles inland from the sea, he ate none of the animals that abounded in the area. On the contrary, for the last 20 or so years of his life he seems to have lived almost exclusively on a diet of marine animals, such as seals, sea lions and fish. Equally baffling was the water he drank: It was cold, glacial meltwater from a high altitude. Nine thousand years ago, the closest marine coastal environment where one could find glacial meltwater of this type was Alaska. The conclusion: Kennewick Man was a traveler from the far north. Perhaps he traded fine knapping stones over hundreds of miles
Fascinating, and thank goodness for the rugged perseverance of Douglas Owsley, Dennis Stanford, Alan Schneider, and others who stood their ground at great personal, professional and financial risk and were ultimately proven right.