Sunday, September 30, 2018

Greek libation bowl

From The Metropolitan Museum of Art Guide, 1983.

Click to enlarge.

47 Phiale (Libation Bowl)
Greek, 4th c. B.C. e.
Gold; diam. 91/4 in. (23.5 cm), h. 13/4 in. (3.6 cm)

Libations were one of the most common religious rituals, and many contemporary representations of these ceremonies are preserved (on painted vases, for example). The offering was poured from a phiale, a special type of shallow bowl that fits comfortably (11to the palm of the hand and has a hollow in the center for the fingers. Such bowls are known mainly from examples in clay, bronze, and silver, and this is one of only five Greek phialai of gold. It is decorated with three concentric rows of acorns and one of beechnuts; in the interstices appear bees and highly stylized filling motifs. It is of Greek workmanship but, interestingly, has incised on the underside a weight inscription in Carthaginian letters. One can imagine its being the prized possession of a Carthaginian living in or trading with a Greek community. Rogers Fund, 1962, 62.11.1

We do not want justice, we want the storm.

From The Tragedy of the Moot Point by Tim Kowal. He describes his piece:
The exchange below is adapted from a scene in T.H. White's The Once and Future King, Book IV: The Candle in the Wind, as a commentary on the recent sexual-misconduct accusations against President Donald Trump's nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court, Judge Brett Kavanaugh, which accusations, initially anonymous and confidential, have now become a national scandal through the efforts of Congressional Democrats.
It is a very clever piece, leveraging an artifact of western civilization, Le Morte d'Arthur, through its modern renditions such as by T.H. White.

The humanities have suffered a steep decline in our modern age of technology and commerce. But the decline is not due to a loss of relevance and wisdom but primarily because they have been hijacked by academic Jacobins, unwilling to share the beauty and wisdom which is there for the taking. As Kowal illustrates.

Some extracts:
The Orkney brothers Agravaine, Gawaine, and Mordred, having plotted to overthrow King Arthur by removing the Queen and defeating his chief knight, Lancelot, enter the King's court.

MORDRED: We came to tell you of a treason of which we have learned. Queen Guenever is Sir Lancelot's mistress.

ARTHUR: Are you ready to prove this accusation?

MORDRED: We are.

ARTHUR: You know that the Queen and Sir Lancelot deny it.

MORDRED: It would be extraordinary if they did not.

ARTHUR: And that such an accusation, on your standing alone, would supply the accused no possibility of their own defense or the public of any possibility of forming a reasonable belief of the facts by which justice may be dispensed through the courts. Indeed it is for such very reasons that the courts of law do not countenance claims of this nature -- claims as are not susceptible to being either proved or disproved.

MORDRED: We know all that. But the charge is now made, and neither the King nor the courts may deny standing to its maker or the possibility of its credibility. To remain silent on the claim would be no different than to deny it, and would stir a feeling of great unfairness in the public.

ARTHUR: You are still very young, Mordred. You have yet to learn that nearly all the ways of giving justice are unfair. If you can suggest another way of settling moot points, except by evidence in a court of law, I will be glad to try it.

MORDRED: Because the standards of evidence require greater proof than we possess to overcome the innocence of the accused, does not mean that the accused is always in the right.

ARTHUR: I am sure it doesn't. But then, you see, moot points have to be settled somehow, once they get thrust upon us. If an assertion cannot be proved, then it must be settled some other way, and nearly all of these ways are unfair to somebody. It is not as if you would have to argue against the accused in your own person. You could hire the greatest arguer you knew to argue your case. And the accused would, of course, get the best arguer he knew to argue theirs. It would be much the same thing if you each hired the strongest man you knew to fight for you. In the last resort it is usually the richest person who wins, whether he hires the most expensive arguer or the most expensive fighter, so it is no good pretending that this is simply a matter of brute force.


ARTHUR: Passion alone cannot support the execution of justice under the laws, particularly when it means condemnation to death.


AGRAVAINE: Uncle, we are in no pursuit of any result offered by justice and the requirements of law to establish true facts; we pursue not that condemnation be carried out, merely that condemnation be declared, in whatever way it might. By this means we shall have justice for our House. We will not be denied this by any more general or public pursuit of truth established by law, in which we do not share besides. Let the public call for their heads, and the Queen and Lancelot will be forced into exile, and justice for our House will be achieved.

ARTHUR: That may be, Agravaine: you are a keen advocate, and you are determined to have your result. But you underestimate that the public, once its passions have subsided, will once more take an interest in truth, and in justice. I suppose it is no good reminding you that, in the mind of a man not of Orkney, justice is a thing done to a man, not for a House. And that it rests upon truth revealed to a candid mind through facts revealed to be of sound quality and probity as the laws ensure.

MORDRED: What need has the public of truth after justice is done? Why, an entire people must be convinced of a fact in your courts before it may do justice to a single person! Yet a lightning bolt may dispense justice though it knows not a single fact.

ARTHUR: Then it is not justice.

MORDRED: We do not want justice, we want the storm.

ARTHUR: I understand the situation.

Haymakers by George Clausen

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A Solar Filament Erupts

From Nasa's Astronomy Picture of the Day

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A Solar Filament Erupts
Image Credit: NASA's GSFC, SDO AIA Team

Explanation: What's happened to our Sun? Nothing very unusual -- it just threw a filament. Toward the middle of 2012, a long standing solar filament suddenly erupted into space producing an energetic Coronal Mass Ejection (CME). The filament had been held up for days by the Sun's ever changing magnetic field and the timing of the eruption was unexpected. Watched closely by the Sun-orbiting Solar Dynamics Observatory, the resulting explosion shot electrons and ions into the Solar System, some of which arrived at Earth three days later and impacted Earth's magnetosphere, causing visible aurorae. Loops of plasma surrounding an active region can be seen above the erupting filament in the featured ultraviolet image. Although the Sun is now in a relatively inactive state of its 11-year cycle, unexpected holes have opened in the Sun's corona allowing an excess of charged particles to stream into space. As before, these charged particles are creating auroras.

Saturday, September 29, 2018

Still Life—Violin and Music by WIlliam Michael Harnett

From The Metropolitan Museum of Art Guide, 1983.

Click to enlarge.

16 WILLIAM MICHAEL HARNETT, 1848-1892 Still Life—Violin and Music
Oil on canvas; 40 x 30 in. (101.6 x 76.2 cm)

In this work of 1888 Harnett pushes trompe-l'oeil painting to its limits, presenting objects in a daring range of spatial planes: the sheet mu-sic and calling card are shown with edges bent, not flat; the partly open door suggests depth behind it; heavy items are suspended on strings or balanced precariously on nails. Harnett delights in the textures and subdued colors of the old violin and its gleaming strings; in the silver, ivory, and granadilla piccolo; in the metal hinges, horseshoe, hasp, and lock. His technical brilliance and popular subject matter made him the most emulated American still-life painter of his generation. Catharine Lorillard Wolfe Collection, Wolfe Fund, 1963, 63.85

Considerations when assessing accusations

From 10 Red Flags About Sexual Assault Claims, From An Employment Lawyer by Adam Mill. Too colored by the serial and ever more extreme claims being made in the Kavanaugh confirmation process. All his accusers could be making legitimate claims but reason, evidence and probability are against them.

Here are Mill's ten red flags:
1. The accuser uses the press instead of the process.
2. The accuser times releasing the accusation for an advantage.
3. The accuser attacks the process instead of participating.
4. When the accused’s opportunity to mount a defense is delegitimized.
5. The accuser seeks to force the accused to defend himself or herself before committing to a final version.
6. The accused makes a strong and unequivocal denial.
7. The accuser makes unusual demands to modify or control the process.
8. When the accuser’s ability to identify the accused has not been properly explained.
9. When witnesses don’t corroborate.
10. When corroborating witnesses simply repeat the accusation of the accuser but don’t have fresh information.
Individually, none of these are especially compelling as a red flag. Individually there are occasions when any one of the flags would be well warranted. But, in aggregate they become more indicative.

This feels related to my post How to assess a piece of writing, especially outside one's expertise. There is a difference though. In that post, you are estimating the value of the evidence presented. Mill is upstream a bit, not assessing the argument per se, but the predicate claim. Seems like splitting a hair but it makes sense. It is the difference between the headline of an article and the substance of the article itself.

Micheline by Frans Stuurman

Micheline by Frans Stuurman

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Cosmic Collision Forges Galactic Ring

From Nasa's Astronomy Picture of the Day

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Cosmic Collision Forges Galactic Ring
Image Credit: X-ray: Chandra (NASA, CXC, INAF, A. Wolter et al.); Optical: Hubble (NASA, STScI)

Explanation: How could a galaxy become shaped like a ring? The rim of the blue galaxy pictured on the right is an immense ring-like structure 150,000 light years in diameter composed of newly formed, extremely bright, massive stars. That galaxy, AM 0644-741, is known as a ring galaxy and was caused by an immense galaxy collision. When galaxies collide, they pass through each other -- their individual stars rarely come into contact. The ring-like shape is the result of the gravitational disruption caused by an entire small intruder galaxy passing through a large one. When this happens, interstellar gas and dust become condensed, causing a wave of star formation to move out from the impact point like a ripple across the surface of a pond. The likely intruder galaxy is on the left of this combined image from Hubble (visible) and Chandra (X-ray) space telescopes. X-ray light is shown in pink and depicts places where energetic black holes or neutron stars, likely formed shortly after the galaxy collision, reside.

Friday, September 28, 2018

Portrait of a Carthusian by Petrus Christus

From The Metropolitan Museum of Art Guide, 1983.

Click to enlarge.
58 PETRUS CHRISTUS, Netherlandish, act. by 1444—d. 1475/76
Portrait of a Carthusian
Oil on wood; painted surface 111/2 x73/8 in. (29.2 x 18.7 cm)

In its effect of realism this picture owes much to the example of Jan van Eyck (no. 56). The sitter whose personality is so powerfully projected has been identified as a Carthusian lay brother. On the sill of the simulated frame with the date (1446) and his signature "carved" into it (XPI is an abbreviation of the Greek form of Christus), the artist has painted an astonishingly lifelike fly, perhaps as a reminder of the ever-present temptation of evil. (See also Robert Lehman Collection, no. 11.) The Jules Bache Collection, 1949, 49.7.19
Love the light and colors.

Swiss Sculptor Diego Giacometti at Home with Cat by Martine Franck

Swiss Sculptor Diego Giacometti at Home with Cat by Martine Frack

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We confuse elite, power, credentials, status, majority status

From What everyone misses about American elites by Daniel W. Drezner. I don't think his analysis is necessarily wrong, just that it is so incomplete that it can't be right.
This has not been a great moment for American elites. My Washington Post colleague Dan Balz wrote on Monday, “If the country once was seen as the world’s most effective and enduring democracy, the latest events tell a far different story, that of a nation at war internally and with its institutions under assault.” That seems like a problem with elites. As I noted in “The Ideas Industry,” respect for American elites is not high right now. It seems as though the constant theme of elite commentators this week will be to bash elites some more.

Along these lines, Eliot Cohen had a smart piece in The Atlantic over the weekend about two scandals involving two very different elite intellectuals: Judith Butler’s unthinking defense of fellow scholar Avital Ronell despite evidence that Ronell had abused her power as a senior scholar, and Ed Whelan’s badly misguided effort to claim that Christine Blasey Ford must have confused Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh with some other dude.

Both Butler and Whelan have apologized for their egregious blunders, so this is not a case of Cohen attacking people who think they did no wrong. Rather, he asks how two very smart people could have messed things up so badly.
He then goes on several, to my view, marginal digressions.

But I do agree with this.
Even people who qualify as elites in every sense of the word can find a way to think of themselves as an outsider. This has been a theme of American elites for quite some time. George Kennan was the perfect embodiment of the foreign policy elite in this country, but one would not get that sense from his autobiography or biography. Kennan’s self-conception was that he was an awkward kid from Wisconsin who never fit in at Princeton or any of the later august societies he joined.

I suspect that Butler and Whelan also feel like outsiders. Butler is a big cheese in the academy, but I am sure she looks out at the country from her academic sinecure and views herself as part of an aggrieved minority. Similarly, Whelan is a conservative living in a very liberal legal town. No matter what his actual power as a key cog in the conservative legal movement, he considers himself part of a spirited minority.
I think we confuse elite, power, credentials, status, majority status.

We are each, ultimately, a minority of one because we are each unique individuals. While some ideologies seek to privilege particular attributes of individuality over others, such as race or religion or health or age or gender, etc. the reality is that we are each an amalgam of innumerable attributes on any one of which we might be in the majority or minority but in aggregate we are always a minority of one. There is no reason that age or sex or religion or race ought to be prioritized in salience or importance. That is simply an ideological choice - usually as a means toward obtaining power.

Additionally, one can have status without being elite; one can have power without status. One can be in the majority without power. One can have credentials and not be elite. There are near infinite combinations.

Butler and Whelan are elite (establishment), and have power, credentials, and status but they are not only a minority but a tiny minority. Being isolated among the establishment of power, credentials, and status; they lose sight of everyone else's experience and they lose the inhibitions which come from broadly shared norms.

Everyone, if they wish to, can see themselves as an oppressed minority. It is a choice independent of circumstances.

Milky Way over Troll's Tongue

From Nasa's Astronomy Picture of the Day.

Click to enlarge.

Milky Way over Troll's Tongue
Image Credit & Copyright: Ruslan Merzlyakov (RMS Photography)

Explanation: You have to take a long hike to see the Troll's Tongue -- ten hours over rocky terrain. And in this case, it took three trips to capture the landform below a clear night sky. Trolltunga itself is a picturesque rock protrusion extending about 700 meters over mountainous cliffs near Lake Ringedalsvatnet in Norway. The overhang is made of billion-year-old Precambrian bedrock that was carved out by glaciers during an ice-age about 10,000 years ago. The featured picture is a composite of two exposures, a 15-second image of the foreground Earth followed 40 minutes later by an 87-second exposure of the background sky. Thousands of discernable stars dot the backdrop starscape in addition to billions of unresolved stars in the nearly vertical band of our Milky Way Galaxy.

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Iznik Bowl

From The Metropolitan Museum of Art Guide, 1983.

Click to enlarge.

33 Dish
Turkish, Iznik, Ottoman period, ca. 1535-45
Composite body, slip- and stain-painted; diam. 151/2 in. (39.4 cm)

The elements found in this unique piece of blue-and-white Iznik ware were inspired by both Chinese blue-and-white porcelain and celadon. The shape, a rimless dish with curved sides, and the patterns, particularly the interior square grid and the exterior leaf scroll, have been com-pared to Chinese models. The square grid, however, is an Islamic geometric pattern first found in an eleventh-century tomb tower in Iran and later all over the Islamic world. The color scheme, the technical composition of the body, and the clear white ground and brilliant glaze show the skills of the Iznik potters. Bequest of Benjamin Altman, 1913, 14.10.727

Prima donnas don't want to do the blocking and tackling, they want easy prestige.

From DC Is Only the Latest 'Model' School System to Disappoint by Frederick M. Hess & Connor Kurtz. Complex systems (such as education) are not easily amenable to one-size-fits-all monolithic solutions. Outcomes are driven far more by basic fundamentals around the particular cohort of students (and them as individuals), resources, politics, local social norms and culture, etc.

Other than basic safety, there are few universal truths. Beyond a relatively low minimum, amount of money spent has only marginal impact. Teacher credentials are uncorrelated with outcomes. Class size doesn't matter. Etc.

It seems it all about the basic blocking and tackling. Hours with directed instruction. Balance of intense classroom time with exercise and recreation. Sufficient food. Committed teachers (rather than credentialed teachers).

We seem locked in a statist model where there is a single trick that will make everything better - high graduation rates, great test scores, and so on. Well, actually, based on the examples provided, there is this one unexpected trick. You won't believe what happens next. CHEATING BY ADMINISTRATORS.

Why work to achieve the hard outcomes when you can just lie about the numbers.

Hess and Kurtz start out:
A wonderful thing about school is that every September promises a fresh start. That goes for students as well as for reformers and educational leaders eager to leave inconvenient realities behind. In Washington, D.C., for instance, just a few short months ago, the schools were reeling from the fallout over a graduation scandal in which more than a third of D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) seniors graduated despite not meeting minimum graduation requirements. Some students graduated despite missing more than half the school year. Analysts calculated that the city’s “true” graduation rate wasn’t much over 50 percent, and was actually lower than it had been in 2011. The scandal was a blow to the advocates, foundations, and pundits who had heralded DCPS as a national model.

Indeed, it was barely a year ago, in 2017, that now-deposed DCPS chancellor Antwan Wilson declared, “For the past five years, DCPS has been a national model of a district on the rise. On nearly every metric, from enrollment rates to graduation rates, from student achievement to student satisfaction, we have made progress.” Yet, by last spring, the Washington Post was forced to ask on its editorial page if DCPS’s apparent success was a “sham” and a “fraud.”

Conveniently for Washington D.C.’s leaders, nobody seems to feel much obligation to answer that query. Rather, they’ve rapidly moved to turn the page — and nobody seems to mind. This is not just a problem for D.C. schools, but for American education more broadly. The truth is that DCPS is just the latest in a series of troubled school systems that have been held up as exemplars based on test scores or graduation rates, only to later be found guilty of data manipulation and troubling practices.

In the early 1980s, Atlanta schools seemed to have turned a corner. Under the leadership of Alonzo Crim, the city’s test scores showed remarkable gains. A New York Times headline proclaimed Atlanta an example of “urban education that really works” and termed its test gains “undeniable.” The president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching said Crim brought “stability and sustained credibility” to Atlanta’s schools. In 1984, Harvard University gave Crim an honorary doctorate and labeled him “a wise and perceptive schoolman.”

Well. It later turned out that Crim’s secret sauce involved having Atlanta schools evaluate lagging students by using tests from lower grades — instead of those from their actual grade levels. When Georgia ordered Atlanta to assess students based on their actual grade level, the gains evaporated. Today, the Crim era is remembered as an embarrassing chapter in the history of test manipulation.
They then elaborate the same pattern again and again. Dramatic claims of improvement followed by a dramatic collapse of the claims. Money is wasted, children don't receive the education they should receive. And no one is held accountable. Atlanta makes a second appearance with a second cycle of failure in the 2000s after the embarrassment of the 1980s.

Basic blocking and tackling of local conditions is pretty undramatic but it is what works. Prima donnas don't want to do the blocking and tackling, they want easy prestige.

Youth Mourning

Youth Mourning, 1916 by by George Clausen

The horrors of the war were beginning to become apparent. His own daughter had just lost her fiancé.

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Analemma over the Callanish Stones

From Nasa's Astronomy Picture of the Day.

Click to enlarge.

Equinox: Analemma over the Callanish Stones
Image Credit & Copyright: Giuseppe Petricca

Explanation: Does the Sun return to the same spot on the sky every day at the same time? No. A more visual answer to that question is an analemma, a composite image taken from the same spot at the same time over the course of a year. The featured analemma was composed from images taken every few days at noon near the village of Callanish in the Outer Hebrides in Scotland, UK. In the foreground are the Callanish Stones, a stone circle built around 2700 BC during humanity's Bronze Age. It is not known if the placement of the Callanish Stones has or had astronomical significance. The ultimate causes for the figure-8 shape of this and all analemmas are the tilt of the Earth axis and the ellipticity of the Earth's orbit around the Sun. At the solstices, the Sun will appear at the top or bottom of an analemma. Equinoxes, however, correspond to analemma middle points -- not the intersection point. Today at 1:54 am (UT) is the equinox ("equal night"), when day and night are equal over all of planet Earth. Many cultures celebrate a change of season at an equinox.

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Pendent Jewel: Prudence

From The Metropolitan Museum of Art Guide, 1983.

Click to enlarge.
51 Pendent Jewel: Prudence
Probably French, Paris, mid-16th c. Gold, chalcedony, enamel, emeralds, rubies, a diamond, and a pendent pearl; 31/2 x 2 in. (8.9 x 5 cm)

The mirror and snake identify the subject of this jewel as Prudence, one of the Seven Virtues. Her image — white chalcedony carved in relief, combined with raised and tooled gold — is attached to a ground of enameled gold. The technique, a rare one, is a variety of commesso. In medium and style this Prudence is characteristic of a group of jewels traced to the court of the French king Henri II (r. 1547-59). Gift of J. Pierpont Morgan, 1917, 17.190.907

The neo-Jacobites

Interesting. From the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal, The Presumption of Guilt.
The last-minute accusation of sexual assault against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh is an ugly spectacle by any measure. But if there is a silver lining, it is that the episode is providing an education for Americans on the new liberal standard of legal and political due process.

As Ms. Hill and Sen. Hirono aver, the Democratic standard for sexual-assault allegations is that they should be accepted as true merely for having been made. The accuser is assumed to be telling the truth because the accuser is a woman. The burden is on Mr. Kavanaugh to prove his innocence. If he cannot do so, then he is unfit to serve on the Court.

This turns American justice and due process upside down. The core tenet of Anglo-American law is that the burden of proof always rests with the person making the accusation. An accuser can’t doom someone’s freedom or career merely by making a charge.

The accuser has to prove the allegation in a court of law or in some other venue where the accused can challenge the facts. Otherwise we have a Jacobin system of justice in which “J’accuse” becomes the standard and anyone can be ruined on a whim or a vendetta.
While I agree with the substance of the editorial, that is not what I found interesting.

"Otherwise we have a Jacobin system of justice" is what caught my eye. I have discussed in the past the awkwardness of properly identifying the destructive left-wing ideologies. Yes, they all source to Marxism and ultimately the totalitarian/authoritarian traditions of utopianists and Plato where man is perfectible as long as properly governed by Philosopher Kings. This contrasts with the Western Age of Enlightenment Classical Liberal position where individuals are recognized as having a set of natural rights and the freedom to exercise those rights. Free markets, freedom of speech and assembly, consent of the governed, rule of law, equality before the law, these are all precepts of the Classical Liberal and under gramscian assault today by multi-culturalists, anti-colonialists, social justice advocates, economic egalitarians, third-wave feminists, deconstructionists, intersectionalists, etc.

It is not quite correct to call them simply Marxists. They certainly are not liberal. Each has their own rationale for their evils, their own ideology and precepts. The fact that they have common roots does not make them identical. And yet, they are similar to one another in their comprehensive rejection, root and branch, of the Classical Liberal tradition. What to call this mob of antithetical ideologies.

I am reading an excellent book at the moment, The Great Mutiny by James Dugan. No, not the Great Indian Mutiny of 1857 (which is also fascinating history.) The Spithead and Nore naval mutinies of 1797.

Reading Dugan has also caused me to dip back into Simon Schama's Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution, refreshing my recollection of the details of that disastrous revolution.

In both Dugan and Schama, there is extensive discussion of the violence and mayhem arising from the French Jacobins, the early leaders of the Revolution and the necessary predecessors of Napoleon, the ultimate example of the anti-Classical Liberal. While drawing inspiration from the Rights of Man by Thomas Paine, and spouting pieties about
liberté, égalité, fraternité, the Jacobins, at their core, conceptualized themselves as the Philosopher Kings, brooking no dissent from the unwashed and the unruly. Disagreement led to an appointment with Monsieur Guillotine.

Freedom of speech? Gone. Personal liberty? Gone. Sanctity of human life? Gone. Respect for tradition? Gone. Equality of rights? Gone. The Jacobins sure look like like the many strands of modern left-wing ideology. The language and slogans are similar, the actions (repressive and destructive) are similar, the hatred of freedom is similar.

1007 Walton Way 1982 by Edward Rice

1007 Walton Way 1982 by Edward Rice

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It's not nice to fool with Mother Nature

H/T Bayou Renaissance Man.

Tree Cutting Fails compilation.

It starts out with some pretty mundane fails and works up to even more exotic examples. A perfect example of why lumber jacking and commercial see fishing are the most dangerous professions.

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Borman was the least complicated man he had ever met

I heard this interview on This American Life a few weeks ago between Frank Borman, Commander of Apollo 8, and Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee, narrated by David Kestenbaum. It was a fascinating exchange, barely bridging a chasm of difference. Vaughan-Lee and Kestenbaum are the word-smithing romantics, Borman the pragmatic patriot. The transcript is now available and it reads as well as it sounds.
And it turns out Emmanuel had done these very long, multi-day interviews with each of the three astronauts. He sent me raw recordings. And listening through, I heard something I was not expecting at all.

One of the astronauts, Frank Borman, was saying things I had just never heard an astronaut say. Like this--
Frank Borman Space science fiction still bores me. I've never seen-- what's the name of that-- that very popular--

Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee 2001?

Frank Borman Yeah, all that crap. I've never seen any of that.
David Kestenbaum Emmanuel, the filmmaker, also seemed amused. He pressed on. What about when you were a kid?
Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee And what about the stars or astronomy?

Frank Borman No.

Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee None of that?

Frank Borman Airplanes.

Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee Airplanes, and airplanes only.

Frank Borman Airplanes, and airplanes only.

Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee Wow. Wow.

Frank Borman And a certain particular girl.

Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee Susan.

Frank Borman Yeah. So--
David Kestenbaum Susan is Borman's wife. They fell in love in high school. Borman was game to answer any question Emmanuel put to him, though he particularly seemed to like the ones he could easily dispatch answers to, like a little problem he had solved.


We sat down in a little conference room. I'd half wondered if we should use our time together to watch 2001-- A Space Odyssey. I thought if he actually saw it, he might like it. But it's a long film. I went with something shorter.
David Kestenbaum Can I show you something and see if it speaks to you at all?

Frank Borman Star Trek. Yeah, that's what I was-- I've never seen that.

Star Trek Narrator Space, the final frontier. These are the voyages of the Starship Enterprise--

David Kestenbaum I looked at Borman as he watched, but I couldn't read his expression.

Star Trek Narrator --to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no one has gone before.

Frank Borman Nonsense to me. I-- it doesn't interest me. I'm sorry.

David Kestenbaum To go where no man has gone before, that doesn't do anything for you?

Frank Borman No.

David Kestenbaum But you did it.

Frank Borman [LAUGHS]
David Kestenbaum He really did. When Borman became an astronaut, only eight people had ever been into space. Apollo 8-- the mission he was commander of-- it was the very first time humans had ever left Earth's orbit.

Borman and the two other crew members in this tiny spacecraft went all the way to the moon. They didn't land. It was kind of a dry run for the moon landing.

But in some ways, it actually seems more exciting to me and terrifying. It was the first time anyone had gone that far from the earth, really ventured out into space, seeing the moon so close up. This other celestial body right there, outside the window. He was 40 years old.

How did Borman-- the guy who didn't really care about space-- end up being one of the first people to go to the moon? It's true. This was the beginning of the space program, and a lot of the early astronauts were test pilots.

But still, the other two guys Borman flew with-- they were the type of people who might have gone to space camp as kids. If space camp had existed back then.

One of them, Bill Anders, loved geology. As a kid, he had decided he wanted to own a piece of every rock in the world. The other, Jim Lovell, while in high school, had tried to build a model rocket, one powered by liquid oxygen.
Frank Borman Lovell was mesmerized by space and exploration, and wanted desperately to explore the moon. I was there because it was a battle in the Cold War. I wanted to participate in this American adventure of beating the Soviets. But that's the only thing that motivated me-- beat the damn Russians.

Borman was an Air Force pilot who'd gone to West Point. He had a reputation for being blunt, and also kind of serious. He didn't like anyone messing around.

He'd never been in battle, but he thought this is where the real fight is now. So he applied to be an astronaut. The psychiatrist who evaluated him later said Borman was the least complicated man he had ever met.
David Kestenbaum What do you think he meant by that?

Frank Borman I don't-- I have no idea. I have no idea. I don't-- whether I'm complicated or uncomplicated.

David Kestenbaum What would Susan say?

Frank Borman Susan says this. I was the most uncomplicated man she ever knew.

David Kestenbaum Are you a romantic person?

Frank Borman I think in some ways I am. I get emotional at good movies at times, and things like that.

David Kestenbaum What movies do you watch?

Frank Borman Probably the best movie that I've ever seen is Casablanca. I love Casablanca.

David Kestenbaum Why do you like Casablanca?

Frank Borman Casablanca was a wonderful wartime story of the recognition that a good cause is more important than the human being relationship.

David Kestenbaum Oh.

Frank Borman Win the war and lose the woman was what that was all about.

David Kestenbaum That's the opposite of romantic.

Frank Borman No, it's very romantic.
David Kestenbaum I wasn't going to play you the 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 tape, but then I listened back to it. It's pretty good. It's like you can hear how big the thing is.

One of the astronauts said it felt like being a rat in the jaws of a big terrier.

Man We have ignition sequence start. The engines are on. 4, 3, 2, 1, 0-- we have connect. We have--

Man Lift off. The clock is running.

Man We have lift off.

Man [INAUDIBLE] looking good.

David Kestenbaum OK, so after the launch-- and please, don't feel compelled to answer yes to any of these questions, you know.

Frank Borman Oh, I won't. I'mma tell you the truth. OK.

David Kestenbaum Was it cool to float around weightless?

Frank Borman [LAUGHS] No.

David Kestenbaum I think everyone thinks it would be amazing to be weightless and floating.
He said his main observation about being in zero g was just the obvious thing. When you let go of something in midair, it would stay there.
Frank Borman Turn loose of this and it would stay there. Except when turning loose of it, you'd probably impart a little motion to it so it would float around. But--

David Kestenbaum Was that interesting to observe?

Frank Borman Maybe for the first 30 seconds, then it became accepted.

David Kestenbaum Borman says there was really just one moment where he felt something stir in his uncomplicated self. It happened while they were circling the moon, which as a destination, he says, did not look like a place you would ever want to live or work.
Frank Borman Oh, devastation. Meteor craters, no color at all. Just different shades of gray.
David Kestenbaum And then peering out the small windows, over the gray landscape of the moon, they saw something coming up over the horizon. It was the earth, and it was beautiful. This blue and white marble, the only thing that had any color. Here's how he described it to Emmanuel, the filmmaker.
Frank Borman It's 240,000 miles away. It was small enough you could cover it with your thumbnail. The dearest things in life that were back on the Earth-- my family, my wife, my parents. They were still alive then. That was, for me, the high point of the flight from an emotional standpoint.
David Kestenbaum It's like the high point of being in space was the Earth.
Frank Borman The contrast between our memories of the Earth and the color on the Earth, and the totally bleak and dead moon was striking.

David Kestenbaum They'd been taking hundreds of photos of the surface of the moon, because, you know, no one had ever been there. NASA wanted to pick out a future landing site.

They took so many photos of the moon that Bill Anders, the astronaut who was doing it, said it got boring. There was nothing in the mission plan to take pictures of the Earth. It's like it hadn't even occurred to anyone it might look interesting.

But Borman and the crew, when they saw the Earth rising over the moon, they were like, whoa, that is a photo. There's actually audio of this moment.
Bill Anders Oh, my god. Look at that picture over there. There's the Earth coming up. Wow, that's pretty!

Frank Borman Hey, don't take that. It's not scheduled.
David Kestenbaum That's Borman there, saying, don't take that. It's not scheduled. He was joking.
Frank Borman Hand me a roll of color quick, would you?

Bill Anders Oh, man this [INAUDIBLE].
David Kestenbaum It ended up being one of the most famous photos of all time. If you Google "Earth rise," you'd be like, oh, yeah. That one.

It's like the first selfie of us all, the whole planet, and it's remarkable. It's exactly other worldly. Humans have been watching the moon rise from the earth for hundreds of thousands of years. This was the first time someone had seen the reverse-- us, our planet, rising over the moon's horizon.

The other thing that strikes me about this photo is just how truly dark space can get. Only half the Earth is lit up. The other half is in complete blackness, like it's been consumed by something. I asked Borman if that was just the exposure of the photo. He said no, it's exactly how it looked.

It took a couple of days for Borman and the others to travel a quarter of a million miles back here. It was mostly uneventful. At some point, Jim Lovell punched some wrong buttons on the computer, which reset the guidance system.

The spacecraft had no idea where it was. Lovell had to measure the position of stars by hand, just like sailors used to do at sea. They eventually splashed down in the ocean.

They were elated. The mission was over. Everything had worked. Borman says it felt like he imagines winning the World Series might.

He had a quick phone call from the president while on board an aircraft carrier. And then he went home to his kids and his wife, Susan.
David Kestenbaum How did you describe the mission to her? Like, what you'd seen. I mean, you'd just been on this incredible--

Frank Borman I really didn't talk about it very much. As a matter of fact, I can't remember talking to her at all about it.

David Kestenbaum You don't remember saying, you won't believe what the moon looks like. I was up there?

Frank Borman No, we didn't talk a lot about it. No.

David Kestenbaum Why not?

Frank Borman It was more important to see the boys and see her. And what have you be doing? We're back. It was a wonderful time of reunion and emotion, and the last thing from my mind was to tell them what the moon looked like.

David Kestenbaum Didn't they want to know?

Frank Borman No. Nobody asked. [LAUGHS]

David Kestenbaum What do you think you did talk about?

Frank Borman How glad I was to be home, how glad they were to have me back, and how the boys are doing in school, and why the dog's dish was still full. We got right back to the nitty-gritty's.
David Kestenbaum Just seven months later, Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon. The Russians gave up, which for Borman had been the point of the whole thing. So he did something that today seems kind of amazing. He quit. He left the job so many kids dream about.
David Kestenbaum If you had stayed, could you have walked on the moon?

Frank Borman Oh, yeah. I could have. Probably. I probably could have walked on the moon. Yeah.

David Kestenbaum Did you want to?

Frank Borman No. Why? Look, the answer to your question-- I would have not accepted the risk involved to go pick up rocks. It doesn't mean that much to me.

Somebody else wanted to do it. Let them take my place. I love my family more than anything in the world. I would have never subjected them to the dangers simply for me to be an explorer.

David Kestenbaum How often do you think of the Apollo 8 mission? Just when you're on your own, doing your normal stuff.

Frank Borman It never occurred in our lives much at all, really.

David Kestenbaum I was looking up at the moon the other night, and it still feels crazy to me that you were there. If you do think back to it, is there a particular part that you tend to remember?

Frank Borman The thing that reminds me, that I recall till the day I die, was the Earth, looking back at the Earth.
David Kestenbaum I wouldn't say Borman hated space. He was just indifferent to it. Or put another way, he has a strong preference for the Earth.
Frank Borman reminds me so much of my father. Pragmatic. Goal Oriented. Clear on his priorities. To call him uncomplicated sounds like an insult. Refined perhaps. All the dross and noise and posturing and superflousness vaporized away. What is left is a good man.
I've written a bunch of endings for this story. About yes, it's in our nature to explore. It's also in our nature to want to be home. But I'm very aware of the fact that so many historians and journalists and thinkers have tried to read particular meanings into that time that we went to the moon.

I'm just going to end this the way the world's most uncomplicated man might-- the facts of the present, what he's doing now. It's as earthbound as it gets. Here it is. His wife, Susan, has Alzheimer's, for nine years now.
Frank Borman I'm with her every day, and she can't walk or talk or feed herself. So that's where I come in. So that's very, very difficult-- very. And that's it.
David Kestenbaum Which is either the least romantic thing you can think of or just the opposite.
I'll go with the opposite. There's a beautiful purity in there.

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Earthrise, NASA image AS08-14-2383, taken by astronaut William Anders during the Apollo 8 mission, the first manned voyage to orbit the Moon, December 24, 1968

Unexpected visitors in the British Natural History Museum

I see this and my first thought is "Its the End Times". Then, "Wow, we are making progress cleaning up the waterways."

Then, I decide it must be a prank. Googling, I find, Beluga Whale Spotted Frolicking In The Thames by Laura Reynolds in The Londonist.

It appears to be real. But I just love the closing paragraph in Reynolds' piece.
In 2006, a Northern Bottlenose Whale swam up the Thames until becoming stranded near Battersea and sadly not surviving the ordeal. It is now in the National Research Collection at the Natural History Museum.
Almost sounds like the whale took a wrong turn and strayed into the Natural History Museum. Which, when you consider, is sort of what happened.

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From The Thames Whale.

Washington Crossing the Delaware

From The Metropolitan Museum of Art Guide, 1983

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Washington Crossing the Delaware

Oil on canvas; 149 x 255 in. (378.5 x 647.7 cm)

Many nineteenth-century painters, sculptors, and novelists created sentimentalized reconstructions of American colonial history. Inaccurate in many historical details, this painting is a conspicuous example of such Romantic imagery. The style is highly representative of a school of Romantic painting that flourished in Dusseldorf, where Leutze was living when he painted this picture in 1851. Worthington Whittredge, one of the American artists present while Leutze was working in Germany, posed for the figures of both Washington and the steersman. Gift of John S. Kennedy, 1897, 97.34

Beach Read by Karen Hollingsworth

Beach Read, 2008 by Karen Hollingsworth

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Monday, September 24, 2018

19th century intellectuals believed a bad review gave John Keats tuberculosis

Scott Alexander is such an entertaining and politely provocative thinker. And you can't read him without learning something. From Book Review: Black Swan by Scott Alexander. He starts out with a riff on how potentially dangerous it might be to do a review of Nassim Nicholas Taleb's Black Swan, given how famously cognitively pugilistic Taleb can be. This leads Alexander down this trail:
I notice this BBC article about an author who hunted down a bad reviewer of his book and knocked her unconscious with a wine bottle. And Lord Byron wrote such a scathing meta-review of book reviewers that multiple reviewers challenged him to a duel, but the duel seems to have never taken place, plus I’m not sure Lord Byron is a good person to generalize from.

19th century intellectuals believed a bad review gave John Keats tuberculosis; they were so upset about this that they used his gravestone to complain:

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Keats’ friend Shelley wrote the poem Adonais to memorialize the event, in which he said of the reviewer:
Our Adonais has drunk poison—oh!
What deaf and viperous murderer could crown
Life’s early cup with such a draught of woe?
The nameless worm would now itself disown:
It felt, yet could escape, the magic tone
Whose prelude held all envy, hate and wrong,
But what was howling in one breast alone,
Silent with expectation of the song,
Whose master’s hand is cold, whose silver lyre unstrung.
So are book reviews in Mediocristan or Extremistan? Well, every so often your review causes one of history’s greatest poets to die of tuberculosis, plus another great poet writes a five-hundred-line poem condemning you and calling you a “nameless worm”, and it becomes a classic that gets read by millions of schoolchildren each year for centuries after your death. And that’s just the worst thing that’s happened because of a book review so far. The next one could be even worse!

Freethinker by Robert Service

by Robert Service

Although the Preacher be a bore,
The Atheist is even more.

I ain't religious worth a damn;
My views are reckoned to be broad;
And yet I shut up like a clam
When folks get figgerin' on God;
I'd hate my kids to think like me,
And though they leave me in the lurch,
I'm always mighty glad to see
My fam'ly trot to Church.

Although of books I have a shelf
Of skeptic stuff, I must confess
I keep their knowledge to myself:
Doubt doesn't help to happiness.
I never scoff at Holy Writ,
But envy those who hold it true,
And though I've never been in it
I'm proud to own a pew.

I always was a doubting Tom;
I guess some lads are born that way.
I couldn't stick religion from
The time I broke the Sabbath Day.
Yet unbelief's a bitter brew,
And this in arid ways I've learned;
If you believe a thing, it's true
As far as your concerned.

I'm sentimental, I agree,
For how it always makes me glad
To turn from Ingersoll and see
My little girls Communion-clad.
And as to church my people plod
I cry to them with simple glee:
"Say, folks, if you should talk to God,
Put in a word for me."

Forensic technology

This is a sad tragedy but a stunning example of technological legibility. A video clip begins to circulate in Africa of two women and two children being executed by soldiers. Who are they? When did this happen? Where did this happen? Nothing is immediately obvious. The BBC then deploys forensic technology on the video clip in order to identify the location of the execution and then the likely time period. Forensic technology combined with traditional reporting techniques then identifies the likely names of the three executioners. Remarkable.

Click through to follow the thread.

You never hear about that happening anymore

Well, no, you don't.

From What American gender politics has done to my mind by Ann Althouse. Althouse loves riffing on words and ideas. You never know where she will head. From discussing modern American gender politics, she arrives at:

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I think the problem is that there's one book with "The Cloud of Unknowing" that also has "The Mystical Theology of Saint Denis" and the text of the St. Denis prayer, which is properly quoted above. Did Saint Denis actually write those words? I don't know. But I did look up St. Denis, and I have a better understanding of the illustration:
Denis is the most famous cephalophore in Christian legend, with a popular story claiming that the decapitated bishop picked up his head and walked several miles while preaching a sermon on repentance....
A cephalophore is what it sounds like — someone who carries his own severed head. You never hear about that happening anymore, but people used to say it did:
A cephalophore (from the Greek for "head-carrier") is a saint who is generally depicted carrying his or her own head. In Christian art, this was usually meant to signify that the subject in question had been martyred by beheading....

[T]he folklorist Émile Nourry counted no less than 134 examples of cephalophory in French hagiographic literature alone....

Aristotle is at pains to discredit the stories of talking heads and to establish the physical impossibility, with the windpipe severed from the lung. "Moreover," he adds, "among the barbarians, where heads are chopped off with great rapidity, nothing of the kind has ever occurred."

Summer Night, St. John's Wood by George Clausen

Summer Night, St. John's Wood by George Clausen

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Sunday, September 23, 2018

A Little Prayer by Robert Service

A Little Prayer
by Robert Service

Let us be thankful, Lord, for little things -
The song of birds, the rapture of the rose;
Cloud-dappled skies, the laugh of limpid springs,
Drowned sunbeams and the perfume April blows;
Bronze wheat a-shimmer, purple shade of trees -
Let us be thankful, Lord of Life, for these!

Let us be praiseful, Sire, for simple sights; -
The blue smoke curling from a fire of peat;
Keen stars a-frolicking on frosty nights,
Prismatic pigeons strutting in a street;
Daisies dew-diamonded in smiling sward -
For simple sights let us be praiseful, Lord!

Let us be grateful, God, for health serene,
The hope to do a kindly deed each day;
The faith of fellowship, a conscience clean,
The will to worship and the gift to pray;
For all of worth in us, of You a part,
Let us be grateful, God, with humble heart.

The Sweden of today is not the Sweden of the common stereotype.

A very good documentary about Sweden and its economic development and current performance. To be fair, the thumb is a little on the scale but it is broadly right and strikes a great balance between theory and example. Also - beautiful filming of a beautiful country where I lived from 1970-78 which happened to be the high point of the socialist governments but was also the inflection point where everyone began to become unaware that the socialist policies were unsustainable.

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Corruption evolves from crude bribery with money to sophisticated bribery with support and favors

A very good piece. The Crisis of the American Elites by Eliot A. Cohen. It provides an illumination of the dynamics I have been describing where the establishment protect their sinecures and privileges at a cost to the majority and in so defending those sinecures and privileges, do harm to both the majority of their fellow citizens as well as to our system of government.
Judith Butler and Ed Whelan have probably never met. And if they did, we may be quite certain that they would have very little use for one another. After all, what does the professor of comparative literature, author of (among other works) Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly who teaches in the Critical Theory Program at Berkeley have to do with the president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, the co-editor of Scalia Speaks: Reflections on Law, Faith and a Life Well Lived? And yet, they find themselves embarrassed by nearly identical behaviors, forced to make shamefaced admissions that they have behaved like nasty, irresponsible idiots.


The stories of Whelan and Butler have nothing to do with whether one thinks Kavanaugh and Ronell did nothing at all or behaved appallingly. They have everything to do with the current crisis of American elites in many fields, to include the law and higher education. For the lawyer and the professor are exquisitely similar. Their academic pedigrees are magnificent: Harvard Law School, Yale University graduate school. Their positions in their profession are eminent, if detached from the rest of the world. If you are a liberal you probably do not know or care that Whelan writes often for National Review and is a leading figure in conservative legal circles; if you do not know, or care to know, much about critical theory, the writings of Butler are academic in the unflattering sense of that term. But in their worlds they are, if not royalty, lords of the realm.

Their motives here are also similar: Eminent friends are being taken down at the peak of their professional careers by someone who is, in their worlds, a nobody. It’s outrageous, and it has to be stopped. And if, by so doing, you defame a classmate of Kavanaugh’s, accusing him of attempted rape, or effectively threaten to obliterate a graduate student’s career by lending a mob of literature professors the imprimatur of the MLA, so be it. That is the point and that is the sin: the willingness to stomp hard on a defenseless little guy in order to protect your highly privileged pal.

Of the many forms of cruelty, that directed against those who are weak or powerless is one of the worst. Of itself, it undermines whatever legitimacy a person can claim by virtue of intellectual or professional distinction. Societies and governments will have elites—that is simply inescapable, except perhaps in an ancient city state, and probably not even then. But in a free society, for those elites to exercise their power—their very real power, as those subject to it well know—they have to do so with restraint and good judgment. The alternative is, sooner or later, revolt, which is why higher education often finds itself battered by angry citizens who, in a different setting, conclude that the legal system, too, is rigged.

Butler and Whelan deserve credit for admitting their mistakes and apologizing. But there is not much evidence that they have thought about the broader point here. The issue goes well beyond the graduate student and Kavanaugh’s classmate who got an undeserved accusation. It is, rather, the broader setting that caused two eminent people to choose tribalism, hyper-ideology, and personal attachment over fairness, a moderate willingness to withhold judgment, and merest decency.
I agree.

It also illustrates one of the subtleties which make the establishment positions so hard to attack. I have had personal experience with this in terms of environmental protection and conservation.

We have a public infrastructure advocacy group, posing as conservationists, who are advocating for building connected trails through various city nature preserves. The plan has been repeatedly rejected by the neighborhood residents owing to the probability that the trails will increase crime, cause environmental damage, and will severely disrupt the local ecology. Concerns all founded on both direct experience and on empirical research.

In carrying the battle to City Hall, and other governing bodies, over the years, residents assumed that there were some very direct money exchanges going on. These do occur with distressing frequency in our City history, but that is not the case in this instance.

Yes, the two initial and primary funders of the advocacy group are a multinational construction company with large contracts with the City as well as an architectural/planning design company with multiple contracts with the city. The expectations initially among residents was that we would see a pattern of payments from the paymasters to the politicians.

It is far more complex than that. There is a pattern of such payments but they are generally of such nominal amounts that it strains credulity that those are sufficient to buy the regulatory and zoning approvals which are being purchased.

No. The real exchange of benefits has evolved as one might expect once sunshine laws and ethics laws have been passed (though regrettably too infrequently enforced).

On any given initiative, there are all sorts of backroom stakeholders involved. Acquiescence and approval are traded as favors among the establishment participants. I provide you governance backing on this board on which I sit (and do not care about) if you provide me support on this other board which we share and I do care about.

Support leads to coalitions of shared interest and coalitions of shared interest lead to fund raising and fund raising leads to grants. All by the same cadre of insider establishment players and all despite the articulated and evidence-based objections of the citizenry.

The corruption is still corruption but it is a corruption of governance and process rather than the familiar money under the table. It is all legal, all above board, and all morally wrong because it is the subversion of representative democracy and it all rests on hijacking the state power of coercion to the benefit of select establishment insiders.

Butler and Whelan are establishment. They use their prestige and privilege to protect their friends, even when those friends have demonstrably done something wrong (Butler) or where the defense results in harm to innocent third-parties (Whelan). Butler and Whelan are, to my extremely limited knowledge, not bad people but because they are part of the cocooned privileged establishment, they casually do bad things. They are the tip of the iceberg of corruption that follows from the privileges and sinecures of being members of the establishment.

Unknown by Martine Franck

Unknown by Martine Franck

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Cautious Empiricism and Rationalism are lonely and exhausting. But the right strategy.

Attempting disciplined empiricism and rationality can be exhausting. Rationalism not infrequently places one in the position of being a contrarian. The mob, the government, the establishment believe one thing and they believe it with great conviction and great passion while the evidence and reason indicate an alternate explanation.

You are left being abused as a science denier, quixotic, delusional etc. All the ad hominems which are the ready tools of those unable to make an evidence-based reasoned argument.

It is unpleasant and every now and then you falter. You wonder whether others are seeing something you are missing even though no one can articulate what that something is.

Anthropogenic global warming is an example. Our understanding of the multiple complex systems which constitute climate are shaky. Our comprehension of the complex systems' interactions is vestigial. Our data sets are patchy at best. Our longitudinal data is overly dependent on loose proxies. Our models are assumption-dependent and faulty. Our incentive structures are skewed. We have seen patterns of evidence tampering.

No one is denying that climate changes. No one is denying that there are periods of global warming. No one is denying that some portion of the current post-ice age warming trend might be influenced by pollution (CO2, grit/particulates, methane, or other). What empirical rationalists question is how much might that contribution be (including zero) and more critically, whether any of the proposed policy solutions have any chance of success and whether they are worthwhile given the alternatives.

It is a lonely position to take when every status seeking academic, every knuckle dragging politico, and every chirpy pontificator ascribes the long two week heat wave or recent storm or a heavy rain to "climate change." But empiricism and rationalism dictate a caution unshared by the glib.

You have self-doubts. But then, occasionally, you get affirmation from your position on other debates.

Cholesterol causes heart disease and death by heart attack has been, like AGW, a longstanding claim in academia and public policy despite the evidence being weak and inconsistent. Like AGW, biology and population health are complex systems. There are multiple complex systems, loosely coupled, with undiscovered feedback loops, tipping points, etc. As much as we have studied them, our knowledge is similarly vestigial, data sets patchy, longitudinal data infrequent and dependent on loose proxies, incentive structures misaligned, etc. And similarly, we are prone to levels of conviction far outstripping empirical evidence and reason.

Lowering cholesterol levels in general and "bad" cholesterol levels in particular has been long-standing US public health policy for decades. Based on these public health policies, statins are a $20 billion industry and the related health services are probably another $80 billion. So, for a $100 billion dollar a year business sector spawned by public policy, what is it good for? Like war, Absolutely Nothing!

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Well, more or less, nothing. You can't spend that kind of money without someone benefiting. Just not the intended recipients.

Looking at the studies in the late seventies and early eighties, I could not see the necessary rigor to support the recommendations which were emerging. I am no deeply trained biologist but am sufficiently trained in statistics to see issues and in my academic field of study, economics (the study of incentives) I could clearly see some dangerously misaligned incentive structures.

From the early eighties on, every visit to the doctors office has entailed at least a passing reference to "keep an eye on cholesterol" and "perhaps you might want to reduce these foods from your diet" even though all my cholesterol levels were normal. By the nineties and 2000s it was not uncommon to hear some chatter along prophylactic lines "Perhaps you might want to consider some statins as a precautionary approach."

In the mid- or late eighties, the first long term observational study came in on the effectiveness of cholesterol control (or at least the first that I recall.) No difference in mortality between those controlling their cholesterol levels and those not. Statin users died at the same rate as everyone else. True, their death from cardiac arrest went down, but their death from other causes went up an equal amount. Statins changed your cause of death but not your rate of death.

From that point forward, while waiting further evidence, I began pushing back on the bad cholesterol orthodoxy. Then in the early 2000s a second large population longitudinal study came in replicating the findings of the first. And still you would hear social chatter, media chatter, and even medical chatter about the need to lower cholesterol levels.

As recently as a couple of years ago I had a debate in a doctor's office with a nurse practitioner who was pushing the advisability of a regimen of statins as a precautionary approach since I am now in the heart-attack prone zone of older males (and remembering that I do not have elevated cholesterol.)

So basically for thirty some years, my empirical and rational approach has been at odds, based on the evidence, with the whole of academia, the medical establishment and public policy. Even voicing doubt about the advisability of these policies has been tantamount to proclaiming oneself as a science-denier, a crank and a conspiracy theorist. Someone who is likely to believe that fluoridating water is a communist plot. Such is the fate of the empiricist and the rationalist in times of religious conviction in public policy.

The tide seems to have begun to turn in the past decade. More and more people are willing to say what the evidence indicates. Cholesterol is not the enemy. Possibly a factor under some circumstances for particular individuals but not a universal explanation. From New Research Confirms We Got Cholesterol All Wrong by Baylen Linnekin.
A comprehensive new study on cholesterol, based on results from more than a million patients, could help upend decades of government advice about diet, nutrition, health, prevention, and medication. Just don't hold your breath.

The study, published in the Expert Review of Clinical Pharmacology, centers on statins, a class of drugs used to lower levels of LDL-C, the so-called "bad" cholesterol, in the human body. According to the study, statins are pointless for most people.

"No evidence exists to prove that having high levels of bad cholesterol causes heart disease, leading physicians have claimed" in the study, reports the Daily Mail. The Express likewise says the new study finds "no evidence that high levels of 'bad' cholesterol cause heart disease."

The study also reports that "heart attack patients were shown to have lower than normal cholesterol levels of LDL-C" and that older people with higher levels of bad cholesterol tend to live longer than those with lower levels.

This is probably news to many in government. But it's not news to everyone.

"In fact researchers have known for decades from nutrition studies that LDL-C is not strongly correlated with cardiac risk," says Nina Teicholz, an investigative journalist and author of The New York Times bestseller The Big Fat Surprise (along with a great recent Wall St. Journal op-ed highlighting ongoing flaws in federal dietary advice). In an email to me this week, she pointed out that "physicians continue focusing on LDL-C in part because they have drugs to lower it. Doctors are driven by incentives to prescribe pills for nutrition-related diseases rather than better nutrition—a far healthier and more natural approach."
But look at those media outlets. A major study but being reported in the Daily Mail and The Express? High class data reported through low prestige channels.

Biology, nutrition and population-level heath are complex systems which we understand to some small degree but our knowledge is fragmentary, our data sets puny (though large compared to some other fields), our incentive structures are wrong, etc.

Is coffee good for you? Wine? Fats? Carbs? There is no easy and accurate answer. It depends on the person, their circumstances and conditions, and their objectives. We know enough to occasionally make some careful and limited recommendations. But we do not know near enough to make the high-conviction proclamations to which we are accustomed and to the resulting public policies which financially benefit small populations of stakeholders while causing harm to large populations of putative beneficiaries.

We are not completely ignorant and not all academics and government and business people are selfish and evil. But we should, given the history of strong recommendations based on vestigial understanding which are, decades later, rescinded, be cautious about high-conviction proclamations about high complexity systems.

And we should stay strong in cautiously skeptical empiricism and rationalism, no matter how long it takes for the establishment to come around.

Saturday, September 22, 2018

The Widower by Robert Service

The Widower
by Robert Service

Oh I have worn my mourning out,
And on her grave the green grass grows;
So I will hang each sorry clout
High in the corn to scare the crows.
And I will buy a peacock tie,
And coat of cloth of Donegal;
Then to the Farmer's Fair I'll hie
And peek in at the Barley Ball.

But though the fiddlers saw a jig
I used to foot when I was wed,
I'll walk me home and feed the pig,
And go a lonesome man to bed.

So I will wait another year,
As any decent chap would do,
Till I can think without a tear
Of her whose eyes were cornflower blue.

Then to the Harvest Ball I'll hie,
And I will wear a flower-sprigged vest;
For Maggie has a nut-brown eyes,
And we will foot it with the best.

And if kind-minded she should be
To wife me - 'tis the will if God . . .
But Oh the broken heart of me
For her who lies below the sod!

Our scientists, engineers and producers are creating miracles while the establishment burns

On the same day when our constitutional system seems to be being hijacked by privileged establishment members in their elaborate and pointless charade of virtue signaling, we have this miracle. Japanese Rovers have landed on an asteroid 175 million miles away and are sending photos instantaneously available to the third of the global population with smartphones.

Life is getting so good. Too bad about our establishments.

Persistent optical illusion

A great demonstration of a persistent optical illusion. H/T Maggie's Farm.

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The Unexpected Guest by Alessandro Tofanelli

The Unexpected Guest by Alessandro Tofanelli

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Census or models?

From Yale Study Finds Twice as Many Undocumented Immigrants as Previous Estimates by Mohammad Fazel-Zarandi, Jonathan S. Feinstein, and Edward H. Kaplan.

As James C. Scott has noted in Seeing Like A State, one of the principal dynamics of a modern state is the desperate need and desire to exercise greater control by having greater legibility, greater transparency. To know whether everyone is paying their taxes, you have to know how many people there are and what their tax obligation might be and to know that, you need to know in detail how they are making their money.

In a large and complex nation, that can be a challenge.

The demographics alone are challenging. In our Constitution, we require a decadal census - everyone must be identified and counted, person by person. This is consequential because billions of federal dollars are distributed based on headcount. A state with a million people will get only a fraction of the disbursements of a state with ten million.

But actually getting an accurate physical headcount is nigh impossible. It is a big country, there are many people who do not wish to be counted, there are errors in the very process itself. We know that the decadal census headcount is always wrong, but we do not know what the right number is.

There are always advocates that we should not do a census but rather we should do a statistical sampling or algorithmic estimation. There are two weaknesses with the model-based estimation approach. 1) Models are only as good as the information used and the assumptions made. There are some circumstances where it is reasonable that a model-based estimate is probably to be more accurate but there are other cases where it is likely to be less. 2) The more fundamental weakness in the model-based estimate approach is its susceptibility to being gamed. Atlanta is a good example of this issue but it is universal.

Atlanta has been a fast growing city for several decades. Growth rates have probably averaged 2-5% a year since at least the 1980s. 5% a year growth and by the time the next census rolls around and the city will be some 60% larger but still receiving the same distribution as it did ten years ago.

To tackle this, for many programs, the Federal Government starts with the Census number and then does annual or biannual estimate updates to the numbers based on births, deaths, inbound movements, outbound movements, housing starts, etc. For two or three decades, at the end of each decade, with the true-up of the new census, it was found that Atlanta had been providing optimistic estimates to inflate its population for the between census years, thereby receiving a higher distribution of Federal dollars than was warranted. The models were gamed.

This corruption shows up time and again. Most recently there has been a dispute over the death count from Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico which is sourced in different counting approaches. The death count is in the few dozens if you go by reported deaths and official funerals. It is three thousands if you go by the results from models.

How many people died? Between 50 (census) and 3,000 (model) is the range which is not particularly useful for resource allocation or policy. Given the corrupt history of the Puerto Rican government and its inclination to make up numbers, everyone assumes the model based number is wrong and is only being touted in order to increase the aid they might receive from the Federal Government. But the truth is that the census probably undercounts even though the model almost certainly overestimates.

From the Yale research above, we have the exact same issue in terms of the estimates of the number of illegal aliens in the US.
Generally accepted estimates put the population of undocumented immigrants in the United States at approximately 11.3 million. A new study, using mathematical modeling on a range of demographic and immigration operations data, suggests that the actual undocumented immigrant population may be more than 22 million.

Immigration is the focus of fierce political and policy debate in the United States. Among the most contentious issues is how the country should address undocumented immigrants. Like a tornado that won’t dissipate, arguments have spun around and around for years. At the center lies a fairly stable and largely unquestioned number: 11.3 million undocumented immigrants residing in the U.S. But a paper by three Yale-affiliated researchers suggests all the perceptions and arguments based on that number may have a faulty foundation; the actual population of undocumented immigrants residing in the country is much larger than that, perhaps twice as high, and has been underestimated for decades.

Using mathematical modeling on a range of demographic and immigration operations data, the researchers estimate there are 22.1 million undocumented immigrants in the United States. Even using parameters intentionally aimed at producing an extremely conservative estimate, they found a population of 16.7 million undocumented immigrants.

The results, published in PLOS ONE, surprised the authors themselves. They started with the extremely conservative model and expected the results to be well below 11.3 million.

“Our original idea was just to do a sanity check on the existing number,” says Edward Kaplan, the William N. and Marie A. Beach Professor of Operations Research at the Yale School of Management. “Instead of a number which was smaller, we got a number that was 50% higher. That caused us to scratch our heads.”

Jonathan Feinstein, the John G. Searle Professor of Economics and Management at Yale SOM, adds, “There’s a number that everybody quotes, but when you actually dig down and say, ‘What is it based on?’ You find it’s based on one very specific survey and possibly an approach that has some difficulties. So we went in and just took a very different approach.”

The 11.3 million number is extrapolated from the Census Bureau’s annual American Community Survey. “It’s been the only method used for the last three decades,” says Mohammad Fazel‐Zarandi, a senior lecturer at the MIT Sloan School of Management and formerly a postdoctoral associate and lecturer in operations at the Yale School of Management. That made the researchers curious—could they reproduce the number using a different methodology?

The approach in the new research was based on operational data, such as deportations and visa overstays, and demographic data, including death rates and immigration rates. “We combined these data using a demographic model that follows a very simple logic,” Kaplan says. “The population today is equal to the initial population plus everyone who came in minus everyone who went out. It’s that simple.”

While the logic is simple—tally the inflows and outflows over time—actually gathering, assessing, and inserting the data appropriately into a mathematical model isn’t at all simple. Because there is significant uncertainty, the results are presented as a range. After running 1,000,000 simulations of the model, the researchers’ 95% probability range is 16 million to 29 million, with 22.1 million as the mean.

Notably, the upper bound of the traditional survey approach, which also produces a range, doesn’t overlap with the lower bound of the new modeling method. “There really is some open water between these estimates,” Kaplan says. He believes that means the differences between the approaches can’t be explained by sampling variability or annual fluctuations.
The simulations from the model:

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I am not surprised that the number might be larger than 11 million. In Atlanta, and indeed, across the southeast, even in rural towns, and in my travels in the Midwest and Northeast, there are whole neighborhoods in cities which used to be working class white or black and which are now Hispanic. That might simply reflect demographic shifting, people move the suburbs and such. Never-the-less, my visual sense has been that there has been a large increase in Latin American population above the official numbers. But you can't trust your eyes alone. You have to trust but verify. I see the numbers. I see the population shifts. They don't seem to reconcile with one another. But I don't trust either the official numbers or my impressions. For me, it is an open question.

Its relevance has to do with social absorption rates and erosion of social trust. Compared to Europe, we are, on average, blessed with the quality of our emigrants, legal and illegal.

However, I think there is good reason to be concerned about the rate at which we are able to absorb and assimilate multiple different cultures. We are fairly unique in being a heterogeneous nation (by race, ethnicity, religion, etc.) compared to most and we are one of the few nations built on an idea of governance rather than blood and soil. We are a nation of laws and Age of Enlightenment rights and beliefs, rare in a world built on castes, blood groups, and other identities.

It takes time for people raised on identities to absorb the beliefs of human rights, checks and balances, consent of the governed, individual rights, etc. What is the highest level of non-conforming belief systems which the national system can sustain before the fabric is torn? I don't know but I have always estimated it to be about 15%, a number which we are bumping up against. If the true number of illegal immigrants is more than double our current estimate, then our total foreign-born are probably getting well above 15%.

It might add to the explanation of why the masses are revolting against the establishments. The masses are living in a more foreign (and sometimes antagonistic) world than are the establishment in their gated communities and private security.

Interesting study which does not resolve that which cannot be answered but which does provide evidence that the accepted number might be materially wrong.