Saturday, August 19, 2017

Saying Goodbye to Cassini

Cassini, the great explorer of Saturn and one of my best friends these past 13 years, is dying.

Cassini launched in 1997 and entered orbit of Saturn on July 1, 2004.

The mission was only supposed to last six years, a limit set by the fuel the spacecraft carried for navigating around the Saturn system. But the mission controllers got so good at steering the craft using the gravitational tug of the planet and its moons that they have sent Cassini wherever they wanted for seven more years, and thankfully Congress found the money to keep its operators on the job.


These pictures show the results of that cleverness.


Here is Saturn in natural color, showing its golden glow.

But all good things must come to an end. Cassini is running out of fuel at last, and the controllers are running out of more science to do with its limited set of instruments and more images to take with its amazing cameras.


So on September 15 Cassini is set for a fiery end, diving into Saturn's atmosphere. It will keep broadcasting until it is crushed or otherwise destroyed, and scientists are hoping to learn more about Saturn from this final descent.

What an astonishing 13-year mission this has been.

The great robotic space voyages have been key markers of my life: Viking to Mars, Voyager 1 and 2 to Jupiter, Saturn, and beyond; the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter; the Mars rovers; Galileo to Jupiter; New Horizons to Pluto.

Through them we have seen far distant worlds; through them our our universe has grown.

So on the eve of its death I honor Cassini, a noble member of this small band of great explorers, and the thousands of people who made it fly.


You are my heroes.



Friday, August 18, 2017

Confederate Statues and Public Gentility

Despite all the media anger over Confederate monuments and the parade of Republicans calling for their removal, the people are not all on board. The latest polling:

  • A strong majority (62 percent) of Americans favor leaving the Confederate statues standing as historical markers
  • Overwhelming numbers of Republicans (86 percent) favor this, as do 61 percent of Independents
  • The only group with a majority favoring removal (57 percent) are “Strong Democrats” — as opposed to “Soft Democrats,” who slightly favor keeping them (52 percent)
  • Unsurprisingly, the Northeast is the region of the country most in favor of removing the statues — but even there, a majority (53 percent) backs leaving the statues standing
  • Here’s a stunner: 44 percent of African-Americans polled believe in keeping the statues standing. Of Latinos, 65 percent believe the statues should remain
  • Comfortable majorities — no less than 60 percent — in each age cohort support the statues

Now maybe you think that 62 percent of Americans are racists, including 44 percent of black Americans, but I don't. Nor do I think this has much to do with memorializing the Confederacy – I doubt 62 percent of Americans could tell you the first thing about the Civil War – or states' rights or anything else that smacks of politics.

I think millions of Americans want the statues to remain because they are pretty, and because they represent a vaguely traditional, genteel, orderly sort of beauty that is under assault from the forces of monstrous concrete architecture, truck traffic, spray paint, reality television, and everything else bad about the 21st century. I once read a great account of female Civil War reenactors, who follow the men to the camps and dress in hoop skirts; so far as I could tell they mainly liked play-acting in a world where officers in dress uniforms tipped their hats to them and called them ma'am.

The response of many people to things like grand plantation houses, the historic districts of Charleston and Savannah, and courthouse squares with old oak trees and statues of Confederate heroes is, "too bad about slavery and Antietam, but weren't things pretty back then?" As the polls show, black Americans are not immune to this, and neither are recent immigrants.

Here's a question for you: if we take down all the Confederate monuments, what are we going to replace them with? Balloon animals by Jeff Koons or giant mirrored kidney beans by Anish Kapoor? Chain coffee shops?

All of the pictures in this post are of Monument Avenue in Richmond, Virginia. Monument Avenue was planned at the height of Jim Crow and celebrates the victory of the all-white Democratic Party over Reconstruction, but it is also beautiful. The political ideologies of the people who built the Pantheon in Rome, the Parthenon in Athens, and the Pyramids in Egypt were all quite terrible by our standards. I very much doubt that modern liberals would see eye to eye with the people who built Stonehenge. Should we tear them all down?

I do understand that we have a problem with the legacy of the Confederacy that we do not have with the legacy of Assyria. But I regard the way we build cities in our era – superhighways leading to strip malls and blocks of hideous concrete or glass office towers – as despicable. So do millions of other Americans. And that is really why they want to keep the statues: to preserve something old, stately and nice from the assaults of our great era of uglification. Even some people who hate what they represent would still rather have these statues than more concrete and neon.

Making Fun of Fascists

In the German town cursed with Rudolf Hess's grave, they don't fight neo-Nazis, they make fun of them, holding up silly signs and showering them with rainbow confetti:
This week, following the violence in Charlottesville, Va., Wunsiedel has come back into the news. Experts in nonviolent protest say it could serve as a model for Americans alarmed by the resurgent white supremacist movement who are looking for an effective way to protest (and who might otherwise be tempted to meet violence with violence). Those I spoke with appreciated the sentiment of the antifa, or anti-fascist, demonstrators who showed up in Charlottesville, members of an anti-racist group with militant and anarchist roots who are willing to fight people they consider fascists. “I would want to punch a Nazi in the nose, too,” Maria Stephan, a program director at the United States Institute of Peace, told me. “But there’s a difference between a therapeutic and strategic response.”

The problem, she said, is that violence is simply bad strategy.

Violence directed at white nationalists only fuels their narrative of victimhood — of a hounded, soon-to-be-minority who can’t exercise their rights to free speech without getting pummeled. It also probably helps them recruit. And more broadly, if violence against minorities is what you find repugnant in neo-Nazi rhetoric, then “you are using the very force you’re trying to overcome,” Michael Nagler, the founder of the Peace and Conflict Studies program at the University of California, Berkeley, told me.

Scott Alexander at the Effective Altruism Conference

Scott Alexander attended the latest Effective Altruism conference, a meeting of people who try to calculate the amount of good done in the world by donations to various charities. In the main sessions there was a whole lot of earnest do-gooding, talks by people at GiveWell and the Open Philanthropy Project about all the millions they have helped to direct to beneficial causes. But off to the sides all sorts of other stuff was going on:
I got to talk to some people from Wild Animal Suffering Research. They start with the standard EA animal rights argument – if you think animals have moral relevance, you can save zillions of them for almost no cost. A campaign for cage-free eggs, minimal in the grand scheme of things, got most major corporations to change their policies and gave two hundred million chickens an improved quality of life. But WASR points out that even this isn’t the most neglected cause. There are up to a trillion reptiles, ten quintillion insects, and maybe a sextillion zooplankton. And as nasty as factory farms are, life in the state of nature is nasty, brutish, short, and prone to having parasitic wasps paralyze you so that their larvae can eat your organs from the inside out while you are still alive. WASR researches ways we can alleviate wild animal suffering, from euthanizing elderly elephants (probably not high-impact) to using more humane insecticides (recommended as an ‘interim solution’) to neutralizing predator species in order to relieve the suffering of prey (still has some thorny issues that need to be resolved).

Wild Animal Suffering Research was nowhere near the weirdest people at Effective Altruism Global.

I got to talk to people from the Qualia Research Institute, who point out that everyone else is missing something big: the hedonic treadmill. People have a certain baseline amount of happiness. Fix their problems, and they’ll be happy for a while, then go back to baseline. The only solution is to hack consciousness directly, to figure out what exactly happiness is – unpack what we’re looking for when we describe some mental states as having higher positive valence than others – and then add that on to every other mental state directly. This isn’t quite the dreaded wireheading, the widely-feared technology that will make everyone so doped up on techno-super-heroin (or direct electrical stimulation of the brain’s pleasure centers) that they never do anything else. It’s a rewiring of the brain that creates a “perpetual but varied bliss” that “reengineers the network of transition probabilities between emotions” while retaining the capability to do economically useful work. . . .
But, you guessed in, they weren't the weirdest people Alexander met, either. Anyway, it's an interesting and very funny report and I recommend it.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

David Brooks Says What I'm Thinking

Here is what I believe:
I’m beginning to think the whole depressing spectacle of this moment — the Trump presidency and beyond — is caused by a breakdown of intellectual virtue, a breakdown in America’s ability to face evidence objectively, to pay due respect to reality, to deal with complex and unpleasant truths. The intellectual virtues may seem elitist, but once a country tolerates dishonesty, incuriosity and intellectual laziness, then everything else falls apart.

The temptation is simply to blast the neo-Nazis, the alt-right, the Trumpkins and the rest for being bigoted, vicious and hate-filled. And some of that is necessary. The boundaries of common decency have to be defined.

But the wiser minds have always understood that anger and moral posturing are not a good antidote to rage and fanaticism. Competing vitriols only build on each other.

In fact, the most powerful answer to fanaticism is modesty. Modesty is an epistemology directly opposed to the conspiracy mongering mind-set. It means having the courage to understand that the world is too complicated to fit into one political belief system. It means understanding there are no easy answers or malevolent conspiracies that can explain the big political questions or the existential problems. Progress is not made by crushing some swarm of malevolent foes; it’s made by finding balance between competing truths — between freedom and security, diversity and solidarity. There’s always going to be counter-evidence and mystery. There is no final arrangement that will end conflict, just endless searching and adjustment.
The only answer I can suggest to a madly raging world is to still our own anger and seek with a grim, plodding consistency for truth, for political compromise, and for chances to make the world better in whatever small and partial ways we can find.

Racton Man's Fatal Dagger Dueling

Racton Man is what the British press calls a warrior of the early Bronze Age whose grave was found near Racton, Sussex in 1989. A detailed study of his remains has just been published, and it is quite interesting.

Racton Man was buried around 2300-2150 BC. He was big for the time, six feet tall (1.85 m), and about 45 years old. The only object in his grave was this bronze dagger.

The dagger would have been riveted to a wooden or leather handle, as in this example.

But not only was Racton Man buried with a dagger, he might have been killed with one. His left arm was certainly gashed shortly before he died, since the wound never healed, and he was likely stabbed under the right arm as well. Just the sort of wounds you might get in a knife fight.

The excavators speculate that Racton Man was a tribal chief killed in a fight over leadership. That, it seems to me, is pushing speculation pretty far. Given his size he was likely an aristocrat, but maybe knife fighting was just the way aristocrats of his time handled any slight to their honor, as later aristocrats dueled with swords or pistols. There's no reason to assume that his people fought over the chieftainship with knives like the outlaws of the Hole in the Wall Gang.

Then again, maybe they did; might make for an interesting scene in a Bronze Age historical novel.

The Genetic History of Apples

Chinese and European apples have long been thought to be descended from a wild species called Malus sieversii that grows in central Asia, but they are actually quite different. Why?
The team say the finding suggests that modern cultivated apples have their roots in the trees of Kazakhstan, growing to the west of the “Heavenly Mountains” – the Tian Shan.

Previous research has also suggested that these apples were brought westward by traders along the Silk Road. But the trees which took root, either from deliberate planting or from discarded apple cores, did not grow in isolation: they cross-pollinated with wild species in the area. In particular, researchers have said, the European crabapple, whose small, sharp-tasting fruit is used to make cider.

The new study, says Bai, suggests the resulting apples were large – a trait passed on from Malus sieversii – while the crabapple contribution appears to have made the apples firm and tasty.

Indeed the new research suggests about 46% of the genome of modern, domestic apples is likely passed down from M. sieversii plants from Kazakhstan, with 21% from the European crabapple and 33% from uncertain sources. As the trees were subsequently selected and bred by humans, the apples’ traits continued to be refined for larger size, better flavour and firmness.
Chinese apples are also hybrids, and the difference between Chinese and European apples was created mainly by the different local species with which Malus sieversii  interbred. Fascinating.

Charlottesville Vigil



For victims of violence. They sang This Land is Your Land in front of the Rotunda.

Steve Bannon's Strategy

Steve Bannon, in a phone call with Robert Kuttner, the editor of The American Prospect:
“The Democrats,” he said, “the longer they talk about identity politics, I got ’em. I want them to talk about racism every day. If the left is focused on race and identity, and we go with economic nationalism, we can crush the Democrats.”

Mapperton

Mapperton House in Dorset is thought by some to be the finest private house in Britain. The residents are the Earl and Countess of Sandwich — that is, when they are not off practicing the glamorous careers that most European aristocrats aspire to these days. (He has held various government and foundation jobs in international development; she is a journalist.)

The oldest part of the house was built in the 1540s by Robert Morgan; it sports these fine twisted chimneys and heraldic guardians. Morgan's descendants inherited the estate in direct line down to 1919, although the family names kept changing when a daughter was the heir.

But as you can see from this photo the house grew by accretion over the centuries.

What shows as the central block in this view was built in the 1660s by Richard Brodrepp; you can see the gable end of the surviving Tuodor structure to the left.

Tudor "great chamber" with original mantle and 16th-century ceiling.

Much of the interior was remodeled in the 18th century by another Richard Brodrepp, with the help of two prominent west country builders known as Bastard Brothers of Blandford. The bones of the gardens were established at the same time, although they were much altered in the 20th century.

In 1955 the property was purchased by Victor Montagu, heir to the Earldom of Sandwich. A Joshua Reynolds portrait of his ancestor the 4th Earl hangs in the drawing room near a portrait of the 4th Earl's mistress, Martha Ray. This was the Earl who rather than get up from the gaming table put a slice of meat between two slices of bread and somehow got credit for inventing a way of eating that must have been done pretty much since the invention of bread.


Views of the formal garden behind the main house.




More garden views. The gardens are open to the public through most of the summer, the house only on weekend afternoons.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Explaining Extremism

I'm wondering to what extent this is true, or true beyond a superficial level:
“The process and structure of radicalization and extremism,” J.M. Berger, a fellow with the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism in The Hague, wrote via email, “are the same in different kinds of movements, even when the content of the extremist belief is different (such as with neo-Nazis and jihadists).”

Scholars have often observed a radicalization process that goes something like this: After a first contact with the ideology, a person’s curiosity drives them to seek out more information, often through social media. After trying it on for size, they decide that the ideology sufficiently addresses their grievances, usually by framing it as the result of their group—their Muslim brothers and sisters, or their brothers and sisters in the white race—are being victimized by another group, say infidels or non-white immigrants. Then, the new adherent will consider whether he or she is doing enough to advance the cause, and if the answer is no, the person will act. “Extremist groups rely on a crisis-solution construct,” says Berger. “The in-group”—the ideological group, say, neo-Nazis or ISIS members—“is afflicted with a crisis that is blamed on the out-group”—people excluded from that group as enemies and threats, say, non-believers or non-whites—“and the extremist movement is presented as offering a solution to that crisis, which is often violent. The crisis is defined as being intrinsic to the identity groups involved, rather being than situational or temporary.” . . .

Violence isn’t always the result; few people radicalize in the first place, and still fewer commit attacks after doing so. But what can lead to violence is the many ways in which the process of radicalization is constricting: It alienates you from family and friends, and posits an acute problem to which the ideology demands a solution. After a while, it feels like an emergency every day. “The general psychological process of moving to those movements is very much the same,” says Koehler, who is also a senior fellow at George Washington University’s Program on Extremism. “It is a process of de-pluralization and isolation. There is a grievance or perceived threat, and it gets more and more intense until you don’t see any other solution but violence.”
I feel doubts because to some extent all politics works this way; don't Democrats and Republicans identify enemies they claim are making them suffer? Doesn't the language of crisis and solution permeate every political campaign?

I don't see how this account usefully discriminates between people who become socialists or join the Moral Majority from those who become suicide bombers.

I have likewise seen definitions of a "cult" that seem to describe all organized religion.

Movements are extremist because they are extreme, not because they are like all other movements. And what makes them extreme is not at all touched by this definition.

Midnight Monument Removal in Baltimore

I have an acquaintance in Baltimore who has for the past year been giving tours of the city's four Confederate monuments, trying to raise awareness of them and lay the groundwork for removal. He wasn't having much luck, until events swept along and POOF, all the statues are gone. After a unanimous city council vote for removal last week, the mayor brought in a crane and whisked them all away in one night. She said, “I did not want to endanger people in my own city. I had begun discussions with contractors and so forth about how long it would take to remove them. I am a responsible person, so we moved as quickly as we could.” Probably a wise decision, considering what has happened in other places.

The most appalling of Baltimore's monuments was this statue of Roger B. Taney, the Supreme Court justice who is famous for only one thing: authoring the Dred Scott decision. No sugar-coating this with talk of his being a war hero or saying he really cared about state's rights, since the Dred Scott decision was intended to prevent any state from expanding the rights of black men.

Yes, it was once considered a good idea in Maryland to put up not one but two prominent monuments to the man who tried to deny citizenship even to free black people. But it's gone now, and it looks like its twin in Annapolis will be gone soon.

One of the possibilities that occurred to me when Trump won the election was that it might really shake up the country, breaking people loose from old coalitions and driving events forward in unpredictable ways. Until the past few weeks, this had not really happened. Trump won the election mainly because he got almost all the Republican votes, and he has been trying to work with the Republican Congress on traditional Republican issues.

But now the system has been shaken up in at least two ways. The Congressional health care brouhaha has led to a big shift in public opinion in favor of Obamacare and national health insurance in general. And now the Charlottesville blow-up seems to be generating a huge wave of revulsion against white supremacists and neo-Confederates, made worse by the president's ambivalence.

Maybe nothing will come of these things, either; maybe health care will settle back into the usual partisan grind, and maybe the anti-Confederate wave will break quickly like others have before it. But I think it is clear now that Trump poses at least as much of a threat to conservatives as he does to liberals.