I talk about things I find interesting. I find a lot of things interesting…

Princess Pride

by Ken Arnold on Mon 21 October 2013

This is making the rounds today: The body in an Etruscan tomb that had a spear turns out to gave been a woman. Also, the other body with the jewelry turns out to have been a man.

A bit of background: The Etruscans were the major civilization on the Italian peninsula preceding the Romans. The Romans borrowed heavily from them, and in fact the Etruscans may have been the ones who founded the city of Rome. It’s all a little hard to tell for several reasons, primarily due to the fact that the Romans so overshadowed them that we have almost no written Etruscan records, beyond a bunch of grave inscriptions. The other records are paltry. The entire body of Etruscan words that aren’t simple tomb inscriptions is probably not much more than the size of this blog post.

That’s far too small for us to learn the Etruscan language, especially since it seems to be part of a tiny family of languages that aren’t related to anything else we’ve found. So we have a tiny amount of written text for a language with a handful of also-poorly-understood relatives. And even if we could read it, there is only a tiny amount we could possibly learn from it because, well, the amount of text is tiny.

What we mostly have is a decently large collection of graves. So when one of them throws up a surprise, we don’t know how to interpret it.

The Etruscans had a much more woman-friendly society than the Greeks or Romans. Women seemed to have been valued as family members, active in the community, and had a place at the head of the family. Of course the Greeks and Romans saw women in the public sphere and assumed they were loose, slutty, emasculating, horny, and, well, let’s excuse them as they head of to the privy for some rather physical forms of imagination. It’s what happens when people who control women and their sexuality through isolation see less suppressed women.

But even taking that relative openness to women, nobody had expected that it extended to warrior women who would be buried with spears.

So that’s interesting.

It’s also probably generated more posts with pictures of Xena than has been produced in years, so there’s that upside as well.

But again, because we know so little, we don’t know how to interpret this. Except for one thing:

We are prisoners of our expectations.

Because the archaeologists did assume that the spear-bearer was male and the jewelry-box-holder was female. As would, I suspect, almost any of us. Even if we think we are getting better at being open about gender, gender roles, etc., we certainly don’t expect ancient peoples to be. We think this is truly modern and sophisticated of us.

And in any case, the odds were certainly with the archaeologists on this one. The skeletons were in a bad state to make an easy visual assignment. Kudos to them, in fact, for double checking.

But I have to say, ever since I read about this, one thought keeps popping up in the back of my thinking, waving for my attention. So since this is my blog, and I get to give attention to whatever I want, here, thought, is your moment of attention:

What if it was a screwup?

What if, for example, the people placing the bodies in the tombs put the them on the opposite platforms than intended? If the bodies were wrapped, the people placing the grave goods might not know which was which. Or maybe someone purposefully swapped them out of spite, hoping it would fuck up their afterlife.

It would be amazingly interesting if the Etruscans were cool with transgendered people, or women in non-traditional roles, or (glory be!) both. But we often forget that people in the past were as clever and smart as we are. And, as we are, they were subject to error and spite, either of which might account for this discrepancy.

At the current rate of progress I don’t expect to live to see anything like enough information uncovered to resolve this. Maybe we will discover the tomb an Etruscan bibliophile who was actually buried with enough documents to open up the language; that would be cool. Or maybe we’ll re-examine existing tombs to discover this is common, and we’ll have to rethink how we look at the Etruscan culture; that would be very cool. But I’m thinking this is more likely to just simmer along unsolved for a very long time, and we will, instead, have to turn our attention to our actual problems. Which would be sad, because right now a lot of our problems totally suck, and a little escape in time would be nice.

The Importance of Occasional Rightness

by Ken Arnold on Sat 12 October 2013

This article shows Peter Higgs to be a true scientist. He makes sure everyone gets their due credit, he is modest. But his last quote encapsulates a lot of what science is:

It’s very nice to be right sometimes

It is, isn’t it? This is what science is: Being right sometimes. Not always. New science proves lots of existing science and scientists to be wrong, and they adapt to that (sometimes slowly, to be sure). That is what makes science different from any major belief system know to humanity.

It is common for people who don’t like what scientists discover (evolution, an old earth, global warming, …) to talk of science as just one other belief system to be debated. But that is totally wrong. If you are a scientist and you don’t find out that what you know is often wrong, at least in detail, you’re doing it wrong. Science is a system meant to disprove things, to propose more useful and correct ideas of how things work, and then later to to disprove some of that.

You would never hear a religious fundamentalist say “It’s very nice to be right sometimes.” They know right from wrong almost all the time, not just for themselves but for you too.

Over time, every year science is right-er than it used to be, and to be one of the people who figures something out one day that is right — after so many times of being wrong — is glorious. And helps us all be right-er than we used to be. It’s a wonderful thing to be right only sometimes.

Obama’s Other Option

by Ken Arnold on Mon 30 September 2013

I have pointed out that the nation is on the horns of a trilemma about the upcoming debt ceiling vote.

Henry Aaron points out that this puts Obama himself on the horns of a separate dilemma (a more ordinary beast, but still uncomfortable). In brief, his argument is this: The Constitution requires the president to (1) spend what Congress tells him to spend; (2) tax only what Congress tells him to tax; and (3) borrow only what Congress tells him to borrow.

And so, should the Congress not raise the debt limit, he actually only has a choice of poisons. The standard line is that since he can’t borrow, he has no money to spend. That is, he can’t borrow unless he’s allowed to. But this puts him in direct breach of the first requirement — that he spend what he’s been told to spend.

In other words, no course of action keeps him constitutionally clean. He can be challenged for not spending just as easily for not borrowing. So he should pick the course that does the least harm.

In view of the clause of the 14th Amendment that holds the full faith and credit of the United States to be inviolable, I think that argument is doubly justified. If under-spending and over-borrowing are both equally problematic, the 14th Amendment puts weight on the side of over-borrowing.

None of this makes an difference to the fact that this is just plain stupid. The debt limit law is broken from the start. Once Congress decides what to spend and what to tax, how much to borrow is just a calculation, not a choice. It’s an archaic and apparently (in practice) anarchic bit of tripe that should be excised from the body politic with extreme prejudice.

The Nation’s Trilemma

by Ken Arnold on Sat 28 September 2013

The Republicans have succeeded in getting us onto the horns of a trilemma. This is quite an achievement: Usually one ends up on the horns a mere dilemma, caught on the two horns of a bull. But the contortions of the Republicans around Obamacare have actually gotten us onto three horns of what must be a rather unique kind of bull.

To recap: Obamacare insurance markets open on 1 Oct. Within six months, those who are uninsured are required to purchase insurance or face a fine. If you are uninsured and need the help, you can get subsidies that will cover some or all of the costs. Alternatively, our freedom will vanish down the maw of Kenyan socialist fascism.

The Republicans lost this battle: Once it was just a bill, but then the Congress passed the legislation, the president signed it, and (what the hell) the courts upheld it. So yeah, it’s the law.

But they have lived for so long off the outrage and fear of the right, especially as expressed in the Tea Party, that they can’t simply accept it. The Obamapocalypse will destroy our once-proud nation, economically and morally. That is their stance, and they’ve been pushing hard for so long that they can’t stop. That would admit that all that sturm und drang was at best wrong and at worst cynical manipulation.

So we come to today, where it seems as if we have three possible outcomes:

  1. As they have before, the Democrats cave enough to save sufficient Republican face  that we can get past this until the next time.
  2. The Republicans admit that they can’t stop it and hope to live to fight another day.
  3. The Republicans refuse to pay the bills and crash the economy because it’s better to crash the economy than to risk Obamacare harming the economy. And, well, Freedom.

All of these choices suck hard for somebody. I hate #1, giving in to bullies and hostage takers is terrible. #2 is fine with me, but exposes Republicans to the Tea Party rage they have been trying to direct at Dems. #3 sucks for us all, where “us” isn’t just Americans, but really the entire world, whose economy is already shaky.

So there you are, the national trilemma. We will agonize over it greatly until Oct. 17 when we run out of room to pay our bills. But in the end, the only real way out of it — to end the cycle and make any forward progress — is for the Republicans to finally deal in the real world: They’ve lost the political battle and destroying the country to save it will certainly harm everyone, and will probably kill them too.

Sometimes watching a political battle needs popcorn. This one will need Pepto-Bismol.

[1] Just to put the “debt ceiling” simply: The budget is when we decide to spend money. The debt ceiling is about getting the cash to pay the resulting bills. That’s it. If you want to spend less money, you spend less money. Having spent the money, you don’t just decide not to pay the bills. That’s deadbeat-ism, freeloading. Why we have this system is beyond me, and we are well past time that we need to change it.

Bumbling Away from War

by Ken Arnold on Tue 17 September 2013

I’m in favor of the current thrust towards resolving the Syrian chemical weapons problem without war. If the disarmament can be made to work it is far preferable to an uncertain future after we kill more people by remote control in the Middle East.

That said, I have to say I was stunned by how it happened. An offhand remark by our Secretary of State turned out to actually describe a workable path forward. A remark that he tried to walk back.

Why wasn’t this something floated for real? The administration was so stuck in a path towards violent response that it didn’t even consider offering anything else at all. They saw no way around it.

The team was frankly incompetent here. We have some very smart people in the State Department, the White House, and the Pentagon. And between them all they didn’t think to make this proposal. Forgive me for citing the Bush administration, but even they gave Afghanistan a potential path to avoid the war (turn over bin Laden and followers). They weren’t going to take it, but just offering it was smart. And what if they had turned them over? At least that possibility was on the table.

This administration couldn’t see that it should offer an out. And that’s doubly bad because it happens that — as far as we can tell, pending future events — the Russians and Syrians were ready to take that kind of out.

Instead we went out on a limb for military action, and that limb was collapsing, with the British vote in Parliament, and the lack of nearly any support from any ally. In fact, Putin saved Obama from having to go it alone, and probably an embarrassing defeat in Congress.

We will see if this process actually produces anything. But we will actually see. No thanks to the smart folks in charge of our foreign policy.  (Well, minor thanks I suppose for not being stubborn after the fact.) We stumbled into a path when we should have led with it.

We pay those folks to figure out solutions. They let us down. I hope they’ve learned, not just that they should think harder, but how seductive, apparently, is the path to war.

Humanity Does Not Totally Suck

by Ken Arnold on Fri 13 September 2013

Tonight I walked out of a restaurant to find a mild rain. Considering I had left the top down on my Miata when I parked it, this wasn’t the best of news. The car is designed to handle some rain because, well, this kind of thing happens. Still, it isn’t a good idea, so I hustled a bit on my way to the car.

Only to discover that some passerby had flopped up the top of the car to protect it. (It’s a manual convertible, so you don’t need a key to put the top up.) The seats were a bit wet, but the thing was still protected via the kindness of strangers.

Thanks, whomever!

Porn Kills Jobs

by Ken Arnold on Fri 6 September 2013

Actually, it seems like porn killed a lot of this month’s unemployment figures. It goes like this:

  1. Porn star tests positive for HIV.
  2. Porn film industry pretty much shuts down while they figure out if anyone else was/is infected.
  3. At just this moment, the U.S. Labor Dept. is collecting its unemployment statistics.
  4. They find a lot of unemployed film industry folks.

So employment in the film industry has plummeted (film is film, porn or not). Which is one of the reasons the unemployment numbers look bad.

They have since gone back to work [it’s hard not to toss in some clever word play there, I want some credit for self control] so next month’s numbers should look better [still struggling].

P.S. This is not the driving factor, this month’s unemployment stats actually suck in any case, in many ways, as they have for years.

P.P.S. Interesting tidbit: Unemployment statistics are a poll. They are not a measure of unemployment claims filed or whatever. They call people to ask them if they’re working, and if not, if they are looking. People who aren’t looking are not measured. This is how they exclude stay-at-home-parents, or people taking extended vacation, or whatever. It does happen to also exclude people who have just given up. Just FYI.

You’ve Got This Hostage Thing Backwards, Man

by Ken Arnold on Mon 19 August 2013

At the risk of aiding the idiots attempting to take over the asylum, permit me to instruct the Republicans in basic hostage taking skills:

If you threaten to kill someone’s child unless they blow something up, you at least have human nature on your side.

Threatening to blow something up unless they kill their own child doesn’t work so well.

This is the most basic reason why threatening to destroy the gov’t and/or economy unless Obama kills Obamacare is going to fail.

“The party of stupid” indeed.

Perseids, O Perseids!

by Ken Arnold on Mon 12 August 2013

Last night we went to watch the Perseids meteor shower. The Boston metro area is quite densely suburbanized, so light pollution abounds. However, we found a parking lot off the road in a pretty good place and saw about twenty meteors. We are but flecks of flotsam on an endless sea of stars, and also the chocolate was pretty good.

Oh, Please, Please, Please… (or not)

by Ken Arnold on Tue 30 July 2013

Two interesting facts about the upcoming Senate race in Alaska:

  1. Former half-term governor Sarah Palin leads the Republican primary field
  2. Former half-term governor Sarah Palin trails the Democratic incumbent for the final race.

So here’s a best case scenario: Palin runs, wins the primary, loses the general election. This means that we hold on to a Senate seat otherwise at risk, and as a bonus, Palin is a clear loser, damaging what passes for her credibility.

Caveat #1: If she runs, she might win the general. That would be a disaster, at least until she resigns her Senate seat due to her being Sarah Palin. So I really shouldn’t hope for this.

Caveat #2: She won’t do it. She’s sitting pretty right now as a highly-paid pseudo-pundit and headline speaker for high fees. A single election loss would likely harm that substantially. Running puts that at risk, and for what? Another public office to resign from?

So you can add this to the “fantastic entertainment we will never see” list, and move along.