Nettles

The sun is up and the nettles are out.

I’ve always been fascinated by wild foods. Picking a wild berry or parsnip gives you a little taste of what our distant ancestors lives were like, the ways they looked at the world and the flavors they enjoyed.

Nettles are famous because they’re one of the very first wild plants available in spring and are available almost everywhere. (There’s not a whole lot available in winter unless you really like pine trees, which I don’t.) They’re also famous because they don’t look spiky, but if you accidentally brush up against one while walking in shorts, you will be very, very sorry.

I’ve never eaten nettles before, but when I found them in the woods while hiking with the family, decided they’d be worth trying. Why not? (Once I pointed out the nettles, my kids of course started poking them.)

The best way to harvest nettles is with salad tongs, because you don’t want to touch them. (You always bring salad tongs on your hikes, right?) Pick the tender top leaves and put them in a bag. If you’re not sure whether it’s nettles or not, just poke the plant a few times. You’ll figure it out. Once you get them home, figure out how you’re going to handle them for rinsing and chopping.

You can eat nettles raw, if you just carefully crush all of the spines before sticking it in your mouth. Take a tender top leaf carefully by the bottom. Press the sides together. Curse as you verify that, yes, this is definitely stinging nettle why are you holding it. Mash. Once you’re satisfied that you’ve probably crushed all of the ouchy bits, eat it.

It tastes a little like mint, oddly enough. (They’re not closely related, as far as I know, but they plants do have some superficial similarities.)

After washing and chopping, I opted to sauté mine in butter with onions and asparagus–asparagus isn’t actually up yet in my area, but it is an early spring crop and so felt like an appropriate complement.

Cooked in this way, I couldn’t really taste the nettles; whatever flavor they may have had was overwhelmed by the onions. Other greens I’ve had, such as kale and collards, can be quite strong (in my opinion, unpleasantly so), so I don’t mind the mildness. People claim nettles have all sorts of health benefits, but I have my doubts. Perhaps our ancestors, at the end of a long winter eating only what they could store, were in genuine need of fresh greens by the time nettles arrived, just as sailors at sea were in genuine need of oranges and lemons–but it is unusual for someone who shops at a modern grocery store to be deficient in anything but sunlight.

I conclude that if you’re looking for greens and you’re okay with picking something that will try to bite you back, nettles aren’t a bad choice. Next time, I’ll try making tea.

Bad Content vs. Good

So I was reading this interesting article on “The Journalistic Tattletale Industry,” by Glenn Greenwald, recommended by a friend, and came across this quote:

The article itself is about how these people have become censorious hall monitors who go crying to the principal if they think you even breathed a bad word, and Oliver here is one of these whiny hall monitors, demanding that “Big Tech” change its algorithms to stop bad-faith actors.

That said, Oliver here has stumbled onto something interesting: all systems are vulnerable to gaming by unscrupulous actors.

Let’s look at ecosystems, for example. Here you are, a nice, innocent rabbit, eating grass, feeding your bunnies, when bam! a hawk swoops down and just takes advantage of all your hard work and f’ing EATS YOU. If I were a rabbit, I’d be royally pissed for those few seconds before the hawk tears my head off.

Or, from a different perspective, here you are, a good, hard-working hawk, bringing food home to your chicks, when some sneaky bastard parasite infects you and starts eating your food. Here you did all the hard work to catch that food, and now that tapeworm is just lying there, doing nothing and absorbing your nutrients.

Ask anyone who’s ever lived in a “planned society”: actually getting societies to work and be good, pleasant places to live in is difficult. Just look at the issues people had in the Soviet Union, the city of Brasilia, or any cult. Even if everyone starts off with good intentions, (which they often don’t,) things have a habit of going wrong in unexpected ways.

Every society involves planning to some extent–even in very simple societies, some large-scale decisions that affect the whole group have to be made, like “we are going to the watering hole today,” or “we’re going to hunt for game over in that valley instead of this one.” The Soviet Union stands as an example of an extensively planned society, but many ordinary societies struggle with mundane issues like police bribery or the red tape.

One of the big problems with discussing cheaters, parasites, and social defectors is that you have to think about the problem on two levels. On the ground level, ordinary people have to morally disdain cheaters and defectors and parasites and refuse to work with them. They need to view them with disgust and react accordingly, because this makes it much harder for cheaters to operate.

On the planning level, you have to abandon the notion of parasites as free-willed agents who can just be convinced to behave if you just exhort them and ask why the system creates conditions where cheaters and parasites thrive in the first place.

For example, if you make regulations and red-tape so onerous that honest businessmen simply can’t operate in the market, then you get an extensive black market. Here the ultimate solution isn’t “encourage black-market merchants to be better people,” nor “exhort ordinary people to avoid black markets,” (though these are still good things to do,) nor “execute the black-market merchants,” but “take some of the regulatory burden off honest businessmen so they can turn a profit.”

So if you’re concluding that bad content thrives on these platforms (a take I agree with, though I define “bad content” differently than Oliver does,) then you need to ask why this bad content is so popular. No one designed the algorithms with “spread bad content” in mind, after all.

Personally, I’m inclined to think that “bad content” is mostly a side effect of these being systems where you talk/listen to a bunch of strangers. You don’t know them and they don’t know you. The ordinary consequences of lying to or hurting someone in your community are largely non-existent on the internet, or vastly distorted. And the best solution I’ve come up with so far (ironically, since this is a blog,) is for most people to avoid spending a lot of time interacting with strangers on the internet. If you’re addicted to Twitter, just send rude comments to the right people and they’ll do you the service of kicking you off the platform for you. Limit your Facebook to actual, real-life friends and family, if you must. Use the internet to organize real-life events like meetups or hikes or parties for your dog, especially once this stupid pandemic is over, but keep it grounded in the real. Love your families, value your friends, and have some children, for goodness’ sakes.

Modernity selects for those who resist it, after all.

Avoiding hyperstimuli

Hyperstimuli are like regular stimuli, but turned up to 11. Fruit contains naturally occurring fruit sugars, which your body craves because sugar is an important energy source and fruit is full of valuable nutrients. Fruit is a natural stimulus. Candy is made from a vegetable, sugarcane, that has had all of the annoying fibrous vegetable part stripped away and been refined down to a pure, sugary, chemical substance. Running is normal; riding a rollercoaster is not. Chatting with your friends is a normal social interaction; getting a thousand likes on Facebook is not.

Most of us have happiness “setpoints” that we tend to return to after weathering the slings and arrows of fate and fortune. Some of us tend to be happy people, facing misfortune with confidence that things will turn out; some of us tend to be dour, facing happiness as a trial to be endured until misery returns. Of course there are exceptions and things that really do radically alter your life (“I’m not starving anymore! Yay!”) but for most of us, most of the time, will trend back to our normal moods.

This implies that the hyperstimuli in your life are not really making you any happier. Long-term, you are no happier eating hamburgers and pizza than you would be eating rice and beans, because you adjust to the presence of the hyperstimulus and downgrade to treating it like a normal stimulus. Pizza once a year is a feast. Pizza once a month is fun. Pizza every day is monotonous.

But once your brain is used to processing hyperstimuli like normal stimuli, regular stimuli look pale and boring by comparison. If you can have ice cream and cookies and hamburgers and pizza for dinner, why would you have rice and beans? Oh, sure, you know rice and beans are “better” for you. You have some sense that you’d weigh a lot less on rice and beans, and that you’d spend a lot less on food. You might even avoid a heart attack. Abstractly, these are all nice things, but rice and beans are boring. You don’t want rice and beans. You want pizza.

Of course, maybe if you’d never started eating hyperstimulating food every day in the first place, you’d think a good plate of rice with a side of nicely spiced beans was pretty nice.

Everyone’s a Conspiracy Theorist, now

We live in interesting times. The internet was supposed to usher in an era of increased knowledge, understanding, and maybe even human harmony. Instead it has turned us all into conspiracy theorists.

Don’t get hoity-toity and claim that it’s only those Bad Guys over on the other side of the aisle who believe in conspiracies. The Left believes that the country is run by a secret cabal of heterosexual white men whose tentacles reach into every aspect of life, from prenatal care to television to incarceration. As conspiracies go, this one is well-established and believed to some degree by nearly everyone on the Left; millions of dollars have been funneled into university research departments for the purpose of “uncovering” more evidence of this secret cabal’s universal reach.

The Right’s beliefs are far more heterogenous–unlike the left, they struggle to pick a single enemy to blame and focus all of their attacks on–but right now they are united in their belief that Democrats cheated and stole the election. This right-wing conspiracy is nearly identical to the left-wing conspiracy of 4 years ago that Russia stole the election. If any leftists are reading this, I hope you realize now just how dumb your Putin conspiracies sounded and I hope you sincerely regret the billions of taxpayer dollars you guys spent investigating that nonsense. There are people struggling to pay rent and buy food, you know.

Ahem.

To be clear, just because something is a conspiracy doesn’t make it wrong. People have conspired in the past; people will conspire in the future. Sometimes there genuinely is something going on. Most of the time, though, people aren’t conspiring in the way we typically use the word. People look out for themselves. They make backroom deals; they protect their turf. They grift and graft and try to cover up incompetence. Things aren’t done in “secret” so much as “most people don’t have time to keep track of all of the boring details.”

Unfortunately, if you yourself do not know much about a field, it is rather difficult to distinguish between someone who actually knows a lot about that field and someone who merely sounds like they know about that field. If you have any expertise in any field, you have probably noticed both people who think they know a lot about your field when they actually don’t and also people who believe these fakers. Many normal people simply can’t distinguish between actual expertise and things that sound like expertise.

The situation only gets worse when the popular view of a field is already incorrect. Take, for an historical example, heliocentrism versus geocentrism. If you were an ordinary person in Gallileo’s age, you’d know in your bones that geocentrism was obviously correct. Things don’t move unless you push them, and what’s going around pushing the Earth? You’ve moved–you walked and run, ridden horses and ridden in carts–and you know what movement feels like. It feels like an earthquake, which clearly doesn’t happen every day. Any idiot can look up at the sky and notice that the clouds, sun, moon, planets, and stars all clearly go around the Earth. This is all common sense. The idea that some ivory-tower mathematicians have invented a “new math” (lolwut) and used it to determine that the Earth is secretly moving but you can’t feel it because *handwaves* “You only feel acceleration and deceleration, not steady movement, I have never ridden on a horse,” is clearly just nerds making stuff up.

From the inside, any particular worldview provides detailed and accurate explanations of the universe around it, and from the outside, looks silly. Why did it rain? Well, because we did a rain dance / because the Crocodile God was angry / because energy from the sun sucked water from the ocean into the air as invisible water, and then a low pressure zone in Canada made the air flow over to your neighborhood and as the air moved uphill, it lost the ability to hold up the water and it formed into clouds and rained. Why didn’t it rain again today? You did the rain dance wrong / your sacrifice to the Crocodile God made him happy / Canada warmed up.

My mother has recently become very enthusiastic about Qanon. I don’t consider this a problem–she’s bored because of Covid and it gives her something to do–but it is fascinating to watch which ideas she finds credible and which ones she doesn’t. Of course, most conspiracies contain, at their hearts, some grain of truth. Does the Vatican have a pedophile problem? Well, yes. Is the Roman Catholic Church something like a huge international network of powerful pedophiles working together to protect each other from prosecution? Well, that’s not exactly the first definition I’d give of it, but I can see how someone who was abused by a priest as a child might see it that way. Did the Pope hack the US election in order to get Trump out of office before he shuts down the Vatican’s Satanic international child trafficking ring? I have serious doubts.

Good luck disabusing a Qanon fan of their favorite conspiracy theories: Q is internally consistent enough to provide explanations for all observed phenomena, and before you start, you’ll have to do a bunch of research on your own to figure out which of their claims are actually true and which aren’t supported by the evidence. Then you’ll have to come up with a good explanation for “why all of these seemingly trustworthy people are lying” and a bunch of alternative explanations for all of the pro-Q evidence, at which point you are trying to convince your friend that there exists a secret conspiracy of people on the internet who completely fabricated this entire Qanon thing for years and tricked her into believing it for no discernable reason other than “the lols” or maybe ad revenue, at which point you sound like the crazy conspiracy theorist.

And the exact same is true on the Left. Just try to convince them that there is not actually a great big conspiracy of white men trying to oppress them and you’ll get an endless stream of “what about this” and “you’re wrong about this minor point” and “here’s a psych study that was conducted by totally unbiased researchers that proves babies are racist.”

Bizarre effect of the internet: everyone now believes in conspiracies.

New Year, New President

My husband made a good point yesterday, that an historian a hundred years from now could reasonably argue that Trump was never truly president because he was never allowed by the rest of the system to assume full power. For these four years America has been essentially sans-president.

The system has chosen Biden; never mind whether it reflects the will of the voters–if we cared about true democracy, we wouldn’t have an electoral college, either. The rule isn’t “no cheating,” the rule is “only do as much cheating as you can get away with.”

Of course it is better if the cheating is done behind closed doors, so it doesn’t undermine the legitimacy of the system, but the system was already having serious legitimacy issues due to the rest of the government having a serious allergic reaction to Trump.

The Specter of Morality

I think one of the problems with the teaching of history/our understanding of morality is that we look back on he past and think, “Oh it’s so OBVIOUS that X was evil, only evil people could have supported X. If I lived back then, I’d have been a good person who opposed X.”

For example, most people today think the Nazis were evil. Not just run of the mill evil, like shoplifters or people who kick animals, but cartoonishly, over-the-top, literal-Satan evil. Similarly, they also think that slavery was deeply, horrifically evil. Most people think that, had they lived in Nazi Germany or in antebellum America, they’d have opposed these evils–if not vociferously, then at least privately. Sure, other people–bad people–might have supported these evils, but we of course would have had the moral clarity and fortitude to believe the very obviously right things.

The thing history class tries to tell you, but really doesn’t get across, is that if X is widespread, then a majority of people probably think X is good. If you lived back then, you’d either think X was okay, or secretly question whether maybe you’re ta terrible person for not agreeing with X.

You think you’d be triumphant, the only good person on your block who sees through the lies. Instead you’d feel like you were going slightly crazy, wondering why you’re really the only person who can’t see the Emperor’s Clothes. And when you gently broach the subject with your friends, like as not, they make it clear that you are definitely a terrible person for even entertaining such thoughts.

And you don’t necessarily know whether your friends actually think you’re a terrible person, or if they’re just preemptively declaring, just in case anyone else is listening, that they are definitely not a terrible person like you and shouldn’t be lumped in with you, please don’t hurt me.

The difficulty lies in our social natures. If society declares that X is good and Y is bad, then unless you’re highly isolated or have some form of mental disability, then chances are good that you are sensitive to society’s judgements. Society’s morals underlie many things you (typically) don’t even realize are part of your belief system, like which historical figures make it into the textbooks. (Have you ever read a hagiography devoted to the guy who invented the seatbelt, thanking him for saving millions of people’s lives?) No one has the time to go read first-hand accounts of every historical event and reconstruct all of their ideas from scratch.

Anyway, Happy New Year, everyone. Sorry the blog has been quiet, lately.

I’m back

Hey guys, sorry for going awol on you. I’ve been in the hospital. No, it wasn’t Covid and it’s not a baby. I did manage to write a little while I was cooped up without internet, so I’ll have something out soon. Good luck and stay healthy, everyone.

The Best of Egyptian art?

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Typical Egyptian painting

If you’ve ever spent a few minutes looking at Egyptian art, you’ve probably noticed something odd: their human figures are remarkably stiff. In paintings and relief carvings, all of the figures strike the same awkward pose: shoulders toward the viewer, hips forward. Here is a typical example:

Statue after statue stands rigidly still, hands at its sides, feet together. (Some sit rigidly.) Walk into the Greek gallery next door and the contrast is remarkable. Greek statues don’t sit, they sprawl. They don’t just stand, they lean. They run. They saunter. They struggle. Greek statues feel alive.

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Typical Greek painting of a woman

The ancient Egyptians were not bad artists. This ring decorated with tiny horse statues is exquisite. The faces on their best statues rival the Greeks, and they outshine the Greeks in rendering women, whom the Greeks oddly could not draw. Paintings of Greek men look like actual humans; paintings of Greek women, however, are stylized–here is an example, because otherwise you won’t believe me. Take a good look at her face. Note the way her forehead descends directly to the tip of her nose in a straight line, without curving as it passes the eyes, nor out along the nose. It would be quite disconcerting if you saw such a profile on a real person; to make it work, they would need a pointed forehead that juts out considerably and “curves” into the skull in a box-like straight edge beneath their hair. 

(By contrast, Greek men were sometimes allowed a normal nasal bridge.)

Their renderings of non-human subjects, like scarabs and hippos, are also excellent. All in all, the Egyptians were clearly skilled artists who for some reason did not draw human movement.

One theory I have seen is that the Egyptians simply did not know how to draw humans in different poses. They could look at people, they could copy various details about people, like their faces and clothes, but they couldn’t come up with the mental idea of drawing a figure that didn’t have its shoulders facing the audience.

This is essentially the ratchet theory of culture. It proposes that talent is common, but true innovators are rare. Once an innovation occurs, however, it enters the cultural lexicon and talented people can copy it.

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Terra cotta figurine, predynastic period, about 3500 BC through 3400 BC. From the Brooklyn Museum

But this theory depends on the assumption that the Egyptians couldn’t do any better. What if their style was a choice?

So I went looking for ancient Egyptian art that didn’t fit the mold, pieces that aren’t stereotypically Egyptian, and I found them pretty quickly. Take this statuette from the Brooklyn Museum. Their website states:

Based on images painted on jars of the same date, the female figure with upraised arms appears to be celebrating a ritual. The bird-like face probably represents her nose, the source of the breath of life. The dark patch on her head represents hair, also a human trait. Her white skirt indicates a high-status individual.

Now, this is a very primitive piece, and very old. The sculptor did not bother with fiddly details like “a face”. But it clearly expresses movement, and it is not an isolated piece–as the museum notes, similar figures were painted on jars at the time. Clearly the Egyptians of circa 3,450 BC understood “movement” and could express it in art.

Here is a painting of two Egyptian dancing girls (and flute players). Given the technical limitations of paint and surfaces, they are as well drawn as a great many Greek works.

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Battle scene from King Tut’s tomb

Here is one of my favorite Egyptian pieces, a battle scene from King Tut’s tomb.

Yes, the figures are mostly placed in the typical Egyptian posture, shoulders toward us, hips away, but their usual stasis is gone. The painting is a riot; people are everywhere.

Here is a much older depiction of the aftermath of an Egyptian battle, showing a lion and carrion birds feasting on corpses:

It is obviously a more primitive piece, carved before Egyptian style had been completely standardized. But we still see that the figures are allowed to lie every which way; some are in the typical pose, but others, like the captives at the top, are not.

In general, Egyptian art is more expressive when the figures involved have lower social status. Pharaohs are grandiose statues with chiseled pecs, staring quietly into the middle distance; captured slaves are allowed to look around.

One of my favorite pieces I found during this search is this statuette of a boy (warning, nudity.) It is not actually exceptional, but it made me laugh. Children were often depicted without clothes in Egyptian art, and he’s not flipping us off (my first reaction), but putting a finger to his lips in a “childlike” pose. This stele of Ramasses II as a child also features the finer to the lips pose; here is another child with his finger to his lips, in the statue of Nykara and his family.

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Akhenaten and Aten, the sun

We do have some records of what the Egyptians thought of their art. Akhenaten, a pharaoh of the 18th dynasty who died around 1335 BC introduced a radical suite of reforms, including an attempt to convert Egypt to monotheism and demands that his artists sculpt his potbelly and scrawny arms rather than make him super buff. He was also depicted in more natural settings than other pharaohs, like this carving of the royal family playing with their children. (Though the artist seems to have never seen a child.)

This artistic shift produced a few statues that are so strange looking that they have inspired theories that he was part alien. I think it more likely that he was an ordinary guy who didn’t exercise and ate too much, maybe with a bit of inbreeding in his family tree. (I don’t know about his parents, but Akhenaten himself married his half-sister, Nefertiti.) I find speculation that he had Marfan’s syndrome more credible than the alien hypothesis.

After Akhenaten’s death, not only were his reforms rolled back, but many of his statues were defaced and subsequent rulers basically tried to make everyone forget about him.

At any rate, Akehnaten’s demand that artists change their style to depict him more realistically gives it away: artists were depicting their subjects unnaturally on purpose. Clearly at least some ancient Egyptian artists could depict people in realistic poses, but they chose not to develop this style because it didn’t fit with the (usual) purpose of their art. Most pharaohs did not want their statues to be realistic; they wanted them to command the fear and awe of the masses.

If someone were judging the quality of American artists based on portraits of our presidents, they would also note an absence of naturalistic posing or movement. They’re all standing or sitting, even that rather unusual one with Obama. Few of our monuments–take the Lincoln Memorial–feature dynamic sculptures.

Formal portraits tend to be quite static, and the Egyptians made a lot of formal portraits.

And since the Egyptians generally didn’t bother making realistic looking portraits, they didn’t develop the talent.

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From the MFA

Once the Greeks and Romans show up, Egyptian art changes quite a bit. Take this mummy mask of a young woman, from about 100-130 AD. The Greek influence is particularly noticeable in her hairstyle and in the side view, available on the MFA website, which reveals the sharp, Greek-style edge where her forehead ought to curve smoothly into her skull.

This statue from the same era also looks very Greek-inspired.

Of course, the fact that the Egyptians could pick up an art style once they were exposed to it doesn’t tell us whether they could have developed it on their own. Perhaps they could have, with a few more rulers like Akhenaten, brave (or brazen) enough to break the mold, or if art had become a more mass-market phenomenon.

 

 

 

 

 

Call for Bullshit Submissions

I have long wanted to construct a general bullshit detection system that helps people detect bad or spurious arguments, and for that I need some good examples of bullshit (and non-bullshit).

Making a specific bullshit detector is easy: just learn about the subject. For example, if you say that you’ve carbon dated some dinosaur bones, then I automatically know you’re lying because carbon dating only works for things that are younger than about 50,000 years, and dinosaur bones are at least 65 million years old. (Also, dinosaur bones don’t contain a lot of carbon.)

But knowing more about the subject than the person you are talking to doesn’t generalize–for practical reasons, it is impossible for everyone to know everything.

So what’s a bullshit argument that you’ve encounter related to a field that you know but I don’t? For example, I know very little about chemistry, how the electrical grid works, or the Belorussian national anthem. I don’t know what temperature melts steel beams nor medieval Chinese history.

Each example of bullshit needs to be paired with a comparable piece of non-bullshit from the same field, otherwise I’ll automatically know it’s bullshit. Don’t tell me which is which.

Links, memes, Facebook posts, blog posts, youtube videos, “try googling this,” etc, are all fine. The arguments should be framed and phrased the way their proponents actually make them, because phrasing and formatting might be important.

I would love to assemble a really vast data set, and super appreciate anything and everything you send.