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Ancient points

June 26, 2019

Humans have been using eyed needles for at least 50,000 years. Neanderthals, Denisovans, and our own species, all. (Cite.)

We also have been using bows and arrows for the same length of time. Those tools get archaeological attention partly because they are important, and partly because they survive. Archaeologists collect, categorize, date, and reverse engineer needles and arrow points.

Those technologies are intertwined. Literally. They point to a more basic technology, to wit, cordwork. Bows need a string, which often is whipped to the bow. Even before the bow, spear and dart points had to be lashed to their shafts. Shaped bones would have been used as awls and marlinspikes to work those whippings and lashings, before they were fashioned into eyed needles.

Every group that did any of this had to have some way of turning the materials at hand into cording. Unlike the hard parts, that material generally would not survive the millennia. So we don’t have it. Nor do we know where else it was used, if those products did not survive. But it is a fair guess that a culture that has needles or bows, also makes a variety of useful thing that can be made with the underlying technology: tent, travois, bag, moccasin, etc.

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Cocktail evolution

June 25, 2019

The Etchells are racing this week in Corpus Christi bay. The team next door is from Brazil. Which naturally leads to the topic of European cocktails.

The famous Americano sounds less like a cocktail than a mixture of cocktail additives, without a starring liquor. Fortunately, that got fixed:

The cast: Camillo Negroni, a Florentine Count with English blood, and Fosco Scarselli, a bartender. The place: Casoni, a café and drugstore (hey, it’s Italy) on the fashionable Via Tornabuoni in Florence. The story: Negroni steps up to the bar and asks Scarselli for his usual Americano (vermouth, aperitivo bitters, soda and ice), but this time “fortified” with a splash of gin. The Count, who had been a cowboy in Montana and Alberta and a professional gambler and fencing instructor in New York, finds the fortified drink much more to his taste.

Negronis are not bad. I prefer the Boulevardier, invented in Paris in the 1920s and named for a literary magazine of the time. It upgrades the gin to bourbon. But doesn’t that just makes it a Frenchified Manhattan?

NBC has a foolish article claiming that the more educated drink more than the less educated. Which they might. But you couldn’t say so from that article, which is based on spending data from the Visual Capitalist, showing only that the more educated spend more on alcohol. Which is not surprising, since they have higher incomes. The cost of a cocktail in any large city bar easily buys a 12 pack of big brand beer in a grocery or big box outlet. More spending on alcohol is not itself evidence of more alcohol consumption.

The Visual Capitalist article is worth the click, since it breaks down both income and outflow for different educational groups. I can assume only that someone at NBC was in their cups, that they would cherry pick that one piece of data, and wrongly interpret it.

I will pass on the Sourtoe Cocktail. The painting is The Bar Scene, by Seth Camm.

Biology and gender

June 24, 2019

Before it decided she was a saint, the Catholic Church executed Jeanne d’Arc by burning her alive on a stake.

For the sin of wearing male clothes.

The notion that women and men should wear different clothes, and how those differ, is very much a matter of culture. As is most of what we were taught about gender roles. Like many such notions, those are built from layers of narrative told across generations, propagated by play and movie as well as preached from the pulpit, justified by usually specious and often religious argument, held out as goal or risk, imposed as expectation. Many individuals chafe against them, in ways small or large. Some violate them so much that they stand out as non-conforming. Such as poor Jeanne. Or Oscar Wilde or George Sand. Or Anne Lister, whose story is now popularized.

We have lived through multiple iterations of opposing responses to that. The social conservative continually defends a narrow behavioral prescription, pretending that it hues true to some mythical constant, trotting out moralisms around that, often reading false lessons from biology. Ultimately, there is some squeal about how all that is done for the sake of the children. At the extreme, social decline is blamed on either women failing their children and husbands, or on men losing their masculinity, or on both. The Pope’s latest missive on gender combines some of that with the notion of natural law. Which, as always, sneaks in a teleology that originates with the philosopher or the priest.

Nature doesn’t care. And nothing man does is unnatural to man.

The liberal response to gender norms and the conflicts they create goes in the opposite direction. It is based in empathy with the lived experience of those who deviate from cultural norms, and on an expansive view of personal liberty. Liberals generally think people should be able to shape their personal lives as they desire, limited by where that interferes with others doing the same, or where that causes objective harm, rather than where that violates tradition.

That liberal response is compatible with a variety of normative and empirical views. The liberation movements for minorities often generate ideas that those sympathetic nonetheless will reject. There was a time, not long past, when some in the gay rights movement eagerly were anticipating a genetic or developmental explanation for homosexuality. Today, the complexity of human desire makes that seem ever more remote. The liberalization of law and culture around homosexuality fortunately did not depend on any such explanation.

In current discussions on gender, I sometimes encounter two themes that I think are misguided. The first, similar to the hope for a biological explanation for homosexuality, is the attempt to use biology to explain or defend those who are transgender. It’s true that biology is more complex than most people credit it. Though humans are dimorphic enough that our skeletons generally can be sexed through visual examination, Alexandra Kralick well explains that there is a range of phenotypic overlap. There are more karotypes than most people realize. And all sorts of variations in development.

But how does that relate to the variability of human sexual desire and behavior? The more we learn about development, the less likely it seems that genes or development ever will provide straightforward explanation of why one person is gay, one person is transgender, and a third is neither. Whatever influence genes and development have likely takes a convoluted route. And even if it sometimes were the case that there is a straightforward explanation — “here, this transman has androgen insensitivity syndrome!” — what do we say then about the large number who show no such thing? Is their desire somehow less authentic because it has no such explanation?

The heart wants what it wants. Until there are large advances in psychology, human desire remains a starting point. I don’t have to believe that a transwoman has a “female brain” to respect her desire on how she wants to live.

The second theme I sometimes see is the simplistic view that sex is a matter of biology, while gender is a matter of culture. And wouldn’t everything be easy, if only we could keep straight what realm we were discussing? Here, gametes, chromosomes, and hormones. There, how people behave and think about themselves. Non-overlapping magisteria, as it were. The fly in the wine glass is that culture doesn’t float entirely free from biology. Eating and sleeping and having sex all involve biology and culture both. A child learns their biological nature and culture’s expectations at the same time, only later learning that those are different yet intertwined.

Reproduction is socially significant. And at the very heart of biology. While Alexandra Kralick is right to point out biological complexity, she oddly overlooks the basic binary of mammalian sexual reproduction. Human gametes are either egg or sperm. Our species is gonochoric. We each produce one or the other. Maybe neither, but not both. Alex Byrne writes the necessary correction. Yet he is liberal:

The issue of whether sex is binary, although of academic interest, is of no relevance to current debates about transsexuality and the changing models for treating gender dysphoria. To those struggling with gender identity issues, it might seem liberating and uplifting to be told that biological sex in humans is a glorious rainbow, rather than a square conservatively divided into pink and blue halves. But this feel-good approach is little better than deceiving intersex patients: respect for autonomy demands honesty. And finally, if those advocating for transgender people (or anyone else) rest their case on shaky interpretations of biology, this will ultimately only give succor to their enemies.

Biology does not provide the purchase social conservatives want, to preach their desired norms. The empirical does not prescribe. Nature does not care how we dress, how we speak, what pronouns we prefer, what bathrooms we use, whom we desire sexually, what kind of bodies we want, or what steps we take to achieve that.

Biology does, in practical ways, constrain. No matter how much someone wants to give birth, and no matter how they identify, that still requires being born with a uterus. The distance between the body one has and the body one wants can be a source of endless frustration and hope. Not just with regard to gender phenotype. That gap is a target for all sorts of businesses, many of which are outright scams.

Lest the social conservative try to take comfort there, it’s important to note that practical constraints are a function of current technology. The technologies around artificial organ creation and reproduction are making rapid advances. Those who would point to those limits as some kind of moral rule are ill-prepared for a future that keeps rewriting those. That will provide fodder for many a future post. For now, I’ll just say that I look forward to a future where medical technology is able to give a functional uterus to transwomen who want that. And to laughing at the social conservatives then who will moan and gnash their teeth because of that.

Photo shows Louis XIII, decked out in men’s clothing of his time.

Save the shore

June 21, 2019

Most every day I walk along the gravel beach near my house. Sailboarders and kite surfers launch from it. Anglers catch dinner, sometimes. Children play. I enjoy watching my fellow beachgoers almost as much as the birds and dolphins. More and more states are helping the rich sequester the shore. Mike Huckabee is greasing the palms of Florida politicians, to keep people off the beach in front of his Florida home.

I suspect the health benefits from time in a more natural environment stem not just from activity, but also from changes in attention. Animals attract the eye. Uneven ground changes how you walk. The beneficial presence of green space significantly shapes the character of a neighborhood.

Risking the gods

June 20, 2019

The “big gods” hypothesis argues that moralizing gods — such as those that damn sinners — were needed to increase social cohesion as societies become more complex and people more interacted with relative strangers. Oxford researchers look at the historic growth of a few hundred societies and their religions, determining that social complexity came first. (Cite.)

The large methodological problem is that we don’t have nearly enough information about early societies. Not only is the origin of many religions largely obscured by the fog of early history, but there is a dearth of sociological data on how their adherents differed from others around them. So historians speculate on causal mechanisms with little way to test their hypotheses. Still, two cheers for these researchers for compiling that data.

Europe and not

June 19, 2019

I enjoyed this article on the evolution of Italian, both there and here in the US:

The basic story is this: Italy is a very young country made up of many very old kingdoms awkwardly stapled together to make a patchwork whole. Before 1861, these different kingdoms—Sardinia, Rome, Tuscany, Venice, Sicily (they were called different things at the time, but roughly correspond to those regions now)—those were, basically, different countries. Its citizens didn’t speak the same language, didn’t identify as countrymen, sometimes were even at war with each other. The country was unified over the period from around 1861 until World War I, and during that period, the wealthier northern parts of the newly-constructed Italy imposed unfair taxes and, basically, annexed the poorer southern parts. As a result, southern Italians, ranging from just south of Rome all the way down to Sicily, fled in huge numbers to other countries, including the United States.

The UK, like Italy, is a union of nations. That article was written before Britain decided to leave the EU. The Tories look ever more willing to go for a hard Brexit, even if that means the disintegration of the UK:

Sixty three per cent say they would rather Scotland left the UK if it secured Brexit, with 61% willing to accept “significant damage” to the economy and 59% willing to see Northern Ireland leave the UK.

I suspect they will get all three of those.

Venice, the theme park?

June 18, 2019

An art admirer might visit New York City just for its museums. An architect student might visit Savannah just for its historical layers of construction. Neither really caring much about the city visited.

For some, a large attraction to visiting a city is to get a sense for it as a city. The different character of its neighborhoods. The various kinds of business it hosts. How it manages its schools, and how that shapes its children. How its denizens get around. What kind of of parks and entertainment they patronize. Those aren’t easy things to see, and a short-time visitor only gets a peak at them. It still makes visiting a city potentially a larger experience than just visiting a set of museums and structures.

What happens, though, when a city becomes so popular, that tourism becomes its major industry? When you walk the sidewalks of New York or Paris, you are surrounded by New Yorkers or Parisians, going about their business and daily lives. As they would do, with a few tourists around or not. (Photo is Madrid.) When you walk the sidewalks of the inner part of Bruges, you are surrounded mostly by other tourists. This picturesque Belgian town of 100,000 — most of whom live outside the inner part — gets eight million visitors annually. Well, it still has a working port and a university. Not that most visitors will see either.

Venice, which I have not yet visited, may be more extreme. It is an island town with a permanent population of 53,000. During high season, cruise ships daily release 32,000 visitors. And they are only a small fraction of its tourist load. The city is working hard to limit the effects of that. But the simple truth is that once a city starts to charge an entry fee to day visitors, it looks even more like a theme park.

There have been many towns that were built on tourism. Bransom is an obvious example. Some Colorado ski towns. It just seems a bit curious when historic cities then evolve into that. There is a sense to it. And when a city becomes one of the world’s most popular tourist destinations, with most of its workers then tied to that, they nonetheless form a community. No less than a town whose industry is mining or photocopiers. It’s just a different experience visiting, when most around you also are tourists, or working in tourist related industry.