Science beats superstition – for now

I went to the signing ceremony of a book about the Kennewick Man at the Natural History Museum. Douglas Owsley, the author, is a real hero. He stood up to the forces of politically correct superstition to get the science done.

The Kennewick Man skeleton was discovered in Washington State back in 1996. At first they thought it was the skeleton of a settler, since he did not have characteristics of Native Americans. They were surprised to find that it was more than 9000 years old.
At that point, the local Indian tribes claimed him and demanded that scientific investigation stop. They wanted to destroy the remains, i.e. rebury them and not tell where. According to their creation myths, they had always been there, so anybody from there was theirs. “From our oral histories, we know that our people have been part of this land since the beginning of time. We do not believe that our people migrated here from another continent, as the scientists do.”

I am not a believer in creation science, whether usual or native varieties. I respect that some people do believe this stuff, but I don’t believe we should give them the authority to veto science, but this was what was happening. Read the linked article. I think you will be appalled by what our government mindlessly did. They went so far as to destroy (vandalize) the site.

The lesson is that science is never really settled. We should never legislate science or stand in the way or inquiry. Pre-history is more complex than we like. The ancestors of the Native American were not the only ones and maybe not the first to enter North America. Telling this story should be the work of historians and scientists, not tribal leaders, politicians or bureaucrats.

We are still not safe. The remains are still held by the ACE and the tribes are still trying to get them bones “back” so that they can remove them forever from scientific study. But we have learned a lot already. An important lesson already is that races are not permanent. This man would belong to none of the modern ethnic groups or races. We are always in a state of change.

New Deal murals

The Smithsonian Museum of American Art did a program today on the mural art of the New Deal, especially emphasizing the work of Texas Artist Tom Lea.  These murals were commissioned by the government during the Great Depression.  They were meant to give artists useful work and celebrate America in all its regional diversity.  Most were in public buildings such as post offices, which is why they are currently in some peril.  Structures from the 1930s are often reaching the end of their useful lives.  They are being torn down or converted to other uses.

What I found particularly interesting was the relationships between artists, officials and the people.  This art was never meant as a personal expression of an individual artist.  They were designed by committee; the community made decisions about themes and sometimes about details.   This is what makes them more interesting.

They are not about the artists themselves and their particular vision.  They are bigger than the artist.  They are indeed about self-expression, but not merely self.   Artists were paid in installments.  If they produced something their patrons didn’t want, they might not be paid.  Maybe because it is not the work of an individual artist, the murals are full of allegory and symbolism.  They celebrate the town or region.  Since they were meant to be in public places where people would see them every day, they had to make sense to people every day.   The government paid the artists, but the work was truly market driven.

The focus was a case study of the Texas artist Tom Lea and particularly a mural he did called stampede done for the post office in Odessa, Texas.  Originally, the mural was high on a wall over the tellers.   When people came in, they looked up at it and probably had time to contemplate it while waiting in line.   It was moved when a new post office was built nearby, but it was placed in an out-of-the-way place and at eye level.  Context is important.  Is it really the same work of art in its new location?

Dilettantes dilemma

I will probably have to retire next year & I am looking for things to do. Among other things, I am considering part-time teaching. This would be a way to share some of my education and experience with the next generation. They call this a generative aspiration because it is meant to be helpful and useful. But it is also a bit of a problem in today’s labor market.
If you look at the plight of adjunct faculty, it is not a good place to be. Adjunct faculty is paid not very much and they often have to cobble together several jobs to make ends meet. Enter former diplomats or former executives or former anything. We are looking for something interesting and useful to do, but we are not very much concerned with earning money or improving working conditions. For us it is just fun. We provide competition for people who want to make a career in the field and it is tough competition because we are willing to work for peanuts. So the generative, generous and selfless endeavor starts looking less benign.
I was talking to a taxi driver a few days ago about Uber, that service that lets individuals become part time taxi drivers when they got nothing else to do. It is part of the sharing economy, where people share things that they aren’t using to full extent. Like my adjunct professor idea, this looks good. You are expanding the universe of providers, improving the use of resources and lowering prices. But we have the dilettante problem again.
My taxi driving informant complained that the Uber folks skim off the best customers. This is more than grumbling. He has a point. It is easy and profitable to be a taxi driver if you only have to take the best customers at the best times. The professionals have also to pick up the bad cases and take them to the bad places. It is like the sales manager who steps in at busy times and books so many more sales per-hour than his subordinates who have to work through thick and thin.
It pains me to say this, but there are times when you want to build in some market inefficiencies, when you really want to make people pay more for products and services than that market would naturally demand. Of course, this can easily get out of hand too. Taxi services are a good example. In some places, the numbers are kept so artificially low that prices are way too high and service too slow. It is something in perpetual dynamic tension, but maybe the end goal is not what would appear most efficient.
I ride my bike to work and have been riding the same way since 1997. I know the road and the traffic lights. You would think that I would be most happy when all the lights go my way, but you would be mistaken. Sometimes when I turn onto a familiar street and see the green light in the distance, I am happy because I know that I cannot possible reach it in time. By the time I get there, even at Lance Armstrong steroid pace, it will be red. I can relax and time it at a leisurely pace to cross when it again turns green. Not only that, I can complain about the injustice of having to stop so often and use it as an excuse for being slow. It takes me around an hour and fifteen minutes to get to work. I can make it in less than an hour and have done, but it is hard and probably a little dangerous. Maybe a few stops built into the system are good.

Anacostia Community Museum

Taxi drivers don’t know how to get to the Anacostia Community Museum, so if you take a taxi be sure to take a printout of the maps and directions.  There is a shuttle that runs from the Smithsonian museums on the Mall. It is a distinct disadvantage to be so far from the main flagpole, but it was worth the trip.

The Anacostia museum was founded in 1967 as a way to reach out to Washington’s African-American community.  It remains an important priority to be more inclusive and get more people involved in museums.  A museum is not just a place that collects a lot of old stuff.  It is a cultural anchor for a community, a place for education and a place to make connections.   The Anacostia Museum is especially involved in this sort of outreach.

One of their interesting endeavors is the Urban Waterways Project, which aims to help involve communities in the renewal and cleanup of rivers that run through urban areas.  Challenges go beyond the the need to clean up.   The bigger challenge is to get people involved who have little experience with being involved.  An additional caveat is a anxiety that if they make the area too pleasant, it will attract developers who will build luxury apartments or rehab buildings to such an extent that they will become too expensive and drive out the local population.

The ostensible reason I went to Anacostia was to discuss the “Word, Shout, Song” exhibition, which we hope will go to Brazil.  It has been translated into Portuguese and is ready to go, but there are logistical and expense considerations.

What is interesting about the exhibition is not the stuff itself, but the research.  Lorenzo Dow Turner, a linguist who studied the Gullah language of the South Carolina lowlands.  At that time, most people thought Gullah was just bad English. Turner demonstrated the connections between Gullah and West African languages in some grammar and many words.  He then went to Brazil and found similar connections in the Brazilian Portuguese of the African diaspora in the Brazil, especially in Bahia and Pernambuco.  We hope that this common history can create sustainable connections in Brazil.  I am still working for my old post, but also for my assignment.

My picture at top is the Anacostia Community Museum.  Below that are some quilts as part of an exhibit.  The bottom picture shows motorcycles, part of a demonstration that included thousands of bikers showing solidarity on the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.  Positive & peaceful demonstrations don’t get much media coverage.

Air & Space Museum

I am working to figure out where I might be most useful and it is interesting. I went to the Air & Space Museum. It is very popular with overseas audiences. It is very hard to send actual stuff to partner museums and that is a specialty beyond my skill set. But I do understand outreach and we talked about speaker programs along with poster shows. Smithsonian has recently done a poster show on space suits called Suited for Space, about an exhibit of the same name.

Space suits are interesting.  They are made of layers of different metals and plastics and they are bullet proof.  They need this because little pieced of stuff are flying around space at high speed, like bullets.

Another interesting thing about space suits is that they are disintegrating. They are produced of layers of plastics and metals. As the plastics decompose, they produce acid that corrodes the suits.

Early space suits were tailor made for the particular astronaut, but today’s space travelers get their suits off the rack.   We talked a little about the movie “Gravity.”  There are lots of things that are improbable, but one of the impossible things is that an individual cannot just put on or take off space suites.
Of course, there are many other things the museum can produce.  We just need to make the connections.  That is very simple in theory but not easy in practice.

My pictures are mostly self explanatory. You see the Spirit of St Louis.  Charles Lindbergh donated it to Smithsonian with the condition that it never leave.   Lindbergh was the world’s leading celebrity in 1927 after he flew alone in that little plane all the way to France.
Flying across the Atlantic was a really big deal that changed the course of history.  Before the flight, the U.S. was not a leader in aviation.  The Lindbergh flight caught the popular imagination. It is impossible to quantify the effect, but it was significant.
Others were trying to make the crossing.

Aldie Mill – Loudoun County

Alex is taking some classes in historical preservation & archeology at the NOVA community college.  I have come truly to appreciate community colleges, especially NOVA.  They provide well-targeted ways to prepare for specific careers.  Alex was assigned to visit Adlie Mill, in Loudoun County. It is in the cute little village of Adlie,  maintained in a historical style, very charming.

It was a working commercial mill until 1971. It is working still but now as a demonstration project. They grind corn and wheat to make flour and cracked corn that they feed to animals at their farm.  This is one of the things I think is important about historical preservation, that they maintain the connections.  A mill was not just a place they ground grain; it was integrated into a larger community.  It is the connections that are interesting but they can be lost if we preserve only the isolate physical remains.

The first guy we met was an engineer volunteer who explained the mechanics of the water wheels & mill stones. The water wheel is an overshot wheel, which means that water is impounded by a dam to create a mill pond.  The water is released over  the top of the wheel and turned by gravity. Other wheels run by taping the current in rivers.  They are undershot wheels.  Overshot are usually more powerful, but require the greater investment in dams and ponds.

In the days before steam and gasoline engines – and a while later – industrial operations, like mills needed to be located near fast-flowing water.

The water wheel can turn millstones, saws or anything else that can be hooked up to its mechanical energy.  At Adlie they had both, although only the grist mill remains.
We saw the mill stones. They were imported from France because the stone had a good reputation for being hard and durable.  They shipped the stone in pieces and reassembled them on site. The stones had groves that cut the grain in a scissors fashion; they did not crush the grains. They adjusted the stones to make finer or courses grains.  Adjustments were important: too far apart and no grinding, too close and the stones would bang together knocking pieces of stone into the mix or maybe worse, creating sparks that could set fires in the mills.

Putting in just the right amount of grain was crucial.  Too much would clog the operations and cause it to “grind to a halt.”  Not enough grain would cause the problems mentioned above.  Speed of grinding was also a factor.  Too fast would cause friction and fires.  The miller used all his senses to get it right.  Sound and sight are obvious.  Smell was also important.  The miller would “put his nose to the grindstone” to figure out if things were getting too hot.

They had some reenactors around this weekend. They specialize in people from the Federal period.  One of them told me that there was a need for this. Lots of the physical remains around here were built during that time, but not many people reenact it. Revolutionary times are more popular and the Civil War is the king of hill.  The Federalist period was a time of transition.  It was early industrial transition and a time of rapid growth in the U.S.   There are lots of style choices for reenactors.  They can go with the clothes of the revolutionary period,  more like the Civil War or various combinations.  Transitions are like that.

Among the craftsmen was a guy making cigars.  Tobacco was a big part of early American history, as was alcohol.  This is something that maybe they need to add back into the historical reproduction, at least in the aspect of smells.  Maybe a few farm animals too.

Food trucks

Food trucks were just starting to show up when I left Washington only a little more than three years ago and most of those were the cheap hot dog stand variety.  They are thick as flies these days, with sophisticated presentations and complicated menus.  They definitely fill a need.  But they present a kind of urban ecological challenge.

The food trucks are like vines.  They don’t build or maintain their own support, but rather depend on what has been built by others and eventually can smother the creators.  They can grow fast and prosper since need not maintain seating, bathrooms or other amenities.  They can pull up or out when conditions warrants.  In other words, they can skim off the best and make a hasty exit when get out when the going gets tough. It is very advantageous.  That is why they can offer lower prices and/or make higher profits.
It is a little counter intuitive.  We want to root for the little guy and certainly we respect their initiative.  But some of these are not really little guys or particularly innovative.
Generally speaking, I am in favor of free enterprise.  But any system of free enterprise has the free rider challenge, with people hopping on the wagon instead of helping pull it.

In the underground castle

I want to brag that I have an office in the Smithsonian castle. In fact, my office is three stories below ground. It is not so bad, as you can see from the picture. It is kind of like a mall. The sunlight filters in. Much of the Smithsonian is underground. They didn’t want to build up too much and change the look of the Capitol Mall, so they dug down. Also underground are the highways. So while you walk in the gardens or on the grass, the cars are driving below and people like me are laboring, Morlock-like, below ground.

Maybe the word labor is not appropriate. I still cannot believe my good fortune in getting the job. My biggest challenge will be too many great opportunities. I have been there only two days and I am already filling my notebooks with ideas for connections and partnerships.

In my business, we sometime use the unfortunate phrase “hit the ground running.” It is supposed to be a compliment, implying getting right to work, taking charge & moving quickly. I don’t believe in hitting the ground running. When you hit the ground running, you often fall down later. Beyond that, you might be moving fast, but maybe in the wrong direction. I think it is better to land firm, take a look around and decide based on what you see, even when you have a long way to go and a short time to get there. A year is a short time when there are so many possibilities. In this case more than most, it will be a great delight to do the looking around.

My picture up top is outside my office area, a long way underground but well done.  Next is the garden.  I think that my office is more of less under the place I took the picture. After that is the Mall with the Capitol and last is the Ripley Center.  That is how you get to my office, you go down steps and then take the escalator to the bottom.

Walking in Northern Virginia suburbs

Went for a two-hour walk to listen to my audio book and take advantage of the hot & humid day. I have learned to like humidity.  You sweat, but if you don’t have to wear a suit or sit still it doesn’t matter after a while. And it was a beautiful day, as you can see from the pictures.  Besides, it only got up to about 90, despite weather reports of higher temperatures. Even so, this is one of the hotter days in what has been a cool summer.

I have been walking around this neighborhood since we bought the house in 1997 (and I sure am tired after walking those 17 years :)) There are lots of changes near our house. The whole area has been transformed for the better. We now have a town center with restaurants and a movie theater. I like to be able to walk to these attractions. Near the metro, they are building another complex that will include a Harris Teeter grocery store. I won’t need a car very much anymore.

But most of the place where I was walking are changed less, although there has been a steady knocking down of little houses and replacement with more elaborate ones. It remains mostly a typical Northern Virginia suburb of the 1960s-70s varieties. I cannot tell the age of the houses, although you can guess by the styles. But you can get a reasonable estimate by the size of the trees and the sorts.

Silver maples were very popular during the 1960s and you see lots of mature silver maples in the area. I have come full circle on silver maples. When I was a kid, I liked them a lot. My uncle Ray planted one for me on our hill. It is still there. Then I “learned” that silver maples were not good trees. They were weak-wooded and short-lived. But I have been observing them now for forty-five years. They get big and stay reasonably healthy for at least that period of time. Nice trees but maybe not a great idea to plant them near sidewalks or sewers. The roots seek water enthusiastically enough to break up concrete.

We chose the neighborhood because it was near the Metro and the W&OD bike and walking trail.  These are my roads to work – bike in summer, Metro in Winter. There are other things. Navy Federal CU has its headquarters and a big park-like campus that includes a walkway with boardwalks over the wet places. Above shows the variety of trees popular in the 1960s and 1970s.  From the left, we have the silver maple; in the middle are some Norway maples crimson variety. On the end are some new ginkgoes.  You really cannot see the row of loblolly in this picture, but I have included another at the bottom, with a white pine in the foreground.

I was thinking about what makes a neighborhood nice. Space and parks are nice, but security is most important. There are nice places in DC that have lots of parks, but I would not feel as free to wander lonely. Around here, there is no significant vandalism, no spray paint, and as I walk through the woods I pass lots of other people just walking. People feel safe and that opens all this place to be used.

My picture up top is the new construction around the Dunn-Loring/Merrifield metro.  When we moved to the area, there were some fast food places, a lot of parking lots and a mulch yard.  Supposedly, the town center etc were going to be build in a few years. That was 1997.  Finally, it is happening.   The next picture is W&OD trail, then some new construction replacing the little houses (notice solar panels). Below that are some of those big silver maples I mentioned.  Next is the area around Navy Federal and finally a weeping willow on one of the quiet suburban streets.

My audio book, BTW, was “The Half Life of Facts.”  It is very interesting so far and maybe I will write a note re.