Poor neighborhoods create misfortune and ill health

April 17th, 2014

Bad things happen in bad neighborhoods, Duke researchers have rediscovered — although they phrase it this way, Poor neighborhoods create misfortune and ill health:

The study, based on the surveys of 3,105 Chicagoans in 343 city neighborhoods, examined data on 15 life-changing events like being assaulted or robbed, getting divorced, getting into legal trouble and having a child die.

“These are major life events, different than every-day stresses,” King said. “It’s bigger than having your car towed. These are life-changes that could lead to anxiety or depression.”

The study found that residents of poorer neighborhoods who reported one or more of these life-changing events were more likely to also have serious health issues. The reasons are complex, King said. Many of the traumatic events involve exposure to risk, like burglary, legal trouble or an ill or dying child.

Other events involve a lack of resources, like a lost job or long-term illness. And when an entire neighborhood is poor, the risks are more concentrated and resources are harder to access, which is why people struggle to find a new job or get treatment for an illness, King said.

Apparently all these poor neighborhoods were built on ancient Indian burial grounds, bringing terrible luck down on their inhabitants.

What does a medieval literature scholar see in Game of Thrones?

April 17th, 2014

Brantley Bryant, associate professor of medieval literature at Sonoma State University, shares, on PBS Newshour, what he sees of The Canterbury Tales, the Morte d’Arthur and Beowulf in HBO’s Game of Thrones:

Manual for Civilization

April 17th, 2014

The Long Now Foundation is taking recommendations for their library-sized Manual for Civilization. Kevin Kelly originally called for a Library of Utility:

It would be a very selective library. It would not contain the world’s great literature, or varied accounts of history, or deep knowledge of ethnic wonders, or speculations about the future. It has no records of past news, no children’s books, no tomes on philosophy. It contains only seeds. Seeds of utilitarian know-how. How to recreate the infrastructure and technology of civilization so far.

The idea evolved to include these categories:

  • Cultural Canon (Great Books, Shakespeare, Plato, etc.)
  • Mechanics of Civilization (Technical knowledge, how to build and understand things)
  • Rigorous Science Fiction (Science fiction that tells a useful story about a potential future)
  • Long-term Thinking, Futurism, and relevant history (Books on how to think about the future that may include surveys of the past)

Brian Eno’s recommendations were the first to be shared:

I’m inclined to see Steward Brand’s recommendations as definitive.

Exoskel

April 16th, 2014

Exoskel shinguards were designed for low-profile scrambling in urban terrain:

Exoskel™ has been created to assist the user to rapidly ascend urban obstacles. After constantly failing to negotiate obstacles when rushed and weighed down, and after many cuts and damaged lower limbs, Exoskel™ was developed.

Exoskel Dimensions

Its primary use is to provide leverage while ascending obstacles and negotiating uneven terrain. Armed with teeth to lock on to obstacles in any environment, and lift the user, via the stirrup system, up, over, and on… Exoskel™ protects the shin when scrambling over sharp and dangerous terrain and stabilizes the user on uneven ground and in awkward positions.

Exoskel Climbing

The Logic of Perpetual Immigration

April 16th, 2014

Handle discusses the logic of perpetual immigration:

It seems almost Marxist in the ‘self-destructive cycles of Capital seeking foreign markets’ manner.

  1. To work hard for meager compensation, someone must be born and raised in circumstances within a hand’s breadth of starvation.
  2. But we have made ourselves rich and achieved the goal of ensuring that no one here is raised within a hand’s breadth of starvation.
  3. But that means none of our nation’s children will work hard for meager compensation! That work ethic cannot be taught at school, it must be lived in one’s formative years.
  4. But there is plenty of that near-starvation abroad, with peasants who were harshly trained by impoverished circumstances to work hard for peanuts.
  5. So we will import them here, to make them our Helots.
  6. But then their children will grow up in our rich system, beneficiaries of the apparatus that ensures no one will grow up within a hand’s breadth of starvation.
  7. So we must go on importing, generation after generation.

Alas, the children of helots, who are not fit for anything other than helot work, when brought up without the requisite hard-life-trained work ethic to conduct that helot work, tend to participate in… less socially optimal behavior patterns. The population fraction consisting of ruined-helots and the magnitude of the challenge of dealing with the resulting consequences, therefore, is destined to increase.

Henry Dampier offers another opinion:

Let me contradict you: it can be taught through special measures. That is what boarding school and expectations of military service can help to inculcate (but not in a guaranteed way). Also the entire older ethic of youth sports was arranged around developing boys into well-rounded men. Today the objective of sports is to provide entertaining inventory to advertise against.

If you raise rich kids as rich kids, you get Rich Kids of Instagram. If you take it seriously, on the other hand, you get a class of people who go conquer more than half of the world’s territory.

Also, even in Stoddard’s day, a horde of workers is not as important as the engineers who develop the machines. A horde of workers is also not very useful if they revolt regularly and you need to hire Pinkertons to spy on them and/or kill them when they become unruly.

It is hard to argue against mass importation of helots in a country founded by heretics, convicts, indentures, and other assorted cast-offs.

Democracy is the key difference here, really. Under an aristocratic system, the superior classes have incentives to improve the long term value of their charges. Because they have at least partial ownership stakes in them and the land that they live upon.

Under democracy, no one really owns anything for very long, so the incentive is to rape as much as you can until you are knocked off your perch. Your property rights themselves are highly perishable, and this is one of the main things de Tocqueville remarked upon — America’s early anti-inheritance laws, which have mutated considerably to perform similar functions today in rather different ways.

Handle suggests that work ethic is context-dependent:

There is no lack of work ethic at reasonable high levels of society, plenty of managers in private firms and even in government are driven and ambitious workaholics, often admirable, but sometimes almost pathological. At the top, the competition is fierce, and the striving for money and status intense.

The problem is at the bottom. Teaching people do be voluntarily willing to work hard for peanuts doing low-skill, mind-numbing, back-breaking manual labor, without any ‘higher’ social purpose than mere economic production of low-status commodities (so, not the military), especially when there’s an alternative path to subsistence available, is something that can’t be don’t through anything less than Orwellian levels of brainwashing.

It requires people being brought up in a desperate situation where they felt the chill on their back of the ever-nearby icy fingers of destitution, watched friends and neighbors occasionally fail, and where there was no other choice but to struggle constantly to survive.

Orbital Mechanics

April 16th, 2014

The latest xkcd comic, on orbital mechanics, reminds us how powerful simulations are as learning tools:

xkcd Orbital Mechanics

The 6.5×40 Cartridge

April 16th, 2014

Mitch Shoffner decided to design a replacement for the venerable 5.56×45mm cartridge used in M16 rifles and M4 carbines, the 6.5×40mm, which would have the range of the much bigger 7.62×51mm without being too big to fit into the AR-15 platform:

He has not been the first to try to improve the performance of the AR-15 family in this way. The two most significant attempts from the point of view of their military potential have been the 6.8×43 Remington SPC and the 6.5mm Grendel already mentioned.

The 6.8mm SPC was the result of a joint effort between Remington and members of the U.S. Special Operations Command, working in conjunction with the U.S. Army Marksmanship Unit at Fort Benning, Georgia. The project took place before the problem of the long-range engagements in Afghanistan emerged, so the priority was to develop a round that would deliver more reliable terminal effectiveness than 5.56mm at normal combat ranges. This it does very well by all accounts but, as Mitch discovered after experimenting with the round, the relatively short, stubby bullets blunt the long-range performance. Using the finely-pointed long-nosed bullets needed to achieve the high ballistic coefficients required would make the 6.8mm cartridge too long to fit into the AR-15 action.

In contrast, Alexander Arms designed the 6.5mm Grendel around the use of long, low-drag bullets. To provide enough space for their long noses without exceeding the overall length limit, the case length has been held back to 1.52 inches (38.7 mm). To compensate for its shortness the case has been made wider than the 6.8mm’s in order to hold enough propellant. This round can provide excellent long-range performance when bullets of around 120 grains are used, although commonly quoted muzzle velocities are usually from long (24 inch) barrels. Furthermore, the short, wide case, with little taper and a sharp shoulder, has prompted some debate about its suitability for military use in belt-fed machine guns as well as about the potential for increased stress on the M4’s action, as described earlier.

The approach that Mitch Shoffner has taken with his 6.5×40 is to design a compact, long-range military cartridge that would not experience any functioning problems in magazine or belt-fed automatic weapons. He accordingly adopted the same 0.42 inch case diameter as the 6.8mm SPC together with a case taper and a shoulder angle similar to those of the 7.62×51. He chose the 6.5mm caliber and a case length of 1.57 inches to allow the use of long, low drag bullets within the M4 platform.

It is worth mentioning that a 6.5mm version of the Remington case was explored during the development of the SPC but 6.8mm was preferred as it was found to have superior terminal effectiveness. However, long range was not a priority in the development of that cartridge, and the 43 mm case length meant that the 6.5mm version could only use relatively short, light bullets. As always in cartridge design, compromises are necessary; if you emphasize one characteristic there will be penalties elsewhere.

6.5x40 loaded with a Lapua 144 grain FMJBT compared with other rounds

The use of low-drag bullets means that the initial velocity penalty compared with the equivalent 7.62×51 loads gradually reduces as the range increases. The lightest and least aerodynamic military-pattern bullet recommended for the 6.5×40 is the 120 grain Norma FMJBT. This loading develops 97% of the velocity of the 7.62mm M80 at the muzzle and 100% at 1,000 meters when both are fired from 14.5 inch carbine barrels. The 144 grain Lapua FMJBT performs even better at long range, with the velocity of only 90% at the muzzle rising to 106% at 1,000 m, at which distance it also retains more energy than the M80. The optimum bullet for long-range performance in the 6.5×40 is the 140 grain Berger VLD, a match-grade target bullet, which remains supersonic to 1,000 meters even from the 14.5 inch carbine barrel – an impressive statistic given the modest initial velocity.

So, what are the downsides?

The most obvious one is that the ammunition is some 30% heavier than 5.56mm. It also has a greater recoil impulse although, as comparative testing has revealed with other cartridges of this power such as the 6.8mm Remington, the perceived recoil is much closer to the 5.56mm than it is to the 7.62mm and controllability is not seriously affected. Another inevitable downside is that the lower initial velocity means a steeper trajectory at medium ranges compared with the 5.56mm. At 300 meters, the 5.56mm M855A1 drops around 16 inches when zeroed at 100 meters, while the 6.5mm 120 grain Norma drops 20.5 inches. These comparisons are however only relevant for distances that are within the relatively short effective range of 5.56mm weapons. If troops ever need to engage at longer ranges, the only valid comparators are the 7.62mm systems, which have trajectories not very different from the 6.5×40.

John Galt Writes a Car Commercial

April 15th, 2014

When John Galt writes a car commercial, this, John C. Wright suggests, is what you get:

Los Angeles Public School Food Waste: $100,000 per Day

April 15th, 2014

Three-quarters of LAUSD students are Latino.

By coincidence, 80 percent of LAUSD students qualify for free or reduced-price meals. (They’re not just lunches anymore. LAUSD now offers free breakfast via its “Food for Thought” program.)

Federal rules — this is all federally funded — require that students take at least three items each day — including one fruit or vegetable — and that’s leading to kids throwing away $100,000 worth of food per day:

The extra produce costs school districts $5.4 million a day, with $3.8 million of that being tossed in the trash, according to national estimates based on a 2013 study of 15 Utah schools by researchers with Cornell University and Brigham Young University.

Other studies also have found significant waste, including 40% of all the lunches served in four Boston schools. In L.A. Unified, a forthcoming study of four middle schools has confirmed substantial waste and “significant student aversion to even selecting a fruit or vegetable serving,” according to McCarthy, who co-wrote it. He declined to provide further details until the study is published.

Yet federal rules bar schools from allowing people to take the uneaten food off campus. The school board voted to allow nonprofits to pick up extra food under the federal Good Samaritan food law that allows such actions to aid people in need. But Binkle said that not enough schools participate to solve the massive waste problem.

Teachers and parents have also complained about widespread waste in the Breakfast in the Classroom program, which requires L.A. Unified students to take all three items offered.

Nationally, the cost of wasted food overall — including milk, meats and grains — is estimated at more than $1 billion annually. A U.S. General Accountability Office survey released in January found that 48 of 50 states reported that food waste and higher costs have been their top challenges in rolling out the 2012 rules.

The massive amount of food dumped into the trash shows that the diverse students aren’t starving, Brenda Walker suggests, but see free-to-them meals as an entitlement.

Good Drug, Bad Delivery System

April 15th, 2014

Who smokes? And why?

Warner: If you look at the population that is at the poverty line or above it, about 18% of them are smokers. If you look at the population below the poverty line, it’s about 29%. If you look at college graduates, 7.5% of them smoke today. If you look at people with only 9 to 11 years of high school education it’s about 36% percent. If we go back to the time of the Surgeon General’s report…

Dubner: That, remember, was 1964.

Warner: …those numbers were very close to each other. So that’s a huge issue, is a socio-economic disparity. And then there is one we that have finally started to recognize and talk about in the field of tobacco control and it is very important — perhaps as many as 40 to 50 percent of all smokers have a concurrent mental health disability or morbidity and/or other substance-abuse problem. The cigarette industry has always liked to talk about smoking as being a rational choice of well-informed adults and yet we have this strong correlation between smoking and mental illness.

Dubner: So this opens up a whole other way to look at smoking – that it is, to some degree, self-medication, with side effects of course. Paul Newhouse is an m.d. who runs the Center for Cognitive Medicine at Vanderbilt. For 30 years, he’s been studying the effects of nicotine on the brain:

Newhouse: We jokingly say in our lab: You know, good drug, bad delivery system.

Dubner: Newhouse tells us that nicotine itself has a number of potentially positive characteristics.

Newhouse: It appears to activate a class of what we call receptors important for regulating a whole variety of brain functions. And so we think that nicotinic receptors are important for things like attention, for behavioral strategies, for what we call executive functioning, which is the ability to make decisions and evaluate information, we think it’s important for memory, and so that has kind of led us to thinking about what particular disorders might be helped by stimulating nicotinic receptors either with nicotine or with something else.

Dubner: So Newhouse and others in his field are exploring if nicotine therapy might be used to treat schizophrenia, Parkinson’s disease, or other maladies.

Newhouse: Things like memory loss disorders, Alzheimer’s disease, pre-Alzheimer’s disease, which is called mild cognitive impairment, we’ve looked at ADHD, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Other investigators have looked at things from Tourette’s Syndrome to anxiety disorders to depression. I think the full potential of nicotine and nicotinic drugs is really not even fully known yet.

Dubner: Newhouse does believe, however, that nicotine has medicinal effects, and that is why some smokers smoke.

Newhouse: If you look at heavy smokers you will find that many of them have mood disorders or anxiety disorders as well. The rates of psychological problems among heavy smokers these days are very high. And we think that one of the reasons they smoke is because it produces benefits to them. Maybe it improves their mood, maybe it stabilizes their anxiety, maybe it helps them pay attention or inhibit impulsiveness, etc.

Infant IQ Tests Predict Scores in School

April 14th, 2014

Twenty-five years ago, Gina Kolata of the New York Times reported on infant IQ tests that predicted later school performance:

The tests, which attempt to measure what babies remember, are based on the assumption that they will be more interested in stimuli they have not previously encountered. One test involves showing infants photographs or pictures and measuring how long they look at them. In theory, babies will look at a new stimulus for a longer time than one they remember having seen before. Babies that are likely to be below average in intelligence will remember fewer of the stimuli they have seen before.

Working independently, Dr. Bornstein and Susan Rose of Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York have found that a baby’s performance at age 4 months and 6 months on tests of visual memory correlate with I.Q. at 4 and 6 years of age. They used tests that they developed themselves but that are similar to those developed by Dr. Fagan. The predictions are independent of the parents’ education and income group, which also are correlated with I.Q.

The original article is full of fears that such tests might give already-advantaged children even more advantages.

Kenneth Change, also of the Times, revisits the original article:

For the most part, the validity of the Fagan test holds up. Indeed, Dr. Fagan (who died last August) and Dr. Holland revisited infants they had tested in the 1980s, and found that the Fagan scores were predictive of the I.Q. and academic achievement two decades later when these babies turned 21.

“It’s really good science,” said Scott Barry Kaufman, scientific director of the Imagination Institute at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of “Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined.”

But Dr. Fagan’s hope for widespread screening of infants has not come to pass. “There are some centers that have it,” Dr. Holland said. “It never came to be the kind of thing where it’s widely available.”

The trend is perhaps in the other direction, away from dividing young children by I.Q. and its surrogates out of concerns that the labels become self-fulfilling prophecies. Private schools in New York City, for example, have agreed to abandon intelligence tests for 4- and 5-year-old applicants.

This stands out:

For the last decade of his life, Dr. Fagan was unexpectedly drawn into the “genes versus environment” debate over intelligence after he found that babies from widely different cultural backgrounds performed equally well on his test. That, he argued, undercut the argument for a biological basis for the stark “achievement gap” between white and black children, or rich and poor.

The Breakdown of Democracy and the Return of Family Murders in Rome

April 14th, 2014

Randall Collins discusses the breakdown of democracy and the return of family murders in Rome:

The Roman Republic had a strong antipathy to kingship; when it came back, in the hereditary succession of the Caesars, its was accompanied by a renewal of family murders. The great founder and administrator Augustus kept domestic peace. He was personally very upright, moralistic, even prudish; but the younger generations of his family turned out just the opposite. Succession crises grew steadily bloodier through the next four rulers. It got so complicated you can’t tell the murders without a scorecard.

Augustus lived to be 77, and the only one of his children or grandchildren who survived him was his daughter Julia, who was so profligate with her lovers that he banished her and adopted as his heir a favorite general, Tiberius. Tiberius grew paranoid of conspiracies as his reign went on, resulting in a veritable reign of terror encouraged by his chief ministers, in which over 100 suspects were killed, and Tiberius’ only son was poisoned. Tiberius’ brother Drusus was long since dead, but his son Germanicus was another popular general; Tiberius had this nephew killed out of jealousy, along with his wife and two sons. To keep the lineage alive, the youngest of Germanicus’ sons was spared (only 7 years old at the time of these murders), and when Tiberius died (37 AD, at the age of 79), he had grown up to become the Emperor Caligula. Caligula in turn banished or murdered almost of all of his relatives except his incestuous sister; reigning only 4 years, he was killed by the Praetorian guard. The soldiers then put on the throne the only remaining member of the imperial household, Caligula’s old uncle Claudius, a retiring scholar, son of Tiberius’ brother Drusus. Claudius was an ineffectual emperor, run by his third wife Messalina– she married her own uncle. Notorious for her sexual appetite, Messalina also killed the daughters of Germanicus and Drusus, expanding the victim list from males to females to clear away potential rivals. Claudius finally had her killed when she married her lover in public. His next wife was even worse: Agrippina, one of the daughters of Germanicus that Messalina missed; she got Claudius to put aside his own son and adopt her son by a previous husband, Nero, as heir. That accomplished, she apparently poisoned Claudius.

Nero, finally, murdered Claudius’s son– just to make sure; then killed his own mother– the evil interfering Agrippina; followed by killing his wife, another wife, another daughter of Claudius who he offered to marry but was turned down, and took yet another wife after killing her husband. Finally the legions rose against him and he committed suicide, replaced by one of the generals. From then on, things moved away from family murders, into a pattern where the army generally decided the succession; in some periods of orderly rule the emperor would adopt a competent follower as his heir.

It was almost an experiment in all the things that can go wrong with family succession: aging rulers who outlive their own children; spoiled brats with unlimited resources surrounded by plotters; paranoia about conspiracies leading to preemptive murdering of all possible candidates, in turn resulting in even more unsuitable candidates, either completely unworldly types like Claudius or irresponsible pleasure-seekers like Caligula and Nero, Messalina and Agrippina. The amount of husband-murdering, wife-murdering, child-murdering, and even mother-murdering that went on match pretty much anything that the Greek dramatists could have plotted from their nightmares, without the dignity of projection into the world of myth.

I am aware that the structural conditions listed for the family murders in the Persian/Greek period do not all hold for the Roman period. The early Roman Empire was not a time of complicated multi-sided geopolitics; nor of exiles and pretenders at foreign courts eager to interfere. What was similar was hereditary rule based on personal loyalty, without checks and balances or administrative bureaucracy; and legitimate succession through marriages calculated purely for political advantage. The Romans seemed more reflective about it, in the sense that they looked for plots everywhere and engaged in paranoid purges to forestall possible rivals. Arranged marriages did exist in Rome, becoming quite prominent during the last two generations of the Republic, when the country went through repeated civil wars.

Despite the strong patriarchal structure, maternal connections became important; for instance Julius Caesar got his start by being related through his mother to Marius, the famous general and leader of the liberal faction during the Social Wars. Julius made his daughter Julia marry his various political allies, and divorce them when alliances changed. Since Rome did not have polygamy, divorce became common. Elite women got used to being important political actors—like Anthony’s wife, who carried on politics in Italy during his absences. The situation became more gender-symmetrical as the Empire was established; strong rulers like Augustus insisted that his favorite generals divorce their wives to marry into his family. This helps explain why there were women like Messalina and Agrippina. Roman women of the elite, unlike in Greece, were much more active schemers in their own interest; the nearest Greek equivalents were Alexander’s mother, and the last Cleopatra.

The classical Greek/Persian situation did reappear in some later instances, as in England during the time of Henry VIII and his 6 wives, in the midst of volatile foreign alliances and religious side-switching. It culminated in the struggle between two of his daughters, Queen Mary (“bloody Mary”) and Queen Elizabeth, the latter winning out via a series of revolts, plots, stake-burnings, and executions. Once parliamentary rule was established, murders inside elite families became a thing of the past.

How to Make People Quit Smoking

April 14th, 2014

How do you get people to quit smoking?

Warner: What we know is that if you increase the price by 10 percent you will decrease total cigarette consumption by 3 to 4 percent.

Dubner: Now, you may think, well of course Warner would talk about price theory – he’s an economist! But even a layperson can look at the data and see the relationship between cigarette prices and smoking. The economist Frank Chaloupka has calculated the inflation-adjusted price spike of cigarettes over the past few decades, and where that spike comes from. Overall, he found that a pack of cigarettes costs more than twice as much today as it did in 1990. Some of that increase comes from the manufacturers – especially since the late 1990’s, that’s when cigarette companies began passing along the costs from the Master Settlement Agreement. That was the deal between the big tobacco companies and 46 state attorneys general, which required the companies to pay out billions of dollars for, essentially, producing a dangerous product. By passing along some of that settlement cost to smokers, the companies added about 50 cents a pack. But a variety of taxes also made cigarettes much more expensive. Between 1990 and 2009, Chaloupka found the federal excise tax on cigarettes rose from 16 cents to more than $1 per pack. And state taxes, on average, more than quadrupled. Now, keep in mind that’s on average. There’s huge variance across states. Missouri adds only 17 cents a pack; Rhode Island adds a state tax of $3.46 per pack! On top of of all that, some cities add their own taxes. In 2002, for instance, New York City raised its excise tax from 8 cents a pack to $1.50. So, today, a pack of cigarettes in New York City costs, on average, more than $11. It is probably not coincidental, therefore, that New York State has one of the lowest smoking rates in the country. And who does an $11 price tag hit the hardest? The smokers who are most “price sensitive” – like teenagers. Indeed, between 2000 and 2012, the smoking rate among high schoolers in New York State fell by 56 percent. So if you want to fight smoking, you can see why economists, at least, agree that raising the price will work. Here’s Kip Viscusi, at Vanderbilt:

Viscusi: It’s a very powerful tool. You know, it doesn’t wear out. As you keep on the increasing price, it will keep on decreasing the demand for cigarettes.

Dubner: But just as different states in the U.S. have wildly different tax rates on cigarettes, different countries have wildly different cigarette taxes and prices, which are influenced by all sorts of factors. In China, for instance, the average cost is about $2 per pack of cigarettes; in Australia, it’s about $11, with talk of pushing that up to $20 a pack. And smoking rates around the world are extremely diverse. Among the lowest are the U.S. and Canada, Australia, much of South America, and most of Africa. Europe is generally in the middle, and Asia – well, if you look at the World Health Organization’s map of smoking rate by country, Asia is basically one big cloud of smoke. But even in the U.S., where as Kenneth Warner told us we’ve returned to the smoking rate of the 1930’s, that still translates into a lot of smokers.

When Oedipal Conflicts Were Real

April 13th, 2014

Is it a coincidence that the Oedipus story and the Orestes-Electra story were first made popular in Greece, Randall Collins asks, in the century before Philip and Alexander?

These were the most famous plays of the Greek tragedians, Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. They were performed at the great festival in Athens, when theatrical drama was just being created, beginning in the years after the Persian invasions were turned back (490–466 BC). The theme of sons and daughters killing fathers and mothers and vice versa, and of sibling loyalty and betrayal, are just what they would have heard about the Persians, with their bloody succession fights from the time of Cyrus onwards, indeed what happened to Xerxes the most dangerous invader.*

*Xerxes was murdered in his palace (quite possibly by his son and heir) in 465 BC; Aeschylus’ Orestes trilogy was produced in 458.

The Greek dramatists set these themes in the historic or mythical past — not a time of democracy like the present, but of hereditary kings in the most important cities of Greece — Argos, Thebes, Corinth, Athens. And what did they find most dramatic about them?

What the dramas depicted was happening in Persia at the very time they were being performed in Athens; would happen again in places like Macedonia on the Greek periphery that still had kings; and would follow in the career of Alexander and his successors.

The story of Orestes and Electra, brother and sister, is the story of a father killing his daughter; a wife and her lover killing her husband; and a son and daughter killing their mother and step-father. It is tacked onto the Homeric history of the Trojan war. Agamemnon, greatest of the Homeric kings (and one of the bad guys in the Iliad plot), is depicted as having sacrificed his daughter Iphigenia in order to procure a favorable wind from a goddess for his voyage to Troy. During the ten years while he is away, back in Argos his wife Clytemnestra takes a lover, Aegisthus — a conventional enough story of soldiers away at war (in the US Army, hearing from such a wife used to be called getting a Dear John letter). Agamemnon finally returns; the lovers kill him, and Aegisthus becomes King. (This isn’t too different from Arsinoe displacing a previous wife to the King of Macedon and killing the heir; whereupon the aggrieved wife calls on her siblings to take revenge.) They search for Agamemnon’s son and heir, the baby Orestes, to eliminate any threat to the succession, but his older sister Electra has taken him away and entrusted him to a foreigner to bring up. Orestes finally returns, grown to adulthood, and he and Electra murder their mother and King Aegisthus.*

*Nobody really cares about the murder of Iphigenia, except her mother Clytemnestra, which is her initial motive for taking a lover and murdering her husband. But Clytemnestra is depicted as evil, and the lives of females did not count much anyway in this system. It is killing a husband/father that is the really bad thing.

In real life, as we see from the Persian, Macedonian, and Hellenistic cases, the story would have ended here. Orestes would have set up as legitimate King, and who was to criticize him? In the plays, however, the plot turns surrealistic; supernatural vengeance, in the form of the Furies, chase Orestes from city to city.

The Oedipus story, which Sophocles produced about 440-400 BC, is about an attempted infanticide (which fails); whereupon the boy grows up, kills his father, and marries his mother. Like Orestes, the parent-killer is marked to be killed as a child, but is brought up by foreigners (like Philip and many other exiles and hostages). When he is strong enough he returns home, gets into a prideful quarrel with a pugnacious older man — a road-rage dispute — and kills him (one can easily substitute Alexander and his drunken father). The mother-marrying angle is the only part that is not paralleled in real life; one can say that it is what Sophocles the dramatist adds to make the plot a real shocker, but it does have a structural aspect, since it is by marrying her that Oedipus becomes King — the goal that everyone was always fighting about.*

*Once again the infanticide is glossed over, it being normal then for parents to kill their children; the Greek audience presumably thought no one should resent it, although Alexander’s life suggests that some sons did not take kindly to being menaced by their parents. That this sort of thing regularly happened in the ancient Mediterranean world is attested by laws in the Hebrew Old Testament that parents should have a disobedient son stoned to death (Deuteronomy 2:18-21). Another indication is Abraham’s willingness to kill his son Isaac in blood sacrifice, although it is finally called off by the Lord’s angel with a promise that the people of Israel will conquer all their enemies (Genesis 22: 1-18). Child-sacrifice for war-success continued down to 150 BC in Carthage, a colony of Phoenicia, one of Israel’s neighbours. Alexander witnessed it himself: a Balkan tribe that opposed him in 335 BC preceded their battle, as was their custom, by sacrificing three boys, three maidens, and three sheep. Alexander’s attack interrupted the sacrifice (Bury p. 742). Parents killing their children historically preceded the children fighting back. Freud misinterpreted this as a childhood fantasy.

The details of the Oedipus saga bring out the political aspects. Laius, King of Thebes, is driven out by a rival; he takes refuge with Pelops (ancestor of Agamemnon), but brings down a curse on himself and his family by kidnapping Pelops’ son. Returning to power in Thebes, he marries Jocasta, but is warned by a god that their son will kill him; so they drive a spike through his feet and leave him on a mountain to die. A shepherd finds the baby and takes him to Corinth, where the King and Queen bring him up as their own son — a variant on the usual practices of exile and hostage. Oedipus’s killing of his father Laius and becoming King of Thebes we know. The more elaborate story follows the fate of his sons.

After Oedipus blinds himself in shame at his offense, he curses his two sons that they will kill each other. The father is deposed and the sons succeed him, agreeing to divide the kingship by ruling in alternative years. But the one who rules first refuses to make way for his brother, who has gone into exile and married the daughter of the King of Argos; whereupon the father-in-law puts together a coalition to attack Thebes (the usual story of exiles getting support for interfering in domestic politics). The attack fails, and the two brothers kill each other simultaneously. The next King, Creon, is another harsh bad guy, leading to further troubles of the remaining daughter, Antigone, trying to get proper burial rites for her favorite brother; this is probably just the playwrights spinning out a favorite story with sequels, but it fits the general theme — bad blood in the family keeps on perpetuating itself.

Finally there is mitigation. The playwrights begin preaching that the cycle of ancestral sins and punishments passed on from generation to generation must have a stop; barbaric fury must give way to civilization. Aeschylus attributed the turmoil in Agamemnon’s family to an ancestral curse, deriving from his ancestor King Pelops who cheated and killed a rival for a king’s daughter. Oedipus discovers his own sins because his city is cursed with a plague which the oracle says cannot be dispelled until the murderer of the previous king is found, and Oedipus puts a curse on his own sons which causes them to kill each other. The chorus of the playwright Sophocles prays at Oedipus’s death for absolution. In the end, Orestes too finds relief from the Furies that pursue him.

Durkheim showed that the gods are constructed as a reflection of society. The Greeks saw multiple gods and spirits around them, pushing and warning humans one way and another; but above them all was Fate, Nemesis, a higher order of things. The most important of these patterns, revealed in the most famous plays that their dramatists created, was that fighting over hereditary power was never-ending; it generated family murder, in a chain passed along from generation to generation. The only way to stop it was to introduce the rule of law, law above the kings and queens and their ever-striving, ever-vengeful sons and daughters. This meant the end of hereditary monarchy; the Greek word for king — tyrannos — eventually came to mean tyrant. Democracy, for all its faults — and it had its own form of violence in faction fights and judicial prosecutions — would remove the legitimacy of rule from mere family heredity. Democracy at any rate eliminated succession crises and the structures that promoted family murder. Unfortunately for the Greeks, kingship returned with the Macedonians and the successor-states to the Persian Empire.

Diversity and Dishonesty

April 13th, 2014

It would be far better if Harvard and Brandeis and Mozilla simply said that they are as ideologically progressive as Notre Dame is Catholic or BYU is Mormon, Ross Douthat argues:

I can live with the progressivism. It’s the lying that gets toxic.