Home: A Human Project With Many Meanings

Highclere Castle, used for the exterior filming of Downton Abbey. By JB + UK Planet. Wikimedia Commons.

Recently I’ve been indulging in early episodes of Downton Abbey. I confess my fascination with the fictional exploits of aristocrats (and the servants who answer their bells) in a sprawling Yorkshire country home that looms large as a character.

“I’ve given my life to Downton,” gruffs The Lord Grantham to his mother in the second episode of the Masterpiece Theatre series. “I claim no career beyond the nurture of the house and the estate. It is my third parent and my fourth child.”

From English estates that have been passed down through generations to Navajo hogans that must be departed when someone dies there, humans have arranged a variety of dwelling places with many meanings. Archaeologist Jerry D. Moore explores their rich permutations in The Prehistory of Home (University of California Press).

Navajo hogan.
Photo by PRA. CC By-SA 3.0

While a number of animal species construct shelters for themselves, only human lodgings take different forms based upon factors such as social status, cost, style, and symbol, writes Moore, a professor of anthropology at California State University-Dominguez Hills. “In adddition to their basic and fundamental function of providing shelter from natural elements, dwellings are powerful and complex concentrates of human existence. More than passive backdrops to human actions, our dwellings reflect and shape our lives.”

When this business of home-making began is a question that archaeologists have struggled to address. To do so, they must interpret fragmentary or scarce evidence of occupation, from postholes to baked-clay hearths to debris from everyday activities, Moore explains. “Between about 1.4 and 0.7 million years ago, hominids created the sites we can recognize as temporary encampments,” he writes. “More anchored than chimpanzee or gorilla nests, these sites were places of arrival and returns, locations where our ancestors made stone tools and cooked over ancient fires.”

It was only later, when humans began to stay in one place for longer periods of time, Moore surmises, that homes became imbued with symbolic meaning. In one, comparatively recent example, he writes about the circular, domed Navajo hogan, which first appeared in the American Southwest about three centuries ago. Even as construction materials and size have changed over time, the hogan still serves as both “a domestic space and a sacred space.”

Here’s an excerpt:

The east-facing door receives the first blessings of dawn-light. The southern side of the hogan is the male side and the north side is female. The western side is the seat of honor allocated to singers and shamans …

While there are specific spatial associations within the hogan–men should move to the left, women to the right–there are no internal divisions. Just as the Navajo recognizes the distinctive but intertwined realms of male and female in the cosmos, the hogan reflects the unity of differences …

The hogan is a living space and a space that lives. Ritually sanctified during its construction, hogans are alive and must be blessed and fed. Alternatively bad fortune and death contaminate the hogan, sometimes irreversibly. If someone dies in the hogan, the house is abandoned and avoided. The corpse is removed through a hole chopped in the north or west wall, instead of through the east-facing doorway. A hogan where someone has died is a “ghost hogan” or a “no-hearth home.” The entire homestead site may be abandoned until the ghost hogan collapses. No new hogan will be built near the contaminated no-hearth home.

I’m in the early stages of my Downton Abbey watching (so no spoilers, please). But somehow I doubt Lord Grantham’s family would vacate their own dwelling-place quite as readily.


Half-Life: When Information Becomes Outdated

I love to browse old reference books, from 19th-century dancing guides to the hulking set of 1937 Encyclopaedia Britannicas that compete for space with other estate-sale finds in my parents-in-law’s home. I imagine all the schoolkids who must have once used them for reports. And then I think of how, for all their density, the volumes are light on information that the 21st-century reader can trust. (Or, to put it another way, there are plenty of facts inside. I’m just not sure which ones are still true.)

But according to Samuel Arbesman, author of The Half-Life of Facts: Why Everything We Know Has an Expiration Date (Current/Penguin), information actually decays in a systematic manner.

Arbesman is an applied mathematician and expert in the field of scientometrics (which looks at the science of science), a fellow at Harvard, and a senior scholar at the Ewing-Marion Kauffman Foundation in Kansas City, Missouri.

In a New Scientist article adapted from his new book, he writes that, “In the aggregate there are regularities to the changes, and we can even identify how fast facts will decay over time. This means we don’t have to be all at sea in a world of changing knowledge.”

Using the metaphor of radioactive material, Arbesman explains how long it takes for half the information in a particular field to be disproved or replaced by new data. For example, surgery information has a “half-life” of 45 years, while physics has a “half-life” of a decade. (There are various ways to measure obsolescence, from getting experts to review the factual content of papers and books, to recording how long it takes journal articles to stop getting cited.)

Arbesman goes on to discuss how we might situate information on a spectrum, from the most rapidly expiring (think stock market movements) to the longest shelf-life (“pretty much everything the ancient Greeks wrote about geometry”). So next time I’m at my in-laws, maybe I should flip open volume E, for Euclid.

Grand Canyon: New Dating Reveals an Older Age

View, looking down, “Grand Canyon National Park,” Arizona (National Parks and Monuments series, taken 1933-1942)
Photographed by Ansel Adams. The National Archives.


A study published in the journal Science suggests the Grand Canyon may be even older than scientists previously thought. New data moves back its formation from an estimated 5 to 6 million years ago to about 70 million years ago (before dinosaurs’ extinction).

Read more details in this report on SciTech Daily.

Genome Sequencing: What’s the Cost for Knowing Clues to Baby’s Future?

Photo by: Sean Dreilinger. Creative Commons. (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Baby’s keepsakes: Tiny footprint, lock of hair, and a DNA sequence? As human genome sequencing grows faster and cheaper, how much should parents learn about their babies’ genetic blueprints? In this recent NPR report, bioethicists and other researchers weigh in on what might happen if whole genome sequencing becomes commonplace.

On the positive side, knowing this data could help doctors screen for numerous genetic conditions at birth (or even earlier), and take steps to improve or correct them. Dr. Alan Guttmacher, director of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, told NPR that whole genome sequencing at birth could profoundly shape individuals’ medical care and personal decisions to “have an impact on truly lifelong health.”

However, skeptics warned that sequencing could saddle families with confusing or unwanted information:

There’s plenty of evidence that parents already often overreact to the relatively small amount of data that they’re getting from little spots of blood collected at birth. Bioethicist Mark Rothstein of the University of Louisville says the tests can lead to so-called vulnerable child syndrome.

These children “are viewed as medically vulnerable and medically frail,” Rothstein says. “And so while all the other kids are riding bikes and climbing trees, these kids are sort of sitting in a corner. So they can’t even enjoy a normal childhood.”

via Genome Sequencing For Babies Brings Knowledge And Conflicts : Shots – Health News : NPR.

On a related note, it’s interesting to see how rapidly genome-sequencing technology has developed in just the last few years. Here’s a small (and by no means comprehensive) sampling of articles on that topic:

1 machine, 4 weeks now enough to sequence human genome, ars technica, 08/10/2009

The $1,000 Human Genome: Are We There Yet? Scientific American, 01/10/2012

The $1,000 Genome, and the New Problem of Having Too Much Information, PopSci, 02/27/2012

Nanopore genome sequencer makes its debut (Technique promises it will produce a human genome in 15 minutes), Nature, 02/17/2012

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Goodall: Letters from “Chimpland”

Jane Goodall in 2006.Photo by Jeekc.  Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported.

Jane Goodall in 2006. Photo by Jeekc. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported.

I recently came across this fascinating collection of letters by primatologist Jane Goodall: Africa in My Blood: An Autobiography in Letters. The Early Years (Houghton Mifflin).

Published in 2000, the correspondence begins with Goodall’s childhood in the London suburb of Weybridge. Full of curiosity for scientic subjects, Goodall rallied friends to take part in various nature clubs, including her Alligator Society. (In order to earn an alligator badge, each member had to identify at least 10 species of birds, dogs, trees, and butterflies or moths. “As I am the leader I will give my Aligator an eye and you must not,” she once wrote to her friend Sally Cary Pugh.)

The bulk of the letters, however, focus on the first several years of Goodall’s work in Africa–including her arrival in 1960 at the chimpanzee reserve now known as Gombe Stream National Park (in Tanzania) and her discoveries that chimpanzees eat meat and use tools.

As Goodall gradually earned the trust of the chimpanzees at Gombe and was able to observe them more closely, she regaled her family back home with detailed descriptions of the personalities in “Chimpland,” as she sometimes called it. Here are a few lines she wrote about a chimpanzee named William:

The odd thing is that he knows it’s evil, when he steals these things. I have a new haversack made in Kogoma. Three times already he has tried to take it. He always says “hoo” in an aggrieved way when I say no and hold onto it! Anyway, this morning after his bananas he looked so melting sitting there that I resolved to get him one from the bunch I had hidden in the tent. A shriek from Dominic who was making my bed warned me—too late. William had taken my haversack from the table and was dragging it off, bumpity bump, into the bushes. In it was my camera. Also the 300 and 150 mm lenses. Also exposure meter and my last 5 KII films. Well, I yelled at him and just charged after him. He dropped it just before getting to the bushes opposite the tent. Now this is the amazing thing. I told you he knows it is wrong—I quickly followed him with a banana, but was afraid that I might have scared him badly. Not at all. He came up at once, though he did pause and say “hoo” in a rather defiant way before taking it. And came out again, bold as ever, to try and push me off the box to see if there were more inside. Which proves most positively that he recognized my right to get my property back. He is a real menace—a real cleptomaniac.

–from a letter sent in early January 1963

Another volume, Beyond Innocence: An Autobiography in Letters. The Later Years, follows Goodall’s life and career from 1966-1999.

Falsehoods: The Truth About Lying in the Digital Age

“The Cheat with the Ace of Clubs,” by Georges de La Tour. (Late 1620s.)
Wikimedia. PD-Art.

In this recently posted TED talk, psychologist Jeff Hancock identified three types of lies that he’s been seeing a lot of lately—the colorfully named Butler, Sock Puppet, and Chinese Water Army—but he also challenged the common notion that the Digital Age, with its greater anonymity, generates more deception.

Hancock, who did his share of deceit-tracking as a customs officer for Canada in the mid-1990s and is now an associate professor of cognitive science and communications at Cornell University, acknowledged how much has changed in the way we communicate. “We email, we text, we Skype, we FaceBook … That’s had an impact on deception.”

He gave examples of the Butler, a tiny lie someone tells when they want to spare feelings, protect themselves, or preserve a relationship in an environment where it’s possible for others to connect to us 24 hours a day: “Sorry I didn’t respond to you earlier. My battery was dead. Your battery wasn’t dead … You just didn’t want to respond to that person at that time,” he said.

“These lies are being used to create a buffer like the butler used to do between us and our connections to everybody else. But they’re very special,” he said. “They use the ambiguity that comes from using technology. You don’t know where I am, or what I’m doing, or who I’m with.”

Another kind of deception is the Sock Puppet (for an example, read about R.J. Ellory’s fake reviews of his own books on Amazon.) Take the same kind of deception to a larger scale and you get the Chinese Water Army (or its American equivalent, Astroturfing). “We see this especially with product reviews, book reviews—everything from hotels to whether you think that toaster is a good toaster or not,” Hancock said.

But when Hancock and his colleagues looked at people’s ordinary online behaviors, they didn’t find them replete with deception. In one study, Hancock and his colleagues asked participants to document all their communications and lies for a week. They found that people were the most honest on email and the least honest over the phone. They also found greater honesty on Linked In, as opposed to paper resumes, and discovered that users’ FaceBook profiles were actually a pretty accurate reflection of their personalities.

This evidence that online communication is actually fairly honest may have something to do with how, for the first time in human history, so much of our lives are thoroughly documented, Hancock explained. On their own, humans do a poor job of recognizing deceit, but today’s networked communications open us up to greater scrutiny. Hancock went on to discuss how he has developed a computer algorithm (based on language patterns) that can distinguish between real and fake hotel reviews with greater accuracy than people can.

Today’s communication records, with all the truths and falsehoods they contain, are a goldmine for social scientists, he added. “We’re going to learn so much more about human thought and expression—about everything from love to attitudes.”

In addition, they may lead people to be more honest, he believes, as they consider what legacies they want to leave behind. “Because now, in the networked age, we are all leaving a record.”

Families: Study Finds Four Kinds of “Home Cultures” in America

Tip Estes and his family eating dinner, 1937. Photographer: Lee Russell. Library of Congress, LC-USF34- 010580-D [P&P].

The success of various parenting styles, from helicopter to free-range, is often debated. A new study by researchers at the University of Virginia finds more fundamental differences in family culture that are shaping today’s children.

The Culture of American Families Project—co-directed by James Davison Hunter and Carl Desportes Bowman at the university’s Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, and funded by the John Templeton Foundation—has identified four “home cultures” that make up 87 percent of families with school-age children: the Faithful, Engaged Progressives, the Detached, and American Dreamers. The data is based on a nationwide survey of 3,000 parents as well as longer follow-up interviews with 101 respondents.

“Though largely invisible, these family cultures are powerful, constituting the worlds that children are raised in, and may well be more consequential than parenting styles,” [Davison] said.

via U.Va. Study Identifies Four Family Cultures in America | UVA Today.

(I do wonder about the other 13 percent of families that didn’t fit neatly into one of these four groups. But let’s continue.)

More details on the project can be found in the executive report. Here are brief descriptions of each family type:

The Faithful (20 percent of American parents)

“The defining feature of the Faithful is that ‘morality’ is understood to be received from a divine, external source, whether within a Jewish, Christian, or Muslim tradition,” the report states.

Faithfuls tend to be politically conservative (51 percent Republican versus 13 percent Democrat), strongly oppose gay marriage, and attend religious services weekly. They believe their own children share their moral codes, though almost half of them report an overall decline in American standards.

Engaged Progressives (21 percent)

“At the center of the Engaged Progressives’ moral universe stands the virtue of personal freedom,” the report states. “With freedom comes choice and, by implication, responsibility for the consequences of one’s choices.”

They are the least religious of the four cultures; two-thirds say religion is not important to them. Although they hesitate to punish their children, 93 percent say they “invest much effort in shaping [their] moral character,” hoping they will grow into adults who treat others well. They typically let their teens have access to birth-control information at an earlier age. Continue reading

Families: How Those Torn Apart by Slavery Tried to Reunite

Spend any time reading 19th-century newspapers and you’ll likely find them: tucked among ads for barrels of ox beef and puncheons of rum will be notices of persons for sale or, equally unsettling, runaway ads that inventory the appearance or personality of a master’s departed slave. Usually, a reward was offered to track down the individual—“a stout fellow” or “a slender wench,” who was “considerable knock-kneed” or perhaps “marked with small pox,” and showing a “pleasing smiling countenance” or “a down look.”*

In her new book, Help Me to Find My People: The African American Search for Family Lost in Slavery, University of North Carolina history professor Heather Andrea Williams turns her attention to a third kind of newspaper communication—Information Wanted notices posted by African Americans themselves. After the Civil War, this was one of the ways that former slaves sought to find their loved ones.

It’s interesting that “this is how black people showed up in the newspaper most often in that century,” notes Williams in a recent phone interview. “The runaway ads are about money, offering a reward to get ‘property’ back,” she says. In contrast, the Information Wanted ads launch “an emotional appeal.” But rather than providing physical details of the missing person, whose appearance may have changed with the passage of time, they typically use the owner’s name as an identifier.

“I think they’re all really laden with emotion—some much more explicit than others,” she says. “You get some where there is this resentment really coming through. They put the word owner in quote marks, making this rhetorical challenge to the idea of one person owning another. But then they are also poignant—not because they say I loved my mother and cry for her every night, but because somebody has been looking for his mother for 21 years. He thinks he somehow might have a chance [of finding her.]”

In an ad that appears in Nashville’s Colored Tennessean on October 7, 1865, Thornton Copeland wrote, “Information is wanted of my mother, whom I left in Fauquier county, Va., in 1844, and I was sold in Richmond, Va., to Saml. Copeland. I formerly belonged to Robert Rogers. I am very anxious to hear from my mother … My mother’s name was Betty, and was sold by Col. Briggs to James French.”

“That one is really poignant because it raises lots of issues which people contended with,” Williams says. How do you find someone after a separation of more than two decades? “How do you find someone whose name was Betty, knowing that the owner could have changed her name at any point?

“There’s hope. There’s pain. There are multiple emotions in these ads,” Williams says.

As her book explains, newspaper ads weren’t the only strategy used by African Americans. Sometimes they wrote to former owners for information or sought clues to a relative’s whereabouts from one of the Freedmen’s Bureau offices set up around the country after the Civil War. (Others, of course, took the opportunity to run away while slavery was still in place, often heading toward the plantation where they last saw a family member.)

Williams practiced law before becoming an historian, but she has always been interested in African-American history. “I write books because I want to know the black people in the past,” she explains. “Often we talk about slaves, and the word replaces the people.”

The Help Wanted notices provide a peek at people’s personal stories. The personalities of individuals come through even more in the letters and narratives that Williams also excerpts in her book, particularly those that refer to the loss of family members in childhood. Recalling how her mother was sold and taken from her when she was a child, Kate Drumgoold wrote, “The saddest thought to me was to know which way she had gone and I used to go outside and look up to see if anything that would direct me and I saw a clear place in the sky and it seemed to me the way she had gone, and I watched it 3 ½ years not knowing what that meant and it was there the whole time mother was gone.” Continue reading

Frank Furness: He Put the Modern in Architectural Design

Photograph of Frank Furness

Photograph of Frank Furness (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Before Frank Furness transformed western architecture in the late-19th century, his field seemed to be stuck in the past. “If you were designing a library, you looked to King’s College [at the University of Cambridge] and imitated the forms” of that institution, says George Thomas, an urban planner and architecture historian who lectures at the University of Pennsylvania. “Basically, as you look at the early to mid-nineteenth century in architecture all across Europe and America, you can very quickly tease out the historical sources that were being drawn on.” Opening his office in Philadelphia in 1866, Furness had a different vision that led him to create new forms inspired by industry, Thomas explains.

Thomas is organizer of Furness 2012: Inventing Modern, a Philadelphia-based celebration of the architect’s innovative work upon the 100th anniversary of his death. The celebration has included exhibitions, talks, and Furness-inspired street art throughout the city. Click here to see more of Furness’s famous projects.

Furness was born in Philadelphia in 1839. His father, William Henry Furness—a Unitarian minister and an abolitionist—was a major influence on him. So was the rising industrial culture of his native city:

“In the nineteenth century, the premier machine tool-and-die maker in the world is William Sellers, whose business dominates industrial design and wins all the gold medals in the Paris Fair,” Thomas explains. One of his central ideas was that “the design ought to serve the particular task at hand.” His cousin and main designer, Coleman Sellers, lectured at Philadelphia’s Franklin Institute in 1874 about their machines, pointing out that they were painted gray in order to look like the metals from which they were made. He went on to explain that the new purposes of industry demanded new forms.

“My sense is that’s exactly the parallel that Furness picks up and runs with in architectural design,” Thomas says. “He begins to understand that post-Civil War America is drastically different. There’s no point in looking to history for solutions.”

Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, 1900. Detroit Publishing Company. This image is available from the United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photograph’s division. under the digital ID det. 4a08450.

One of the best showcases of Furness’s “drastically different” architectural strategy is Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (1871). As part of Furness’s design, “students are pushed as far away [as possible], to the farthest back corner, because I suspect that then, as now, art students are not what you want to mix with your paying customers,” Thomas says. Furness also put a giant freight elevator at the back of the building to enable the movement of canvases, sculptures, and animals used in art instruction. “Furness understands there are paying customers, students, and objects and animals. Each has a different entryway into the building.”

Rather than hiding the academy’s building materials, Furness shows them off with a huge exposed steel truss spanning the north side of the building. Its addition made it possible to put a glass roof above the academy’s ground-floor art studios. “He’s basically thinking of the building as a factory-meets-palace for art.”

Furness’s vision continued with his design of the University Library (now known as the Fisher Fine Arts Library) at the University of Pennsylvania. “You walk in and there’s this lesson in new materials of the age, [including] big iron stairs with cast-iron newels and wrought iron railings,” Thomas says. “Furness is reveling in what this new material can do.”

The industrialists and engineers who inspired him were entranced enough with Furness’s work to hire him at the rate of one building every other week for the rest of his career, Thomas notes. Furness designed railroad presidents’ homes, train stations, libraries, banks, hospitals, churches and synagogues, and more. “You name it, he’s doing it.”

Fisher Fine Arts Library, University of Pennsy...

Fisher Fine Arts Library, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Furness’s career spanned four decades. Like his father, he was “not afraid to be a hero,” Thomas says. “He wins the Medal of Honor in the Civil War fighting for his father’s beliefs, and he’s not afraid to be a hero as an architect. Rather than ducking into the crowd, he tends to carry the ammunition box across the battlefield … I think that is what is at the core of what makes him so interesting: there is a heroic personality, a new context, and a connection to the great forces of the industrial age.”

Furness’s legacy isn’t limited to the buildings across the Philadelphia region that that his firm designed. His students, including Louis Sullivan (who went on to teach Frank Lloyd Wright), George Howe, and William Price, also helped carried the message of modernism into the 20th century.

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Estrogenic: Consumption of Certain Plants May Be Linked to Aggression in Monkeys

Red colobus monkeys in Uganda.
Image by Duncan (Wellington, NZ). CC By-S.A. 2.0.

Munching on large amounts of phytoestrogen-rich leaves from the Milletia dura tree appears to alter hormone levels and behavior among red colobus monkeys, according to a study published in the journal Hormones and Behavior.

Studying a group of male red colobus monkeys in Uganda, scientists from the University of California-Berkeley found that levels of estradiol and cortisol rose with seasonally higher consumption of estrogen-like compounds. In addition, the monkeys fought and mated more, and indulged less in the social-bonding activity of grooming.

“It’s one of the first studies done in a natural setting providing evidence that plant chemicals can directly affect a wild primate’s physiology and behavior by acting on the endocrine system,” said study lead author Michael Wasserman, who conducted the research as a graduate student at UC Berkeley’s Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management. “By altering hormone levels and social behaviors important to reproduction and health, plants may have played a large role in the evolution of primate — including human — biology in ways that have been underappreciated.”

via Eating estrogenic plants alters hormones in monkeys, may increase aggression and sex.

Researchers warned against assigning too much influence to phytoestrogens, however, explaining that diet is just one factor in behavior. Others include the hormones already produced inside the body as well as the amount of competition for food and mates.