Our Long Close Relationship With Cats

Human and CatMany years ago, I spent a couple of months researching cats for a possible book. In many ways, cats are much less interesting than dogs. I don’t mean that in the typical way. I like both cats and dogs equally as species go. But humans have bred dogs to a remarkable degree. So we have ended up with a ridiculous number of dog breeds — ranging in size from the Chihuahua at 5 pounds to the St Bernard, which can reach up to 200 pounds. There is nothing like this in the cat world. In terms of base breeds, there are twice as many for dogs as for cats. But it is more simply that there isn’t that much variation between the breeds. And I have to say, I prefer it that way. I like both dogs and cats as mutts.

I had always thought that the reason for this lack of variety in cats was due to the fact that humans hadn’t really been breeding cats for very long. So I was surprised back in December to read a really interesting article by David Grimm, When Cats Became Comrades. According to genetic studies, humans first domesticated dogs about 15,000 years ago. We first domesticated cats somewhat more recently: 10,000 years ago. This number isn’t at all surprising: this is exactly when the Neolithic Revolution took place. Humans settled down, rodents came around, cats were useful with the rodent population.

There is a certain evolutionary pressure here. More aggressive cats would be chased away. Although interestingly, the domesticated cat is actually a bit bigger than its closest relative, the African wildcat. But over time, it isn’t hard to see how gentle and affectionate cats would get more scraps and so thrive in a way that others wouldn’t.

What’s remarkable is just how fast this happened. According to Grimm:

The oldest record of cats entering human society comes from an early farming village known as Shillourokambos, located on the southern coast of the Mediterranean island of Cyprus. In 2001, researchers led by Jean-Denis Vigne, now director of research at the French National Centre for Scientific Research in Paris, discovered the shared grave of a human and feline underneath an ancient home. The skeleton of the animal — dated to 9,500 years ago — was surrounded by carved seashells, indicating that cats held a special status in this society.

Strangely, this is about it for cat archaeology — at least for more than 4,000 years. A recent dig in China uncovered some cat bones from a millet farm that existed 5,300 years ago. As usual with these studies, the scientists were able to extract an amazing amount of information. They know, for example, that the cats were eating rodents and the rodents were eating grain. They even unearthed holes the rodents had dug into the grain stores. But they found even more:

While these animals were protecting crops, villagers may have returned the favor. One of the cats had an unusually high level of grain in its diet. “That’s unexpected because cats are obligate carnivores,” says team member Fiona Marshall, a zooarchaeologist at Washington University in St. Louis. “It suggests that this cat was eating human food.”

The researchers also found a cat that was much older than is normal for wild cats. This is taken to mean that the cats had a close relationship with the farmers. But I’m not convinced that means quite as much as it could appear. The farmers could just have tolerated the cats — thereby providing a food source and protection without any active engagement from the humans. Then again, there could have been lots of petting going on. Regardless, it provides a much clearer picture of our long history with cats. And it is a lot longer than I had thought.

SWAT Raids on Barber Shops — American Justice

Police AbuseAn appeals court harshly rebuked the Orange County, Florida, Sheriff’s Office over a SWAT-style raid to check for barber licenses, finding it was unreasonable to conduct such an investigation of a second-degree misdemeanor.

The US 11th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Tuesday that deputies had violated the civil rights of barbers at Strictly Skillz during a 2010 license inspection, reported the Sun-Sentinel.

“It was a scene right out of a Hollywood movie,” the court ruled.

The lawsuit is related to a series of sweeps at minority-owned barbershops and salons pairing deputies with the state’s Department of Business and Professional Regulation to inspect the businesses.

—Travis Gettys
Court Hammers Florida Sheriff’s Office for SWAT-Style Raid to Check for Barber Licenses


H/T: Peoria Undergrounder

Student Builds Wind and Solar Powered Car

Segun Oyeyiola and His Green CarSegun Oyeyiola is an engineering student at Obagemi Awolowo University in Nigeria. He’s the best kind of person: self actualized in the extra. Over the course of the last year, he took an old Volkswagen Beetle and turned it into a green vehicle. It runs off a battery that is charged by both solar and wind energy. As you can see in the picture, his car is also painted green — a little joke that I only just got.

Oyeyiola says that his motivation was primarily environmental. He is concerned about global warming. And unlike a lot of global warming worry in America, I think his is very grounded. His list of deleterious effects include: “seasonal cycles are disrupted, as are ecosystems; and agriculture, water needs and supply, and food production are all adversely affected.” Exactly. It’s not what I hear all too often, “There will be bigger hurricanes.”

There is a whole gee-whiz aspect of this. Oyeyiola built the car with with scraps and various things he bought with $6,000. But it is much more than this. In particular, it is the integration of a wind turbine into it that makes it special. Fast Company covered the story, This Nigerian College Student Built a Wind- And Solar-Powered Car From Scraps. And they interviewed John Preston at McMaster University, where he is the adviser to the school’s solar car team. According to him, the turbine uses the air that is forced through them to charge the battery. That works more or less the same way that a traditional hybrid does.

Oyeyiola says that he plans to keep working on the car. It has aspects that he thinks need work, like the fact that it takes roughly five hours to charge the battery. But hopefully he’ll get snapped up by a company or start his own on the celebrity of this car. Regardless, this is really cool.

Power Elite Don’t Care About American Workers

Dean BakerLate last year, I wrote to Dean Baker — the Pollyanna of economists — asking him about why Alan Greenspan didn’t change inflation thinking. I wrote, “Greenspan allowed inflation to get below 4%, yet there was no accelerating inflation. So why do I continue to hear that 5.5% unemployment is the NAIRU? Am I missing something?” Baker wrote back, “That history is conveniently ignored.” Indeed it is.

For those of you reasonable people who don’t follow this stuff, NAIRU stands for “Non-Accelerating Inflation Rate of Unemployment.” It is supposedly the rate of unemployment below which inflation will start to rise. It’s actually a nasty little concept. Beneath it is the idea that low inflation creates a workers’ market. And because of this, workers can demand higher wages and this in turn causes prices to rise — hence inflation.

I doubt this is even true. After four decades during which all economic growth has gone to the people at the very top of the economy, higher wages will not necessarily lead to higher prices. In fact, the pure economics of it indicates that it should simply cause a more equitable distribution of incomes. Basically: owners should make less and workers should make more. If you are skeptical of this, read my article, What Sets Prices? The idea that increased costs lead to higher prices is just wrong.

Right now, everywhere I turn, I hear that the NAIRU is between 5.0% and 5.5%. This is a problem, because the standard unemployment rate is 5.6%, and it may well be lower by the time this article gets published. So this has lots of people screaming for the Federal Reserve to increase interest rates to head off inflation. But the yearly inflation rate for last year was 1.66% — well below the Fed’s already too low 2% inflation target. And there is absolutely no trend. (Actually, there is a downward trend — but it isn’t significant.)

In the late 1990s, Alan Greenspan let unemployment get low. People warned him when it got to 5% but he let it go. And the inflation rate got down to 4.2% without any hint of inflation. He went further, but as it continued down to a low point of 3.8%, the inflation rate did go up a tad. The inflation rate maxed out at 3.7%. Bear in mind that this is not a bad rate. In general, I think the Fed’s inflation target ought to be in the 3.0% to 3.5% range. But it is now the consensus of really, really rich people that the Fed’s target should be 2%. Regardless, Greenspan managed to have inflation below 2% with unemployment around 4.3%.

Note the madness of this. The power elite claim that we must maintain a high unemployment rate with low worker bargaining power so that the rich don’t have to face even the risk of inflation. This is the kind of “conventional wisdom” that you get when you live in an oligarchy and not a democracy.

Recently, Paul Krugman wrote a good article on this subject, but from an entirely different perspective, Tough Fedding. In it, he suggested that the whole NAIRU may not be valid in the current environment of a Fed absolutely determined to keep inflation at 2% or less. And his calculations indicate that we shouldn’t even begin to worry about inflation until unemployment gets below 5%. He concluded the article by noting the options:

And the risks still seem hugely asymmetric. Raise rates “too late,” and inflation briefly overshoots the target. How bad is that? (And why does the Fed sound increasingly as if 2 percent is not a target but a ceiling? Hasn’t everything we’ve seen since 2007 suggested that this is a very bad place to go?) Raise rates too soon, on the other hand, and you risk falling into a deflationary trap that could take years, even decades, to exit.

I see it from the workers’ standpoint, of course. It may be a little hard for Krugman to see what’s going on because he no longer lives in this world. But it is very simple: the people at the Fed are far more concerned about even the smallest threat to their rich friends than they are about the wholesale destruction of workers’ lives. And that’s why they do things that make Krugman scratch his head.

In the Dean Baker quote above, he was being being sarcastic. The people who want to puts the brakes on our small economic recovery haven’t forgotten the lessons of the late 1990s. And they don’t disagree with Krugman’s simple model. They just don’t care.

Haskell Wexler

Haskell WexlerThe great cinematographer Haskell Wexler is 93 years old today. He got his start in documentaries and that is what I love about him. I have a great love of beautiful lighting, but Wexler did something else. He brought the documentarian’s eye to the narrative film. He provides a cinéma vérité style even to work that doesn’t especially call for it. It is very much apparent in two of the bigger films that he shot: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

Wexler is the cinematographer that John Sayles has used the most. It was a good match. They both are interested in social issues, even though Wexler is, at base, a spoiled rich boy. They worked together on a really great film that I discussed before in, John Sayles and Matewan. And they also made the brilliant Bush take-down, Silver City. Here is the trailer for Matewan, which provides a very good idea of Wexler’s style:

Wexler is probably best known for Medium Cool, which he also wrote and directed. Unfortunately, I have never seen it. But I’ve requested it, so when I see it, I’m sure I’ll write about it.

Happy birthday Haskell Wexler!