Friday, June 24, 2016

The Lessons of the Brexit Vote

Yoni Appelbaum:
If there is a regnant consensus among the men and women who steer the Western world, it is this: The globe is flattening. Borders are crumbling. Identities are fluid. Commerce and communications form the warp and woof, weaving nations into the tight fabric of a global economy. People are free to pursue opportunity, enriching their new homes culturally and economically. There may be painful dislocations along the way, but the benefits of globalization heavily outweigh its costs. And those who cannot see this, those who would resist it, those who would undo it—they are ignorant of their own interests, bigoted, xenophobic, and backward.

So entrenched is this consensus that, for decades, in most Western democracies, few mainstream political parties have thought to challenge it. They have left it to the politicians on the margins of the left and the right to give voice to such sentiments—and voicing such sentiments relegated politicians to the margins of political life.
According to Appelbaum, elites have failed to effectively oppose the new ethno-nationalism because of weaknesses in both empathy and imagination:
To oppose rising nationalism, political elites turned to fear. They compared Trump to Hitler, Stalin, and Mussolini. They warned Brexit would plunge Britain into a black hole. They evoked the specter of Europe’s bloody past. These tactics barely worked in Austria. And they narrowly failed in Britain. It is an open question whether it will succeed in the United States.

This was the failure of empathy. The economic benefits of globalization are diffuse, it turns out, and its costs highly concentrated. For the worker whose factory has shuttered, cheaper T-shirts offer scant consolation. And the costs of cultural dislocation, although more difficult to quantify, are equally real. It is no coincidence that cultural discontent increases in the U.S. and the U.K. as a direct function of age—the further removed voters feel from the culture into which they were born, the more alien they feel in their own lands. Instead of addressing the pain many voters felt, politicians spent years telling their constituents they were wrong. Not just wrong, in fact, but dangerously ignorant.

Compounding this is a profound failure of imagination. Trump wants to make American great again; the Brexit campaigners promised to make Britain great again. They offer a false nostalgia, an illusory promise to restore a vision of national greatness that never truly existed in the first place. But it is a promise of change, a promise that things will be better once more. . . .

The Western political establishment is inclined to dismiss such reactions as bigotry that should not be dignified with a response. Instead, they deploy slogans of the status quo: Remain, Stronger Together. These are intended as dark warnings of the costs of change, and intimations that those who vote for it are motivated solely by prejudice and ignorance.

And here is where the failure of imagination proved catastrophic for the established elites. They failed to paint a vision of a better, brighter future. They failed to offer a persuasive account of how much their people had gained. They failed to address the real concerns of their constituents, or to acknowledge that the interests of different constituencies sometimes diverge. They looked at those who pointed to the flaws in the global consensus—from Bernie Sanders to Nigel Farage—and saw only ideologues making outlandish promises.

They audaciously gambled that by presenting a stark choice, an all-or-nothing vision of globalization, they could persuade their voters to go all in. They seem not to have seriously considered that voters would embrace the alternative.
This gets at something I have long felt about our political economy: nobody really likes the current system, but nobody has a convincing alternative. I think the Obama/Hillary platform would help, but it would not be in any way revolutionary and it would leave in place the things that most offend the disaffected. I agree with Appelbaum's elite straw man that Sander and Farage are ideologues making outlandish promises. So far as I can tell there is simply no available alternative to the mixed ("neo-liberal") systems used by all the world's advanced economies. People who long either for the past – the lifetime highly paid factory job – or a anarchist future without exploitation or drudgery are simply doomed to be disappointed. But they can vote a lot of trouble in the meantime.

Pawel Kuczynski

Polish artist born 1976, best known as a political satirist. Sometimes his satire seems very heavy-handed to me; I prefer his works that tend toward the whimsical, like the one above.







A Note about the Unpopularity of the EU

Worth remembering that no European country has had an election/referendum explicitly pitting national vs EU where EU won. None.

From Marginal Revolutions

Assyrian Cylinder Seal, 13th c. BCE


Britain Votes to Leave the EU

I don't have much to say about this, because I have no idea what will happen, but I thought I should note it.

I think this will be bad for the British economy, since big portions of their banking industry will shift to the continent, but I don't know how bad.

I wonder if this will lead to a new referendum in Scotland, which will vote to leave Britain and rejoin the EU? The Scots voted to remain 62-38.

Once again I think the most remarkable thing is how big a gap there is between the "leadership" of Britain and the majority of the people; 52% of Britons ignored their so-called leaders.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

The Naval Base of Classical Athens

For 11 years, ending in 2012, Danish archaeologists investigated the Naval bases of classical Athens. Much of what remains is under water in the harbors of Mounichia and Zea, parts of the port of Piraeus. (Sea levels have risen a lot in the Mediterranean because of something called "isostatic rebound": the glaciers of the last Ice Age pushed the northern Europe down, tilting the whole continent and lifting up the southern edge; since the ice melted the north has been slowly rising, and the south sinking. There are also local effects due to earthquakes etc.)

Map of classical Piraeus showing the two fortified harbors of Zea and Mounichia.

Within the harbor of Mounichia, the archaeologists excavated six massive, well-preserved ship house foundations, and found traces of at least a dozen more. (See reconstruction at the top of the post.) The foundation walls were 1.4 meters thick (4.6 feet) and made of massive stones. The ship houses are nearly 50 meters long. The total area of the ship houses at Zea was around 55,000 square meters, or 13 acres. This was a massive operation; ancient Athens made war on a grand scale, at least at sea.

The Danes think the first slipways at Mounichia were built around 490 BCE, when Themistocles persuaded his fellow Athenians to invest the windfall of silver from the Laurion mines in a powerful fleet. The ship houses were built up gradually over the second half of the century.

In the Zea harbour the Danes mapped six platforms cut into the rock. These slope down to the sea and the archaeologists think they are uncovered slipways for warships. They are bigger than the early classical ship houses (8 meters wide or 26 feet) and they may be for the larger penteres (Latin quinqueremes) of the Hellenistic period. (Above, view of the divers at work in the busy, polluted modern harbor, where visibility was often only a few inches.)

I would love to read more about this, but in the archaic way of classical archaeologists these Danes are publishing their findings in fat books that cost $100 each, and their web site has next to nothing in the way of scholarly information. Grrrr. When I run the world, all archaeological publishing will be done on the web.

Villa

"English Hall" at La Chappelle en Serval, designed by M. DelCourt.

People Who Disagree with Me are so Close-Minded

Pew has some new polling out about partisanship in America. My favorite thing about this graph is that the negative word partisans on both sides are most likely apply to the other party is "close-minded." Because anybody open-minded would obviously agree with me!

Tilghman's Sacrifice

Statue of Confederate Brigadier General Lloyd Tilghman on the Champion Hill battlefield in Mississippi. Tilghman's brigade was the Confederate rear guard, assigned to keep open the only bridge over which their defeated forces could retreat west toward Vicksburg. But since the Union forces were under Grant, not some namby-pamby eastern general, they attacked Tilghman's force, killed him, routed his brigade, and brought the bridge under artillery fire when only about 3/4 of the Confederates had been able to cross. The rest turned away to the south, and though most were eventually rallied they were out of the campaign for good. Anyway I like this statue, one of the better works I know of in the heroic sacrifice vein.

Multicultural Britain

Not sure the origin of this; it's been flying around Twitter.

Hillary's Economic Message

Wasting no time, Hillary rolls out her five-point economic plan:
I think it’s an understatement to say that Americans face a choice in November. As I said yesterday in Ohio, Donald Trump offers no real solutions for the economic challenges we face. He just continues to spout reckless ideas that will run up our debt and cause another economic crash. I’m here today to offer an alternative. I have a clear vision for the economy and it’s this. We need to make sure our economy works for everyone. Not just those at the top. . . .

Not just for the rich or the well-connected, not just for people living in some parts of the country or people from certain backgrounds and not others, I mean everyone. And I have a plan, I have a plan to get us there. Five steps we can take together to drive growth that’s strong, fair and lasting. Growth that reduces inequality, increases upward mobility, that reaches into every corner of our country. . . .

So do not grow weary. Do not grow weary. There are great ideas out there. And we are going to be partners in a big, bold effort to increase economic growth and distribute it more fairly, to build that economy that works for everyone, not just those at the top.

I believe the federal government should adopt five ambitious goals. First, let’s break through the dysfunction in Washington to make the biggest investment in new good-paying jobs since World War II. . . .

Second, let’s make college debt-free for all, and transform the way we prepare Americans for the jobs of the future. . . .

Third, let’s rewrite the rules so more companies share profits with their employers and few ship profits and jobs overseas. . . . If corporations try to move their headquarters to a foreign country to skip out on their tax bills, let’s slap a new exit tax on them, and then put that money to work in the communities left behind. . . .

Finally [sic, she meant "fourth"], let’s make sure that Wall Street corporations and the super rich pay their fair share of taxes. . . .

And finally, here’s our fifth goal. Let’s put families first, and make sure our policies match how you actually work and live in the 21st century. . . . You know, I looked at the numbers. In some states, two parents earning the minimum wage have to spend up to 35 percent of their income on childcare. For a single parent, it could be 70 percent. So I have set a goal. Families should not have to pay more than 10 percent of your income for childcare.
As we would expect from Hillary, this is the mainstream Democratic plan: higher taxes on the rich, major new infrastructure spending to create jobs, rewriting the laws on corporate behavior to make it harder to dodge taxes and easier to share earnings with employees, a complex scheme to reduce tuition and student debt by leveraging the huge amount of money the government spends on higher education, an equally complex scheme to subsidize child care through the tax code.

I support all of these things. And I especially like the "do not grow weary" line. After all Democratic politicians have been pushing for these things since her husband's 1992 campaign, with limited success, and some of us are weary indeed.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

The Rehabilitation of Ebenezer Scrooge

The badness of Ebenezer Scrooge is summed up in this little exchange with Marley's ghost:
"It's not my business," Scrooge returned. "It's enough for a man to understand his own business, and not to interfere with other people's."

"Business!" cried the ghost, wringing its hands again. "Mankind was my business."
In On the Difficult Virtue of Minding One's Own Business: Toward the Political Rehabilitation of Ebenezer Scrooge, philosopher Jerry Gaus defends Scrooge's attitude as exactly what is required in a liberal society.
The main criticisms of liberal society that have emerged over the last hundred years have all objected to its “live and let live” morality. James Fitzjames Stephen criticised John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, insisting that the principle “let every man please himself without hurting his neighbour” was “subversive of all that people commonly regard as morality.” To the conservative, a society’s morality is, first and foremost, about ensuring the virtue of its citizens, and so what others do with their lives is the business of everyone; thus the traditional conservative insistence that pornography, prostitution or homosexuality is indicative of an unsavory character. “There is,” Lord Devlin pronounced, “a general abhorrence of homosexuality. We should ask ourselves in the first instance whether, looking at it calmly and dispassionately, we regard it as a vice so abominable that its mere presence is an offence. If that is the feeling of society,” he concluded, “I do not see how society can be denied the right to eradicate it.”
Gaus deals with three different types of society: conservative societies, which enforce traditional norms of behavior on all their members, and two others he calls the Great Society and the Multicultural Society. Advocates of a Multicultural Society think diversity is good because all cultures are equally important, so the more we have the better. Advocates of the Great Society don't much care about good and bad, they simply think we should tolerate anyone who isn't troubling the rest of us:
This indicates the sharp contrast between the Great Society and the Multicultural Society. The Multiculturalist accepts that we live in a diverse society, but she insists that we should learn to appreciate other cultures and our differences. And we should appreciate them, it is said, because each has value. Indeed, some go so far as to insist that each culture has equal value. Charles Taylor is somewhat more careful. The proper attitude, he says, when approaching another culture is only a presumption that it has equal value. Perhaps after study we will conclude that it does not; but we ought to approach all cultures assuming that they have equal value to our own. Taylor is especially critical of those who are insensitive to the value of other cultures.
But to Gaus, multiculturalism has some troubling similarities to conservatism:
Multiculturalism thus seems the most open attitude to difference, endeavoring to understand it and appreciate its values. It might thus seem that multiculturalism is as far conservativism as one can imagine. Surprisingly enough, in an important way the two are very close. For multiculturalism also accepts that we need to live among those of whom we approve and whose lives we value. But this necessarily limits the plurality of society: while we can appreciate the differences of both Asian and European literature, it seems quite impossible to insist that we all appreciate and value Larry Flint’s particular blend of prose, photography and art. So that must be beyond the pale.
Thus both conservatism and multiculturalism get caught up in valuing different ways of life and telling people which they ought to prefer, which to Gaus is equally dubious whether it is done by Puritan ministers or left-wing anthropologists. Both can stray into the dangerous territory of telling other people what they ought to think.

Gaus uses feminist attacks on pornography as test cases of his view that other people's thoughts are none of our business. The basic feminist argument against pornography is that it encourages men to think of women in horrible ways. To Gaus this should not matter, because in the Great  – i.e. liberal – Society,
we live among and with people whom we do not like and of whom we often think badly, and we cannot claim a right to be conceived of only in ways we approve. 
We simply have to accept that some of our neighbors will hate and despise us and construct our institutions so as to keep that from doing too much harm.
But feminists make a second claim: the viewing and selling of pornography is the business of all women because the conception of women propagated by pornography undermines the public status of women and so their civil rights. If feminists are right about this the Great Society is impossible; at bottom their claim is that one cannot be a full juridical person in a society in which many others hold negative or dismissive conceptions of you. If this is so, a society in which citizens are public equals is only possible if we all appreciate each other and hold non-dismissive conceptions of each other. But this multiculturalist ideal is only plausible if we restrict the range of acceptable ideas, giving a less than equal freedom to undesirables— those who demean their fellow citizens. This list of demeaners is extensive, including racists, women-haters, men-haters, many fundamentalist Christians, militant atheists, Nietzscheans, militant vegetarians, animal rights activists . . . [very long list] . . . . In one way or another each of these groups present images of others that those others find offensive and demeaning, and which seek to lower the public status of the target group. To be sure, some of these attacks are of marginal importance from a “social perspective,” but they are no means marginal to those who have to live with these dismissive conceptions. And if the group “viewers of pornography” is large and influential enough to undermine the social status of women, then a good number of these other groups are also sufficiently large and weighty to undermine the public status of their favourite target. But the existence of a free society among strangers depends on the possibility that, despite these challenges to our preferred self-conceptions, an equal civil status is possible. And that, once again, brings us back to the possibility of at least minimal moral autonomy. If such autonomy is impossible, or if we live in a society where most have not achieved it, then what my neighbour thinks of me will be my business, and the regulation of her thoughts and conceptions of me will be a legitimate concern of mine.
From Gaus' perspective the activities of "social justice warriors" revolve around the idea he singles out: that we cannot have a free and equal society unless "we all appreciate each other and hold non-dismissive conceptions of each other." Thus it is not enough for society to allow gay marriage; everyone must think this gay marriage is great and LBGT people are awesome. Legal equality of ethnic groups is inadequate or even a distraction; what we need is to abolish racism.

I would much prefer a world with less hate. I have spent my adult life shunning hate and pursuing compassion, to the best of my limited spiritual abilities. But I am not at all on board with this program of abolishing hate and prejudice at any cost, because I do not accept that we have any right to control what other people think. This was the reason I reacted so strongly against the attacks on Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich, after he donated money to the campaign against legalizing gay marriage in California. Nobody could find a bad word to say about Eich as a colleague or boss, or point to a single example of him engaging in anti-gay or any other sort of prejudice. That being so, to my mind what he actually thinks is nobody's business.

Everybody is a hater. To crusade against haters is, therefore, to crusade against all of humanity. Most of the social justice warriors who fling around accusations of hate and prejudice hate all sorts of people, starting with southern conservative white men. The usual dodge they employ to excuse themselves is that hatred of those in power is something completely different from hatred of the weak. This is nothing but the old Bolshevik argument against enemies of the people, dressed up in hippy clothes, and I am not having it. It reeks of the Gulag. In practical, political terms fulminating against welfare queens or gypsies is a little different from raging against Wall Street tycoons, but to hate any group of people is still dangerous both to the whole society and the souls of those doing the hating. The Bolsheviks who embraced murdering aristocrats should have known that one day the knock on the door would be for them. In less apocalyptic terms, I have often noted here that when left-wing student protesters push for limits on other's people's speech, those limits always end up being used against the protesters themselves. The only way to insure that you are always free to say what you think is to guarantee that everyone has the same freedom.

Yes, there is something cold-blooded and theoretical about Gaus' argument. It is of course impossible to completely separate how we think and feel from what happens in society. "Society" is nothing but the actions and opinions of people. What others think of us does matter, and no legal regime can protect us from the effects of being widely despised. Simple psychological tests show that even people who think they are anti-racist prefer to work and socialize with people who look like themselves. Anti-discrimination laws can only do so much in the face of entrenched prejudice. Removed from the theoretical plane and put back into a real social context, the notion that we should all strive for indifference is both impractical and a little gross.

Yet to me the alternative of policing each other's thoughts is worse. If something beyond non-discrimination laws is needed to rectify racial and gender imbalance, let it be numerical quotas or some other system that imposes no burdens on what anybody thinks or feels.

I understand that what other people think matters to us; I suppose that by writing here and in lots of other ways I try to influence what other people think. But to me the idea that you get to tell me what to believe is unutterably awful. This has led me to think hard about what we can and cannot ask of each other. I think we can absolutely ask others to treat us decently, and to moderate their public speech. But I do not think we can demand that they approve of us. I do understand that the need for approval is great, and that to be despised is awful. I understand why people crusade for approval of their lifestyles and identities. Great, go for it, persuade whoever you can persuade. But be very, very careful about condemning the others, even in your own thoughts.

Boston 1860: the Oldest Surviving Aerial Photograph

According to the Smithsonian, this photograph of Boston in 1860, shot from a balloon, is the oldest surviving aerial photograph. It was taken by James Wallace Black. Black was the first American to take aerial photos, but French photographer Nadar had done the same thing in Paris two years before.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Ben Sasse is Not Happy with his Choices

From a long Times magazine article about the contemporary GOP, a bit on Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska, who says he will not vote for Trump or Clinton:
“There are Dumpster fires in my town more popular than these two ‘leaders,’ ” he wrote in a Facebook post in which he predicted the imminent breakup of both parties. He was harsher on Trump. Everywhere he goes in Nebraska, Sasse told me, people ask him for advice. “People say: ‘I’m distraught. I’m opposed to everything Hillary Clinton stands for, and yet I think I have to vote for her. How do you make sense of this? What should I do?’ ” he said. “These are young evangelical women, teary sometimes. They say, ‘I can never tell my kids I voted for that man.’ ”
I have also been thinking about evangelical women. During the last election I read a fascinating article about evangelical women, many of them stay-at-home moms, who threw themselves into volunteering for Romney and were devastated when he lost. They seemed to be supporting Romney mainly as a way of standing up for their own choices in life, and his defeat wounded them because the nation seemed to be passing judgment on those choices. But what will such a person do this time? Nobody could consider a Trump victory as an endorsement of putting religion and morality first, or a Hillary victory as an endorsement of godly motherhood.

I see two options: despair, or accept that maybe national politics really doesn't have much to do with the choices any of us make in life. I think it is a mistake to rely on a nationwide vote to validate your own identity. Other people just don't see the election the way you do, and their votes don't say anything one way or another about your own issues; you may think the election is a referendum on the place of Christianity in American life, but maybe I see it mainly as a matter of economic policy. If I were Ben Sasse, I would tell his worried constituents that it is ok to leave the presidential line blank if they can't support either candidate, but to show up anyway and vote for candidates they do support, and remember meanwhile that their spiritual lives should not depend so much on who happens to be president.

Smashing Pots

This is interesting:
In Denmark it is a good sign to find your door heaped with a pile of broken dishes at New Years. Old dishes are saved year around to throw them at the homes where their friends live on New Years Eve. Many broken dishes were a symbol that you have many friends.
Because this is a very old custom, going back to the Neolithic. Above are some reassembled pots from a Bell Beaker site of the early Bronze Age, all of which were intentionally smashed.

Here is some smashed pottery a 2700-year-old pit that I helped dig up a few years ago on the Potomac. This pit contained three smashed pots. I think they were ritually broken; why else would three nearly complete broken pots be in a pit that absolutely was not a grave?

It seems that for as long as people have been making pottery, they have been smashing it up to mark special occasions.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Britain's Twenty Most Historic Floors

No, really. The list comes from the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, part of their "History at Your Feet" campaign. ("A campaign to encourage everyone to be more aware of the importance of old floors.") The list includes the most obvious candidate, the Cosmati pavement in Westminster Abbey (above).

But the rest is an eclectic assortment that ranges from Roman mosaics to the nineteenth century. Above, fourteenth-century tiles at All Saints Church, Icklingham, Norfolk.

Eighteenth-century marble floor in the neoclassical Chapel of St Peter and St Paul at the Old Royal Naval College, designed by James ‘Athenian’ Stuart and William Newton.

Warped wooden floor at St. Mary's Guildhall, Coventry, early fifteenth century.

Nineteenth-century encaustic floor tiles at the medieval church of St Jerome at Llangwm Uchaf in Monmouthshire, Wales. More at the SPAB's web site.

Wages and the London Economy, 1261 to 1913

Three generations of economic historians have been mining Europe's records for data on wages and prices, and they have now built up some fairly impressive data sets. Here is one for masons working in London. The wage data comes from municipal and royal records of public building projects and is very reliable. The price data comes from a grab bag of sources, using the same sort of "basket of goods" approach we use for calculating inflation today. This data has the advantage that the basic goods (food, fuel, rent) were mostly the same over this period, since there were few innovations in consumer goods. But before 1600 the sources are spotty for everything but grain, and grain prices fluctuated due to the weather, so the numbers are far from certain. Still, they are pretty good.

The graph shows that before 1850 the well being of workers and their families was very much divorced from the overall state of the economy. Wages were high in the 1400s because repeated visitations of the plague kept the population low, and hence the national economy stagnant. The 1500s were a period a great population and economic growth for England as a whole, but as the graph shows this meant a significant decline in the real wages of ordinary workers. Wages weren't cut in nominal terms, they simply failed to keep pace with inflation. Inflation in this period was was fed by 1) a huge increase in the amount of silver in circulation, caused by Spanish looting in the Americas and new mines in Germany, and 2) a growing population competing for limited resources, which led to a big increase rents in London and other cities and a smaller increase in the price of food.

But notice that by 1860 the economy had entered a different world, leading to the first real transformation in the lives of ordinary workers since Roman times.

Source. Data is from Bob Allen.

Food Riots in Venezeula

In Venezuela, as the owned of a ransacked shop put it, "It is the meeting of hunger and crime now."
Venezuela is convulsing from hunger. Hundreds of people here in the city of Cumaná, home to one of the region’s independence heroes, marched on a supermarket in recent days, screaming for food. They forced open a large metal gate and poured inside. They snatched water, flour, cornmeal, salt, sugar, potatoes, anything they could find, leaving behind only broken freezers and overturned shelves.

In the last two weeks alone, more than 50 food riots, protests and mass looting have erupted around the country. Scores of businesses have been stripped bare or destroyed. At least five people have been killed. . . .

The nation is anxiously searching for ways to feed itself.

The economic collapse of recent years has left it unable to produce enough food on its own or import what it needs from abroad. Cities have been militarized under an emergency decree from President Nicolás Maduro, the man Mr. Chávez picked to carry on with his revolution before he died three years ago.

“If there is no food, there will be more riots,” said Raibelis Henriquez, 19, who waited all day for bread in Cumaná, where at least 22 businesses were attacked in a single day last week.

But while the riots and clashes punctuate the country with alarm, it is the hunger that remains the constant source of unease.

A staggering 87 percent of Venezuelans say they do not have money to buy enough food, the most recent assessment of living standards by Simón Bolívar University found.
I have no idea how this will play out. Things just keep getting worse, with no sign that the government has any idea of how to fix the situation. If they went grovelling to the World Bank they could probably get an emergency loan to buy staple food, but that would mean surrendering to the forces of neoliberal global capitalism, opposition to which has been one of the main pillars of Chavismo. The regime emerged from the army and the officer corps has been stacked with Chávez loyalists, so a coup seemed unlikely. But if there is no regime change, how does this end?

Incidentally Venezuela's turmoil has boiled over into Spanish politics. The leaders of Spain's new left-wing party Podemos were all inspired by Chavismo and some of them worked for the Chávez government, and their opponents have been all over the airwaves reminding the voters of this. Moderate politicians love having a failed radical state they can point to as an example of what might easily go wrong should their own radicals take over.

Happy Solstice

May the season of light bring you joy.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

More Archaeology of the Museum Basement

I love stories like this one from the Orkneys:
A long lost Neolithic human figurine, found at Skara Brae in the 1860s, has been rediscovered in the collections of Stromness Museum. Dr David Clarke identified the figurine among artefacts from Skaill House donated to the museum without provenance in the 1930s.
Until last week the figurine had been known only from a sketch in the notebooks of antiquarian George Petrie, but now we have the real thing. Delightfully bizarre little figurine, too, carved of whalebone in the neolithic period. The museum calls that lower hole the "navel" but I have my doubts.

Millions of Spiders

Back in 2009, the Back River Wastewater Treatment Plant in Baltimore called in some professional entomologists to help them with what they called an "extreme spider situation" in their sand filtration building. The entomologists later wrote,
We were unprepared for the sheer scale of the spider population and the extraordinary masses of both three dimensional and sheet-like webbing that blanketed much of the facility’s cavernous interior. Far greater in magnitude than any previously recorded aggregation of orb-weavers, the visual impact of the spectacle was was nothing less than astonishing.

In places where the plant workers had swept aside the webbing to access equipment, the silk lay piled on the floor in rope-like clumps as thick as a fire hose.
The building measures about 4 acres (16,000 m2). Counting up the spiders in a couple of small sample areas, the entomologists calculated that there might be 35,176 spiders per cubic meter, or 107 million in the whole structure. (They considered this estimate "markedly conservative.")

This crazy story has slowly spread around the internet, largely because of a 2014 story in Wired by Gwen Pearson. It eventually made its way to my Facebook feed, where it showed up yesterday.

The spread of the story led to a deluge of requests to the American Entomologists for access to the article, and they finally caved and put the original piece online where anyone can see it.

The most common species in the giant web, making up 75 percent of the total, was Tetragnatha guatemalensis. (Magnified picture; remember they are mostly about a centimeter across.) These are the champion builders of giant webs in North America. Their family is sometimes called the "long-jawed orb weavers," for obvious reasons. These are the same spiders that built those tree-covering webs in Texas you may have seen pictures of. One reason the webs in the sand filtration facility got so much bigger is that they are protected from thunderstorms, which badly damaged the Texas webs not long after the famous photographs were taken.

The recommendations the entomologists offered to the wastewater treatment people included the following:
Onsite personnel should be reassured that the spiders are harmless and the facility's immense shroud of silk should be presented in a positive light as a record-breaking natural history wonder.
That's making lemonade from your lemons.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

The Gaulcross Hoard

Fascinating discoveries in northeastern Scotland:
More than 170 years ago, Scottish laborers clearing a rocky field with dynamite discovered three beautiful silver artifacts: a hand pin, a chain and a spiral bangle. But instead of looking for more treasures, they followed orders to turn the field into farmland, squashing hopes of archaeologists for years to come.

Recently, however, archaeologists surveyed the field and uncovered a hoard of 100 silver items, including coins, and pieces of brooches and bracelets, all dating to late Roman times, during the fourth or fifth centuries AD, according to a new report of the find, which is now called the Gaulcross hoard.

So the Romans traded silver objects north to the Picts, and what did the Picts do with them? Cut them into pieces and bury them in the ground. Barbarians!

Love this strange item.

Playing with Political Fire

In Britain today some people are anguished over the assassination of a member of Parliament, Jo Cox. The argument is being put out that this was the inevitable result of the tone of the "Brexit" campaign, which its opponents find to be dangerously full of anger and loathing:
The motive of Ms. Cox’s killer will become clearer in the weeks to come. But it shouldn’t take the death of a politician to alert us to the dangers of the politics of hate.
They have in mind statements like this one this one from Nigel Farage of the anti-imigrant party UKIP:
If people feel they’ve lost control completely — and we have lost control of our borders completely, as members of the European Union — if people feel that voting doesn’t change anything, then violence is the next step.
Which causes moderate establishmentarians to recoil in horror. They point at Cox's assassination and say, "See?"

Over this looms fear of humanity's dark side. There are certain emotions, some people feel, so dangerous that the first duty of political leadership is to never invoke them. Contemplating Trump's angry response to the Orlando shooting, Timothy Egan fretted over "how the civil ties that bind a nation of people from all nations could be shredded."

I have been thinking about this over the past few months, trying to sort out what separates anarchists and followers of Trump from the rest of America. When people call Trump a dangerous demagogue, are they just recoiling from ideas they disagree with? Or is there a deeper division here that cuts across the conventional boundaries of politics, between people who care and worry about social peace and people who see the status quo as an oppressive monolith to be smashed?

Are there people who genuinely fear any idea that might foment anger and hatred, whether they agree with it or not? There must be something of this, since many people dread conflict of any sort, but how important is this sense in political terms? Trump, alas, is not a good test case. Some of the Republicans who refuse to support him may be put off by his angry demagogy, but maybe others worry about putting such an incurious egomaniac in charge of the government, or just find him a tasteless boor.

So I wonder. I have always thought of a strong desire for social peace and order, along with worry that they might be destroyed, as a key part of the conservative mindset. This is what I mean when I say that I find many contemporary Republicans to be anything but conservative. To me, a desire to smash the system, to "burn it to ashes," is the opposite of conservatism. But is it perhaps inevitable that some conservatives would respond that way to too much change coming too fast?

Could it be that the most important thing making for a successful state is a majority that thinks the status quo, whatever its flaws, is worth protecting from radicals? That a democracy can tolerate any opinion except the opinion that some issues are more important than the democracy itself? Is moderate horror at people like Trump and Farage justified defense of a system that is both worth defending and vulnerable to destruction through hateful rage? Or is it just bourgeois fuddy-duddyness, the political equivalent of panicking over swine flu? Or, in a more sinister vein, a way to keep certain ideas (like opposition to immigration) from being discussed at all?

I am myself an establishmentarian fan of order, dubious that any revolutionary change would improve things enough to justify the price in turmoil and chaos. But even I find some of the things people have said about Trump and UKIP to be over-the-top ridiculous. If the survival of European civilization is threatened by Brexit, then European civilization is in a pathetic state. The boy who cried wolf comes to mind.

Our civilization is robust; Hitler and Stalin between them failed to bring it down, and Trump and Farage are not likely to manage it. But our public discourse can certainly be better or worse, our politics more productive or less so. I think our leaders have a duty to work for comity rather than ratchet up the rancor, so I will never myself support angry crusaders. I am not, though, ready to say that political anger is always wrong, or to try to silence the voices of rage.

Graciela Iturbide

Mexican photographer, born 1942. She once said, "The camera is just a pretext for knowing the world." More at her web site and National Geographic. (Oaxaca botanic garden, 2000)


Both of these are from Those who live in the Sand, 1979.



From Birds, 1988.

Texas, 2000.

Mozambique, 2006.

Our Lady of the Iguanas, 1979.