Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Some Considered Reactions to Trump's Inaugural

We are at a fragile moment in the history of our republic. Our political order is weaker than it has been at any time in living memory, and possibly weaker than it has been at any time since 1860. There may be those who welcome the decline of the political order, because they consider it corrupt, ineffective and hostage to special interests. And, well … it sort of is all those things. But I don’t welcome its decline, when no one is offering a better alternative to take its place. It is very easy to identify the flaws with an existing order, but much harder to put something better in its place, as the communists found out to the sorrow of millions of people.

Liberal democracy is an uneasy truce worked out after centuries of vicious religious wars in Europe, a compromise in which we all agreed to commit to a peaceful process for resolving our most fundamental disputes, even if we hated the normative propositions that process ended up endorsing. Why did we do this? Because the alternative to living with sin is shooting the sinners. And being labeled a sinner. And being shot.
David Brooks:
The very thing that made him right electorally for this moment will probably make him an incompetent president. He is the ultimate anti-institutional man, but the president sits at the nerve center of a routinized, regularized four-million-person institution. If the figure at the center can’t give consistent, clear and informed direction, the whole system goes haywire, with vicious infighting and creeping anarchy.

Some on the left worry that we are seeing the rise of fascism, a new authoritarian age. That gets things exactly backward. The real fear in the Trump era should be that everything will become disorganized, chaotic, degenerate, clownish and incompetent.

The real fear should be that Trump is Captain Chaos, the ignorant dauphin of disorder. All the standard practices, norms, ways of speaking and interacting will be degraded and shredded. The political system and the economy will grind to a battered crawl.
Rod Dreher:
His hyperbole was awful. “Carnage”? Really? You would think that we had been living out a long national nightmare of Mordorian intensity. It rang false, as did Trump’s grandiose promises to bring all the factories back, eliminate Islamic terrorism,  and so forth. He’s raising expectations unrealistically high. When this stuff fails to materialize, is he going to blame “Washington”?

. . . that was not the speech of a man who is capable of leading a government that he does not command. Many people have faulted its dark quality, but for a pessimist like me, that’s not necessarily a fault. The country really does have big problems, with no easy solutions, if they can be solved at all. That said, he really does seem to be a menacing figure, chiefly (to me) because he has a hot temper, no self-control and no fixed principles. And it is unnerving to watch a US president deploy rhetoric to ramp up fear and manipulate his listeners into thinking that only he can save us.

Monday, January 23, 2017

The Acropolis in the Snow

Education is Hard, Continued

Via the Post, the Obama administration is issuing a depressing report on its own school reform efforts:
One of the Obama administration’s signature efforts in education, which pumped billions of federal dollars into overhauling the nation’s worst schools, failed to produce meaningful results, according to a federal analysis.

Test scores, graduation rates and college enrollment were no different in schools that received money through the School Improvement Grants program — the largest federal investment ever targeted to failing schools — than in schools that did not. The Education Department published the findings on the website of its research division on Wednesday, hours before President Obama’s political appointees walked out the door. . . .

The School Improvement Grants program has been around since the administration of President George W. Bush, but it received an enormous boost under Obama. The administration funneled $7 billion into the program between 2010 and 2015 — far exceeding the $4 billion it spent on Race to the Top grants.

The money went to states to distribute to their poorest-performing schools — those with exceedingly low graduation rates, or poor math and reading test scores, or both. Individual schools could receive up to $2 million per year for three years, on the condition that they adopt one of the Obama administration’s four preferred measures: replacing the principal and at least half the teachers, converting into a charter school, closing altogether, or undergoing a “transformation,” including hiring a new principal and adopting new instructional strategies, new teacher evaluations and a longer school day.
This program was an experiment; the idea was to give bad schools a million dollars or so to reinvent themselves. While a few schools were very successful, they were balanced out by many more that achieved no measurable improvement.

Sunday, January 22, 2017


Lots of people I know were at the Women's March in Washington yesterday, part of a huge crowd.

What I like about this is the positive energy; lots of my friends have been in foul moods ever since the election, and I gather millions of liberals have been alternately angry, sad, frightened, and frustrated. So it's good to see people out having fun and trying to put their demons behind them.

I like the determination to keep fighting, and the sense of humor.

I think this sign works best as a critique of the architecture behind her.

On the other hand, there wasn't much of a concrete agenda here, and a fair amount of squabbling about what the agenda should have been. Lots of Trump is bad, we're not going away, we're going to keep fighting – but for what? Lots of signs against Trump's groping etc., but we all already know that and 50 million Americans voted for him anyway.

And then there was the dreaded chant, "This is what democracy looks like." Because as far as I am concerned, democracy doesn't look like that at all. People can protest for democracy, but they can also protest for communism, fascism – one of the most famous protest marches ever was Mussolini's 1922 March on Rome – anarchism, banning fur coats, mining more coal, legalizing abortion, banning abortion, shooting wolves,  or just about anything else. They can protest for Donald Trump. Marching can be a great way to generate enthusiasm for a cause, or (as in this case) to stave off despair after a defeat, or to draw attention. But there is nothing inherently democratic about marching.

What does Democracy look like? To me, it looks like people lining up calmly to vote, or going to local commissions to speak for or against proposals, or sitting around a committee table wrangling about the language of legislation. It is grinding and serious and no fun and takes years and years to achieve anything of note. Politics is, as Max Weber put it, "a strong and slow boring of hard boards."

Marching can be fun and exciting, but by itself it changes nothing. The youthful protesters of the western world have made this mistake again and again. They take to the streets and make signs and shout slogans and feel like they are winning, but they don't bother to vote or to follow up in any other way, and eventually older, better organized people operating behind the scenes frustrate all their schemes. Even in 1968, when America was rocked by protests collectively many times what we saw yesterday, Nixon won the election. Here's a nice bit from a female Trump supporter in a small Michigan town:
There are bigger concerns in Niles than expanding the rights of women, many people said. They worry about the state of local schools, the cost of health care and the town’s economy, which has struggled with the loss of manufacturing jobs.

Mr. Trump’s campaign promise to “Make America Great Again” had special resonance in Rust Belt towns like Niles, said Tracy Guetterman, 49, a retail manager, as she stopped to show her 6-year-old granddaughter Melanie an ice sculpture in the shape of “U.S.A.”

“Personally, I’d love to see our country go back to one parent working, like the good old days,” she said. “I want to be able to quit my job.”

Ms. Guetterman saw the marches as nothing more than complaining from liberals. “Quit blaming everybody for your problems,” she said. “Get out there and do it yourself.”
There is your challenge, progressives; what do you have to say to voters like Tracy Guetterman that might get her to vote for you next time? Jokes about Trump's hands aren't going to do it.

I'm with this guy; I'm not usually a sign guy, but I can get behind protesting Trump, at least theoretically. Let's all rally and help each other get set for years of opposition. But let's not forget to do the hard stuff.

Boar's Tusk Rattle from Heuneburg

I wrote a few years ago about the Celtic Princess of the Danube, a spectacular burial dated to 583 BCE excavated in Germany. I was just reading an update article at the History Blog, and saw one object I had not seen before: this piece of "jewelry" made from boar's tusks and metal jingly bells. This looks to me like a shaman's rattle.

A Call to Action for America

Let’s care about someone who does not belong to our tribe.

– from an open letter from Irma Olguin and Jake Soberal, the founders of Bitwise, a tech incubator/school/hub in Fresno, California. Fresno, incidentally, is not on the coast but in the heart of the Central Valley, a region that if it were a state (it is larger than several) would be the poorest state in the Union.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

The Escape of the Abraham Crijnssen

The Abraham Crijnssen was a Dutch minesweeper based at Surabaya in the Netherlands East Indies when Japan invaded in 1941. The Japanese wiped out most of the allied fleet in the two battles of the Java Sea and Sunda Strait in late March 1942. All surviving allied ships were then ordered to withdraw to Australia. The crew of the Abraham Crijnssen found themselves alone, with the seas controlled by the Japanese Navy, the air controlled by Japanese planes. They carefully planned their escape:
To avoid detection by Japanese aircraft, the ship was heavily camouflaged with jungle foliage, giving the impression of a small island. Personnel cut down trees and branches from nearby islands, and arranged the cuttings to form a jungle canopy covering as much of the ship as possible. Any hull still exposed was painted to resemble rocks and cliffs. To further the illusion, the ship would remain close to shore, anchored and immobile during daylight, and only sail at night. She headed for Fremantle, Western Australia, where she arrived on 20 March 1942; Abraham Crijnssen was the last vessel to successfully escape Java, and the only ship of her class in the region to survive.
That's the Abraham Crijnssen above, disguised as an island.

Since the Netherlands had just been absorbed into Germany, the ship was re-commissioned in the Royal Australian Navy and served out the rest of the war.

Trump's Inaugural

Trump goes back to his campaign themes:
Today's ceremony, however, has very special meaning. Because today, we are not merely transferring power from one administration to another or from one party to another. But we are transferring power from Washington, D.C., and giving it back to you, the people. For too long, a small group in our nation's capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost. Washington flourished, but the people did not share in its wealth. Politicians prospered, but the jobs left. And the factories closed. The establishment protected itself but not the citizens of our country. Their victories have not been your victories. Their triumphs have not been your triumphs. And while they celebrated in our nation’s capital, there was little to celebrate for struggling families all across our land. That all changes starting right here and right now. Because this moment is your moment. It belongs to you. . . .

What truly matters is not which party controls our government but whether our government is controlled by the people. January 20th, 2017 will be remembered as the day the people became the rulers of this nation again.

The forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer. Everyone is listening to you now. You came by the tens of millions to become part of a historic movement, the likes of which the world has never seen before.

At the center of this movement is a crucial conviction -- that a nation exists to serve its citizens. Americans want great schools for their children, safe neighborhoods for their families and good jobs for themselves.

These are just and reasonable demands of righteous people and a righteous public. But for too many of our citizens, a different reality exists. Mothers and children trapped in poverty in our inner cities, rusted out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation, an education system flush with cash but which leaves our young and beautiful students deprived of all knowledge. And the crime, and the gangs, and the drugs that have stolen too many lives and robbed our country of so much unrealized potential. This American carnage stops right here and stops right now.
This is Trump's genius; the populist call for the people to reclaim their country. But what is this people power going to mean? He gave a few hints.
We defended other nation’s borders while refusing to defend our own. And spent trillions and trillions of dollars overseas while America's infrastructure has fallen into disrepair and decay.

We've made other countries rich while the wealth, strength, and confidence of our country has dissipated over the horizon. One by one, the factories shuttered and left our shores with not even a thought about the millions and millions of American workers that were left behind.

The wealth of our middle class has been ripped from their homes and then redistributed all across the world. But that is the past and now we are looking only to the future.
We assembled here today are issuing a new decree to be heard in every city, in every foreign capital and in every hall of power. From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land. From this day forward, it's going to be only America first — America first.

Every decision on trade, on taxes, on immigration, on foreign affairs will be made to benefit American workers and American families. We must protect our borders from the ravages of other countries making our products, stealing our companies and destroying our jobs.
There is much here I agree with. If we had taken the trillion or so dollars we spent in Iraq and spent it instead in America, we would be in a much better place. If we could shift some military spending to civilian use we would be even better off, but one of Trump's peculiarities is that he makes a rigid distinction between money spent overseas and military spending, when they are largely the same thing. I am not at all sure foreign trade has been a loss for the nation as a whole, but it has certainly hurt some Americans.
America will start winning again, winning like never before.

We will bring back our jobs. We will bring back our borders. We will bring back our wealth, and we will bring back our dreams. We will build new roads and highways and bridges and airports and tunnels and railways all across our wonderful nation. We will get our people off of welfare and back to work rebuilding our country with American hands and American labor. We will follow two simple rules -- buy American and hire American.
There are, I think, three fundamental questions about the Trump administration. The first one is whether "America First" will translate into foreign restraint or yet more adventurism and foreign war. So far the signals on that one are mixed. The second is whether Trump's economic populism will turn out to be a mere bait and switch cover for old-fashioned Republican economics: cut taxes on the rich, deregulate the banks and hope something trickles down. So far the signals on this are all bad, with lots of talk about tax cuts but no real movement on infrastructure spending. But I'm still trying to give Trump the benefit of the doubt on this one; I do think he wants to build things, and he has already shown he is willing to speak against Republican tax plans. Time will tell. And then:
At the bedrock of our politics will be a total allegiance to the United States of America and through our loyalty to our country, we will rediscover our loyalty to each other. When you open your heart to patriotism, there is no room for prejudice.
This raises the third, and perhaps most fundamental question: will Trump respect freedom? If all he does is tweet against news outlets that attack him or refuse to call on their reporters at press conferences, fine. If all he does is rant about politicians who oppose him and call them names, well, we pay them to put up with that sort of abuse. But if he takes real measures against his opponents, all hell will break loose. Let's hope he never goes there.

Friday, January 20, 2017

The Lycurgus Cup

The Lycurgus Cup is a piece of Roman glass made around 300 CE. Its name comes from the carving, which shows the mythical King Lycurgus. Lycurgus tried to kill Ambrosia, a follower of the god Dionysus, but in response to her prayers she was transformed into a vine that twined around the king and strangled him. When the cup is not lit from the back, so that all you see is reflected light, it is green.

But when light shines through it, the color changes dramatically.

The color change is caused by tiny particles of gold and silver in the glass. Nobody knows how this was done or if the makers even understood very well what they were doing; most so-called "dichroic" Roman glass has the property very unevenly. But they sure got it right this time.

Pieter van der Borcht the Elder

The Difficulty of Ruling over a Diverse Nation, 1578

The Afterlife of Envious Casca's Table

One of the thousands of fascinating objects found in Pompeii was this stone table base.

It is inscribed P CASCA LONG on each of the three points where the wooden top would have rested on the base. The standard interpretation is that this represents Publius Servilius Casca Longinus, one of the assassins of Julius Caesar and the one who struck the first blow. "See what a rent the envious Casca made," says Shakespeare's Antony. So how did the table of that famous Roman end up in Pompeii 123 years later?

After the assassination, Casca and the other assassins fled Rome and joined the "Liberators' Revolt" led by Brutus and Cassius. They lost, defeated by Antony and Octavian, and Casca is thought to have committed suicide after the battle of Philippi in 42 BCE. As an enemy of the state – since the so-called Second Triumvirate held power in Rome – his property would have bee seized and sold at auction. So some Roman likely bought this table at that auction. And then it was passed down through the family or sold to other buyers, bearing the name of Caesar's assassin in a place not usually visible but easy enough to reveal. Was this a sort of silent protest against the imperial regime, or just more of a conversation starter? And note that by 79 CE it might have served in that role even if it was actually carved for some other Casca, since more than a century later those more obscure Cascas would have been forgotten and the name would have only meant the assassin.

I was just reminded of this theory by Mary Beard, The Fires of Vesuvius (2008), a pretty good popular book on Pompeii.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Jaskologist's Theory of Magic

Jaskologist, a commenter at Slate Star Codex, has a theory about magic. It starts from a weird video that shows some guy using glitches in Super Mario Brothers 3 to warp to the end. He goes on:
This is magic, and evidence that we live in a simulation.

SMB3 is a completely deterministic world, with easily discovered rules. And yet, it still contains these little pieces that act completely outside of the normally observable rules. What that guy is doing in that video is magic. There’s no substantial difference between “jump on the turtles when they have these facial expressions in this order” and “gather the tears of a virgin during a full moon.”

So, if we are in a simulation, we would expect there to be bugs in our universe, which might be exploited with just the right series of normally-unremarkable actions. In-universe, we call that magic.

“But Jaksologist,” you object, “we’ve investigated magic rather thoroughly and found that it does not work! Doesn’t this cut against your theory?”

On the contrary, you are missing a very important difference between our world and SMB3. SMB3 was released and done with; our world is still being maintained. So what we would expect to see in our world are bugs/magics that work for a while, but then stop once the god/grad student who maintains our code patches the bug.

Looking back in history, we might even be so lucky as to see the people who were around taking note of the dying of magic. . . .

Two Ancient Necklaces

Both of these were sold by Gorny und Mosch in December. They are said to come from Central Asia and to date to 2500 - 1500 B.C.E. They are made of etched carnelian and gold beads; the one below also has a banded agate at its center.

What do Do about Public Schools

The fury surrounding Trump's nomination of  Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education is a good opportunity for me to say that I don't participate much in these debates because I don't have a clue.

I do not have a very high opinion of public education in the United States, and my two older sons hated it with a passion. I gather it is the liberal position to oppose charter schools and such experiments because we are supposed to value community schools that educate everyone, but I have noticed that my acquaintances who live in big cities fight like crazy to get their kids into charters or schools for the arts or some other sort of alternative to the local school. Neither the Clintons nor the Obamas sent their kids to DC public schools.

On the other hand I am suspicious of "reformers" who seem to think that everything will magically improve if we can just get rid of teachers' unions and other liberal impediments to entrepreneurship. Nothing makes me value community schools more than flint-eyed millionaires with plans to sow chaos and thrive on it. All of these schemes seem to rest at some level on paying teachers less and working them harder, and that I will not support.

On some third hand, everyone whose childhood was blighted by a grouchy old adder with unimpeachable seniority, or whose children suffered through one, can sympathize with the idea that we might start our improvement plan by firing the worst teachers. My youngest son had such a teacher in the third grade and I think that rather than progressing he regressed a year.

My basic positions are 1) education is hard; and 2) we in the United States simply don't value it enough to get very good results. Cultures get good at what they value; food in France really is better. Because we don't care as much about K-12 education as the Koreans or the Finns, our schools are worse.

What we can do about that, I have no idea. But some of the rigid thinking and ugly shouting I see in the news about DeVos turns my stomach, as does all such ideological wrangling. Isn't there a better way to debate something we all claim to value?

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Talking Inequality at Davos

Everyone at the Davos summit is talking about inequality and what to do about it. But according to Peter Goodman, the conversation skips over obvious remedies like stronger unions or higher taxes on the rich in favor of this sort of thing:
The answers from the corporate executives who comprised a panel could be crudely boiled down to this: The people who have not benefited from globalization need to try harder to emulate those who have succeeded.

Abidali Neemuchwala, the chief executive officer of Wipro, the global information technology and consulting company that hosted the event along with The Financial Times — and who last year earned some $1.8 million plus stock grants worth an additional $2 million or so — said working people would have to pursue training for the jobs of the future.

“People have to take more ownership of upgrading themselves on a continuous basis,” he said.

. . . . Ray Dalio, founder of the American investment firm Bridgewater Associates — who took home $1.4 billion in compensation in 2015 — suggested the key to reinvigorating the middle class was to “create a favorable environment for making money.” He touted in particular the “animal spirits” unleashed by stripping away regulations.
More animal spirits! Why didn't I think of that?

Better get back to work on my continuous upgrade. . . .

American Culture

I just walked past a poster that blares:
Mastering the Art of Advocating for Yourself
And I thought, somehow that sums up America in the 21st century. The text describes an upcoming talk by a
leadership coach and facilitator who has dedicated her career to supporting people to be the best version of themselves. . . . she has worked to support entrepreneurs, executives, aspiring entrepreneurs, and career professionals to achieve their goals.
And if you're not in one of those categories, why not?

Ancient Art from Recent Auctions

Attic black-figure kyathos of the Caylus Painter. 500 - 480 B.C. That must be Herakles with the bow and lion skin; not sure who the other fellow is.

GorgoMedusa, c. 500 BCE.

Magical amulet carved in redblack jasper. The front side shows the Middle Eastern divinity Abraxas. The back is inscribed IAW, possibly intended to be the Hebrew name of God. From the Roman Empire in the 2nd or 3rd century C.E. There seem to be scratches across the image; could that have been a hurried attempt to damage its power?

Mosaic round panel of a boar, chiseled out of some larger composition with "possible small restorations." Diameter 36 cm, or 14 inches.

Marble head of Hermes, c. 170 C.E.

Golden ring with a gemstone made of red cornelian depicting the helmeted Fortuna Panthea, 2nd or 3rd century C.E.

Terracotta votive head, 400 to 200 BCE.

Hellenistic Earrings.

Lekythos from Greek Italy, 325-300 BCE.

Etruscan bronze figurine of Herakles, c. 500 BCE

Silver Skyphos, c. 200-100 BCE. All from Gorny und Mosch.

The Denunciation

In 1900, Congressman Edmund Driggs was part of the committee that investigated a hazing scandal at West Point in which a cadet died. He called the incident
atrocious, base, detestable, disgraceful, dishonourable, disreputable, heinous, ignominious, ill-famed, nefarious, odious, outrageous, perfidious, scandalous, shameful, shameless, villainous, and wicked.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

The Lansdowne Throne of Apollo

This famous marble throne was excavated in Italy in the eighteenth century and purchased in 1798 by William Petty Fitzmaurice, the first Marquess of Lansdowne. It remained in his noble family until 1930, when his reduced descendants sold off their whole collection of classical art. They buyer of this piece was William Randolph Hearst, who then gave it to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, where it still resides. Unfortunately you can't see it; for unexplained reasons it is "not on display."

There is now no information about exactly where this came from, some everything about its history is speculation. It is dated on stylistic grounds to between 50 and 100 CE. Most experts agree that it was never intended to be sat on, and therefore that it comes from a temple or other ritual context. The detail of the carving on the seat and the back is still in good shape, so it is certain that it never was sat on very much. It is carved with symbols of Apollo – his bow and quiver and a serpent that probably connects to the Python and thus to his temple at Delphi. Indeed some historians think it may be a copy of a Delphic throne.

I wondered if it might be fake, which would explain why it is no longer on display, but if there are theories to that effect the internet doesn't seem to know about them. So, an amazing object, a fascinating and mysterious survival of Roman religion.

Some Historical Wagnerians

Emile Fischer as Wotan, 1889.

Luise Jaide as Waltraute, 1876. Possibly a favorite of the guys who drew Bugs Bunny.

Clarence Whitehill as the Wanderer, the guise in which Wotan meets and instructs Siegfried, 1907

David Bispham as Alberich, c. 1900.

Fritz Feinhals as Wotan, 1903.

Edyth Walker as Brunnhilde, c. 1900

If you want an introduction to the Ring cycle you can watch all of Das Rheingold here with English subtitles. The conductor is Pierre Boulez and the staging is by Patrice Chéreau; this production is visually fine and sounds ok, too. There are better sound recordings but opera is drama, not just music, and I have trouble listening without seeing.

Obama as a Disciplined Reader

Interesting article by Times book reviewer Michiko Kakutani about President Obama as a reader. As with everything else about his life, the striking thing about his reading is the discipline with which he pursues it:
In his searching 1995 book Dreams From My Father, Mr. Obama recalls how reading was a crucial tool in sorting out what he believed, dating back to his teenage years, when he immersed himself in works by Baldwin, Ellison, Hughes, Wright, DuBois and Malcolm X in an effort “to raise myself to be a black man in America.” Later, during his last two years in college, he spent a focused period of deep self-reflection and study, methodically reading philosophers from St. Augustine to Nietzsche, Emerson to Sartre to Niebuhr, to strip down and test his own beliefs.
As a community organizer in Chicago Obama not only read every day but also wrote stories, which he described as "reflective and melancholy."

In the White House Obama has tried to read for at least an hour every night. Among the books he seems to have read over the past eight years are Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad; Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow; Elizabeth Kolbert, The Sixth Extinction; and Liu Cixin, The Three Body Problem; Lauren Groff, Fates and Furies; Gillian Flynn, Gone Girl. He recently invited five of his favorite novelists to lunch: Whitehead, Dave Eggers, Zadie Smith, Junot Díaz and Barbara Kingsolver, and in 2015 he traveled to Iowa to interview Marilynne Robinson in her home. Other writers he mentions include Hemingway, V.S. Naipaul, Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, Doris Lessing, Maxine Hong Kingston, Toni Morrison, M.L. King, Nelson Mandela, Teddy Roosevelt, Churchill, and Jhumpa Lahiri, and he says he has read a lot of presidential biographies.

Quite likely he is the greatest reader we have had as president since the nineteenth century.

Monday, January 16, 2017

The Most Important Unanswered Question in Social Science

Let’s say you are in Germany. People engage in rule-following behavior, and they become quite emotionally stressed if you suggest you might break the rules in especially inappropriate ways.

Alternatively, in Naples there is more garbage in the streets, and flexibility and rigidity across a very different set of social variables. I call that a difference in “culture,” and I am ready to accept culture as an ill-defined, question-begging term.

Now, how do differences of culture — however defined — interact with traditional economic mechanisms involving prices, incomes, and simple comparative statics? Are those competing explanations, namely cultural vs. economic? Ought they to dovetail nicely in some kind of broader explanation? Or might the cultural factors in some manner be “reduced” to questions of more traditional economics? Some combination of the above? Something else altogether? And, from among these and other options, what principles of differentiation rule how “culture” and “economics” will be related in a particular problem?
My version:
How much does culture matter to how we experience life? In particular, how important are differences in culture compared to differences between people in the same culture?

Is it really true that you can never understand someone from another culture? If so, how close can we get, and how? Does literature help, or music, or living in their cities or villages? Does this apply only to "big" cultures, like say, contemporary American vs. Amazon Indian? Or does it also apply (or how much does it apply) to white vs. black Americans, or men vs. women?

What about people with a different personality type – can we understand them?

How well do we really understand any other person? 
I take "understanding" other people to mean being able to predict what they feel in common or important situations and knowing in our bones what that feels like. But I think these questions apply with any definition.

Perks of Office

President Obama:
One of the great treats of being president is, in the Lincoln Bedroom, there’s a copy of the Gettysburg Address handwritten by him, one of five copies he did for charity. And there have been times in the evening when I’d just walk over, because it’s right next to my office, my home office, and I just read it.

Stefan Johannson

Stefan Johannson (1876-1955) was a Swedish watercolor painter from Värmland, a very rural district in the hilly western part of the country. He is difficult to research on the web because he was not very famous and shares his name with a very famous race car driver; even if you search for "Stefan Johannson artist" you mainly get posts about the race car driver's artistry. Above is the image that drew me to him, Two Lights, 1928.

I managed to learn that Johannson moved to Stockholm in the 1890s and studied at the art academy there; he lived in the city until 1931. Like many other moderns he later denied that his training had any impact on him:
Johansson disliked the art academy and insisted that his academic training in Stockholm had not had any positive influence on his artistic development. Much more formative, in his view, were the journeys he made between 1909 and 1913 to Germany and especially to Italy, where he had engaged with the painting of the Renaissance and with contemporary Italian art.
Above, Shadow in the Bedroom Corner, 1944.

Johannson had a thing for light:
The light effects in the nocturnal pictures of Eugène Jansson and Karl Nordström had already grabbed his interest around the turn of the century, but it was not until the early 1920s that he began to paint atmospheric cityscapes and scenes of cities lit up at night. For Johansson, the emanation of light was a spiritual phenomenon in which God’s work was revealed: darkness versus enlightenment.
Above, Evening after Rain.

In 1931 the Swedish art market was wrecked by the Depression. Unable to afford Stockholm, Johannson moved to a small flat in Karlstad that he shared with his brother. This gave him a view of the Klarälven River, and for the rest of his life the river at night was one of his main subjects. May Night by Moon Light, 1942.

Johannson also did portraits, although I haven't been able to find very many. This is Paul Engdahl.

Bridge in the Fog, 1942. I notice that half the Johannson images on the internet seem to have been painted during World War II. Was he distracting himself from the conflagration, or did maybe the profits of neutral Sweden's metal industries pump up the art market along with the rest of the economy?

Lights along the Klarälven River, 1941.

Lantern in Moonlight, 1934.