Monday, June 18, 2018

What if Organized Crime Runs the World?

It's a question I ask myself every once in a while: how influential is organized crime? Can it bring about the fall of governments in places like Italy or Mexico? I read once that parts of the World Trade Organization charter had been modified to benefit organized crime; is that plausible? And so on. So I read with interest this interview with Alex Perry, author of a recent book about the ’Ndrangheta (Calabrian Mafia):
There’s obviously a lot of chaos in Italy right now with the government. And there’s been a lot of chaos in Italy politically for a very, very long time. For much of the postwar era, I mean. To what degree do you attribute the Italian state’s inability to really get a handle on organized crime to that general political chaos?

There are two dynamics there. The mob thrives on chaos. It likes chaos. It likes to be the alternative authority that you go to because you can’t get anything done through the legitimate state. For that very reason, I think there’s no doubt that it promotes that chaos. It likes civic distrust. It likes cynicism. It can profit from that. I think the great tragedy of Italy is that, to a large extent, it’s kind of succeeded. It plays on the divide between north and south Italy. It plays on the idea that Italy has never really coalesced as a single unit but is terribly regional and terribly factional. And at the heart of that is a hole at the heart of Italy, where there should be a center and established certainty and facts. There’s a vacuum.

There’s a famous bomb attack, for instance, in Rome in 1971. To this day, nobody knows who did that, and there are both fascists and communists serving time for the same bomb attack. That’s the real tragedy of Italy. Nobody knows what’s true. And in that environment of distrust, the mob thrives, because you can’t really point at them and say with certainty, “That guy’s a criminal.” Because he’s pretending to be something else and everybody’s pretending to be something else, and therefore nobody’s to be trusted. In that kind of atmosphere, where it’s difficult to distinguish right and wrong, wrong can thrive. And wrong can paint itself as the righteous champions of southern resistance to northern domination.

The whole thing about the mafia is it’s a massive lie. There is no honor to the “men of honor.” There’s no righteousness. They don’t care about the rights of southerners. They don’t care about the economy. They are parasites. They are predators, but they’ve managed to create this myth around themselves of, as I say, “men of honor.” It’s that uncertainty in Italy that allows them to persist.

Mubarak Abdulrazzaq, Golden Pavilion

Kinkaku-ji, Kyoto. Via National Geographic.

Book Mark

Via Vertigo1871

More on Immigration and the World Cup

Besides all the children of immigrants who play for European teams, there area also about fifty players in the World Cup who were born in Europe but play for the teams where their parents were born. Thirty-four players for other countries were born in France: 13 play for Morocco, 12 for Senegal, 7 for Tunisia and 2 for Portugal. The Africans at least probably grew up in the same rough Paris suburbs that produced so many French national players. Meanwhile two people born in England play for Nigeria and two born in Belgium play for Morocco. Of Morocco's 23 players, 17 were born in Europe.

One long-term result of recent immigration may be a strengthening of these old colonial ties, as people who have moved back and forth keep up business relationships and friendships.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Santa María la Real de Aranda de Duero, Spain

A lovely church in the flamboyant Gothic style, which comes out in Spanish as gotico flamigero. I learned about it from this old photograph posted at one of my favorite internet sites, Archi/Maps.

Construction began in 1439 and the stunning facade was finished in 1514 to 1516.

It replaced an earlier, Romanesque church, of which little remains but this tower. (This and most of the rest of the photos come from wikipedia, by Zarateman.

Exterior details.


Figures on the choir stalls.

Staircase to the choir, finished in 1523.

Joseph Conrad on Our Purpose

The ethical view of the universe involves us at last in so many cruel and absurd contradictions, when the last vestiges of faith, hope, charity, and even of reason itself, seem ready to perish, that I have come to suspect that the aim of creations cannot be ethical at all. I would fondly believe that its object is purely spectacular; a spectacle for awe, love, adoration, or hate, if you like, but in this view – and in this view alone – never for despair! Those visions, delicious or poignant, are a moral end in themselves. The rest is our affair – the laughter, the tears, the tenderness, the indignation, the high tranquility of a steeled heart, the detached curiosity of a subtle mind – that's our affair! And the unwearied self-forgetful attention to every phase of the living universe reflected in our consciousness may be our appointed task on this earth. A task in which fate has perhaps engaged nothing of us except our conscience, gifted with a voice in order to bear true testimony to the visible wonder, the haunting terror, the infinite passion and the illimitable serenity; to the supreme law and the the abiding mystery of the sublime spectacle.
From Conrad's Memoirs, published in 1912. This was then a common notion: that creation is something like a great work of art, and our main role is to observe and appreciate it. For all I know it may still be a fairly common view, although I don't see much of this sort of speculation in the things I read. This attitude even made it into the creation myth of the great believer Tolkien, whose world sprang from a work of music composed by God and performed by angels, made even more powerful and beautiful by the attempt of Satan and his rebel angels to sabotage the performance.

Conrad's theology helps to explain his notion of the purpose of novel writing:
And what is a novel if not a conviction of our fellow men's existence strong enough to take upon itself a form of imagined life clearer than reality and whose accumulated verisimilitude of selected episodes puts to shame the pride of documentary history?

Giuseppe de Sanctis, Empress Theodora

1887, recently sold by Sotheby's for $275,000.

Implanting Memories in the Prime Minister

Richard Power Sayeed:
Unlike much of what had taken place behind palace gates and Downing Street doors in the week after Princess Diana's death, the content of a telephone conversation between Queen Elizabeth II and Prime Minister Tony Blair about how the Windsors should respond to the fatal car crash in Paris had been leaked only in the broadest terms (they had bickered), and neither the phrases used by the pair nor the exact points they raised were known to Peter Morgan. But when he sat down to write the script for what became The Queen (2006), he had to include the phone call. So he did what was necessary. He wrote the scene, but made it up.

Subsequently, however, the screenwriter noticed something that he recalled, with artful perplexity, at an event in 2017 promoting the first series of his television dramatization of the Queen's life, The Crown. Morgan reported that when, in the years since The Queen was released, Tony Blair has recounted his phone argument with the monarch, he has repeated, unattributed, the artificial lines that his fictional counterpart and Her Majesty's spoke in the film.

Morgan appears to have altered Blair's memory, and historians will likely use the former Prime Minister's recollections as source material, in which case the screenwriter will accidentally have contributed his elegant artifice to the historical record.
Review of The Crown in the TLS for January 19, 2018.

Saturday, June 16, 2018

Agent Orange

Somebody isn't interested in forgiving or forgetting.

Immigration and the World Cup

One nice thing about World Cup soccer is that it's the one time millions of people in Western Europe are happy about immigration. Consider the line-up of the French national team, which includes:
Kylian Mbappé, Paul Pogba, N’Golo Kanté, Blaise Matuidi, Benjamin Mendy, Djibril Sidibe, Samuel Umtiti, Presnel Kimpembe, Steven N'Zonzi, Ousmane Dembele, and Nabil Fekir.
These men mostly hail from the concrete banlieues in the outer suburbs of Paris, places usually in the news for terrorism or riots but also one of the world's great hotbeds of soccer talent.

No other country has a team so dominated by the children of immigrants as France, but Belgium will play Mousa Dembele and Romelu Lukaku, England's 23-man squad has Dele Alli and ten Afro-Carribbean players, and Mesut Ozil is by far the most popular Turk in Germany.

Friday, June 15, 2018

Scouting vs. Public Education

Tyler Cowen makes a very concise statement of a view I have argued for here before:
I would do everything possible to move away from having all of the children belong to the exact same age group. The Boy Scouts are a better model here than “the 7th grade.”

A Frog Trapped in Amber

99 million years old.

Today's Teenagers: Sex and Drug Use Down, Depression and Suicidal Thoughts Up

From the latest U.S. government survey of high school students:
In 2017, 31 percent of students surveyed said they had feelings of hopelessness, while 28 percent said so in 2007. In 2017, nearly 14 percent of students had actually made a suicide plan, up from 11 percent in 2007. . . .

The report did offer some encouraging trends, suggesting that the overall picture for adolescents is a nuanced one. Compared to a decade ago, fewer students reported having had sex, drinking alcohol or using drugs like cocaine, heroin or marijuana. . . .

Although health disparities still remain among races, some sexual risk behaviors are decreasing across the board. The percentage of white students who’d ever had sex, for example, decreased to 39 percent in 2017 from 44 percent in 2007. Among black students, the rate plummeted to 46 percent from 66 percent in 2007 and, among Hispanic students, decreased to 41 percent from 52 percent.

Overall, the percentage of students who had ever had sex decreased to 39 percent in 2017 from 48 percent in 2007.

The percentage of students who had experienced sexual dating violence declined to 7 percent in 2017 from 10 percent in 2013.
Overall in our world we are safer than ever, but more anxious than ever; we are richer than ever, but no more satisfied with our lives; we have vast technological power at our disposal, but still feel thwarted. Some days this makes me wonder that we have made some terrible mistake and taken our civilization in entirely the wrong direction; other days it makes me think that we are programmed for a certain level of happiness and worry, and short of rewiring our brains we will always find more to worry about and be sad about.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Castles for Sale

It seems like everywhere I have gone on the web this week I have been haunted by an ad from Sotheby's featuring castles for sale. (NY Times version here.) I guess my online profile -- regularly writing about old architecture and art auctions -- makes me part of the target audience. If only I had money!

So I eventually decided to click on the ad, and I'm glad I did. This is no piece of slimy clickbait, but a fascinating look at some of the noble properties still in private hands in Europe. My favorite is this one, Castello di Montestrutto, "On the old road to Aosta from Turin at the foot of the Alps." First built in the 13th century, it was completely rebuilt around 1900 for a rich patron. Comes with 1100 acres of lovely Italian countryside. Price $1.8 million.

But if that's not your taste, Sotheby's also has Gronsveld Castle in the Netherlands, "built in stages between 1250 and 1880," and renovated recently enough to have a gleaming modern kitchen.

And, rather astonishingly, Chateau de Fontaine in Belgium:
This divine Belgian castle’s foundation dates back to 1275, when it was part of a medieval fortress. Two centuries later, Michel de Fontaine assumed rule of the area and fortress and, astoundingly, the castle has remained structurally intact since.
Plus the 25 acres of grounds were fought over during the Battle of the Bulge. What a time to be a billionaire.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

A Roman Floor

Roman cut stone or "opus sectile" floor, in a newly discovered villa near the Milvian Bridge in Rome.

Monday, June 11, 2018

Change is Slow, Australian Marriage Edition

Via Marginal Revolutions:
We document the short- and long-run effects of male-biased sex ratios. We exploit a natural historical experiment where large numbers of male convicts and far fewer female convicts were sent to Australia in the 18th and 19th centuries. In areas with more male-biased sex ratios, women were historically more likely to get married and less likely to work outside the home. In these areas today, both men and women continue to have more conservative attitudes towards women working, and women work fewer hours outside the home.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Domenico Fetti

Domenico Fetti (1589-1623) was an Italian Baroque painter who worked mainly in Mantua and Venice. (Portrait of a Sleeping Girl, c. 1615)

He seems to have been born in Rome, son of an obscure painter. He studied under the Roman painter Ludovico Cardi, beginning around 1604. By 1611 he had begun working for his most important patron, Cardinal Ferdinando Gonzaga, from the family of the Dukes of Mantua. In 1613, after a series of unfortunate deaths, Gonzaga became Duke himself, an unusual combination of titles. Fetti moved to Mantua around 1613 and set up a workshop. Among his assistants was his sister Giustina, who eventually entered a convent where she continued to paint. (Christ and the Tribute Money – that is, he is pointing out the portrait of Caesar on the coin – 1619)

Various sources say that Fetti executed a cycle of frescoes for the ducal palace in Mantua, but apparently not the famous frescoes of which people post pictures online; those are mainly by Andrea Mategna. In lieu of Fetti's frescoes, pictures of the Palazzo Ducale, exterior (above, left) and courtyard .

I did find this, Margherita Gonzaga Receiving the Model of the Church of St Ursula, 1615.

Fetti also did the frescoes in the Apse of Mantua's cathedral, which you can sort of see here. Very Catholic Baroque.

Portrait of a Man with a Sheet of Music, c. 1618.

Portrait of an Actor, 1618-1620.

Archimedes, c. 1620. This and the Sleeping Girl at the top of the post are Fetti's most famous works these days.

In 1622 Fetti fled from Mantua to Venice. Gossip held that he had fallen into a feud with an important Mantuan cleric after an argument at a football match. Since Mantua was one of those Italian places where feud was a leading cause of death among upper class men, Fetti was perhaps wise; you know how seriously Italians take football. (I say "football" because the modern rules that distinguish soccer from rugby etc. did not yet exist, and every town had its own version.) This is St. Peter Repenting, showing the Venetian use of color that Fetti took up in exile.

The Cardinal-Duke went to work trying to sooth Fetti's wounded feelings and resolve the feud – that's one of the things noble patrons did, and one has the impression that in Italy this took up a lot of their time – but despite Gonzaga's efforts Fetti refused to return to Mantua. It was in Venice that he died at the age of 34. Perseus rescues Andromeda, 1623.

Saturday, June 9, 2018

Today's Place to Daydream about: Ålesund, Norway

Ålesund, Norway is a small city on the west coast, occupying a string of seven small islands in a district of fjords.

Map, showing the shattered topography of the fjord district.

The city now has about 50,000 inhabitants. It is not a very old place; it hardly existed at all in 1800. But it is said that Rollo, the famous Viking founder of the Duchy of Normandy, came from these parts, and there is a statue of him in the town.

Norway's towns used to be built almost entirely of wood, and every once in a while one would burn in an awful conflagration. One of the worst such disasters struck Ålesund on the night of January 23, 1904. The town was almost entirely destroyed, 10,000 of its 11,000 citizens rendered homeless. The disaster touched people across Europe and aid was sent from many directions; Kaiser Wilhelm II sent three German warship loaded with tents, blankets and other supplies.

According to the official promoters of Norwegian tourism,
Every year, at quarter past two in the morning on 23 January, town fire enthusiasts assemble from far and near to follow the fire’s footsteps through the town.
Oh, the humanity.

Over the next three years the town was entirely rebuilt. A decision was made to carry out the whole reconstruction in a single style: Art Nouveau, known in Norway by its German name of Jugendstihl. As a result the town center has a remarkable unity of style. Not that the buildings are all the same; 30 different architects worked on the project. According, again, to the esteemed promoters of Norwegian tourism, Norway was in a deep recession at the time so just about all the architects in the country were available to help.

Art Nouveau details.

The most famous building in town is the A
Ålesund church. Nothing special on the outside,

But the inside boasts a famous Art Nouveau murals

and stained glass.

Once you've explored the town, you can venture out into the countryside, starting with a jaunt to the hill from which just about every picture of Alesund was taken.

There are splendid hikes in every direction: on islands farther out toward the ocean

and inland in the moutains of Sunnmøre.

You can also kayak through the fjords.

Seems like an amazing place to spend a few summer days.