Sunday, August 2, 2020

Only love can save those who are infected with anger

From an interview with Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich:
Life itself gives birth to all my themes. At first, as you know, it turned into several books. A history of that period of time, the Red time, when the idea mattered most of all. Everyone was infected with the idea, to a greater or lesser extent. Or, at least, they were curbed by it. But everyone depended on it and many believed sincerely in it. In the end, many lost faith. But the idea remained, like an unyielding inner core, a reinforcing steel bar. During this lifetime, the time when the idea ruled, various things happened. I selected the most overpowering, most dramatic events, ones that could shed a light on what kind of people we were. What we had been through. How we had been deceived by that utopian vision. And how, at first, we hadn’t understood but eventually began to understand. How we wouldn’t have been able to endure living in any other way than we did. It wouldn’t have worked for us. 

As I moved on, from one book to the next, something struck me. People talk about the war or about Chernobyl. But only rarely do people talk about happiness. A feeling grew on me that people didn’t talk about the things that really matter in human lives. And I’d look back over my own life. My childhood, for instance. My parents never spoke about happiness. About how you ought to be happy and grow up. How beautiful life is, how joyful it is when love comes to you. How you will have children but not only that, you will also find love. And that it is something so enigmatic, so interesting. But … all the talks we had were about death and the mother country. Talks about what is important about being human simply never happened. Later in life, it was just more of the same. Of course, people did fall in love and led their lives. But there never seemed to be … a philosophy of life. It was up to the individual to try every day to push ahead, and reach for the meaning of it all. This was neither seen as a philosophy for individuals nor for communities. Always, there was something that mattered more. That towered above human beings. A striving of some kind, a sacrifice of some kind. Which you must be prepared for, always. And when I had come to the end of that series of books – when utopia had been defeated, when we were all caught up in the rubble it left behind – I began to think that I wanted to write an account of who we are, in ourselves, but from a different point of view.

I wondered: what would be the core of a narrative like that? If, earlier on, the core had been Afghanistan or the war or Chernobyl – where would you find it now? I thought that it would probably be found among the things we never used to think about. Never, that is, until now, when private life has finally been resurrected. When, finally, money has taken on meaning, significance. Before, everyone was just as broke as everyone else. Money hadn’t meant anything in particular. Now, though, people had started to travel, to see the world. For them, a lot of questions had surfaced, they had found desires. If they wanted to, they could dive into a kind of vast ocean that was completely unknown to them. That’s to say, into private life. It offered another form of human meaningfulness than to go off and die somewhere. As it turned out, literature – Russian literature – was unable to help them because it has always been preoccupied with quite different things. With loftier and high-order ideas, that is. It always contains something ready to squash human life. Whatever higher order idea it is. And then I thought, of course, love is the most important, essential aspect of us; it, and the time when we are about to slip away. When we prepare ourselves for disappearing from this world. . . .

On one hand: this is my way ahead, a stage in my travels. The journey is part of to my present intentions. On the other hand: ahead, there is an opportunity to speak about what is valuable in life – personally, I feel that all other words are drained of meaning. Should I once more travel to find the war, and then write about the war? And once more speak out about how senselessly people kill each other and what an insane occupation it is to murder another human being? That ideas should be killed, not people. That everyone should sit down at a table and talk together …? None of all that works any more. It is banal. I check the internet and read every day: ‘Today, thirty militiamen in the Russia-supporting militia have been killed and twenty soldiers in the Ukrainian army. And five civilians.’ That’s how the day begins. I don’t think it would help if I kept speaking about this. Because I believe that … love is what people miss most of all. Perhaps THIS is the language I would like to start speaking. Besides, nowadays, the situation is that society is hugely fragmented and people have become infected with anger. So, there is a lot of hatred around. I don’t think it is possible to conquer it with ordinary words, with ordinary arguments.

The writer Oksana Zabuzhko1 recently published a book based on all the writings that were posted on the internet during the Maidan [Ukrainain revolution]. I wrote in the book that all the dreadful things quoted in it – that people died and were ill-treated – can be turned either into hatred or into love. I wished they were used for love. Only love can save those who are infected with anger.
I have never read anything with which I agree more. Life is not about things that loom above us, that are always threatening to squash us, the ideas that demand we sacrifice ourselves for their sake. It is about us, and those we know and love, and what we make together. 

Saturday, August 1, 2020

Today's Place to Daydream about: Fiordland National Park, New Zealand

At the southern end of New Zealand's South Island is a spectacular landscape of mountains, lakes, and fjords, which they insist on spelling "fiord."

At the heart of it is Milford Sound, which Rudyard Kipling called the Eighth Wonder of the World.

The area became a National Park in 1904, partly because the 4-day Milford Track from Lake Anu to Milford Sound had become popular, designated by various newspapers the World's Greatest Walk. The way everything about the history of Zealand is now described goes like this: 
Quintin McKinnon and Donald Sutherland opened up the Milford Track in 1889 and began guiding tourists through the now world-famous route. (The Maori had long known of this route.)

Inland around the lakes are vast areas of lush rain forest. Full of ferns, which are something of a national symbol to New Zealanders; when they recently had a contest to design a new flag half the finalists had ferns on then.

Many visitors explore the fjords by cruise boat or kayak.

Reading over the "personal experiences" posted to TripAdvisor once frequently sees two kinds of comments: "best day of hiking in my whole life," and "nonstop rain." Experienced hikers of the longer treks say that if you didn't get rained on you didn't have the full experience.

Waterfalls abound, including Sutherland Falls, one of the world's tallest.

Wildlife includes kiwis, kackapos, and takahe (above). The fjords are full of seals, orcas, and dolphins.

What an amazingly beautiful place.

Body Snatching

There was a lot of noise this week about the police in New York "kidnapping" people off the streets and stuffing them into unmarked vans. I decided I ought to look into this. 

What I learned is that the police were arresting people for whom there were outstanding warrants. Each police precinct in New York has a special squad of plainclothes detectives who do this; the point of not wearing uniforms or driving police cruisers is so they can get closer to their targets before they are recognized. (Although you have to wonder about the savvy of criminals who can't spot a vanful of plainclothes cops coming a mile away.)

So that's at least defensible. But who, exactly, have they been arresting out of peaceful protests? People who have pissed them off:
The men in the van, it turns out, were plainclothes officers from the New York Police Department’s Warrant Squad, and they were detaining a young woman who was later identified as Nikki Stone, an 18-year-old homeless trans girl. An NYPD spokesperson, Sergeant Jessica McRorie, told Vox, “The NYPD had probable cause to arrest her for five previous crimes,” which included allegations of vandalizing police cameras with stickers and paint around City Hall Park in Manhattan.
I mean, I have no problem with the police arresting criminals. But these Warrant Squads were set up to arrest the most violent and dangerous crooks, and these days they spend their time hunting down people who put stickers on police cameras.

When there are what, fifty unsolved murders in New York already this year? No wonder crime has gone up.

Not only that, but their spokesman insisted to reporters that the officers were pelted with rocks and bottles while they made this arrest, when there were like twenty people filming the whole thing, including the complete absence of flying rocks and bottles.

Every time I want to defend the police as people trying to do a hard job they pull another stupid stunt like this.

Friday, July 31, 2020

Links July 31 2020

Little dragons in a Book of Hours from Flanders, c. 1350-1390

Since I have been linking regularly to articles on liberal cancel culture, it's only fair that I link to Max Boot's essay on conservative cancel culture, which might be summarized as "love Trump or get lost." Indeed many conservatives, perhaps most outrageously Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, have been driven out of government or journalism for daring to criticize Trump.

The iPhone Photography Awards

The Netflix show "Indian Matchmaking" is a huge hit with people of Indian origin around the world, but it has also raised a storm of protest. Because, so far as I can tell, it depicts the arrangement of marriages as it is actually done and does not criticize the more problematic aspects of the process. 

According to the Times, New York's tailors are now spending all their time letting out the clothes of people who gained weight during the lockdown. I think I gained 5 pounds during the first two months so I've had to put myself on a rigorous diet to keep this from spiraling out of control. 

NY Times story on the head trauma caused by bobsledding and skeleton, which may be causing a rash of suicides. Yet more evidence that while exercise is good for you, pursuing almost any sport at a very high level is usually not.

Hand-cranked miniature moving figures by Federico Tobon, quite charming.

Something different to collect: vintage gas station signs.

The disappearing vegetables of South India: reviewing a cookbook from 1951, a local chef finds 20 different varieties no longer available. He blames the Green Revolution and monoculture.

More trials using Anglo-Saxon remedies to treat antibiotic-resistant infections.

Microsoft's plan to not only reduce its current carbon emissions to zero, by the most comprehensive measure, but to offset all the carbon emissions it has ever been responsible for.

The origin of the large Sarsen Stones that make up most of Stonehenge has been narrowed down to an area called the West Woods about 10 miles (15 km) from the site. This precision is possible because scientists got hold of a core drilled out of one of the stones in the 1950s and therefore not weathered; weathering changes the chemical composition of rocks too much to make exact sourcing possible using a chip from the outside of a stone.

Thursday, July 30, 2020

In the US, Women have been Voting for 100 Years

Interesting essay by Gail Collins in the Times pondering what has been changed by women voting:
What better way to celebrate the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage than by discussing the way it turned out to be a big flop?

The great champions of the 19th Amendment thought that when America’s women got the right to vote, they’d immediately start to change the nation. Promote women’s issues, like better health care and education. Refocus politics from special interests to the general good.

Then in 1920, for the first time, they went to polls across the nation with their husbands, brothers, fathers and sons and elected — President Warren Harding.
As Collins notes, the first national issue on which voting women really formed a potent political bloc was prohibition, much more popular with women than men.

A "gender gap" did not really appear in national elections until 1980, when women barely supported Reagan but men preferred him 60% to 36%. Since then the gender gap in presidential elections has regularly been around 10%, for example 10% in 2000 and 11% in 2016. (It was smaller in 2004, when foreign war and fear of terrorism generated a "safety first" vote for Bush.)

But most women still sit comfortably within the political mainstream. The notion, once common, that bringing women into any world (politics, medicine, science) would have a transformative effect by itself has turned out to be completely wrong. In medicine it turns out that the setup of the whole medical system so strongly controls what doctors actually do that differences between men and women are minimal, and hopes that female doctors would be better listeners or more caring have not been realized. In politics it has turned out just as one would expect from observing women and men in any other context: we are different, but not so very much different.

Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Saving Louisiana, or Destroying It?

Long article by Nathaniel Rich in the Times about the $50 billion effort to keep southern Louisiana from washing away. Rich writes a fair amount about climate change but that really isn't the issue; the issue is that since we confined the Mississippi within levees all the way down it no longer dumps silt into the marshes with every flood, which is how the marshes came to be in the first place. Without fresh silt, they are disappearing at a stupendous rate.

With an infusion of $4 billion from the BP oil spill settlement, the first stages of the rescue plan are under way. Rich considers the program from two points of view: the high level question of whether Louisiana will survive, and the low-level point of view of a fishing captain named Kindra Arnesen he met at a public meeting:
“We have to be present, or they can say there’s ‘no opposition,’” Arnesen said. “I see this as doomsday. This will end us.”

This was the centerpiece of the master plan: the construction of new, man-made diversions in Plaquemines Parish [south of New Orleans]. The state would cut open the federal levee, creating powerful new distributaries of the Mississippi River that will flush sediment into the marsh, building land. These engineered floods would simulate the geological process that created the Mississippi Delta in the first place. The initial two incisions are to be made in the levees about 25 and 35 river miles south of New Orleans. Construction on the mid-Barataria Diversion on the west bank, could begin as soon as the end of 2022, followed by the mid-Breton Diversion on the east bank. Once running at full capacity, the diversions would themselves rank among the nation’s largest rivers. Both will flow at more than two times the volume of the Hudson River. Over the course of years and decades, it is hoped, the gargantuan volume of sediment borne by the diversions will patch the holes in the marsh’s moth-eaten fabric. Lost species will return and biological diversity will increase. The local fisheries might ultimately become even more productive.

In the short term, however, the diversions will transform the delicate estuarine ecosystems. They would likely massacre giant populations of oysters, brown shrimp, blue crab and dozens of species of fish. Areas of brackish water will turn fresh, and saltwater vegetation will die. Plaquemines Parish has the largest commercial fishing fleet in the continental United States. Arnesen worried that the diversions would destroy it.
And she is right to worry. But what is the alternative? Do nothing and Plaquemines Parish will cease to exist in 50 years. This can't be done on a small scale; immense amounts of water and silt have to be rerouted, or nothing will be gained.

Rich gives us another lesson in how quickly circumstances can come to seem normal, and for people to begin depending on them. Arnesen grew up harvesting oysters in salt marshes, and everyone in Plaquemines Parish thinks of this as the old way, now threatened by the diversions. But until the levees went up in the 1950s, those marshes were drowned in silt every year or two, so oysters must have been few and far between. Rich quotes one local as saying that his neighborhood "never" had high water during hurricanes until after the post-Katrina floodwalls went up around New Orleans, but that is absurd; again, the whole parish is built of silt deposited by the river in its floods. Nobody seems to even remember life before the levees.

And this is just stage one, politically the easiest lift; future plans for the area west of New Orleans call for drowning entire towns. 

Personally I do not think we know how these ecosystems will change after the diversions, so it will be years before we know how fishermen will have to adapt. I hope we are generous in helping them do so. But I don't see that we can afford to put off the whole effort because of what the impact on a few thousand people might be. Arnesen sees it differently:
“I don’t just do this because it’s my living,” Arnesen said as she left the meeting, trailing an entourage of well-wishers. “They’ve made our community feel like we’re the trade-off and we don’t matter. It’s easy for the state to say they’re going to come up with an adaptation plan. But what’s the point of an adaptation plan if the end goal isn’t the survival of the people you’re trying to save?”
It's a hard question, but holding to the status quo is simply impossible; Louisiana is losing an acre of land an hour and has lost 2,000 square miles since 1930. Like several US states, Louisiana's signs for state roads feature the state's outline, and one group of activists has been driving the point home by repainting the signs to show how the state will look in 2050 if nothing is done.

If the land disappears, they people will have to move on anyway, so we might as well save the land even if the people's livelihoods are ruined in the process.

Monday, July 27, 2020

Building a New City for Hong Kong Refugees

Tyler Cowen posted something on his blog about investors from Hong Kong seeking to build a "charter city" in Ireland and got this response from Mark Lutter:
Thanks for sharing the article about the Victoria Harbor Group. We, me being Chief Strategy Officer, are in discussions with Ireland. However, it is important to note that the information mentioned is dated. As any early stage company, our ideas have rapidly evolved. While the term we are using is ‘International Charter City’, we are not pursuing full scale autonomy. Our priority is to acquire land and build political support in the host country to build a city for the Hong Kong people with the target population being 50% HKers and 50% citizens of the host country.

Our key assumptions are as follows

1. The next 10-15 years will see 1m to 2m Hong Kongers migrate, the first mass migration of high skilled labor in the last 40 or so years.

2. There is value from coordinating this migration, keeping network effects, ensuring housing supply, etc

3. We see this as an opportunity to build the city of the future, cutting edge urban design, welcoming of new technology, self-driving cars, drone delivery, etc.

4. We are in discussions with several countries, not just Ireland, which we will make public when possible. We prefer English speaking countries with common law traditions, but are open to considering others.

5. Our goal is to acquire 50,000+ acres within 2 hours of an airport to build a new city for several hundred thousand residents. Obviously this depends on the political support in the host country. Smaller countries like Ireland would have smaller developments.

6. Political support from the host country is crucial. We are not asking for independence or autonomy. Of course, we wouldn’t say no to tax and regulatory relief, but that is less important than land availability and domestic buy in.

7. The city will fit in the national plans of the host country. The Hong Kongers excel in finance and manufacturing, as well as education and healthcare. While little manufacturing is done in Hong Kong, Hong Kongers own many factories in the Guangdong province. Any country looking to revive their manufacturing base could do so by attracting a bunch of talented HKers. Additionally, a good location could become a top 10 global financial center in 10 years by attracting HK financial talent.

8. We believe this is a great opportunity for any country which wants to attract a talented, hardworking, entrepreneurial population.

9. I have seen a lot of charter city projects and this is the first one I wanted to become part of the leadership team of.
There's a fascinating possibility, but count me as skeptical that this will really come off.

It did set me wondering what countries might be interested in this project. I  have rejected most of the places that came to mind because they already have racial tensions between Chinese and others: the Phillippines, Malaya, Australia, South Africa. New Zealanders are too eco-conscious to want a million more people of any sort. I have a hard time seeing the Irish accepting this; they like being Irish and are comfortable enough not being rich to be hard to bribe.

Canada? The Canadian west coast already has a big Chinese population and it seems like a natural destination. People have already suggested this in the comments to Cowen's post, so the idea has occurred to others. It seems to me British Columbia could have this if they wanted it.

Jamaica? They could use the money, and they are not much concerned about race. But I guess that would mean clearing the locals off 50,000 acres, since the island is already densely populated.

What about some parts of the US? All those business boosters in Texas might like the idea, and the race problem they worry about is Mexicans. An old rust belt state, like Michigan? One of my favorite offbeat ideas has always been to let a few hundred thousand extra refugees into the country on the condition that they settle in Detroit. I can't see California finding the room, since they have trouble finding the room for new apartment buildings. On the other hand a new thriving city in the Central Valley might take some of the pressure off the Bay Area, and people from Hong Kong are already used to conserving water.

Anyway for anyone interested in geography and city building it's a fabulous thing to daydream about.

Sunday, July 26, 2020

Mars Jars and Nazi Science

Fascinating article by Sarah Scoles in the Times about the secret history of 'Mars Jars.' These are small terrariums set up to mimic conditions on Mars, which are used to see whether Earth life could survive there. They were popularized by Carl Sagan and many people assumed that he invented them.

Not so! A bit of sleuthing by a young post-doc named Jordan Bimm turned up old films from the 1950s depicting what were called even then 'Mars Jars.' Their inventor, it turns out, was a government scientist named Dr. Hubertus Strughold. Strughold worked for the US Air Force on issues related to biology and high altitude or space conditions, and he his work on Mars was sort of a side line. But he eventually did enough to publish the first scientific paper using the word 'astrobiology' and also organize the world's first astrobiology conference.

Besides having the perfect name for an evil mad scientist, Dr. Strughold turns out to have been an actual Nazi. He started his experiments on high altitudes physiology while working for the Luftwaffe. At the end of the war he was swept up by the US Army as part of Operation Paperclip and brought to America along with Werner von Braun and about 1600 other scientists and engineers.

What, exactly, did Strughold do?
Dr. Bimm studies the Cold Warriors who researched survival in the harsh environment of space. It’s what led him to the Mars Jars: He was diving into Dr. Strughold’s work on astronaut physiology and aviation medicine in the U.S. — work he had started in Nazi Germany for the Luftwaffe, and which was tangled up in inhumane experiments.

Dr. Strughold didn’t do these experiments himself, and he wasn’t a member of the Nazi party. But on his watch, researchers locked prisoners at the Dachau concentration camp in low-pressure chambers, to show what might happen to fliers at high altitude, and dressed them in fighter-pilot uniforms only to submerge them in freezing water.

“You don’t get to hold that job for 10 years unless you are 100 percent in lock step with the leadership,” Dr. Bimm said.
So Strughold was part of an organization that did awful experiments on concentration camp inmates, but there is no evidence that he participated in them. He did not join the Nazi Party but as Bimm says he would not have lasted in that job if he had not been considered politically reliable.

Scoles tosses around vague talk about "reassessing" the use of Strughold's research, but I find it hard to get upset about this. The Space Medicine Institute used to give out a Strughold Award, and when Strughold's Nazi past first came to light in 2013 they retired the award. Perfectly appropriate. But so far as I can see from this evidence Strughold was not Mengele, and whatever he did in Germany he developed Mars Jars in the US, torturing nobody but lichens and bacteria. I see no reason to stop messing with Mars Jars just because of their inventor's past.

Incidentally what these experiments show is that most of the time, earth life dies in Martian conditions, but sometimes lichens endure, and sometimes bacteria mutate and adapt.

Saturday, July 25, 2020

Today's Place to Daydream about: Dubrovnik

Today my thoughts wander back to the Mediterranean, to the tourist mecca of Dubrovnik in Croatia.

All the tour guides warn of terrible crowds in the summer and recommend visiting in spring or fall. But judging from the photographs I have seen online many of the cultured types who spend their vacations gazing at medieval building details visit at Christmastime. It's too hot out for me to think about beaches or summer sun, so let's imagine we're there in October, on a pleasant day when shading clouds alternate with sun that will brighten up our own photographs.

The town is a small place today, with 40,000 people, because it hugs an inaccessible site on a rocky coast with no good routes inland. It was founded by refugees who fled less secure places during the chaos of the collapsing Roman Empire, according to one chronicle in AD 620.

The medieval feel of the town led to its being used for King's Landing in the Game of Thrones TV series, and if you are so inclined you can walk the exact route of Cersei's walk of shame. The old city is car-free, so there's no chance you'll get run over.

The old city is surrounded by walls, which are also among the oldest authentic monuments in the place. The town was first fortified the 9th century but the core of the stone you see was laid in the 1200s and added to in the 1400s. 

The town belonged to the Byzantines, then various Slavic overlords, and then in the 13th century it became essentially independent as the Republic of Ragusa. It was then Italian-speaking and had close ties to Venice, which was sometimes its suzerain. Ragusa was always a mixed place, though, which many Slavs, Jews, Turks, and others. Many Jews came to Ragusa from Spain after the forced conversion of 1492. By that time Ragusa was dominated by the Turks, but they pretty much left the place alone so long as their tribute was paid on time. Ragusa's reputation for tolerance led to a burst of American scholarship about its past in the 1980s and 1990s.

The city was devastated by an earthquake in 1667, with the loss of 5,000 lives and most of its churches and other public buildings. One that survived was the Palazzo Sponza, built as a private house in the early 1500s but pressed into service as a town hall after the disaster. Now it houses the rich public archives, another reason so many American historians went there.

Also the nearby Rector's Palace, for which various sources give construction dates like "1420 to 1808."

The most famous church is St. Blaise's, dedicated to the town's patron, but as you can see completely rebuilt after 1667.

So Dubrovnik is short on famous buildings, but it has its own glories. What drew me to the place today was the thousands of photographs posted all over the internet of details like these, little bits of history or whimsy that bring the place to life in my mind.

Someone named Donald Judge posted a huge set to wikimedia, from which these are drawn.

It seems like in the right season this would be a wonderful place to explore.

The Mosaics of Yavru

These mosaics were excavated from a Roman villa in Yavru, Turkey, that was discovered by looters and then investigated by archaeologists. The dig took place in 2013 but the restored mosaics have just gone on display at the museum in Amasya. Via The History Blog.

Women who Voted for Trump

Sarah Longwell has spent much of the past three years holding focus groups with women who voted for Turmp – sometimes all college-educated, sometimes all non-college educated, sometimes a mix. She writes,
Many observers were doubly confused because they had expected Hillary Clinton, as the first major party female nominee, to be especially strong with women. And she wasn’t. Trump did poorly with African-American and Hispanic women, because he did poorly with all African-Americans and Hispanics. But he managed to actually win a narrow plurality among white women.

But that mystery has been easy to solve. Over the last three years I conducted dozens of focus groups with both college-educated and non-college-educated female Trump voters. And the answer given most commonly for why they voted for Donald Trump is “I didn’t vote for Donald Trump. I voted against Hillary Clinton.”

In 2016, Democrats understood that Hillary Clinton was a deeply polarizing candidate. But even they didn’t grasp the full magnitude of it. Right-leaning and Republican female voters had spent more than a decade hating both Clintons, and they didn’t stop just because Hillary’s opponent was an unrepentant misogynist.

In fact, Bill Clinton’s legacy of similarly disgusting behavior with women—and Hillary Clinton’s defense of her husband—had the effect of blunting Trump’s own execrable track record. These women voters decided that either way, there’d be a guy with a long history of sexual malfeasance living in the White House.
According to Longwell, Trump's support in her groups started to fall right after the election, as reflected in the Democratic surge in 2018. But Republican women stayed loyal to him, citing the strong economy; after all, many of them supported him in the first place because they believed that as a successful businessman he would handle the economy well.

Then things started to get weird:
Since March, I have conducted the focus groups virtually and watched Trump’s position with women weaken in real time.

Interestingly, in the early days of the pandemic the women in the focus groups were frustrated with Trump, but didn’t necessarily hold him responsible for everything that was happening. He hadn’t done great, they said, but it was a tough situation for any president to handle.

It wasn’t until the killing of George Floyd and the resulting protests that the bottom started to drop out.

Two weeks after Floyd’s death I ran a focus group with seven women from swing states—all of whom voted for Trump but currently rated him as doing a “very bad” job.

Only one was leaning toward voting for him again. Three were definitely going to vote for Biden. The other three were still making up their minds. But even these undecideds were unequivocal in their distaste for Trump’s posture on race and his handling of the protests. They actively recoiled.

One of the Trump voters who had decided to vote for Biden said, “The stakes are too high now. It’s a matter of life and death.”

That’s a pretty a good distillation of why Trump has been shedding support from women over the last few months. The multiple crises laid bare the fact that Donald Trump isn’t the savvy businessman these women voted for. Instead, they see him as a divisive president who’s in over his head. . . .

Donald Trump and his campaign think they can stop the bleeding with women by leaning into the culture wars and highlighting looters, rioters, and vandals pulling down statues. But this is a fundamental misunderstanding of these voters. They don’t see Trump as someone who can protect them from the chaos—they think he’s the source of it.

Friday, July 24, 2020

The Strangeness of Writing

Here is Joe Moran, reviewing a book by Nicholas Delbanco that purports to examine "why writing matters."
He never gets to the nub of why writing – this lonely, artificial act by which we try to bridge the chasm between human minds with just words, syntax, punctuation and typography – matters so much. Or why such a cumbersome and energy-consuming activity has easily survived all the technologies that have promised quicker and easier ways to communicate. Delbanco’s breeziness fails to convey the surpassing strangeness of writing, the way it stores and spreads information in the writer’s absence and speaks to distant, unknown others.

After Craft Beer, Craft Flour Milling

What industries are modeling a more equal, less bureaucratic future? Tim Wu asks us to consider flour milling:
By sheer volume, the flour industry is dominated by firms like Ardent Mills, North America’s largest miller, with annual sales of $3.5 billion. The dominant retail flour brand, Gold Medal Flour, belongs to General Mills, a conglomerate with some $17 billion in annual revenue. Most of the flour sold today is for commercial use and ends up in premade or processed food products.

Yet it is not these huge companies but the smaller sellers of flour that are flourishing. Consider King Arthur, founded in 1790 in Boston and now based in Vermont. It experienced a tripling of sales over the spring, buoyed by legions of new bakers in quarantine. (Sales at Gold Medal also went up, but not nearly as much.) Among consumers, King Arthur is probably best known for connecting with people who are learning to bake. Its website introduces them to new challenges, like building a sourdough starter and folding dough for baguettes, and the company has a hotline for bakers in distress.

But King Arthur is most distinguished by its corporate structure. It is a private company, owned entirely by its employees (it has about 350) and run by two chief executives. It is also a benefit corporation, which means that having a positive social impact is part of its legal corporate mission. Ralph Carlton, one of the company’s chief executives, says that its different structure leads it to act differently from other companies. “Being accountable to our employee-owners means we have to take them into account,” he told me. “We don’t believe in growth for growth’s sake. We are not under external requirements” from stock owners or market analysts. . . . 

The commodity industry takes flour as flour — just an ingredient, the cheaper the better. But baking is also an emotional experience, an act of creation in its beauty and intensity, a longstanding symbol of the home. And it provokes, in some, a yearning to connect with local soil and local land. That’s the appeal of a company like Maine Grains, which operates out of a repurposed jailhouse, and a new generation of regional grain companies, like Cairnspring Mills in Washington State and Castle Valley Mill in Pennsylvania. These mills produce not only whole wheat flours but also distinctive grains, such as yecora rojo, heritage red fife and spelt. Amy Halloran, the author of “The New Bread Basket,” about the local grain industry, told me these companies are making an effort to deliberately ignore the single-minded approach of the commodity market in favor of “best practices” for their regions. . . .

The flour industry might seem an unlikely arena for business innovation. There was once a time, in the 1990s and 2000s, when it was widely thought that Silicon Valley would show us the way to a better, fairer economy, creating entire ecosystems of companies with distinctive offerings. Yet that was before the emergence and eventual dominance of Amazon, Facebook and Google. Instead of high-tech, it is low-tech businesses like craft beer and community supported agriculture that seem to stand at the forefront of economic transformation.
I think this whole essay is important in many ways. First, if we really want to move away from economic dominance by a handful of giant corporations, we must  be willing to pay more for things. But, you know, most of us could; in our world food is so cheap that the choice to support local brewers,  millers, and vegetable growers is within our grasp. Shifting all our low-tech consumption to smaller, more local, more equitably-run firms would require some re-adjustment of our budgets, but we could do it if we cared enough.

Second, to take advantage of this companies have to go for emotional appeal, above all the appeal of caring: of caring about their product, their employees, their communities, the environment. "They don't care" is the universal plaint of the cynic, and to get past that cynicism requires some real work.

Capitalism is better than any other system at giving people what they want. If the world is to be different, that will have to start with people changing what they want, with choosing a less affluent but more connected and less cynical path. Many people on the left know this, of course, which is why they belong to food co-ops and frequent farmer's markets.

We don't need a revolution to create a more caring world. We need to change ourselves.

Links 24 July 2020

Max Ernst, The Sea and the Sun, 1926

What to do with fallen monuments? Russia has a park devoted to them.

Wonderful photographs of trees by Mikko Lagerstedt.

Good Washington Post article on superspreader events, and free like all their coronavirus coverage.

Inside Higher Ed reports on a study that found the biggest barriers to adults entering higher education are 1) time, and 2) self doubt. Cost is third. Tyler Cowen calls the salience of self doubt a "trivial" finding, in that everybody already knows it to be true, but it is nonetheless highly important.

Meanwhile in Libya, "As many as 2,500 Russian mercenaries from the shadowy Wagner Group have faced off against 3,500 Syrian civil war veterans recruited by Turkey in the proxy battle for control in Libya." Not to be outdone, the Russians have also started recruiting their own unit of Syrians. I guess if your country is a shambles and all you've done for five years is fight, mercenary work starts to look appealing.

The Silicon Tribesman photographs the Fairy Steps in Cumbria. If you like old British stuff – Roman forts, standing stones, hut circles – spend some time perusing the site.

John McWhorter thinks Robin DiAngelo’s bestselling White Fragility is racist, offensive to black people, and "the prayer book for what can only be described as a cult." I have now read half a dozen reviews of this book by black intellectuals and while some of them like DiAngelo better than McWhorter does they all seem pissed off that her book is raking in all the sales instead of something by James Baldwin, Richard Wright, or just about any other actual black person.

The solitary dolphin who has been living in Dingle Harbor, Ireland, for 36 years.

The cliff villages of Bandiagara, Mali, some of which look eerily like cliff villages in the US southwest.

Architecture and the Americans with Disabilities Act (NY Times). I continue to think that the ADA is a good model of how to deal with conflicts over civil rights issues. I guess that's because the disabled come from all ethnic groups and political factions, keeping things from ever degenerating into rank partisanship. Plus the police rarely kill people in wheelchairs.

The collapse of the Lebanese economy, which seems to be largely driven by massive corruption and theft by insiders. Shocking.

Great NASA video made of rover images from the surface of Mars; conveys the feel of the landscape better than anything else I have seen.

Slate Star Codex is back online, for now anyway.

The Decline of Family Life

One of the striking things about our time is that compared to recent centuries many fewer people live in a family unit that includes a married couple and children. One reason is longevity; most people live past the time when they had children in the house, and thanks to Social Security etc. many fewer of them end up living with their grown children. But that isn't the only explanation; there is also a major shift among young people, with marriage happening later and later and fewer people marrying.


Tyler Cowen cites research from Rachel Sheffield and Scott Winship that shows this does not result from economic problems or from a lack of "marriageable men", for example because so many are in prison. The main reason people aren't marrying is that they don't feel the need to:
– Rather than economic problems causing the increase in family instability, we argue that rising affluence is a better explanation. Our story is about declining co-dependence, increasing individualism and self-fulfillment, technological advances, expanded opportunities, and the loosening of moral constraints. We discuss the paradox that associational and family life has been more resilient among the more affluent. It’s an argument we advance admittedly speculatively, but it has the virtue of being a consistent explanation for broader associational declines too. We hope it inspires research hypotheses that will garner the kind of attention that marriageability has received.

– The explanation section closes with a look at whether the expansion of the federal safety net has affected family instability. We acknowledge that the research on select safety net program generosity doesn’t really support a link. But we also show that focusing on this or that program (typically AFDC or TANF) misses the forest. We present new estimates showing that the increase in safety net generosity has been on the same order of magnitude as the increase in nonmarital birth rates.
Obviously this study isn't the last word on the issue but I think this is an important point. Marriage used to be very much about economic security. In peasant societies a family was an economic unit as much as a biological or emotional one, and much of this lingered into recent times. The modern model, developed by the Victorians, saw the family as a secure refuge from a tumultuous world. Now that single people can easily support themselves and draw on a raft of professional services for everything from laundry to pet sitting, there is simply less need to have partners. I think this economic reality has slowly fed back into the culture, leading to less of a felt need to marry and settle down, leading to later marriage and smaller families. 

I don't see anything wrong with this; after all many people entered or stayed in bad marriages because they felt they had no choice, and getting away from that is great. But living alone has its own dark side.

Thursday, July 23, 2020

Tenth-Century Jewelry Mold from Switzerland

This stone jewelry mold was recently excavated in Chur, the capital of the Swiss canton of Grisons. The uneven square measures 9 x 8.3 x 3 centimeters (3.5 x 3.3 x 1.2 inches). These are very rare objects, and the 10th century was pretty much the nadir of economic activity in Europe, so quite cool. Although the buildings at the site were held up by wooden posts and thus rather primitive, there was much evidence of craft production, including waste pieces of glass, metal, horn, and bone. Via The History Blog.

Nighthawks from Start to Finish

An intriguing look at how Edward Hopper created one of his masterpieces, via No Brash Festivity