Friday, June 22, 2018

Professorial Universes

Whatever universe a professor believes in must at any rate be a universe that lends itself to lengthy discourse. A universe definable in two sentences is something for which the professorial intellect has no use.

–William James, "Pragmatism"

Junzi imperialis

Extinct species of gibbon recently discovered in the 2,300-year-old tomb of Qin Shi Huang's grandmother. Scientifically interesting because we don't know of many species of mammal that went extinct between the end of the Ice Age and the modern era, but this one clearly did.

Plus, what an awesome photograph.

Incidentally Lady Xia's tomb contained more than just the gibbon. There were twelve pits filled with animal remains, including a leopard, a lynx, a black bear, a crane, and numerous domesticated specimens. Noble Chinese of the period were sometimes buried with exotic animals, but Lady Xia was still extreme in the number and variety of her grave companions, so  maybe she was as weird as her grandson.

Urban Jungle

Spent my morning here, in the rain.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

The Limb Pit

The most exciting archaeology I've done in the past three or four years has finally made it through all the layers of National Park Service review and analysis and so on and been released to the public: a burial pit and limb pit on the Bull Run/Manassas battlefield. The pit contained two nearly complete skeletons, both probably Union soldiers, and seven amputated legs.

This tickled me:
Scientists have uncovered a pit of human bones at a Civil War battlefield in Virginia. The remains are the amputated limbs of wounded Union soldiers.
Yes! I'm a real scientist now! NPR says so! Because it wasn't anyone mentioned in these news stories who actually found this pit and figured out what was going on, it was my crew. Along with a couple of people from the Park Service who also remain unmentioned in these stories.

If you read between the lines of the news, you can see that the Park Service is still being extremely cautious about this story. They had to say something, because they have handed the skeletons over to the Army for burial at Arlington, but they have said as little as possible. So I guess I shouldn't say very much, and all my wonderful photographs of the dig are still embargoed. So for now, only images that I pulled from news sites. One day maybe I'll be able to post the good stuff.

This is one of the best finds, a bullet embedded into the leg bone of the man it killed. The press haven't passed on my favorite bit of this story, which came when the bullet was first inspected. The Park Service historian standing nearby said, "that's an Enfield bullet, and that means Second Manassas since the Confederacy didn't issue Enfields until April '62." Ok, sure. If you say so.

I occurred to me later that as historian at a park where two different battles were fought over the same ground 11 months apart, he has probably made a particular study of the ways to distinguish them, but at the time I was floored by this casual display of arcane knowledge.

One of the best things about this project was that we worked closely with Doug Owsley and Karin Bruwelheide (above) of the Smithsonian, two of the world's leading forensic anthropologists. They were a fountain of knowledge and it was a real joy to spend a week with them.

I've always liked this picture of me taking notes on the excavation as it progressed, by the Smithsonian photographer. Since there aren't any bones and you can't tell exactly where this was taken, it should be safe for me to publish here.

Surrogacy, Feminism, and Capitalism

To get back to one of my regular themes, Ross Douthat has a column today pointing out that when it comes to surrogate motherhood, American feminists have mostly abandoned the anti-capitalist position they started from and embraced the marketplace:
You can tell a number of stories about why this happened. Defending the legal logic of abortion rights — my body, my choice — pushed feminism in a libertarian direction. The benefits of in vitro fertilization made a lively trade in eggs and embryos seem desirable or at least inevitable. . . .

But perhaps the simplest way to describe what happened with the surrogacy debate is that American feminists gradually went along with the logic of capitalism rather than resisting it. This is a particularly useful description because it’s happened so consistently across the last few decades: Whenever there’s a dispute within feminism about a particular social change or technological possibility, you should bet on the side that takes a more consumerist view of human flourishing, a more market-oriented view of what it means to defend the rights and happiness of women.
The old radicalism of the left has all but disappeared in America. This is partly for the perfectly sensible reason that with state socialism exposed as boring, bureaucratic, and potentially tyrannous, nobody has come up with an alternative to mixed-market capitalism as a way of organizing society. But the idea that certain things ought to be protected from the marketplace because commercialism would taint them is all but dead. Environmentalists have mostly embraced having billionaires buy sensitive environmental areas to protect them, something that would have horrified earlier generations of activists. Feminists have given up thinking that feminism ought to offer an alternative view of what matters in life, and instead fight to make corporations pay women as much as men. The real energy on the left comes from yet more radical ideas about freedom – the freedom to cast aside the billion-year-old straightjacket of sex and remake our bodies to suit our inner selves, and now perhaps the freedom to disregard borders and live wherever our children will best thrive.

I am ambivalent about surrogate motherhood as about so much else. Having children – pregnancy, birth, holding babies, raising toddlers – was by far the most powerful and beautiful experience of my life. The very idea that it should be curtailed so that people can better get ahead with their careers irks me, and the prospect of the police showing up to take a newborn infant from its mother because she signed a contract with the genetic parents disgusts me. (Yes, that has happened.) But I know that not everyone is as lucky in health, romance, economics and so on as I have been, and as always I am loathe to tell other people what they cannot do.

Since in America only a few religious cranks would be willing to jail people for practices like surrogate motherhood, it will continue. Within the broader society the values of the marketplace will dominate more and more. Freedom is the only battlecry that resonates. Any hope there is for the sacred must be created and nourished by us, alone, in our families, in small groups. Freedom also leaves us free to disregard its possibilities and throw ourselves into soul-spaces where nature, necessity, obligation and love override all else.

Frank Lloyd Wright, Darwin Martin House, Buffalo, New York

The Martin House is a masterpiece of Wright's Prairie Style, which he developed while he worked in Chicago from the 1890s to 1914. The original design was completed in 1903 and the house was built in 1904 to 1905.

Darwin Martin was an executive for Larkin Soap, and he learned about Wright through his Chicago-dwelling brother William. As soon as he set eyes on the house Wright designed for his brother in Oak Park he decided that he must have his own Wright house.

Darwin Martin lived in Buffalo. What he wanted from Wright was not just a house, but a whole complex of buildings, including a separate house for his sister and brother-in-law; according to some writers he grew up lonely and what he most wanted in adulthood was to have his friends and family close. Hence the huge house with lots of room for guests.

Notice that you can't really see the front door, a common trick of Wright's.

The thing about Wright as an architect is that when he designed a building, he designed everything.

Doors, windows, light fixtures, lamp posts, chimneys, fireplaces, sometimes even the furniture. Even when you don't love the result, you have to admire the lengths to which Wright went to create the look and feel he was after. (These are stills from this video.)

The Martin family was ruined by the stock market crash and in 1937 they had to abandon the house. It fell on hard times and saw service and a home for a college of priests, a collection of apartments, and so on. Parts were completely destroyed. Then in the 1990s a nonprofit foundation called the Martin House Restoration Corporation bought the property and began restoring it to its 1907 appearance. After years of construction the house is now open to visitors, some of whom rave about the tour.

During the house's years in the wilderness many of the Wright windows were pried out and sold, finding their way into museums and private collections across the country. One is in the Museum of Modern Art in New York. One of the foundation's jobs has been to persuade the owners of these wandering windows to return them to where they belong. Some have, but MOMA, of course, has refused; as my son said, "They're like a dragon, they have so much stuff they won't part with a single thing."

Photos of the restored interior.

Because the house is so wide, the better to blend into the landscape in Wright's scheme, photos won't display well here, so if you want to see the facade you'll have to click on these.

As I have said here before, I like the early stages of modernism: the experimentation with new forms, new materials, new ways of seeing. I just hate that for whatever reason it had to go on until we ended up with Bauhaus and Brutalism. In these houses of Wright's we see a great artist reaching outward from tradition but holding fast to certain old ideas, including domestic comfort and loving craftsmanship of details.

The Rich and the Poor

Gustave Flaubert, extract from a letter to George Sand, October 7, 1871 (five months after the suppression of the Paris Commune):
I do not believe more than you in class distinctions – the castes are archaeology. But I think the poor hate the rich, and the rich are afraid of the poor. So it will be forever. To preach loving one another is useless.

Poor John Kelly

Politico reports that being Trump's Chief of Staff is not turning out how he hoped:
Kelly’s status in the White House has changed in recent months, and he and the president are now seen as barely tolerating one another. According to four people close to Kelly, the former Marine general has largely yielded his role as the enforcer in the West Wing as his relationship with Trump has soured. While Kelly himself once believed he stood between Trump and chaos, he has told at least one person close to him that he may as well let the president do what he wants, even if it leads to impeachment — at least this chapter of American history would come to a close.

In recent months, his Secret Service detail has often been spotted standing outside the gym in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building in the middle of the day — and White House officials who pass it on the way to meetings view his late morning workouts as an indication of him having thrown in the towel on trying to have any control inside the West Wing.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Deep Things

There is, it must be confessed, a curious fascination in hearing deep things talked about, even though neither we nor the disputants understand them.

– William James, "Pragmatism"

Family Separation in America

One of the worst American policies today is the decision of President Donald Trump’s administration to separate many immigrant parents from their children after they illegally cross the U.S. border. Obviously, a case can be made for enforcing the border, but deliberate cruelty is never a good idea. Those children — innocent victims all of them — will likely be traumatized for life. I am uncomfortably reminded of the U.S.’s long history of separating parents and children from the days of slavery and during Native American removal and extermination.

If you agree with me on this, I’d like to push you one step further. It's horrible to forcibly separate lawbreaking parents from their children, but we do that to American citizens, too. According to  one study, more than 1.1 million men and 120,000 women in U.S. jails and prisons have children under the age of 17. These separations can be traumatic, and they help perpetuate generational cycles of low achievement and criminal behavior.

From 1991 to 2007, the number of children with a mother in prison more than doubled, rising 131 percent. About two-thirds of the women in state prisons are there for nonviolent offenses. Sixty percent of those women have children under the age of 18, and in one survey one-quarter of the prisoners’ children were under the age of 4. Forty-one percent of the women in state prison had more than one child…One estimate suggests that 11 percent of the children of imprisoned mothers end up in foster care. . . .

Let’s take one-tenth of those women and move them from prison to house arrest, combined with electronic monitoring. That would allow for proximity to their children. If the U.S. isn’t plagued by a subsequent wave of violent crime — and I don’t think it will be — let us try the same for yet another tenth. Let’s keep on doing this until it’s obviously not working.

Politics and Sham Philosophy

Every philosophy that believes the problem of existence to be shelved, or even solved, by a political event, is a sham philosophy. There have been innumerable states founded since the beginning of the world; that is an old story. How should a political innovation manage once and for all to make a contented race of the dwellers on this earth? If anyone believes in his heart that this is possible, he should report himself to our authorities: he really deserves to be Professor of Philosophy.

–Nietzsche, "Schopenhauer as Educator," 1874

Persian Sword, c 900 BCE

An Man of the Aristocracy Contemplates Democracy

When I survey this countless multitude of beings, shaped in each other’s likeness, amidst whom nothing rises and nothing falls, the sight of such universal uniformity saddens and chills me, and I am tempted to regret that state of society which has ceased to be. When the world was full of men of great importance and extreme insignificance, of great wealth and extreme poverty, of great learning and extreme ignorance, I turned aside from the latter to fix my observation on the former alone, who gratified my sympathies. But I admit that this gratification arose from my own weakness: it is because I am unable to see at once all that is around me, that I am allowed thus to select and separate the objects of my predilection from among so many others. Such is not the case with that almighty and eternal Being whose gaze necessarily includes the whole of created things, and who surveys distinctly, though at once, mankind and man. We may naturally believe that it is not the singular prosperity of the few, but the greater well-being of all, which is most pleasing in the sight of the Creator and Preserver of men. What appears to me to be man’s decline, is to His eye advancement; what afflicts me is acceptable to Him. A state of equality is perhaps less elevated, but it is more just; and its justice constitutes its greatness and its beauty. I would strive then to raise myself to this point of the divine contemplation, and thence to view and to judge the concerns of me.

–Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 1840

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.