Friday, July 20, 2018

Maine 2018 Part II: Sargent and Parkman Mountains

On the way up to the peak of Sargent. These are not big mountains, not much more than hills, but because of the peculiar local geography they are bare on top, and this always feels to me like walking in the sky.

Blueberries and wild lilies on top of Sargent Mountain.

Thomas on Parkman Mountain.

The way down.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Maine 2018

 Images from this week on Mt. Desert Isle. My son Thomas contemplates the view from the porch.

 View from Parkman Mountain.

With Ben and Clara atop Parkman Mountain.

 View along the Cliffs Trail.

I clearly see an owl in this rock, in fact I thought it was so obvious it must be graffiti, but so far as I can tell it is natural, and anyway others deny the owl's presence.

 More of the cliffs trail.

My sister the art history professor tries to get a photograph that recreates a famous drawing by Thomas Cole.

Harebells in the rocks. And three more days to go.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Irish Henge Revealed by Drought

Archaeologists love droughts. Because once people have disturbed the soil by digging pits, that soil holds water a little better than the undisturbed soil around it. The difference is not enough to show during most years, but in a drought that severely stresses the plants, the old pits just may show up as spots where the crops are healthier. And in evening or morning light, an aerial photograph just might show you things never seen before. Like this Neolithic henge in Ireland, just found using a drone. It's in the Brú na Bóinne archaeological landscape around Newgrange, a place with many Neolithic monuments, once probably the spiritual center for one of Ireland's tribes.

Friday, July 13, 2018

Artemisia Gentileschi

Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1656) had an interesting life and has lately embarked on an equally interesting afterlife. She was one of the seventeenth century's most prominent female artists, and perhaps the first woman admitted to the Accademia di Arte del Disegno in Florence. After her death she was pretty much forgotten, dismissed by most conoisseurs as a minor figure and reviled by a few as a foolish slut. (Self Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria (ca. 1615-1617), recently sold to London’s National Gallery for £3.6 million or about $5 million.)

Then came feminism, and suddenly in the late twentieth century Gentileschi was famous and acclaimed in a way she had never been before. Not only was she a female artist, she was a rape victim whose personal testimony, preserved in the legal records of the Governor of Rome, still has the power to move and even shock us centuries later. Two generations of feminist critics, among them Germain Greer, have seen in Artemisia a woman struggling against male power, whose paintings encode resistance and a call to sisterhood. (Susannah and the Elders, 1610, completed when Artemisia was 17.)

But this of course only embroils us in other questions; given that her story can be made into exactly what millions of our contemporaries want in a heroine, what was she really like? And with that background she could be getting major shows now without much talent to speak of; is she any good? After all, as Elisabeth Cohen wrote in the best account I have found of the rape trial, "Between her death and the twentieth century she received little written coverage." (Self Portrait as an Allegory of Painting)

Artemisia was the daughter of Roman painter Orazio Gentileschi, a friend of the great Caravaggio -- one of the witnesses in the rape trial mentioned a day when Caravaggio dropped by the Gentileschi home to borrow a set of angel's wings. Her mother died when she was a child, and she grew up in a house full of male painters. When she approached puberty her father brought a chaperone into the household, a neighbor women named Tuzia who seems to have spent more of her time conversing with the artists than watching over her young charge. Artemisia was trained by her father – a sentence that could be written about all the female painters I know of who lived before about 1850. She learned very quickly and only three years after she first picked up a brush she was assisting with her father's commissions and producing her own works for sale. (Self Portrait as Lute Player, 1615-1617)

In 1612, according to her account, one of her father's associates, a regular house guest named Agostino Tassi, forcibly raped her while her chaperone looked away. He then molified her by promising to marry her. Nine months later her father brought suit against Tassi for struprum, a technical legal term which meant "forcible deflowering." The record does not tell us why Gentileschi waited so long, but most historians guess that he thought the couple were going to marry, and that what triggered the suit was Tassi's refusal to go through with the wedding. (Sleeping Venus, 1625-1630)

Eventually the court found Tassi guilty and sentenced him to five years banishment from Rome. This was a lenient sentence; a more usual punishment would have added a fine large enough to pay a dowery for Artemisia and cover all Gentileschi's legal costs. Plus, even the light sentence was not carried out, and Tassi remained in Rome completing a commission for the Pope. The Pope, Paul V, usually gets the blame for Tassi's getting off Scot free, and he now regularly appears in history and historical fiction as the celibate scowling face of rape culture. But notoriety is nothing new for him; in a papacy that spanned 1605-1623 he achieved several sorts. As the rumored sponsor of the Gunpowder Plot in England he ended up burned in effigy on Guy Fawkes Day by generations of Englishmen; as the Pope who ordered Galileo not to teach or publish about heliocentric astronomy he became the great enemy of science. (The Nymph Corsica and the Satyr)

Artemisia, meanwhile, her honor upheld by the court, found another husband and got on with her life. Sadly that husband proved to be an unreliable loser, and after a few years we find Artemisia traveling alone, raising at least one daughter by herself. Modern accounts sometimes make it out that the rape was the key event in her life and art, setting the tone for everything thereafter. These critics often point to this work, Judith and Holofernes, which they say her the painter herself as Judith and her rapist as Holofernes.

Others say that projects modern attitudes about rape into the past and furthermore turns Artemisia into a one-deminsional artist, and they prefer to put the emphasis on how hard she found it to win commissions as a woman working in a very masculine world. (Allegory of Fame, 1625-1630)

So, my gentle readers, how good was she? Is her art worth all the attention it is getting now, or is the whole business just politics? Is there such a thing as artistic quality independent of the identity and biography of the artist? I, of course, believe that there is. I would say that while Gentileschi was hardly Caravaggio, that is no crime; not everyone can be the best. I like her art just fine, and would take any of these over everything by Jackson Pollack, Willem de Kooning, and Jasper Johns put together, and they get big name museum shows. So why not her?  (Clio)

Race and Bourgeois Norms

David Brooks reviews the evidence that movement toward racial equality has essentially stopped, and then says,
I’d say the correct response to all this is an attitude I encounter a lot among people who are working in these communities, which you might call left on structural racism and right on cultural accountability.

That is to say, the left-wingers have it correct when they point to the systems of oppression that pervade society: the legacy of residential segregation; the racist attitudes in the workplace that demonstrably make it much harder for African-American men to get jobs; the prejudices — in the schools, in the streets and in the judicial system — that make it much more likely that African-American males will be punished, incarcerated and marginalized.

But conservatives are right to point to the importance of bourgeois norms. Three institutions do an impressive job of reducing racial disparity: the military, marriage and church. As the A.E.I. study shows, black men who served in the military are more likely to be in the middle class than those who did not. Black men who attended religious services are 76 percent more likely to attain at least middle-class status than those who did not. As Chetty’s research shows, the general presence of fathers — not just one’s own — in the community is a powerful determinant of whether young men will be able to rise and thrive.
There is a critique of the 60s which says that all the personal freedom worked out great for those at the top of society, but has been a complete disaster for the less fortunate. Sometimes I think there is something to it.

More Nonsense about the Number 13

Jonah Goldberg provides a sad roundup of false theories about why the number 13 is unlucky:
Dossey traces the fear of 13 to a Norse myth about 12 gods having a dinner party at Valhalla, their heaven. In walked the uninvited 13th guest, the mischievous Loki. Once there, Loki arranged for Hoder, the blind god of darkness, to shoot Balder the Beautiful, the god of joy and gladness, with a mistletoe-tipped arrow.

"Balder died and the whole Earth got dark. The whole Earth mourned. It was a bad, unlucky day," said Dossey. From that moment on, the number 13 has been considered ominous and foreboding.

There is also a biblical reference to the unlucky number 13. Judas, the apostle who betrayed Jesus, was the 13th guest to the Last Supper.

Meanwhile, in ancient Rome, witches reportedly gathered in groups of 12. The 13th was believed to be the devil.

Thomas Fernsler, an associate policy scientist in the Mathematics and Science Education Resource Center at the University of Delaware in Newark, said the number 13 suffers because of its position after 12.

According to Fernsler, numerologists consider 12 a "complete" number. There are 12 months in a year, 12 signs of the zodiac, 12 gods of Olympus, 12 labors of Hercules, 12 tribes of Israel, and 12 apostles of Jesus.

In exceeding 12 by 1, Fernsler said 13's association with bad luck "has to do with just being a little beyond completeness. The number becomes restless or squirmy."
No, really, it does not. Jonah, I thought better of you than this. The real explanation is not hard to find. Heck, it's on wikipedia.

Goldberg compounds the problem by linking to that awful Mental Floss "Thirteen reasons people think the number 13 is unlucky" article, which has 13 more incorrect explanations.

Sigh. I suppose I'm going to be fighting this one for the rest of my life, just like pepper and rotten food.

Mind-Boggling Medicine

We have the tools to edit genes; we can, in the proper controlled circumstances, edit any genome pretty much any way we want. But to fight disease this way you need to do the editing reliably for thousands of cells inside a living organism, and that we are still just learning. Most of the techniques involve modified viruses and they are sloppy, slow, and have a poor record in actually saving lives. So this is big news:
Researchers now say they have a found a way to use electrical fields, not viruses, to deliver both gene-editing tools and new genetic material into the cell. By speeding the process, in theory a treatment could be available to patients with almost any type of cancer. “What takes months or even a year may now take a couple weeks using this new technology,” said Fred Ramsdell, vice president of research at the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy in San Francisco. “If you are a cancer patient, weeks versus months could make a huge difference.” . . .

In the new study, Dr. Marson and his colleagues engineered T-cells to recognize human melanoma cells. In mice carrying the human cancer cells, the modified T-cells went right to the cancer, attacking it.
This has long been shown to work in a lab, so if the new technique can really produce enough of the altered T cells to be effective, it ought to work in people. And more:
The researchers also corrected — in the lab — the T-cells of three children with a rare mutation that caused autoimmune diseases. The plan now is to return these corrected cells to the children, where they should function normally and suppress the defective immune cells, curing the children.

The technique may also hold great promise for treating H.I.V., Dr. Wherry said.

The H.I.V. virus infects T-cells. If they can be engineered so that the virus cannot enter the T-cells, a person infected with H.I.V. should not progress to AIDS. Those T-cells already infected would die, and the engineered cells would replace them.

Previous research has shown it might be possible to treat H.I.V. in this way. “But now there is a really efficient strategy to do this,” Dr. Wherry said.
The engineering here involves putting the cells in a bath containing the new gene you want and the CRISPR tool for cutting the genome at the right point, then using electiic fields to make cell membranes permeable enough for the right amount of the tools and genes flow in. Rather than trying to reason out the right conditions to make this happen, they just assigned a graduate student to keep trying it until he got it right:
It required a herculean effort by a graduate student, Theo Roth, to finally figure out the right molecular mixture of genes, gene-editing tools and electrical fields to modify T-cells without a virus. “He tested thousands of conditions,” Dr. Marson said.
The progress in our understanding and control of molecular genetics may end up being the most important development of my lifetime. But of course the techniques used for manipulating genes for therapeutic purposes, altering bacteria to make chemicals on demand, or to bring back mammoths can also be used to create custom diseases or engineer super babies. So when I say "most important," I don't just mean most beneficial.


Twice a year the sun sets in line with New York's street grid, a phenomenon dubbed Manhattanhenge. This weekend is one of those times.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

The First Vikings in Iceland

Written accounts tell us that the first Viking to live in Iceland was Ingólfur Arnarson, who settled in Reykjavík in the year 874. But obviously Arnarson can't have been the first Viking to set foot in Iceland; you don't pack up your whole family and move to an island that has only been sighted from afar. Plus Arnarson already knew enough about Iceland to pick what may be the best spot on the island for his home, even though it was on the opposite side from Scandinavia.

Now there is archaeological evidence of Vikings on the island decades before Arnarson and his family staked their claim:
Archeologists who have been excavating a site at the farm Stöð in Stöðvarfjörður in East Iceland unearthed two large Viking Age longhouses. The two longhouses are very large compared to other Viking Age structures excavated in Iceland and Scandinavia.

Bjarni Einarsson, the archeologist in charge of the dig told the local TV station Stöð 2 that the younger of the two houses was built on the ruins of the older structure, which measures as much as 40 meters (130 ft). Both structures are located beneath the "settlement layer", a layer of volcanic tephra that fell sometime in the years 869-73, making both older than the "official" time of settlement. . . .

Bjarni told Stöð 2 that C-14 dating indicates the older structure was built shortly after the year 800, suggesting settlement in the Eastfjords 70 years before Ingólfur Arnarson arrived in Reykjavík.
Einarsson thinks he has unearthed the site of a fishing camp, which were common in Scandinavia:
Local chiefs would send out teams of workers to establish camps in remote uninhabited areas during summer, where they hunted, fished and produced various goods. The camp in Stöðvarfjörður could have been used to fish, hunt seabirds and seals, as well as to produce oil from whale blubber and iron from bog ore. Most Viking era iron was smelted from bog iron.

Such seasonal camps could have been used for decades before permanent settlement began. Bjarni believes they played a key role in the settlement of Iceland:

"People would have come here to work part of the year, producing goods during summer to take home in the fall. They would have taken these goods home, as well as information about this new land. Based on this information people would then have been able to make an informed decision to settle here permanently."
Plus, much of Iceland's history is preseved in place names
The very name of the farm Stöð and the fjord Stöðvarfjörður seem to support this theory: Stöð translates as camp, station or base.

The Ethology of Politics

Interesting article by Thomas Edsall about the political gender gap in America, which right now is historically very large. Conservative Alex Castellanos and liberal Steven Pinker have the same take on Trump's basic appeal. Castellanos:
We are in the middle of an unprecedented political and cultural gender war. On one side of this war, we have Trump, alpha males and the women who love them. On the other side are beta males and the women who want to be them. . . . [the Trump side] flies the flag of manliness and strength which it sees as necessary to hold the world together and keep it from continuing to unravel in uncertain and perilous times. It is fighting to preserve not just manly strength but gender itself, the cultural differences between male and female. The other side is seeking to overthrow the patriarchal hierarchy that has run the world since we lived in caves. It seeks to create a sexually egalitarian world by extinguishing gender and its differences.

Trump is the last hope of those, like me, who would preserve the old patriarchal hierarchy. That’s why white college educated suburban women hate him: he is the political embodiment of the regressive threat to the evolution of postmodern female identity. Simply put, Trump’s alpha dog manliness and strength are a threat to the evolving independence and power of women. He “would take women back.” He represents the world as it was, where women were kept “in their place.”
Trump is almost a caricature of a contestant to be Alpha baboon: aggressive, hypersensitive to perceived threats to his dominance, boastful of his status and physical attributes (including his genitals), even the physical display of colorful big hair and a phallic red tie. Men may identify with such displays. . . .

The latest battle of the sexes has the media, educational, and workplace establishments sympathizing with women and demonizing men. Much of this is justified and long overdue, given how women are exploited and discriminated against, but it may leave some men feeling defensive, belittled, and eager for a champion. This may especially affect lower-status men. High-status women may justifiably protest their treatment at the hands of high-status men, but lower-status men may feel less sympathy for them, particularly if they feel demeaned and disenfranchised.
Edsall concludes:
Men’s commitment to protecting their status — their dominant position in the social order — cannot be counted out in 2018 or 2020. Elections have become a sexualized battlefield, and men have repeatedly demonstrated their determination to win no matter the social cost. The outcome of the next two elections will show whether women are equally determined to fight tooth and nail.
I would add that one does not have to see this as naked self-interest in men; many Trump voters have equal marriages on the modern model and they may be perfectly happy with that. What drives much of our politics is a desire to make the world feel right. Trump taps into a sense that the world runs better with aggressive manly men in charge; he fits a mental template of the strong leader that goes far back in mammalian evolution. People who have no clue about foreign policy admire Trump's approach because it is all about projecting strength, after interminable, unwinnable wars have sapped our sense that America is strong.

One of the deep problems with the modern world is that most of us feel powerless and ignored. Trump, by acting out ancient images of power, gives his followers a vicarious sense of strength; and by speaking directly to them in language they relate to, he makes them feel that someone understands. Those are powerful political weapons, and it remains to be seen if the Democrats have anything to offer with the same appeal.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Fields of Flowers

Amazing collection of photographs at the Atlantic, showing the fields of flowers in the plain of Castelluccio, Italy.

Inequality and Political Power

To those that have, more shall be given:
This article investigates the effects of economic inequality on legislative agendas. It considers two competing hypotheses: (1) that policymakers will act to counter rising inequality by renewing their focus on redistributive social policies, and (2) that rising inequality makes legislative agendas especially vulnerable to the influence of economic elites, and that these elites will attempt to keep redistributive social policies off the agenda. Empirical tests, which are designed to arbitrate between these hypotheses, use data on public laws and parliamentary bills introduced in the legislatures of nine European countries between 1941 and 2014. The evidence is supportive of the second hypothesis: as inequality becomes more acute, European legislative agendas become systematically less diverse and this narrowing of attention is driven by a migration away from social safety-net issues toward issues relating to law enforcement, immigration, and national defense. . . .

Thus, our findings are consistent with theories that economic inequality is a particularly difficult problem for democratic governments to solve.
From what I can tell the effect is not very large, but it seems to be real and robust. I do wonder if the effect is mainly driven by the extraordinary period after World War II, when welfare states were built in countries that were highly equal mainly from the effects of the war; I couldn't tease that out from the data.

Via Marginal Revolutions

The Visconti "Semideus"

Among the most remarkable illuminated manuscripts to survive from the fourteenth century is a copy of the Semideus or Demigod, a tract on military matters by the humanist Catone Sacco. It's one of the works featured in Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts by Christopher de Hamel. Sacco presented this copy to Duke Filippo Maria Visconti of Milan in 1438. That's the duke above, watched over by the Virgin.

The text is half military history, half flattery of the "Semideus," that is, the Demigod, who of course in the Duke himself. The point seems to have been to convince the Duke to go on crusade and save Constantinople from the Turkish hordes.

The charming illustrations show historical battles, half taken from ancient authors and the rest from chronicles of the crusades. That's our old friend the ship casting post full of snakes at its enemies, a story which Sacco of course accepted without reservation, as any good humanist would.

Interesting way to batter down a fortress. Leonardo wasn't the only Renaissance Italian hatching wild military schemes.

I find these paintings delightful and original. I've never seen anything else quite like them, and they form a great picture of how a humanist scholar imagined the world of war.

45 Things Varlam Shalamov learned in the Gulag

Varlam Shalamov (1907-1982) spent more than a decade in Stalin's gulag, mostly in the Arctic gold mining camps of Kolyma. My post on his poetry is here.

While he was alive Shalamov always refused to say anything about any lessons he might have learned from his experiences, but after he died a list of 45 things he learned was found in his papers. It dates to around 1961, a decade after his release. Full list here. A sample:
1. The extreme fragility of human culture, civilization. A man becomes a beast in three weeks, given heavy labor, cold, hunger, and beatings.

2. The main means for depraving the soul is the cold. Presumably in Central Asian camps people held out longer, for it was warmer there.

3. I realized that friendship, comradeship, would never arise in really difficult, life-threatening conditions. Friendship arises in difficult but bearable conditions (in the hospital, but not at the pit face).

4. I realized that the feeling a man preserves longest is anger. There is only enough flesh on a hungry man for anger: everything else leaves him indifferent.

6. I realized that humans were human because they were physically stronger and clung to life more than any other animal: no horse can survive work in the Far North.

7. I saw that the only group of people able to preserve a minimum of humanity in conditions of starvation and abuse were the religious believers.

8. Party workers and the military are the first to fall apart and do so most easily.

9. I saw what a weighty argument for the intellectual is the most ordinary slap in the face.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Placebo News

Not only do placebos sometimes work as well as "real" drugs, they sometimes cause just as many side effects.

Monday, July 9, 2018

Today's Place to Daydream about: Ljubljana

Ljubljana is the capital of Slovenia, a nation of two million people nestled into the foothills of the Alps where Italy, Switzerland, and the Adriatic Sea meet.

Ljubljana has about 290,000 people itself. It came to my attention because National Geographic suggested visiting, partly because it is "the most sustainable city in the world." The Times praises its "car-free center, historic architecture, lots of green space and riverbanks lined with cafes, pubs and boutiques."

The architecture in the city center is a mix of Renaissance, neoclassical, and Art Nouveau.

One of the highlights is the famous Dragon Bridge, completed in 1901.

There are many parks.

The University.

The independence Slovenia achieved in 1991 was its first. It was ruled over by the Romans, the Ostrogoths, Charlemagne, the Bavarians, and various German emperors, ending up on the front lines of the long war between the Christians and the Turks. When the Austro-Hungarian Empire was split up it became part of the failed experiment known as Yugoslavia. And then when Yugoslavia fell apart, Slovenia achieved independence easily, since it was more geographically compact and ethnically unified than the other states. Above, detail from a 1689 panorama of Ljubljana.

Ljubljana is an ancient place, perhaps founded around a Roman fort; Roman baths turned up in excavations for a new university a few years ago. It was a significant place in the later Middle Ages; the sources usually call it by a German name, Laibach.

These days it is a great combination of laid back and efficient, and I would love to explore it.

If you're bored with the city you can head out into the Alpine countryside, past the vineyards where they make excellent wine

to the famous Like Bled with its island monastery, one of the most photographed places in Europe.

With a famous cliff-top castle besides, all only 30 miles (50 km) from the city. You can row around on a boat, or just sit and absorb the beauty. What a place to think of on this hot July day in Maryland.