Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Sotheby's July Sale of British Art

Some highlights from Sotheby's London sale of "Victorian, Pre-Raphaelite & British Impressionist Art", held on July 12. Above is the star, Siren by John William Waterhouse, 1901, which sold for 3.8 million pounds.

Details. Incidentally this work is not Victorian, Waterhouse was not a Pre-Raphaelite, and I would not call it Impressionist, either, but nobody knows what to call this sort of painting in this period, so Sotheby's didn't even try.

Anthony Frederick Augustus Sandys, The Red Cap, 1900.

Simeon Solomon, Habet! in the Colosseum, A.D. XC. Solomon came from a wealthy London Jewish family but fell into scandal after he was arrested in 1873 for "attempting to commit an act of indecency," that is, approaching a male prostitute who turned out to be a police informer.

Drawing by John Everett Millais, Yeomen of the Guard, 1883. I never saw myself as a great artist or anything but I am intensely jealous of people who can sketch a scene like that. That I would love to be able to do.

Edward Burne-Jones, Study for the Valiant Knight, a tapestry, c 1889. Detail.

And to conclude with something completely different a twentieth-century work by Edward Seago, Marsh Landscape. The date is unknown because the artist held onto this one and it was sold by his estate after his death in 1973.

Drug Crisis?

Data to think about:
Alcohol is responsible for over one in 20 of all deaths worldwide, according to the most recent edition of a World Health Organization (WHO) report that comes out every four years. . . .

According to the WHO data, approximately 7.2 percent of premature deaths worldwide are linked to alcohol, and as well as 5.3 of all deaths in general.
"Are linked to" might be doing a lot of work here, but it is good to remember that alcohol is by far the most deadly drug.

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Hellenistic Gold Stand

4th century BC, probably southern Italy. From Phoenix Ancient Arts.

Saturday, September 22, 2018

Eugène Viollet-le-Duc as an Artist

Eugène Viollet-le-Duc (1814-1879) was an architect who specialized in "restorations" of medieval buildings. On this blog we have already seen some of his architectural work at Carcassonne and Pierrefonds. But that is just a smidgen of his work. His most important project was probably restoring Notre Dame de Paris. The old gargoyles had practically dissolved under the assaults of Paris' coal-laden air, so Viollet-le-Duc designed new ones.

Yes, these famous brooding monsters are not medieval but spring from the neo-Gothic imagination of Viollet-le-Duc. And if nobody knows that, well, that is the way he wanted it; he saw himself as a restorer, not a creator, someone who made medieval buildings look the way they looked in their prime.

In the course of researching my post Carcassonne I saw a few of Viollet-le-Duc's drawings, and I was intrigued. Most of them look like this rendering of Albi Cathedral, not especially artistic because they are perfectly precise.

Or they focus in on small details, like this.

But some of Viollet-le-Duc's more formal compositions are quite impressive. Pierrefonds.

Mont St. Michel

Door of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Nervy.

 And some of his architectural renderings have their own sort of beauty.

Viollet-le-Duc did numerous renderings of details from stained glass, like this head of St. Remi from Rheims.

In 1855 Viollet-le-Duc published a book he had written and illustrated, Annals of a Fortress, which told the history of a fortified place in southern France from ancient Celtic times to the Renaissance. If I remember correctly, it was besieged five times.

When I read them I thought David Macaulay's City and Castle were strikingly original, but now I know that Viollet-le-Duc did the same thing more than a century before Macaulay. Although of course as a man of the nineteenth century Viollet-le-Duc wrote a much, much longer text.

I don't know that Viollet-le-Duc was a great artist, but his drawings have give me much pleasure, and I plan to seek out more.

Friday, September 21, 2018


May the balance of day and night help bring balance to your life, and may Autumn bring you great blessings.

Bronze Age Helmets Found in Slovakia

Two Bronze Age helmets, dating to between 1200 and 1000 BC, were recently found in Slovakia by a local collecting mushrooms. They had been buried together with two spiral arm guards and two other armor pieces. Holes in the helmet crests suggest they once sported plumes.

More at the History Blog.

Why Humanities are Declining in Universities

According to Fabio Rojas, the decline in humanities enrollments has nothing to do with campus politics or corporate-style management by administrators:
The actual answer lies in a trend that transcends any single college and that predates the culture wars of the 1980s: There has been a massive shift in student attitudes since the 1960s toward vocationalism. As student goals shift, so do their choices of majors. . . .

Simply put, college students today are less likely to say that they are attending school for the sake of knowledge. Instead, they are more likely to say that they want a college education to get a job.

We know about this increased concern for jobs from the annual College Freshmen Survey, conducted annually by the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA. The survey began asking a sample of American college freshmen what they valued in an education. In 1970, approximately 50 percent of respondents said that they were attending college to make more money. By 1994, that jumped to over 80 percent. The survey also asked respondents to choose which idea they valued—“develop a meaningful philosophy of life” or “be very well off financially.” In 1966, “meaningful philosophy” beat “well off financially” 95 percent to 45 percent. By 1996, the situation was reversed—“meaningful philosophy” had dropped to about 45 percent while “well off financially” jumped to 80 percent. Recent surveys show that things haven’t changed much in the early 21st century.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Treating Concussions in Children

The CDC has just issued draft guidelines for treating concussions in children. Their first conclusion is that we should call them "mild traumatic brain injuries", mTBI, because too many people blow off a "concussion" as no big deal and they want people to take them seriously.

On the other hand they do not want people to take them too seriously. One of their recommendations is that most children should not receive CT scans, because that is so scary that the psychological danger is greater than the chance that something of medical importance will be learned. They dismiss MRIs altogether as not useful, and say the radiation damage from x-rays is also worse than any potential gain. Instead physicians should work from the usual template for assessing neurological trauma, examining pupil contraction, asking questions, observing neuromotor problems, and only if that examination suggests severe damage should more tests be ordered.

They also recommend against leaving children for too long in a darkened room. While the basic treatment for mild head injuries is "rest," and they advise a gradual return to a full schedule of activity, too much rest, especially in isolation, makes children anxious and depressed.

I don't really know anything about this type of medicine, but I am very glad to see the experts taking seriously the potential harm of treating children like something terrible has happened to them.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Jason Stanley on Fascist Rhetoric

Sean Illing of Vox interviewed Yale philosopher Jason Stanley about his new book on Fascism:
Sean Illing
Your specialty is propaganda and rhetoric, and in the book you describe fascism as a collection of tropes and narratives. So what, exactly, is the story fascists are spinning?

Jason Stanley
In the past, fascist politics would focus on the dominant cultural group. The goal is to make them feel like victims, to make them feel like they’ve lost something and that the thing they’ve lost has been taken from them by a specific enemy, usually some minority out-group or some opposing nation.

This is why fascism flourishes in moments of great anxiety, because you can connect that anxiety with fake loss. The story is typically that a once-great society has been destroyed by liberalism or feminism or cultural Marxism or whatever, and you make the dominant group feel angry and resentful about the loss of their status and power. Almost every manifestation of fascism mirrors this general narrative. . . .

Sean Illing
There’s a great line from the philosopher Hannah Arendt, I think in her book about totalitarianism, where she says that fascists are never content to merely lie; they must transform their lie into a new reality, and they must persuade people to believe in the unreality they’ve created. And if you get people to do that, you can convince them to do anything.

Jason Stanley
I think that’s right. Part of what fascist politics does is get people to disassociate from reality. You get them to sign on to this fantasy version of reality, usually a nationalist narrative about the decline of the country and the need for a strong leader to return it to greatness, and from then on their anchor isn’t the world around them — it’s the leader.

Sean Illing
This is partly why I think of fascism as a kind of anti-politics. I remember reading a quote from Joseph Goebbels, who was the chief propagandist for the Nazis, and he said that what he was doing was more like art than politics. By which he meant their task was to create an alternative mythical reality for Germans that was more exciting and purposeful than the humdrum reality of liberal democratic politics, and that’s why mass media was so essential the rise of Nazism.

Jason Stanley
That’s so interesting. The thing is, people willingly adopt the mythical past. Fascists are always telling a story about a glorious past that’s been lost, and they tap into this nostalgia. So when you fight back against fascism, you’ve got one hand tied behind your back, because the truth is messy and complex and the mythical story is always clear and compelling and entertaining. It’s hard to undercut that with facts.
I think this is interesting but I would say that it misses something big about Fascism: the fascists' love of strong emotion and distrust of cool reason. Fascists especially seem to love dark emotions like hate, anger, and cruelty. Much of Fascism is shot through with sado-masochistic sexuality. Fascists have also tended to love "action" and dismiss reflection; the thing is to act, preferably with speed and violence. So to me it is not just that Fascists focus on enemies of "the people", it's the deliberately cruel, sneering way that they do it; it's not just that they are creating an alternative reality, it's that the alternative reality they create is one that celebrates kicking people in the face.

Russians and Koreans Cooperating to Bring Back Mammoths

In Siberia, they are charged up about mammoths. At Pleistocene Park, a team led by Russian geophysicist Sergei Zimov is experimenting with bringing back the environment where the mammoths lived, the grasslands of the "mammoth steppe." Right now they are working with reindeer and musk ox but they would love to have actual mammoths.

At least three teams of geneticists are working on bringing those mammoths back, in South Korea, Japan, and at Harvard. Now the Russians have announced their own paleogenetics institute:
The 400 million rouble paleo-genetic scientific centre will aim to study extinct animals from living cells - and to restore such creatures as the woolly mammoth, woolly rhinoceros, cave lion and breeds of long-gone horses.

The proposal will be presented by the Northern-Eastern Federal University (NEFU) in Yakutsk, which is already deeply involved in collaborative cloning work with scientists in South Korea.

Acting rector Evgenia Mikhailova plans a ‘world-class paleo-genetic scientific centre’ and support has been promised by the regional government of Sakha repubic, also known as Yakutia, say reports.
The Russians say they are actively cooperating with the Koreans I just mentioned, and expect a Korean investment in their institute.

Vladimir Putin is a big promoter of these efforts. When he visits the labs he talks them up as examples of Russian high tech and his efforts to bring in Asian investment. But I bet he is secretly thrilled about having mammoths and cave bears in Russia again.

Cloning mammoths has turned out to be a harder problem than many people thought; I blogged back in 2011 about a Japanese effort that promised a cloned mammoth within five years. But our skill at molecular genetics keeps leapfrogging forward, and as I regularly tell my children I expect we will have living mammoths within their lifetimes.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Carina Nebula

From the European Southern Observatory.

An Interesting Republican Poll Leaked to the Press

Joshua Green of Businessweek has obtained in internal Republican poll that questions voters about the upcoming Congressional race. It finds that Trump's core supporters remain highly committed to him. However, they are not especially motivated to vote because more than half don't believe the Democrats can win:
According to the RNC study, completed on Sept. 2 by the polling firm Public Opinion Strategies, most voters believe Democrats will win back the House—just not Republican voters. Fully half of self-identified Republicans don’t believe Democrats are likely to win back the House. And within that group, 57 percent of people who describe themselves as strong Trump supporters don’t believe Democrats have a chance (37 percent believe they do).
And why do they think that? Because Trump tells them so. At every rally he insists that the country loves Republicans and they will probably increase their majority, not lose it:
The internal RNC study finds that complacency among GOP voters is tied directly to their trust in the president—and their distrust of traditional polling. “While a significant part of that lack of intensity is undoubtedly due to these voters’ sentiments toward the President, it may also be partly because they don’t believe there is anything at stake in this election,” the authors write. “Put simply, they don’t believe that Democrats will win the House. (Why should they believe the same prognosticators who told them that Hillary was going to be elected President?)”
With Trump's strongest supporters not especially motivated to show up,
GOP fortunes will hinge on the party’s ability to activate “soft” supporters: “Those voters who ‘somewhat approve’ of Trump and those who support the President’s policies but not his leadership style are the ones posing a challenge to the party.” Motivating these voters could be tricky. One hurdle is Trump’s chaotic style, which shows no sign of changing. Another is that the issues soft Republicans care about most are ones involving government spending and are typically associated with Democrats. The survey found that increasing funding for veterans’ mental health services, strengthening and preserving Medicare and Social Security, and reforming the student loan system all scored higher than Trump’s favored subjects of tax cuts, border security, and preserving the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.

“Special attention should be paid to the messaging regarding Social Security and Medicare,” the study notes. “[T]he challenge for GOP candidates is that most voters believe that the GOP wants to cut back on these programs in order to provide tax breaks for corporations and the wealthy.”
Gee, I wonder what would have given them that idea?

This sort of polling explains why even Ted Cruz has stopped talking about tax cuts. The people who favor them are already in the Republican column, and the rest of us are dubious.

Muscle-Bound Inequality

As one suspected:
Animal models of conflict behavior predict that an organism's behavior in a conflict situation is influenced by physical characteristics related to abilities to impose costs on adversaries. Stronger and larger organisms should be more motivated to seek larger shares of resources and higher places in hierarchies. Previous studies of human males have suggested that measures of upper‐body strength are associated with measures of support for inequality including Social Dominance Orientation (SDO), a measure of individual differences in support for group‐based hierarchies. However, other studies have failed to replicate this association. In this article, we reexamine the link between upper‐body strength and support for inequality using 12 different samples from multiple countries in which relevant measures were available. These samples include student and locally representative samples with direct measures of physical strength and nationally representative samples with self‐reported measures related to muscularity. While the predicted correlation does not replicate for every single available measure of support for inequality, the overall data pattern strongly suggests that for males, but not females, upper‐body strength correlates positively with support for inequality.
So far as I can tell, the effect is real but not very big.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Today's Place to Daydream about: Carcassonne

Today my imagination takes me to Carcassonne, most striking and famous of medieval cities. True, it has become one of those places where the 2 million tourists a year vastly outnumber the 50,000 inhabitants, so visit in the winter if you can; some who brave the summer crowds say the experience "has all the charm of a medieval siege." Still, this glorious vision haunts the dreams of medievalists. Some things are so wonderful that even the modern hordes cannot ruin them, and this is one.

The town is ancient, occupied since the Neolithic and receiving its first stone walls around 500 BC. It was a significant place in Roman times, and one can't dig inside the walls without turning up Roman artifacts or foundations. It the chaos of the late 200s AD, when barbarians rampaged through the empire, a massive new wall was built. That wall approximates the course of the current inner wall, which incorporates a large amount of Roman masonry.

The town has an amazingly rich history. In the fifth century it was taken by the Visigoths and incorporated into their kingdom. In 508 it was besieged by Clovis, the great Frankish king, but he failed to take it. Muslims fresh from overrunning Spain did take it in 728, and then Pepin the Short (Charlemagne's father) took it back for Christendom in 752.

In the 12th century the town was one of the centers of the rising culture of southern France, and the viscounts were great patrons of the troubadours. They also protected the Cathars, the anti-clerical heretics who caused so much trouble and ended up so important in the history of southern France. After the Pope declared an anti-Cathar crusade in 1208, Carcassonne was attacked by a northern French army led by Simon de Montfort. In August, 1209 the town surrendered after a siege of just two weeks. All those suspected of having supported the Cathars had to leave (above, in a 13th-century illustration).

For a few years de Montfort held the town himself, but it was eventually transferred to the crown of France. Under St. Louis the French embarked on a great building campaign in the town, repairing the old walls, replacing several towers, adding the second, exterior wall and constructing new gates (above). But all was not well under royal rule in Carcassonne. In 1234 a semi-permanent office of the Inquisition set up shop to enforce orthodoxy, irritating many residents by grilling them about events they thought were safely in the past and jailing a few. Plus the town's economic position had eroded.

In 1240 a revolt broke out, led by the old viscount's son. But St. Louis' men put in down easily. As punishment they expelled all the town's residents (except churchmen) and seized their property. The former residents were allowed to settle in a new, "lower town" outside the walls. This went on to become the new business center of Carcassone, as it still is. (Above, view of the ville basse from the walled town.) The upper town was resettled by outsiders, many from northern France.

Partly in penance, one suspects, the French kings helped support a great program of church building in Carcassonne, the results of which include the Cathédrale Saint Michael (above)

and the Basilica of Saints Nazarius and Celsus.

Famous 14th-century Tree of Life window in the basilica.

In 1315 the town was granted a special tax to raise money for a new bridge across the Aude River, which was completed by 1320. The bridge has been extensively repaired but still connects the two halves of the old city. In 1355 the town was attacked by the Black Prince, who failed to take the citadel by a sudden assault and settled for burning the lower town. (Those of you raised on the English tradition that makes the Black Prince a heroic figure might contemplate how he got his nickname.)

The town had another period of economic success in the 15th to 17th centuries, based largely on trading wine and blue dye made from woad. Many of the houses in both the upper and lower towns date to that period.

The Canal du Midi was built between 1666 and 1681, allowing boats to journey from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic through France. It passes by Carcassonne, and these days one can book an excursion of a day or longer to explore the south of France by boat.

The town's defenses were maintained until the 18th century. At some point they were officially declared surplus, and they began to decay; the space between the two walls filled up with houses. After Napoleon's defeat people began actively quarrying the walls for stone and much damage was done. In 1849 the government decreed that the walls should be demolished. But this caused such an outcry that the decree was rescinded, and instead efforts began to restore the city. At this point the man who was to have a bigger impact on the city than anyone since St. Louis enters the story: architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc. Viollet-le-Duc was one of those nineteenth-century characters whose specialty was taking actual medieval buildings and "restoring" them to look like medieval buildings were supposed to look. He was responsible for adding the lovely pointed slate roofs to Carcassonne's towers, which never had them before. He also added lots of arrow slits and other "medieval" touches.

You have to admit, though, that the result is gorgeous. And when the French government got Carcassonne listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site they specified that part of its historic importance came from the involvement of Viollet-le-Duc in its restoration. Was this, maybe, a preemptive strike against any purists who might want to remove the slate roofs that people like so much? At any rate I find it fascinating that Viollet-le-Duc, who always said that his only goal was the preservation of history, has now become history worth preserving.

In 1907 Carcassone was witness to another important historical event, the "Revolt of the Wine Growers." This was an early example of the French peasant habit of staging dramatic demonstrations against government agricultural or economic policy, which still continues, and it led to the formation of one of the main agricultural leagues. These agitations did induce the government to create policies to help small farmers, which led eventually to the vast system of French and EU subsidies and regulations we have today.

So today I turn my thoughts to Carcassonne, the astonishing survival which so wonderfully evokes the Middle Ages of our imaginations.