Thursday, February 27, 2020

Ted Gioia on Music, Seduction, and Inputs

Last November Tyler Cowen interviewed music critic Ted Gioia. Gioia was sometimes annoyingly smug and tossed off theories about music and society that I found unconvincing, but he does know a huge amount about music. Some snippets:
GIOIA: Well, I believe, actually, Darwin was right. He thought music was linked to sexual selection, and we use music to attract a mate. . . .

COWEN: Let’s say you were not married, and you’re 27 years old, and you’re having a date over. What music do you put on in 2019 under those conditions?

GIOIA: It’s got to always be Sinatra.

COWEN: Because that is sexier? It’s generally appealing? It’s not going to offend anyone? Why?

GIOIA: I must say up front, I am no expert on seduction, so you’re now getting me out of my main level of expertise. But I would think that if you were a seducer, you would want something that was romantic on the surface but very sexualized right below that, and no one was better at these multilayered interpretations of lyrics than Frank Sinatra.

I always call them the Derrida of pop singing because there was always the surface level and various levels that you could deconstruct. And if you are planning for that romantic date, hey, go for Frank.
Based on solely Gioia's cheesy mustache I doubt he knows as little about seduction as he says. I was going to say that other things would work a lot better on me, e.g. Irish folk or Wagner, but since I can't remember the last time somebody tried to seduce me I suppose I really have no idea. More:
COWEN: Is it better to work and read to music? Or should those be separate activities?

GIOIA: It depends. I believe you can make a very strong philosophical case for what I call the New Age philosophy of music. And that philosophy is that music should be integrated into every aspect of your life or can be integrated into every aspect of your life. I believe that.

Now what I have to say is, in practice, the New Age music that did this was lousy and unlistenable. But I still believe very much, in principle, it’s okay to have music integrated in your life. I know it’s very fashionable to say background music is awful, or music should always be in the foreground. But after having done all the research I’ve done in music history, I now see the exact opposite.

And I’ll just give a couple examples. It’s amazing how many surgeons use music while they operate — 60 percent of surgeons will have a song on while they’re cutting you open. We now learn that at the highest level of peak athletic performance, a lot of care is taken to what songs you listen to while you do your athletic work. And I could give you 50 other examples, but the point is there’s nothing wrong with music being integrated into life experiences, and in fact, we should cultivate that.
And finally this:
COWEN: How is it you manage to listen to so much music?

GIOIA: I think the most important skill anyone can develop is time management skills, how you use your day. But there is one principle I want to stress because this is very important to me, and when people ask me for advice — and once again, this cuts across all fields — but this is the advice I give. In your life, you will be evaluated on your output. Your boss will evaluate you on your output. If you’re a writer like me, the audience will evaluate you on your output.

But your input is just as important. If you don’t have good input, you cannot maintain good output. The problem is no one manages your input. The boss never cares about your input. The boss doesn’t care about what books you read. Your boss doesn’t ask you what newspapers you read. The boss doesn’t ask you what movies you saw or what TV shows or what ideas you consumed.

But I know for a fact, I could not do what I do if I was not zealous in managing high-quality inputs into my mind every day of my life. That’s why I spend maybe two hours a day writing. I’m a writer. I spend two hours a day writing, but I spend three to four hours a day reading and two to three hours a day listening to music.

People think that that’s creating a problem in my schedule, but in fact, I say, “No, no, this is the reason why I’m able to do this. Because I have constant good-quality input.” That is the only reason why I can maintain the output.
This is certainly true for me. I can only blog well when I am reading or seeing interesting things. One of the reasons I keep blogging is that it gives me an added incentive to check out new authors or new web sites, hoping to find something worth writing about.

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Krishna Killing a Demon with a Cow



Oh, the great deeds of mighty heroes. From India, c. 1800. In the Wellcome Collection.

You Should Consider Fist Bumping

Worried about coronavirus? Stop shaking hands and use a quick fist bump instead. Obviously a mutual bow would be even better, but that's a hard sell in America.

A Buddhist Monk on Death

George Yancy interviews Geshe Dadul Namgyal, a Tibetan monk and Buddhist theologian who also holds an MA in English:
Namgyal: We can reflect on and contemplate the inevitability of death, and learn to accept it as a part of the gift of life. If we learn to celebrate life for its ephemeral beauty, its coming and going, appearance and disappearance, we can come to terms with and make peace with it. We will then appreciate its message of being in a constant process of renewal and regeneration without holding back, like everything and with everything, including the mountains, stars, and even the universe itself undergoing continual change and renewal. This points to the possibility of being at ease with and accepting the fact of constant change, while at the same time making the most sensible and selfless use of the present moment.

Yancy: That is a beautiful description. Can you say more about how we achieve a peaceful mind?

Namgyal: Try first to gain an unmistaken recognition of what disturbs your mental stability, how those elements of disturbance operate and what fuels them. Then, wonder if something can be done to address them. If the answer to this is no, then what other option do you have than to endure this with acceptance? There is no use for worrying. If, on the other hand, the answer is yes, you may seek those methods and apply them. Again, there is no need for worry.

Obviously, some ways to calm and quiet the mind at the outset will come in handy. Based on that stability or calmness, above all, deepen the insight into the ways things are connected and mutually affect one another, both in negative and positive senses, and integrate them accordingly into your life. We should recognize the destructive elements within us — our afflictive emotions and distorted perspectives — and understand them thoroughly. When do they arise? What measures would counteract them? We should also understand the constructive elements or their potentials within us and strive to learn ways to tap them and enhance them.

Yancy: What do you think that we lose when we fail to look at death for what it is?

Namgyal: When we fail to look at death for what it is — as an inseparable part of life — and do not live our lives accordingly, our thoughts and actions become disconnected from reality and full of conflicting elements, which create unnecessary friction in their wake. We could mess up this wondrous gift or else settle for very shortsighted goals and trivial purposes, which would ultimately mean nothing to us. Eventually we would meet death as though we have never lived in the first place, with no clue as to what life is and how to deal with it.

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Quebec Hydropower, the New Grid, and Buried High Voltage Power Lines

To make full use of solar and wind power, you need storage. Fortunately for the US Northeast, Quebec has already built a fabulous storage system in the form of hydroelectric dams:
Dotted within the sparsely populated forests and tundra of northern Quebec is an existing technology that could hold the key to slashing greenhouse-gas emissions created by powering the dense cities and suburbs between Boston and New York, at the lowest possible price. All that’s needed is a handful of new transmission lines, according to researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the existing network of hydroelectric dams from the Hudson Bay to the St. Lawrence River could serve as a giant battery for the U.S. Northeast.

Quebec’s dams ship some power south across the Canadian border, supplying 15% of New England’s electricity right now. But the energy only flows in one direction, which limits the ability to tap into the abundance of cheap renewable power up north. The key to driving down emissions from both power grids lies in sending electricity back and forth. Solar and wind facilities being built in the U.S. would then help power Quebec on sunny or windy days, giving hydroelectric reservoirs time to recharge. Then, when the sun falls or the wind calms, the Canadian dams would take over.

It’s similar to the system that has evolved between wind-rich Denmark and Norway, which boasts Europe’s biggest hydroelectric system. Denmark ships excess wind power to Norway, and that energy allows for Norway to refill its hydroelectric reservoirs. When Denmark needs more electricity, power flows the other way.

“Denmark and Norway are a postcard from the future,” said Emil Dimanchev, one of the authors of the MIT study.
It's easy to use a hydroelectric dam to store power; just reverse the system and use incoming power to pump water uphill.

But building new high voltage, long-distance power lines is a lot harder; one attempt to build a new line across Vermont was block by the state's Supreme Court after a big public outcry.

Fortunately, new technologies are coming along that should make it affordable to bury high voltage transmission lines. The general name for this approach is HVDC, High Voltage Direct Current. This was how Nikola Tesla wanted to transmit power, but in his time the engineering just wasn't there. Now it is. Underground or underwater HVDC lines are already widely used in Europe and they are being built in the US right now. They are no uglier or more disruptive than a pipeline, so they are a lot easier to build. When you factor in the cost of having to fight for your overhead line all the way to the state Supreme Court, as often happens, they are price competitive. As these new lines spread across the country, it will become much easier to tie different energy sources together, making green power ever more dominant. The image shows the configuration being used for a new line in Iowa and Illinois (2 eight-inch conduits in a trench 3 feet wide by 5 feet deep), which will carry as much power as a set of six overhead lines on big towers.

Another Outsider at Yale

Interesting essay at Medium by James Hatch, a 52-year-old former Navy SEAL and Yale freshman, about his first semester. Hatch was not well prepared for Ivy League course work and it sounds like he had a pretty tough semester academically, but that is not what he writes about. He writes, pretty much exclusively, about the positive encounters he had with other students:
After a few classes, I started to get to know some of my classmates. Each of them is a compelling human who, in spite of their youth, are quite serious about getting things done.

One young woman made a very big impact on me. She approached me after class one day and said, “I am really glad I can be here at Yale and be in class with you. My grandfather came to Yale and when WWII started, he left for the Navy and flew planes in the Pacific theater. After he came home, he came back to Yale, but he couldn’t finish. He locked himself in his room and drank and eventually had to leave, so I feel like I am helping him finish here at Yale and I’m doing it with a veteran, you.”

I was surprised and quite emotional. Exceptionally emotional. She went on: “I can send you a photo of him!” and I told her I would love one. That evening she sent me this photo of her grandfather. . . .

These kids work their asses off. I have asked a couple of them to help me with my writing. One young woman volunteered to help me by proof-reading my “prose” and, for the record, I believe she will be the President someday. I recently listened while one of my closer pals, a kid from Portland, Oregon, talked to me about the beauty of this insane mathematics problem set he is working on. There is a young man in our group who grew up in Alaska working on fishing boats from a young age and who plays the cello.
To me this has to be one of the keys for making in the Ivy League as an outsider, or really any tough environment: focus on the positive. There is not a word in Hatch's essay about the many negative experiences he must have had, all the people who sneered at him or talked down to him or mistook him for a maintenance man. Instead of being bothered that other students know things he doesn't, he marvels that he has a chance to be with them and learn from them.

Also, Hatch asks for help. This is another thing that bothers me about some of the essays I have read by Ivy League drop-outs. They go on about how confused and left out they feel, but they never turn to anyone for help. (Or if they did, they don't write about it.) Hatch made what I think is the best move, asking for help from his classmates, which builds friendships as well as getting the practical help. But all good colleges have plenty of resources for people having a hard time: tutoring, writing centers, psychological counseling.

And this:
At one point I said, “Hey, I’m just an old guy sitting here with a bunch of smart people, but I think….” And they all smiled, some of them nervously because I was essentially an alien. I was an old dude with tattoos all over his arms and a Dutch Shepherd service dog, brandishing a subdued American flag patch on her harness, sitting next to me. Professor Quint later approached me and said, “Hey, don’t downplay your intelligence. You are smart as well.”
The other thing that bothers me about essays by poor kids who ended up dropping out is that they never made this move, trading on their own very different perspectives. Just as a class will quiet to hear a Navy SEAL veteran say, "well based on my experience" they would also pay attention to a black kid from Newark who says, "where I grew up. . . ."  Yes, most students in the Ivy League are upper middle class white and Asian kids who went to elite high schools etc. But that means they are bored with that perspective, and eager to hear from someone who has had a completely different sort of life.

Obviously a 52-year-old Navy combat veteran is in a different place from any 18-year-old, much less likely to be intimidated by adult authority figures and so on. But I think Hatch's essay shows how it is possible for a very non-traditional student to thrive in the Ivy League.

Monday, February 24, 2020

Cleopatra Selene

Cleopatra Selene was the only daughter of the famous Cleopatra and Marc Antony. She had two brothers and one half brother, the son of her mother and Julius Caesar. After her parents' defeat in 31 BC she was brought to Rome and paraded in chains at Octavian's Triumph; she would have been about 10 years old. She was then placed in the household of Octavian's sister Octavia. A few years later she was married to Juba II, who had been the King of Numidia until the Romans took his kingdom and made it a province. Octavian sent Juba and Cleopatra to rule over Mauretania, more or less the coast of modern Algeria, which at the time was a Roman protectorate. By then her brothers were all dead (no source says how), leaving her the only surviving Ptolemy. She was said to have been an active queen, promoting a pro-Roman policy, and her only son ended up inheriting the kingdom.

In 2011 this item was auctioned by Christie's as
A ROMAN PARCEL GILT SILVER EMBLEMA OF CLEOPATRA SELENE
CIRCA LATE 1ST CENTURY B.C.-EARLY 1ST CENTURY A.D.
Raised from a single sheet, superbly sculpted in high relief in the form of the bust of a young woman wearing an elephant headdress over the top of her head, its raised trunk and tapering tusks projecting forward, all separately made and inserted, the skin crosshatched, each diamond punctuated by a central dot, its broad ears descending along her neck, the woman with her head turned slightly to her right, with luxuriant curly hair massed in two rows of thick serpentine locks, her striking face with a high smooth forehead merging with the bridge of her long slender nose, the nostrils indented, her large eyes with heavy upper lids, the pupils and irises indicated, the brows delicately incised, her small mouth with a full lower lip, the philtrum drop-shaped, the prominent chin rounded, wearing a chiton crenellated along the collar and a himation with broad U-shaped folds, buttoned on her right shoulder, embellished with a scorpion on her right shoulder, a cobra on her left, a lioness and a lion at her chest, fruit and wheat between them; the himation and portions of the headdress gilt
6 7/8 in. (17.4 cm.) high
It sold for $2.5 million, so somebody thought it was genuine. But the only provenance offered on their web site is "New York art market, 1996", which makes me wonder. It could only have survived this well in a tomb, and which tomb? Where? If it is real it is certainly amazing. Heck, it's pretty cool even if it's a fake.

Single Billionaire or Married on a Moderate Income?

YouGov asked Brits if they would rather be a single billionaire or married on a "moderate income." The results:

Single Married on a
Billionaire Moderate Income
Men 30% 55%
Women 16% 65%
Total 23% 60%

Interesting.

How Spencer Clark Got his Face on the 5 Cent Bill

During the Civil War, the Federal government encountered a shortage of the metals needed to make coins and began printing notes in denominations as small as three cents. This led to further hoarding of metal coins, etc., and the government ended up printing small notes down to 1876.

In 1866, Congress decided to issue 5 cent notes to honor explorer William Clark. But they made a small oversight. Atlas Obscura:
Allegedly, the document that reached the Treasury specified only that the new bill should honor “Clark,” without clarifying which one.
This caught the attention of Spencer M. Clark, the Superintendent of the National Currency Bureau and already a notorious character.
Clark, despite surely knowing Congress’s true intention, seized the opportunity to print his own face on the bill.

The move infuriated Congress. Clark was already roundly disliked because of the scandals he had brought the federal government. Two years earlier, in 1864, the House of Representatives investigated his department after Representative James H. Brooks claimed the Treasury had become a “house for orgies and bacchanals.” Clark was accused of “hiring women based on their looks rather than their ability”; female employees described how he “plied [them] with oysters and ale and made ‘improper’ overtures to them.” In fact, one woman told Congress that he had “offered her first $100, then 10 times that amount, for a tryst with her.” 
Some things never change! (Although it should be noted that an investigation exonerated Clark.)
One Congressman in particular—Pennsylvania Congressman Russell Thayer—”took immediate exception” to Clark’s five-cent note when he learned of it in February 1866. That March, he amended an appropriations bill to say “hereafter no portrait or likeness of any living person shall be engraved or placed upon any of the bonds, securities, notes, or postal currency of the United States.”
During his speech in the House, Thayer said:
I hold in my hand a five-cent note of this fractional currency of the United States. If you ask me, whose image and superscription is this? I am obliged to answer, not that of George Washington, which used to adorn it, but the likeness of the person who superintends the printing of these notes … I would like any man to tell me why his face should be on the money of the United States. It is derogatory to the dignity and the self-respect of the nation, I trust the House will support me in the cry which I raise of Off With Their Heads!
Congress passed the Thayer amendment on April 7, 1866. And that, my friends, is how the US ended up with a law specifying that our money can only feature dead people.

RIP Lawrence Tessler, Pioneer of Cutting and Pasting Text

Lawrence Tessler was part of the team at Xerox PARC that revolutionized how we interact with computers. They created the mouse with its pointer, icons that could be clicked on to open files or programs, dragging with a mouse, and so on. Tessler had a small part in the initial innovations but then a large one in creating the first modern text editing program:
Early in his Xerox career (he began there in 1973), Mr. Tesler and another researcher, Tim Mott, developed a program known as Gypsy, which did away with the restrictive modes that had made text editing complicated. For example, until Gypsy, most text-editing software had one mode for entering text and another for editing it. . . . For many years the license plate on his car read, “NO MODES.”

His first breakthrough at Xerox PARC came when he took a newly hired secretary, sat her in front of a blank computer monitor and took notes while she described how she would prefer to compose documents with a computer. She proceeded to describe a very simple system, which Mr. Tesler then implemented with Mr. Mott.

The Gypsy program offered such innovations as the “cut and paste” analogy for moving blocks of text and the ability to select text by dragging the cursor through it while holding down a mouse button. It also shared with an earlier Xerox editor, Bravo, what became known as “what you see is what you get” printing (or WYSIWYG), a phrase Mr. Tesler used to describe a computer display that mirrored printed output.

And Gypsy brought to fruition the idea of opening a computer file by simply clicking on a screen icon while pointing at it with the mouse cursor. Before that, files had to be opened by typing the file name into a command line.
I bring up Tessler and Xerox PARC because it has always bothered me that Steve Jobs and Bill Gates get so much credit for creating personal computing when most of the key work had already been done by Stanford, MIT, Xerox and IBM before they came along. Our weird system lavishes billions on people who step in at a very late stage in the game and figure out how to profit from other people's work. Another good example is Zuckerberg, who founded Facebook when all the necessary structure for social media was in place; in fact there were already other social media platforms. He added the last 1% of the product and became insanely rich.

Bugs me.

Sunday, February 23, 2020

European Emigration, 1880-1914

These days European politics have been turned upside down by immigration, but a century ago the continent had the opposite problem. Consider that Germany has been convulsed by Angela Merkel's commitment to take in a million immigrants, a number dwarfed by the flow out of Europe around 1900. Below are the numbers of emigrants to the United States from selected nations, 1880-1914:

Italy:                       4,033,000
Ireland:                   1,591,000
Scandinavia:          1,789,000
German Empire:    2,527,000
Austria-Hungary:  4,005,000
Russia:                    3,241,000
Greece:                   358,000

Remember this is only part of the total flow, since many emigrants went to other parts of the New World.

Some of these people came back, but probably only one out of ten; the rest never returned. Not only are these numbers enormous, they came primarily from certain districts. Much of the total for the German Empire, Austria Hungary, and Russia was made up by 3,800,000 Poles, and most Italian emigrants came from the south. The impact on those districts was profound:
Emigration to the New World sometimes had a dramatic effect on Europe itself and bizarre political hopes were fostered by the links that grew out of it. During the 1930s officials in the Polish foreign ministry fantasized about the prospect that emigrants from their country might found a colony in Latin America, while in 1945 some Sicilians proposed that their island might become a part of the United States. More seriously, central European nationalism was cultivated. During the First World War, a legion of Polish volunteers was raised among emigrants in the United States, and the influence of emigrants on eastern European politics was to persist for the whole of the twentieth century. In 1990, Franja Tudjman's campaign to become president of Croatia was said to have raised around $5 million from emigre supporters. In the same year, Stanislaw Tyminski, who had made his fortune in Canada, returned to Poland to run for president.

Emigration had less obvious effects on parts of Europe. It increased literacy, because families needed to keep in contact by letter. It also created imbalances of gender and age as young men left: between 1905 and 1916, 4.86 million Italian men emigrated, but only 1.14 million women accompanied them; in early twentieth-century Calabria, there were three young women for every two young men. Sexual imbalance may have produced a self-perpetuating cycle. Carlo Levi suggested that extra-marital sexual relations in parts of the Italian south were common because there were not enough men to provide all women with husbands. Illegitimate children in turn were particular prone to emigrate – in one well-studied village, three quarters of them did so.

Migration increased prosperity in home countries as money was sent back or as emigrants returned to buy cherished plots of land. The economic impact of emigration was particularly great in Italy, where links between emigrants and their places of origin remained close – it was said that Italy gained $100 million from emigrants who returned between 1897 and 1902. An enquiry of 1931 showed showed that 2 million hectares of land were bought by Italians returning from America. . . .

Emigration was often linked to political conservatism. Generally the areas that sent emigrants abroad during the early twentieth century remained on the political right for the rest of the century.
– Richard Vinen, A History in Fragments: Europe in the Twentieth Century (2000), pp. 17, 20.

According to Vinen's numbers, Italy lost 6 million emigrants in eleven years, from a population of around 32 million. According to wikipedia the total outflow of people from Europe over the period 1810 to 1932 was at least 60 million, and most of that happened after 1880.

Saturday, February 22, 2020

Born at the Wrong Time

My life has fallen at a hateful time. I have come into the world either too early or too late. Now, I do not feel comfortable; earlier, I should have enjoyed the time; later, I should have helped to build it up again; today I have to give my life to prop up this mouldering edifice. I should have been born in 1900, and I should have had the twentieth century before me.

– Clemens von Metternich, 1820
Metternich played a huge role in restoring royal and aristocratic power in Europe after the defeat of Napoleon, but he always felt that the regimes he was defending were not really worthy of his efforts. He liked to imagine living in the past, when kings could rule without repression and secret police, or in a future in which the conflict of revolution vs. reaction had somehow faded way and been replaced by a better, more peaceful world. Sadly being born in 1900 would not have gotten him there.

The Bosch Parade

Images from the 2019 version of the annual floating Bosch Parade in ‘s-Hertogenbosch, the Netherlands, the home of painter Hieronymous Bosch. More here and here.





Russia Wants a Trump-Sanders Election

As I have written here before, elements of the Russian government want Americans to be divided against each other. I am not at all sure that they have had any success with this, since Americans already hate each other plenty, and even if it worked I am not sure how it would help them. But it does seem to be their aim.

In the light of this it makes perfect sense that Russian trolls and bots are throwing most of their weight behind Trump and Bernie Sanders. Surely a Trump-Sanders election would be one of the ugliest ever, and highly divisive. The two Americans have reacted differently to the news, Trump trying to deny it and Sanders accepting it; maybe that's partly because in a weird way it enhances Bernie's status by making him the most radical one.

Strange times.

Friday, February 21, 2020

Post Brexit Farm Policy

One of the many reasons liberals and progressives should be more suspicious of the EU is it farm policy, which spends $65 billion a year promoting over-production, heavy pesticide use, draining wetlands, plowing up meadows, and general environmental mayhem.

Post Brexit, the British have an opportunity to rethink their own farm policy, and the Boris Johnson government has come up with a very interesting approach:
At the bill’s core is a shift away from direct payments to farmers based upon the amount of agricultural land they manage. This was a feature of the CAP (Common Agricultural Policy) that was heavily criticised as it pushed up land prices, creating an entry barrier for younger farmers, and benefited large landowners disproportionately. It also meant the farming of unproductive land that otherwise might have been turned into wildlife habitat.

Instead, landowners will in future be paid to produce “public goods”. These are things that can benefit everyone but bring no financial reward to those who produce them, like clean air and water.

Over the next seven years, farmers will move from the CAP regulations to a new system of environmental land management contracts. These will detail the terms and conditions under which farmers and land managers will receive funding. Subsidies are expected to be paid out from taxpayer funds at the same rate as the EU – about £3bn a year – to enable landowners to deliver the public goods set out in the government’s 25 Year Environment Plan and the Clean Growth Strategy. . . .

One of the big priorities of the bill is soil. Erosion rates from ploughed fields are between 10 and 100 times greater than rates of soil formation. As a result, the UK faces a crisis of food security within our lifetimes. The government will reward farmers who protect and improve soil quality with measures such as crop rotation, and give ministers new powers to regulate fertiliser use and organic farming.
Beats me if this will work. I'm no expert on British farming, and with these things small details can end up having huge consequences down the line. But it sounds worth trying, and honestly it would be hard to come up with something worse than the CAP.

Support vs. Advice

This Times article argues that when teenagers come to their parent to talk about problems, the last thing they want is advice:
Parents of adolescents are often confronted by a puzzling sequence of events. First, teenagers bring us their problems; second, we earnestly offer suggestions and solutions; and third, teenagers dismiss our ideas as irritating, irrelevant or both.

These moments feel ripe for connection. Why do they so often turn sour? Almost always, it’s because we’re not giving teenagers what they’re really looking for. . . .
And what might that be?
Adolescents, just like adults, may find the best relief from simply articulating their worries and concerns. . . .

Much of what bothers teenagers cannot be solved. We can’t fix their broken hearts, prevent their social dramas, or do anything about the fact that they have three huge tests scheduled for the same day. But having a problem is not nearly so bad as feeling utterly alone with it. . . .

As hard as it is for parents to stop ourselves, rushing in with suggestions carries the risk that you’ll be communicating the idea, “You can’t fix this, but I can.” This might strike our teenagers as a vote of no confidence when they are mainly seeking our reassurance that they can handle whatever life throws at them. . . .

More often than not, offering our teenagers an ear, empathy and encouragement gives them what they came for.
We've all encountered these ideas before; it is a clichéd piece of advice for men on how to relate to women. Sometimes the idea is that giving advice is a male way to offer support, but I'm not sure contemporary men are much on being given advice, either. All of us seem to find advice, most of the time, at best useless and at worst cruelly undermining of our autonomy and competence.

This interests me because it is so contrary to what I have read about past societies. In every advice book I have ever read from medieval or Renaissance Europe, pre-Meiji Japan, or imperial China, the writer says, "when confronted with a problem, gather your friends and relations around you and ask for their advice." For a particularly delicate matter – say, whether your poems are too embarrassing to publish – you should consult only a few close friends. But you should never make any decision without soliciting advice.

These books were of course written for wealthy, prominent people who led large households or whole communities (or people who hoped to end up in such positions) and what such people decided might affect many lives. Obviously a great lord should seek advice from his councillors before making a retaliatory raid on an enemy, or in arranging a political marriage. But I do not have the impression that people of lower status acted any differently. Everywhere you encounter the basic rule: don't make decisions on your own. Ask for advice, and follow it.

I have the impression that this is a significant difference between us and our ancestors. But how significant?

Is it just a difference in the style of interactions, that is, medieval people supported each other by offering advice, while we offer "active listening," and the underlying psychological process is the same?

Maybe, but I think it is deeper than that. I think we see ourselves as much more unique, and our lives as more unique, than past people did. Moderns seem to respond to advice with "You don't understand me! No one else can possibly understand what I'm going through!" Whereas past people seemed to believe that our lives are similar enough that in fact others can understand our situations and therefore offer helpful advice.

This may be related to rapid technological and social change; my advice on how to find dates on Tinder would hardly be of any use to the young people in my house. Our world is more diverse, with more different kinds of people and interactions, so your situation may in fact be highly unusual.

But I think it is fundamentally about how we construct our egos. We are very into being unique. ("Everyone is special in their own way.") It is important to us that we navigate our own paths, rather than those marked out for us by "society." Advice feels to us like an attack on the autonomy we strive for.

Personally I think we are wrong in this, and most people would do better soliciting some advice before they act. Most of our lives are not really unique, and most of what we do has been done by millions of others. Other people do understand. It seems to be the modern condition that it hurts to acknowledge this, and thus that needing advice is a painful sort of failure.

Links 21 February 2020

Relief of the Genii Cucullati, "Hooded Spirits," from Housesteads on Hadrian's Wall. Nobody knows who these three figures were or what they meant to the people who carved images of them around the Romano-Celtic world.

The intriguing career of Madame Sul-Te-Wan, the first black actress to land a studio contract in Hollywood.

The imaginary architecture of Jean-Jacques Lequeu (1757-1826).

The three versions of the Armada Portrait of Elizabeth I are being displayed side by side for the first time.

An expert on con artists and a fundraiser talk about how to ask people for money.

New Yorker columnist John Cassidy reviews the economics and politics of growth and stasis: many environmentalists think we need to halt economic growth, but is that even possible? How could it be done, and what would happen?

The mysterious thrift store photo album that shows the same unknown woman posing with dozens of Hollywood celebrities.

Roboanalysts outperform human investment consultants, on average. According to this study, anyway.

From one of my favorite internet madmen: "Norse thunder god Thor, Slavic thunder god Perun and Baltic thunder god Perkūnas all rode the sky in a chariot drawn by goats...Why?"

New Zealand has started giving out 2% of its scientific grant money via a lottery, and scientists generally approve.

According to a study that got the World Bank's chief economist fired, at least 7.5% of aid to poor nations is diverted into offshore banking havens, in some cases up to 15%.

Iron in the ocean and Ice Ages. If we want to control global warming we should really be looking harder at this.

Who is more radical, Bernie Sanders or Jeremy Corbyn? Sanders, by a wide margin.

A new conservative think tank devoted to fighting "market fundamentalism" on the right.

The career of a small-time Naples mobster.

YouTube's algorithm is not causing political radicalization.

Thursday, February 20, 2020

The Royal Necropolis of Sidon

Sidon, now a city in Lebanon, is an ancient Phoenician port. It was founded in Neolithic times and had stone walls by 2500 BC. In the Iron Age Phoenicia was most ruled by foreign emperors, Assyrian or Babylonian or Persian. But the city continued to thrive, and the kings, governors, or satraps who ruled it were wealthy at a royal scale.

Beginning in the mid 1800s, archaeologists and anitquaries began to investigate a series of "royal" tombs east of the old city. These were cut into the rock, some horizontally, some as vertical shafts. They had all been looted long ago and contained no wondrous gold or silver artifacts. What they did contain was impressive stone sarcophagi.

The most impressive were found in four tombs excavated by Ottoman officials in 1887. The officials were Osman Hamdi Bey, a Greek, and Yervant Voskan, an Armenian. The tombs date to the Persian period or early in the empire of Alexander the Great and his successors. The sarcophagi were all taken to Istanbul, where they remain.


Above and top, the Lycian sarcophagus, dated to around 425 BC.

The sarcophagus of the Satrap, c. 425 BC.


The sarcophagus of the mourning women, c. 350 BC.

And most famous of all, the Alexander Sarcophagus, c. 320 BC.


Extraordinary.

Hanging with the Elite

Tyler Cowen interviews Reid Hoffman, who got an MA in philosophy before co-founding PayPal with  Peter Thiel and Elon Musk and then founding LinkedIn:
COWEN: How did your interest in late Wittgenstein influence the construction and design of LinkedIn?

HOFFMAN: I would say that the notion of thinking about — a central part of later Wittgenstein is to think that we play language games, that the way that we form identity and community, both of ourselves and as individuals, is the way that we discourse and the way that we see each other and the way that we elaborate language.

That pattern of which ways we communicate with each other, what’s the channel we do, and what’s the environment that we’re in comes from insights from — including later Wittgenstein, who I think was one of the best modern philosophers in thinking about how language is core to the people that we are and that we become.

The Frankish Lords of St. Dizier, Early Sixth Century

Back in 2002, French archaeologists excavating around a late Roman villa at St. Dizier on the Marne uncovered three elite Frankish graves. St. Dizier is due east of Paris, about half way to Strasbourg, and in the early sixth century it would have been near the boundary between the Frankish realm and the Burgundian Kingdom. This was an academic project led by professors from Caen, and in the usual way of such efforts they have just now gotten around to publishing their results.

One fascinating detail concerns the Roman villa. At first the archaeologists thought it was in ruins by 400 CE, but they later discovered that the site was occupied more or less continuously into the 12th century. I love the image of Frankish nobles living in a half-ruined Roman villa built 300 years before. In fact, according to the story at INRAP I am drawing on, the reoccupation of half-ruined Roman villas by Merovingian lords was un fait bien connu et récurrent.

On the other hand the graves contained plenty of high quality glassware, so that Roman tradition continued in this era. Which is my general impression of sixth-century France: economically still fairly strong but gradually decaying as the new elite of Frankish warriors fought constantly against each other rather than shoring up the state and maintaining order.


The other two graves.


And more grave goods.

Close up of the most spectacular item, the clasp from a purse; you will recall from Sutton Hoo that these sixth-century nobles like lavish purses. When is Hollywood going to catch up to that?

Bootstraps

Nicholas Kristoff:
Back in the 1800s, the expression “pull oneself up by the bootstraps” meant the opposite of what it does now. Then it was used mockingly to describe an impossible act.

An 1834 publication ridiculed a claim to have built a perpetual-motion machine by saying that the inventor might next heave himself over a river “by the straps of his boots.” An 1840 citation scoffs that something is “as gross an absurdity as he who attempts to raise himself over a fence by the straps of his boots.”
Which got me thinking: if that's true, when did it become a metaphor for self help?

Fortunately other people have researched the question, giving us a good start. The long list of nineteenth-century uses presented here shows that the phrase was pretty quickly applied to social or moral uplift, but usually in a mocking way:
Madison City Express (Wisc.), 2 Feb.1843: His Excellency is certainly attempting to lift himself up by his boot-straps, or, what is much better, is "sitting in a wheel-barrow to wheel himself."

Southport Telegraph (Wisc.) 14 Feb. 1843: The Racine Advocate, in speaking of the subject, significantly remarks that 'the Governor must be trying to pull himself up the boot-straps.'

New Englander and Yale Review 6 July 1848: We have no great objection if teachers' conventions and associations pass resolutions of self-commendation; though this process of acquiring "due dignity" reminds us of the experiment sometimes made by boys, untaught in the natural laws of action and reaction, who try to elevate themselves to a more conspicuous position by means of their boot straps. 
This started to change in the 1920s:
The Oxford English Dictionary cites James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922) as its earliest example of the phrase, and it appears to illustrate the contemporary meaning: “There were ... others who had forced their way to the top from the lowest rung by the aid of their bootstraps.”

A 1931 volume of Pattern Makers’ Journal notes, “Pull yourself up by the bootstraps; shake off your cloak of indifference and voluntary serfdom.” And in 1927, Britain’s Sunday Times published an editorial ridiculing the headstrong American belief in self-improvement as exemplified by “the American bootstrapper.”
I thought this would trace back to the British or American self-help movement, Samuel Smiles and all, but I can't find any evidence of that. The references above are the only ones I found in an hour of searching that date to before the 1950s. So I think the prominence of the phrase in a positive sense must date to the new conservatism of the Nixon/Reagan period, not so old at all.

Incidentally Robert Heinlein wrote a short story in 1941 titled "By His Bootstraps," but it concerns time travel and the resulting paradoxes, so I think we should make this another ironic use; it's easy enough to bootstrap yourself to success if you have a time machine.

More on the Struggles of College Graduates

Data from the New York Fed confirms the difficulties college graduates have moving into careers:
The unemployment rate for young college graduates exceeds that of the general population, and about 41 percent of recent college graduates -- and 33.8 percent of all college graduates -- are underemployed in that they are working in jobs that don't require a college degree.
In December the unemployment rate for college grads 22 to 27 was 3.9%, compared to 3.6% for the country as a whole. Which is not really a big deal, and better than the 6.5% rate for 22-27-year-olds without a degree. People with the drive to finish college can almost all find some kind of work. But the transition to adulthood remains hard:
"It's maybe a little bit counterintuitive, but it’s not particularly surprising and the numbers have been pretty consistent for years," said David Soo, the chief of staff at Jobs for the Future. . . . "It's just that young people coming out of school often need a couple of years to get a foothold in the labor market, and then you start to see their unemployment and underemployment numbers come down. An investment in college is still the best one out there."

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Landscape Photographs of the Year

Some of the winners from the International Landscape Photograph of the Year competition, via My Modern Met. Above, SpaceX rocket launch in California by Brandon Yoshizawa.

Madeira, Portugal, by Anke Butawitsch

Eastern Sierras, California, by Carlos Cuervo

Bronte Beach, New South Wales, Australia, bu Gergo Rugli

Fleswick Bay England, by Oleg Ershov, part of the portfolio that won him first place.

West Mongolia by Ricardo Da Cunha

Bonaire, Dutch Carribean by Sander Grefte. More, bigger images at My Modern Met.

Love not Fear

Sharlee Mullins Glenn was raised in the John Birch Society:
But one Sunday my mother emerged from her bedroom, her well-worn Bible in her hands, and announced that she was leaving the society. How long had she been contemplating this move? I don’t know. But we children were shocked. “Why?” we asked. “Because I’ve realized it’s based in fear,” she told us. Then she quoted from the second book of Timothy: “God hath not given us the spirit of fear, but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.”

Those words changed my life. My mother did leave the John Birch Society, and though she remained mostly committed to conservative ideals for the rest of her life, her views were always filtered through the lens of Christian compassion. “If you can’t find the love, it’s not of God,” she would say. “Love saves; fear destroys.”

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Today's Place to Daydream about: the Colombian Andes

East of Bogotá is a high range of mountains, the northern end of the Andes. In them are two national parts, Sumapaz Páramo and Chingaza. Together they preserve two huge stretches of Alpine tundra, one of the world's rarest ecosystems.

The locals call this terrain Páramo, It is cold, wet, cloudy, and harsh.

I didn't at first understand what I was looking at because of all the plants that look like desert succulents.

But this is a wet, wet place; one reason so much of it has been protected is that it provides most of the water for Bogotá and many other communities downstream. The foliage is tough for protection against cold, thin air, not drought.


These parks are home to hundreds of species of rare plants. Of course, to see most of them you would have to hike in at the rainiest part of the year. But people do.

Besides the plants there are also lots of animals, including spectacled bears. And lots of deer; to judge from tourists' photographs, almost as many as my neighborhood in Maryland.



Both parks are popular hiking spots, so much so that you need a reservation to enter. But they're so close to Bogotá that they're easy to reach and lots of companies offer guided hikes. And what a place this would be to see.