Friday, June 24, 2022

Links 24 June 2022

A small ship (c. 50 feet, or 15m long) unearthed in Villenave-d’Ornon France, near the Atlantic coast, dating to the 7th or 8th century AD. Image above. As INRAP notes, this is a period for which little is known about French seafaring. In French but Google Translate is good at French.

Vox interview with Timothy Snyder about Ukraine and the future of democracy, very interesting.

BBC precis of Progress Studies, the people trying to figure out what causes technological and economic progress, and how to accelerate it.

Evidence of cultivated olive trees in the Jordan Valley, around 5,000 BC.

A possible connection between parenting styles and political attitudes, although I can only read the abstract and from that I suspect this study depends a lot on the definitions of words like "paternalism."

Excellent summary of the career of Casanova, in case you were ever curious. (The New Yorker)

National Weather Service Storyboard for the 50th anniversary of Hurricane Agnes, one of America's most destructive natural disasters and one that had big impacts both on where I lived at the time (Richmond, Virginia) and where I live now (Oella-Ellicott City, Maryland).

The maternal mortality rate in the US is three times as high for black mothers as for white, but for Hispanic women it's lower than for whites. Nobody knows why. Also, the maternal death rate for the nation has a whole has more than doubled over the past three years. Nobody knows why.

I somehow made it to the age of 60 without ever hearing Tennessee Ernie Ford's "Union Dixie."

More attractive people believe more in the market and individual effort, while less attractive people support redistribution. Or so says this study.

What does simultaneous discovery (Newton and Leibniz with calculus, for example) tell us about discovery and invention writ large?

Ukraine Links

Ukrainian Harpoon missiles strike a Russian navy tug on its way to Snake island, shown in a video shot from a drone.

On June 17 a Ukrainian official said they have lost lost 1300 armored fighting vehicles, 400 tanks, and 700 pieces of artillery. Nobody knows whether to believe them, since they are pushing western nations so hard to supply them with more; an unnamed US official was quoted this saying "what they're saying in public and what they're telling us in private are not the same." On the other hand, what nation in war ever admitted to more losses than they had suffered? Incidentally he Oryx list is showing 194 tanks, 304 AFVs, and 98 artillery pieces. 

Ukrainian artillerymen really like US M777 howitzers.

And an 8-minute video of a Ukrainian artillery crew in action.

Igor Gurkin says the May-June Battle of the Donbas is coming to an end as a draw. The war will go on, but in other places.

Mark Hertling (retired US general) says that the stalemate in Ukraine will end when Russia runs out of men.

Improved Russian air defenses over the Donbas are limiting Ukrainian drones.

Review of Russian electronic warfare efforts in Ukraine.

Ukraine withdraws its troops from Severodonetsk, ending that fight.

Thursday, June 23, 2022

Will there be a Price for Making the World Nice?

I've just finished reading a long piece by Jesse Green in the NY Times, which starts as a review of a new book about the tyrannical monsters who created modern American acting: Konstantin Stanislavski, Elia Kazan, Lee Strasberg, etc. Their way of teaching acting involved savage abuse of their students, and their directorial methods involved just as much brutality, along with a lot of sex. They were empowered to bully and extract sexual favors by a system that gave huge power to insiders who were accountable only in terms of the final product they produced. 

These days we would cancel them. I hope, though it's really hard to tell, that this movement is making life better for people in theater and film. We discussed Joss Whedon here last year, after he got into some trouble over his bullying, which was small potatoes compared to what people like Kazan got away with for decades.

There is, of course, another way to think about the relationship between human decency and art. Consider this, about Harold Robbins:

To improve the dancing of Mickey Calin, who played Riff in the original production of “West Side Story,” Robbins “pounded him into dust” before “molding him back into clay,” as Tony Mordente, who played A-Rab, told Amanda Vaill for her Robbins biography, Somewhere. Robbins got the performance he wanted, but did his methods have to be so cruel?

For him, apparently so. Robbins’s process, perhaps based on his emotionally violent family history, “was to make the cast seethe with hatred for one another — or for him,” Vaill writes. “It was almost as if he couldn’t create without confrontation and pain.” In the index, “Robbins, cruelty of” gets its own entry.

But here’s the bizarre thing, though we see it repeated everywhere in theater, now as then: Many of his dancers, most of his collaborators and nearly all of his audiences (who in those days knew little of the backstage truth) admired Robbins anyway. They were able to put his behavior to the side, even including his having named names before the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1950. . . .

Perhaps they believed, at least in this case, that greatness was inseparably joined to awfulness; you couldn’t have one without the other. Then too, the awfulness wasn’t doled out evenly. If Robbins’s tantrums suggested that he took too literally Stanislavski’s nickname — “the big infant” — his favorite dancers, like Chita Rivera, who thrillingly played Anita in the original production of “West Side Story,” nevertheless called him “Big Daddy.”

These days we all believe in encouragement, but that is not the only tradition of instruction. The monster who bullies his students into achieving beyond what they thought possible is at least as old: the football coach, the drill sergeant, the ballet director. Come to think of it, our oldest traditions of initiation involved such grueling tests for young people that they regularly died.

One thing I have noticed in stories about great director/teachers like Robbins and Balanchine is that while some of their performers felt abused, and some were driven into drug addiction or worse, others thrived. People like Chita Rivera came to appreciate the intense criticism because they felt it helped them become great. Several of Stanislavski's students later said that it was only his version of pounding them into dust that unlocked their talents. Green interviewed Rivera for this piece, and she was dismissive of sensitive young actors who feel insulted when the director so much as raises his voice. She called them "spoiled."

I don't really care that much about acting and film, and I would like to see them become nicer even if it did mean we would miss out on some great creations. But I wonder what effect this shift is having on our whole civilization. Jordan Peterson has gotten famous by focusing on one of our great social problems, the drifting young men who do nothing but watch porn and play video games. Might some of them benefit from a tougher approach? Is there a personality type that responds better to bullying and humiliation than it does to encouragement?

Do some of us simply lack the will to pursue our own dreams by our own efforts, and need some pressure from outside?

My academic friends all complain that students don't work as hard as they used to, or learn as much. Could that be at least partly because all their teachers have been nice to them, and they have no fear of authority?

I don't know. I just feel very strongly that our society does not have all the answers, so I sometimes react badly when people seem to assert that niceness is the only way, and if we have troubles the only solution is to be even nicer.

Wednesday, June 22, 2022

Gallo-Roman Sanctuary Uncovered in Brittany

French archaeologists have uncovered an impressive sanctuary in western Brittany dating to between 30 BC and 300 AD. The sanctuary centered on a sacred space surrounded by a colonnade, within which were two temples. 

Foundations of the temples.

The double surrounding wall, which is interpreted as a colonnade.

There was more to the sanctuary than the sacred precinct, including a cemetery, a small village, and these baths.

Reconstruction. The assumption is that these were used for purification by worshippers before they entered the sacred precinct.

One of the artifacts recovered was this statuette of Mars, which may be a clue to one of the gods worshipped here.

The other great artifact was this bronze bowl.

After conservation.

Close-up of one of the handles.

The Corpse of Grenfell Tower

Interesting story in the NY Times today reminds us that the burned out shell of London's Grenfell Tower still stands, wrapped in white plastic, while people argue over what to do with it.

The Tower burned five years ago, killing 72 people.

On the one hand, land in London is very expensive, and the obvious way to use this space would be to tear down the wreckage and build a new tower. But I'm not sure the socialist housing apparatus that built it even exists in modern Britain, at least in the form that went around building all those flimsy towers. So the project would have to be given to a private developer, with all the attendant struggles over affordability etc.

Meanwhile the government has convened a Memorial Commission made up largely of survivors and people who lost relatives in the fire, and they want the space to be maintained as a memorial to the victims. They do not, however, agree on what kind of space. Some want the tower to remain in some form, while others want it demolished; one said he won't visit London again until the thing is torn down because seeing it is too painful.

The Times story finds a running theme of a desire for justice, that somebody be punished:

“It shouldn’t come down until justice is served,” she said, because otherwise it would be a case of “out of sight, out of mind.” Until there is some accountability and a clear idea of what to do with the site, she said, “I think it should remain.”

But this is ultimately just wrong. No single person was responsible for the shoddy construction of this and other towers. They were born from a program conceived in the ruins left by the Blitz, to rapidly rebuild London's housing stock. That program morphed over the years, and by 1970 when Grenfell was approved it was focused on providing affordable housing to London's working class. Britain was not a very rich country in the 1960s, so money was tight. Design decisions were made with cost as a major concern, and corners were cut. Then came the Thatcher years and the government's turn against public housing, which put pressure on the maintenance budgets for all these buildings. In the 1990s the local government created a quasi-private entity to manage it public housing, with residents on its board. The building actually received a major renovation in 2015-2016, and engineers certified it as fire safe.

So who would you blame for all of this? It is, more or less, the whole arrangement of Britain that is responsible for working class people living in far from perfect housing: economy, society, government. Plenty of people want to blame Thatcherism, but the Tower was actually safer in 2017 than it had been in 1980 when it opened. The factor that ultimately doomed most of the victims – that the building had only a single fire stairway – was part of the original design and represented 1960s thinking about how to design fire-safe buildings, widely shared across the architectural profession.

For people who think our society has tied itself in so many knots that we can no longer do anything, Grenfell is a great example. In the midst of a grim housing shortage, a valuable block of publicly-owned land is tied up in endless wrangling over what to do with the spot, driven partly by a thirst for revenge that makes little sense. Dictator Elon Musk would have replaced it with a gleaming new tower by now. But we are just not willing to wave away the kind of human pain created by a disaster like the Grenfell Tower. Ukraine may be experiencing such disasters at a rate of about one a day, but should that matter to how we treat the victims of this one disaster?

I was very cynical about the long struggle over Ground Zero in New York, but it seems that in the end a decent solution has been reached. We ended up with new buildings, a memorial, a museum, and, as a side benefit, new transportation infrastructure paid for with Federal money released by the national disaster. So our complex, everyone-gets-a-say process can work. 

It's just sometimes very painful to watch.

Tuesday, June 21, 2022

The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit

Wonderful painting by John Singer Sargent because it doesn't depict these four girls, it tells a story. As with other Sargent family portraits, it makes you feel that you know them and can see what will happen as they grow up. Perhaps it is an illusion, but it is a remarkable one.



Summer Solstice 2022

 May the season of warmth and light bring light to your soul and warmth to your heart.

Monday, June 20, 2022

The Father's Day Tribute

I was listening to rock radio yesterday when they played a set of songs "for all the dads out there," one of which was "Papa was a Rolling Stone." So, like, this one's for all the no good, never around, deadbeat, bigamizing dads out there; hey, it's your day, too!

Sunday, June 19, 2022

Paleodictyon

Paleodictyon is a fairly common fossil that goes back at least 500 million years. It consists, as you can see, of an array of hexagons. They form in marine mud, mostly in very deep water.

Scholars have been wondering what created these patterns since the Middle Ages; here is Leonardo's drawing of a specimen he saw. When a professional paleontologist first described the fossil around 1850 it was thought that these represented the burrows of some unknown soft-bodied creature. Modern speculations have focused on either some kind of sponge, perhaps a glass sponge (some of those have hexagonal skeletons) or else one of the giant, single-celled organisms called xenophylophores.

Then, in the early 2000s, scientists exploring the Atlantic's Mid Ocean Ridge found something quite remarkable: modern, apparently living examples of Paleodictyon. You might think that this would solve the puzzle, but no. Sampling of these patterns produced no living organisms except for bacteria. Were they all abandoned? Or were they produced by an organism that spent most of its time elsewhere? There are even weirder theories, for example that they are bacteria farms created by some organism that deposits its wastes into these holes, then feeds on the resulting ecosystem. 

Fascinating that these common expressions of life's bountiful weirdness remain so mysterious despite all the science that has been thrown at them.

11-minute PBS video, wikipedia

Left-Wing Organizations Hobbled by Staff Revolts

Lots of attention being paid to a long article by Ryan Grim at The Intercept about how internal conflicts are damaging left-wing organizations. Consider what happened when Heather Boonstra, a VP at the Guttmacher Institute, convened a meeting to discuss what they could do as part of the racial reckoning that followed the murder of George Floyd. She thought the meeting would be about

What could Guttmacher, with an annual budget of nearly $30 million, do now to make the world a better place? 

But

For her staff, that question had to be answered at home first: What could they do to make Guttmacher a better place? Too often, they believed, managers exploited the moral commitment staff felt toward their mission, allowing workplace abuses to go unchecked.

In response, Boonstra said this:

“I’m here to talk about George Floyd and the other African American men who have been beaten up by society,” she told her staff, not “workplace problems.” Boonstra told them she was “disappointed,” that they were being “self-centered.” The staff was appalled enough by the exchange to relay it to Prism.

That was two years ago, but according to Grim the struggle continues and the organization is crippled. People opposing the leadership of Guttmacher, NARAL, and Pro-Choice America have formed a colllective called ReproJobs that regularly posts messages like

If your reproductive justice organization isn’t Black and brown it’s white supremacy in heels co-opting a WOC movement.

Grim goes much further and says that not just abortion-rights groups but the whole left-wing movement has “ceased to function” because of

knock-down, drag-out fights between competing factions of their organizations, most often breaking down along staff-versus-management lines. . . . The Sierra Club, Demos, the American Civil Liberties Union, Color of Change, the Movement for Black Lives, Human Rights Campaign, Time’s Up, the Sunrise Movement, and many other organizations have seen wrenching and debilitating turmoil in the past couple of years.

According to Politico, this includes the National Audubon Society:

Following a botched diversity meeting, a highly critical employee survey and the resignations of two top diversity and inclusion officials, the 600,000-member National Audubon Society is confronting allegations that it maintains a culture of retaliation, fear and antagonism toward women and people of color, according to interviews with 13 current and former staff members.

As I said, Grim's article is long, and if you want more examples of these kind of problems ripping apart left-wing organizations, he has plenty.

Grim's article is impressive as far as it goes, but I find this issue interesting at a much deeper level. If an organization says it is committed to making the world a better place, shouldn't that maybe start with how it treats its own employees? Why are so many organizations devoted to democracy run in a hierarchal, top-down fashion, never even so much as consulting their rank-and-file employees about what should be done? Why do organizations devoted to reducing inequality pay their employees so badly?

I remember reading a bunch of bitter complaints about Bernie Sanders' presidential campaign, which was a strictly authoritarian, top-down operation whose leaders regularly told its staffers to shut up and do what they were told, and paid them even worse than most campaigns. Isn't there something wrong with that? If Sanders really believed in workplace democracy and a living wage for everyone, why did he flagrantly violate those principles? If the response is that it's just too hard to run a campaign as a democracy, what does that say about democratic politics in general? Isn't running the country a lot harder than running a campaign, or an organization like the Guttmacher Institute? And are you sure the finances of a major presidential campaign are worse than those of the average convenience store? Liberals like to complain about companies like Walmart that want their employees to care about the company and be passionate about their jobs no matter how low their pay; how is that different from the Sanders campaign asking its staffers to sacrifice for a political future that had about the same chance of becoming reality as the average Walmart employee has of becoming a company executive?

My readers know I am perfectly willing to believe that many young people working for left-wing groups are entitled brats, or the sort of miserable whiners who think it's unfair to ask them to work in the middle of a pandemic. I am sure that the problems in some of these places can be traced back to such people. But I doubt all of them can. I am quite certain that many non-profit organizations are led by narcissistic bullies who abuse the staff but keep their positions because they are good at raising money from rich people. I believe that this is a particular problem with charismatic leaders who found their own non-profits and share the narcissism of most charismatic leaders. And it is certainly true that non-profits pay their staff worse than for-profit companies do, and have the same kind of salary pyramid as corporations; the President of the ASPCA makes $750,000 a year to lead an organization that relies on volunteers and passionate, badly paid staffers to do all the work.

I also want to note that I think the focus on racism, from both the protesters and their critics, is a red herring. Listen long enough to young leftists and you learn that they say "racism" when they mean "everything wrong with the world," the same way conservatives used to use "communism." I was once told, by a middle aged leftist, that "capitalism is racism" and, about a minute later, "inequality is racism." I think that is a dumb way to talk about problems that have little to do with skin color, but I think it is also foolish to dismiss young white liberals who complain about racism as whiny, miserable, entitled brats. It is simply the way they articulate much broader concerns about the world we live in.

This kind of pressure had led museums, the type of non-profit I know the most about, to make major efforts to improve the pay and working conditions of their staff. On the one hand it is true that the more they pay their staff, the fewer resources they have for promoting art or history. But for many young people, nothing is worth doing if it can only be done by exploiting others, and they have persuaded many museums to take this seriously. I think that is a good thing.

On the workplace democracy front, I am unsure. It sounds like a noble ideal, but I have no experience of an organization that has actually made it work. Plenty of organizations founded on anarchist principles eventually set them aside and appointed boards and chief executives. Political democracy only works when it is strictly limited by constitutions and bureaucracies. So the extent that any large entity could function while putting the views and concerns of its employees at the center of its concerns is unclear to me. But we should certainly fight bullying by abusive bosses.

So I do not think, as Grim implies, that the problems he describes flow solely from the foibles of young, left-wing Americans. I think they represent a major conflict over how we should think about justice, and what it means for an organization to work toward improving the world.

Friday, June 17, 2022

Links 17 June 2022

Leonardo da Vinci, Quaking Grass

Law and Order is back in politics: both of the candidates who made it through to the general election for LA mayor have promised to hire more police.

Yet another study finds that standard business approaches to promoting "diversity" are counterproductive; in this case, they do not help minority workers feel that they belong. At the moment the whole diversity and inclusion industry is failing to help anybody. (Except for diversity officers and diversity consultants.).

Wreck of a 17th-century royal warship found off Norfolk. It was carrying the future James II when it went down, but unfortunately for everyone he survived. Well, maybe not everyone; Britain might have avoided a bunch of wars but we would have lost all those songs about Bonnie Prince Charlie.

A micrometeor hit one of the Webb Telescope's mirrors, but NASA says everything is fine.

Here's some interesting multiculturalism: East African Muslim communities in Mumbai, India.

Ross Douthat says that the return of inflation has refuted "modern monetary theory," which held that governments could print a lot more money without bad effects, and generally killed free-spending, populist economic policies. (NY Times) Americans really hate inflation, and polls show that we are more negative about the economy now than we were during the worst of the pandemic shutdown.

The Silicon Tribesman visits the Loanhead of Daviot enclosed cremation cemetery, Aberdeenshire, Scotland.

"Since 2013, Stanford’s administration has executed a top-to-bottom destruction of student social life." Some of the article is about fraternities, but also places like Anarchist House and other oddball groups that have been dismantled to create "inclusive" housing.

More Bronze Age discoveries at the strange Chinese site of Sanxingdui.

Orcas have fads.

The revolutionary socialists at Jacobin are not impressed by Afro-Pessimism.

Great new song from Florence and the Machine, "King"

Ukraine Links

The electronic battlefield; some analysts say the US is not ready for the level of electronic combat Russia is deploying in Ukraine.

Ukrainian "technicals" with a bizarre variety of weaponry, much of it captured.

Short video of a Russian helicopter shot down by a Ukrainian MANPADS. And a video of another helicopter that escaped when a missile hit one of its flares.

Kyiv Independent: Russia is advancing in Severodonetsk but only by stripping other theaters of troops and weapons, allowing Ukraine to make counter-attacks.

Institute for the Study of War assessment for June 15.

Bret Stephens sums up the war (NY Times):

The Russians are running out of precision-guided weapons. The Ukrainians are running out of Soviet-era munitions. The world is running out of patience for the war. The Biden administration is running out of ideas for how to wage it. And the Chinese are watching.

Thursday, June 16, 2022

Images of the Treasure Ship San Jose

The Colombian government has released images of the treasure ship San Jose, sunk by the British in 1708 with, it is said, billions in gold and silver on board. Above, the ship, showing the degree of preservation.

Gold on the seafloor.

Canon.

Chinese porcelain, which had probably crossed the Pacific from the Philippines to Panama before being carried on mules to the Atlantic side and being loaded on the San Jose.

Wednesday, June 15, 2022

Fighting Homelessness in Houston

Michael Kimmelman in the NY Times:

During the last decade, Houston, the nation’s fourth most populous city, has moved more than 25,000 homeless people directly into apartments and houses. The overwhelming majority of them have remained housed after two years. The number of people deemed homeless in the Houston region has been cut by 63 percent since 2011, according to the latest numbers from local officials. Even judging by the more modest metrics registered in a 2020 federal report, Houston did more than twice as well as the rest of the country at reducing homelessness over the previous decade. Ten years ago, homeless veterans, one of the categories that the federal government tracks, waited 720 days and had to navigate 76 bureaucratic steps to get from the street into permanent housing with support from social service counselors. Today, a streamlined process means the wait for housing is 32 days.

Houston has gotten this far by teaming with county agencies and persuading scores of local service providers, corporations and charitable nonprofits — organizations that often bicker and compete with one another — to row in unison. Together, they’ve gone all in on “housing first,” a practice, supported by decades of research, that moves the most vulnerable people straight from the streets into apartments, not into shelters, and without first requiring them to wean themselves off drugs or complete a 12-step program or find God or a job.

There are addiction recovery and religious conversion programs that succeed in getting people off the street. But housing first involves a different logic: When you’re drowning, it doesn’t help if your rescuer insists you learn to swim before returning you to shore. You can address your issues once you’re on land. Or not. Either way, you join the wider population of people battling demons behind closed doors.

Some people object to the "housing first" approach because it seems unjust; isn't it unfair to give housing to people when so many others have to struggle and scrimp to find or keep it? There are thousands of people in America who don't have their own homes but stay off the street by crashing with relatives or what have you, and many of them have jobs; why should we help people at rock bottom over them? But the cold, hard logic is hard to refute. Homeless people cost cities a ton of money in medical care and police time, and the presence of homeless camps makes some city dwellers cranky enough to leave for someplace else. Homelessness is a problem cities need to solve, or at least reduce, in order to thrive, and by that metric no other policy comes close to "housing first."

Saturday, June 11, 2022

Why I Hate Napoleon Bonaparte

J. Christopher Herold, The Age of Napoleon.1963

Andrew Roberts, Napoleon: a Life. 2014

I embarked last month on a Napoleon Bonaparte double, listening to Andrew Roberts' prize-winning biography and reading Christopher Herold's older "life and times" book. This was valuable because Roberts likes and admires Napoleon and Herold detests him. And yet the difference in opinion makes very little difference to the story. Napoleon's life is so extraordinary, his achievements so immense, that, well, he ended up with an age of European history named after him. Which is my problem: it really doesn't matter that I think he was a despicable rat, because he just did so much that my opinions can't be anything but petty grievances in comparison.

Napoleon was the younger son of a minor Corsican noble family who went hungry in military school because he couldn't afford to buy food, yet he rose to become the Emperor of France and one of history's most famous men. He had an almost unbelievable energy and a mind that, while not especially deep, had an incredible capacity to consider a hundred different things at once, and to give intelligent attention to any topic that came before him. During his time in power he wrote more than 2,500 letters a year; there were days when he was on the march with his army but still managed to send out twenty letters to officials back in France. In any given day his letters might chastise a local official for poor management, demand that a lagging building project at some minor port be speeded up, demand that an allied state supply his army with 40,000 pairs of  shoes, assure his wife that his health was good, profess love to one of his mistresses, compliment a leading scientist on the publication of a new book,  establish a pension for the widow of a particularly brave common soldier, and suggest to the Paris police that they were looking at the wrong suspects in the murder of an opera singer. One example: on the night before the battle of Austerlitz, Napoleon dictated to one of his secretaries a 120-article constitution for a girls' school he was setting up near Paris while simultaneously dictating military orders to two other aides. 

Napoleon brought to a conclusion the process of government reform that began in the 1770s and got a big boost from the Revolution, making France Europe's most modern state and establishing many institutions that still endure. French-style reform swept Europe in the wake of Napoleon's armies. It was imposed by France on states it annexed, willingly copied by allies, and adopted by defeated enemies in a desperate attempt to compete. Everywhere the bureaucrat replaced the nobleman as the chief agent of government power. This was, of course, not Napoleon's personal achievement, and probably would have happened anyway, but these changes came to be associated in many places with him and his invincible armies.

On the battlefield, Napoleon was extraordinary. I have read two different attempts to arrive at a quantitative judgment on who was the greatest commander in history, and Napoleon came out first in one and second in the other. When he was asked who was the greatest captain of the age, his enemy Wellington answered, "in this age, in any age, Bonaparte."

He was even funny. Once when he had negotiated an agreement with the Papacy, the Pope had immediate misgivings and tried to re-open negotiations. Napoleon responded, "But since Your Holiness is infallible, surely you cannot have made a mistake?"

Was Napoleon a warmonger? He did not start the wars of his era; they began in 1792, when the European powers attacked France to stop the Revolution and Napoleon himself was only a lieutenant. The wars of his rise to power were not his fault and he only fought in them as well as he could. The situation after the year-long lull that followed the 1802 Peace of Amiens is more complicated. In most of the wars of 1803-1815 France was not the initial aggressor, and they started when someone else broke a treaty. But other nations kept breaking those treaties because after every victory Napoleon imposed humiliating terms on his rivals that he should have known they would not live with, and after Napoleon's defeat in 1812 the wars re-ignited because of Napoleon's refusal to accept a peace that would damage his "glory." It was only his gloire, Napoleon believed, that kept him in power in France, so he fought to the death to avoid anything that smacked of the humiliations he had so many times imposed on others. My view of those years follows that of Talleyrand, who was Napoleon's own Foreign Minister but essentially went over to his enemies in 1808 because he realized that Napoleon could never accept a workable peace, and his existence in power therefore condemned Europe to unending war.

But, anyway, the question of who started the wars in which Napoleon fought is complicated, and admirers like Andrew Roberts (and Winston Churchill) can make a case that the wars were not really his fault.

So what is my beef?

I hate Napoleon because he treated his fellow humans as expendable pawns on the chess board where he maneuvered for greatness, and millions of them responded to his contempt by idolizing him.

Napoleon was not a particularly vicious dictator; his rule in France was not marked by mass executions or campaigns of torture. He didn't care enough about other people to bother with that sort of thing. He believed that what people wanted from government was order, low taxes, and the sense of being led toward Glory by a Man of Destiny.

What if he was right?

Consider Napoleon's relationship with women. He was appallingly sexist; he said several times that women were only machines for making babies, and he seems to have meant it. The Napoleonic Code was a step forward for Europe in some ways, but in terms of women's rights it was a major step backward, and this was very much because of Napoleon's personal influence. Yet he had dozens of mistresses, many of them famous beauties. His feminine ideal seems to have been his Polish mistress Maria Walewska, who was universally held to be beautiful, sweet, and dumb as a post.

Every single report Napoleon sent out after a battle was a lie. Even when he won great victories he still exaggerated his enemies' losses and understated his own. So far as I can tell, this never hurt him in any way, not even after his soldiers made "to lie like a bulletin" a common phrase. 

Napoleon liked to josh with his soldiers, some of whom adored him. He would often say to the men of a regiment, if you do not fight bravely enough, I shall have to come lead you myself and risk my life. They would shout back, no, you are too valuable, we will fight bravely so you can remain safe. So far as we know, nobody ever responded that Napoleon should bear the same risks as his men.

Napoleon's rise to power was achieved via complete contempt for the people, the nation, and everything else besides his own power. His appointment as First Consul after a sleazy coup was approved by a plebiscite in which the official count gave him more than 99% of the vote; since Napoleon's enemies boycotted the vote he probably would have won in an honest count, but that was not good enough, so his agents reported 99%. He did this twice more, when he made himself First Consul for Life and when he made himself Emperor. So far as I can tell the repeated rigging of elections did not hurt him any more than his constant lying. He also kept playing a horrible game in which he hinted to his flunkeys that he wanted something; to be Consul for Life or Emperor, to take the two most famous examples. They would then propose it as if it were their own idea, and Napoleon would reluctantly acquiesce. When it was first suggested in public that he be made Consul for Life he said, "So ten years of service is not enough, and France seeks to extract even more sacrifice from me." Again, I can't see that this foolery hurt him in any way.

Making himself Emperor was of course the most ridiculous act of all. And yet, only a few radical Republicans protested, and only a few old-line royalists laughed. Most people kept straight faces and began addressing him by his royal titles. His followers all accepted the made-up noble titles he bestowed on them, even the ones who had been Revolutionaries. (Marshall Bernadotte accepted a dukedom even though he was said to have "Death to Kings" tattooed across his chest. But that was only the beginning of an aristocratic career that ended with him becoming King of Sweden and founding a dynasty. Napoleon wasn't the only man of the age with no principles.)

Napoleon treated women with contempt and had an absolutely unreasonable number of lovers. He treated France with contempt and was made its leader. He treated history with contempt, leaving behind such a thoroughly lying record that it took historians more than 150 years to get the facts straight, but ended up one of history's most famous actors. 

Nobody laughed at Napoleon, or scoffed at his absurdities. Well, a few people did, but this gets us to one of the key reasons Napoleon earned and kept such loyalty: his enemies were worse. Europe's crowned heads were a sorry lot, without a shred of ability among them, and the regimes they headed were reactionary monstrosities. Napoleon was able to find many supporters in Italy, Germany and Poland with the most paltry gestures toward their rights, since their old rulers would not even do that. Even in Britain the conflict against France brought the dark side of the regime to the fore, with the violent suppression of any kind of workers' agitation, death sentences for hungry people who stole bread, and so on. Everyone remarked on the contrast between the modernizing energy of Napoleon's France and the old empires that were modern only in the way their new police forces battled reform. 

But this earns him no credit with me, because for Napoleon modernization was all about the power of the state. Napoleon personally abolished the election of mayors in France, which went back in some areas to the 14th century. The mayors were annoying to his rational system, so he replaced them with sub-intendants he appointed himself. The notion that the people should be consulted about how they should be ruled did not even amuse him; they and their wishes were too far below him for him to even notice.

And so he went on, building more monuments to himself, gathering more power into his hands, placing his incompetent relatives on a slew of thrones, everything for him, everything for his gloire. His career raises the question: is there anything ordinary people can do about history, except either worship great achievers and bask in their radiance, or slink sourly off to our hovels? Was Napoleon right, that the best we can hope for is order, reasonable taxation, and adventures we can follow in the newspapers – like, say, the moon landings? Is the notion that ordinary people might rule themselves simply ridiculous? To the extent that life is a competition, is it always the monstrous narcissists who win?

Time

Time catches up with kingdoms and crushes them, gets its teeth into doctrines and rends them; time reveals the foundations on which any kingdom rests, and eats at those foundations, and it destroys doctrines by proving them to be untrue. 

–James Baldwin

Friday, June 10, 2022

Links 10 June 2022

Mary Magdalene, 13th Century, in the Louvre

Interesting interview with Cornell West about pragmatism and democracy, short. 

The "Inequality Paradigm": a review of three recent books on economic history, with reflections on how we use history instead of sociology to understand contemporary issues; e.g., the 1619 Project as a way of approaching racism.

Evidence that finding new knowledge is in fact getting harder.

Finland is a heavily militarized country. Besides the stuff at the link, all Finnish bridges have built-in points for placing explosives to destroy them.

At the Italian site of Salorno-Dos de la Forca, Bronze Age people were cremated at high temperatures, and then their remains were just left on the platform. A substantial pile of ash and burned bone must have built up, dominating the site.

Interesting piece in the NY Times on why staying in an unfulfilling marriage can be a good choice: "two out of three unhappily married adults who avoided divorce or separation ended up happily married five years later. . . . Five years later, unhappily married adults who divorced or separated were no happier, on average, than unhappily married adults who stayed married."

Reproductions of historical hairstyles from the Bavarian Theater Academy.

The Biden administration is leaning hard into solar power and US production of solar cells, using tools like the Defense Production Act.

The NY Times is running a very depressing series on mental health issues among teenagers. This chapter covers the hundreds of teenagers who camp out in hospital emergency rooms for days because they are suicidal or self-harming and there are no spaces for them in mental health facilities.

Manifesto of the new right in America, from Christopher Rufo: "The goal is to protect these people, Middle Americans of all racial backgrounds — working class and middle class — to protect them against what I think is a hostile and nihilistic elite that is seeking to impose its values onto the working and middle classes to bolster their own power, prestige, status and achievement." From a long NY Times piece by Nate Hochman.

Having an unfamiliar, difficult-to-pronounce name may hurt your employment chances.

The decline in college enrollments in the US is accelerating; after falling by 3.5% last spring, they are down by 4.1% this spring. Universities had hoped that an easing pandemic would lead to a rebound in enrollments, but that hasn't happened and there isn't any sign that it will.

Headed to prison? For a fee, a "prison consultant" will help you get into a less onerous facility, reduce your time in the slammer, and make the best use of your time there. Some of the rich parents in the "Varsity Blues" scandal hired them. Interesting that sentencing is a bureaucratic process that can be managed for better outcomes like any other such process, and so is the tracking of prisoners' cases that influences things like parole. (NY Times)

Ukraine Links

Lately Russia has been launching missiles at Ukrainian rail infrastructure to interdict rail movement, but this is a losing game; it costs much less to repair the railroad than to build the missile. I had been wondering about this, I mean, already during the US Civil War Sherman's army had special crews that could rebuild railroads faster than Confederate raiders could destroy them. Modern railroads are more complex, but not that much more, and modern workers have bulldozers and cranes.

Remarkable video showing the speed of modern, radar-guided counter-battery artillery fire.

Situation in Severodonetsk on June 3, with Ukraine counter-attacking.

CBC: 'In this war, the ordinary infantryman is nothing': Ukrainian soldiers in Donbas feel abandoned and outgunned. Of course infantrymen have felt this way since WW I at least.

A friend of Igor Girkin's explains what is actually behind the mutinies of L/DPR reservists: not so much opposition to the war as a protest against particular decisions by the Russian government that left them under-equipped, under-trained, and exposed.

The importance of Ukraine's counter-offensive in the south: "Ukraine’s future as a viable independent state may depend on regaining control over the Kherson region."

Constantly updated map of the combat situation.

Why is the fighting in eastern Ukraine such a trench-bound slugfest instead of a World War II-style armored contest with sweeping advances and retreats?

Why didn't Ukraine do more to prepare for the war that the US told them was coming?

In retrospect, perhaps the best argument for why many in the Ukrainian elite did not believe the US intelligence could be accurate can be found in the dismal failure of Russia’s attempt to take the major cities of Kyiv and Kharkiv.

“It just didn’t compute,” said the source close to the intelligence services. “A takeover of Kyiv and the whole country in a few days? We thought it would be a disaster for Russia. And it was. We didn’t think Putin could be that stupid.”

Wednesday, June 8, 2022

Erik Desmazières

Erik Desmazières is a contemporary French printmaker, born 1948. He is one of the founders of a group known as Art Fantastique. These French artists draw on European precedents like  Piranesi and Durer, but their work is influenced by American and British science fiction and Latin American writers such as Borges. (Unknown Lands, 1980)

I wrote here about Desmazières in 2011, but at that time I could find very few images online. Now there are hundreds, mainly from auction houses selling his prints. (Another from the Unknown Lands series)

Desmazières has done many different kinds of work, including street scenes from Amsterdam, views of the Bibliotheque Nationale Francais, still lifes, and a series on the studies of famous writers. I, of course, like the fantastic pieces best, but here is a nice work titled Tulips for variety.

Some of Desmazières' earlier work had a steampunk feel, like this one, Grand Battle (1978).

Captive Sphere

Exploration

Temple in the Jungle

Cityscape

The Flood

Burgundian Cottage, 1985

Casque d’apparat, 1981

Chicken Domestication

New article in PNAS:

Though chickens are the most numerous and ubiquitous domestic bird, their origins, the circumstances of their initial association with people, and the routes along which they dispersed across the world remain controversial. In order to establish a robust spatial and temporal framework for their origins and dispersal, we assessed archaeological occurrences and the domestic status of chickens from ∼600 sites in 89 countries by combining zoogeographic, morphological, osteometric, stratigraphic, contextual, iconographic, and textual data. Our results suggest that the first unambiguous domestic chicken bones are found at Neolithic Ban Non Wat in central Thailand dated to ∼1650 to 1250 BCE, and that chickens were not domesticated in the Indian Subcontinent. Chickens did not arrive in Central China, South Asia, or Mesopotamia until the late second millennium BCE, and in Ethiopia and Mediterranean Europe by ∼800 BCE. To investigate the circumstances of their initial domestication, we correlated the temporal spread of rice and millet cultivation with the first appearance of chickens within the range of red junglefowl species. Our results suggest that agricultural practices focused on the production and storage of cereal staples served to draw arboreal red junglefowl into the human niche. Thus, the arrival of rice agriculture may have first facilitated the initiation of the chicken domestication process, and then, following their integration within human communities, allowed for their dispersal across the globe.

Since Indian archaeologists have claimed domesticated chicken remains as old as 6,000 BC, this is not going to be accepted without a fight. Nor should it be; the study of dog and horse domestication has shown that different approaches can produce widely divergent results – for dogs, c. 15,000 years ago vs. 33,000 years ago – using arguments that seem compelling on their own terms.

An earlier spread of domesticated chickens has also been used to explain a bunch of odd evidence, for example an Egyptian text from 1450 BC that mentions "the bird that gives birth every day." If those weren't chickens, that leaves unanswered questions.

This new result is one of dozens flowing from improved radiocarbon dating. Many old dates are wrong because things buried in the ground get contaminated. For example, these authors say that one chicken bone from Morocco with an ancient date was actually a modern bone that came into contact with old material; what was on the outside of the bone had nothing to do with the bone itself. Using modern methods, a lab can take that same bone and extract purified bone collagen from it, a tiny amount to be sure but enough to produce a radiocarbon date that almost certainly relates to the bone itself.

Besides the redating, these authors also say that chickens were not initially domesticated for food. The early bones come from ritual contexts, not trash dumps, and they are complete birds rather than cut up bones. One theory is that chickens served as alarms and were treated as guardian spirits. Another is that they were initially used for cockfighting, which may have had some ritual function. Or maybe they were just pets; people all over the world still do that.

When I was growing up I read a lot of very confident statements about animal domestication, as if the questions had all been answered, but that has turned out not to be true at all.

Saturday, June 4, 2022

Punk Politics

This, from John Lydon of the Sex Pistols, aka Johnny Rotten, reveals a lot about how political positions intersect with other aspects of our personalities:

I never thought I'd live to see the day when the right wing would become the cool ones giving the middle finger to the establishment and the left wing becoming the sniveling self-righteous twatty ones going around shaming everyone.

Tweeted by Elon Musk, of course.

Friday, June 3, 2022

Gail Chase Bien

Gail Chase Bien is an American painter, born 1946. She seems to have been a late bloomer; the first exhibit listed in her bio was in 1985, and most of the images I have found are work done in 2017 to 2021. Above is Sedona Rainstorm, 2017.

Doubtful Falls, New Zealand, 2017

Ajana Moon, 2018

The Symmetry of Unknowing, 2017

Ice Pond, 2011

Thaw, 2018

Harbinger, 2018