Friday, March 23, 2018

Mario Cea, Diving Kingfisher

Via the Met.

Genetic Differences between Races are Trivial Compared to those between Men and Women

Geneticist Robert Reich has a thoughtful article in the Times today about what modern genetics is teaching us about race. He tries hard to hew a middle line between racism and "races are social constructs," and I think he does a pretty good job. But this is what I find interesting:
So how should we prepare for the likelihood that in the coming years, genetic studies will show that many traits are influenced by genetic variations, and that these traits will differ on average across human populations? It will be impossible — indeed, anti-scientific, foolish and absurd — to deny those differences.

For me, a natural response to the challenge is to learn from the example of the biological differences that exist between males and females. The differences between the sexes are far more profound than those that exist among human populations, reflecting more than 100 million years of evolution and adaptation. Males and females differ by huge tracts of genetic material — a Y chromosome that males have and that females don’t, and a second X chromosome that females have and males don’t.

Most everyone accepts that the biological differences between males and females are profound. In addition to anatomical differences, men and women exhibit average differences in size and physical strength. (There are also average differences in temperament and behavior, though there are important unresolved questions about the extent to which these differences are influenced by social expectations and upbringing.)

How do we accommodate the biological differences between men and women? I think the answer is obvious: We should both recognize that genetic differences between males and females exist and we should accord each sex the same freedoms and opportunities regardless of those differences.
Of course that is a lot easier in theory than in practice, but anyway the basic point stands: the only moral position on genetic differences between different human populations is to treat everyone equally well.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Giovanni Boldini

Giovanni Boldini (1842 – 1931) was an Italian painter who lived and worked in Paris for most of his career. His father was a painter of religious scenes, but the younger Boldini went in a very different direction. L'Espagnole du Moulin Rouge, 1905.

He became close friends with Edgar Degas and palled around with other members of the Paris art scene; this is one of his two portraits of John Singer Sargent, 1890.

Party at the Moulin Rouge, 1889.

He painted in a variety of styles, from something like realism (Le Comte Robert de Montesquiou, 1897

To something like Impressionism (The Worldly Singer, 1884)

To his own medley of aggressive, sketchy brush strokes (Canal in Venice with Gondolas, c. 1905).

And he knew everyone; this is Giuseppe Verdi

According to a 1933 article in Time magazine, Boldini reveled in the title, the "Master of Swish."

Girl with a Black Cat, 1885

And then there is this painting. Since Boldini ran with the elite artistic set, he of course had his share of affairs or rumored affairs, including rumors of a liaison with socialite Marthe de Florian. Florian resided in a splendid right bank apartment that was later occupied by her granddaughter, known as Madame de Florian. Madame fled Paris during World War II at the age of 23, and although she never went back she continued to pay rent on her grandmother's flat until her death at 91. Rhiannon Wastell:
From 1942 then, until a wintery December afternoon in 2010 – when it was entered by auctioneer Olivier Choppin-Janvry – the decadent apartment remained frozen in time, a time capsule recording the precise moment of de Florian's sudden flight.

Amid the luxurious if dusty furnishings, the wizened taxidermy and mountains of ephemera ranging from dressing tables to Disney toys, Choppin-Janvry came across a mesmerising Boldini portrait of a beautiful woman wearing a pink muslin dress, accompanied by a stack of ribbon bound love letters, including some from Boldini himself, addressed to Marthe de Florian. It became clear she was both his lover and the beauty in the painting. A reference found in Boldini’s wife's records has confirmed the identity of the portrait's subject, dating it to 1898, when de Florian was just 24 years old.
That, I would say, was one lucky auctioneer. And one seriously swishy painting.

Colonade at Versailles, 1889

Portrait of Lina Cavalieri

Portrait of Marthe Bibesco, 1910

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Imperial Chinese Robe, 1796-1820

Made for the Longpao Emperor, up for auction at Christie's.

Snowy Afternoon

Continuing with our amazing Equinox celebration.

Facebook and Twitter did not Make Trump President

No doubt all the activity on Facebook and the apparent use of Facebook’s data had some impact, somewhere, on Trump’s surprise victory. But the media format that really made him president, the one whose weaknesses and perversities and polarizing tendencies he brilliantly exploited, wasn’t Zuckerberg’s unreal kingdom; it wasn’t even the Twitter platform where Trump struts and frets and rages daily. It was that old pre-internet standby, broadcast and cable television, and especially TV news. . . .

Nothing that Cambridge Analytica did to help the Trump campaign target swing voters (and there’s reason to think it didn’t do as much as it claimed) had anything remotely like the impact of this #alwaysTrump tsunami, which probably added up to more than $2 billion in effective advertising for his campaign during the primary season, a flood that drowned all of his rivals’ pathetic tens of millions. . . .

It’s also clear — as the economists Levi Boxell, Matthew Gentzkow and Jesse Shapiro wrote in these pages late last year — that among older white Americans, the core demographic where first the primaries and then the general election were decided, television still far outstrips the internet as the most important source of news. And indeed, the three economists noted, for all the talk about Breitbart’s influence and Russian meddling and dark web advertising, Trump only improved on Mitt Romney’s showing among Americans who don’t use the internet, and he “actually lost support among internet-using voters.” In a sense, you could argue, all those tweets mattered mainly because they kept being quoted on TV.
Trump's real medium is television. His first core supporters were not white nationalists, but fans of the Apprentice. His showmanship gave him a gigantic share of total tv news coverage throughout election season, and still does. And once he clinched the nomination the whole right-leaning media world cast aside conservative intellectuals' uneasiness with Trump and went all in for him, because, well, that's what they do. Plus the would-be non-partisan media, especially CNN, responded to Trump's nomination by running hundreds of hours of shoutfests between Trump and Hillary supporters, which probably did as much as anything to get most Republicans to vote for him.

Trump is a creature of television, and his presidency is its creation.

Update: here's more, from Jim Geraghty at the Corner:
Beyond The Apprentice, it’s worth remembering that for most of the Bush and Obama presidencies, Donald Trump was a regular featured guest on news programs and not touted as a partisan Republican, hate-monger, or ranting fool. NBC’s Today show regularly had him on to promote The Apprentice and let him vent about whatever else was on his mind. CNN’s Larry King would regularly have him on and ask about the news of the day, like what the U.S. government should be doing about Somali pirates — as if Trump was some sort of naval-warfare expert. On Fox News, Greta Van Susteren asked him how he would negotiate a deal to avoid a government shutdown. He was a frequent guest of Regis Philbin. Barbara Walters declared him one of her “most fascinating” people of 2011, alongside Kim Kardashian. . . .

Television’s coverage of Donald Trump from the 1980s to early 2015 portrayed Trump as a phenomenal business success, endlessly knowledgeable and fascinating, insightful, shrewd, entertaining, and funny — a larger-than-life character. Why are so many baffled that Trump managed to turn that image into a path to the presidency?

Happy Spring

My garden, today.

And more coming down fast, which is why I just ran out to take pictures before everything gets buried.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Neolithic Normandy

Elliptical enclosure and u-shaped building, Saint-André-sur-Orne, Normandy, radiocarbon dated to 2800 to 2500 BCE, the very end of the Neolithic. The central structure was build with sizable tree trunks split in half for posts. In this photograph, the post holes have been digitally darkened; they would not normally be so obvious in a drone photo like this. The enclosure is 150 feet (45 m) across.

Arrowhead from the same site. From INRAP.

The Origins of Complex Human Behavior

Until recently the first evidence that modern humans were behaviorally different from other hominids dated to around 70,000 years ago. Modern humans could be traced via their skeletons back more than 200,000 years, but so far as archaeologists could tell, they continued to make the same sorts of tools and generally live in the same way as their ancestors. Then, rather suddenly, things changed: tools became more complex, the first shell beads and other ornaments appeared, along with the first clear evidence of ritual behavior. People wrote about a "Big Bang," a sudden transformation of human potential, and the most influential theory equated this dramatic change with the invention of modern language.

But many archaeologists, including me, were always skeptical of this conclusion. Since language seems coded into our genes, how could it have been invented at some point in time? Ritual behavior likewise seems deeply human. Surely such things ought to have evolved over hundreds of thousands of years. This only became more of a problem when genetic studies failed to find any substantial genetic change that could have served as the trigger for this revolution.

And yet, evidence of those posited gradual changes was very hard to come by, limited to a few hints from sites with disputed dating or interpretation. Until this week:
The latest evidence comes from the Olorgesailie Basin in Southern Kenya, where researchers have previously found traces of ancient relatives of modern human as far back as 1.2 million years ago. Evidence collected at sites in the basin suggests that early humans underwent a series of profound changes at some point before roughly 320,000 years ago. They abandoned simple hand axes in favour of smaller and more advanced blades made from obsidian and other materials obtained from distant sources. That shift suggests the early people living there had developed a trade network — evidence of growing sophistication in behaviour. The researchers also found gouges on black and red rocks and minerals, which indicate that early Olorgesailie residents used those materials to create pigments and possibly communicate ideas.
Obviously this is not the strongest possible evidence, I mean, a lot of things can gouge a red rock. But if these changes were gradual, then the early stages ought to be very hard to detect. I look forward to a lot more evidence emerging in the future, along with a better understanding of the long, slow process by which we became human.

What Sort of People Opposed the Invasion of Iraq?

It conceivably might have gone better in Iraq, and very well could have, if not for a series of disastrously arrogant and incompetent mistakes by members of the Bush team. But the premise of most people I interviewed before the war, who mostly had either a military background or extensive experience in the Middle East, was that this would be very hard, and would hold a myriad of bad surprises, and was almost certain to go worse than its proponents were saying. Therefore, they said, the United States should do everything possible to avoid invading unless it had absolutely no choice. Wars should be only of necessity. This would be folly, they said, and a war of choice.

The way I thought of the difference between those confidently urging on the war, and those carefully cautioning against it, was: cast of mind. The majority of people I spoke with expressed a bias against military actions that could never be undone, and whose consequences could last for generations. I also thought of it as a capacity for tragic imagination, of envisioning what could go wrong as vividly as one might dream of what could go right.

Monday, March 19, 2018

François Clouet and Renaissance France

François Clouet was painter and valet de chambre to four successive French monarchs: François I (r. 1515-1547), Henri II (r. 1547-1559), François II (r. 1559-1560), and Charles IX (r. 1560-1574). This is a chalk portrait of Cardinal Charles de Guise, one of the political leaders of the era and main instigators of the civil wars between Catholics and Protestants.

Although Clouet is now quite famous, most of his work is unsigned and the attribution of many paintings is disputed. This is one of only two paintings that actually bears his signature, The Apothecary Pierre Quthe, 1562. Quthe (I know it looks like a Star Trek alien or a barbarian from a fantasy novel, but it's a real French name) was Clouet's friend and neighbor.

François Clouet was born some time between 1515 and 1520. His father, Jean Clouet, was also a court painter, and presumably taught his son, although this is not certain because it was common among artisans to apprentice one's sons to someone else. Admiral Gaspard II de Coligny, 1565-70.

This is thought to be Mary Queen of Scots, and it is attributed to Clouet, although neither is certain.

These paintings are very fine, but what blew me away was discovering that the Musée Condé has an archive of more than 300 drawings by Clouet and his workshop. I suppose the finished portraits were given to the sitters, but the drawings were retained. This is Catherine de Medici, c. 1550.

What an amazing record of what the French elite looked like and how they dressed. Anne de Montmorency, Constable of France. This is the expression I strive for when people take photographs of me.

François I de Coligny, Seigneur d'Andelot.

Renée de Bonneval

Antoine d'Halluin, seigneur de Piennes. This is the expression I strive to avoid when people take photographs of me.

Clouet's career also shows the rise in the status of artists in that era. Clouet was not just a court painter but a valet de chambre, that is, a personal attendant to the king. Francois I is recorded praising him by name, a rare compliment received by few who were not nobles. Charles IX.

However, after his death Clouet's paintings were lumped together with those of his father and both attributed to a person called Janet, a nickname sometimes used by both. Not until 1850 did a connoisseur get the story straight and bring Clouet back to the front rank of Renaissance masters. Elizabeth of Austria, 1571.

How wonderful that we have this pictorial record of sixteenth-century courts; if only we had something similar for the Middle Ages.

Today's Lesson in Intersectionality

Race, gender and class of course intersect in ways that make things especially bad for some people. But not necessarily the ones you would expect:
Conditional on parent income, the black-white income gap is driven entirely by large differences in wages and employment rates between black and white men; there are no such differences between black and white women.
What the data shows is that black women born into wealthy or middle class households are just as likely as white women to end up in the same class as their parents. But black men born into such families are more likely than any other group to fall in status.

Compare the curves for men and women; pretty stark difference. The data is based on national surveys and is supposed to include all Americans now in their late 30s. I think we can all imagine why this might be, although the study doesn't provide any explanations.

At any rate this study complicates several possible explanations for black-white economic differences in the US. If racism is the cause, it seems to be a racism focused mainly on men. On the other hand the data seems hard to reconcile with any difference in innate intelligence or other inherited skills, since whatever holds back black men does not apply to their sisters.

The study also provides a nice way to put a number on the advantage of being white and male: the average income for a white man born into a median family, is 55% of the median income, while for black men and all women it is 45% of the median.

You can also play with this to get an idea of the inheritability of income. The average outcome for all Americans falls between 30% and 65% of the median, which is not really so bad; those born into very poor families do on average move up, and those born into upper middle class families on average move down. What is different in our age is the return of the super rich, the 1/10th of one percent who don't even fit on this curve.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

The Art of the Mask

The Art of the Mask on Etsy.

Defamation Suits and Fake News

Lately people targeted by right-wing conspiracy buffs have been taking to the courts to fight back. The latest is Brennan Gilmore, a former U.S. Foreign Service officer who was filming the protests in Charlottesvill on August 12, when James Alex Fields rammed his car into a group of protesters, injuring several and killing Heather Heyer:
When Gilmore’s video circulated in the media, Alex Jones immediately claimed he was a “deep state shill” and “CIA asset” who in fact spearheaded Fields’ attack. He published pieces that described the violence in Charlottesville as a “staged” act, one executed by left-wing political operatives and financed by George Soros. In one rant, Jones claimed, “They got State Department and high-level CIA. One guy is paid 320,000 a year on the payroll of Soros. He doesn’t just get money from Soros, he personally is paid 320 a year, and then he is there—CIA, State Department—and he is on the news. And when people pointed out who he was, they took his name of the State Department website and stuff, but Google has all the [screen]shots of it. I mean it’s like WOW, WOW—CIA? Your senior guys?”

The website Gateway Pundit was all in, too: “The random Charlottesville observer who was interviewed by MSNBC and liberal outlets turns out to be a deep state shill with links to George Soros. It looks like the State Department was involved in Charlottesville rioting and is trying to cover it up. But after Deep State got caught they are trying to erase this guy from their records.”

As the Gilmore complaint notes, Jones and Gateway Pundit “quickly mobilized their army of followers to launch a campaign of harassment and threats against Mr. Gilmore.” They published the addresses of Gilmore and his parents online, and he began to be inundated with hate mail, death threats, and hacking attempts. White powder was sent to his home.(Gilmore says the police ultimately told him the powder was harmless.)

The suit, filed by Georgetown Law’s Civil Rights Clinic names Jones, InfoWars, Gateway Pundit owner Jim Hoft, reporter Lee Stranahan, former Republican Rep. Allen West of Florida, and others who disseminated such stories. Gilmore seeks a jury trial and damages, and he says he will not accept a cash settlement from Jones, who has been known to pay off litigants or just retract his false stories.
So what are we to make of this? On the one hand there is no legal right to publish personal attacks you know to be false. You can't just say with no evidence that private citizens with cameras are CIA agents and on the payroll of George Soros; making up stuff and spreading it as fact is not protected by the First Amendment. But what if Jones counters that he is just an entertainer and never expects anybody to believe his stories? The tabloids have been getting away with that for decades. And can he really be blamed if his followers carry out a campaign of harassment that he never personally advocated?

I waver. On the one hand this stuff is rotten. On the other hand I have no faith in our legal system and worry about a future flood of lawsuits against web sites that attack people who can afford lawyers. But back to the first hand, is there any other way to fight the flood of lies?

Friday, March 16, 2018

Larry Kudlow's Abysmal Record on the Economy

All the liberal outlets are pointing out that Larry Kudlow, apparently tapped to be Trump's new top economic adviser, has an amazing record of being wrong about everything:
In 1993, when Bill Clinton proposed an increase in the top tax rate from 31 percent to 39.6 percent, Kudlow wrote, “There is no question that President Clinton’s across-the-board tax increases … will throw a wet blanket over the recovery and depress the economy’s long-run potential to grow.” This was wrong. Instead, a boom ensued. 
So there's one massive error.
Rather than question his analysis, Kudlow switched to crediting the results to the great tax-cutter, Ronald Reagan. “The politician most responsible for laying the groundwork for this prosperous era is not Bill Clinton, but Ronald Reagan,” he argued in February, 2000.
I don't think this is completely absurd, I mean, who knows what the time lag is between actions taken by the government and economic results? But on the other hand it completely contradicts what he had been saying just a few years before.
By December 2000, the expansion had begun to slow. What had happened? According to Kudlow, it meant Reagan’s tax-cutting genius was no longer responsible for the economy’s performance. “The Clinton policies of rising tax burdens, high interest rates and re-regulation is responsible for the sinking stock market and the slumping economy,” he mourned, though no taxes or re-regulation had taken place since he had credited Reagan for the boom earlier that same year. 
You see the pattern.
By the time George W. Bush took office, Kudlow was plumping for his tax-cut plan. Kudlow not only endorsed Bush’s argument that the budget surplus he inherited from Clinton — the one Kudlow and his allies had insisted in 1993 could never happen, because the tax hikes would strangle the economy — would turn out to be even larger than forecast. “Faster economic growth and more profitable productivity returns will generate higher tax revenues at the new lower tax-rate levels. Future budget surpluses will rise, not fall.” This was wrong, too.
Was it ever. I remember these debates well. Kudlow and company were vehement that the CBO's economic forecast was not nearly rosy enough, and that people saying "but what if we have a recession?" were foolish Cassandras. Instead, that forecast proved far too rosy, we got a recession, and the deficit soared.

Kudlow then denied we were in a housing bubble and denied that mortgage bonds posed any risk to the economy. When Obama came in he joined the chorus arguing that the stimulus plus the Fed's "quantitative easing" would lead to high inflation, and in fact he spent the next eight years arguing that high inflation was just around the corner, that the CPC was somehow underestimating real inflation, and so on.

It is pretty hard to imagine how any mainstream pundit could end up with a worse record. So of course he is due for a high profile job in the government. . . .

We need to get away from treating economic questions as matters of faith – tax cuts always increase revenue, a higher minimum wage is always better – and use some data to figure out what is really going on.

The Number of "Disabled" Non-Workers is Falling; What Does that Mean?

From the Times:
The employed share of the population 25 to 54 years old — the age range economists generally consider a person’s prime working years — is still almost a full percentage point below where it was on the eve of the Great Recession, and more than two percentage points below where it was before the 2001 recession.

One factor was a steady increase in the number of people not participating in the labor force because of health problems or a disability. In 1994, the Bureau of Labor Statistics determined that 4 percent of Americans 25 to 54 were not seeking work because of those reasons. By mid-2014, the number had risen to almost 6 percent of that age group.

Economists were especially alarmed because the increase appeared tenacious. It was rising before the 2001 recession, rose faster in response to the 2001 and 2008 recessions, then kept rising during the subsequent recoveries.

But then it began to fall: slowly at first and then, beginning in 2016, faster. Over all, the number of prime-age people who cite disability as their reason for not working has shrunk by 7 percent since mid-2014.
When the economy is really humming, even many people who consider themselves disabled can find work.

Which raises a lot of questions about what "disabled" means. I see this as a big problem for America moving forward. I think we absolutely need a government program to take care of people too sick or handicapped to work. But on the other hand the perception is growing that disability is a scam, and all of us have heard stories about people who could work but decide not to. If this perception continues to grow, the program could be threatened – Trump's latest budget proposes a modest cut – which I think would be a disaster.

I have the sense that many working people in America could qualify for disability payments but choose to keep working despite the hardships. After all, disability does not pay as well as any sort of decent job – the average payment in 2017 was $1171/month – plus many people would rather work than endure the shame/stigma of living off disability payments. At the other end there is work that even severely disabled people can do. So disability exists on a continuum, from people who would have great difficulty finding any sort of work, to people who could work but with pain and exhaustion, to people who are well within the norm for the working population but decide for whatever reason to seek disability instead.

And what might that reason be? I think this chart from Forbes provides a clue. You can see that disability applications track the unemployment rate fairly closely. It seems that many people decide to apply for disability after they lose their jobs, or perhaps when they give up searching for a job because conditions are too bleak.

To get back to the continuum I mentioned: I think the variables that determine whether a person seeks disability include the availability of work, how well that work pays, and what sort of work it is. People will endure a lot of discomfort to do a job that provides decent pay and status, or that they enjoy or find meaningful. They will put up with a lot less to be abused by the boss at minimum wage.

Personally I don't have any problem with this. If the existence of programs like Disability Insurance make it harder to hire people for lousy jobs at miserable wages, well, great! In a society as rich as ours, I don't think anyone should have to put up with that just to exist. But I understand why other people disagree; after all it can be galling to see people getting paid not to work when their health problems are no worse than your own.

One of the effects of disability insurance is probably to keep more people in regions with fading economies like coal country or factory-less factory towns. For a fifty-year-old person with a bad back, taking disability may seem a lot simpler than moving to a new city to start over. As a result, areas like Appalachia and northern Maine have disability rates up to twice the national average. If there has been a national conversation about this, I have missed it, but I think it is worth having: how hard should be try to get working-age people move to places with more jobs? Should we pursue policies that may drive certain communities to extinction, or should we consider programs like disability insurance a lifeline to keep struggling towns alive?

All of this seems very complex to me; how would you go about writing a set of rules that provide help to those who really need it but don't encourage slacking? Beats me. But I would rather see the effort put onto the carrot side, luring people back to work with a higher minimum wage and better work rules, than threatening to cut them off.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

The Republican Bind

The special election in Pennsylvania is the latest sign that Republicans may lose a lot of seats this fall. But they are finding it hard to do much about their problems.

Problem number one is that Donald Trump is not popular in the country as a whole, and he is especially unpopular in middle-class suburbs. His erratic behavior and growing list of scandals won't help. But he remains wildly popular with the Republican base, which makes it all but impossible for any Republican to run away from the president. So Republicans are stuck with this albatross.

Problem number two is that during the campaign Trump positioned himself as a moderate on a range of economic issues, promising to preserve Social Security and Medicare, to be tougher on big banks than Hillary would be, and so on. This seems to have helped him win. But Republican Congressional leaders are strongly conservative on all these issues, and so far they have been driving the agenda. Their plans are not popular with swing voters; Obamacare has gotten a lot more popular since Obama left office, and Social Security reform has always polled horribly. But they are the main thing, pretty much the only thing, to the party's donors and much of its intellectual leadership, making them impossible to abandon. So the Republicans are going into this election with both an unpopular leader and an unpopular economic agenda.

Of course the Democratics have big problems of their own, so I don't see a Democratic wave as a given. But it looks more and more likely.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Paul-Albert Besnard

Paul-Albert Besnard (1849-1934) was French artist who did many, many portraits. Here are a few of the better ones. Above, Portrait of Jean Gorges.

Young Woman with Upswept Hair.

Self Portrait at the Age of 18, with Renaissance painter's beard.

Portrait of Sir Henry Hoare.