Sunday, July 5, 2015

Summer Flowers

Taken yesterday and today.

British Eccentrics of the Old Guard

I've been reading a book about the British codebreaking operation at Bletchley Park during World War II. The greatest contributions to that effort were made by young men who were mainly mathematicians. But their bosses were men who had been breaking codes since World War I, and their background was mainly in classics and linguistics. Among them were some of the war's great eccentrics:
The eccentric, anarchic wartime boffin has become a British archetype, and the Bletchley Park story is where it finds its highest expression. We hear it in Mavis Batey's affectionate account of her mentor, the veteran codebreaker Alfred Dillwyn Knox; when deep in thought he would occasionally try to refill his pipe with sandwiches. He was also, apparently, incapable of finding the right door out of the room on the first do, heading at full tilt into store cupboards.

Dilly Knox was a Cambridge classicist who had smashed during the Great War in Whitehall's Room 40; very often inspiration would come in a bath that he had found in an office at the end of a corridor. He thought best in hot water. On one occasion, worried colleagues had to force open the door to check that he hadn't drowned. He was engrossed in calculations. . . .

Knox was 55 years old at the outbreak of World War II and from the start of Bletchley's work there was a sense that his rigorous, time-consuming methods were being superseded by developing technology. Nevertheless he was a force to be reckoned with, on and off duty. He was a terrifying driver, especially along country lanes; he was given to reciting Milton, and gesticulating along with the verse, his hands off the steering wheel. . . .

Knox was matched in eccentricity by another codebreaking veteran, Joshua Cooper, a large good-humored Oxford classicist and linguist (an expert in Russian) known to some as 'the bear', who would inadvertently frighten new young recruits by suddenly shouting apparently random phrases, such as 'Yes, that's it!' But Cooper's aide, Ann Cunningham, felt moved to proclaim in later years that incidents such as the time when he threw a coffee cup into the lake because he could not think what to do with it were isolated. . . . His occasional outbreaks of falling under desks, or re-starting conversations with people weeks later at exactly the point that they had left off, helped to camouflage that intense seriousness with which he took his work.
These are from Sinclair McKay, The Lost World of Bletchley Park (2013).

Obama's Eulogy

It is of the first importance for our civilization that we not be derailed by punks like Dylann Roof or Timothy McVay, that we respond first with superior force, and then with superior wisdom:
To the families of the fallen, the nation shares in your grief. Our pain cuts that much deeper because it happened in a church. The church is and always has been the center of African-American life -- a place to call our own in a too often hostile world, a sanctuary from so many hardships.

Over the course of centuries, black churches served as “hush harbors” where slaves could worship in safety; praise houses where their free descendants could gather and shout hallelujah -- rest stops for the weary along the Underground Railroad; bunkers for the foot soldiers of the Civil Rights Movement. They have been, and continue to be, community centers where we organize for jobs and justice; places of scholarship and network; places where children are loved and fed and kept out of harm’s way, and told that they are beautiful and smart -- and taught that they matter. That’s what happens in church.

That’s what the black church means. Our beating heart. The place where our dignity as a people is inviolate. When there’s no better example of this tradition than Mother Emanuel -- a church built by blacks seeking liberty, burned to the ground because its founder sought to end slavery, only to rise up again, a Phoenix from these ashes.

When there were laws banning all-black church gatherings, services happened here anyway, in defiance of unjust laws. When there was a righteous movement to dismantle Jim Crow, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. preached from its pulpit, and marches began from its steps. A sacred place, this church. Not just for blacks, not just for Christians, but for every American who cares about the steady expansion -- of human rights and human dignity in this country; a foundation stone for liberty and justice for all. That’s what the church meant.

We do not know whether the killer of Reverend Pinckney and eight others knew all of this history. But he surely sensed the meaning of his violent act. It was an act that drew on a long history of bombs and arson and shots fired at churches, not random, but as a means of control, a way to terrorize and oppress. An act that he imagined would incite fear and recrimination; violence and suspicion. An act that he presumed would deepen divisions that trace back to our nation’s original sin.

Oh, but God works in mysterious ways. God has different ideas.

He didn’t know he was being used by God. Blinded by hatred, the killer could not see the grace surrounding Reverend Pinckney and that Bible study group -- the light of love that shone as they opened the church doors and invited a stranger to join in their prayer circle. The killer could have never anticipated the way the families of the fallen would respond when they saw him in court -- in the midst of unspeakable grief, with words of forgiveness. He couldn’t imagine that.

The killer could not imagine how the city of Charleston, under the good and wise leadership of Mayor Riley -- how the state of South Carolina, how the United States of America would respond -- not merely with revulsion at his evil act, but with big-hearted generosity and, more importantly, with a thoughtful introspection and self-examination that we so rarely see in public life.

Blinded by hatred, he failed to comprehend what Reverend Pinckney so well understood -- the power of God’s grace.

This whole week, I’ve been reflecting on this idea of grace. The grace of the families who lost loved ones. The grace that Reverend Pinckney would preach about in his sermons. The grace described in one of my favorite hymnals -- the one we all know: Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost, but now I’m found; was blind but now I see.

According to the Christian tradition, grace is not earned. Grace is not merited. It’s not something we deserve. Rather, grace is the free and benevolent favor of God -- as manifested in the salvation of sinners and the bestowal of blessings. Grace.

As a nation, out of this terrible tragedy, God has visited grace upon us, for he has allowed us to see where we’ve been blind. He has given us the chance, where we’ve been lost, to find our best selves. We may not have earned it, this grace, with our rancor and complacency, and short-sightedness and fear of each other -- but we got it all the same. He gave it to us anyway. He’s once more given us grace. But it is up to us now to make the most of it, to receive it with gratitude, and to prove ourselves worthy of this gift.
You can read the whole thing here.

Amusing Street Art by OakOak

 Amusing "interventions" by the French street artist known as OakOak.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Robert Frank, America in 1955

In 1955 Swiss-born photographer Robert Frank embarked on a 10,000-mile road trip across America with his camera by his side. The result was a book titled The Americans, which became a sensation.

Artistic types were fascinated by the way Frank successfully straddled the line between photojournalism and art:
When it comes to a discussion of the dichotomy between self-expression and reportage, Robert Frank’s enduring classic The Americans is a fine place to start. As an undergraduate student straddling the fence between photojournalism and art in the 1980’s, I, like countless others before and since found myself drawn to this dark, grainy little book. Much of what made The Americans resonate was the tension brought on by the book’s brash, subversive quality. This was liberating: photographs made with a subjective eye, shedding the pretenses of journalistic objectivity and stylistic convention.

Frank himself wrote, in 1958:
I have been frequently accused of deliberately twisting subject matter to my point of view. Above all, I know that life for a photographer cannot be a matter of indifference. Opinion often consists of a kind of criticism. But criticism can come out of love. It is important to see what is invisible to others—perhaps the look of hope or the look of sadness. Also, it is always the instantaneous reaction to oneself that produces a photograph.

Looking at these I go back to an old question of mine: what makes some photographs so much better than others of the same thing?

And another question: these photographs were widely interpreted as a critique of America from the left, and Frank is often seen as one of the Beat Generation; but why? Other than the famous image of the New Orleans trolley, what gives these any ideological charge? Frank himself said that during this trip his view of America darkened, as he became more aware of racial tension and other issues. But I honestly don't see it; these just look like excellent pictures of America to me. It takes a certain sort of mind to see any honest depiction of bourgeois society as inherently revolutionary.

But what great pictures these are, and how great that we have this record of the American past.

Bernie Sanders as a Young Revolutionary

Sarah Lyall has an interesting piece in the Times about Bernie Sanders early career as a left-wing activist and journalist in the 1970s:
“The Revolution Is Life Versus Death,” in fact, was the title of an article he wrote for The Vermont Freeman, an alternative, authority-challenging newspaper published for a few years back then. The piece began with an apocalyptically alarmist account of the unbearable horror of having an office job in New York City, of being among “the mass of hot dazed humanity heading uptown for the 9-5,” sentenced to endless days of “moron work, monotonous work.”

“The years come and go,” Mr. Sanders wrote, in all apparent seriousness. “Suicide, nervous breakdown, cancer, sexual deadness, heart attack, alcoholism, senility at 50. Slow death, fast death. DEATH.” . . .

Another essay mocked what Mr. Sanders felt to be the soul-destroying nature of conventional education.

“If children of 5 are not taught to obey orders, sit still for 7 hours a day, respect their teacher, and raise their hands when they have to go to the bathroom, how will they learn (after 17 more years of education) to become the respectful clerks, technicians and soldiers who keep our society free, our economy strong, and such inspiring men as Richard Nixon and Deane Davis in political office,” Mr. Sanders wrote, referring to the president and the Vermont governor at the time.
Two things about this interest me. First, these are exactly the complaints of my two eldest sons, who both regard an 8 to 5 office or factory job as a death sentence and think school is nothing but misery intentionally imposed on children to prepare them for that awful fate. I go back and forth in my head over whether this is true in a broad sense, or only for a certain subset of restless people, especially boys, for whom sitting still is torture.

Second, the need to believe that things we hate are terrible for our health. Sanders believed that office jobs caused cancer, but this is only one version of an assertion I have encountered in many different forms. "My job is killing me" may be the great lament of the twentieth century. But it isn't true. Not that the life of an office drone may not be bad for us in many ways, but as more and more people work the sort of jobs Sanders hated, we live longer and longer. What really shortened our lives in the past was bad sanitation, woodsmoke, tobacco, bad food, grinding physical labor in dangerous conditions, untreated bacterial infections, war, and the stress of living on the edge of hunger. Whatever you think of your office job, it won't by itself make you sick.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Theseus and the Minotaur

Mosaic of the Cretan Labyrinth from the Villa of the Domitii Ahenobarbi, on the Tuscan island of Giannutri, built in the 1st century CE.

Raphael, 500 Years Ago

Raphael Sanzio da Urbino (1483-1520) was at the peak of his artistic power 500 years ago, in 1512-1515. Above is his portrait of Portrait of Baldassare Castiglione, usually dated "c. 1515." To my mind this is one of the supreme portraits, a work of majestic perfection.

Portrait of Bindo Altoviti, 1514-1515. Don't you feel that a glance at this images tells you everything about him?

La Dona Velata (The Lady with the Veil), 1515-1516. To me this is another of the most beautiful paintings; I'd take this over the Mona Lisa any day.

Cartoon for a tapestry of The Miraculous Draw of Fishes, 1514, and details.

The Sistine Madonna, 1513-1514. Raphael's mature paintings astonish me every time I look at at them; I can find no flaw to protest, nothing to quibble about -- I can only look in awe.

One of the figures from the Double Portrait of c. 1516.

One of the things that fascinates me about the glorious art of the high Renaissance is that the theory behind it was crap. These men thought they were recreating an ancient world they understood not at all; the Florentines thought their baptistery was an ancient Roman survival, when really it was a Romanesque work of the 12th century. Without even knowing what was ancient and what medieval, they dismissed medieval art as grotesque barbarity. Their thought their aesthetics was based on Plato, but really their idea of Platonic thought derived from men who lived centuries after Plato, and even that they did not understand. But somehow out of their ignorant vanity, their foolish pride in their own time and place, and their faith in themselves, they erected an astonishing monument of perfect beauty. (Detail of the Madonna della seggiola, 1513-1514.)

History seems to be like that.

The Crow and the Eagle

Images by California-based photographer Phoo Chan, who says,
Crows are known for aggressively harassing other raptors that are much bigger in size when spotted in their territories and usually these ‘intruders’ simply retreat without much fuss. However, in this frame the crow did not seem to harass the bald eagle at such close proximity and neither did the bald eagle seem to mind the crow’s presence invading its personal space. What made it even more bizarre was that the crow even made a brief stop on the back of the eagle as if it was taking a free scenic ride and the eagle simply obliged.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

The Bobcat Kitten Burial

About 2,000 years ago, some Indians in Illinois had a pet kitten:
The Elizabeth site is a bluff-top mortuary mound group constructed and primarily used during Hopewellian (Middle Woodland) times. Recent reanalysis of nonhuman skeletal remains from the site reveals that an intentional burial previously identified as a dog (Canis familiaris) is actually an immature bobcat (Lynx rufus). . . . The bobcat was a separate, human-like interment wearing a necklace of shell beads and effigy bear canine teeth. To our knowledge, this is the only decorated wild cat burial in the archaeological record. It provides compelling evidence for a complex relationship between felids and humans in the prehistoric Americas, including possible taming.
The bobcat was 4 to 7 months old. This site was excavated back in the 1980s, and this discovery was made by Ph.D. student Angela Perri while she was researching dog burials.
The skeleton was complete, and there were no cut marks or other signs of trauma, suggesting to Perri that the animal had not been sacrificed. When she looked back at the original excavation photos, she saw that the bobcat had been carefully placed in its grave. “It looked respectful; its paws were placed together,” she says. “It was clearly not just thrown into a hole.” . . . The pomp and circumstance of the burial, she says, “suggests this animal had a very special place in the life of these people.” And the age of the kitten implies that the villagers brought it in from the wild—perhaps as an orphan—and may have tried to raise it.

Days of Rage

Rick Perlstein reviews Bryan Burrough's Days of Rage: America’s Radical Underground, the FBI, and the Forgotten Age of Revolutionary Violence:
Burrough begins Days of Rage with the story of the New Left’s first convert to armed struggle, an oddball named Sam Melville, who started bombing random Manhattan banks shortly after enjoying the music at Woodstock and later died in the uprising at Attica. But the best history is always about the backstories—the flashback reconstructions explaining how a mentality that may strike us as alien today made perfect sense in the minds of those who shared it at the time.

Consider Mutulu Shakur. Born Jeral Williams in 1950, he became an early proponent of the Republic of New Afrika movement. His career as a militant began in a hospital. In 1970, members of the Young Lords, a Puerto Rican version of the Black Panthers that started as a street gang, occupied the auditorium of a tumbledown hospital in the South Bronx to protest its inadequacies. They demanded a heroin clinic. Harried hospital administrators were amenable; they needed a heroin clinic. So they let the Young Lords start one. Nourished with nearly $1 million in state and city funds, Lincoln Detox soon grew into the South Bronx’s largest drug-treatment facility.

Its program prescribed a theory popularized by Malcolm X: “that the plague of drugs was a scheme concocted by a white government to oppress blacks,” as Burrough puts it. Shakur started volunteering; his specialty was acupuncture. Another part of the treatment was studying a pamphlet subtitled “Heroin and Imperialism,” which advised that a commitment to armed struggle was a more effective analgesic than methadone. Lincoln Detox soon became what Burrough describes as “a kind of clubhouse for New York’s radical elite”; for instance, medical supplies purchased with government funds—“by the truckload”—were turned over to the Black Liberation Army to assist it in its campaign of murdering cops. Crazy stuff, to be sure. But in the South Bronx of the 1970s—where cops were heavily involved in the heroin trade, and building owners found it more profitable to torch their property for the insurance than to rent it out—it’s easy to understand why taking the fight to the police seemed a more realistic route to social change than voting for Hubert Humphrey had been in 1968.
Those were the days.

Football's Violent Ancestors

All our various "football" games -- soccer, rugby, American football, etc. -- descend from medieval games that were much like organized riots, played in town squares or muddy fields halfway between rival villages. I was thinking about this yesterday because the Times has a feature on one of the surviving relics of that old tradition, Florence's calcio storico:
This grand city has four historical quarters, each with a church at its center, and calcio storico, which is believed to date to the 15th century, is played by one team from each neighborhood. To play for your neighborhood team — to wear the Verdi (green) of San Giovanni or the Azzurri (blue) of Santa Croce or the Bianchi (white) of Santo Spirito or the Rossi (red) of Santa Maria Novella — is, as Niccolò Innocenti of the Verdi put it, “deeply Florentine.”

“When I played for the first time, the sensation I had was one of truly being a man,” he said.

For others, though, the attraction is more primitive. With two teams of 27 players placed in a sand pit and told, essentially, to do whatever is necessary to get a ball into the other team’s end zone, the sport is a strange mix of American football, rugby and street fighting. Watching it live, a more direct comparison might be to the children’s game Red Rover, but with punching and tattoos.

Brutality is everywhere. No player has died during calcio storico, but Luciano Artusi, a former director of the body that oversees the games, conceded that “we have had a spleen removed.” Filippo Allegri, one of the on-field paramedics, said that his group generally expects that seven or eight players from each team will not finish any given game and recalled, without prompting, that 10 players, or about 20 percent of the participants, required hospitalization after a particularly brutal final in 2013. There are no substitutions, so exhaustion is common. So, too, are dehydration and concussions.
So far as I have been able to tell, these games are not attested before the 14th century. They seem to grow out of the medieval solidarity of villages, parishes, and guilds, rather than descending from ancient rituals.

This tradition of riotous games was carried over to colonial America. In Puritan Boston they played the pope destroying game; effigies of the pope were set up at either end of the Common, and teams from North and South Boston fought to tear down the other's pope first. In 1765 the South Boston team had been victorious three years in a row, so when Sam Adams wanted to organize riots against the Stamp Act the man he recruited was Ebenezer Macintosh, captain of the South Boston pope-destroying team.