Thursday, January 17, 2019

The Great Thai/Saudi Jewel Heist

The flight of a young Saudi woman to seek shelter in Thailand led Mythili Sampathkumar at Vox to explain how the two countries came to have such bad diplomatic relations:
In 1989, a Thai gardener named Kriangkrai Techamong was working in the palace of Saudi Prince Faisal bin Fahd in Riyadh. In the dead of night, Kriangkrai climbed a wall, slipped into a bedroom, and opened the family safe. He then made away with 200 pounds of jewels and gems worth more than $20 million — including a rare blue diamond, necklaces and watches lined with diamonds and sapphires, and, according to the Washington Post, “rubies the size of chicken eggs.”

Kriangkrai was one of many servants on the opulent palace grounds, and he later told authorities he thought his theft would go largely unnoticed because the family was so fabulously wealthy.
Saudi police have never released any information from their investigation, but rumor has it that Kriangkrai smuggled the jewels out in a vacuum cleaner bag.
Kriangkrai shipped the treasure home and then made his own way back to Thailand a short while later. He sold off the stolen jewels to a local dealer and thought he had gotten away with it, but authorities found and arrested him within a few months of his return.

Thai officials then located the stolen items and returned them to the prince — or so they had thought. Saudi officials discovered that only about 20 percent of the jewels were real, and the rest were forgeries.

Wild allegations were thrown back and forth. There were reports that the wives of Thai diplomats were parading around Bangkok wearing the original jewels, and senior Thai police officers were accused of being involved in the crime.
Four Saudi diplomats were murdered in Bangkok shortly after Kriangkrai's arrest, and again rumors flew that they had come to Thailand to find the jewels and were then murdered by the police.

An additional $120,000 worth of jewels were found and returned to the Saudis in 1991, but the Saudis say much is still missing, including that rare blue diamond.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Medieval Reaction Image

A false prophet spouting heresy, from an 11th-century Spanish manuscript.

Fear of Strangers

In Barron, Wisconsin, revelations about the Horrible plot staged by James Patterson – he kidnapped a 13-year-old girl after murdering her parents in front of her and held her for 88 days – have people reacting in the way we have seen so many times before:
Some parents were newly hesitant about school buses, and wondered aloud what else might no longer be safe.

“I’ll be taking my child to school,” said Amy Christensen, the manager of Skippy’s Pub in downtown Barron, a town of about 3,400 people. Since this happened, Ms. Christensen said, she has let her 3-year-old daughter sleep with her. “I’ve been holding her close every night,” she said.
But really acts like this are about as common as lightning strikes:
In 2017, fewer than 10 percent of homicide victims were killed by strangers, according to the F.B.I. And according to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, cases in which strangers abduct children are very rare; of more than 25,000 reports of missing children that the group received in 2018, only 77 were abductions by nonfamily members, said Erin Farrell, a center representative.
Incidentally that 10 percent of homicide victims statistic is flawed, since so many murders are gangsters killing each other. Unless you are involved in drugs or gangs, or live in a neighborhood where crossfire is a problem, your murderer is almost certain to be someone you know well. If you are a woman, it will probably be a man you have slept with.

I was talking to a friend recently about all the shock and anger over people sexually abused by Catholic priests, as if they were uniquely awful people and the church a sinister den of pedophile monsters. Actually most abused children are abused by family members. That rarely makes the news, though; too close to home, too icky, too lacking in a good villain we can all hate together. Victims of priests are now getting million-dollar settlements, while those abused by relatives get nothing.

Our whole psychological system for assessing risk is messed up. We are very good at sensing threats from outsiders and reacting to them, but we miss the greater dangers close to home. Many people who drive every day are afraid to fly. Statistically the one thing no child in Barron, Wisconsin has to worry about is abduction by a stranger; the already tiny risk will be even less in a place where everyone is hyper-alert to this particular danger. Riding to school in a car rather than a bus is very slightly more dangerous, and that slight increase in risk is probably a hundred times greater than the chance of abduction.

I worry about this because I think we are on guard against the wrong things, and that this distorts our politics. We fear outsiders, but immigrants commit fewer crimes than the native born. We fear people who don't look or act like us, when our greatest danger comes from those we know. It is much easier to get people riled up about a danger you can see, like a nuclear power plant on the horizon, than about too much of an invisible, odorless gas.

Monday, January 14, 2019

Careerism and Anxiety

In our continued investigation of why young Americans are so stressed, I bring you this item from John Thornton Jr., who recently spent a lot of time with teenagers as a youth minister:
As the retreat group started to tell me more about why they felt such a collective sense of stress and pressure, a few major themes emerged. All of them said they voluntarily get their grades pushed to their phones through notifications. It took me a minute to realize just how annoying and agonizing that must feel. It means that at any moment, they could find out they bombed a test or missed an assignment. Instead of having the time to mentally prepare to receive a bad grade when a teacher returns an assignment, they receive a notification as soon as the teacher posts their grade to the online portal they all use. Further, their parents sometimes receive the same notifications.

In addition to grades, they use multiple apps such as Remind through which their teachers can send them updates or reminders about upcoming assignments and tests. Like their grades, these can come through to their phone at any time of day or night. . . .

As we continued to talk over the course of that school year, I also noticed how much their schools force them to think about their careers at increasingly young ages. The kids often used workplace lingo to describe their lives. One sixth-grader talked about a school assignment in which she had to develop a life plan that included her future career, which schools she should attend, and what she ought to major in at her chosen university. . . .

One afternoon, I sat in our church’s common area with a sophomore. “Ugh, I’m so stressed about picking classes for next year,” she said holding up her course registration manual. It looked more extensive than I remembered from my time in high school. I asked to flip through it for a minute — it was 43 pages long.

Significant parts of the manual were organized by “career clusters” that encouraged students to take classes to prepare them for future work in fields like agriculture or finance. These clusters, the manual claimed, are “designed as a tool to assist in streamlining the path through which students meet their educational goals and are ultimately employed in high-skill, high-wage, or high-demand occupations and nontraditional fields.” After doing some research, I learned that these career cluster classes are part of a nationwide movement in states across the country.
At least some young Americans, it seems, are told all the time that 1) finding a decent career is hard, and 2) the only way to do so is to grind hard in school. You need to think all the time about your future or you won't have one.

I asked my sons about this and they agreed. They feel like their peers are being herded through a meaningless educational maze using the prod that if they don't do as they are told they will never amount to anything, which I guess is how my sons have all ended up fantasizing about dropping out and living in a remote cabin.

I don't know if most kids are really being pushed harder about future careers than they used to be, but if they are I can see how that might make some of them anxious.

Things Found on the Bottom of the Detroit River

They're building a new bridge across the Detroit River between the US and Canada, and this led the Detroit Free Press to post a list of things that have been dredged up from the river bottom:
  • DeLorean automobile from the 1980s
  • Bronze statue stolen from the Grosse Pointe War Memorial in 2009
  • 6,000-pound anchor from a historic steamship 
  • Six 1700s-era cannons
  • M1 Carbine rifle from World War II
  • Propeller from a sunken Prohibition-era rum runner

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Gay Renaissance Artists, Worldly Churchmen, Corruption, Tolerance, Aristocracy, Populism, Art, and Life

I've just finished Walter Isaacson's excellent biography of Leonardo da Vinci, and I'll be posting a full review later. But the thing that stirs my mind most right now is the relationship between da Vinci's success and the society that produced him and so many other famous artists.

Two of the greatest artists of the era, da Vinci and Michelangelo, were gay. This isn't one of those guessing games people sometimes play about famous figures of the past, but is copiously well documented. It is well documented because in Florence around 1500 people within the charmed circle where art intersected with money and power wrote quite openly about it. The two artists were, incidentally, gay in quite different ways. Leonardo was heterodox in his religious beliefs (see his famous painting of Saint John the Baptist above, which fuses spirituality with androgynous sexuality) and a cheerful person besides, and he seems to have been quite happy with his identity.

Michelangelo was a devout and much more conventional Catholic who suffered from inner torment throughout his life, which some people think he channeled into his astonishing portrayals of the male form. He was famously ascetic and may have died a virgin, but he poured out his feelings in thousands of lines of passionate verse, all about men. He was also a famous grouch who hated almost everything, including everything by Leonardo.

Isaacson attributes much of Florence's success in this era, when it was politically and culturally far more prominent than its size and wealth would suggest, to its tolerance of characters like Leonardo and Michelangelo. And maybe that is partly true. Which makes me wonder, why was this society so tolerant of sexual and other deviants? Why did even the popes regularly employ gay, heretical, or otherwise compromised artists, writers, and philosophers?

I have the impression that Renaissance Italy was as devoted to worldly success as any society that has ever existed. There is an old historical idea, going back to the nineteenth century, that this came about because once the German emperors effectively withdrew from the peninsula in the 14th century all authority was illegitimate. Some of the noble families had only recently risen from the merchant class, and even those who could trace their pedigrees back to Charlemagne could not rely on that but had to prove themselves in a chaotic world of constant competition. I suspect there is something to this. No city except maybe Venice was strong enough for its independence to be assured, and the others were always trying to conquer each other. The map above shows the situation in 1494, but a map from twenty years earlier or later would show a quite different arrangement of polities.

However it happened, Italy in this period was dominated by a noble class that was radically insecure, and as a result they seized on every available means to enhance their status and position. This included striving for prominence in culture. What we call Renaissance humanism arose from a competition in Latin rhetoric, as any ambitious aristocrat hired a secretary who could write letters in a style approximating that of Cicero or Livy. The truly ambitious leaders -- the Medici, the d'Estes, the Sforzas -- built up whole courts of intellectuals who would do the secretarial work and also stage festivals, design buildings, write poetry dedicated to their patrons, debate philosophy, and generally set a high tone. Most relevant for our purposes, this ambition included the promotion of art. And not just the usual old sort of art, but something new and exciting, something that would make waves and spread the fame of both the artist and his patron. Full of their own self-importance, they proclaimed this intellectual movement the "rebirth" of ancient art and learning.

To a remarkable degree in Christian Europe, this Renaissance was inspired by paganism. For ideas and forms of art that would distinguish them from the national kingdoms of France, Spain, and so on, and from the recent past, the Humanists reached back to the classical world. Not that there was anything new about turning to the Romans for inspiration, which was a constant theme across the Middle Ages, but these Italians pushed it farther. They created artistic masterpieces based on pagan stories in a style they copied from surviving Roman forms, and even painted some of these in their churches.

One of the noble clans that entered this competition, trying to enhance their questionable status through the promotion of new-style art and pagan-inspired philosophy, was the Popes. Even under the most dubious of Renaissance popes the papacy was more than just another Italian principality, but in many ways it did act as one. The popes of this era were all Italians and they took their ideas about how a grand man should act from the Renaissance milieu. They thought that to enhance the papacy's prestige, impress the kings and emperors with whom they negotiated, regain control of the land around Rome that they thought should belong to them, and promote Christianity around the world, they should act like the Medici and Sforzas: dress sumptuously, stage elaborate festivals, create courts full of humanist intellectuals, and hire the most brilliant artists to create paintings, sculptures and buildings in the glorious new style.

To fund their lavish lifestyles, and this burst of architectural and artistic creativity, they used the revenues of the church. Their peers within the Italian aristocracy and intellectual elite saw nothing wrong with this; that's what they were doing with any money they could lay their hands on by means fair or foul. But other people did object, most notably Martin Luther. They saw the Pope's spending on art and culture as simple corruption, and their rebellion against the Renaissance church often had the tone that we would call populism. They dismissed intellectual theology and said that anyone could read the Bible and understand its obvious truths; they decried spending on art; they called for a much sterner morality.

In 1494, well before Luther nailed his theses to the church door, Florence itself was convulsed by a revolt against the Medici and the rest of the city's intellectual and cultural elite. The revolt was led by a friar named Girolamo Savonarola. Savonarola preached against luxury, corruption, and immorality, and he got the citizens of Florence to stage "bonfires of the vanities" in which they burned lavish clothes and other symbols of frivolous wealth. He also denounced the exploitation of the poor by the rich and called for a Republic of virtue rather than a state dominated by rich nobles and their hangers on. Savonarola's reign was brief and in 1498 he fell from power and was burned at the stake, but in his aftermath the politics of Florence changed. Before him Florence had been a Republic ruled by councils, which the Medici and allied families had dominated behind the scenes. After Savonarola's fall the Medici had themselves made Dukes, and for the next century Florence's politics saw a struggle of the Dukes and their worldly court against the Piagnoni, the people who wanted a return to the Republic in its highly religious, highly virtuous form. The artists were all on the side of the Dukes.

Famous painting by Leonard of the Duke of Milan's Mistress

The world within which gay artists and other outlandish Renaissance characters flourished was aristocratic and corrupt, with little concern for morality. (Well, except for that of young women from good families, who were subject to the usual Mediterranean restrictions.) This society worshiped money, power, and glory, however gotten. It was notably tolerant of new ideas, provided they could be dressed up in Roman clothes, and loved experiment in art, architecture, science, and other realms. It impossible to imagine that an oddball fop like Leonardo could have amounted to anything in a more moralistic society, or that he could have risen from a notary's illegitimate son to intimate companion of dukes and kings in one more devoted to tradition.

The temptation to transpose these ideas to our own time is irresistible, at least for me. We, too, have  a cultural elite that is devoted to freedom and creativity, worships success, and has little regard for traditional morality. We, too, have a populace that sometimes calls for a more fair and more moral society. In our world the rich signal their arrival by allying with that cultural elite, spending their vast fortunes on paintings by Basquiat or photographs by Andy Warhol. The question of where political virtue lies is a hard one. Does it lie with the elite that extracts an unfair share of the wealth but tolerates gay artists and other nonconformists and promotes exciting new art and science? Or with the exploited masses, who long for justice but would send the gay artists to jail if they could?

Obviously every society is a lot more complex than that, and many other factors were at work both then and now. But this contrast between a corrupt, creative aristocracy and a populist revolt calling for fairness and morality keeps reappearing in history. It was one of the dominant themes in the era of the American and French Revolutions. It confounds the contemporary art world, where many people long to be on the side both of the nonconforming artists and the masses, not noticing that it is the elite who sustain original artists the people would scorn.

It is simply never true that all the things you like are allied together against the things you hate, not matter what the basis of your politics. The world is simply not like that, and never has been.

Saturday, January 12, 2019

Liberal Economics in South Korea: So Far, Not So Great

The Times:
As President Trump leads a drive to slash taxes and pare back regulation, one major economy is taking a different approach.

Under President Moon Jae-in, South Korea has raised taxes and the minimum wage in the name of economic growth. So far, it hasn’t worked out as planned.

Growth has slowed, unemployment has risen and small-business owners are complaining. . . .

With his progressive policies, President Moon is trying to tackle some of the same economic problems that plague the United States and much of the developed world. They include a widening wealth gap, slower growth and stagnant wages.

The discouraging early results don’t mean that Mr. Moon is wrong and Mr. Trump is right. Wage growth in the United States, though stronger in recent months, has generally remained stubbornly low despite the tightest labor market in a generation, and the American economy is widely expected to slow in 2019 as the economic sugar rush of Mr. Trump’s tax cuts wears off. . . .

Still, South Korea’s troubles suggest the limits of the state in solving economic problems, especially without addressing the underlying structural issues. Rapid changes like Mr. Moon’s can also have unintended consequences for small businesses and others.
My general feeling about a regime of higher taxes and higher minimum wages is that while there is little evidence that they will make the economy much better, there isn't much evidence that they make it worse, either. Since a strong economy seems possible with tax rates anywhere between 20 percent and 70 percent, why not set them at 70 percent and use the money for public aims instead of leaving it in the hands of the rich? Also, while higher minimum wages may not produce dramatic benefits for the poor as a class -- the economics is sketchy here, with studies showing both modest gains and modest losses -- I think it is better in the long run to make work pay well, thereby promoting a lifestyle of taking work seriously.

The main argument against this basic liberal position, as I see it, is not that the economy as a whole will be worse; I just don't see any evidence of that. It is that with more money democratic governments will just do wasteful things, or that the costs of the things they already do will simply rise to use up all of the available funds, which is what seems to have happened with infrastructure projects like new highways or subways, and in our universities. This means that one of the key goals of anyone with a leftist agenda has to be to make government work better.

Friday, January 11, 2019

Texas Republicans Support a Muslim Party Leader

Good news from the Lone Star State:
Republicans in the third-most-populous county in Texas voted overwhelmingly against the removal of one of their party leaders from his post on Thursday.

The vote was not over qualifications or any misdeed by the party leader, Shahid Shafi, a surgeon and longtime Republican who was appointed vice chairman of the Tarrant County Republican Party six months ago.

It was over whether Dr. Shafi’s Muslim faith disqualified him from the job. The vote — and the bitter clashes leading up to it — came as Democrats have been heralding the arrival of the first two Muslim women in Congress last week.

“Religious liberty won tonight,” Darl Easton, the Republican Party’s county chairman, said after Dr. Shafi was supported, 139 to 49, in Thursday’s vote. “And while that makes a great day for the Republican Party of Tarrant County, that victory also serves notice that we have much work to do unifying our party.”

Renzo Piano's New Bridge for Genoa

Celebrity architect Renzo Piano is from Genoa, so when their highway bridge collapsed catastrophically last summer he offered to design a new one for free. The design is nothing special but it is clean and elegant, and he assures everyone that this steel structure will be very strong and stable. Assuming, that is, the mafia doesn't switch the strong steel Piano has specified for something substandard, and the painting is actually kept up instead of turning into a corrupt bastion of no-show jobs, or any of the other such problems that beset Italy.

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Neil Burnell, Wistman's Wood

More at his web site.

Wistman's Wood is an oak wood on high, wind-blasted ground in Dartmoor, southwestern England. Some botanists think it is a remnant of Britain's ancient oak forests, but on the other hand none of the trees are particularly old, so it is possible that it has all grown up since the 16th century. The moss and ferns have gotten denser over the past century as the climate has gotten warmer.

Lapis in her Teeth

Interesting news about an artistic nun:
Traces of ultramarine — a vivid blue pigment ground from the mineral lapis lazuli, mined only in Afghanistan and once as prized as gold — were detected in plaque coating the teeth of a woman who died in western Germany about 1,000 years ago. . . .

Motes of pigment in the woman's teeth suggest that she may have helped illustrate some of those magnificent books, and are the first direct evidence linking ultramarine to a medieval woman. It adds to a growing body of evidence hinting that women were proficient scribes even during the earliest days of medieval book production, the researchers reported.

The woman was buried in an unmarked cemetery near a monastery complex that stood from the ninth century through the 14th century. Radiocarbon dating indicated that she lived around 997 to 1162. She was middle-age when she died, about 45 to 60 years old, and her burial location suggested that she was a pious woman, according to the study.

Further examination of her bones told the researchers that her overall health was good and that she did not perform prolonged hard labor.
She may have been an illuminator herself, or she have prepared paints for others, but either way it points to the production of high-end illuminated manuscripts in the nunnery at Dalheim.

Persuasion is Hard

Trump's speech on the border wall had no effect on opinion polls. Which is as you would expect, since all the evidence suggests that presidential speeches never have any effect on what people believe. Matt Yglesias:
High-profile presidential addresses simply fail to influence public opinion.

. . . a string of Oval Office addressed by Ronald Reagan failed to move the needle on voters’ view of providing aid to the Contras in Nicaragua, George W. Bush’s congressional address on behalf of comprehensive immigration reform left opinion flat, and George H.W. Bush’s speech defending his bipartisan congressional budget deal did nothing to change views.

Indeed, the general tendency is for public opinion to move in the opposite direction from the president’s preferences — a regulatory model that’s known as the thermostatic model of public opinion.

Reagan was an influential president because public opinion became very conservative in the late 1970s, leading to election results in 1980 that allowed him to govern effectively while the strong economic rebound in 1983-’84 helped him secure a landslide reelection bid. But according to Edwards, “surveys of public opinion have found that support for regulatory programs and spending on health care, welfare, urban problems, education, environmental protection and aid to minorities increased rather than decreased during Reagan’s tenure,” while support for higher military spending fell.

The longer he stayed in office, in other words, the less the public worried that liberals were out of control and the more they worried that traditional liberal priorities were being neglected.
FDR gave a bunch of speeches and fireside chats in 1939-1941 arguing for American involvement in World War II, but they had almost no effect. Then the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and suddenly everyone wanted war. Everything Roosevelt said turned out to be true – the US was eventually forced into the war, we did eventually have to spend a huge amount of money and create an enormous military, it would have been better if we had done more to get ready sooner – but nobody wanted to hear it until the bombs started falling on Hawaii.

Lesser Bird of Paradise

Photo of tail feathers by Kenji Aoki, from a pretty good Times piece on sexual selection and beauty.

I have always found the power of beauty over us to be deeply puzzling. I mean, a revulsion from ugliness or deformity makes evolutionary sense, because those things might signal other genetic problems, as does a generalized attraction to health and fitness. But our obsession with the right sort of nose or eye or breast goes far beyond this; and that's before we get to our mania for gold, silver, and gems, for bright fabrics, for flowers evolved to attract bees.

Our sense of beauty has come unmoored from the practical and stalked off on its own, claiming a huge part of our consciousness for its domain. Maybe this can be explained by sexual selection, genetic drift, or some such. But maybe not. Maybe it is a sign that our minds are expressions of a force for life that permeates our universe and drives us to wonder at creation, to be aware that we are part of the astonishing cosmos, and to be thrilled by that belonging.

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Wedding Chest from Lucca, 1497

Part of an exhibit of Italian art Sotheby's put on to celebrate 50 years in Italy.

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Appeals Court Demands that Students Accused of Sexual Assault be Allowed to Cross Examine their Accusers

Here's interesting news from California with regard to the ongoing fights over sexual harassment in our universities:
The California Court of Appeal for the Second District sided with a former University of South California (USC) student, "John Doe," who argued that his expulsion for sexual misconduct, after a female student accused him of rape, violated his due process rights.

Doe, a black male freshman on a football scholarship, filed suit against USC, alleging the administrators who handled his case were biased and provided him with no meaningful opportunity to prove his innocence. The court disagreed about administrators' bias, but agreed that Doe's due process rights were violated because he was never afforded the right to cross-examine his accuser: "Jane Roe," then a female senior and athletic trainer.

"We hold that when a student accused of sexual misconduct faces severe disciplinary sanctions, and the credibility of witnesses (whether the accusing student, other witnesses, or both) is central to the adjudication of that allegation, fundamental fairness requires, at a minimum, that the university provide a mechanism by which the accused may cross-examine those witnesses, directly or indirectly," wrote Presiding Judge Thomas Willhite in his opinion.

This cross-examination must take place at "a hearing in which the witnesses appear in person or by other means (such as means provided by technology like videoconferencing) before a neutral adjudicator with the power independently to find facts and make credibility assessments."
This is a state ruling based on California law, but I think it represents a change taking place across the country. As this thinking spreads it will force a major change in how universities handle these cases. Up until now the courts have pushed universities to be fair and to conduct careful investigations, but they have never granted a right to confront your accuser in a school disciplinary hearing.

It's an interesting sort of "beware what you wish for" situation. Feminists long complained that universities did not take claims of sexual assault and sexual harassment seriously enough. So the Obama administration pushed schools to set up semi-judicial offices to investigate all such complaints and punish offenders. This produced an outcry from others that these offices were secretive kangaroo courts where no man could ever be found innocent, and dozens have sued universities that expelled them. Ever more frequent judicial review has pushed universities to act more and more like actual courts.

The upshot, it seems, is that women who claim sexual harassment or assault on campus will be subjected to the same type of invasive investigation and hostile questioning that makes rape victims so reluctant to complain to the police, and the idea that university administrations might provide an alternative venue where victims might get some measure of justice without going through that will have failed.

I don't know how I feel about this, except to say that justice is hard.

John Singer Sargent, Portrait of Édouard and Marie-Louise Pailleron - 1881

What an astonishing portrait.

People talk about the psychological insight of the Mona Lisa, but just look at this girl; don't you feel like you know exactly who she is, and what kind of woman she will become?

And what became of her poor brother? Was he always in her sidekick, or did he like join the Navy or head off to San Francisco to escape her shadow?

Predictions for the Next Twenty Years

Tyler Cowen:
American politics will return to the precedent of the 19th century. Then, there was lots of fake news; partisanship was extreme; the media was very biased; Americans reacted politically with extreme emotions and all debates seemed to be full of rancor and bitterness. So in some fundamental ways, this country has not changed. We had a break from that state of affairs in the 20th century because we had the major enemies of the Nazis and then the Soviets. But as those enemies disappeared, we’re fighting among ourselves more, and the nation will go back to an earlier version of its politics, which were highly dysfunctional. You had plenty of people becoming president who probably should not have been.

I don’t see any evidence that we’re headed toward anything like a civil war. Today is a more peaceful era. If you look at polls, you see a generalized loss of trust in many institutions, but the No. 1 clear winner by far is still the military. Police tactics have much improved over the past few decades. The riots of the 1960s are very, very far away. The fighting will stay on social media. The happy people will be those who turn off their smartphones or who don’t put Twitter on them and who just go about living their lives.
This, incidentally, is exactly the prediction I would make, which makes me suspect it is conventional wisdom ripe for overturning by some radical new development.

Monday, January 7, 2019

Christianity and Nationalism in Eastern Europe

If you follow events in Eastern Europe, you have heard a lot about political Christianity, along with opposition to Muslim immigrants as dangerous outsiders. But how much Christianity is there in these countries? Will Collins writes from Hungary to say that while Christmas is celebrated in spectacular fashion, it seems a bit hollow:
What Christmas markets and colorful lights can’t hide, however, is the underlying weakness of Hungarian Christianity, which is gradually degrading into a collection of shallow cultural signifiers. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán often speaks of building a “Christian Democracy” as an alternative to Western European liberalism, but such grandiose pronouncements raise the question: what does Christian Democracy mean in a country that is gradually forgetting its Christian heritage? . . .

In Eger, a mid-sized Hungarian town two hours northeast of Budapest, Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses are the most visibly active religious communities. The native denominations have their traditions, history, and the town’s beautiful old churches, but energy and conviction are on the side of the foreign imports (Orbán’s own son is a Pentecostal preacher). Meanwhile, local enthusiasm for the Christmas season masks widespread indifference to anything that might be described as regular religious observance. In Eger, Christmas means lights, music, and festivals, not Midnight Mass.

Data on church attendance confirm this picture of a rapidly secularizing society. Although a majority of Hungarians identify as Catholic, only 12 percent regularly attend church. Less than 15 percent of Hungarians say religion is “very important” in their lives. Christmas markets, generous public subsidies to religious schools, and beautifully preserved churches have done little to arrest this steady decline.
In understand why people opposed to Western European norms might focus on religion as part of a conservative, anti-liberal identity, but I wonder how much staying power it will have in a society without actual faith. American religious conservatives have had little success limiting the changes in our society, largely because even most Republicans just don't take arguments based on religious teaching seriously. I keep thinking of something conservative television personality Bill O'Reilly said at the height of the battle over gay marriage:
The compelling argument is on the side of homosexuals. We’re Americans, we just want to be treated like everybody else. That’s a compelling argument, and to deny that you’ve got to have a very strong argument on the other side. And the other side hasn’t been able to do anything but thump the Bible.
So a thousand years of theology is just "thumping the Bible," even to the Fox News set. But if you reject theology, what ground do you have for opposing the pressure for personal and sexual freedom that has wrought such changes in the west? Will the opposition of grouchy old folks simply be swept away by new generations who have grown up thinking of the sexual revolution as normal?

Szopen, are you still reading? What's your take on the state of religion in Poland, and its political importance?

Hacking Photosynthesis

Some biologists say that by engineering a new chemical system in plants, using genes from cyanobacteria, they have greatly improved the results of photosynthesis. If so, this might turn out to be a very big deal.

One of life's key molecules is an enzyme called RuBisCO, which catalyzes the reaction that captures carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and builds sugar. RuBisCo is not a particularly efficient catalyst – one of those imperfections that in themselves constitute a powerful argument for evolution vs. design – and it sometimes catalyzes harmful reactions instead. In particular, it sometimes captures an O2 molecule instead of CO2, which creates a byproduct harmful to plants: phosphoglycolate, a two-carbon acid.

Plants of course have systems for managing this acid; in fact they have several different systems. One reason corn and sugarcane are more efficient than wheat or rice at converting sunlight to sugar is that they have a better system. Some cyanobacteria (single-celled algae) have even better systems.

So these researchers altered the genomes of tobacco plants to replace their natural, rather inefficient system with a better one from bacteria. The result are "super" tobacco plants that grow up to 40 percent faster. Tobacco was used in this study for the same reasons geneticists are always working with fruit flies, that is, they have easily manipulated chromosomes and people have a lot of experience working with them. These researchers are now trying to extend their results to food plants such as soybeans and the African cow pea.

The thing about tinkering with these fundamental reactions, of course, is that they may actually influence many different things about the plant's life; that bizarrely complicated Krebs Cycle you may have studied in biology is not efficient, but on the other hand the various intermediate products are sometimes siphoned off to serve as feed stocks for other reactions. So it may turn out that some plants depend on their crazy, inefficient photosynthetic reactions to do other things.

There are a lot of scientists studying this and related problems, so I guess we will soon see.

Refugees Radicalize Voters

A new study:
Although Europe has experienced unprecedented numbers of refugee arrivals in recent years, there exists almost no causal evidence regarding the impact of the refugee crisis on natives’ attitudes, policy preferences, and political engagement. We exploit a natural experiment in the Aegean Sea, where Greek islands close to the Turkish coast experienced a sudden and massive increase in refugee arrivals, while similar islands slightly farther away did not. Leveraging a targeted survey of 2,070 island residents and distance to Turkey as an instrument, we find that direct exposure to refugee arrivals induces sizable and lasting increases in natives’ hostility toward refugees, immigrants, and Muslim minorities; support for restrictive asylum and immigration policies; and political engagement to effect such exclusionary policies. Since refugees only passed through these islands, our findings challenge both standard economic and cultural explanations of anti-immigrant sentiment and show that mere exposure suffices in generating lasting increases in hostility.

Sunday, January 6, 2019

Andy Warhol as the Negation of Spirituality

Terrific essay in the Atlantic by Stephen Metcalf titled, "Why is Andy Warhol so Famous?" Metcalf's answer boils down to saying that Warhol predicted a world with no spiritual foundations whatsoever and no motivations but the pleasure of the moment, and that is the world we live in:
Cold and mute and static—that is Pop art. Making you feel complicit in the coldness, the muteness, the stasis? That is Warhol. He impresses the viewer only insofar as the viewer’s defenses against him are weak. His greatness has always lain in our failing. The less we push back on the idea that prurience and detritus represent the sum of it, the greater his powers of divination seem. The Warholian insinuation creeps out beyond the canvas, beyond the persona, to speak to the condition of all art, maybe all modernity, and with a retroactive power that rewrites everything that came before it. An inner life, a sense of vocation, a distrust of fame and a special loathing for speculative fortunes, a personal relationship with God (or nature) that the image may partake in but never supplant—Warholism negates it all. No wonder he has never been bigger.
I think that sums up much of Warhol's mass appeal. He had nothing to say; he simply held up a mirror to our own vacuity and laughed at us for loving it.

Maybe. You can also think that Warhol was posing a question, and that our job is to find some kind of answer.

One thing I appreciate about Warhol is his clever attack on the conventions of the art world, which I think could really use some mocking. Our artistic tradition obsesses over what is an "authentic" work by some artist or another; you have no doubt encountered bitter arguments over whether this or that painting is an "authentic" da Vinci or Rembrandt or Vermeer. Tens of millions of dollars can ride on the answer, besides placement in museums and the like. Is that a "Rembrandt," or should it just be "school of Rembrandt"? All old master painters operated workshops with numerous assistants who did much of the work, and the assignments just reflect some aficionado's judgment as to whether the brush strokes look like those of the master or are no sufficiently aesthetically refined and therefore must be by an apprentice. (How about this, about the famous sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini: By then, Bernini was at the head of an extensive team of sculptors, stonemasons, bronze casters, draftsmen, and engineers. . . .)

Warhol mocked this pretension by making works of art that he had never personally touched in any way and then selling them as his own creations. The only real explanation he ever gave of his approach was to say that only the image matters; the whole business of authenticity is marketing nonsense. When people paid millions for prints of his doctored photographs, he laughed out loud. And yet they did pay. And they still do, and since Warhol went out of his way to make it impossible to tell the works he produced from those produced by others, we now have long-running, big money lawsuits over which works are "authentic" Andy Warhols. If he could, he would be laughing in his grave.

He mocked his patrons just like he mocked the rest of us, and one has to wonder how many of them understood, and how many of us do.

Friday, January 4, 2019

Peter Li's Church Panoramas

St. Paul's Cathedral. These don't look right at this small size, but you can click on them or see them big at My Modern Met.

All Saints Margaret Street Church.


Southwark Cathedral. More here.

In Which I Approve Some Words from Tucker Carlson

Mitt Romney announced his arrival in Washington with an Op-Ed that ripped Donald Trump for both character failures nobody can deny and policy choices that to some of us seem a lot more debatable. Romney presents himself as the man from Bain Capital, fired up at Trump's apostasy from free-market fundamentalism, and besides that so offended by Trump's withdrawal from Syria that he doesn't even bother to explain why staying would be a good idea.

This launched Fox News personality Tucker Carlson on a madcap rant that pretty much sums up what he and his ilk are angry about. Some of it is nonsense but some of it is striking:
Our leaders don’t care. We are ruled by mercenaries who feel no long-term obligation to the people they rule. They’re day traders. Substitute teachers. They’re just passing through. They have no skin in this game, and it shows. They can’t solve our problems. They don’t even bother to understand our problems.

One of the biggest lies our leaders tell us that you can separate economics from everything else that matters. Economics is a topic for public debate. Family and faith and culture, meanwhile, those are personal matters. Both parties believe this.

Members of our educated upper-middle-classes are now the backbone of the Democratic Party who usually describe themselves as fiscally responsible and socially moderate. In other words, functionally libertarian. They don’t care how you live, as long as the bills are paid and the markets function. Somehow, they don’t see a connection between people’s personal lives and the health of our economy, or for that matter, the country’s ability to pay its bills. As far as they’re concerned, these are two totally separate categories.

Social conservatives, meanwhile, come to the debate from the opposite perspective, and yet reach a strikingly similar conclusion. The real problem, you’ll hear them say, is that the American family is collapsing. Nothing can be fixed before we fix that. Yet, like the libertarians they claim to oppose, many social conservatives also consider markets sacrosanct. The idea that families are being crushed by market forces seems never to occur to them. They refuse to consider it. Questioning markets feels like apostasy.

Both sides miss the obvious point: Culture and economics are inseparably intertwined. Certain economic systems allow families to thrive. Thriving families make market economies possible. You can’t separate the two. It used to be possible to deny this. Not anymore. The evidence is now overwhelming.
Carlson presents this conclusion as if it were controversial, but I am not sure that it is. I mean, Karl Marx certainly thought industrialization and the nuclear family were closely tied together, and so have lots of people since. But as George Will once wrote about Rick Santorum, the reason we talk so much about economics is that we think we know how to make the economy better. How to promote "thriving families" is an altogether different and much harder proposition.

I agree (I think) with Tucker Carlson, though, that unrestrained capitalism is not helping, and I agree that the support of many "socially conservative" voters for the harshest sort of capitalism is very wrongheaded. I think there are measures we could take that might help ordinary families a lot, from  free community college to stringent limits on drug prices. As I have said many times, I am not sure there is any better way to fundamentally restructure our economic world, but we could fiddle with the details in ways I think would matter.

I wonder, though, what measures Tucker Carlson would support to make life for families easier? Obamacare, for example? Somehow I doubt it. How about the changes in corporate governance Elizabeth Warren is promoting, which are supposed to force corporations to consider their workers and communities as well as profits? I don't think Carlson has taken a position, but I wouldn't count on his support. Support for unions? That would probably get him fired from Fox. It is fine to say that you want to help workers instead of banks and CEOs, but what are you willing to do to move the economy in that direction? Ranting about evil billionaires and permissive liberals won't help.

The places where workers continue to get a bigger piece of the corporate pie, and where corporate leaders take the interests of workers and communities more into account, are all in northern and western Europe, and they all have much bigger governments and higher taxes than any American Republican has ever been willing to countenance. On the other hand Carlson leaves us with this warning:
Socialism is a disaster. It doesn’t work. It’s what we should be working desperately to avoid. But socialism is exactly what we’re going to get, and very soon unless a group of responsible people in our political system reforms the American economy in a way that protects normal people.
So maybe there is some hope that at least a few conservatives will support meaningful changes.

Matazo Kayama

I found this amazing image making the rounds of art blogs on Tumblr and had to find out more. It turns out to be a painting by Japanese artist Matazo Kayama (1927-2004), titled Frozen Forest. I love the fairy tale quality and the way it evokes violence with the swirl of the bird figures, with showing any gore.

Kayama was a successful artist and I had actually seen his work before -- I immediately recognized Cranes, 1988, above -- but I knew nothing about him.

He came from an artistic family, son of a designer of Kimonos, and he grew up in his father's Kyoto studio. I imagine that a kimono designer in pre-war Japan had ties to the royal family or at least the upper aristocracy, and I wonder if that explains how he was able to keep studying art as World War II raged around him and through the lean years after the fighting stopped.

Kayama studied both western and Japanese art, and it shows. A work like the one at the top of the post has a strong western flavor, but Kayama also made many wonderful screens like this one, A Thousand Cranes (1970).

Kayama was very successful in the 1950s and held his first solo show in New York in 1961, but I haven't found any images from his early days. Floating Moon.

I think many of the pictures on the web come from a big retrospective show that toured the US and Japan in 2009. I love Kayama's style, and I am happy to have stumbled onto his paintings.

Thursday, January 3, 2019

Jordan Peterson and Tough Guy Humanism

Jordan Peterson continues to be a big subject of discussion in my house, where some think he has much to teach us and others think he is just the patriarchy all over again. This keeps me reading about him, and if nothing else his constant engagement with the oldest texts and the biggest themes provides an opportunity to revisit philosophical and religious fundamentals.

Peterson is fascinated with religion and teaches a whole course on the Bible, but he doesn't seem to have much faith. If Peterson believes in a God, it must be an abstract sort of spirit who set the universe in motion but otherwise has better things to do than worry about us. For all practical purposes, we are on our own. Micah Meadowcroft, a religious traditionalist, sums up Peterson's theology like this:
There is no grace, and Jesus is just an "exemplar of human strength."

No one has come to save you; you will have to save yourself.
Freedom is everything; the one thing we have, or at any rate the one meaningful thing, is the freedom to choose.
Peterson's world is suspended between order and chaos and our choices and responsibility allow us to navigate that tension, to walk the narrow way between them in our fullest participation in Being.
I would call Peterson a humanist, in the basic sense that he thinks "man is the measure of all things." Like many humanists, Peterson thinks that the lack of a God who regularly intervenes in our lives is an opportunity. Since it is ultimately up to us, our choices have a deeper meaning than they would if God were in charge; I suppose that is the fundamental teaching of Existentialism. Freedom can be bleak, but it is not meaningless. You are on your own, but your very aloneness is the secret to your significance.

As with everything else about Peterson's teaching, I connect this to his role as a therapist. The two thinkers I think he most resembles are M. Scott Peck and Judith Viorst, two other therapists with a philosophical bent. All three focus on you – the patient, the person, the hero of your own quest – and your confrontation with a world that feels cold, dark, and hostile. Well, they all say, maybe it is cold and dark, but that means any spark you can strike shines all the brighter. Maybe it is hostile, so sharpen your weapons and stand up strong to fight it. The emptier the void around you, the more freedom you have to act and the more important your actions; the greater the obstacles you face, the more glorious your victories.

As Meadowcroft says, Peterson's particular take on our situation has to do with order and chaos. It is sometimes hard to parse out exactly what he means by these words, but it seems related to a belief in work. What you should be doing, says Peterson, is working hard to make your world better. Symbols of this effort include proper posture, a clean room (common retort in my house: "go clean your room!"), a regular schedule, financial independence, and a sense of direction based on goals you are working toward. More deeply this could include seeking love and building a lifelong marriage, raising children, a successful career, working as an activist on causes that matter to you. If you think about Peterson's patients, who seem to include lots of young men doing nothing and going nowhere, I think you can see where this is coming from. On the one hand is an adult life of action and responsibility, on the other a listless drift through depression and addiction to drugs, porn, or video games. It also exactly replicates the main teaching of Peck in The Road Less Traveled, where he says among other things that love is work, that is, you love someone to the extent that you are actively working to make that person's life better. Peterson's teaching also has the vaguely political implication that life is more meaningful when it is built around rules and clearly defined roles, which provide some of the clarity that keeps everything from being a sad muddle.

This all resonates with me. I am an agnostic about the sort of God who wrote the equations for the universe, or who just is the equations of the universe, but I have never had any sense of a supernatural presence so I agree that in practical terms we are alone. With respect to God, that is; the thing that bothers me most about all three therapists I have mentioned is that they focus so much on the lone person. I personally think that we are social beings as much as anything else, and that a good life has to involve deep and lasting relationships with others. Peterson's models of the lone hero is I think a flawed one, because it implies we could win these cosmic battles on our own. He seems to think that there is us, and then outside us somewhere are society and other people, but I think other people are part of our inmost existence, and that a good life in one in which we are fundamentally not alone.

Maya Eccentric Flints

There was across the history of all humans a Stone Age, when stone was the supreme material for tools and weapons. The first technique for shaping stone was flaking or knapping, which essentially means breaking smaller pieces off a bigger one by striking or pressure until the desired shape is achieved. But although humans made stone tools by flaking in every part of the world, in only one place did they use this technique for sculpture. That was in Central America, where the Maya and some of their neighbors made the objects we call "eccentric flints."

Eccentric they certainly are. Objects like this were too fragile for any sort of hard use, like, say, carving the hearts out of sacrificial victims. Some may have been used for bloodletting -- loss of blood was one way Maya shamans achieved ecstasy -- but most were probably ornaments.

This one was sold by Sotheby's a few years ago for $134,500. Its place of origin is not known because, like so many works of Maya art, it was dug up by looters rather than archaeologists; the best Sotheby's could do was "Late Classic, ca. A.D. 550-950, probably Guatemala." (It had been in the US for decades, since before export was illegal; the good legal title probably explains part of the high price.) They call it a "ceremonial scepter." It depicts, like many of these, the God K'awiil, the Lord of Lightning; you can recognize him by the smoking pipe that emerges from his forehead.

Stone tools are associated with lightning all over the world; you may have heard that medieval Europeans called stone axes "thunder stones" and put them under the roofs of their houses to keep away lightning. This association is so ancient and widespread that some archaeologists think it was part of the original mythology that the first humans brought with them out of Africa.

This famous example shows K'awiil as the crocodile god, one of his avatars.

Not all eccentric flints are quite so elaborate; many more actually look like these.

I have never read a convincing theory of why the Maya in particular should have been so into strangely-shaped flints, but perhaps it did grow out of their obsession with sacrifice and bloodletting, which led them to develop gorgeous stone daggers like this famous Mixtec example.

Here is one from Teotihuacan, one of the few famous non-Maya examples.

What strange and amazing things.

Ultima Thule

A picture from 4 billion miles away.

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

La Iglesia de la Compañía de Jesús, Quito

Marvelous baroque church in Quito, Ecuador, built 1605-1760.

These wonderful photographs are by Diego Delso at wikipedia.