Monday, September 30, 2013

Real Conservatives are Dismayed by the Republican House

Rod Dreher at the American Conservative:
When I think of the Republican Party, I don’t think of principled conservative legislators who are men and women of vision strategy. I think of ideologues who are prepared to wreck things to get their way. . . . They are a barking-mad pack of ideologues, is what they are.
Dreher cites one of Russell Kirk's canons of conservative thought:
Conservatives are guided by their principle of prudence. Burke agrees with Plato that in the statesman, prudence is chief among virtues. Any public measure ought to be judged by its probable long-run consequences, not merely by temporary advantage or popularity. . . . The conservative declares that he acts only after sufficient reflection, having weighed the consequences. Sudden and slashing reforms are as perilous as sudden and slashing surgery. 
And then asks:
What are the probable long-run consequences of shutting the US Government down over Obamacare? Do the Congressional Republicans care? Do they care what kind of damage they are doing to the ability of Congress to legislate effectively on all kinds of matters? The damage they are doing to the economic stability of the United States? . . . I can’t see any good coming out of this, at least any good that stands to outweigh the bad.
But not everybody gets it. Republican hack Marc Thiessen has a column in the Post arguing that the Republicans are making a mistake by threatening a government shutdown, because nobody cares enough to make that a dangerous threat. Instead, they should threaten something much worse:
While Obama can let the government close and blame the GOP, he cannot allow the United States to default.  . . . the effects of default would be “catastrophic,” resulting in the “loss of millions of American jobs,” and would have an economic impact “potentially much more harmful than the effects of the financial crisis of 2008 and 2009.” Obama will not permit an economic crisis worse than 2008-09 and the “loss of millions of American jobs” on his watch. He has no choice but to negotiate with GOP leaders and cut a deal to avoid a government default.
That's some prudent thinking for you.

Museum Diplomacy with Iran

NBC News reports:
Here's one more sign of a thaw in U.S.-Iranian relations: A 2,700-year-old silver drinking cup, looted from a cave in Iran and seized by U.S. Customs officials a decade ago, was returned to Iran this week. Its value is estimated at a million dollars or more. The ceremonial drinking vessel from the 7th century B.C., cast in the shape of a winged griffin, has been sitting in a warehouse in New York for years. And for years, U.S. officials have been saying they couldn't return it to Iran until relations between Washington and Tehran were normalized. . . . On Wednesday, it went back
The vessel comes from what investigators have dubbed the Western Cave Treasure, found by looters in a cave near the Iran-Iraq border in the late 1980s. Several pieces have surfaced on the international market:
Federal authorities say a New York art dealer named Hicham Aboutaam brought the Pre-Achaemenid artifact into the United States in 2000, and provided Customs officials with an invoice falsely claiming that the piece came from Syria. Aboutaam negotiated a deal to sell the artifact to a collector for $950,000 — but when federal agents caught wind of the sale, they seized the artifact and arrested Aboutaam on smuggling charges in 2003.

The Philadelphia Waterfront and the Cruiser Olympia

My hotel in Philadelphia was on the river, with this view of the waterfront, so during breaks in yesterday's wedding events and then again this morning I naturally walked up and down these piers.

 View toward the Ben Franklin Bridge. 

My favorite part of the waterfront was the cruiser USS Olympia, a relic of the steampunk age of naval warfare. Launched in 1895, Olympia was Admiral Dewey's flagship of during the Battle of Manila Bay in 1898, and its 8-inch main guns fired the first shots of the battle.

Besides the main guns, the ship had ten 5-inch guns mounted in casemates along the sites, and forteen 6-pounder anti-torpedo boat guns, plus a couple of gatling guns.

This was a state-art-of-the-art warship, with advanced armor, navigation systems, and everything else.

Her engines achieved 17,300 horsepower, and the ship could steam at up to 21.6 knots. Her crew was 411 men. Sadly, I didn't get on board to see the machinery, so these are someone else's pictures.

The ship had been modified over the years by the Navy, but she was acquired in 1957 by the Olympia Association, which returned her to her 1898 appearance.

Now she is the oldest US steel warship afloat. The Friends of the Cruiser Olympia are raising money to insure her preservation.

How Mars Lost its Atmosphere

NASA is planning to send a new orbiter to Mars, dubbed MAVEN, to test the most widely accepted theory of how the red planet lost most of its atmosphere. The theory is that when Mars' molten core cooled and solidified, its magnetic field withered away, leaving it exposed to the solar wind, which stripped away most of the air. The new probe will test this by measuring the rate at which the solar wind is currently tearing away gas molecules. Launch is scheduled for November. (Unless there is government shutdown, of course.)

There is a second theory out there should this one fail: that it was a great bombardment by asteroids that blasted off Mars' atmosphere.

Either way, it's a depressing thing to contemplate.

A Note on Budget Madness

Right now the attention is all being directed at last-minute maneuvering in the House and Senate, ahead of a midnight government shutdown. But let's not forget that what they are debating is not the budget. No, all of this name-calling is about a continuing resolution to extend last year's spending bills through November 15. It is highly unlikely that the twelve main budget bills will be ready for a vote in six weeks, considering that the House has not passed a single one of them. Not even the defense bill has yet come up for a vote, even though it was effectively complete last month and defense is the one part of the government Republicans claim to care about. They haven't even finished committee markups of the rest.

When the government operates under a continuing resolution, its spending directives haven't changed from the year before. So say that last year an agency needed to buy a thousand computers or a thousand Hellfire missiles, but this year it wants to buy desks or smart bombs. It can't, because it is still operating under a budget law that allocates money for Hellfire missiles and computers. It can only keep buying what it was directed to buy last year. It's a crazy way to run anything, let alone the most powerful institution in the world.

So even if a continuing resolution is passed after a long or brief shutdown, that will not end the problem:
“I’m expecting the federal budget bedlam to last through the fall and into next winter,” said Stan Collender, a partner at Qorvis Communications and a former staffer to both the House and Senate budget committees.
No doubt this is amusing to government-hating millionaires in Texas, but my crew is going to be laid off next week because the national parks will be closed. They don't think this is funny.

Incidentally, the reason the House hasn't marked up the spending bills is that the Republican committee chairs are finding that they can't comply with the spending limits set by the Paul Ryan budget plan that they all voted for. Democrats said that the spending cuts in the budget were unreasonable, and now all of the Republican committee chairs agree with them. But the leadership is trying to insist that the committees comply with the overall budget. Hence, no bills.

I understand tough negotiating over the budget, and I wouldn't expect the Republicans in the House to meekly accept all of the President's spending requests. But this isn't about the budget, because the House hasn't passed a budget, and they haven't even done committee markups of most of the bills. This is about staging a fit and demanding lots of "concessions" because they haven't done their jobs.

And then there's the debt limit ceiling. . . .

Sunday, September 29, 2013

A Morning Walk in Philadelpia

Yesterday my wife and I drove up to Philadelphia (best license plate: I OBJECT) for the wedding of an old friend. This morning, feeling bloated after last night's vast feast, I skipped breakfast and took a walk through the city's historic district. Many, many wonderful buildings. Above, the First Bank of the United States, 1797, by James Hoban and Samuel Blodgett. Sorry about the pictures, but bright, early morning sunshine rendered everything starkly black and white.

The US Customs House by Ritter and Shay, 1934.

The Second Bank of the United States, 1816, by William Strickland. Having failed once with Corinthian columns, the financiers decided to go with Doric on the second try; but the populists were not fooled and rose up to smash the bank again.


Statue of Ben Franklin on the facade of the American Philosophical Society Library.

Philadelphia has a great collection of old banks and insurance companies that look like banks and insurance companies ought to look.

From the commercial district I made my way into the neighborhood known as Society Hill, featuring many wonderful row houses, some as old as 1752.

These people wipe their feet with style.

View down a charming alley. I love the local habit of displaying 13-star flags.

Spruce Street. There was much more to explore, but I was getting a headache from the blinding sun, so I made my way back to the hotel.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Etruscans and the His and Hers Afterlife

This undisturbed tomb of Etruscan royalty was unearthed this summer near Tarquinia in Italy. Accounts of the find have made much of the riot of pottery found on the floor, the remains of the funeral feast.

Some of the dishes still contained food; analysis of this should give us our best look yet at Etruscan feasting.

But what interested me about the tomb was its structure: Side by side benches for the husband and wife.

This fits with a pattern of Etruscan burial practices, which emphasize like no others I know of the eternal bond of marriage. The famous Cerveti sarcophagus is one of several that shows a happy couple reclining on a couch together.

Moving into the classical period, we get these wonderful works of marriage art; these two are now in the MFA in Boston.

I have to think that these unique works are telling us something important about Etruscan society. Yes, marriage is universal, and, yes, in every society there are loving couples and couples who hate each other. But societies vary a great deal in how they think about marriage, and how much emphasis they put on it. Looking at these sarcophagi, I have to think that the Etruscans were one of those peoples who made married love the emotional center of life. Like the Puritans, Victorians, and us, they must have put a happy marriage at the top of their lists of life's blessings and built up a huge lore about how couples can solve their problems, rekindle the spark, and find happiness together. Why else would they have wanted to spend eternity in each other's arms?

Why is there Less Poverty in Scandinavia?

It's pretty simple really: they give their poor citizens more government help. Kevin Drum:
The chart on the right shows raw poverty levels in blue. The Nordic countries are basically about the same as the United States. There's no Scandinavian miracle that provides high-paying jobs for everyone. However, once you account for government benefits, the poverty rate in the Nordic countries is about half the rate in America. Universal health care accounts for some of this, and other benefits account for the rest. Some are means-tested, others are universal. There's no single answer. The only thing these countries have in common is a simple commitment to taking poverty seriously and doing something about it.
There is no free market route to a poverty rate below 10%; only governments can achieve that.

Meanwhile, in Mingo County

Another fabulous West Virginia saga: the sheriff was gunned down in front of the courthouse amid allegations that he was a drug dealer and serial rapist, and the circuit court judge has turned state's evidence against his former pals in the drug business to get free of charges that he had his former lover's husband framed for possession.

A New Generation of Creepy Bugs

Praying mantis laying eggs on our swingset earlier this week. Actually I love these, but I know several people who are freaked out by them.

Enceladus is Erupting

Big time geysers of water shooting from Saturn's moon Enceladus.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Diplomacy by Twitter

@HassanRouhani to @BarackObama: I express my gratitude for your#hospitality and your phone call. Have a good day Mr President. 3/3

 — Hassan Rouhani (@HassanRouhani) September 27, 2013

Martian Eclipse

Mars' moon Phobos crosses the sun in these photos taken last month by the Curiosity rover.

Archaeologists Make the Past Boring

Sara Perry:
The editors of the magazine Current Archaeology (1973:163) once provocatively wrote that “Archaeologists have no Soul.” I understand them to mean that the moment archaeologists are involved in the public representation of the archaeological record (in this case, its visual representation), they usually suck the life out of it. That is, they tend to dispute every interpretative effort that others attempt to invest in the data; they often work to quash expressive detail from the interpretation owing to a concern for ‘getting it wrong’; and they thus reduce the representation to nothing more than vapid accounting. Basically, they obliterate the human from human history, which can then lead their potential audiences to look elsewhere—e.g., fantastical movies, games, comics, books—for more inspired representations. As an archaeologist, I feel the need to contest the argument that we have no soul, but I also know that archaeologists can be paralysed by the uncertainty of their datasets, reluctant to take any risks with the interpretations.
She complains that when she has tried to involve her students in interpretation, their work is reviewed by other other archaeologists, nervous managers, professionals interpreters, and so on,
the creative spirit and impetus for innovative, theoretically-informed experimentation with interpretation is eradicated. For students in particular, at each turn they are questioned by archaeologists about where they’ve located their data, why they would feel comfortable stretching it in different ways and taking liberties with its analysis, how they’re going to make it fit the limited publication/presentation options available to them, how they’ll reach the biggest audience possible, and how they’re going to ensure it stays accurate, ‘true’, immune to misinterpretation by others. In being cross-examined as such, they are effectively worn down into conformity, left replicating existing systems that simply repeat a series of lifeless facts.
Amen to that. The chance of getting something wrong in an imaginative reconstruction of the past has to be weighed against the certainty that a presentation defensible in every detail will chase the public away. And what good is science if we don't tell people about it? And no, technical articles written in what one of my friends calls "Arch-Bark" don't count.

The Pantheon, Rome

The Pantheon is the great domed masterpiece of Roman concrete technology. As famous as it is, it history and technology have only recently been unraveled.

It was long believed, beginning in the 3rd century CE, that the temple had been built by Augustus' friend Agrippa in 27 BCE and then restored or repaired by Hadrian in 126 CE. Not so; careful study of the building has shown that Agrippa's original had completely collapsed after a fire in 80 CE, leaving nothing but the facade, so what Hadrian did was in fact build a completely new Pantheon.

We don't know why the facade still bears the words M. AGRIPPA.L.F.COSTERTIUM.FECIT, Agrippa son of Lucius Thrice Consul Made it. Given that Hadrian was one of the vanest men in history, it seems odd that he would do something so modest as to leave his name off an architectural marvel.

The concrete dome is one of the wonders of ancient technology, an extremely complex and sophisticated design. The box structure gives it strength while reducing the weight. At the top is an opening, the oculus,which lets in light. (Also rain, which is carried away by nearly imperceptible drains.) The concrete dome was poured in place, probably using elaborate wooden scaffolding to hold it up while it dried.

As this cutaway shows, the dome would fit over a sphere 150 Roman feet in diameter. Notice how the fabric of the dome thins toward the top. Recent studies have also shown that the concrete at the top was lightened as well, by using lighter stone in the aggregate:
On the lowest level travertine, the heaviest material was used, then a mixture of travertine and tufa, then tufa and brick, then all brick was used around the drum section of the dome, and finally pumice, the lightest and most porous of materials on the ceiling of the dome.
One engineer calculated that these strategies reduced the weight of the dome by 40 percent. Hadrian's engineer was a genius, and as a result his creation is still standing after nearly 1900 years.

The original marble panelling was stripped in the early Middle Ages, and much of what you see on the walls dates to the Renaissance.

British designer Ben Pentreath got up onto the roof with students from the American Academy in Rome

Pentreath also shot these pictures of structural details; more pictures here.

It never ceases to amaze me that buildings as old as this one still stand in the world.

Find Something More Interesting to Talk About

Dworkin has always been a frank and unembarrassed non-believer, but in his latest book, Religion Without God, he distances himself from the “militant atheism” that has been making headlines for the past decade and more. He deplores the divisive polemics of the New Atheists, and looks back nostalgically to a time, not so long ago, when people were less keen to sound off about belief and non-belief – a time, as he remembers it, when most educated people, including believers, were happy to pass over the biblical account of creation as simply “too silly to refute”. Atheism, for Dworkin, is uncontroversially true and truly boring, and atheists should find more interesting things to talk about.

-- Jonathan Rée, reviewing Ronald Dworkin's Religion Without God.
I find myself in sympathy with Dworkin's attitude. When I first got online, nigh fifteen years ago, I spent a lot of time searching out secular humanist sites and trying to engage in discussion with secular humanists. I discovered that people using that label wanted to spend all their energy arguing that religion was responsible for most of the evil in history, which I regard as absurd. Not wrong, really, just too ill-defined to be worth attacking or defending. (How could you possibly tease out the role of religion in something like the formation of early law codes and assign it blame or praise for stoning and burning offenders against communal values?) The questions I am interested in, like how nonbelievers can formulate and justify moral codes, were brushed aside by people mainly interested in venting their anger against the mean monks and nuns who taught them in the fifth grade. As for arguing about religion, what could be more pointless?

New York Central Mercury Train in Cleveland, November, 1936

I love the old-fashioned futurism of this photograph. It's from the tumblr where National Geographic is posting old photographs from the magazine.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

From the Mouths of Dictators

Vladimir Putin:
“Evil must be punished. There must be a democracy.” Look at what happened in Egypt: there was a state of emergency there for forty years, the Muslim Brotherhood was forced underground. Then they were allowed to come out into the open, elections were held and they were elected. Now everything is back like it was before. Once again the Muslim Brotherhood has been pushed underground, and there’s a state of emergency. Is this good or bad? You know, we need to realise that there are probably countries and even entire regions that cannot function according to universal templates, reproducing the patterns of American or European democracy. Just try to understand that there is another society there and other traditions. Everything in Egypt has come full circle, came back to what they started with.

Apparently, those who committed the now famous military actions in Libya were also inspired by noble motives. But what was the outcome? There too they fought for democracy. And where is that democracy? The country is divided into several parts which are run by different tribes. Everybody is fighting against everybody else. Where is democracy? They killed the US ambassador. Do you understand that this is also the result of the current policy? This is a direct outcome.
I'm agreeing with all sorts of strange people these days.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

The Fallen 9,000

Last week British artists Jamie Wardley and Andy Moss scratched 9,000 fallen bodies onto the beaches of Normandy to commemorate Peace Day. They started with 60 volunteers but word spread and 500 more people showed up to help. More here.

Strange Bedfellows

Last night I started writing, but didn't finish, a post about how much I admire Pat Buchanan's latest essay on Iran and how amusing I find this. But then I was pumping gas this morning, and I noticed that the back of the pickup truck parked next to me was covered with signs -- not bumper stickers, mind you, but big signs. They said things like:
Restrict Politicians, not Guns
The Power Behind the World Government Takeover
and then
One of those quotations that has been assigned to a lot of curmudgeons is "When you find yourself agreeing with the majority, it's time to reconsider." What about when you find yourself agreeing with Pat Buchanan and the guys who think the Illuminati are behind the world government takeover?

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

The King's Favorites

This fascinating painting, the Triple Profile Portrait (ca. 1570), is something of a mystery. The figures are generally held to be men in drag, but beyond that everything about it is disputed. The painting belongs to the Milwaukee Art Museum, and their web site identifies it as the work of Flemish painter Lucas de Heere (ca. 1534–ca. 1584). They add:
This stunning and unusual portrait is not as it appears. The figures outfitted in fashionable costume are men-not women. Adding to the painting's intrigue, scholars have only recently attributed the work to Lucas de Heere, a Netherlandish painter who worked in Paris and at Fontainebleau between 1559 and 1561, and in London after 1567. Research suggests that the sitters may, in fact, be the minions (or boyfriends) of French King Henry III (1551-1589).
Down below that text is this lovely disclaimer:
This information is subject to change as the result of ongoing research.
Which I am thinking of appending to all of my posts from now on.

As for Henri III, his sexuality seems to be the subject of much debate. Selections from the Wikipedia article:
He was his mother's favourite; she called him chers yeux ("Precious Eyes") and lavished fondness and affection upon him for most of his life. . . .

Unlike his father and elder brothers, he had little interest in the traditional Valois pastimes of hunting and physical exercise. Although he was both fond of fencing and skilled in it, he preferred to indulge his tastes for the arts and reading. These predilections were attributed to his Italian mother. . . .

Reports that Henry engaged in same sex relations with his court favourites, known as the mignons, date back to his own time. Certainly he enjoyed intense relationships with them. The scholar Louis Crompton provides substantial contemporary evidence of Henry III's homosexuality, and the resulting problems at court and politics. Some modern historians dispute this. Jean-Francois Solnon, Nicolas Le Roux, and Jacqueline Boucher have noted that Henry had many famous mistresses, that he was well known for his taste in beautiful women, and that no male sex partners have been identified. They have concluded that the idea he was homosexual was promoted by his political opponents (both Protestant and Catholic) who used his dislike of war and hunting to depict him as effeminate and undermine his reputation with the French people. Certainly his religious enemies plumbed the depths of personal abuse in attributing vices to him, topping the mixture with accusations of what they regarded as the ultimate devilish vice, homosexuality. And the portrait of a self-indulgent sodomite, incapable of fathering an heir to the thone, proved useful in efforts by the Catholic League to secure the succession for Cardinal Charles de Bourbon after 1585. However, most recently, Gary Ferguson has offered a detailed assessment of Henry III and his court in the context of a discussion of the question of homosexuality in the French Renaissance, and found their interpretations unconvincing. "It is difficult," he writes, "to reconcile the king whose use of favourites is so logically strategic with the man who goes to pieces when one of them dies." 
French wikipedia has a longer article which makes much of Henri's mysteriously contradictory reputation. Sa personnalité est complexe, it says. It includes a whole section on Henri's mistresses, for whom he had une passion démesurée. Like the English version it notes that the accounts of Henri cavorting with young men came from his enemies, especially the Catholic League. Certainly Henri seems to have loved dancing and been very keen on beauty, style, and grace -- Henri III est un homme élégant qui incarne la grâce et la majesté d'un roi -- but the same could be said of macho rulers like Louis XIV. Given the Renaissance fascination with symbolic games, double meanings, elitist inside jokes, and so on I have no trouble seeing the king or someone in his circle commissioning such a painting, whether he was having sex with these men or not. Henri sounds like an interesting man; pity his reign is mostly remembered for his failure to produce an heir and the outbreak of civil war between Catholics and Protestants.