Friday, March 31, 2017

Philip de László and the Women of Early 20th-Century Europe

Philip Alexius de László (1869 – 1937) was a Hungarian painter who became famous as a portraitist to Europe's great aristocrats in the years before World War I. As you'll see, he painted a Who's Who list of grandees. (Above, Miss Lisa Minghetti)

Self portrait in 1910. László was a Jew born to a petit bourgeois family in Budapest, with the given name of Laub Fülöp; his father was a tailor and his mother a seamstress.

But from an early age he was determined not to let the circumstances of his birth hold him back. He was apprenticed to a photographer as a teenager and studied art furiously in his spare time, winning a place in a prestigious art institute. Upon graduation he left Budapest to study in Munich and then Paris. In 1891 he changed his name to the ethnically Hungarian László. (Princess Louis of Battenberg, nee Mountbatten, future Queen of Sweden, 1907)

In 1903 László settled in Vienna and began to get commissions painting portraits of the elite. I am not sure how he achieved this, and none of the usual sources says anything about it. But he certainly seems to have been quite the charmer. For example, in 1892 he met Lucy Madeleine Guinness, a member of the banking branch of the Guinness family and one of the richest available heiresses on the continent. She quickly fell in love with him, which resulted in her family banning him from her presence. But no matter, they continued their affair long distance, and eventually her family relented and they were married in 1900. That's Lucy above in 1914.

Princess Max Egon von Hohenlohe-Langenburg, née María de la Piedad de Yturbe, in 1906.

Countess Dénes Széchényi. 1912

In 1907 László moved to England, where he became a citizen, and he added a long list of British aristocrats to his protfolio. This is Vita Sackville-West in 1910.

Countess Beatty née Ethel Field, 1911. Most of the paintings in museums are these aristocrats, but László actually painted more than 2,000 portraits, including lots of bankers, industrialists, university rectors and the like. There is no complete list of his works, and many of them are probably still hanging in corporate board rooms, university presidents' offices, and private homes.

For variety's sake, here's a bit of Imperial propaganda from 1916, Risaldar Jagat Singh and Risaldar Man Singh. László had become a British citizen before the war started, but he still ended up in prison in 1917 after he tried to send money to his family in Hungary; he was freed in 1919 and his record was cleared.

After the war people started to look like this. Hélène Charlotte de Berquely-Richards, 1935.

The future Queen Elizabeth II in 1933.

And one more, Alfred Lys Baldry, 1918.

Will Trumpism Ever be Tried?

Rich Lowry is wondering about Trump's relationship to ordinary Republicanism. After all Trump ran as a populist, trying to take a position outside the usual right-left divide. He was anti-immigrant but for Social Security and Medicare, for fossil fuel but also for a generous healthcare plan. On the subject of healthcare, though, he let himself be captured by Ryan, and it looks like he may become a mouthpiece for ordinary Republicanism on taxes as well. Why?
A President Trump acting more in keeping with his free-floating reflex to take care of people, as expressed in speeches and interviews, would have pushed the health bill to the left. But Trump so far hasn’t followed the logic of his own politics in dealing with Congress.

His path not taken in January would have been to give an eye-openingly unifying Inaugural Address with less carnage and more kumbaya. Immediately invite Chuck Schumer to the White House and tell him, “Chuck, you’re not leaving this building until we agree on an infrastructure package.” Take the resulting big-spending proposal and dare the GOP leadership to defy him. Pass it with a bipartisan coalition. And invite as many Democratic public works-supporting mayors as possible to the White House signing ceremony.

Then, having staked his flag firmly in the center, he could have tried to mix-and-match his way to congressional coalitions for a heterodox agenda.
The real obstacle to anything like this happening is that Trump has no clue how to put his populist instincts into action, which leaves him dependent on mainstream Republicans to shape the legislative agenda. He just doesn't have the knowledge or the attention span to really shape the government. And I agree with Lowry that we may end up seeing the whole Trump phenomenon as a road not taken:
The range of possible outcomes of the Trump presidency is still wide. Unexpectedly, one of them is that his most die-hard populist supporters will eventually be able to say that Trumpism, like socialism, hasn’t failed, it’s just never been tried.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Ada Palmer, Too Like the Lightning

Ada Palmer's Too Like the Lightning arrived last year to thunderous acclaim, described by many reviewers as "the best science fiction novel in years" or even "a decade." The nicest thing I can say about it is that I disagree.

Too Like the Lightning is narrated by Mycroft Canner, condemned by his future society to life as a slave for unspeakably horrible crimes. Thing one I disliked about the book is that although Mycroft's crimes are eventually revealed, and they are horrible, terrible, disgusting, and very, very bad, they are completely irrelevant to the plot. Maybe they will become relevant in the projected sequel, but for now let me offer this general rule of writing fiction: when your narrator has committed unspeakable crimes, this must matter to the story. Mycroft has somehow become the protector of a boy named Bridger who has magical powers so extreme they seem to prove the existence of God and may point to some dramatic shift in the human condition. No explanation is given as to how Mycroft acquired this sensitive post, or really anything else about this part of the plot, but there it is.

Actually I'm wrong, the first thing that annoyed me about the book is that much of the writing is confusing; you just can't tell what is going on or why. I will not attempt to guess whether this was a deliberate strategy of dislocation, or just poor execution, but I know that I found it intensely irritating. Sure, when you are dropped down in an alternate universe with different rules and institutions it should be a little disorientating, but other writers have done much better with even weirder worlds (Anathem comes to mind), so that's no excuse for failing to describe things adequately.

But let us move on to the thing that seems to fascinate people most about the book, the future society it describes. In the 21st century this version of our world was engulfed by the "Church War," which is not really described but seems to have been a nuclear conflict between the United States and the Muslim nations. Most of the world's people wanted no part of this catastrophe, so they withdrew their allegiance from the nation states that started the trouble and formed seven great, trans-national associations. Two of these, in Europe and Asia, are more-or-less territorial, but the others (Humanists, Utopians, Masons, and I forget the last) are worldwide, with citizens everywhere. (This made me wonder: if government is not territorial, who repairs the sewers?) Instead of nuclear families people grow up in a bash', a sort of extended family/business/little world of its own. Because of the terrible experience of the Church War, organized religion has been banned; any two people can talk about religion all they want, but if a third person appears they must stop, lest they create a church. The Great Men who set up this new order were, we are told, much inspired by the Enlightenment. People talk about Reason, and quote Voltaire, and some of the characters even dress in eighteenth-century costume.

And the thing that really, really bothered me about this book is that much of it focuses on the government of the world, and it turns out that this allegedly Enlightened world is run about about twenty people. All of these world-bestriding titans and titanesses are gorgeous and glamorous and amazing. They all speak six languages and do higher math for fun, besides finding it trivially easy to manipulate lesser mortals. No stolid, regular folks politicians like Angela Merkel or Joe Biden in this fantasy. However, these beautiful masters all seem to need help running the world from none other than our narrator Mycroft, who is always being summoned away from cleaning public toilets or whatever the other servicers are doing to assist the mighty with the business of government. The reliance of the whole world on this one convicted criminal was so extreme and absurd that I kept waiting for it to be revealed as his schizophrenic fantasy, but no; this really seems to be the way Ada Palmer imagines the future of the planet. And of course this narrow elite of amazing rulers all turn out to be playing sexual games with each other; in one scene two presidents are overcome with lust in the middle of an intense crisis meeting and have to duck out for a quick boff in an adjacent bed chamber. A meeting, I might add, held in a secret brothel where everyone dresses and speaks like it's 1770 again.

If you're like me, you're thinking: if this government was inspired by the Enlightenment, how did it end up as a caricature of the Old Regime? Where are the real Enlightenment politicians – the Tom Paines, the Thomas Jeffersons, the Benjamin Franklins? Because what this system needs is a good Revolution, preferably with a Robespierre to drag these preening, sex-besotted presidents out of their boudoirs and march them to the guillotine. (Now you are perhaps thinking, John, no wonder you didn't enjoy this book, if you spent the whole time dissecting the political theory behind it and fantasizing that all the characters would be murdered by revolutionaries, and I answer, exactly.) But in this book nobody stands up for the actual values of the Enlightenment in either their radical or moderate form.

Behold a sample of how this world is run:
"Good," Madame proclaimed, "we are all friends again. And now" – a kiss on the cheek for MASON – "I shall contact you all" – a kiss on the cheek for Spain – "when I have made arrangements with the Outsider. Meanwhile, dear friends, please, for your own health, do take some minutes to enjoy yourselves."

Joy followed. The Anonymous attacked laughing Bryar's bodice, which their earlier haste had left intact. It was Spain's turn with Madame, and His shy Majesty prefers a private room, so they departed, while MASON stretched back to watch modest Danae help her brother get into position for her husband's sport. . . .
Don't ask me why the King of Spain is such a consequential character in a world without nation states, because that isn't explained, either. And yes there are important figures known only as The Anonymous and The Outsider. But at least they are all having joy.

The reason for the complete absence of actual Enlightenment thought from Too Like the Lightning may be a flaw in Ada Palmer's education. So far as I can tell, the only eighteenth-century writer she has read with any care is the Marquis de Sade; certainly he is the only one discussed at length. Now we stray into broader territories of things that irritate me, because interest in de Sade has been an academic fad for the past twenty years or so. I remember reading an annoying essay by some professor who claimed that de Sade was persecuted because he offered such an incisive critique of bourgeois society; "No society could leave such a trenchant critic unjailed," or some such nonsense. Actually de Sade was jailed for violent assaults on prostitutes and eventually condemned for murdering one of his servants, and if you like to imagine living in a such a free society that rich men can get away with torturing and murdering their employees, well, bully for you. If you ask me de Sade was about the least interesting person of the whole eighteenth century, except for the remarkable way that he manged to be both offensive to any conceivable morality and deeply boring.

I never know what to make of academics and their de Sade thing. Are they just trying to tease people like me for our prudery? Do they really think there is something to de Sade's tedious books, with their alternating passages of philosophy and sex? I suspect boredom, actually; they are just bored by all the big books that everybody is supposed to read and comment on, and at least de Sade has some sex and scandal to pique their interest. Into this category I now place Ada Palmer. She wants to imagine future worlds, but she refuses to take the slightest interest in how they would work. None of that stolid Constitutional Convention sort of thing for her. Instead her world government is just a bunch of glamorous people breaking all the rules, lording it over the dreary peasants while they rough each other up with such abandon that the furniture is smashed. Palmer also has a thing for torture, which she manages to work into the story in half a dozen different ways. None of them, so far as I can see, consequential. I tend to think that if you are going to have someone tortured in your story, this ought to be important, but for Palmer torture is just a bit of dark background like a stormy night or a gibbous moon. Say what you want about George Martin, at least he understands that torture is a serious and seriously evil act.

Ok, fine, it's a novel, and I don't really expect any novel to convey the complexity of governing a planet. But other writers have focused on a few characters while still conveying that much more is going on out of the picture. Gore Vidal's Lincoln does this wonderfully, and so does Asimov's Foundation. Even The West Wing manages to connect the heroes and heroines to the broader world off-screen and show that things like elections matter. None of that dweeb stuff for Ada Palmer, though, nor anything else about the infrastructure of her world. I'm not even sure why this is called science fiction, since Palmer is much more interested in describing people's theatrical costumes than anything to do with science or technology. Me, I wanted to know more about the flying cars.

If that's your idea of an enjoyable fantasy, go ahead, read Ada Palmer. Plenty of people like this book. I found it first confusing, and then irritating, and by the end it had filled me with righteous revolutionary rage. It does, I admit, have an awesome title, but it's all downhill from there.

Sony World Photography Awards

Horishi Tanita.

Kevin Faingnaert in the Faroes.

Alexander Vinogradov.

Shashanka Chitrakar. Lots more at the contest web site.

What Do Right-Leaning Populists Want?

Conor Fiedersdorf asks the question a lot of us have been wondering about. After the Tea Party supported a bunch of take-no-prisoners, make-no-compromises anti-government conservative extremists, the same people turned around and supported Trump.
Representative Thomas Massey, a Kentucky Republican, described his own realization that the GOP wasn’t what it seemed during the Tea Party’s rise in an interview with Reason.

Massey won his 2010 congressional bid by running on libertarian ideas. He watched Rand Paul win his Senate race with a similar platform, and saw Ron Paul do well in Iowa during the 2012 cycle. “So I thought the libertarian ideology within the Republican party was really catching on, that it was popular,” he said this week.

But then, when he went to Iowa to campaign for Rand Paul in the 2016 GOP primary, “I saw that the same people that had voted for Ron Paul weren't voting for Rand Paul, they were voting for Donald Trump … in Kentucky, the people who were my voters ended up voting for Donald Trump in the primary. And so I was in a funk because how could these people let us down? How could they go from being libertarian ideologues to voting for Donald Trump? And then I realized what it was: They weren't voting for the libertarian in the race, they were voting for the craziest son of a bitch in the race when they voted for me and Rand and Ron. So Trump just won, you know, that category, but dumped the ideological baggage.”

What he means by “crazy,” I think, is most stridently against the Washington establishment. That’s the similarity between Rand Paul in 2010 and Donald Trump in 2016.
I think there is something to this: the right-wing populist vote is largely a vote against political insiders and educated elitists. But it is also a vote for something, which I would describe as a tribal vote: it is a vote for us as much as against them. It is a vote for the values, concerns and power of ordinary white folks unhappy with the progressive agenda and the globalizing economy. And that is why people get such a thrill when their guy wins the election; because they see it as the nation endorsing who they are.

So, yes, the voters do not seem to care much about libertarian ideology, and they have only vague ideas about how they want the government to help them. They care about having their people in power, to stand up for people like them, whatever that turns out to mean.

Cherry Blossom Season

Part of the excitement about cherry blossoms is the oh-so-brief period of their perfection. In Washington this year it looks like peak viewing season was exactly one day long, and that day was yesterday. I try to keep my eye on the trees near my office and stay flexible so I can spare a few hours for a walk to the Tidal Basin. But yesterday I was too busy, so I had to make do with a look at the trees in Rose Park. Today is starting out gray, with rain in the forecast for later, and tomorrow is supposed to bring us a whole day of downpour that will probably strip the trees bare.





So it's farewell until next year. But at least they come back every year.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Stark

Eliseo Meifrén y Roig, Pasajes, Guipúzcoa.

James Coutts Michie, Winter in Surrey.

Simon Adjiashvili, Untitled.

Tom Perriello is Running for Governor of Virginia

Tom Perriello became one of my favorite politicians back in 2010, when he voted for the Affordable Care Act despite warnings that it would cost him his seat in Congress. He had eked out one of the narrowest victories in the Democratic wave election of 2008, making him one of the most vulnerable Democrats as the 2010 vote approached, but he didn't care. He told Politico,
There’s got to be something more important than getting reelected. If I lose my seat, and that’s the worst that happens, I could live with that.
Really, more Congressmen should take the same attitude; after all, most of the ones who lose re-election get pretty good jobs. Perriello became a diplomat for the Obama administration, serving for a while as special envoy to the war-torn Great Lakes/Congo region. He already had a lot of experience in Africa, as wikipedia summarizes:
From 2002–03, Perriello was Special Advisor to the international prosecutor of the Special Court for Sierra Leone, where he worked with child soldiers, amputees, and local pro-democracy groups, and helped to prosecute warlords. He later became the Court's Spokesman and helped to indict Liberian dictator Charles Taylor, peacefully forcing him from power. 
So when I heard Perriello was running for governor of Virginia, I was intrigued. Perriello has the views that a lot of Democrats think we need in the Trump era: he is strongly progressive on economic issues but waffly on guns and abortion, a combination that earned him his two-year stint representing a district that Trump won by more than 10 percent. His signature issue may be his hatred of corporate monopolies and love of anti-trust actions, and he can get very wonky when he talks about the "consolidation and monopolization of the economy."

I read through the stuff on his web page, but really it was very much like what any other Democratic candidate would have. You can some sense of Perriello from this profile at 538. and this Slate interview:
Interviewer: If there is one lesson you take from the 2016 election, what is it? I have almost no patience for postmortems and finger pointing, but I am wondering what your vision of how to move forward from such a colossal defeat looks like.

Perriello: The forces of economic and racial anxiety, if left unaddressed, are on a collision course in America. Debates about which factor is stronger obscure the interconnection and thus acceleration of both. We also often miss the fact that economic anxiety is not limited to those below certain income levels.

Too often, Democrats defend the status quo, noting positive GDP and unemployment numbers instead of speaking to the underlying forces that threaten economic security. When we say our only problem is with messaging, we imply that voters are too dumb to realize how great we have been for them or would be for them. People are smarter than elites think. They already know that both parties were naïve about the costs of globalization and can see that both parties are again failing to address the impact of new forces like economic consolidation, automation, and exclusion.

Many people I meet know that Trump is full of smoke and mirrors. They recognize that he is two decades behind, and that we are no longer losing our manufacturing to China, but rather to computers. But at least Trump showed up and acknowledged their pain. As Democrats, we need to show up. We need to tell the brutal economic truth that of these jobs aren’t coming back, and we need to offer a better solution than blaming minorities. We can do this.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Feminism and Capitalism

Some workplace news:
“Integrating feminism into our marketing is not a ploy, and it’s not exploitative; it’s a reclamation of how brands treat and speak to women,” proclaimed Miki Agrawal, a founder of Thinx, in a Medium post last year.

But last week, Thinx, the “period-proof” underwear and feminine hygiene company based in New York, entered the growing canon of employers that have been accused of failing to live up to their socially conscious branding. Former Thinx employees, many of them women in their 20s and 30s, allege some very un-feminist practices, including substandard pay, verbal abuse and sexual harassment. Thinx has denied the harassment allegations, made by a former employee in a legal complaint, and says other allegations about the company’s culture are inaccurate. Still, the story of Thinx has broader implications for all workers.

Some former employees saw their experiences at Thinx as personal betrayals, given the company’s ethos of female empowerment, Racked reported. The initial maternity leave policy — just two weeks at full pay plus one week at half — seemed unconscionably meager for a company promoting its feminist, body-positive bona fides. . . .

It appears that some of Thinx’s workers tolerated what they saw as the low pay and high demands of their jobs because they believed that the company was dedicated to a just cause. Even after leaving the company, several said they wanted Thinx to succeed. Their belief in the company’s public feminist message helped them to tolerate, at least for a time, what they felt were disrespectful treatment and unfair remuneration.
To Americans, "feminism" means a lot of different things, two of which are in conflict at Thinx. To some people feminism means the world goes on as it has, but with women on top. To others, feminism is supposed to mean a different kind of world, less hierarchical, less exploitative, more friendly to women who don't happen to be maniacally ambitious strivers.

In our world, the first is much more likely than the second.

This story also touches on another question: how to react to people who seem to be doing public good but are monsters in private. Miki Agrawal seems from this story to be an awful person – a liar, a cad, a bully, who uses a feminist message to excuse her own sins. (Lyndon Johnson comes to mind as a parallel.) Should her public face – her feminism, her donations to charity, her message of female empowerment – be allowed to cover abuse of her employees? Should she, say, be invited to speak at feminist meetings and so on? Or should people look first at how she treats those close to her and refuse to recognize her as a progressive leader until she starts treating her employees with respect?

The Left Case Against the EU

British leftist Alan Johnson supported Brexit not for anti-immigrant or nationalist reasons, but because he thinks the EU has become an authoritarian state:
We voted Leave because we believe it is essential to preserve the two things we value most: a democratic political system and a social-democratic society. We fear that the European Union’s authoritarian project of neoliberal integration is a breeding ground for the far right. By sealing off so much policy, including the imposition of long-term austerity measures and mass immigration, from the democratic process, the union has broken the contract between mainstream national politicians and their voters. This has opened the door to right-wing populists who claim to represent “the people,” already angry at austerity, against the immigrant.

It was the free-market economist Friedrich Hayek, the intellectual architect of neoliberalism, who called in 1939 for “interstate federalism” in Europe to prevent voters from using democracy to interfere with the operation of the free market. Simply put, as Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission (the union’s executive body), did: “There can be no democratic choice against the European treaties.”

The union’s structures and treaties are designed accordingly. The European Commission is appointed, not elected, and it is proudly unaccountable to any electorate. “We don’t change our position according to elections” was how the commission’s vice president Jyrki Katainen greeted the victory of the anti-austerity party Syriza in Greece in 2015. . . .

The wishes of electorates are regularly brushed aside. When, in 2005, a proposed European Constitution was rejected by voters in France and the Netherlands (most governments did not even allow a vote), this meant nothing to the proponents of the European Project. A few cosmetic tweaks, and the constitution was imposed anyway; only then, it was called the Lisbon Treaty. (Ireland, the only state to allow a referendum on the treaty, voted against it. So Ireland was told to vote again until it got it right. That’s democracy, European Union-style.)
I don't know that it's right to blame the rise of the European far-right on the EU, since nations outside the EU are having their own problems in that direction. Plus, socialists were arguing for a unified Europe before Hayek was even born. But I agree absolutely that the current structure of the EU thwarts democracy. The dream of a borderless, peaceful world is a powerful one, and I see why the EU is appealing on those grounds. But for me democracy matters more.

Monday, March 27, 2017

University Mottos

Meliora

Ever better.

– University of Rochester


Tentanda via

The way must be tried

– University of York


Incipit Vita Nova

A new life begins

– Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais


Floreat

Flourish.

– University of Manitoba


Ut Vitam Habeant et Abundantius

That they may have life and have it more abundantly (John 10:10)

–American University of Beirut


Timeo hominem unius libri

Fear a man of a single book

–Hacettepe University (Turkey)


Nec temere, nec timide

Neither rashly nor timidly

– University of Edinburgh


Magnus est Veritas

Great is the Truth.

– University of Miami

Walter Draesner's Totentanz

Published in 1922; complete book here. Above, Death and the Gamer.

The Death of Children.

Death of the Witch.

Death of the Anatomist.

Death at the Gallows.


Death by Drowning.

The Strange Tale of the Somali Shilling

JP Koning:
Somalia has long played host to one of the world's strangest monetary phenomenon, a paper currency without a central bank. Despite the fact that both the Central Bank of Somalia and the national government ceased to exist when a civil war broke out in 1991, Somali shilling banknotes continued to be used as money by Somalis. Over the years, Somalis also accepted a steady stream of counterfeits that circulated in concert with the old official currency. . . .

Old legitimate 1000 shilling notes and newer counterfeit 1000 notes are worth about 4 U.S. cents each. Both types of shillings are fungible—or, put differently, they are accepted interchangeably in trade, despite the fact that it is easy to tell fakes apart from genuine notes. This is an odd thing for non-Somalis to get our heads around since for most of us, an obvious counterfeit is pretty much worthless. The exchange rate between dollars and Somali shillings is a floating one that is determined by the cost of printing new fake 1000 notes. For instance, if a would-be counterfeiter can find a currency printer, say in Switzerland, that will produce a decent knock off and ship it to Somalia for 2.5 U.S. cents each (which includes the cost of paper and ink), then notes will flood into Somalia until their purchasing power falls from 4 to 2.5 U.S. cents... at which point counterfeiting is no longer profitable and the price level stabilizes.
People are writing about this now because the central bank is being reformed and plans to start printing official money again, and nobody knows what will happen. Most likely Somalis, used to getting by with little government help, will sigh and treat the new bills just like the old ones.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Eigg's Massacre Cave

The small (3 by 5.5 miles) island of Eigg on the Scottish Hebrides has a long history of dismal clan violence. As on the nearby and much larger island of Skye, the main combatants were the clans of MacLeod and MacDonald. (Above, view of Eigg from Muck) Wikipedia:
According to Clanranald tradition, in 1577 a party of MacLeods staying on the island became too amorous and caused trouble with the local girls. They were subsequently rounded up, bound and cast adrift in the Minch but were rescued by some clansmen. A party of MacLeods subsequently landed on Eigg with revenge in mind. Their approach had been spotted by the islanders who had hidden in a secret cave called the Cave of Frances (Scottish Gaelic: Uamh Fhraing) located on the south coast. The entrance to this cave was tiny and covered by moss, undergrowth and a small waterfall. After a thorough but fruitless search lasting for three to five days, the MacLeods set sail again but a MacDonald carelessly climbed onto a promontory to watch their departure and was spotted. The MacLeods returned and were able to follow his footprints back to the cave. They then rerouted the source of the water, piled thatch and roof timbers at the cave entrance and set fire to it at the same time damping the flames so that the cave was filled with smoke thereby asphyxiating everyone inside either by smoke inhalation or heat and oxygen deprivation. Three hundred and ninety-five people died in the cave, the whole population of the island bar one old lady who had not sought refuge there. There are however some difficulties with this tale and in later times a minister of Eigg stated "the less I enquired into its history ... the more I was likely to feel I knew something about it." Nonetheless, human remains in the cave were reported by Boswell in 1773, by Sir Walter Scott in 1814 and Hugh Miller in 1845. By 1854, they had been removed and buried elsewhere.
The BBC adds the helpful detail that the attackers followed the lone man's footsteps to the cave because it was snowing. Their source, a local taleteller, adds this:
Ms Dressler said: "Macleod of Dunvegan hesitated at the last moment and decided the Macdonald's fate should be left to the judgement of God. "If the wind blew inland from the sea he would have the material lit. If the wind blew from the land to the sea, it would not." The wind blew in from the sea.
Now there is a new report of human bones from the cave. They were reported last October by some tourists who stumbled on them and notified the police. The police handed them over to archaeologists who had them radiocarbon dated. The resulting date is 1430 to 1620 CE, which gives a midpoint of 1525. So these might be more bones from the famous massacre.

Whether or not one accepts the oral legend of the great massacre, it certainly looks like some substantial group of people were murdered in the cave.

Dating Apps and NBA Road Records

The road records of teams in the National Basketball Association have improved over time:
In the 1987-88 season, home teams won an astounding 67.9 percent of games. By 1996-97, home teams won only 57.5 percent of the time. After hovering around 60 percent for most of the 2000s, home-court advantage is dropping again. This season, it sits at an all-time low of 57.4 percent.
Why? Many players attribute this to a decline in road partying and especially heavy drinking:
"Alcohol kind of stopped," George Karl says. "In general, players have become very serious about their profession. Players today have a more dedicated attitude about 'This is big money.' They're very aware of having a plan, a plan of development, a plan of commitment, a plan of growing."

One current NBA coach notes: "[Players are] not going out to clubs anymore, acting like imbeciles. They get crushed in the media when pictures come out, then they get clowned on for 24 hours."
But one unnamed team executive says it's really about the spread of Tinder:
"Tinderization of the NBA," said one NBA general manager. "Tin-der-i-za-tion," he repeats, "like the dating app. No need to go to the clubs all night anymore."

NBA players can now meet people from their comfort of their hotel room instead of clubs and bars late at night.

"It's absolutely true that you get at least two hours more sleep getting laid on the road today versus 15 years ago," says one former All-Star, who adds that players actually prefer Instagram to Tinder when away from home. "No schmoozing. No going out to the club. No having to get something to eat after the club but before the hotel."
Who says the internet isn't having real benefits in our everyday lives? You can get laid in a strange city and still have two hours more sleep! And a better game the next day.

Via Marginal Revolution.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

The Feathered Serpent

Quetzalcoatl to the Aztec, Kukulkan to the Maya, one of the main gods of several central American pantheons. He was variously the god of wind, wisdom, fertility-giving rain, the planet Venus, dawn, skilled craftsmen, merchants. And in my favorite version, the policer of the boundary between earth and sky.










Ok

More here.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Health Care Fiasco

Round one of the Obamacare repeal fight goes to the Democrats, and both Trump and Paul Ryan are saying they won't even bother to keep trying. Opinions differ as to why, but part of it has to be that both men hate this issue and just want it to go away. They tried to make it go away by passing a bill, but if they can make it go away by not passing a bill they will settle for that.

I have some thoughts about this. One is that during the 2012 election, Romney kept saying that electing him was the only chance Republicans would get to repeal the Affordable Care Act. By 2016, he said, people getting coverage under the law would be used to it, and it would be impossible to take it away from them. Maybe he had a point.

Another is that governing is difficult. American populists seem to believe that governing is a moral problem, and all we need to set the government right is to elect tough, wise, folksy men of the people who will do the right thing. But governing a country is hard, and without decades of experience it is almost impossible to get anything significant done in Washington or any other capital city.

A third thought is that for all the corruption and sausage-making and interest group pressure and what all, enacting big changes is much easier when you are working toward principles that you really believe in. Reagan got a lot done partly because he passionately believed that lower taxes. a bigger military, and less regulation were what the country needed. Obama got his health care bill because he and other Democrats passionately believed that health care is a right. The latest Republican health care proposal was remarkable for its complete lack of ideological motivation. Was there, anywhere in the world, a single person who was passionate about this bill? Without passion, people are not motivated to keep working for something month after month and year after year, and they end up shrugging and walking away after one setback.

Trump Catches Russian Spy?

Something to ponder: what is this story doing on the cover of the very Trump-friendly National Enquirer:


On the one hand it makes Trump out to be a sort of hero; but on the other, this is the man he picked to advise his campaign and then serve as National Security Adviser. Is this supposed to help Trump with the whole Russian connection thing by pinning it all on Flynn? Seems to me that might well backfire, adding "Trump is pals with Russian agents" to the rest of his problems. Plus as we saw with Hillary's emails a scandal can come to be framed in a single word – in this case "Russia" – and repeating that word, even in the context of refuting the allegations, can just reinforce in everyone's mind that there is a big scandal going on.

Very odd.

The Hunger Games, the College Games

Mark Shiffman  has some interesting thoughts about why The Hunger Games has been such a huge hit with young Americans. The Hunger Games, in case you have completely lost touch with adolescent culture, is set in a dystopian future where the dictatorship seems to particularly hate young people. In this world adults train randomly selected teenagers to fight each other to the death in a great annual contest; the prize for the winner is extra food for his or her whole community. As Shiffman sees it, this is much like the way we train our young people for equally fierce educational competition, the winners finding a measure of security in an increasingly uncertain world:
More than a decade ago, David Brooks described a generation of America’s elite university students as “organization kids.” Their lives were obsessively scheduled around achievements designed to provide them with competitive advantages. Formed by a childhood crammed with cognitive enhancement and programmed activities, accustomed throughout high school to relentlessly grooming their résumés for selective college admissions, kept on track through it all with mood-stabilizing drugs, these organization kids seemed incapable of pausing to reflect on what gave any meaning to their efforts. Nor were they encouraged to do so. Success—defined as admission to elite universities and graduate programs, followed by plum internships and jobs—had become an end in itself.

I teach Brooks to my honors students in their first week of college. They recognize themselves in his account. But they also see an important difference. Unlike the students in the article, they no longer see ­themselves sailing through their lives of ­advancement with sunny confidence that they’ll land the dream job. They worry their achievements won’t be enough.

Given this worry, it’s easy to see why The Hunger Games is the novel of their generation.  Its dark emptiness resonates with students’ latent unease and dissatisfaction with their educational regimen, as well as with their worry that they’re all honed up with no place to go. Afflicted with a desperate compulsion for competitive advantage, they rack up majors, minors, certificates, credentials, and internships to keep them in the running for what they feel to be an ever more elusive success. They’re driven by fear.

According to Amazon, the most highlighted passage in all books read on Kindle—highlighted almost twice as often as any other passage—is from the second volume of The Hunger Games: “Because sometimes things happen to people and they’re not equipped to deal with them.” Students want continual reassurance that they’re equipping themselves. They clothe themselves in an armor of achievement that they hope will protect them against uncertainties—of the job market, of course, but also deeper uncertainties about their status, their identities, their self-worth. Disciplines that have (or appear to have) a technical character and a clear arc of accumulated knowledge and skills leading toward a foreseeable career goal reinforce the feeling that they are working steadily, assignment by assignment, toward gaining more control over an uncertain future.
One of my sons is a particular fan of The Hunger Games, and I think he sees our educational system in exactly these terms. As he sees it, adults are always pressuring him to compete for prizes (grades, degrees, prestige, money) that interest him not at all, while paying no attention to him, his soul, his real desires. The harder anyone presses him to succeed, the more he thinks that they are thinking, not about him, but about themselves. Shiffman:
Students, when they enter the system of higher education or early in their experience of it, learn to distrust the system that is shaping them. Very likely this distrust has been taking shape during high school, consciously or not. This is a dimension of the appeal of The Hunger Games that had not entered my thoughts when I wrote about it in my article. The young people being trained for meaningless competition don’t know whether they can trust any of the adults mentoring them, whose motives are tainted by the underlying moral squalor of the whole system.
I have never had any useful response to my son because I never saw school like this. I studied because I liked it and competed because I liked coming out on top. Nobody ever had to tell me that school was important; I simply felt this in my bones. But my sons have other priorities, and whenever anyone tries to change their minds they instinctively rebel. From what I read, they are doing what thousands of their peers wish they were doing: saying so long to the career ladder and wandering off in search of some more authentic life. I wish them well, but I don't think our world is really the Hunger Games, or that the revolution of youthful authenticity the books posit is about to come to pass.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Cherry Blossoms



At least some of the Japanese cherries in Washington have made it through the alternating warm spells and frosts. Taken today in Rose Park.

Studying Skeletons from the Late Roman Frontier

Interesting study in the news this week based on 200 skeletons from five sites in 5th century Pannonia, a frontier province of the Roman Empire now in Hungary. Cambridge archaeologist Susanne Hakenbeck and her colleagues studied the trace elements in the bones, which provide clues as to where people grew up and what they ate. They found great diversity in their sample. Some of the people seemed to have eaten a meat-heavy nomad diet, others a peasant, cereal-based diet. A majority had elemental signatures matching the place they were buried, but others had very different signatures suggesting that they grew up far away. In terms of grave goods and burial style, the graves were much more consistent and much more in keeping with local habits.

Their conclusion is that this was a population in flux, with many people moving around and some entering the population from far away. They chose to focus on Pannonia both because ancient written sources suggest it was an area of intense conflict and much population change, and because the Hungarian plain is ecologically suitable for both agriculture and pastoralism, which have at times existed side-by-side there. It seems that they probably did so in the fifth century.

New stories about this find are playing up a weird "Huns were not barbarians" angle that I don't really understand. Just because different kinds of people coexisted doesn't mean they did so peacefully; in fact the written history and other archaeological evidence (e.g., the many buried treasures) both show that they experienced very high levels of violence. Still, they did coexist.

I am personally a bit skeptical about all this elemental analysis, because I don't think we have a really good baseline showing how much variation there is in these numbers within and between populations. But there is other evidence of mixed populations in this area, for example skulls distorted in the nomad way like this one from the Hungarian National Museum. Across western Europe these "Hunnish" skulls have been recovered from cemeteries containing mostly ordinary-looking Roman skeletons. The written record also makes clear that there was a large amount of mixing going on, leading to the formation of new pseudo-ethnicities like "Visigoth."

So I would say that this bone chemistry is another piece of evidence that the fifth century really was a "time of wandering" as the old historians had it, with many thousands of people in motion across thousands of miles. All that movement and mixing had effects in many small, ordinary places, where suddenly your neighbors might be members of a strange barbarian tribe, burying their own dead in the same cemeteries where your grandparents lay.