Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Roberto Benavidez

The artist's statement, in its entirety:
Half-breed, South Texan, queer, figurative sculptor specializing in the piñata form; playing on themes of race, sexuality, art, sin, humor and beauty.
These "piñatas" -- the quotes are because they aren't full of candy and you're not supposed to smash them, but anyway that's what Benavidez calls them -- are based on images from the Luttrell Psalter and Bosch's Garden of Earthly Delights.

Provocation Sells

Interesting aside from Mark Zuckerberg as he rambled about possible changes in how Facebook polices its content:
He called this “borderline content”––content that doesn’t break Facebook’s rules, but that walks right up to the line without crossing it. “No matter where we draw the lines for what is allowed,” he wrote, “as a piece of content gets close to that line, people will engage with it more on average––even when they tell us afterwards they don’t like the content.”

Borderline content getting more engagement “applies not only to news but to almost every category of content,” he added. “For example, photos close to the line of nudity, as with revealing clothing or sexually suggestive positions, got more engagement on average before we changed the distribution curve to discourage this. The same goes for posts that don’t come within our definition of hate speech but are still offensive.”
People may be offended, but they still look.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Who do you Trust?

Or whom. Results of a poll from Georgetown University taken over the summer. The most trusted institution among Republicans in the military.

Among Democrats, it's . . .  Amazon.

Mosaics Looted from Zeugma

Bowling Green State University has agreed to repatriate 12 mosaics to Turkey after discovering they had been looted from the ancient site of Zeugma. The university bought them from an antiquities dealer in 1965 despite sketchy information on their origin and history.

In Roman times Zeugma was a wealthy and important city on the Euphrates River. It was extensively looted in the 1950s, and by comparing these pieces to surviving floors, experts hired by the university were able to pinpoint their exact points of origin.

On the other hand Zeugma recently disappeared under the waters of a lake rising behind a new Turkish dam, and I very much doubt the massive salvage excavation undertaken in the city was able to save everything, so the looters may have done some small service for culture despite themselves.

Sunday, December 9, 2018

Wolfpack Territories

In Voyageurs National Park, biologists regularly attach GPS collars to at least one wolf in each pack to study where they go and what they eat. This image combines the tracks of several different wolves to show how seriously they take territory boundaries.

Incidentally the article from which that image comes says the wolves in the park have been eating a lot of beavers and blueberries.

Saturday, December 8, 2018

La Chapelle de la Madeleine à Malestroit

Last night I was captivated by this 1886 painting, La Chapelle de la Madeleine à Malestroit (Morbihan), 15 nivôse an III by Alexandre Bloch.The revolutionary date 15 nivôse Year III is January 14, 1795 in the more usual Gregorian system. So, I thought, this depicts some now-forgotten event of the French Revolution. But which?

It was not hard to track down a basic description on wikimedia:
A section from a Republican regiment led by general Canclaux massacred a group of Chouans sheltering in a chapel. The Chouans fought to the death. The picture shows the interior of the chapel after the departure of the Republican troops (whose storming of the building is symbolized by the hat with the tricolor cockade left abandoned on the ground). The dead bodies and broken church furnishings testify to the violence of the action.
I confess that I did not find this as helpful as I might have if I had known who the Chouans were; or if indeed I knew where Malestroit was. So I kept clicking.

Malestroit is a small town in Brittany, in the Department of Morbihan. The now-ruined monastery began as a leper asylum in the 12th century, but by the 1300 the lepers were long gone and the place was a priory of Benedictine monks. The chapel was the setting for another historical event as well, a treaty between the French and the English during the Hundred Years War. The chapel was abandoned in 1870. According to various sources, the chapel's "remarkable" stained glass depicting the legend of Mary Magdalene was purchased by Emile Zola, who installed it in his office. Later, the sources tell us, the windows were sold to either an American museum or an American collector. The discrepancy is somewhat puzzling because otherwise every account I have seen is word for word identical, as if copied from the same source. You would think that if they were in a museum I would be able to track them down online, and since I have not been able to I suspect "collector" is the correct version.

The Chouans were one of the royalist rebel groups who rose up against the revolutionary government after the revolutionaries tried to impose a military draft (the levee en masse) in 1793. These rebels were most widespread in the west of France, and English-language books the whole affair is referred to as the Vendée.

The Chouans took their name from their first leaders, the brothers Chouan, especially the elder brother Jean. Chouan was a sort of nickname acquired by Jean Chouan's grandfather. Opinions differ as to its origin but most historians agree that it is a dialect word for the tawny owl; it is said that the grandfather acquired the nickname because he was so good at imitating its call. Thus these rebels were "the Owls" or "the Silent Ones," a terrific name for a band of guerrillas.

This was a civil war waged with great intensity and great violence on both sides; wikipedia informs us that
In the district of Fougères, in conflict between some 2,000 Chouans and a fluctuating number of Republicans, 219 people were assassinated or executed by Chouans and 300 by Republicans.
A total that does not including deaths in battle. (Painting by Alexandre Bloch of another incident in the same uprising, the defense of Rochefort.)

One of the interesting things about this revolt is that neither contemporary observers nor modern historians have been able to figure out what the rebels believed. They certainly hated the revolutionary government, but their attachment to the French crown was not particularly strong. The future Charles X of France, in exile in London, sent the Comte de Puisaye with a general's commission to assume the leadership of the rebels. De Puisaye arrived on a British naval vessel with a shipload of guns for the Chouans and a promise of more, but he was never able to get the rebel leaders to obey him. After a series of defeats he returned to London complaining that the rebels were actually anarchists, not royalists.

Brittany after all was one of the most traditional parts of France but part of its tradition was centuries of opposition to royal centralization; one suspects that the old hatred of commands from Paris was as big a part of opposition to the National Convention as royalist ideology. (Nineteenth-century painting of the Battle of Quimper, the decisive defeat of the Chouans.)

And this explains, I think, why the revolutionary regime was able to survive for years despite foreign and domestic opposition. They knew what they were fighting for: liberté, égalité, fraternité, and the future. Their opponents were a mishmash of royalists, papists, moderates, regionalists, and so on, with no unified principles until Napoleon found one in militant French nationalism.

Interesting where an old painting can take you.

Walter Crane, "Flowers from Shakespeare's Garden"

Delightful picture book published in 1909, available on

Thursday, December 6, 2018

The Rock-Cut Tombs of Kaunos, Turkey

They are Hellenistic (320-200 BC) but they have no inscriptions, so nobody is sure who was buried in them or exactly when. These six are the most famous but there are actually 90 tombs in this cliff, most of them quite small.

Political Jesters

George Hawley:
In its online discourse, the Alt-Right often presented its racism in an ironic manner, raising questions about its sincerity. It was not always clear if an Alt-Right supporter spreading a racist or anti-Semitic message was being genuine or just saying outrageous things for shock value. Many of the young men posting images of Swastikas and gas chambers online appeared more interested in breaking society’s ultimate taboos than in making genuine threats.

At times, elements of the Alt-Right presented themselves as edgy right-wing court jesters, rather than serious ideologues. This provided an element of plausible deniability about the movement’s radicalism. Such sensibilities allowed the Alt-Right to make inroads among young people who despised so-called political correctness, but who were otherwise not especially ideological.
I remember asking one of my 4-chan native sons why I kept seeing memes about reconquering Constantinople; he said, "it's a way to advocate killing Muslims without being taken too seriously."

So, indeed, this ironic distancing from truly radical positions seems to be a hallmark of the online Alt-Right. As Hawley says, when this kind of politics has emerged into the non-digital world, the humor is lost and it is revealed as just a new sort of white nationalism. But it started with an ambiguous smile.

And none of this is new. Consider the Ku Klux Klan, with its silly name, absurd costumes -- the white hood is just one variant of a range that has included Indian war paint and dressing in drag -- and ridiculous titles for its leaders, like Poobah and Grand Dragon. According to Hawley, this was quite deliberate, and it had the intended effect of persuading many northerners not to take the Klan seriously.

Hawley's recent book is about the right, but of course there have also been political pranksters on the left. The Yippies are the first to come to mind. They were clowns who attracted attention by saying ridiculous things and nominating a pig for president, but it one sense they were completely earnest: they really wanted to radically change western civilization. As it turned out their leaders were not violent, but that wasn't clear to many people at the time; when Jerry Rubin said, "You have to be willing to kill your parents," was that a joke, a metaphor, or a call to action? The ambivalence was part of the appeal.

I've been pondering this, wondering if there is some general point. Do the jokes serve as trial balloons, sussing out who laughs and who doesn't? Are they a deniable way to toss out radical ideas that might get you hissed or jailed? And if others nod along,do they serve as a sort of bridge from personal fantasy to group action?

Max Abrahms, "Rules for Rebels"

Political science professor Max Abrahms devoted more than a decade to comparative research on rebel groups around the world, trying to figure out why some succeeded and some failed. In his new book, Rules for Rebels, he summarizes his findings in three golden rules:

  1. Don't kill innocent civilians.
  2. Create a highly centralized command structure under a clever leader.
  3. Maintain your brand through total denial when things go wrong.

The review I just read of this in the September 21 TLS focuses on the contrast between the Islamic State and Hezbollah. The Islamic State broke all these rules with abandon, and as a result, says Abrahms, united the world against it and was crushed. Its wanton killing only eroded its legitimacy, and its habit of welcoming any man willing to fight for the cause meant that its ranks were filled with uncontrollable thrill-seekers and psychopaths.

Hezbollah, on the other hand, has a tight command structure and a very strict program for new recruits, who must sit through a year of indoctrinary education. When it does kill innocents it either denies having anything to do with the murders or apologizes, as when Hassan Nasrallah went on al Jazeerah to apologize to the family of two Israeli-Arab children killed by a Hezbollah rocket in Nazareth. Note that the key point is not that rebels should never kill civilians, which is inevitable in war; it's that they are not seen to be seeking it or reveling in it. Many rebels, notably the IRA and the Jewish terrorists of the 1940s, have issued warnings demanding that all civilians be evacuated from target areas; if people stayed behind, well, then that was on them, wasn't it?

It's an interest argument, but it will take a lot to convince me. My impression is that while wanton violence often fails it sometimes succeeds. Abrahms' argument seems to be mainly statistical, i.e., he says rebel groups that intentionally kill civilians are 77 percent less likely to succeed. And maybe that's right, although I'm sure in practice figuring out which rebel groups "intentionally kill civilians" is rather complicated, and sometimes figuring out whether they succeeded is also hard. Hezbollah, for example, has succeeded in becoming a powerful group in Lebanon, but they have utterly failed to liberate Palestine.

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Climate Change and the French Protests

A lot of people in France have been unhappy with the government of Emmanuel Macron, but the issue that caused protests to finally erupt was a modest increase in the fuel tax intended to fight climate change.

In the US, anger over Obama's plan to effectively phase out coal use helped launched the Trump-ization of the Republican Party; denying climate change might be at the moment the core unifying value of the Republicans. The environmentalists and the economists agree that the most sensible way to fight CO2 emissions would be a carbon tax, but just try to pass one.

Meanwhile in Maryland the issue that did the most for the Republicans in the last governor's race was a modest tax on impermeable surfaces like asphalt parking lots, designed to protect the Chesapeake Bay and reduce the sort of storm runoff that keeps trashing Ellicott City. People hated it and called it the "rain tax."

The people, whatever they say, are not on board with environmentalism. It's easy to get a majority to blame big corporations for our environmental problems, but hard to find one for the problems that are the result of the million things we all do every day. It isn't just the Koch brothers or the oil industry or whatever villain you can dream up; it's that people hate being told how to live their lives, and they especially hate being hectored by environmental moralists.

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Pablo Escobar's Hippos

Drug Kingpin Pablo Escobar had a private zoo. After he was shot dead in 1993, some of the animals were relocated. But his four hippos were left to roam his estate; maybe the guys sent to move the zoo took one look at them and said, "not me." Since then they have multiplied to 40 to 60 animals and some have escaped from the estate and live in the Magdalena River. There they have spawned a debate over what to do about them.

Should they be treated like an invasive species, and killed or caught and taken to zoos? Colombian authorities shot one a few years ago, but the outcry was so great that they gave up on culling the herd. Now they talk about relocating them, but the one time they tried this it cost $5,000 and nobody liked that, either.

And anyway some biologists think they should be left alone:
Jens-Christian Svenning, a biologist with Aarhus University in Denmark, doesn’t think people should assume the worst. In a letter last year in the journal Perspectives in Ecology and Conservation, he and a colleague argued that Escobar’s hippos are one of several species introduced to South America that might provide “ecosystem services” provided by large herbivores that are now gone.

In the case of the hippo, these might include: funneling nutrients from land to water; altering the structure of wetlands; and keeping grassy plants in check (by eating them).

South America lost dozens of giant herbivores in the last 20,000 years or so, including the somewhat hippo-esque toxodonts, which may or may not have been semi-aquatic. “Hippos could likely contribute a partial restoration of these effects, likely benefitting native biodiversity overall,” he says. He’d let the hippos be for now, while monitoring the creatures to ensure they don’t become a problem.
As I like to remind everyone, the wild ecosystems of the Americas were drastically altered 13,000 years ago when people showed up, and it is hard to know what they were like before. (What did giant beavers do?) So maybe hippos would make the Magdalena River more "natural," like imported Asian ponies in Holland.

Or maybe not. But the harder you think about what is natural, the harder the question is to answer.

Union Station

Starting to get into the spirit.

Saturday, December 1, 2018

Jewelry from Bukhara

The Art Institute of Chicago is mounting an exhibit of jewelry from Bukhara, a small emirate now part of Uzbekistan. Much of this jewelry comes from the court of the last Emir, who ruled after Bukhara had become part of the Russian Empire in 1866.

All of these objects are now in an American private collection, which makes me wonder how they got there. Did they leave with fleeing royals after the Bolsheviks took over, or were they smuggled out after the Soviet collapse? Wherever they came from, they are magnificent.

RIP George H.W. Bush, the Last Patrician

George Herbert Walker Bush was the son of a Senator and grandson of a Federal Reserve Bank Governor, and he married a descendant of President Franklin Pierce. He was about as close to an aristocrat as an American could be. He had a fine war record and a great resume. Nonetheless his early attempts to get into politics never amounted to much, for reasons that he explained best in 1989; asked why he did not seem more excited about the fall of the Berlin Wall, he said, “I’m just not an emotional kind of guy.”

It was master politician Ronald Reagan, looking for some solid mainstream legitimacy, who lifted him to the heights of power. On his own he was not able to win re-election, the last president to fail to do so. He was scorned by the right for flip-flopping on taxes and on the left for flip-flopping on abortion, and loved by hardly anyone. He would have been a better Secretary of State, if he had served under a president willing to listen to him.

While in office Bush accomplished two remarkable things: he put together the coalition that ejected Saddam Hussein's forces from Kuwait with minimal fuss, and he smoothed the way for the unification of Germany. It is easy to forget what a storm of nervous protest greeted the prospect of a united Germany. The Prime Minster of Israel demanded that it be stopped, lest it lead to a new Holocaust. Margaret Thatcher traveled Europe with a Nazi map of "Greater Germany" in her handbag, saying things like, "We've defeated Germany twice, we can't let them come back." The one important non-German leader who was 100% pro-unification for the beginning was Bush. He threw America's full weight behind the plan that eventually became reality, a unified Germany that was recognized by the world as the successor to West Germany, assuming its membership in NATO and seat on the European Commission. As a side effect of all that, Bush achieved the formal end of World War II. The treaties signed at Potsdam had a clause saying that they would not be fully ratified until there existed a stable successor government of Germany able to sign them, and both sides of the Cold War refused to accept the other's Germany as that state. Bush made sure that all the WW II combatants accorded that status to the new united Germany, so they could sign the Potsdam accords. It was the sort of thing he cared deeply about, even if it would have elicited only a shrug from most leaders and most Americans did not even know it had happened.

After Saddam Hussein conquered Kuwait, many Americans complained again that Bush was not emotional enough or emphatic in his denunciations. People compared him unfavorably with Thatcher, who made a show of stomping her foot and announcing, "This will not stand." Bush was comparatively reticent in public because he was already playing a different and longer game. Instead of making speeches he was working the phones to make sure that 1) the army that ousted Saddam would include many Arab soldiers, and 2) Israel and the Soviet Union would stay out. He never had  any doubt that the US military could oust the Iraqis when called on to do so, so he left that to the generals. His focus was on making sure that the Middle East was not destabilized in the process.

To my mind Bush's performance during the Gulf War was a model of how a civilian leader should behave in wartime. As the leader of a balky coalition, he calibrated his every utterance to promote unity, working to make it as easy as possible for all the other governments involved. He defined the overall goal of the war but left the fighting up to the generals, asking only the broadest questions and insisting only that they work cooperatively with the other members of the coalition. In public he was very calm and dignified.

I think one can get a good taste of his leadership from a speech he gave on January 19, 1991, after the first night of the war was greeted in the press with wild enthusiasm and on Wall Street with a chest-thumping rally. I remember an 8-inch newspaper  headline crowing, 100 PERCENT SUCCESS!!! Which is in fact what Centcom announced, but the headline missed the narrow meaning of "success" in an air attack; the announcement just meant that all of the planes had reached their goals, identified a target and released munitions in its general direction. Anyway, here is Bush:
We're now some 37 hours into Operation Desert Storm and the liberation of Kuwait, and so far so good. U.S. and coalition military forces have performed bravely, professionally and effectively.

It is important, however, to keep in mind two things: First, this effort will take some time. Saddam Hussein has devoted nearly all of Iraq's resources for a decade to building up this powerful military machine. And we can't expect to overcome it overnight, especially as we want to minimize casualties to the U.S. and coalition forces, and to minimize any harm done to innocent civilians. And second, we must be realistic. There will be losses. There will be obstacles along the way. War is never cheap or easy.

I say this only because I am somewhat concerned about the initial euphoria in some of the reports and reactions to the first day's developments: No one should doubt or question the ultimate success, because we will prevail. But I don't want to see us get overly euphoric about all of this.

Our goals have not changed. What we seek is the same as what the international community seeks, namely, Iraq's complete and unconditional withdrawal from Kuwait and then full compliance with the Security Council resolutions. 
After the war ended, Bush received a standing ovation from both parties in Congress; I wonder when another American president will see that?

Friday, November 30, 2018

St. Anne's Church, Annaberg-Buchholz

St. Anne's Church in Annaberg-Buchholz, Saxony, Germany, was built for miners, dedicated to their patron saint, and paid for with the silver they dug from the ground. The church eventually gave its name both to the town and to the mountain against which it was built.

In 1496, an extraordinary vein of silver was discovered on the lands of the Duke of Saxony. To staff the mines he built a whole new town, laid out by the humanist Ulrich Rülein von Calw. Rülein was a real Renaissance man; not only did he live in the actual Renaissance, he was a mathematician, surveyor, urban planner, mining engineer, Latin stylist, astrologer, and physician. Rülein's plan set aside the most prominent site in the town for a large church.

The patron, Duke George the Bearded, by Lucas Caranch the Elder. Besides paying for the church the Duke donated a large collection of relics, some associated with St. Anne, to put the church on the medieval map.

The cornerstone of the church was laid in 1499 and it was completed by 1525. Its construction seems to be remarkably well documented; German wikipedia lists all the master builders who directed the works and notes that a temporary wooden church was built on the same site for the miners to worship in until the stone version was habitable.

The church is generally said, or at any rate by all seven of the web sites I have checked, to straddle the late Gothic and the early Renaissance, or indeed to be "a monument of the late Gothic/early Renaissance transition."

The ceiling that is its crowning glory, and the only part you are likely to see on Tumblr, was built by Jacob Haylmann in the 1510s. The wonderful colors are the result of a recent restoration, which involved scraping off six layers of paint to get down to the sixteenth-century colors so that they could be recreated.

The stark main entrance.

But if that isn't to your taste, the church also has another portal known as "the Beautiful Door," originally installed in a Franciscan friary and moved to St. Anne's when Saxony converted to Protestantism and the monasteries were closed.

The church has multiple altars; this one of painted wood dates to around 1522.

More famous is the Miners' Altar, paid for by their guild in 1521. The paintings mostly show relatively realistic depictions of sixteenth-century mining. This is the central panel, showing the mines.

The lower panel, showing the washing of the ore, work often done by women.

Smelting ore.

One of the few spiritual touches is this angel, who is said to have guided miner Daniel Knappe to this ore bank. It appeared to him in a dream and told him to search out a certain great tree to find a great treasure. He found the tree and climbed into the branches, only to be confronted by the same angel who told him to climb down and "search the roots." He had only dug a short way when he stumbled on the silver vein.

The altar is a remarkable document, and the church is a fascinating link to the world of the mining folk, who labored in horribly dangerous conditions to provide Europe's metals.