Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Iraq after the ISIS War

Interesting comment from Tom Friedman:
It was quite logical that after ISIS emerged in Iraq and Syria in 2014 that the U.S. would take on the mission of helping to destroy ISIS in Iraq.

Washington felt guilty having removed all combat troops from Iraq before it was really stabilized and ISIS had brutally murdered American journalists. But rather than do it all ourselves, we partnered with the Iraqi Army and amplified its power and ground forces with our advisers and air power.

That approach led not only to the defeat of ISIS in Iraq, it also produced some unanticipated positive effects in Iraqi politics. The ISIS war became a kind of national war of liberation for Iraqis that brought moderate Iraqi Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds closer together — and gave them dignity that the U.S. invasion of Iraq had unintentionally stolen. And this paved the way for more stable and sustainable power-sharing among Sunnis, Kurds and Shiites in Iraq.

Iraq today remains a very frail democracy — with huge challenges in employment, energy, corruption and governing. But “Iraq today is a different country,” noted Linda Robinson in a recent essay in Foreign Affairs titled “Winning the Peace in Iraq: Don’t Give Up on Baghdad’s Fragile Democracy. “Few Americans understand the remarkable success” that has been achieved in bringing Iraq back from the depth of the ISIS war.

This doesn’t mean that the original Iraq invasion was worth it or that we would do it again. But it does mean we found the right way to help Iraqis help themselves. It is now up to them to make the most of it.
I wrote in 2015 after the Battle of Tikrit that I hoped winning this war would have good effects in Iraq, and so it seems to have been. Nothing unifies people like a common enemy.

Universities Struggling

Over the past three years, more than 30 colleges and universities in the US have closed, and many more are in danger. This is caused by a slight decline in the number of 18-year-olds – the early 2000s were not a great time for births – a small decline in the number of international students, the excellent job market (which lures many high school grads directly into the work force), the high drop-out rate, and the general woes of higher education in America.

This Times article explores some of the things colleges are doing in their struggle to survive:
  1. merging;
  2. cutting programs;
  3. emphasizing career training (nursing, cybersecurity, etc.) over liberal arts;
  4. creating combined undergrad/grad programs like the 5-year BA/MBA;
  5. offering rebates to graduates who can't get jobs;
  6. getting into adult learning and corporate training;
  7. And even, would you believe, cutting tuition.
I have my doubts that any of this is going work without a major shift in how Americans think about education. I expect continued decline in enrollments and many more colleges to fail or be taken over.

Demographically colleges are going to get a brief boost from the small baby boom that took place in the bubble years of 2006-2008, but after the crash the birth rate crashed, too, so the years from 2026 on are going to get grim.

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Diving for Pearls Goes Back 7500 Years

Archaeologists in Abu Dhabi have reported the discovery of a pearl they have radiocarbon dates to 5800-5600 BC. The pearl came from a Neolithic village on an island in the Persian Gulf. Of course any one pearl might have washed up on the beach or what have you, but actually quite a few sizable pearls have come from Neolithic sites in the region, enough that archaeologists think they were being intentionally sought.

RIP Matthew Wong

Matthew Wong was a self-taught Canadian painter who died of suicide at 35. He suffered throughout his life from depression and Tourette's syndrome, and his mother says he was on the Autism spectrum. Above, The Realm of Appearances (2019)

Wong killed himself less than a year after his first major solo show made him an art world success.  Winter's End, 2019.

His mother says that he once told her, "I’m fighting with the Devil every single day, every waking moment of my life." Starlight, 2019.

Figure in a Night Landscape, 2017. The critics who admired Wong's art picked up on its sadness; one called these "tinged with melancholy."  Do the tiny figures and houses in these paintings represent the Artist's soul, lost in a vast world beyond his understanding?

Winter Nocturne, 2017. The tortured artist is not just a fable; artists really do have a much higher rate of severe mental illness than the rest of us. We have so far to go before we can ease the suffering of so many people, so much to learn before we can understand the tangled skein of pain and wonder that gives birth to art like this.

Monday, October 21, 2019

Two Dogs Palette, Hierakonpolis, c 3000 BC

One dog is missing its head. Siltstone, 43 cm (1.4 feet) tall. Now in the Ashmoleon Museum, Oxford.

Saturday, October 19, 2019

Against Revolution

Famous Swedish Political Leaders

Bernie Sanders likes to say that we need a "political revolution" so we can become more like the social democracies of Scandinavia. But this, I think, misjudges both the nature of revolution and the history of Scandinavia. There was no Swedish or Norwegian or Danish Revolution. I believe that they ended up with their enviably stable and equitable systems precisely because they never had a revolution, because revolutions are usually disastrous for the people and nations who experience them.

Here's a question for you: can you name a single event that happened in Scandinavia between the Napoleonic wars and World War II? I can't, or couldn't until I started working on this post, and I have a Ph.D. in European history. Yet somehow the Scandinavian countries evolved from poor societies led by reactionary aristocrats to wealthy beacons of social democracy. How did they achieve that?

Not, let me tell you, in a way that makes for exciting reading. I spent some time last night and this morning reading about the history of these countries at wikipedia and other encyclopedia sites, and I recommend those articles only as a sleep aid. It's a dreary litany of reform bill after reform bill, the gradual extension of the vote, the gradual constriction of royal power, the occasional Parliamentary dust-up. One of the sub-categories in wikipedia's piece on nineteenth-century Sweden is The Barley Question.

But that, if you ask me, is how politics ought to be. If what you want is to make life better for your fellow citizens, that is the way to proceed: One change at a time. One compromise at a time. One election at a time. One regulation at a time. "Politics," Max Weber famously wrote, "is a strong and slow boring of hard boards. It takes both passion and perspective." Political change does not happen unless people fight for it, but if you fight too hard, if you abandon perspective and start throwing bombs, then any good you do accomplish will likely be balanced by an equal or greater amount of destruction and misery.

Consider that the Social Democrats who created the modern Swedish welfare state did not think that socialism was the most important part of their program. That would be Folkhemmet, "The People's Home", which imagined the nation as a family to which everyone contributed something, and where all decisions were made collectively. This was an explicitly moderate position, more influenced by John Maynard Keynes than by Marx, and with large roles for businessmen and the church.

For a quick look at the opposite, revolutionary sort of mind, I recommend this piece on V.I. Lenin. Not the silly comparison of Lenin with the leftists of contemporary American campuses, just the description of Lenin himself, for whom violence and terror were not means to an end, but ends in themselves:
When we are reproached with cruelty, we wonder how people can forget the most elementary Marxism. . . . By the dictatorship of the proletariat we mean nothing other than power which is totally unlimited by any laws, totally unrestrained by absolutely any rules, and based directly on force. . . . The law should not limit terror, it should enshrine terror.
As for compromise with others, even other socialists,
Every solution that offers a middle path is a deception . . . or an expression of the dull-wittedness of the petty-bourgeois democrats.
These are the sort of men who make most revolutions, and the states and societies that result are just what you would expect from such thinking.

Obviously not all revolutions are like this; the word has many meanings. When a new or conquered nation casts off the rule of an empire, that is a different situation, with a better historical record. Yet many national heroes have succumbed to the temptations of violence and radicalism, which is why the independence of so many nations has been followed by Civil War rather than peaceful cooperation. Violent change is always dangerous.

I do recognize that sometimes gradual, progressive change is not an option, because those in power refuse to accept it. This happened for example in Russia, where the Tsar's men put an end to the reformist politics of 1905 and re-imposed a reactionary imperium. In such cases violent revolution is likely, because there is no other path forward. But if that happens in your country, you are, historically, screwed. The outcome is rarely good. (See Russia, China, Iran, etc.)

Sometimes compromise and slow change work, and sometimes they just don't, leading to violent explosions. But if the history of the past few centuries teaches anything, it is that gradual reformism is always better, if you can get it.

Why am I writing about this now, when there seems to be no chance that any major nation will have a revolution? What I really want to oppose is a way of thinking that I think is all too common in our time: a demand for change now, coupled with a hatred of our opponents and refusal to even consider talking to them. I think this is tactically terrible, almost certain to lead to four more years of Donald Trump. But it is even worse philosophically. We cannot get to a good world by "destroying" our enemies, either metaphorically as Lenin would have. Whatever happens, we will end up living with them.

To build a better world, we must work together with as many as will join in.

Frederick Judd Waugh

American painter, 1861-1940, who painted mainly seascapes and even spent 1918 designing ship camouflage for the US Navy. Perhaps the most famous artist born in Bordentown, New Jersey.

Friday, October 18, 2019

Links 18 October 2019

Rock crystal ring, Aegean, 1600-1300 BC. Now in the MFA, Boston.

Serbs and Kosovo Albanians brought together by Nimbyism.

The Roman Necropolis of Narbonne.

Pasta grannies become YouTube stars. Honestly I think projects like this are what the internet ought to be: the sharing of knowledge and experience between people who would otherwise never meet.

More Nigerian wedding clothes.

Private property and the origins of agriculture. (Yet another attempt to answer the very puzzling question of why people started farming.)

Why so many sex scandals among enlightened Buddhist teachers?

Contestants on "The Price is Right" have gotten increasingly bad since 1972, "suggesting that individuals have become more inattentive to prices."

Anti-noise crusaders.

Is it rational for westerners to fear the rise of China?

Photographer SebastiĆ£o Salgado has turned his family cattle ranch in Brazil into a 1,754-acre private forest preserve.

WAGs: the war of the British soccer wives. Brits needing distraction from their dysfunctional politics are loving this petty scandal.

Interesting poster comparing the sizes of the world's 100 largest islands.

Review of "Against the Grain," in which anarcho-sociologist James Scott argues that grain farming and the state rose together.

Amazon and Hasidic Jews.

More Ferrara: great photo set by one of our regular readers.

Thursday, October 17, 2019

The Navajo Generating Station Closes

The Navajo Generating Station and the Kayenta Mine that supplied it with coal are both closing next month. This is a plant that Arizona politicians and Navajo tribal leaders fought to keep open, crying a need for jobs in a desperately poor area. With utilities and miners lobbying Republicans, and Indians lobbying Democrats, the plant's defenders won it a reprieve from environmental regulations that was supposed to keep it going until 2044.

But it is closing anyway, because it was losing money. All the lobbying in the world couldn't overcome the cost advantage of natural gas and solar.


Cartoons Magazine, 1921, from  Yesterday's Print.

Monday, October 14, 2019

Larnax from Tanagra

A larnax was a small chest used to hold cremated remains, used throughout the ancient Greek world. The Mycenaean cemetery at Tanagra (a small town near Thebes, nothing to do with a certain awesome Star Trek episode) produced a number of interesting painted specimens, including this one.

From Museums of Greece.

Demography vs. Creativity

One of the new Nobel Prize winners in economics, Michael Kremer, once wrote a paper titled Population Growth and Technological Change: One Million B.C. to 1990. The point was to consider two ways of conceptualizing population growth: the Malthusian view that at any given level of technology, population will rise until people are desperately poor, which makes population growth a bad thing, and a technocratic view that says the higher the population, the more inventions will be made, and therefore the faster the economy will grow.

Kremer found that while the question is complicated, over the long term, population growth is proportional to population; more populous regions grow faster. (See the graph above; the curve has flattened in modern times because we started intentionally limiting our fertility.)  This contradicts Malthus, whose model demands that population growth slow as rising populations lead to more starvation and disease.

Kremer seems to feel that this is an optimistic finding, but I disagree. I see the past 10,000 years of human history as a race between population growth and better technology. This has been a brutal, vicious struggle in which the losers are cast aside and trampled under, and any slackening in the pace of economic growth means thousands starve. Even Kremer admits that there are periods when the positive correlations in his model break down, and we can all name several. In the 1650-1800 period Europe experienced a surge in agricultural productivity driven by potatoes, maize, and improved methods, which made this an optimistic time. But the rapid population growth that resulted meant that by 1800 populations were once again bumping up against the limits, so that cold weather in 1815-1850 led to the return of famine on a scale not seen for more than a century. Everybody knows what happened to the large Irish population when the potato blight struck.

Since 1850 we have mostly been able to race ahead of the Malthusian scissors, but the cost (forests cleared, swamps drained, species exterminated, ancient ways of life wiped out) has been very high. I think modern birth control might turn out to be the most important invention in human history, allowing us to finally step out of that race and create a sustainable world. We'll see.

Saturday, October 12, 2019

Bronze Age Families in Southern Germany

Over the course of the 1980s and 1990s much of Germany's Lech River Valley was overrun by the spreading suburbs of Augsburg. Under German law all of this construction was preceded by archaeological study. Among the sites discovered were several farmsteads or small settlements from the end of the Neolithic to the Bronze Age (c. 2750-1700 BC). Hundreds of graves from this period were dug, with varying degrees of preservation.

Now a team of scientists have extracted DNA from more than 100 of those skeletons, from six sites, and the results of the study were just published in Science. The study also included elemental analysis of the bones, to find out which people grew up locally and which might have been immigrants. In terms of the big questions of migration and language that have gotten so much attention in paleogenetics, the data fit the common pattern; they show a burst of steppes ancestry at the beginning of the period, mainly in the male line; on the other hand they show that the percentage of steppes ancestry declined over time. (Likely because of gene flow from other regions.)

The more interesting results come from the analysis of family relationships:
  • Each farmstead had one high-status lineage that was maintained over time in the male line. The women were outsiders, some from the same region and some from farther away.
  • There was one exception out of 39 possible events, a case where a daughter seems to have inherited the farm.
  • Lower status individuals showed less continuity over time and many of them were immigrants from outside the region. (And remember archaeologists never find enough burials to account for everyone, so many of the lowest status people may not be represented at all.)
  • Several high-status women were identified who were from outside the region and not related to anyone else at their farms; nobody knows what to make of these. If they came as brides, why didn't they have children?
Here's an amazing bit of science for you:
Three of the adult males are exceptional as they exhibit a shift of strontium isotope ratios from their first to their third molars, indicating a movement away from their birthplaces during adolescence, and a return as adults. A similar analysis of early and late developing molars in females suggests that their movements from outside the Lech valley occurred in adolescence or later, as evidenced by non-local isotope ratios in early and late forming teeth.
As with all cutting edge science this will need to be verified by future studies, but if the movements of adolescents can really be studied by comparing the composition of their teeth, what an incredible discovery.

John Crowley, "Ka: Dar Oakley in the Ruin of Ymr"

Until I stumbled on this volume in my public library I knew John Crowley only for one book, Little, Big (1982), which for me holds the top place in the category of Long, Weird, Rambling Book in which You are Rarely Sure if Anything Magical has Happened or Not. I honestly had no idea he had ever written anything else. Checking up on him now I see that he has actually published twelve works of fiction, and I think I will try to find some of them.

One of the themes in Little, Big is aging and the passage of time. The second half of the book focuses on middle-aged characters who look back mournfully toward childhood, when it was so much easier for them to experience magic. It was published when Crowley was 40. Ka: Dar Oakley in the Ruin of Ymr (2017)  was published when Crowley was 75, and it is mostly a meditation on aging and death.

The central characters are the unnamed narrator, an old man living in the near-future ruins of our civilization, and an immortal crow named Dar Oakley. Or at least that is the conceit, although the narrator hints that maybe he never grasped the speech of this crow well enough to fully understand his story. The story as we are told it concerns Dar Oakley's life as an ambassador between the worlds of crows and humans. Beginning in what sounds like the European Neolithic, he befriends a series of humans, all of them experts, as their societies see it, in death and the realms beyond: a Neolithic shamaness, an early medieval monk, a Native American tale-teller, a nineteenth-century spiritualist. Dar Oakley helps all of these people journey beyond death, and in each case the world they encounter is much what their culture taught them to expect.

Through these stories Crowley explores what people think about death, how they feel about it, and whether it is ultimately a good or bad thing. I loved this. It unfolds very slowly and parts of the book drag, but by the end I found it meaningful and moving. There is also much about myth, storytelling, crows, and people of several kinds. I would not recommend it to everyone but if you are in a reflective frame of mind and not averse to some serious thinking about death, consider giving it a try.

And if you like fantasy that draws heavily on the European mythic tradition, you might take a look at the Mythopoetic Society's awards for fantasy literature. Both Little, Big and Ka won their award, along with Neil Gaiman's Anansi Boys, The Djinn in the Nightingale's Eye by A.S. Byatt, and Something Rich and Strange by Patricia A. McKillip. I downloaded the whole list and plan to check out all of them.

Art Nouveau Doors

Art Nouveau architects loved fancy doors. This one is at 29 Avenue Rapp in Paris and you see it posted often with the tag "best door in Paris." It was designed by Jules Lavirotte in 1899.

But not all are so over the top. This is 42 rue Belle Vue, Brussels, by Ernest Blerot.

Ornate or comparatively simple, I love the determination to make a door something other than a utilitarian gateway.

 At the time - mostly 1890-1914 - these seemed "modern," part of the age of automobiles, airplanes, and skyscrapers; what happened to these wonderful impulses that left us with a "modern" style that is so cold and barren?

Actually if you are a millionaire you can buy a door something like one of these for your mansion, so they are coming back for that niche. But public architecture remains sterile.

At least we still have these to admire.

Friday, October 11, 2019

Trade with China

Trade with China wiped out many American factory jobs; highly publicized estimates have ranged from 800,000 to 3.4 million. On the other hand Chinese goods are cheaper. According to this paper, since 2001 American consumers have saved $400,000 for every American job lost to Chinese competition.

A Black Kite

These long cool days at the end of spring
begin with a soundless blaze at sunrise
above the distant rim of the valley
all day clouds gather and clear again
as I remember other cold springtimes here
through the coming and  going of years
the losses the changes the long love come to at last
with the river down there flowing through it all
under the clear moment that never changed
n all that time not asking for anything
still the wren sings and the oriole remembers
and every evening now a black kite
glides low overhead coming from the upland
alone not climbing the thermals not huntins
not calling nor busy about anything
wings and tail scarcely moving as he
slips out above the open valley
filled with the long gold light before sunset
sailing into it only to be there.

--W.S. Merwin

Links 11 October 2019

Glazed brick wall panel from Nimrud, 858-824 BC.

A trip to Erie, Pennsylvania, a town that voted twice for Obama and then for Trump, at least partly because it had lost thousands of jobs. Erie has a great record of welcoming refugees so it's hard to blame simple racism for this one.

The fight over the public library in Clinton, Arkansas as a microcosm of American politics.

Cormac McCarthy on how to write good scientific papers.

Homer called Achilles' companions "Myrmidons," or "ant men." Here's a theory that the name derives from people who built burial mounds.

Scott Ritter says the new Chinese missiles neutralize the US Pacific Fleet.

"Echo chambers" or "media bubbles" do not explain partisanship. Many hyper-partisan people watch the network news.

Against charging teenage criminals as adults.

A Short Trip to the Blue Ridge

When your main client is the National Park Service, you sometimes get to work in extraordinary places.

Tourist trap on the way, possibly fundamentalist propaganda. Sadly I failed to get a photo of the sign that said FIREARM RAFFEL.

Through little Virginia towns.

Down byways.

Mountains looming up.

And views from up on Skyline Drive.