Friday, July 10, 2020

A Ring and a Curse from Roman Britain

In 1785, this gold ring was found in a field near Silchester, England. The top depicts the goddess Venus, her name spelled backwards showing that this was used as a signet. The ring likely dates to the 4th century AD.

But around the outside someone later carved a name, Senicianus, and a garbled text that seems to be "vivas in deo," lives in God, which was a Christian saying.

In 1929 famous archaeologist Mortimer Wheeler learned of this ring and thought the name sounded familiar. After a search he discovered where he had seen it before: on a lead curse tablet found at a temple of the pagan god Nodens, 80 miles away from Silchester near Lydney in Gloucestershire. On this tablet a certain Silvianus complains that his gold ring had been stolen by a man named Senicianus. He deposited money at the temple equal to half the ring's value, hoping the gods would "permit no good health to Seniciacus."

If this is a coincidence, it's a quite striking one.

To make matters even more interesting, Wheeler took the ring, with its circular inscription, to a philologist named J.R.R. Tolkien for help with the translations. Who thereby got his hands on an actual cursed ring from ancient times.

The person who recently put this on Twitter, Gareth Harney, wonders if this piqued Tolkien's interest in magic rings, but I think the old German Siegfried legend, as filtered through Wagner, is the real source. Still, it's fun to imagine what Tolkien made of this little stolen treasure.

Links 10 July 2020

Anna Maria Teresa Mengs, portrait of Anton Rafael Mengs, c. 1780

"Guide cells" help flatworms regrow missing heads, bodies, whatever else they have lost. (NY Times)

One group of Southerners enjoyed the fourth of July in the 1860s: recently freed African Americans.

Video of dolphins "shelling" – chasing a fish into an empty conch shell, then carrying the shell up to the surface and shaking the fish out. Another sort of dolphin tool use, and another bit of culture, since this is done only by certain pods, the knowledge passed between peers.

Three recipes to help you eat like a Roman. Bonus: how to bake Roman bread (no leavening, which would have come in handy during the Great Yeast Famine of 2020).

Gigapixel image of a famous copy of da Vinci's The Last Supper. Unbelievable detail, and more authentic than the badly decayed and repainted original.

The 1947 sci-fi film that predicted how people would use smartphones; it even shows people bumping into each other while staring at their mini-televisions.

Indian Archaeologist searches two decades for medieval fort, which is then accidentally uncovered by workers "trying to extract mud from a foothill."

Bloomberg: lawsuits by activists and opposition by politicians have made it impossible to build new gas pipelines in the US.

Former Senator Judd Gregg reveals the perfidious left-wing plot afoot: Joe Biden is just a stalking horse for the far left, and as soon as he is elected they will 25th Amendment him out of the way and bring a radical in to replace him. Never mind that Biden trounced all the leftists in the primary, and never mind that his VP is not likely to be much more radical than he is.

What happens when an African grey parrot goes head-to-head with 21 Harvard students in a test measuring a type of visual memory? The parrot wins.

The fight continues over Anne Rice O'Hanlon's mural at the University of Kentucky; in a perfect summary of the problem, the Times notes  that "students have denounced the mural as a racist sanitizing of history and a painful reminder of slavery in a public setting." No one has figured out how to depict a non-sanitized, non-painful version of our history.

Indian emperor Ashoka fell hard for Buddhism. In 257 BC he decided we all had to be more ethical, so he wrote little speeches urging everyone to be more ethical and had them carved on boulders, pillars, and cave walls all over India. It was worth a try, right? 

Thursday, July 9, 2020

The Genetics and Folklore of the Hungarian Royal Family

From their first appearance in written records, in the late 800s AD, until 1301, the Hungarians were led by the Arpad Dynasty. The man who led them into modern Hungary was known as Ügyek; Arpad was his son. According to the chronicle known as The Deeds of the Huns and Hungarians, Ügyek was descended from Attila the Hun. The Huns and Hungarians were not closely related people and Hungarian, a Finno-Ugric language, has no relationship to Hunnish. So many moderns have refused to believe this.

Now some scientists have learned something interesting via ancient DNA:
Based on the genetic analysis of two members of the Árpád Dynasty, it appears that they derived from a lineage (R-Z2125) that is currently predominantly present among ethnic groups (Pashtun, Tadjik, Turkmen, Uzbek, and Bashkir) speaking Iranian or Turkic languages.
One of the Arpads they sampled was King Béla III (1172–1196); the other was one of additional individuals (six males, two females) who were also placed in the Royal Basilica of Székesfehérvár.

So the male founder of the Arpad line really did come from central Asia into Europe, which means that for all we know the dynasty really was descended from Attila.

This reminds me of a weird fact I learned years ago about the nobility of Poland. In the 16th and 17th centuries they insisted that they were not, in fact, Slavs, but descended from the Sarmatians who dominated the whole steppe region between about 200 BC and 400 AD.  For a while some of them dressed in what they thought were Sarmatian clothes (really they were Turkish). Western rationalists like Voltaire mocked this pretension and it went out of fashion in the 1700s.

But rather than coats of arms the Polish nobility liked to identify their families using abstract signs called Tamga. There's one in the plaque above, surrounded by winged Victories. Modern archaeology shows that these were once widely used across the steppes and into central Asia, especially by the Sarmatians. Not, so far as we know, by the Slavs. Archaeology also shows that people who were probably Alans, a Sarmatian offshoot, did settle in southern Poland in the post-Roman age of migrations.

Sometimes weird old legends have some truth to them.

The Ideology of American Police

Good article by Zack Beauchamp at Vox about the unwritten beliefs that American police officers hold about their jobs:
The ideology holds that the world is a profoundly dangerous place: Officers are conditioned to see themselves as constantly in danger and that the only way to guarantee survival is to dominate the citizens they’re supposed to protect. The police believe they’re alone in this fight; police ideology holds that officers are under siege by criminals and are not understood or respected by the broader citizenry. These beliefs, combined with widely held racial stereotypes, push officers toward violent and racist behavior during intense and stressful street interactions.
I think you can't understand how the police behave without coming to grips with how they see the world. The emblem of this ideology is the "Thin Blue Line," which represents police standing between the good people and the dangerous criminals.

One reason police feel this way is that they are trained to be paranoid:
In 1998, Georgia sheriff’s deputy Kyle Dinkheller pulled over a middle-aged white man named Andrew Howard Brannan for speeding. Brannan, a Vietnam veteran with PTSD, refused to comply with Dinkheller’s instructions. He got out of the car and started dancing in the middle of the road, singing “Here I am, shoot me” over and over again.

In the encounter, recorded by the deputy’s dashcam, things then escalate: Brannan charges at Dinkheller; Dinkheller tells him to “get back.” Brannan heads back to the car — only to reemerge with a rifle pointed at Dinkheller. The officer fires first, and misses; Brannan shoots back. In the ensuing firefight, both men are wounded, but Dinkheller far more severely. It ends with Brannan standing over Dinkheller, pointing the rifle at the deputy’s eye. He yells — “Die, fucker!” — and pulls the trigger.

The dashcam footage of Dinkheller’s killing, widely known among cops as the “Dinkheller video,” is burned into the minds of many American police officers. It is screened in police academies around the country; one training turns it into a video game-style simulation in which officers can change the ending by killing Brannan. Jeronimo Yanez, the officer who killed Philando Castile during a 2016 traffic stop, was shown the Dinkheller video during his training.

“Every cop knows the name ‘Dinkheller’ — and no one else does,” says Peter Moskos, a former Baltimore police officer who currently teaches at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
Of course being a police officer is dangerous, but not as dangerous as being, say, a farmer or a bartender, and a lot less dangerous than logging or fishing. And according to numbers Beauchamp cites, nearly as many police die in car crashes as from violence, but while the police are obsessed with violence they are often careless drivers. For example, many officers won't wear seat belts because they think they might have to jump out of the car quickly to intervene in a violent situation.

Another important part of the ideology is the sense that nobody understands what the police go through:
Police officers today tend to see themselves as engaged in a lonely, armed struggle against the criminal element. Officers believe these efforts are underappreciated by the general public; according to a 2017 Pew report, 86 percent of police believe the public doesn’t really understand the “risks and challenges” involved in their job.

Rizer, the former officer and R Street researcher, recently conducted a separate large-scale survey of American police officers. One of the questions he asked was whether they would want their children to become police officers. A majority, around 60 percent, said no — for reasons that, in Rizer’s words, “blew me away.”

“The vast majority of people that said ‘no, I don’t want them to become a police officer’ was because they felt like the public no longer supported them — and that they were ‘at war’ with the public,” he tells me. “There’s a ‘me versus them’ kind of worldview, that we’re not part of this community that we’re patrolling.”
To me all of this means that the response to police violence can't be more demonizing of police offers; it has to be reintegration of the police and the communities they serve. So long as police officers feel like they have been stranded alone on the streets, surrounded by danger, while the people they protect revile them, they will continue to be violent.

Monday, July 6, 2020

RIP Ennio Morricone

Morricone wrote the score for The Mission, one of my favorite pieces of music. This fourteen-minute compendium gives a good sample.

Sunday, July 5, 2020

Two National Park, Two Sides of Madagascar

Today an imaginary journey to Madagascar, a huge island with a very diverse ecology and many National Parks. These baobabs aren't in any national park, but they're so famous and impressive I put them here at the start anyway.

Amber Mountain

First we journey to the far north of the island, to the Amber Mountain Reserve. Amber Mountain is a volcanic eminence catches that more rain than the surrounding lowlands, and as a result is covered by a mountain rain forest. The park measures 45,000 acres (18,000 hectares) and is, people say, more accessible than most of Madagascar's parks.

The lush forests are full of streams and waterfalls, and there are two crater lakes.

And wildlife, including many species of lemurs

and chameleons, including the tiny Amber Mountain leaf chameleon, one of the smallest reptiles in the world.

And birds; to judge from the pictures people have posted, many tourists to Madagascar are birdwatchers, and the island has many unique species. These two are from a nice journal of a Madagascar nature tour you can read here.

Tsingy de Bermaraha

Tsingy de Bermaraha is a famous national park that encompasses the largest area of the karstic badlands that the locals call Tsingy. According to wikipedia, Tsingy comes from a Malagasy word meaning "where one cannot walk barefoot."

This spectacular topography of these stone forests crops up in several places along Madagascar's northwest coast, but this national park protects the largest and most impressive.

As you might imagine, life in the Tsingys is vertically divided. The National Park has trails laid out so you can explore parts of the upper zone, including what seems to be Madagascar's most photographed bridge.

But there are also places where you can get down into the bottom. 

Some of these crevasses hold water, so the plant life is much more lush than up top.

The area is home to many unique plants and animals, some confined to a few small enclaves within the stone forest.

There are many lemurs here, including what seems to be a tribe of very friendly national park ringtails, or at least everybody's tour includes a photograph of them.

And birds.

This is a dry area, which makes this trek a nice contrast to the wet forests of Amber Mountain. 

These two parks are just the beginning of Madagascar's diverse natural wonders, but there we will leave it for today.

Should Liberals Embrace Patriotism?

At Slate, M. Steven Fish, Neil A. Abrams, and Laila M. Aghaie argue that one reason authoritarian governments are succeeding around the world is that liberals have abandoned patriotism. In the US, the big liberal reformers – Teddy Roosevelt, FDR, JFK, Lyndon Johnson – all talked nationalism nonstop and defended all of their measures as being more American than the alternative. Sometimes they were lying, but they got results. The surrender of nationalism to the right, these authors think, accounts for much of the right's popularity around the world. Here is FDR defending the New Deal:
First, we gave a credit to earned income. … Wasn’t that the American thing to do? Secondly, we decreased the tax rates on small corporations. Wasn’t that the American thing to do? And third, we increased the taxes paid by individuals in the higher brackets. … Wasn’t that the American thing to do? Fourth, we increased still further, more steeply, the taxes paid by individuals in the highest bracket. … Wasn’t that the American thing to do?
Martin Luther King made it a part of his standard rhetoric to praise America:
My beloved nation … can well lead the way in a revolution of values. . . . The day has passed for superficial patriotism. I criticize America because I love her. I want her to stand as a moral example to the world.
By contrast the liberal news sites I follow run stories every year arguing that American independence was a bad idea because it did not immediately end slavery, and they have been full this weekend of riffs on Frederick Douglass' "What is the Fourth of July to the Slave?" 

I do understand why liberals do this, but as King and FDR showed it is perfectly possible to agitate for  rejecting the way America has been without trashing the idea of the nation. 

To me, anti-American rhetoric is a perfectly example of why the left in America never really wins: because they would rather be on the moral high ground than win elections. Republicans understand this; remember Steve Bannon saying, "If Democrats talk race, and Republicans talk nationalism, Republicans win."

If you want, like Bernie Sander et al., to make the US more like the Nordic countries, then you might consider the rhetoric they used to advance their own Democratic Socialism. It was all about the nation; the Swedes who introduced socialism to Sweden called their program Folkhemmet, the People's Home, and said that for all Swedes to take care of each other like a big family was the most Swedish possible thing.

If liberals really wanted to run up big electoral majorities, they would use patriotism as FDR and JFK did, arguing that police brutality and inequality are un-American, and calling on the spirit of the Declaration to advance freedom and equality. So long as they would rather be moral hipsters loudly taking the side of the oppressed, they will not get what they claim to want. 

People are tribal; the sense of belonging to a group is as fundamental to our make-up as anything else. People hate to be told that groups they identify with are bad. Telling Americans that the United States is a bad thing is a flat-out losing proposition. It doesn't matter how strongly you believe this to be true; in a democracy, you have to get the votes before you can do anything else, and insulting people is a bad way to get votes.

Don't rail against the world; change it.

Saturday, July 4, 2020

Sparrows have Fads

Birds rarely change their chirpy little tunes, and when they do, it’s typically limited to the local environment, where slight song variants basically become regional dialects. New research published today in Current Biology describes an extraordinary exception to this rule, in which a novel song sung by white-throated sparrows is spreading across Canada at an unprecedented rate. What’s more, the new song appears to be replacing the pre-existing melody, which dates as far back as the 1960s.
You can hear the old and new songs at the link.

Friday, July 3, 2020

Andy Warhol, Updated

In the future, everyone will be cancelled for 15 minutes.

A Word for Our Time

Americans used to have a word for what happened to people who spent long Dakota winters stranded in small cabins miles from the nearest neighbor: they went "shackwacky."

Chicago's Dreadhead Cowboy

Delightful story in the Times about Adam Hollingsworth, a black Chicagoan who makes waves riding around the city's South Side preaching brotherhood. He has been a fixture at many recent protests, as in the photo above.

He recently got nationwide attention because of one of the social media dust-ups that are so much a part of our narrative these days:
In late May, as protests against police brutality began to seize American cities, videos of a Black man on horseback wearing a bulletproof vest spread widely on social media. In many of the posts, users suggested that he had stolen a policeman’s horse.

But Adam Hollingsworth is no thief.  . . . You have to have “some kind of experience to get on a horse to ride it,” he said in a phone interview last week. And, he added, “if you steal a police horse, it’s like kidnapping a police officer. You can’t just get up and steal a police horse.” 

As the false accusations piled up, Mr. Hollingsworth said his car was vandalized and that he received death threats. The experience hammered home for him that his reason for riding — to expand people’s ideas about Black masculinity and to promote a message of unity in some of Chicago’s most racially segregated neighborhoods — remains urgent.
Hollingsworth has a bullet in his chest as a memento of a rough youth, but these days he preaches peace. Here is more on him, from a Chicago Tribune story that also has more on his past than the Times piece:
Hollingsworth’s reputation grew when he visited the Little Village neighborhood June 2, after unconfirmed social media posts indicated that alleged Latino gang members were threatening Black people due to fears of looting. Rumors swirled, and Hollingsworth said he was very scared to visit.

His Facebook video shows him riding through Little Village, a little tentative at first — “I come in peace, y’all” — and then more relaxed as, block after block, people wave, whoop, call out “Black Lives Matter” and film Hollingsworth on their cellphones.

“Thank you, queen,” Hollingsworth says when a woman in a tank top offers his horse a bucket of water.

“Ain’t nothing but love in Little Village,” a man with a red baseball cap tells Hollingsworth. “We Mexicans love everyone. We ain’t with all that (stupidity).”

In the video, Hollingsworth points out Black people walking freely on peaceful Little Village streets, and sympathizes with residents’ concerns about looting by protesters: “The Black and brown is together, man. They just don’t want nobody (destroying) their (stuff), and that’s how Blacks should be,” he says. “That’s how every race should be.”
If you ask me, what America needs is less spreading of internet rumors and other (stupidity) and more people who ride horses through cities talking peace and brotherhood.

Links 3 July 2020

Minoan blue chalcedony tabloid seal with three swans, Late Palace period, circa 16th century BC

How the US Navy captured a German U-Boat in 1944, great story for WW II buffs.

Conor Fridersdorf interviews Toby Muse to get an update on the Cocaine War in Colombia.

What happened when the NY Times ran one of their "forgotten no more" obituaries about the woman most famous for shooting Andy Warhol.

And more NY Times news: Daily Beast story about the fight within the Times over whether to print the real name of blogger Scott Alexander, which led Alexander to take down his blog.

Lovely NY Times photo/text essay on the saffron harvest in Italy.

Review of two books by theologian David Bentley Hart, who thinks that 1) there is nothing in the words of Jesus or Paul to justify belief in eternal damnation, and 2) there is a whole lot in the words of Jesus that requires us to be communists.

Women, pain, accusations of hysteria, and the whole nexis of sexism and medicine.

Ross Douthat ponders the canceling of Woodrow Wilson, a man he (and I) always despised.

How about combining life and health insurance into one plan? After all, who has a greater interest in your health than your life insurance company?

Reintroducing elk to Kentucky, using reclaimed strip mines. (NY Times)

George Orwell and Black Lives Matter. After all, one thing Orwell knew a lot about was racist policing.

TLS Review of three books on the issues surrounding "cheap food," from Victorian times to today.

David Brooks: "We Americans enter the July 4 weekend of 2020 humiliated as almost never before."

The perils of ideology: brilliant British geneticist J.B.S. Haldane, who put natural selection on a sound genetic footing, was such an ardent communist that he even defended Trofim Lysenko's purge of Soviet biology.

Thursday, July 2, 2020

Social Media and Race Politics

While most of the outrage in our latest political firestorm has been directed at the police, quite a bit has also been directed at Facebook and Twitter. In the past few weeks I have seen at least a dozen articles arguing that both platforms are enabling racism and white supremacy and myriad calls for them to ban "hate speech."

As one example, let me cite the one I just read, by Charles Warzel in the Times:
The architecture of the social network — its algorithmic mandate of engagement over all else, the advantage it gives to divisive and emotionally manipulative content — will always produce more objectionable content at a dizzying scale. . . . Facebook is too big to govern responsibly. There will always be more work to do because Facebook’s design will always produce more hate than anyone could monitor. How do you reform that? 
Warzel quotes various people saying that the problem is that the leadership of those companies is racist:
The platform will reflect the values of the people that make the decisions. If you have people working at the platforms that are bought into perpetuating a system of white supremacy or unwilling to reckon with it, then that’s what it’ll start looking like.
But I agree completely with Siva Vaidhyanathan, who says that the real problem isn't Facebook or Twitter, it's social media as a way of communicating:
You see lots of people putting forth a hopeful idea of a new, humane social media platform to rescue us — one that respects privacy or is less algorithmically coercive. But if we’re being honest, what they’re really proposing at that point is not really social media anymore. I think social media have been bad for humans. And we shouldn’t keep trying to imagine we should either fix or reinvent what is fundamentally a bad idea.
The problem with social media is that they fuse conversation with our friends, something we think (or I think, anyway) ought to be completely free and unregulated, with mass media. They broadcast our private likes and dislikes to the world, sum them together to create agglomerations of feeling, and toss us nuggets from the wide world chosen to intensify whatever beliefs or emotions are driving us to go online in the first place. They may even be shaping our beliefs in ways that we don't really see or understand.

The reason social media are full of racism and hate is that millions of people are racists who hate each other, and the only way to remove their words would be a draconian censorship regime that would probably ruin the whole business. If you've never written anything that would be hurtful to someone, either you don't write much or you're a very strange sort of person. I'm a pretty cautious writer and I try not to offend, but the thought of having my speech regulated by the sort of people who campaign under #StopHateForProfit makes me very worried.

That's why I've completely given up on Facebook; I liked "following" my friends and relations but the flow of political rage after the 2016 election made me queasy, as did the thought of laying my whole network of connections out there for the world to see, plus I found it a terrible format for writing more than a sentence, forcing discourse into the simplest and least nuanced forms.

The thing is, millions of people love social media, and they are supremely useful. My eldest son is plugged into anti-fa and protester networks via Facebook and Youtube and is always way ahead of the news in knowing what is happening; he has developed a feel for which sources are reliable and the things he passes onto me always turn out to be right, sometimes after false versions have been in the news for days.

Plus, Facebook was a lifeline for many people unable to get out and socialize even before the pandemic, and in our world anything that decreases loneliness has to count as a plus.

So I think we are stuck with social media and can of ugly worms they have opened.

To me the only answer is to shift our eyes away from the public discourse and look deeper. Political factions have been trying for centuries to control what is said in the press and by public figures. That is still important – Fox News did a lot more to elect Trump than Russians on Facebook – but with social media ideas can spread directly from person to person without amplification from leaders or public bodies. Control of the commanding heights is not enough. So if you want to end racism, it is not enough to ban it from television and Presidential speeches; you have to change human hearts, one at a time. I think the rage against Facebook is born from recognizing the daunting nature of that task.

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Gösta Adrian-Nilsson

Gösta Adrian-Nilsson (1884-1965) was a Swedish modernist painter who practiced various levels of abstraction over his career. Above, Lantern.


Shadows, Twilight.

Sista utflykten

And two I found without titles. Below, illustrations to Swedish fairy tales.

Police Killing

One writer who has been covering the police abuses beat for a long time is libertarian economist Alex Tabarrok. (On "Get Out of Jail Free" cards here; police union privileges here.) He has a data-rich post today about police killing, drawing on When Police KIll, a 2017 book by criminologist Franklin Zimring. Tabarrok's main takeaway is one I very much agree with: the way to reduce police shootings is to treat them like airplane crashes. Safety experts say that blaming individuals is generally pointless; what you need to do is to change the system. So what would a systems approach to reducing police killings look like?

One strange fact is that  while most violent crime is committed by young men, the victims of police shootings are not younger than the average American. Why would that be?

The main reason for this appears to be that a disproportionate share of police killings come from disturbance calls, domestic and non-domestic about equally represented. A majority of the killings arising from disturbance calls are of people aged forty or more.
The tendency of both police and observers to assume that attacks against police and police use of force is closely associated with violent crime and criminal justice should be modified in significant ways to account for the disturbance, domestic conflicts, and emotional disruptions that frequently become the caseload of police officers.
This suggests that training officers to de-escalate these "disturbance calls" might help a lot in reducing violence.

A slight majority (56%) of the people who are killed by the police are armed with a gun and another 3.7% seemed to have a gun. Police have reason to fear guns, 92% of killings of police are by guns. But 40% of the people killed by police don’t have guns and other weapons are much less dangerous to police. In many years, hundreds of people brandishing knives are killed by the police while no police are killed by people brandishing knives. The police seem to be too quick to use deadly force against people significantly less well-armed than the police.  . . .

A major factor in the number of deaths caused by police shootings is the number of wounds received by the victim. In Chicago, 20% of victims with one wound died, 34% with two wounds and 74% with five or more wounds. Obvious. But it suggests a reevaluation of the police training to empty their magazine. Zimring suggests that if the first shot fired was due to reasonable fear the tenth might not be.
I have wondered about this myself; sometimes it turns out that police have not just emptied their magazines but reloaded and emptied another. That seems completely crazy to me, and speaks of people who are simply out of control. Plus, as our Democratic nominee once asked, "why don't the police shoot people in the leg?" The training that tells them to shoot for the center of mass, military style, might be appropriate when the other guy has a gun or is rushing them with an ax, but is nuts when the other guy is a crazy person vaguely wielding a knife.

Zimring notes that while convicting a few officers of wrongful killing might help in some cities, it is not likely to happen in many jurisdictions. He suggests that cities focus on writing "clear and cautious rules of engagement" and getting police departments to take them seriously. That seems to have become one of the foci of recent reform efforts, so that's all to the good.

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

My Defense of George Washington

I wish to offer two points in defense of statues of George Washington:
  1. He evolved. As a young men he dreamed only of retiring from military glory to the most traditional sort of planter wealth, but over the course of his life he came to doubt the virtue of war and he turned decisively against slavery and the plantation economy, throwing his administration behind capitalism and free labor. 

  2. Founding a stable democracy in a large, diverse country is one of the most difficult achievements of humanity. That the US did this we owe in part to George Washington's commitment to his own principles, and his refusal to seek or cling to power.
I was inspired to write this by a column from Charles Blow, who wrote,
On the issue of American slavery, I am an absolutist: enslavers were amoral monsters.

The very idea that one group of people believed that they had the right to own another human being is abhorrent and depraved. The fact that their control was enforced by violence was barbaric.
The thing about this absolutism is that it condemns, not just a bunch of famous white Americans, but pretty much everyone who lived between the Neolithic and AD 1800. Every farming and herding society we know of recognized slavery. I really do not know of a single exception, and if there is one somewhere that hardly vitiates the basic point: for 5,000 years, slavery was part of human life. A handful of utopian mystics did occasionally call for its abolition, but they were vanishingly rare and nobody paid them any mind. Even Jesus accepted slavery; is Blow demanding that we take down all his statues? St. Paul told slaves to honor their masters: are we going to rip his letters out of the Bible?

What was new in the modern period was not slavery but the first real movement for the abolition of slavery. This got started in the 1600s but made no real impact until the mid 1700s. It was catapulted to prominence by the Enlightenment and the revolutionary agitation that birthed the American and French Revolutions. Yes, there were a lot of hypocrites who believed in freedom for white men but not for women or slaves, but there were enough who took freedom seriously to start a movement that grew  until slavery was banished from Europe and its colonies. It took a century, but sometimes that's how long things take.

I know I have written this before but I keep coming back to it because I think it is supremely important: we only think slavery is bad and democracy good because of the Enlightenment, because of the principles that men like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson fought to make real. If we live in a world that believes in democracy and equal rights, we owe that to them. What amount of failure and hypocrisy on their part is enough to cancel that out? People like Blow seem to think that freedom and democracy are human universals that were somehow corrupted by colonial slavocrats, but in fact they had to be invented. Our whole system of values would simply baffle a medieval or ancient person.

Like others of his time, George Washington lived this change. Raised in a plantation world where slavery was a natural as the blueness of the sky, he only thought of how he could get more land and slaves for himself. Raised in a military culture, he dreamed of battlefield glory. He was so ambitious for military honors that his rashness sparked the Seven Years War between England and France, and he survived only because of the courtesy of an aristocratic French officer. But he changed with the times. A warrior when young, he was a President of peace, whose maxims about avoiding foreign war have been cited by the party of peace in every American generation. Exposed by his political career to other sorts of people and other ideas about society, he came to see that slavery and the whole plantation world were anachronisms that America had to leave behind. He was too moderate a man to call for the immediate abolition of slavery, but he hoped that the progress of business and the spread of democratic ideals would soon render it irrelevant. True, he didn't free his own slaves until he died, but if his whole generation had done that, as many of them promised, American history would have been very different. 

Besides the principles of democracy, there is the practice. If you think it should be easy to stage a revolution and then create a democracy, look around the world: at Mexico, Colombia, Brazil, Argentina, Thailand, Egypt. At Venezuela, sliding into chaos. At China, where a heroic attempt to found a Republic collapsed into warlordism and civil war, leading eventually to Mao's bloody tyranny. At France, where the thrill of 1789 led only to Terror and Napoleon. For quite a long time the United States was the only large, diverse democracy in the world, the only example showing that such a thing was even possible. The leaders of Russia and China still think it is impossible for their countries, as do many Brazilians. If you have not paused to consider what an extraordinary achievement this was, perhaps you should.

How many great leaders of men have been offered the chance to seize dictatorial power and then declined it with as much grace as George Washington? I think the stabilization of American democracy owes quite a bit to him personally, and to me that alone is an achievement that justifies all of his honors.

Come to think of it, I have a third thing to say: there are no perfect people. Everyone has sins. Lincoln, as I wrote here recently, supported colonizing freed slaves back to Africa; FDR accepted segregation as the price of the New Deal; US Grant demolished the Confederacy but then allowed the destruction of the Plains Indians. If we're not going to give up on the whole business of putting up statues to heroes, we're going to have to grant people some leeway. It is enough to me that modern figures were on the right side of history, however one might define that. If they took the other side –John Calhoun, Jefferson Davis, etc. – then maybe their statues have to come down. But I think it is a huge mistake to condemn people who worked or fought for freedom because they did not get all the way to where we are now.

Monday, June 29, 2020

Solomon Maimon: Wandering Jew

Solomon Maimon (1753- 1800) was a rabbi's son who was lured away by western philosophy, becoming a confidant of Immanuel Kant and other Enlightened luminaries. In 1793 he published an autobiography, which was recently issued in a new translation and reviewed by Audrey Borowski in the March 6 TLS:
Married off to the daughter of an innkeeper as a Talmudic prodigy at the age of eleven, Maimon worked as a tutor, flirted with Hasidism at the court of Rabbi Dov Ber in Mezritch, grew disillusioned with the movement's lack of intellectual seriousness, and traveled to Berlin to study medicine. However, anti-Jewish restrictions reduced him to roaming Germany for months as a bedraggled beggar until 1780, when he finally succeeded in breaking into Berlin intellectual circles. He had the support – partly financial – of several employers and generous patrons, including the rabbi of the Jewish community in Posen and, later, the freethinking Count Adolf von Kalckreuth. This unsettled way of life suited him rather well: he would later describe those years as the "happiest and most successful" period in his life, when, unencumbered by familial responsibilities – having abandoned his wife and son back in Poland early on – he could devote himself fully to the contemplative ideal, while nonetheless deriding the "idleness" of those Jewish scholars had left behind at home.

Maimon jumped from one discipline to another, from astronomy and mathematics to medicine, philosophy and literature. He had immersed himself in books and absorbed philosophical systems from the moment he had access to his father's library, finding good in – and building on – each of them, even attempting to revise Kant's transcendental philosophy by drawing on Leibniz's concept of infinitesimal calculus.

Yet Maimon never really contemplated putting theory into practice, and as a result often found himself o the brink of disaster. His journey towards intellectual self-perfection often reads like a picaresque novel, complete with nocturnal flights, abductions, corrupt clerics, debauched princes, disgruntled Poles and mischief of various kinds;. These episodes form a tragicomedy in which wit, humor and self-awareness provide an antidote to the ambient misery. Early in his marriage, he engaged in "constant warfare" with his abusive mother-in-law, whom he "paid back with interest" and on whose head he eventually dumped a pot of milk. In the middle of one night he dressed up as his late mother in order to haunt his mother-in-law and threaten her with eternal damnation. 
Though he never completed his medical studies, Maimon concocted medicines and wrote prescriptions for patients, "not wanting to content himself with theory." As he writes himself, "one can imagine how that went. At lest it had the happy consequence of making me realize that I hadn't grasped much of what goes into being a practicing doctor. Maimon also tells us that a blatant attempt at self-advancement – conversion to Protestantism – failed because he could accept only a demystified version of Christianity. He therefore resigned himself to remaining a "stubborn Jew."
As his motto Maimon took a line from the Talmud, "Lovers of wisdom have no rest in this world or the world to come."

Excellent article on Maimon's career and philosophy here.

The Pandemic and the Future of Working from Home

Teleworking has gone in and out of fashion over the past 30 years; some companies have embraced it for a while and then give it up, ordering everyone back to their cubicles. 
Marissa Mayer, the chief executive of Yahoo, created a furor when she forced employees back into offices in 2013. “Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people and impromptu team meetings,” a company memo explained.

Tech companies proceeded to spend billions on ever more lavish campuses that employees need never leave. Facebook announced plans in 2018 for what were essentially dormitories. Amazon redeveloped an entire Seattle neighborhood. When Patrick Pichette, the former chief financial officer at Google, was asked, “How many people telecommute at Google?” he said he liked to answer, “As few as possible.”
Depending on who you ask, these and other companies ended telework either because they realized it wasn't working or because their numbers took a downturn and they panicked.

This time around, the numbers for most companies have been good; here is John Sullivan, a professor of management:
The data over the last three months is so powerful. People are shocked. No one found a drop in productivity. Most found an increase. People have been going to work for a thousand years, but it’s going to stop and it’s going to change everyone’s life.
That isn't true about the past and might not be true about the future, but it seems to be true about right now. For now, things are going great with millions of office workers working from home. What does it mean?

It might turn out to be just another way to micromanage employees, or to make them compete against each other. Here is one CEO:
I kind of learned who was really doing the work and who was not really doing as much work as it looked like on paper that they might have been doing, . . . With some of the supervisory, middle-management people I’m starting to wonder if I really need them.
I find that I am about as productive as ever, but I am having trouble separating work from everything else. Working from home with four children in the house I get a steady stream of distractions, so that to really get in eight hours I have to get back on my computer after dinner and work for a couple of hours. It's great not to have to commute 90 minutes each way, but on the other hand I'm getting a lot less reading done. Plus it's sort of lonely.

I think the brutally efficient thing for my company to do would be to close our DC offices and make us all work from home. I don't get anything out of working in the office that would really justify the cost of renting that space. On the other hand I have worked over the years with many home-office people who were manifestly not invested in the success of what we were doing together, so I can see that there are sometimes costs.

So I don't know. But I have a feeling that after this is finally over most people will go back to their offices and their commutes.

Kawase Hasui

Kawase Hasui (1883 - 1957) was a Japanese painter and printmaker born in Tokyo. According to wikipedia, 
From youth Hasui dreamed of an art career, but his parents had him take on the family rope and thread wholesaling business. Its bankruptcy when he was 26 freed him to pursue art.
(One of Hasui's paintings, Coastal Landscape, 1927)

Which makes me wonder; did the business fail due to circumstances beyond Hasui's control, or maybe because he wasn't paying attention? Or did he actively sabotage it so he could get back to being an artist? And maybe you shouldn't entrust the family business to a son who desperately wants to be doing something else?

And here is an insight into Japan's artistic community in the 1910s: Hasui approached Kiyokata Kaburagi (a maker of prints in the traditional style) to teach him, but 
Kaburagi instead encouraged him to study Western-style painting, which he did with Okada Saburōsuke for two years. Two years later he again applied as a student to Kaburagi, who this time accepted him.
So even those Japanese artists determined to keep the Japanese tradition alive thought it was important to learn something of western-style art. I think a print like the one above, Hasui Kayagafuchi Rapids in Chōmonkyō Gorge, shows a strong western influence.

Hasui did his share of famous Japanese scenes like temples and bridges, I suppose because they sold well, but what really interested him was ordinary scenes of Japanese cities and rural places. He traveled widely around Japan with a sketch book, drawing scenes that he would later carve into wood blocks. Above is a street scene in Nagasaki, from Selected Views of Japan.

I find the mixture of realism and nostalgia in some of these compelling; this is a scene from Twelve Months of Tokyo.

Detail from Snowy Kiyomizudo, Ueno. From this gallery site, which has many of these for sale.

Here's an image I was startled to see in a Japanese woodblock of the 1920s: Abandoned Rice Warehouse at Karatsu,

Hama-cho River Bank,
detail, 1925

Tochinoki Hot Springs in Higo Province

Winter Moon over Toyama Plain
, 1931. If you would like to see more, wikimedia has dozens.