Friday, February 23, 2024

The Gdansk Port Crane

Thanks to a little news item that I will get to in a moment, I discovered the existence of the Gdansk port crane.This is quite extraordinary, a bit of surviving port technology from the 1400s. Some sources say that this was for centuries the largest crane in the world.

But as soon as I saw these pictures I thought, "What about World War II?"

And, yes, of course, the thing was very badly damaged:

All elements constituting the crane wooden structure were destroyed: roof truss of towers, ceilings, the central part – the lift, part of the tower walls were also significantly damaged. After World War II, the facility was reconstructed, retaining its original dimensions, while the tower inside was equipped with reinforced concrete inter-floor ceiling slabs and staircases as well as steel roof trusses. The wooden central part with the crane mechanism was also reconstructed.
On the other hand, I've seen things damaged worse than this that have been rebuilt and are still enjoyed as historic monuments, so I'm willing to post about this one. It was mainly used, not for loading or unloading ships, but for outfitting and repairing them: lifting masts into position, lifting ships up for quick work on their undersides, etc; later on it was used for lifting engines in and out of hulls.


Views of the reconstructed interior. As built (and reconstructed), it was treadmill-powered. I wondered if it was ever converted to steam power, but I can't find a source that says. 

Anyway, this was in the news because it is being extensively renovated, and during work around the foundations this medieval love token was found, a turtledove bearing the classic inscription AMOR VINCIT OMNIA.

Links 23 February 2024

Gold pendant with pearls in the shape of a caravel, Greece, 17th century

The adult consequences of childhood bullying (bad).

Privately built spacecraft successfully lands on the Moon. It carries a bunch of devices, some from NASA and some from private entities, supposed to prepare the way for a future human base.

Millions of sardines beach themselves on a Philippine island that is poor enough for people to excitedly scoop them up in baskets to eat or sell.

The Sprint/T-Mobile merger was criticized as anti-competitive, but creating a powerful entity capable of competing with AT&T and Verizon seems to have reduced prices and improved service. Of course it is possible that the main driver of falling prices is just better technology and this merger had nothing to do with it, but anyway the dire consequences predicted by some anti-trust advocates have not come to pass.

A claim that Neanderthals used an adhesive made with bitumen and ochre to attach stone tools to handles. This significance is that using adhesive to attach two things together to make a tool has long been considered an important step in human cognitive development.

Study of genomes from the Roman period suggests that under the empire about 8 percent of people lived in a different region than their recent ancestors.

New archaeological discoveries in Bronze Age Oman.

Today in conspiracy theories, a pro-Russian source says dissident Alexei Navalny was killed by the Covid vaccine.

What is a species? “A 2021 survey found that practicing biologists used 16 different approaches to categorizing species. Any two of the scientists picked at random were overwhelmingly likely to use different ones.” As one biologist says, “Everyone uses the term, but no one knows what it is.” (NY Times) My readers know that I agree with Charles Darwin, who argued that the word has no special meaning: “I look at the term species as one arbitrarily given for the sake of convenience to a set of individuals closely resembling each other.”

One of the founders of Moms for Liberty is in hot water after her husband, accused of sexual assault, defended himself by saying that his accuser had been part of a consensual threesome with him and his wife. An advocate for "Don't Say Gay" bills, Bridget Ziegler was greeted at a recent school board meeting with signs reading "Don't Say Threesome."

Lovely Merovingian gold ring found in Denmark.

A claim that a Neolithic stone wall more than a mile long has been found on the floor of the Baltic Sea.

Urban children in 18th- and 19th-century Britain suffered from seasonal vitamin D deficiency, which you can read from their teeth. I have mentioned here before that many 19th-century reformers were obsessed with getting clean milk to slum dwellers, and that Louis Pasteur got famous because his process made that possible. The stains in their teeth show you why there was so much concern.

In the US syphilis seemed on the path to instinction back in 2000, but since then it has come roaring back. This article blames collapsing public health infrastructure but I have to think it declined in the first place because of fear of AIDS and has rebounded as that fear has declined.

Two mass graves of plague victims excavated in Germany, probably date to the 1600s.

From a long Scott Siskind post responding to the comments on his recent post about polyamory, I derive this graph comparing the frequency of sex for monogamous and poly people. Statistically speaking, those lines are pretty close to identical. (Of course that might just mean that monogamous and poly people lie the same amount.)

Andrei Morozov, the LPR volunteer and then Russian solider known as Murz, seems to have committed suicide. In his final post he said he was suffering from shell shock. Before exiting he posted what he said were the official Russian numbers on their losses losses during the capture of Avdiivka: 16,000 men and 300 armored vehicles. The war he helped to launch has grown into an all-consuming monster.

Thursday, February 22, 2024

Americans and the Economy

Strange piece in the NY Times about why Americans are not more enthusiastic about the economy, based on a bunch of focus groups. It is interesting mainly because it shows that most Americans are too wrapped up in their own lives to have any kind of long-term vision, and also that they do not understand how the government and the economy are related.

When asked what drives the economy, many Americans have a simple, single answer that comes to mind immediately: “greed.” They believe the rich and powerful have designed the economy to benefit themselves and have left others with too little or with nothing at all.

We know Americans feel this way because we asked them. . . . While national indicators may suggest that the economy is strong, the Americans we listened to are mostly not thriving. They do not see the economy as nourishing or supporting them. Instead, they tend to see it as an obstacle, a set of external forces out of their control that nonetheless seems to hold sway over their lives.
Ok, fine, I also agree that our economy is too good for the very rich and our society too accepting of outrageous greed. But that isn't why regular folks feel strapped; in terms of purchasing power, Americans in (let's say) the 20th-40th percentile of income are richer than similar people in Japan, Korea, Canada, Mexico, or most of Europe, and way richer than just about everyone in Bolivia or Nigeria. There are many reasons to want to bring down the rich, but that would not in and of itself make everybody else richer. 

The main complaint of people in the focus groups was a sense of living paycheck to paycheck, with no ability to save for a rainy day:
While a tight job market has produced historic gains for lower-income workers, many of the low-income workers we spoke with are unable to accumulate enough money to build a safety net for themselves. “I like the feeling of not living on the edge of disaster,” a special education teacher in rural Tennessee said. “[I am] at my fullest potential economically” right now, but “I’m still one doctor’s visit away from not being there, and pretty much most people I know are.”
Or this:

Well-being “is about being financially stable. It’s not about being rich, but it’s about being able to take care of your everyday needs without stressing.”

But what is an “everyday need”? For millions of Americans, the category has expanded to include many things that did not even exist 20 years ago: smartphones with unlimited data plans, multiple streaming services, etc. There is an old economic principle that applies here, known as Parkinson's law: expenditures rise to meet income. There is no obvious, absolute amount of expenditure to which everyone is entitled, some sort of basic standard that every should be able to afford.

I am not going to get on some kind of moral high horse here and complain about how other people spend money, especially since I am not particularly virtuous in this department. But there is not, in this article, a single acknowledgement that household budgeting has two sides, and maybe one might save money by spending less. In America we have a whole genre of books and videos about how to save money and retire early, and they all say the same thing: pay yourself first. That is, the way to save money is to have it moved automatically into savings and then scrimp by on whatever is left. Maybe some of the people interviewed by the Times are really in bad financial shape and can't do this, but I am certain not all of them are. I know people who live just fine on incomes most Americans would consider very small, so I know it can be done. If you want to spend less and save, stop saying that every penny you spend is an "everyday need" and do it.

And then there is the question of politics. The people in these focus groups seem to be overwhelmingly turned off by politics, sure that neither Republicans nor Democrats have anything to offer them. But one of the complaints that comes up repeatedly is this:

the threat of an accident or a surprise medical bill looms around every corner.

This is true, and I agree that this is shameful, but this is a problem that absolutely has a political solution. We know this, because all the other rich countries in the world have solved it; the US is the only rich country where medical bankruptcy is a serious problem. And one party, the Democrats, has been trying to solve it since the 1930s, while the other, the Republicans, opposes them.

This is true regardless of how you feel about government health care, or anything else about the parties. If the Democrats had had sufficient power over the past 30 years, we would have a national health system. Maybe it would suck, but it could solve the problem of the "surprise medical bill."

Here we come to one of the other long-term problems of democracy: that people don't understand how politics works, and how hard it is to enact any serious change. I can imagine some of these focus groupers saying, "Well, I voted for Bill Clinton, and he didn't do anything, and I voted for Obama and all I got was this Bronze plan that I can't afford and doesn't pay for much." (Or, on the opposite side, "I voted for George W. Bush and the Republicans held both houses of Congress and we still didn't replace Social Security with a better federal retirement program.") 

American voters regularly elect one party because they like what they are promising, but then if it hasn't materialized in two years they turn around and vote for the other party. Two years is not enough, in our system, to do much, especially when you only have a 52-48 majority. The president has no magic wand he can wave to make things better for everyone, even if his allies control both houses of Congress; but sufficient pressure exerted over decades can at least shift the economy in different directions. We saw that with the neoliberalism of the Carter-Reagan-Bush-Clinton-Bush era. 

If the issue that bugs you the most is economic insecurity, then you should vote that issue every year until it happens. But we don't seem to be like that.

My overwhelming response to this whole article was that for the people they interviewed, there is no solution. There is no solution because "everyday needs" are an ever-expandable category. Our system is based, on the one hand, on greed, but on the other on offering everyone unlimited tempting things to spend money on, unlimited ways to buy a little happiness with cash. No matter your income, you can't save for a rainy day unless you resist the pressure to buy joy.

And if you just ignore politics because nobody you vote for has a magic wand, then you are part of the problem.

Tuesday, February 20, 2024

Bukele's El Salvador

Interesting piece by Geoff Shullenberger about the reign of El Salvador's Nayib Bukele, most famous for suspending the constitution to jail all the country's gang members. Bukele is descended from Christian Palestinians and came into politics through the left-wing FMLN party. He was expelled from the FMLN in 2017 and founded his own party, New Ideas. He ran for president in 2019 and won; most observers thought his victory was due to the nation's exhaustion with the older parties of the left and right, which had alternated in power since the end of the Civil War and seemed incapable of improving the economy or controlling the violence that made El Salvador the murder capital of the world.

Under Bukele violence went down some and the economy was pretty good; people say, although this has never been proved, that he reduced crime by cutting some kind of deal with El Salvador's powerful gangs. Then in March, 2022, Bukele announced a state of emergency and his government launched a nationwide program of mass arrests, jailing 70,000 to 75,000 people they accused of being involved with the gangs. Human rights groups screamed, and even Bukele's supporters admit that thousands of innocent people were jailed, but violent crime fell by 50%, dozens of neighborhoods were freed from gang rule, and Bukele instantly became the most beloved leader in the world. He ran for an unconstitutional second term this year, and on February 4 won 80% of the vote in an election most observers think was pretty fair.

Shullenberger is ambivalent about this, as I think most outsiders are. I mean, violent crime isn't much of a problem in North Korea, either. But Bukele is not just a thug, and he cannot really be classified as a conservative. Among other things, Bukele spends a lot of time denouncing outside interference in El Salvador, and blaming its problems on the Americans:

He summarized the last four or five decades as an unbroken string of violations of Salvadoran sovereignty, mainly by the United States. First came the civil war, an “international war” that made El Salvador “one battlefield more” between foreign powers; then, the 1992 peace accords—“another of the tricks we’ve been subjected to in our history,” which “brought no peace,” only new forms of violence; then, the deportation of gang members from the United States, prompting new generations to flee. The same story, again and again: a population subjected to unending brutality by external forces, all due to a lack of sovereignty and self-determination. “From now on, we will build our own destiny,” Bukele declared.
Bukele sometimes talks like a socialist arguing that
the power exerted by gangs amounted to an acutely oppressive form of neoliberal privatization of public space, in which those who couldn’t afford walled compounds and private guards found their lives dictated by the whims of organized crime.

Shullenberger:

I asked the Honduran-Salvadoran novelist Horacio Castellanos Moya, known for his paranoid, darkly hilarious novels about the region, what he made of the young president’s rise. He replied with a simple point that is often overlooked: “Bukele’s popularity is not the product of having defeated the gangs.” That happened in 2022, well after he had crushed the opposition, first in the 2019 presidential elections and then in the 2021 legislative elections, and consolidated the institutions of state power in support of his agenda. In this sense, it was his popularity that enabled the defeat of the gangs, not the other way around. It is hard to imagine the apparent lockstep loyalty of state institutions would be what it is today without the public support behind the president’s projects, and without many within them being believers in the project they are undertaking.

In Castellanos Moya’s account, Salvadorans coalesced around Bukele because they were “hypnotized by the promise of the new” the young leader embodied. In other words, it was the imaginative capture of the public by Bukele’s charismatic appeals that enabled the institutional capture. It is an argument one would expect from a novelist: Power over the imagination precedes political power and makes it possible. But I found this conclusion hard to dispute. . . 

“Terror is the given of the place,” Didion wrote of El Salvador in 1982. Castellanos Moya told me something similar: “The form of social domination in El Salvador throughout time has been terror: The army, the security forces, the guerrillas and the gangs have been the instruments of that form of domination.” Today, terror no longer haunts the streets of central San Salvador, but it hasn’t been eliminated altogether, merely relocated and concentrated, as the glossy videos of the Terrorism Confinement Center (capacity: 40,000) make clear.

To Shullenberger, the case of Bukele is among other things a parable about how populist third parties come to power, and what people want from government: freedom from violence, and a positive vision for the future. Shullenberger says Bukele's only weakness seems to be the economy, which is ok but nothing like the modernizing transformation he has promised. But if growth does take off, Bukele could easily keep winning unconstitutional elections for decades.

Monday, February 19, 2024

Developers Building Tiny House Communities

With all the complaining about the price of houses, I have wondered why someone didn't just do the obvious and build them smaller. I mean, a lot of Americans live by themselves these days.

And I'm not the only one who had this thought. A developer in San Antonio, Texas is building a subdivision called Elms Trails where you can get a very small house for around $130,000 and up.

And here is a similar development near Seattle.

You can get them even smaller; this is a small neighborhood of 350-square-feet homes, also near San Antonio.

Village of Wildflowers, a tiny house retirement community in North Carolina.

There are also a bunch of DYI tiny house communities springing up, that is, places zoned for small houses with small lots and utility hook-ups where you can build tiny house or install one you bring in on a trailer. The most famous seems to be Spur, Texas (below). I think this is great. People have long complained that developers only build for the median family, so many folks who want a good location and a decent neighborhood have to buy much more house than they need. So lets build them in all sizes.

Sunday, February 18, 2024

Links 16 February 2024

Donkeys on a fragment of wall from an Egyptian Tomb, c. 2400 BC

Bizarre scandal at the Hugo Awards.

Scott Sumner compares Abu Dhabi and Orange County. And here he looks at the economic situation in the rich Arab states, where the complete lack of a domestic working class means they can hire workers or firms from all over the world, making some industries very efficient.

Interesting piece by Jonathan Chait reviewing the career of Bari Weiss, who has retraced the path of the original neoconservatives: beginning as a Jewish liberal, she feels driven by progressives excesses and leftist hatred of Israel to join the right.

Visitors to Rome can now see a replica of the Colossus of Constantine.

There is now a very detailed 3D model of the best preserved Roman military diploma, a centurion's discharge from AD 71.

Some jurisdictions, including the whole country of Ireland, are limiting the construction of data centers because of their huge consumption of electricity and water.

Speaking of which, Scott Siskind runs the numbers and finds that developing a theoretical GPT-7 would require all the energy and computing power in the world.

The US Marines are testing a naval logistics drone "inspired by drug running narco subs."

Refuting the always dubious idea that sexual kissing was invested in South Asia around 1500 BC, which was based on the genetics of the Herpes virus. (NY Times) Sumerian records documenting kissing are older, and there are pretty convincing depictions of kissing in Neolithiic art, and since bonobos kiss it is probably a lot older than than. It is certainly true that not all cultures practice it, but it just seems too obvious to me to require some special act of invention or transmission.

The saga of Flaco, a Eurasian Eagle-Owl who escaped from New York's Central Park Zoo last year and took up residence in the park, teaching himself how to fly and hunt rats, thereby becoming a beloved symbol of freedom and the subject of several pieces of street art. (NY Times, wikipedia, CBS News video)

A libertarian look at the early moves of Argentina's libertarian president, Javier Milei, with a glimpse at the libertarian energy spreading across South America. No libertarian myself, I would agree that South America has a long-term problem with excessive statism and public corruption.

Interesting NY Times story about the rise of BYD, China's hugely successful electric car maker. On the one hand, they have grown thanks to billions in direct government subsidies, but on the other they have pioneered new battery technologies and are making appealing electric cars much more cheaply than any US or European manufacturer.

How to respond to criticism. Humor, I hope.

The violent death of the bog body known as Vitrup Man.

Video showing that Iran has converted a large ex-cargo ship to carry vertical launch silos for ballistic missiles. Such a ship could theoretically carry hundreds of missiles, although there's no way of knowing how many working launch silos it actually carries.

Ukraine sinks another Russian warship with naval drones, this time the landing ship Caesar Kunikov; the ship was attacked by several drones from multiple angles. Russia has been using these ships to ferry key supplies and personnel to Crimea, so this a more significant loss than last month's sinking of a missile corvette. And on Youtube.

Tuesday, February 13, 2024

Running out of Things

Alex Tabarrok calls our attention to the myriad predictions that a shortage of Lithium would cripple battery production and thus limit the switch to electric cars etc.; meanwhile Lithium production keeps rising and the price of batteries keeps falling.

This has been a theme over my whole life. I grew up with predictions that the world was about to run out of oil; in high school we played a primitive computer game in which you tried to keep civilization alive without running out of energy, and it was very hard to win. I remember in particular that the game said the US would run out of natural gas in six years, and hear we are 44 years later with natural gas production still rising.

I also grew up with predictions that the world would run out of food, with news stories from every African famine shown as glimpses of the world's future. But you only have to look toward the borders of Ukraine, where Polish and Romanian farmers are trying to block Ukrainian grain exports, to see that we are suffering as much from an oversupply of food as a shortage. Instead of starvation, we have seen the slow, painful disappearance of the family farm in the face of falling prices.

I no longer take any of these predictions seriously. So far as I can see, we have reached a level of technology and wealth that the makes the danger of real, physical shortages very slight.

Energy? Solar power gets cheaper every year, new types of nuclear reactors promise oceans of safe power, geothermal power may soon be practical on a massive scale, and many engineers say fusion power is 15 to 25 years away.

Fresh water? We are on the edge of making solar-powered desalination affordable on a massive scale. 

Rare minerals like Lithium and Cobalt? The rising demand for these items has spawned, on the one hand, major efforts to mine them, and on the other drives to use them more efficiently and recycle them when they are used up.

I could go on. I do not mean to say that our consumption of these things is cost-free; we are digging up and paving over huge areas to do all of this, causing strange kinds of pollution with unforseeable impacts, and so on. But in our world almost all "shortages" are really about politics. Shortages of housing are created by limitations on building; famine is now the child of war. 

The one shortage we cannot seem to solve is the shortage of good will; the one desire we cannot sate is the lust for power over each other.

Monday, February 12, 2024

Immigration and Economic Growth in the USA

New Congressional Budget Office annual report on the economy and the budget:

In calendar year 2023, the U.S. economy grew faster than it did in 2022, even as inflation slowed. Economic growth is projected to slow in 2024 amid increased unemployment and lower inflation. CBO expects the Federal Reserve to respond by reducing interest rates, starting in the middle of the year. In CBO’s projections, economic growth rebounds in 2025 and then moderates in later years. A surge in immigration that began in 2022 continues through 2026, expanding the labor force and increasing economic output. . . .

In CBO’s current projections, the number of people who are working or actively seeking employment continues to expand at a moderate pace through 2026. Higher population growth in those years, mainly from increased immigration, more than offsets a decline in labor force participation due to slowing demand for workers and the rising average age of the population. A large proportion of recent and projected immigrants are expected to be 25 to 54 years old—adults in their prime working years. . . .

CBO also projects that high rates of net immigration through 2026 will support economic growth, adding an average of about 0.2 percentage points to the annual growth rate of real GDP over the 2024–2034 period. . . .

The downward revision to economic growth resulting from higher projected interest rates is partly offset by an increase in economic activity over the 2024–2027 period stemming from greater projected net immigration. . . .

That greater immigration is projected to boost the growth rate of the nation’s real gross domestic product (GDP) by an average of 0.2 percentage points a year from 2024 to 2034, leaving real GDP roughly 2 percent larger in 2034 than it would be otherwise. . . .

The US is not suffering economically from its aging population and low birth rates because immigrants of working age are taking up the slack; this is so important that even a small adjustment to the expected number of immigrants (from last year's projection to this year's, a difference of less than 5%) yields measurably increased economic growth. For the forseeable future, this makes our aging population sustainable.

Friday, February 9, 2024

Putin Talks History

Richard Hanania:

On the Tucker interview with Putin.

I'm glad that we got to see this, because it revealed how out of touch Putin is. Tucker begins with a simple question of what the threat was on February 22. Putin's response spends *half an hour* on the entire history of Russia.

We're used to people in the Middle East talking like this. An obsession with deep history is the characteristic of cultures that fight wars that never end. No one wonder no one even in the Russian speaking part of Ukraine wants to be part of Russia. Modern people care about their own lives and freedom and want a vision of the future.

That's what Ukraine and the West offer. Not endless lectures from a grumpy uncle on how Vlad Vladimirovich sent love letters to Svetlana the Elegant in 1207 and why this proves that Russians and Ukrainians are one people.

When talking about geopolitics, the deeper someone goes in history, the more disconnected they are from modern reality, and the less likely they are to be a rational actor who can be negotiated with. Putin had arguments he could've started with about the US interfering in Russian affairs or whatever, but he's deranged enough to think that leading with a lecture on the history of the Slavic peoples is how you sell a war in the twenty first century.
Sometimes I wish people cared more about history but then I look at people who do care and have similar thoughts. More depth here.

And this:

Links 9 February 2024


George Sherwood Hunter, Jubilee Procession in a Cornish Village, 1897

The Vesuvius Challenge awards its Grand Prize in the contest to read a carbonized scroll from the Villa of the Papyri: "We Can Now Read the First Scroll." Seems to be part of an Epicurean treatise about the pleasure of listening to music.

Kagen Sound's amazing wooden puzzle boxes.

Interesting piece at Reason on some company coal towns in Iowa that seem to have been both integrated and nice places to live – so long as the coal lasted, which wasn't very long.

Cute 10-minute video in which Japanese carpentry students build the frame of a pagoda in the traditional manner, with no nails or screws. As a safety-trained American it freaked me out to see a sharp chisel used on a block held in place by a bare foot.

Pretty good, somewhat anti-trans article in the NY Times about the changing nature of the trans population. One de-transitioning 23-year-old says, “What should be a medical and psychological issue has been morphed into a political one. It’s a mess.”

According to the Guardian, more than 10,000 scientific papers were formally withdrawn last year. This piece focuses, not on the sins of famous scientists, but on the "mills" that are turning out hundreds of dubious papers a year.

Despite claims that we are busier than ever, Americans seem to be sleeping more than we used to. Did you know that sleep number beds collect and share data on your sleep habits?

Grave of an Avar warrior from the 7th century includes a complete set of lamellar (scale) armor.

Chinese people upset about the decline of stock prices have found an interesting place to post their angry comments: as part of a US Embassy thread on giraffe conservation.

A Tumblr displaying the AI-generated paintings of an imaginary 19th-century painter whose stuff looks a lot like William Waterhouse. Very interesting, actually. One the one hand this is bad for artists, but on the other it is good for people like me who want to create images of our fantasy worlds but can't draw. (So far I have put this off as a potential gigantic time sink.)

Fossils of a 350-million-year-old tree provide some insight into the leaves and branches of early trees, which are known mostly from fossils of their trunks. "A perpetual bad-hair day." (Science, NY Times)

Archaeologists find a blacksmith's shop in Oxfordshire that may date back to 770 BC, the beginning of the British Iron Age. Best of all, it's in a range of hills called the Wittenham Clumps.

Scott Siskind notes that people who write books about themselves are not like other people, so memoirs by polyamorous people don't necessarily reveal much about most polyamorous people. This generalizes broadly: people who write about politics are not politically like other people, people who went to January 6 are not representative of Trump voters, people who make videos about their houses do not have normal houses, etc. I wonder all the time about the implications of this for doing history.

Last year the US imported more from Mexico than from China, for the first time in 20 years. (X, NY Times). Some of this is just moving the assembly of final products from China, so there are still a lot of Chinese parts that don't count in the statistics.

Mysterious deposit of black henbane seeds from Roman-period site in the Netherlands; black henbane is one of the plants that is hallucinogenic if you take just the right amount but kills you if you take too much.

Some of the new art in the NYC Subway.

Advice from 1340 on how to recognize a werewolf.

Remarkable pair of two-minute videos documenting the destruction of a small Russian armored column by drones and artillery.

Wednesday, February 7, 2024

Coptic Magical Papyri

I just discovered the web site of the Coptic Magical Papyri project, devoted to assembling all of the known Coptic magical texts from late antique Egypt. They have cataloged about 600 of these texts, mainly spanning the 3rd to 7th centuries AD, with a few from later centuries. Most are written on papyrus but a few were scratched onto potsherds.

The collection spans the transition from paganism to Christianity to Islam; the texts note the changes in the names of the beings evoked, but otherwise remain much the same. Of the text above they write:

on the left is a prayer attributed to the Archangel Michael (depicted at bottom right, with his two "powers"), while on the right are a series of recipes for which the prayer can be used – a curse to put someone into a coma-like state, a reconciliation spell, a spell to ensure fidelity, another to protect animals from evil sorcery, one to protect a children in childbirth, and a general ritual of protection.

In this blog post, they explore the different kinds of spells in their collection. As you would expect, healing and protection are the most common types, with a lot of overlap between them. "Unlcear" are mainly prayers, which they say are probably also protective. The most fun categores are love spells and curses, especially the curses aimed at breaking up couples or ruining their sex lives. Fascinating that they have a few spells that were supposed to give the patron a better voice; whether this was for singing or speaking is not specified.

The web site opens a door into a scholarly kingdom of magic, with links to other digital projects, conferences, printed collections, and so on. Most of these people justify themselves by saying the magical texts are great sources for social history, but it seems to me that many of them just love reading spells and incantations in arcane languages. There is no topic in this field that somebody is not investigating, from the role to scent in magical ritual to the law surrounding cursing. To give you an idea of the depth of this scholarship, consider this article:
The Greek magical papyri are full of marginalia, in which scribes make notes to themselves, or correct or add to the text, but these have generally been ignored in the past since they are almost invisible in the existing editions and translations. This article provides a detailed overview of the marginal notes in the manuscripts of the Theban Magical Library.

The project blog actually covers a wide variety of magical texts, including Aramaic incantation bowls, one of which includes this text:

By my door I sit, I, Gusnazdukt daughter of Ahat; the Babylonian (spell) I cast. In the rubbish I sit, I Gusnazdukt daughter of Ahat; the (spell) of Borsippa I cast into the crumbling earth, I whom no-one restrains.

The importance of gates of various kinds, including ordinary doorways, might be one of the "principles" of magic that I always mourn the absence of. And shouldn't there be some kind of demonic being called "I whom no-one restrains"?

Sunday, February 4, 2024

Mari and its Ancient Music

Mari is an ancient city on the Euphrates River in eastern Syria, now in the midst of the ongoing fighting between the US and various Muslim militias. It seems to have been founded as a city around 2900 BC, rather than having grown up from a village. 

It always had close ties to Sumer, so it was presumably founded to serve as an outpost of Sumerian trade. As you can see from this early statue of one of its leaders, its arts were in those days entirely Sumerian.


It has been the subject of significant archaeological efforts for a century, first by the French and then by a long-lasting French-Syrian collaboration. In particular, a vast trove of cuneiform tablets has been recovered, which are especially rich for the 2000 to 1759 BC period. We know, therefore, quite a lot about its history. The Louvre has a great many objects in their collection that come from the Temple of Ishtar of the 2500 to 2340 period, including these amulets.

The standard accounts of Mari's history include periods of "abandonment" followed by "refoundings." This is, in fact, what the cuneiform tablets say, but they were produced by kings for their own purposes, and I have always been dubious of this formulation. Suppose a city is "destroyed" by a conqueror. Does it really stay vacant until it is "refounded" by another king a century later? Or are people poking around the ruins the day the destroyer's army moves on, looking for houses intact enough to occupy? I think it is more likely that such a city is never actually empty, just reduced, and the "refounding" consists mainly of rebuilding the palace and chief temple and restoring the walls to a strong defensive posture. I mean, how much damage could a conqueror do to a city built almost entirely of mud brick anyway?

The first "abandonment" of Mari took place around 2600 BC. By 2500 BC it had been refounded and become the center of a large kingdom (above). But this powerful city was "destroyed" around 2300 BC by Sargon of Akkad, who comes down to us as the founder of the first empire. The Akkadians installed a military governor who gloried in the name of Shakkanakku. The Akkadian empire fell apart not long after, and the governors of Mari became independent and their descendants led the city until around 1850 BC.


(Theoretical question about history: Our earliest documents from Mesopotamia describe city states that were all largely independent, but then they start conquering each other. Did that have to be invented? Was there a more "primitive" past when you could destroy a rival village or force them to become your friends, but nobody had conceived of installing your own governor to rule over them? I wonder. But I suppose it must be true that the principles of building and maintaining an empire had to be learned over time.) 

It is when we get to the rulers who followed Shakkanakku's line that our knowledge of Mari really explodes. In this period Mari's royal palace grew into a huge and extravagant place, famous throughout Mesopotamia.

Still from this video of a 3D digital reconstruction.

Surviving fresco, c. 1760 BC, depicting a sacrificial procession.

Surviving fresco from the inner court, called in our texts the Multicolor Court. It depicts one of Mari's rulers receiving the emblems of rulership from Ishtar. We even know a story about this court. Our texts tell us that around 1800 BC a young woman named Beltum arrived at Mari from Qatna to become the principal wife of crown prince Yasmah-Addu. (To give you an idea of how well this period is documented, we have not only detailed lists of the gifts exchanged between the two royal families but a panicky-sounding letter to the palace staff ordering that suitable chambers in the palace be made ready for Beltun's imminent arrival, even if it meant kicking somebody else out.) Beltun brought with her a woman who was identified as her "mother," but from the context it seems that this meant her childhood nurse. Mari's scribes universally held this nanny to be a complete pain in the ass and recorded in detail how annoying she could be; one wrote, "if only this woman, who raised Beltum since her youth and knew her ways, could have been left behind!" One of the complaints against this nanny was that she allowed Beltum to be outside in the Multicolor Court with her singers during the heat of the day, because of which she had fallen ill.

Male harp player, c. 1800 BC

The most amazing thing to me about the court of Mari in this period is the astonishing records of the palace musicians. These numbered more than one hundred, grouped into several different "houses." We have multiple lists of them, because they were all paid, and the scribes of course kept track of every measure of barley they paid out. The main instruments of Mesopotamian music were harps, lyres, flutes, lutes, and various percussion instruments, which ranged from finger cymbals to huge bronze drums taller than a man. These big drums were so expensive and impressive that Mesopotamian rulers sometimes named years of their reigns after the installation of such a drum in a major temple. There was also singing, by choirs and solo performers.

Here's a weird detail about ancient Sumer: Sumerian included a special dialect used only by women (and goddesses), called Emesal or "thin speech." This was apparently spoken in a very high register, and female singers always sang in this dialect; we can tell which hymns were meant to be sung by women by the dialect of the text. (Incidentally it seems that the male priests of Inanna/Ishtar, who had a strange gender status you can parse as trans if you like, sang in Emesal.)

Female lute player, 2000-1600 BC

Most of the musicians in Mari were women, and the women of the best-documented houses seem to have been from noble families. Music was essential for both religious rites and royal entertainments, and it seems that the same musicians performed in both contexts. One of Mari's musical houses was that of Yasmah-Admu, who led 14 "small musicians." "Small" here seems to mean either adolescents or just apprentices. There was also the House of the Tigum – Tigum was an instrument, but we don't know what kind – which seems to have been a conservatory where girls were trained, since the list of its members included many "very small musicians."

It fascinates me to imagine all those elite young women living together in one building or set of rooms, making music. One of the girls in Yasmah-Admu's house, named Bazatum, left the house when she was married to a prominent nobleman in another city. Were these musical houses finishing schools for noble girls, where they learned how to dress and act at court by serving as musicians? Was music-making one of the accomplishments expected of noble women?

Excavations in Mari's Palace, 1930s

Mari's wonderfully documented royal line came to an end in 1759 BC, when Mari was "destroyed" by Hammurabi of Babylon. Hammurabi actually did destroy the famous palace, which was never rebuilt, althogh the city survived for another thousand years. Hammurabi must have taken some grief for this, because he had an explanation carved onto a stone pillar: he had destroyed Mari because the gods commanded him to do so in a dream.

Some of this is from Amanda H. Podany, Weavers, Scribes and Kings: A New History of the Ancient Near East (2022) on which more to come.

Thursday, February 1, 2024

Links 2 February 2024

Maxfield Parrish, River Ascutney (1942)

Some Americans imagine that everyone in Taiwan is freaked out about a looming Chinese invasion. Meanwhile, in Taiwan, "64k people have signed up for a Facebook event asking McDonald's to allow people to order hash browns a la carte after 10:30 a.m."

Ukrainian naval drones sank the Russian missile corvette Ivanovets Wednesday night, amazing video. And on YouTube.

Hermit crabs using plastic trash instead of old shells.

Work from home is boosting strip malls, because they are well-suited for quick trips out of the house.

Meanwhile in Ukraine: "The future is now. The future is little robots making minefields. Congratulations."

Death by Numbers, a historical project digitizing and investigating London's Bills of Mortality, which contain a lot of data about deaths in the city from 1603 to 1752.

Meanwhile in Modi's India: the tomb of a Sufi saint who advocated religious tolerance, long famous as a place where Hindus and Muslims pray together, "made headlines recently after a top political leader said that he wanted to "liberate" it for just Hindus."

We might run out of sand.

Freddie deBoer, a revolutionary socialist who dislikes being called "liberal" or lumped in with Democrats, has a go at explaining what "liberal bias" really means by analyzing one NT Times article about the DEI industry. Says there is a long history of anti-DEI arguments from the left. One of his comments: "The essential case against mandatory top-down diversity efforts seems neither contrarian nor controversial to me: racism is not an administrative problem and cannot be solved on the administrative level."

New Maya royal tomb.

This week's music is Colter Wall, who has the perfect voice for country/roots music: Kate McCannon, Sleeping on the Blacktop.

Some weird new physics around superconducitivty. One day our super-intelligent AI physicists will figure out how to make verything superconducting.

New solar installations totaled more than 400 gigawatts in 2023, 1000 times more than in 2000.

Fantastic illustrations by Jean Mallard.

Pondering the Edwin Fox, a surviving, 19th-century ship that carried convicts to Australia and Chinese "Coolies" to New Zealand.

Interesting NY Times story about the student athletes who went to New College to play softball and study marketing, only to discover that they are pawns in Ron DeSantis' war on wokeness, and that the school doesn't offer majors in marketing or business. As others have noticed, none of them show any interest in the great books, "classical liberalism" curriculum the new board wants to promote. Also interesting on dumb jock vs. special snowflake tensions, which I'm sure you can all imagine.

Ferrock is a concrete substitute made mainly from steel dust and ground glass, which when heated together draw carbon dioxide from the air to make iron carbonate. If the mix contains the right amounts of fly ash (mostly silicates of oxygen, iron, and aluminum) and clay the result is a "mud" that can be poured like concrete. It seems to be stronger than concrete for some uses and resists salt better. When it is made from waste materials it is also pretty cheap, but experts caution that there is not enough waste steel dust in the world to massively scale up the process. (Quick summary, news story, scientific article)

The Escape of Lewis Lee

Lewis Lee was a light-skinned mulatto slave who was born around 1830 in Fairfax County, Virginia. He had been raised as the body servant of an old man he seems to have admired, but when that old man died he passed via inheritance to a family he did not get along with. They hired him out as a hotel waiter, giving him none of the wages he earned. As William Still wrote in his famous 1872 book about the Underground Railroad, one day in 1859 Lee decided that he had enough:

Slavery brought about many radical changes, some in one way and some in another. Lewis Lee was entirely too white for practical purposes. They tried to get him to content himself under the yoke, but he could not see the point. A man by the name of William Watkins, living near Fairfax, Virginia, claimed Lewis, having come by his title through marriage. Title or no title, Lewis thought that he would not serve him for nothing, and that he had been hoodwinked already a great while longer than he should have allowed himself to be. Watkins had managed to keep him in the dark and doing hard work on the no-pay system up to the age of twenty-five. In Lewis' opinion, it was now time to "strike out on his own hook;" he took his last look of Watkins (he was a tall, slim fellow, a farmer, and a hard drinker), and made the first step in the direction of the North. He was sure that he was about as white as anybody else, and that he had as good a right to pass for white as the white folks, so he decided to do so with a high head and a fearless front. Instead of skulking in the woods, in thickets and swamps, under cover of the darkness, he would boldly approach a hotel and call for accommodations, as any other southern gentleman. He had a little money, and he soon discovered that his color was perfectly orthodox. He said that he was "treated first-rate in Washington and Baltimore;" he could recommend both of these cities. But destitute of education, and coming among strangers, he was conscious that the shreds of slavery were still to be seen upon him. He had, moreover, no intention of disowning his origin when once he could feel safe in assuming his true status. So as he was in need of friends and material aid, he sought out the Vigilance Committee, and on close examination they had every reason to believe his story throughout, and gave him the usual benefit.

Notice the resentment at being allowed to keep none of his wages. In the 1830 to 1860 period it was common for such workers to keep part of any money they earned when hired out, which they could spend or save up toward purchasing their freedom, and this question shows up over and over in slave narratives. Abraham Lincoln made it the certerpice of his attack on slavery, which focused on the right of all workers to be paid for their labor.

Lee's owner placed an ad offering $10,000 for his return, but that ad was reprinted in an abolitionist newspaper along with a mocking poem written from Lee's point of view. Two of the seven stanzas:

Can one-fourth of my blood a slave make of me?
One your courts bind you not to respect,
Still, three fourths of my blood declares I am free,
And your claims to my service reject. . . .

You advertised me, let me advertise you,
That “JEHOVAH no attribute hath ,
Can side with oppressors,” His justice is due,
And man-stealers inherit his wrath.

Lee remained a free man in the North. But after the Civil War he settled for a while in Washington, DC, and then in 1870 he returned to Fairfax County and purchased eight acres of the plantation where he had been born, living there for the rest of his life.

Wednesday, January 31, 2024

William Golding, "The Spire"

The Spire (1964) is a fascinating short novel in which William Golding examined the intersection of things about whose connections I have always wondered: cathedral building, medieval Christianity, insanity, and sexuality. The remarkable thing about the book is that Golding delved mercilessly into these connections without ever being disrespectful to Christianity. The story follows the inner thoughts of one man, Dean Jocelyn, as he struggles to add a 400-foot-tall spire to his cathedral. It is a mad thing to do, everyone tells him; but he saw the spire in a vision, and, as he says, when did God ever command us to do anything reasonable?

I have long been fascinated by the way the behavior of certain medieval saints appears holy from one angle but insane from others. I tried to write such a scene into The Raven and the Crown, an anchoress whose life story can be read equally as the dawning of faith or the loss of her mind. I don't know that I succeeded, but anyway I understand the impulse that drove Golding to write this book. People say that he could see Sarum Cathedral (above) out the windows of the school where he taught for years, and he must have pondered what a crazy thing it was for people so poor in our terms to invest so much in those gigantic piles of stone.

Did it make any sense? Oh, one could offer justifications – civic and national pride, the medieval church's commitment to magnificence, the need for a place that would be the spiritual and physical center of the city – but really not. We would look at the cost and say, no thanks, much better to spend the money helping the poor or improving education or what have you. 

And yet, they are wonderful.

Are the mad? And if they are, what does it mean that the most glorious creations of a whole age are insane? Have we lost anything by choosing to invest in health care and preK rather that mad explosions of beauty? Is a rational world missing something vital that medieval people had abundantly?

Have our vast wealth and long lives failed to make us happy because we devote ourselves too much to comfort and not enough to doing the pointlessly extraordinary?

Tuesday, January 30, 2024

Transforming Brooklyn

Fascinating feature at the NY Times on how Williamsburg, Brooklyn went from a working-class neighborhood known for crime and ethnic strife to a booming, largely wealthy community. Above, North 6th Street in 1992, featuring an abandoned sawdust factory. 

And the same view in 2023, with an art gallery called National Sawdust and big new condominium buildings.

The change began in the 1990s Williamsburg when became the new home of the bohemians driven out of Manhattan by high prices. In 1992 one hipster said, "In the 70s, it was Soho. In the 80s, the East Village. In the 90s, it will be Williamsburg." Above, a 1991 photo of people working to turn an abandoned warehouse into The Fly Trap, a music and arts venue that hosted a lot of raves.

This was done with the cooperation of the borough authorities, who approved all of this, including the use of old, dodgey warehouses as music venues. The government also helped stage a long series of street music festivals that solidified Williamsburg's status as an art mecca. In my experience no neighborhood is ever transformed without both private initiative – from both nonprofits and businesses – and a lot of input from government. The presence of all these Bohemians drew restaurants, and by 1994 the Times food critics had noted the arrival of Williamsburg as a dining destination.

Williamsburg hosted breweries for a century, but by 1990 they had all closed, part of the gradual takover of American beer by a few enormous companies. But then we got the craft beer revival, and in 1996 Rudy Guiliani served as brewmaster for the opening of the new Brooklyn Brewery. (Honestly Rudy was a pretty good mayor before he went crazy.)  But the city modified its zoning laws to allow most of the old factory district to be converted to residential space.

Things really took off during the Bloomberg administration, 2002 to 2013. Bloomberg's people rezoned 37% of NYC and did everything they could think of to promote housing construction, which was built in NYC faster than in any older city in the country. This included 175,000 units deemed "affordable." Bloomberg also pushed the construction of the new commerical district in downtown Brooklyn, which was soon covered with high-rise buildings. During Bloomberg's time in office more than 10,000 new apartments and condomiums were built in the new downtown, and more than 4,500 in Williamsburg. From 1950 to 1980 Brooklyn lost 500,000 inhabitants, or 18.5% of its population; it has now regained all of those people and probably passed the 1950 level last year. Since the average household is smaller, that means many more units.

One of the spots that captures this history is the McCarren Park Pool, which was built to a New York scale, measuring 50 by 100m. This was built by the Works Progress Administration in 1935-1936. It eventually became a derelict site of drug deals and gang fights and was closed in 1984. During the 1990s revival various dreamers tried to bring it back to life, but no plan ever took off. 

In 2005 to 2008 it hosted concerns, especially hip hop.

Then in 2012 it was reopened as a pool.

But along with all this growth came the first complaints about "yuppification" and "gentrification". Upscale retailers like Hermes arrived downtown. Bohemians who came in the 1990s became opponents of development, trying to block new condo buildings so as to keep their neighborhoods as they were. They waged a decade-long fight to prevent the redevelopment of the old Domino Sugar factory on the waterfront, which they finally lost in 2014. Nearby music venues closed and moved to grittier spaces in other neighborhoods.

The Williamsburg waterfront in 2015.

It's a story many American cities have seen over and over: neighborhoods get run down and dangerous, which drives rents very low, which pulls in people like rave promoters and artists who need big loft spaces, which draws in hipster bars and restaurants, which draws in yuppies, which drives up housing prives and eventually drives out the music venues and the hipster bars.

But I don't think there is any realistic alternative to this. The world doesn't stand still. Yes, there is something weird about the repeated, rapid transformation of neighborhoods by capitalism and the quest for cool, but what really kills cities is for things to stay as they are. Living beings are always changing.