Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Hear Me

So I pray the gods may hear even me and let my whispered yes tower above my shouted no and mount all the way to their heavenly realm.

– Lois McMaster Bujold

Monday, January 27, 2020

How Would You Set Up a Non-Racist, Non-Sexist Introductory Humanities Course?

The Yale Art History Department has announced that they are eliminating an old and popular course, Introduction to Art History: Renaissance to the Present. According to the Yale Daily News,
this change is the latest response to student uneasiness over an idealized Western “canon” — a product of an overwhelmingly white, straight, European and male cadre of artists.
(Straight? Really?)

I get this; there is something narrow-minded about a course solely on western art whose title doesn't even bother to mention that it is solely about western art.

But what, you ask, will replace this introductory course? In a word: nothing. Unable to agree on what a non western-centric introductory course would be like, they are declining to offer one.
Instead of this singular survey class, the Art History Department will soon offer a range of others, such as “Art and Politics,” “Global Craft,” “The Silk Road” and “Sacred Places.”
Perhaps they learned something from historians, who have spent decades trying to create World History courses to replace Western Civ, only to find themselves offering a grab bag of random facts at something like a high school level. What, exactly, can you say about world history in a semester?

The underlying message is, I think: all art is cool. All people are important. It doesn't matter which art or which people you study as long as you are learning about something.

Which is a defensible position. But if no knowledge is more important than any other knowledge, why study art or history at all? If there is nothing in particular that an educated person is supposed to know, why go to college? If there are no great books that might change you in important ways, why read any books other than the ones that most amuse you? If no art is greater than other art, why not skip the museum and watch Buffy reruns?

I can imagine a university that moved gracefully from a too-western, too male-canon to a more inclusive canon while still holding on to old-fashioned notions of excellence. But I don't see that happening. What I see is a surrender to chaos.

Chen Yifei

Chen Yifei (1946-2005) was one of the leaders of the still-onrushing wave of big-money Chinese artists. I like his paintings and his career reflected modern Chinese history in interesting ways.

Chen Yifei was born in 1946 in Ningbo, in coastal Zhejiang Province, but he grew up mostly in Shanghai. Showing talent in art, he was sent to study Socialist Realism at the Shanghai College of Art. When he graduated, in 1965, the Cultural Revolution was in full swing, and his early attempts at painting gone him denounced for “capitalist behavior.” He responded by throwing himself into official propaganda, executing several huge portraits of Mao and a lot of stuff like the painting above, Red Flag No. 1.

In 1980, as China started to open up, Chen went to the US to study; he later said that he arrived with $38 in his pocket, no job and no place to live. He found a job as an art restorer and enrolled at Hunter College, eventually earning an MA.


He returned to China in 1990 and went back to Shanghai. Over the next few years he painted numerous scenes of the town of Jiangnan, famous for its canals.

He also began painting the works that eventually made him rich and famous, of beautiful Chinese women in vaguely traditional garb. In the 1990s some critics denounced Chen for his commercialism, but I suspect there was a political point to his work. By getting rich he was showing his contempt for the communist system that had humiliated him and his enthusiastic support for the more open, capitalist China that was growing up in Shanghai. You can also read these works as celebrating both pre-Maoist Chinese culture and beauty for its own sake, things one was not allowed to champion under orthodox Maoism.


Chen made several trips to Tibet and painted the people he met there.

As China got rich he got rich with it, and now his paintings sell for millions.

Saturday, January 25, 2020

Pekka Hämäläinen, "Lakota America"

Pekka Hämäläinen wrote one of my favorite books of American history, The Comanche Empire, so when his new book came out I eagerly ordered a copy. Lakota America (2019) is a more narrowly political book, with less ethnography and ecology, but shows the same profound scholarship and perhaps even greater insight into past societies and events. It is not an easy to read but after finishing it I know things I did not know and understand history in a new way, which is the greatest praise I can give a historian's work.

Sioux history begins in the late 1600s, when they lived mostly in what is now Minnesota, along the boundary between the forest and the tallgrass prairie. For the first century of their history we have two kinds of sources: the accounts of French traders and soldiers and the Native records known as winter counts (above). The oldest of these reach back to the very early 1700s. They are series of pictographs, usually one for each year, written in a spiral pattern. They require interpretation, but by anchoring oral tradition to particular times and places they create a generally trustworthy record of how some Indians saw the major events of their lives. Hämäläinen makes much use of them to show how differently the world sometimes looked from the Native perspective.

From those first mentions, and probably before, the Sioux were a numerous and powerful people. Hämäläinen makes this one of his themes. The Sioux conquered other tribes because there were just more of them, 20,000 or so when tribes like the Kiowa, the Crow and the Pawnee never numbered more than 5,000. The Sioux were not politically united. They were divided into seven tribes: Yankton, Yanktonais, Mdewakantons, Sissetons, Wahpetons, Wahpekutes, and Lakota. Their name for themselves is Očhéthi Šakówiŋ, the Seven Council Fires. The Lakota, who in the 19th century made up a majority of the Sioux, were further divided into seven bands, including the famous Hunkpapa and Oglala. But they saw themselves as one people and there was no civil war among them (although there were plenty of murders), and they generally allied to oppose outsiders. To Hämäläinen the secret of their success was the institutions, rituals, vocabulary and other cultural practices they used to bind such a large group of people together in a rapidly changing world. The identity of being Sioux was powerful and appealing enough that it endured and grew despite the turmoil the people lived through. In that era of frequent, deadly epidemics it was also vital for large tribes to incorporate newcomers into their ranks, and the Sioux also excelled at this, rivaled perhaps only by that other great warrior people, the Iroquois.

To me the most striking thing about plains Indian life is how new it all is. The plains Indians as we know them did even really exist until they had horses, which did not reach the northern plains until around 1700. Based on the winter counts, the Sioux got their first mounts in the 1740s. Horses did not breed very well in that land of bitter winters and frequent droughts, so it took decades for the Sioux to build up herds big enough to support them in a life on the plains. The first depiction of a mounted raid in a Sioux winter count comes from 1757. It was the Lakotas, always the westernmost of the Sioux tribes, who took the lead in this, and over the next fifty years they gradually became the dominant group within the broader Sioux brotherhood. In the 1750s the Lakota began moving onto the plains, but it took a long time for them to become true plains people, rather than inhabitants of river valleys who sometimes ventured onto the plains to hunt. From the booming fur trade with the French they acquired guns, although they continued to use the bow and arrow as well right down to the 1870s.

With horses and guns the Lakota pushed westward to the Missouri. This was an act of war, for other Indians already lived there: horse-riding tribes like the Kiowa and Cheyenne and also farmers who built villages along the rivers, such as the Mandan and Arikara. Hämäläinen calls the Lakota world that developed an empire, based on dominion by force over all those they encountered. Some tribes they drove off the plains entirely: Omahas, Poncas, Otoes, Iowas, and more, who fled toward the lower Missouri and the protection of European soldiers based in St. Louis. The Lakota destroyed several river villages, slaughtering or enslaving their inhabitants, until the cowed river people accepted their overlordship. The Arikaras became serfs, forbidden from leaving their villages and forced to trade their corn and beans to the Lakota at whatever price their masters felt like paying; the Lakota reminded them of who was in charge by regularly taking Arikara horses and women and daring them to complain. All other Indians, they told one British delegation, "were their slaves or dogs" (89).

When Lewis and Clarke met them the Lakota dominated a 1000-mile stretch of the winding Missouri River, from the White River to the Knife. These Americans were shocked by the way the Lakota dominated the village Indians and called them "savages," but they also figured out that it was the Lakota who held the power. For the next 70 years the Lakota were the focus of US policy in the region. One of Hämäläinen's themes is that while we imagine the Lakota and the US as rivals, they were for a long time allies, and the US government helped the Lakota solidify their vast plains empire. Trade, gifts, and eventually rations distributed at Indian Agencies helped make the Lakota stronger than other Indians, allowing them to extend their power farther and farther west.

Pushing westward from the Missouri the Lakota reached the Black Hills. The Black Hills were a great resource for any people living on the northern plains, for often these elevations caught rain when the rest of the country was dry. They were also visually stunning and, all the people who lived around them thought, spiritually charged. It was in the Black Hills, the Lakota later said, the the Great Spirit first breathed life into humans. Through the first half of the 1800s the Lakota world stretched from the Black Hills to the Missouri. But they did not stay even there. As more and more white men moved up the Missouri and the Platte, the eastern buffalo herds thinned, and the Lakota responded by shifting farther west, waging war against the Crow, Utes and others for the lands around the Yellowstone, Powder, and Bighorn Rivers. As late as 1875, just two years before the war that broke their power, the Lakota were conquering lands along the Yellowstone and Bighorn Rivers from the Crow and Utes; winter counts from 1871-1875 have much more about fights with other Indians than the looming crisis with the US government.

Eventually, of course, the Lakota were broken and forced to settle on reservations that were tiny compared to the vast empire they had controlled just a few years before. It is a sad tale of ecological devastation and human loss, of people killed and a whole way of life exterminated. But the Lakota of course have endured and still remain, their language and traditions much stronger than those of most Native American peoples.

Starting in 1851, the US government signed a series of treaties with the Lakota that gave them rights over vast areas on the plains. The most important was the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868. In the map above, the blue area is the Great Sioux Reservation as the treaty defined it, which was given to the Lakota as their property in perpetuity; the other areas were not granted so fully but the Lakota were guaranteed the right to hunt on them so long as the buffalo herds endured. In the south, that did not last very long, but North America's last great bison herds were found west of the reservation toward the mountains. This treaty is, so far as I understand it, still in force, and in 1980 the US Supreme Court found that the Black Hills in particular had been unfairly stolen from the Sioux and Cheyenne. They ordered the government to pay compensation. The government offered $122 million, which the Indians refused, saying that they wanted their sacred land, not cash. Hämäläinen quotes one Lakota as saying, "It's always been ours. It will always be ours." (389)

What are we, in the 21st century, to make of these claims?

One of the Sioux winter counts records the year when they first set eyes on the Black Hills; depending on how you work the chronology, this might be any year from 1765 to 1776. This was at least 22 years after two French traders named François and Louis de La Vérendrye visited the Black Hills, which happened in 1743. It is also at least 85 years after a certain Robert Bedell landed in New York, founding the North American branch of my family, which in turn is about 60 years after certain of my other ancestors landed at Jamestown. When my ancestors reached the Chesapeake Bay country, where I now live, the Sioux were still in Minnesota, and harvesting wild rice was much more important to their culture and economy than hunting buffalo. Most of the online histories record that the Lakota conquered the Black Hills not long after they discovered them, but Hämäläinen thinks that did not happen for decades and that the Black Hills were not really Lakota territory until around 1820.

The Lakota conquest of the Black Hills and indeed their whole plains empire did not happen in the distant, misty past. It was recorded as it happened, both by the Native compilers of winter counts and Euro-American observers. It was accompanied by great violence against other Native Americans, some of  whom had claims to the Black Hills or the Missouri River country that went back centuries or millennia before the Lakota arrived on the scene. It may well be that modern Lakota have among their ancestors Mandan or Arikara people who had long lived in this land, but that is not how they defend their own claims; they defend them as Sioux.

I do not say this to refute Lakota claims; after all the US government signed those treaties and then flagrantly violated them. My point is that the distant past is not always a very good guide to what we should do in the present. The case of the Black Hills shows that it does not take centuries to make a place a sacred home. Under the right circumstances it takes only a generation.

Any given place may be the sacred home of several different peoples. If the Sioux did manage to reclaim the Black Hills I suspect they would then be challenged by other Native Americans – Crow, Blackfoot, Cheyenne – who were in the Black Hills before them. Who would adjudicate those claims? And what, meanwhile, about Euro-Americans whose ancestors came to the Black Hill to mine gold in 1875, and whose families have therefore been in the Hills for twice as long as they belonged to the Lakota?

I am skeptical of all claims that one place belongs to one people; these claims are the root of wars around the world, most notably in Israel/Palestine. My goal is always for all of us to live together, as best we can, regardless of whose ancestors did what to whose. That is past. What counts is the future, and how we can make it better for everyone.

Friday, January 24, 2020

Art Gimmicks

These days it's hard to make it as an artist without a good gimmick to set you apart. Like, Mark Powell does fine drawings, but nobody would buy just any fine drawing, so he does his on used envelopes.

Victoria Villsana puts colored yarn on back and white photos of old celebrities.

Matt Wilson makes bird sculptures out of cutlery.


And then there's Adam Hillman, who organizes things very neatly;


Ruby Silvious, who paints on teabags;

Taylor Holland, whose frames just hold more frames;

Randa Haddadin, who draws on her own body;

Rebecca Szeto, who makes portraits out of paintbrush handles;


Curtis Talwst Santiago, who puts tiny scenes in old music boxes;

Ekaterina Panikanova, who distributes her drawings across multiple old books and other pieces of used paper;

And Matt Adrian, who spurces up his bird photographs with bizarre titles.

But I give my Gimmick Prize to Lucy Sparrow, who makes whole stores full of felt food. Let a hundred thousand flowers bloom!

Who's Excited about the Future?

Michelle Goldberg has an essay in the Times arguing that one reason our mood is so sour is that nobody is excited for the future:
The dearth of optimistic visions of the future, at least in the United States, is central to the psychic atmosphere of this bleak era. Pessimism is everywhere: in opinion polls, in rising suicide rates and falling birthrates, and in the downwardly mobile trajectory of millennials. It’s political and it’s cultural: at some point in the last few years, a feeling has set in that the future is being foreclosed. When the Sex Pistols sang, “There is no future” in the 1970s there was at least a confrontational relish to it. Now there’s just dread.

The right and the left share a sense of creeping doom, though for different reasons. For people on the right, it’s sparked by horror at changing demographics and gender roles. For those on the left, a primary source of foreboding is climate change, which makes speculation about what the world will look like decades hence so terrifying that it’s often easier not to think about it at all.

But it’s not just climate change. In his forthcoming book, The Decadent Society, my colleague Ross Douthat mourns the death of the “technological sublime,” writing that our era “for all its digital wonders has lost the experience of awe-inspiring technological progress that prior modern generations came to take for granted.” This is true, but doesn’t go nearly far enough. Our problem is not just that new technologies regularly fail to thrill. It’s that, from artificial intelligence to genetic engineering to mass surveillance, they are frequently sources of horror.
There is certainly nothing new about imagining grim futures; I grew up with nuclear winter and the population bomb. I am not that scared of climate change, which I think we could reverse if we had to. (Think nuclear winter.) Yet I also have a sense that in our time the future has lost its gleam. What is there to be excited about? Walking on Mars, I guess, but that seems to be getting farther away rather than closer. Some people are enthused by self-driving cars, but I mainly see that as a job killer and anyway I would rather have good public transit. Twenty years ago the internet seemed like a transformative wonderland, but now the undeniable wonder is degraded by the cancerous spread of spyware, clickbait, cyberbullying, dark pornography, and conspiracy theories, not to mention vanished bookstores and shuttered record shops.

Meanwhile, threats loom up everywhere. Many of the smartest people in the country are working on how to keep superhuman AI from killing us all. People are turning against democracy just when surveillance technology may make any dictatorships we do set up impossible to overthrow. Ethnic and religious strife gnaw constantly at all attempts to create peace, and our weapons keep getting more deadly as the institutions we set up to bring humanity together crumble. Looking around the world I get a sense that we may simply not be capable of living the free, peaceful future the Enlightenment imagined; too many of us need hate or turmoil to survive.

I am not an especially gloomy person. I think often that I may have been born in humanity's happiest time, with astonishing wealth and the receding threat of world war. But even I have trouble finding reasons to be thrilled about the future. I would be interested in suggestions for things to look forward to, if anyone has ideas.

Links 24 January 2020

Grant Collier, Black Canyon of the Gunnison

New York's plan for revitalizing the Erie Canal: parks, kayaking, and "a whitewater rafting destination."

Speaking of canals, the Assyrian king Sargon II (r. 722-705 BC) had his workers carve reliefs along the walls of one of his.

If you have to lose your wallet or phone, you should do it in Japan, where they are amazingly effective at returning lost items to their owners.

Another revolutionary co-opted by the system: one of the founders of Occupy Wall Street is on his way to Davos, saying "I want to discover its revolutionary potential."

When Al Capone bought big blocks of stock in miniature golf companies.

Video of an alligator carcass sunk to the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico.

Critique of Wendell Barry's "small is good" anti-modernism.

Two views of smartphones and teenage depression. Here's an argument that smartphones are behind the increase in depression, self-harm and suicide among teenage girls. And here's a meta-study arguing that the link between smartphone use and mental health problems is "small and inconsistent."

Tardigrades can be killed, and fairly easily: by hot water.

To many people, "rational" and "reasonable" mean quite different things, with "rational" implying cold, hard, and selfish, and "reasonable" implying something more open and social.

Interesting pro-rent control article by an economist, who finds little evidence of bad economic effects.

Courts are striking down "ag-gag" laws that prohibit investigators from photographing conditions inside factory farms. Because those photographs have political meaning, most judges have found that suppressing them is a clear violation of the First Amendment.

Essay by Ewen Callaway at Nature on how archaeologists and historians are coming to terms with the findings of paleogenetics.

Thursday, January 23, 2020

The Joy of Hate

Ezra Klein:
In 2006, Will Blythe published a book with a title I have never forgotten. It was called To Hate Like This Is to Be Happy Forever. How can you walk by a book with those words slashed across the cover? What could it be about?

When I picked it up, I was surprised to see that it was an exploration of the rivalry between the Duke and University of North Carolina basketball teams and the way that rivalry had given shape and meaning to the author’s life in moments when little else did. “The living and dying through one’s allegiance to either Duke or Carolina is no less real for being enacted through play and fandom,” Blythe writes.

Creating "West Side Story"

The Times is running a long piece by Sasha Weiss about a new production of West Side Story, which relates the new effort to the creation of the original. I think is one of the best things I have read about artistic collaboration. The coming together of the new team
replicates an important aspect of the original “West Side Story,” which sprang from a group of ambitious, restless artists who recognized, in one another, forces of equal and opposite weight. For years, Robbins had been talking to the composer Leonard Bernstein and the playwright Arthur Laurents about a musical based on “Romeo and Juliet” that would seamlessly combine dance, music and storytelling. Discussion of the project began in the late 1940s — they first toyed with a story about Jews and Catholics on the Lower East Side. Over the next several years, as the three were diverted by other projects, none of them entirely lost sight of it. It was a shared fantasy — still inchoate but somehow powerful.

One day in 1955, according to most accounts, Bernstein and Laurents were lounging by a hotel pool in Los Angeles. Bernstein was in town conducting; Laurents was working on a screenplay. The subject turned to the headlines in that day’s paper about Chicano gang violence. The two fell to talking. What if they revised their original idea of an East Side story and made it about white and Latino teenagers? Bernstein, who was married to Felicia Montealegre, a Chilean, was immersed in Latin music, and he could immediately hear rhythms and melodies. When they told Robbins of their new idea, he seized on the dance possibilities. Getting away from their own experiences, as descendants of immigrant Jews, and mapping their sense of outsiderdom onto a different set of tribal animosities proved freeing. All three were gay men in various states of acceptance of their sexualities, and a story of forbidden love may have been a way to write clandestinely about their own lives. They set to work.

Soon after a pair of experienced lyricists turned down the project in 1955, Laurents ran into Stephen Sondheim, who was then only 25, at a party and remembered having heard him play a few songs from an unproduced musical shortly before. He invited him to audition for Bernstein. By that point, Bernstein had written lyrics to a number of songs, but he quickly understood that Sondheim was the superior lyricist and was eager to work with him.

All four men had uncompromisingly high standards but different strengths. . . . Working together was not always easy. During the rehearsal period, Bernstein would sometimes retreat across the street to a bar to avoid Robbins after a particularly unpleasant argument. . .  Robbins was a fierce editor of the material until the very end, scrapping and reworking songs (“Something’s Coming” was written just a few weeks before the play debuted) and driving the actors to tears. The four collaborators gradually arrived at a shared vision, discovering what Sondheim later called “a wholeness” — a synthesis of dramatic language, music and dance.
This sort of shared creation is utterly foreign to me; my art is writing stories, done alone, and I find the thought of shaping a play through bitter arguments in the midst of rehearsals downright scary. But this seems to be the way a lot of plays, movies, television, and ensemble music are made. I was reading recently about Miles Davis' famous jazz record “Kind of Blue”, which has spawned a 60-year argument among fans over who was responsible for what and even a lawsuit among heirs. Davis himself ended up attributing it more or less to the spirit of the age:
“So What” or “Kind of Blue” . . . they were done in that era, the right hour, the right day, and it happened. It’s over; it’s on the record.
I wonder about all claims for truly original creation. Art springs from both a broader culture and a narrow circle of friends and collaborators; it is made in an era, an hour, a day. Robbins, Bernstein, Laurents and Sondheim were all individually brilliant, but they were also all men of a certain time and place, knowing many of the same things, responding to the same artistic world, and especially responding to each other.

The same I think holds even more for science and technology. Watson and Crick worked out the structure of DNA because the equipment needed to solve the problem was available and the broader progress of organic chemistry provided the necessary background; ten years earlier the problem could hardly have been defined, and ten years later it would have been trivial. Things like the circular saw, the steamboat, and the computer have dozens of putative "inventors;" they appeared when the state of technology and business was right for them, rather then from the efforts of some lone genius.

We are, first and foremost, social beings, and everything we do makes sense only in light of relations with others.

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Bronze Age Sippy Cups


From  Austria, 1200-800 BCE. Some of them are saturated with fatty acids from milk, so it's pretty clear what they are. These were all recovered from infant burials.

Monday, January 20, 2020

Larry David and the MAGA Hat

Kyle Smith at The Corner:
David’s character “Larry David” is, famously, an inveterate curmudgeon who is constantly getting in brouhahas over minor questions of etiquette or misunderstandings. On the new episode, Larry finds himself unable to avoid having lunch with a disliked colleague in the comedy world (Phil Rosenthal, also playing himself). He knows that his usual tricks won’t work on Rosenthal, so he can’t escape by having a friend call during the lunch to say he’s needed back at the office. So Larry hits on a brilliant idea: He wears a red MAGA cap to the lunch. Rosenthal immediately blanches, looks around the restaurant, and discovers he’s getting dirty looks from black customers and other diners. Horrified that people might associate him with Trumpism, he hastily makes his excuses and exits. Larry is triumphant. He even finds other uses for the MAGA cap; sitting at a sushi bar in close quarters, he puts on the cap and finds that the people who were going to squeeze in next to him instead flee in horror. He brags that the hat is a useful “people repellent.” But in a potentially dicey traffic situation with an angry biker, Larry puts on the hat and defuses the situation because the hat signals to the biker that he’s a kindred spirit. . . .

The MAGA hat has many meanings, does it not? It doesn’t really mean “Make America Great Again.” It’s more like a badge of defiance, of apartness. It says, “You’re all annoying.” It says, “I want no part of this.” It says, “Things used to be better.” It says, “Buzz off.” It says, “I’m deplorable.”
I think this nails one major strain of Trumpism.

Cynicism and Disrespect

Via Marginal Revolutions, a new paper on cynicism and respect:
We tested how cynicism emerges and what maintains it. Cynicism is the tendency to believe that people are morally bankrupt and behave treacherously to maximize self-interest. Drawing on literatures on norms of respectful treatment, we proposed that being the target of disrespect gives rise to cynical views, which predisposes people to further disrespect. The end result is a vicious cycle: cynicism and disrespect fuel one another. Study 1’s nationally representative survey showed that disrespect and cynicism are positively related to each other in 28 of 29 countries studied, and that cynicism’s associations with disrespect were independent of (and stronger than) associations with lacking social support. Study 2 used a nationally representative longitudinal dataset, spanning 4 years. In line with the vicious cycle hypothesis, feeling disrespected and holding cynical views gave rise to each other over time. Five preregistered experiments (including 2 in the online supplemental materials) provided causal evidence. Study 3 showed that bringing to mind previous experiences of being disrespected heightened cynical beliefs subsequently. Studies 4 and 5 showed that to the extent that people endorsed cynical beliefs, others were inclined to treat them disrespectfully. Study 6’s weeklong daily diary study replicated the vicious cycle pattern. Everyday experiences of disrespect elevated cynical beliefs and vice versa. Moreover, cynical individuals tended to treat others with disrespect, which in turn predicted more disrespectful treatment by others. In short, experiencing disrespect gives rise to cynicism and cynicism elicits disrespect from others, thereby reinforcing the worldview that caused these negative reactions in the first place.
It seems obvious how being treated badly could fuel cynicism, but notice that the study also finds cynical people are treated more disrespectfully. This seems in line with Scott Alexander's essay on "nothing makes sense except in light of inter-individual variation" I linked to last month.

Sunday, January 19, 2020

Francis Bacon's Studio, 1998



By Perry Ogden and Annie Wright. Quite a mess.

It had looked like that for a long time; from Bacon's face I would say this was taken in the 1960s.

Malacosoma disstria

The tent caterpillar with penguins on its back.

Saturday, January 18, 2020

Thinking about Prohibition

It's the 100th anniversary of nationwide prohibition in the US, so I am seeing essays all over marking that peculiar event. Pause to consider this: Prohibition was one of the most widely supported, easiest to pass amendments to our constitution since the original ten. On the first vote it was supported by 68% of the House and 76% of the Senate and was then ratified by 46 of the 48 states. The tide of support overwhelmed the many huge obstacles our system throws up to block change, sweeping the opposition away. Support was equally strong in New England and the Deep South, among Democrats and Republicans. In fact in most of the country the Federal laws that followed the amendment had no effect, because 32 states had already enacted their own bans on the sale of alcohol. Note that most of the prohibition-era laws applied to selling alcohol, not drinking it, so making your own and drinking it or giving it away remained a gray area mostly ignored by law enforcement.

And then fifteen years later the amendment was quietly repealed without much more opposition than it had met being enacted, and it was soon remembered as nothing more than a failure and a joke. What was that about?

As to why people opposed the sale of liquor, that seems obvious to me: because it has killed millions of people and impoverished millions more. None of the other drugs that we have at various times tried to ban has ever come close to the level of harm inflicted by alcohol. Of course it has also led to a a great deal of happiness, fun, and so on, but that is true of any drug people take for pleasure. Why, then, does banning alcohol seem ridiculous? And what does that say about the whole enterprise of government, and of all our attempts at moral reform?

Historically the supporters of prohibition came from two camps: religious fundamentalists and progressives bent on bettering the lot of humanity. It was strongest where the two converged, that is, among the religious do-gooders who also created Abolitionism. Most of the leading abolitionists were in the Temperance camp: Lyman Beecher, William Lloyd Garrison, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Frederick Douglass, who once wrote, "if we could but make the world sober, we would have no slavery." Abraham Lincoln was for temperance. But so was Teddy Roosevelt, coming from a very different tradition of "muscular Christianity" and an obsession with good health.

My eldest son was puzzled by this list of prohibitionists and asked, "Are they for freedom or against it?" Well, both, in certain circumstances. Just as they opposed the freedom to own slaves, they also opposed the freedom to profit from exploiting the addiction of alcoholics and impoverishing working families. In the world today the most active temperance movement is in rural India, where groups of women have been smashing up the unlicensed saloons where their husbands get drunk. Which rights are more important, those of the men to get drunk and the saloon keepers to sell to them, or those of the women and children to food and shelter?

But while I very much understand the impulses that drive prohibition, I don't support and doubt it could ever be made to work.

This takes my thoughts toward what humans are and what we can and cannot do. We cannot, it seems to me, be all that good. Some level of sin is essential to us. For many people, happiness depends on some sort of chemical that changes what it feels like to be alive. If we try to take that way we will likely fail, and the costs of that attempt will be high.

That is what the US found during Prohibition. At first the nation's consumption of alcohol declined quite a bit, but it didn't take long for gangsters and speakeasys to fill the void left by legal saloons. By the time Prohibition was repealed, consumption was higher than ever, or at least that's what FDR and other advocates for repeal claimed. Moonshine and bathtub gin also poisoned many people, more than 10,000 fatally. Al Capone was only the most famous of a whole army of rum runners whose violence led to a rise in the murder rate and a spreading feeling of danger.

It just didn't work.

One of the greatest challenges we face in organizing our societies is finding the line between what we can try to ban and what we have to accept. Because any attempt to reform us beyond what our weak hearts can stand will only fail and probably leave things worse than before.

Beware Years Ending in 9

Jiayang Fan:
There’s a saying in Chinese politics—Fengjiu biluan (“Encounter nine: turmoil for sure”)—reflecting a belief that the country often experiences its worst turbulence in years that end in 9. (Since the fall of the Nationalists, in 1949, years ending in 9 have brought, successively, the Great Famine, an armed conflict with the Soviet Union, another with Vietnam, the Tiananmen Square protests, and the Falun Gong crisis.)
This is from a long, excellent piece on the Hong Kong protests at The New Yorker. One thing that comes clear from this account is that while outsiders often imagine the conflict as between Hong Kong and Beijing, the people of Hong Kong are severely divided against each other. Fan portrays this as largely a generational divide, with young protesters against older people who want order and think that living with China is inevitable, but of course it isn't that simple.

I have been wondering lately where this could go. Independence for Hong Kong is hardly an option, and close cooperation with Beijing is essential for economic and other reasons, so what sort of viable solution can be reached? Fan admits to not knowing, and she portrays many people in Hong Kong as equally confused.

Friday, January 17, 2020

Burj Al Babas

Burj Al Babas is a luxury housing development in central Turkey where the builders completed 587 identical "villas" before going bankrupt.

Something about this place creeps me out. Drone video here.

Gaston Leroux, The Phantom of the Opera

I've just finished Gaston Leroux's 1910 novel, The Phantom of the Opera, and I enjoyed it. It is, as my elder daughter put it, an archetypal Gothic tale. Like Casablanca or the first Star Wars, it succeeds by touching on absolutely every relevant cliché. It has a monstrous, tragic antihero, a beautiful, innocent heroine, a mysterious oriental, a clueless young man trying to stop a chain of events he does not understand, secret passages, rivalry among divas, trap doors, poisons, strangulations, even a torture chamber called "the torture chamber." If you are seeking something diverting and escapist to read or listen to I highly recommend it.

The tale is presented by a narrator who claims to have worked out these events by dogged investigation, and some of what you read is extracts from documents he discovered during his research. Leroux spent some years as a reporter, after he gambled away his inheritance and suddenly had to work for a living, and the structure works well. I have been intrigued by the ways this story incorporates bits of fact, not so much because I believe Leroux's reported insistence that the whole thing might be true as for what it says about how writers are inspired. The tale is set in the Paris Opera (top), which was built from 1861 to 1875. Part of the reason it took so long was that the workers dug down into an underground pool of water that they somehow had to control; they ended up taming it into a sort of lake in the bottom of the structure. This lake is still there and was long used to train rescue workers to swim in the dark. To contain the lake they built double foundations, one as it were facing to the water and one toward the outside, and from an early date there were rumors about what was in between those walls. (Officially and most likely, rock fill, but still.)

The building was still under construction when France was humiliated in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. In the aftermath of that defeat the workers of Paris rose in a revolt and formed a government they called the Commune that only lasted two months but still looms large in the Marxist imagination. Leroux has it that the deep basement of the Opera was used by communards as a prison, and why not? They certainly did imprison more people than the jails could hold, and records of their reign are extremely sketchy, and even if it did not happen you can certainly believe that people who worked in the Opera said it had.

And of course the Opera was said to be haunted -- what grand old building is not said to be haunted? -- and Leroux said he heard Opera workers blaming mishaps on the ghost. While the great chandelier itself did not really fall onto the audience as it does in the book, one of its massive counterweights did, killing a patron, and Leroux said he was told this was the work of the ghost.

So here is my formula for crafting a Gothic tale: take a great old building or site that has dramatic events in its past and is already rumored to be haunted, preferably one that your audience knows well. Play up the mysteries of the building, the forgotten rooms sealed off in past restorations, the dark basements, the high roof. Insert a tragic antihero and an innocent, beautiful woman and surround them with other stereotypical characters: bluff policemen, flamboyant opera directors, gossiping fans, fools in love. Run everyone through a very basic, old-fashioned plot with at least one sad death. Insist that everything might be true. Behold! If your evocations of the place and the pitiable damnation of your antihero ring true enough, you might have a hit on your hands.

Links 17 January 2020

Erlend Haarberg, Crow

David Bentley Hart on the theology and psychology of Hell.

A Crackpot Index for novel scientific theories.

The guy who sculpts really realistic-looking pillows from marble.

A surge of books about kindness. If you ask me, a kindness movement is exactly what America needs.

Violinist Hillary Hahn talks about what goes on her mind while she practices.

Aboriginal fire management in Australia; essentially, set lots of small fires every year so big ones don't develop.

Winners of the 2019 Ocean Art photography contest.

The Kindness of Parrots.

A major study of death certificates says the number of Americans dying from alcohol-related causes increased from 35,914 deaths 1999 to 72,558 in 2017.

The liberal case for restricting emigration.

Thursday, January 16, 2020

The Royal Family and the Conflict over Modernity

Freddie Sayers thinks the fight in the royal family is about much more than the average celebrity blow-up:
The almighty row about Harry and Meghan isn’t just about the behaviour of the junior prince and his American bride. Bigger, harder to define feelings are afoot — and I don’t mean racism, or snobbery, or misogyny, none of which is really driving this disaster. . . .

Today, we are told, in a drawing room at Sandringham, a showdown is taking place between Meghan, the unhappy American princess dialing in from Canada, and the 93-year-old Queen — mediated by their various princes. It would be hard to find two more suitable representatives than these two women of the clashing philosophies that, in different ways, have dominated British and European politics for the past decade. Tradition versus progress, duty versus self-actualisation, community versus commerce, nation versus globalisation.
Polls show that most Britons think the Sussexes have the right to go off on their own if they want to, but on the other hand they also many people want to strip them of their titles and all their income if they do so. Go if you want, people seem to be saying, but don't look for help from us.

This is the part that really interested me:
On one level, the British public have become liberals with amazing completeness in just over a generation. From the ‘Red Wall’ in the North to affluent London, from young to old, we have accepted and grown fond of a world of individual rights, self-realisation and freedom from judgment. By the logic of this world-view, there can be no doubt: of course the Sussexes must be free to do as they please and shake off the constraints of their elders. Who would stand in the way of a young family’s search for happiness?

But on another level, there is a growing fear that this same logic, in its relentless ratchet towards ‘progress’, will inadvertently destroy the things we hold most dear. It’s an uneven conflict because where the liberal world view is coherent, defensible and ostensibly virtuous, many of the things it threatens are hard to defend in the same terms. This mismatch makes people defensive and angry, as the Sussexes are now discovering.
I think this is exactly right and has been since the 1700s at least. The program of the liberal Enlightenment can be expressed logically and defined in plain prose: freedom, legal equality, economic growth. The conservative program is often ultimately about things that are hard to put into words. Most British monarchists could not explain very well why they want a royal family, which Thomas Paine long ago pointed out is an absurd notion:
How a race of men came into the world so exalted above the rest, and distinguished like some new species, is worth inquiring into.
But people know that having one just feels right.

I'm not saying that all conservatism is emotional; much of it is based on a justified skepticism about grand ideas for making things better, a reluctance to trust outsiders with your own security, and a determination to hold onto what you have. But I do believe that much of it is about wanting things to feel the way they always have. To many people, tradition makes life feel better and safer, and none of your arguments about economic growth or individual rights will make much headway against that.

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

A Point about Polling

If you had a truly, truly random sample of US voters, how many would you have to poll to get as good an estimate as a you get from a pretty good sample of 2.3 million voters?

401.

If you knew your sample was truly random, you could do very well just polling 401 voters. Even a tiny deviation from true randomness makes a sample of millions less accurate than a perfectly random sample of 401. All the effort pollsters put into trying to contact thousands and thousands of people is necessary because getting a truly random sample is all but impossible.

Monday, January 13, 2020

The Woman without Pain

Fascinating piece by Ariel Levy in The New Yorker about Jo Cameron, a Scottish woman who feels no pain or anxiety. She has at least two mutations that affect her brain circuitry, one of which has been documented before but one of which is unique.
“I said to her, ‘Are you worried about what’s going to happen today?’ Because she was meeting our clinicians to have a skin biopsy and do quantitative sensory testing—pain-threshold tests. She said, ‘No. I’m never worried about anything.’ ”
She is also friendly, charming, sweet, and never has any troubles, leaving the scientists studying her genes to wonder how much is her mutations and how much is just her:
One complicating question is how much of Cameron’s Cameronness is really a consequence of her FAAH mutation and FAAH OUT deletion. She has plenty of other genes, after all, and her upbringing and her early environment also played a role in making her who she is. Since the paper was published, Matthew Hill has heard from half a dozen people with pain insensitivity, and he told me that many of them seemed nuts. “If you had this phenotype and weren’t a generally pleasant person like Jo—maybe you’re, like, a douche-y frat boy—the way that you would process this might be entirely different. Our whole perception of this phenotype is explicitly based on the fact that it was Jo who presented it.”

Srivastava is intent on solving the scientific riddles that Cameron poses. But, in a wistful moment, he suggested that the work also raised profound social questions. “Spending time with her, you realize that if we only had more people like Jo—who are genuinely nice, pleasant, do not give in to anger . . . well,” he said, “you know.”

Misery may not be all it’s cracked up to be. Paul Bloom, who is writing a book about suffering, told me, “There’s a big movement in psychology to say, ‘What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.’ People talk about ‘post-traumatic growth.’ I think a lot of it is bullshit. Look at the data: bad things are bad.” You aren’t healthier after you have cancer or fall down a flight of steps. And it’s only in the movies that getting hit by a bolt of lightning turns you into a superhero; in life, it turns you into a fritter.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

The Death of Literary Studies

The Chronicle of Higher Education has posted a package of essays titled Endgame on the situation of literary studies in the US:
The academic study of literature is no longer on the verge of field collapse. It’s in the midst of it. Preliminary data suggest that hiring is at an all-time low. Entire subfields (modernism, Victorian poetry) have essentially ceased to exist. In some years, top-tier departments are failing to place a single student in a tenure-track job. Aspirants to the field have almost no professorial prospects; practitioners, especially those who advise graduate students, must face the uneasy possibility that their professional function has evaporated. Befuddled and without purpose, they are, as one professor put it recently, like the Last Dinosaur described in an Italo Calvino story: “The world had changed: I couldn’t recognize the mountain any more, or the rivers, or the trees.”
The essays collected by the Chronicle deal with this crisis in a variety of ways. Andrew Kay, in "Academe's Extinction Event," recounts his experience at last spring's meeting of the Modern Language Association:
How can I conjure MLA 2019 for you? Have you ever seen that viral picture from 2017 of a party of Oregon golfers calmly putting while, in the near distance, a wildfire consumes the landscape? Trees blacken; smoke, pinkish-gray, shrouds everything in impasto blots; nature itself seems to creak, groan, and at last give way. But the golfers go blithely on. The conversion of this Edenic place into Dantean incandescence won’t interfere with the genteel game they know and love — or, if it will, they are determined to get in one last round before the region is razed. “Eye on the ball, Chet!” one can hear them saying. “Not on the cataclysm!” Thus MLA 2019.
I guess the reason the Chronicle put the package together was to fight this kind of complacency, and force professors to realize that if nothing changes most of them may soon be looking for other kinds of work. Enrollments in many humanities programs are down by half since 2008, and the number of majors in some English programs is down by 80 or even 90 percent.

Some academics have responded by reprising old arguments. The Chronicle has an essay by Michael Clune, who thinks part of the problem is that professors have lost the courage of their taste and are unwilling to say that some books are better than others.
The paradoxical effect of a total commitment to equality is to imprison value within the boundaries of the market.  There’s a basic problem with the capitulation of cultural education to consumer preference. Dogmatic equality tells us: There’s nothing wrong with your taste. If you prefer a steady diet of young adult novels or reality TV shows, so what? No one has the authority to make you feel bad about your desires, to make you think you should want something else. . . . if the academy assimilates this view — as it largely has over the past three decades — then a possibility central to humanistic education has been lost. The prospect that you might be transformed, that you might discover new modes of thought, perception, and desire, has been foreclosed.  
And then another essay by people who think such talk is just a roundabout way of defending the canon of dead white men, and you know how we have to feel about that.

The most discussed essay is by Simon During, who thinks our loss of faith in the humanities parallels the decline of religion.
I want to propose that such big thinking might begin with the idea that, in the West, secularization has happened not once but twice. It happened first in relation to religion, and second, more recently, in relation to culture and the humanities. . . .  Faith has been lost across two different zones: first, religion; then, high culture. The process that we associate with thinkers like Friedrich Schiller, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Matthew Arnold, in which culture was consecrated in religion’s place, and that in more modest forms survived until quite recently, has finally been undone. We now live in a doubly secularized age, post-religious and post-canonical. The humanities have become merely a (rather eccentric) option for a small fraction of the population.
I find During's essay interesting, but to me it misses the real point.

This is my model of the history of higher education in the US: before World War II, only a small percentage of young people went to college. Most of them were rich or upper middle class, with a few super bright scholarship kids. The point of college was to train people for membership in the elite class. You studied things like Latin and Shakespeare because those were the sorts of things rich people knew about. The basic college curriculum was entirely built around the aspirations and interests of the elite class.

After World War II, the universities were massively expanded as a way to bring millions more people into the wealthy class. If rich people were the ones who went to college, the theory went, then if we sent more people to college then we would have more rich people. Right? And to some extent this worked; the upper middle class has expanded enormously, and most of them have been to college. But it didn't work entirely. By the 1960s there were already more college graduates than there were slots in the elite, and the long process began that has ended up with employers demanding a college diploma to manage a MacDonald's. Plus, the more diverse student body began to rebel against the old-style curriculum. Some students wanted material more relevant to their politics or their ethnicity, while others just wanted things that would help them get jobs. Thus the huge expansion of the undergraduate business degree and similar programs, and the creation of ethnic studies. What is happening now is just the gradual working out of the contradiction between an educational model built around the class prejudices of the early 20th century in a world where those prejudices no longer have much meaning. As Simon During put it,
Quite suddenly, having a detailed knowledge of and love for Bach’s music, say, stopped being a marker of a “cultured” or “civilized” person and became just a matter of opinion and personal interest.
Since a humanistic education is no longer an important passport to wealth and status, why should anyone pursue it? Except for those of us who love it, I mean. Which is not to say that you can't learn a lot of useful stuff studying the humanities, like careful reading and good writing. But you could learn them in a lot of other ways, too.

To me the irony of the situation is that professors are constantly denouncing capitalism, neoliberalism and careerism, while they are absolutely obsessed with their own job market. Half the pieces in the Endgame collection deal with the job market in the humanities, and it seems clear that to many professors the crisis is plain and simple the inability of new Ph.D.s to find tenure track jobs. I don't think they are wrong to care so much; in our world you need a job to lead any kind of life, and to lead a good life it really helps to have a good job. But if professors can understand the power of the job market in their own lives, why are they so troubled that their students respond to the same pressures?

Actually I think students may be making a mistake to pursue narrow professional training, since so far as I can tell people with humanistic educations still end up with middle class jobs eventually.  But it isn't as if the non-careerist students are all that interested in the old canon anyway; sometimes I think that the only young people who really care about the history that most fascinates me are white supremacists.

I simply can't imagine that humanities education will survive in anything like its current form. The pressures against it, from changing ideas about class to changing student interests, are too great, and honestly nobody much cares to take up its defense. We don't share any common idea of what education is for, beyond equipping us for work, and I doubt our fractious nation will ever agree on questions like that again.

Archaeology in the 2010s: the Paleogenetics Revolution

In the past decade, by far the most important development in archaeology has been the technology of paleogenetics, which is allowing us to answer questions I thought would be debated forever.

The technology works like this: DNA is chemically extracted from bone or other human remains and run through a sequencer. Powerful computers then read the various DNA sequences that emerge and discard all those not related to the problem at hand, such as viruses or bacteria, which are often the vast majority of the sample. The human DNA -- or sometimes other species, if that is what is being studied -- is then compared to databases of human genomes. It is rare for a nearly complete genome to be discovered; a genome is considered "high quality" if it is more than 5% complete. But a 5% sample of the 3 billion base pairs in the human genome is usually enough for high quality statistics. The differences between different human populations are small, on the order of 0.1%. Again, with 3 billion base pairs to work with the differences still stand out.

But I want to emphasize that all of this statistical, and it depends on assumptions made about which mutations represent important forking points in our genealogies and so on. I think this is great science but it is still very new and some of what I write below may turn out to be wrong. Most of it may turn out to be oversimplified.

I would summarize the main discoveries of paleogenetics so far as follows:
1) Humans interbred with other hominid species such as Neanderthals and Denisovans. Outside of Africa, humans are 1% to 1.5% Neanderthal. Certain key genes, such as those that help Tibetans survive at high altitude, may have come from other species. Neanderthals and Denisovans also interbred with each other.

2) Native Americans almost all descend from a single migration of people from Asia that took place on the order of 15,000 years ago.

3) Agriculture was spread into Europe by a mass migration of farmers from Anatolia, who genetically replaced most of the native foragers. Those farmers contributed the largest share of the genes of modern Europeans. The data for Asia is not as good but so far it looks like the major ethnic groups of East Asia, including Han Chinese, Koreans, and Japanese, are descended from early farmers who spread out from the Yangtze Valley.

4) Modern races formed from the great shake-up spawned by the discovery and spread of agriculture; in the Mesolithic the racial composition of Eurasia was completely different. Around 15,000 years ago the Neolithic farmers of Anatolia and the Neolithic farmers of Iran were as different from each other as Chinese and Welsh are today.

5) In the Bronze Age, the people of the Black Sea steppes spread very widely across Eurasia, making major contributions to the gene pool from Ireland to India. These people presumably spread the Indo-European languages. The details of this process are still not certain, but the fact of population disruptions between 3300 and 2500 BCE is clear. There is a simple statistical test that can show if one population could be the product of two others, and it shows that medieval Europeans could not be descended just from native foragers and Middle Eastern farmers; a third major contribution is needed.

6) European history after the Bronze Age continued to see migration on a large scale. The Bell Beaker invasion of Britain and Ireland around 2200 BCE may have resulted in the replacement of 80% of the population.

7) Genetic studies in Rome suggest that the population was changed by a migrants from the eastern Mediterranean in the late Republic and early empire, then changed again in the late empire by migrants from north of the Alps.

8) Historians have been arguing about how many Anglo-Saxons came to Britain for 200 years, with no result. Was there a mass migration, or just a coup by elite warriors? But now genetics suggest that about 25% of the genes in Britain come from Anglo-Saxon invaders. Even if they were genetically more successful than the natives, this still requires tens of thousands of migrants, and probably more than a hundred thousand.
The discoveries continue to pour in and the science is still getting better by leaps and bounds. We now have the technology to study family relationships as well as group connections, and this will also be a fruitful avenue of research moving forward.

My mind is still blown every time I think about these discoveries, which have opened a huge new window into the past.

The Kids on the No. 6 Bus

In the 1970s, Nick Kristoff rode the bus to school with a bunch of working class neighbors in Yamhill, Oregon:
Chaos reigned daily on the No. 6 school bus, with working-class boys and girls flirting and gossiping and dreaming, brimming with mischief, bravado and optimism. Nick rode it every day in the 1970s with neighbors here in rural Oregon, neighbors like Farlan, Zealan, Rogena, Nathan and Keylan Knapp.

They were bright, rambunctious, upwardly mobile youngsters whose father had a good job installing pipes. The Knapps were thrilled to have just bought their own home, and everyone oohed and aahed when Farlan received a Ford Mustang for his 16th birthday.

Yet today about one-quarter of the children on that No. 6 bus are dead, mostly from drugs, suicide, alcohol or reckless accidents. Of the five Knapp kids who had once been so cheery, Farlan died of liver failure from drink and drugs, Zealan burned to death in a house fire while passed out drunk, Rogena died from hepatitis linked to drug use and Nathan blew himself up cooking meth. Keylan survived partly because he spent 13 years in a state penitentiary.

Among other kids on the bus, Mike died from suicide, Steve from the aftermath of a motorcycle accident, Cindy from depression and a heart attack, Jeff from a daredevil car crash, Billy from diabetes in prison, Kevin from obesity-related ailments, Tim from a construction accident, Sue from undetermined causes. And then there’s Chris, who is presumed dead after years of alcoholism and homelessness. At least one more is in prison, and another is homeless.
Nick Kristoff blames the disappearance of good working class jobs, and I agree that this is the immediate and maybe the most important cause. But I would extend that by saying that the cause was the disappearance of jobs in a culture where working and supporting yourself and your family was the supreme value -- "standing on your own two feet" -- leaving nothing on which people could rely when their jobs were gone.

Saturday, January 11, 2020

A Decade in an Archaeologist's LIfe

Reading over a couple of scientists' thoughts on what they had learned in a decade, I thought I might put together a post on the most interesting work I have done since 2010. As the decade began I was finishing up one of my greatest projects, a nine-year archaeological survey of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park. (You can find links to the public versions of our reports here.) Near Oldtown, Maryland, we found the site of Thomas Cresap's frontier fort, 1744-1770, a spot visited by George Washington, Daniel Boone, and many other famous characters.  However we failed to pin down the location of the Shawnee settlement known as King Opessa's town, which stood nearby from around 1715 to 1730, and I have been scheming ever since to get back and look for it.

Also in 2010 I was finishing up a four-year archaeological survey of Catoctin Mountain Park in Maryland, and in 2012 I recorded a series of videos about that project. That was really fun and I have been trying ever since to make more.


At the same I was directing a series of projects for the Delaware Department of Transportation, which culminated in 2012 with the excavation of two tenant farm sites. One dated to c. 1740 to 1765, the other to c. 1775-1920. The pictures show two porringers from the colonial site and a wooden well built around 1800 using a technology that goes back to the Neolithic.

In 2013 I was helping the Marines expand a busy road along Chopawamsic Creek in the Quantico base, excavating part of a marvelous precontact Indian site. The place had been occupied from around 9,000 BCE to contact but was most intensively used by a culture we call Halifax, c. 4000 to 3500 BCE. We found many artifacts of that period and obtained the best set of radiocarbon dates yet for a Halifax site. I hope to publishing those results this year.

The next year I did some test excavations at a naval base along the Potomac near Washington. This was an area where maps and aerial photographs showed a nineteenth-century house, a set of barracks built during World War I, and townhouses built for military families in the 1970s. When I first saw the site the townhouses had just been bulldozed away, leaving bare earth, as unpromising a location as I ever tested. But one small part of the site turned out to be miraculously intact, and in that small area we found a pit about three feet (0.9 m) across and deep that was full of pottery dating to Early Woodland times. The pit was radiocarbon dates to around 750 BCE. Mending done later in the lab (above) showed that these sherds came from five vessels, each made in a slightly different way. Native  potters were usually highly consistent in how they worked, so we think five different potters were involved. That makes us suspect that this pit resulted from an annual get-together in which five different bands of Indians who spent much of the year apart assembled at this spot, perhaps timed to coincide with the great runs of shad and herring up the river. That is how archaeologists think people of the time lived (we call it "fission-fusion") but actual evidence is pretty scarce.

Also in 2014 we dug in Patterson Park in Baltimore, looking for the earthworks built to defend the city from British attack in 1814. (You know, the rockets' red glare and the bombs bursting in air and all.) And we did find them, stretching for more than 200 feet across the park, which I thought was a real triumph. We also did a major public outreach effort that involved dozens of volunteers, hundreds of school kids, and appearances on radio and television, and I got to hear the head of the American Battlefield Protection Program call our project "a model of how to do public archaeology." Because that was such a public project I posted about it here as it happened.

In 2015 I dug on a Navy base near here on the site of a major 17th- to 20th-century plantation. We found a series of eight artifact concentrations on either side of an old farm lane, some with the foundations of small houses, that we interpret as slave cabins. Each was occupied for 25 to 75 years, then abandoned and replaced by another nearby. The oldest was built around 1740, and the last two remained in use after the Civil War, down into the 20th century. One of the fun things about this project was that three different groups of archaeologists had worked on parts of this plantation before, so we had to sort through their notes to figure out what they had done and where.

In 2016 we found and excavated a burial pit on the Manassas Battlefield, which I wrote about here when it was finally made public. The pit contained the complete skeletons of two Union soldiers and seven amputated legs.

Sadly I haven't done anything especially cool since then, but this still makes for a pretty respectable decade's work.