Friday, July 30, 2021

Links 30 July 2021

Rebecca Belmore, Madonna, 2017

The archaeology of Istanbul's basements.

In Sidney, Australia, sulfur-crested cockatoos have learned to open trash bins. The behavior was invented at least twice, but has mainly spread by imitation, one bird to the next. (NY Times story, original article)

Tyler Cowen interviews Niall Ferguson about the history and future of Britain.

You may recall that a year ago the archaeological press was all agog over the "discovery" of massive pictograph panels in the Colombian Amazon that were said to be 12,000 years old and to depict extinct animals. Well, they're not a new discovery, they're not 12,000 years old and they don't depict any extinct animals. But they are very cool.

The plan to build America's largest solar plant, north of Las Vegas, is abandoned after opposition. We are going to run out of places to put solar panels long before we achieve carbon-free power by that route.

Rebecca Belmore, a First Nations artist from Canada, was one of the first Native Americans to be featured at the Venice Biennale. After perusing the images on her web site, my impression is that she absolutely belongs at the Biennale with all the other celebrity creators of avant garde "installations," "performances," and "events." However much her stuff grapples with identity and tragedy, most of it leaves me completely cold. One exception is at the top of this post.

The 1976 Chowchilla Kidnapping, a truly bizarre California event (long story with literary pretentions at Vox, wikipedia)

An American dies of bubonic plague, in southwestern Colorado.

A disturbing racist incident among high school kids in a mostly white Michigan town leads to a tense debate over "Critical Race Theory" and the question of whether talking about race increases or decreases racism. Many parents say their kids never thought about race until the school system forced them to. I don't believe that, but on the other hand the liberal side keeps recommending more sensitivity training and I absolutely believe that makes things worse. (Washington Post)

The Ethicist at the NY Times suggests that you should not fire your dog walker for being an angry Trumper online.

Ben Pentreath documents June in Dorset, many wonderful photos.

A look at the Sacred Band of Thebes, an elite group of 300 warriors made up of male couples who had sworn a vow together. Interesting but unfortunately little is known about them beyond their bare existence, so most of the questions a modern has about them are unanswerable.

Remember the plot to kidnap Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer? It now turns out that half the people involved were FBI agents or informants, including the second in command. The defense being offered by the militiamen in jail is that the idea for the plot came from the FBI guys, who set everyone else up, and that most of them never had any intention of actually kidnapping anyone. If true, does that make this a brilliant operation to smoke out potential domestic terrorists or cruel government overreach?

In the 30 states that accepted the Medicaid expansion under Obamacare from the beginning, medical debt has declined by 44%.

The strange world of beekeeping in New York City. (NY Times)

Is our civilization getting more depressed? Or, given that this study is based on books, is it just the people who write books who are more miserable?

Images that compare giant extinct animals with their modern relatives.

Mariko Kusumoto's fabric sea creatures.

Adolescent loneliness is increasing worldwide.

Slow, sad songs: Leon Bridges, River;  Leonard Cohen, Hallelujah; Katey Segal, Bird on a Wire; Gregory Alan Isakov, The Trapeze Swinger; Tyler Childers, Hard Times.

Wednesday, July 28, 2021

Martin Shkreli, the Wu Tang Clan, and NFTs

You may remember that when he was riding high, "Pharma Bro" Martin Shkreli bought a unique album by the Wu Tang Clan for $2 million. When he was convicted of securities fraud the Feds seized it, among with a lot of other property, and they just sold it for an undisclosed sum:

Earlier today, the United States sold the sole copy of the Wu-Tang Clan album “Once Upon a Time in Shaolin” (the “Album”) which had previously been ordered to be forfeited as a substitute asset in connection with the approximately $7.4 million forfeiture money judgment (Forfeiture Money Judgment) entered against Shkreli at his March 2018 sentencing. Proceeds from the sale of the Album will be applied to satisfy the outstanding balance owed on the Forfeiture Money Judgment. The contract of sale contains a confidentiality provision that protects information relating to the buyer and price. …

At the time Shkreli purchased the Album in 2015, it was marketed as “both a work of art and an audio artifact.” The Album includes a hand-carved nickel-silver box as well as a leather-bound manuscript containing lyrics and a certificate of authenticity. The Album is subject to various restrictions, including those relating to the duplication of its sound recordings. In September 2017, just weeks after his conviction but before the district court-imposed forfeiture, Shkreli attempted to sell the Album through an on-line auction. 

Matt Levine thinks the Feds showed a real lack of imagination here:

Ehh I guess? I mean, fine, it’s a box and a book and an associated set of contractual provisions. I suppose if you are buying the thing you have to figure out whether you succeed to Shkreli’s contractual rights to prevent Wu-Tang from releasing more copies of the album; it’d be funny if someone paid the government a lot of money for this one-of-a-kind Wu-Tang album and then Wu-Tang just put it on Spotify. You’d still have the certificate of authenticity, though; no one else has that. Unless they type up their own. You’d have the only authentic certificate of authenticity.

Obviously the thing that Martin Shkreli bought from the Wu-Tang Clan was a non-fungible token? It was a non-fungible token rendered in paper and leather and nickel and silver rather than immutable blockchain code, but still. And then the government seized it and re-sold it, which is a thing it can do, but you can certainly imagine a more interesting deal? What if the government had securitized Martin Shkreli’s Wu-Tang album? Or what if it had sold a limited edition of 1,000 non-fungible tokens, each recorded on the blockchain, each accompanied by a certificate of authenticity signed by the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Brooklyn, each representing “hey I bought an NFT of the time the U.S. government seized Martin Shkreli’s Wu-Tang album”? What if the government had held a press conference and said “crime does not pay, and we will destroy everything associated with this crime,” and then burned the Wu-Tang album on camera and then sold an NFT of that? What if I sold this section of this column as an NFT? What if someone filmed Martin Shkreli reading this paragraph and sold that as an NFT?

Do you remember when NFTs were a big deal? It was only like a couple of months ago.

Tuesday, July 27, 2021

The Pessimism of the Aging Founders

Jamelle Bouie has a long review by in the Times of Fears of a Setting Sun: The Disillusionment of America’s Founders by Dennis Rasmussen. Rasmussen's book documents how pessimistic America's founders came to be as they got older. Washington, as many Americans know, was upset about the rise of parties and the partisan spirit, and once commented that if the Democratic faction were to "set up a broomstick, and call it a true son of Liberty," it would get all their votes. "Character," he wrote, "counts for nothing."

Hamilton feared that the national government was too weak to hold the country together or defend its interests against foreign powers. He also despaired over America's anemic economic growth and slow industrialization and the failure of state governments to promote banking, industry and trade.

John Adams took the opposite tack and thought Americans were being ruined by peace and prosperity:

If there is any Thing Serious in this World, the Selfishness of our Countrymen is not only Serious but melancholy, foreboding ravages of Ambition and Avarice which never were exceeded on this Selfish Globe.

Jefferson turned his rhetorical talents to doom-mongering and became pessimism's poet. He despaired about everything: the rise of industry, the decline of yeoman farmers, the tendency of all power to turn tyrannous, the impossibility of resolving the slavery question. The fight over the Missouri Compromise in 1820 inspired pages of despairing letters to friends and old allies: 

I am now to die in the belief that the useless sacrifice of themselves, by the generation of ’76. to acquire self-government and happiness to their country, is to be thrown away by the unwise and unworthy passions of their sons, and that my only consolation is to be that I live not to weep over it.

Jefferson could see perfectly well that if America was going to fight over slavery the existing governmental arrangements were not adequate to resolve the conflict, so the nation was headed for dissolution.

It is an important lesson in two opposite senses. In the first sense, it shows that all eras have problems that seem apocalyptic to people who live through them, but in fact apocalypse is rare. The history of the US before the Civil War has always struck me as rather melancholy: the ongoing conquest and displacement of Indians, staggeringly uneven economic growth, a parade of towns founded but never populated and business started only to fail, repeated recessions and bank failures, high rates of violence, and of course the sad reality of slavery and the looming collision over its fate. But on the other hand, the population boomed, new cities blossomed, and new technologies transformed the land.

So in one sense the period is a lesson of how people can thrive in the midst of perpetual crisis. Even among the enslaved, the population surged and there was much creativity in music and other areas. But in another sense, Jefferson was right, and the inability to end slavery by some sort of gradual manumission doomed millions to needless suffering and the nation to catastrophe.

And this, I think, is a reason to be optimistic about our own time. We have problems aplenty, and doom-mongering in spades. But we do not, I think, have any underlying issue like slavery –so important, so emotional, so economically vital – that is fated to tear us apart.

Sunday, July 25, 2021

Fernando Pessoa and the Empty Self

Certain modern psychologists and neuroscientists have concluded that the self is a myth. Experiments show that our hand begins to move before our mind becomes aware of formulating the desire for movement, sometimes when we feel that we have just begun to weigh up the pros and cons and movement. Rather than having a single character that remains unaltered through every vicissitude, we change kaleidoscopically in response to every alteration of circumstance. We have no pure feelings, just salad bowls where every emotion is mixed, and if the fork of the moment chances on hate or love and nothing else, that is of no real import.

Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa (1888-1935) believed all of this. As microscopic in his self-examination as any artist who ever lived, he found at the deepest level only confusion and emptiness. Pessoa is remembered, by those who remember him at all, as a sort of prophet of modernity, a lonely, alienated soul whose work explored the limits of loneliness and alienation. He also pulled off one of the great feats of posthumous literary self-promotion. There is a new biography of Pessoa, by Richard Zenith, from which a reviewer in the Times extracts this summary of the trick:

He published a few books that went mostly unnoticed, but there were rumors of a trunk in his room stuffed with his true life’s work. After his death in 1935, the trunk was discovered, brimming with notes and jottings on calling cards and envelopes, whatever paper appeared to be handy. They were authored not only by Pessoa but by a flock of his personas (“heteronyms,” he called them): a doctor, a classicist, a bisexual poet, a monk, a lovesick teenage girl. Among his writings was a sheaf of papers that would become his masterpiece: “The Book of Disquiet,” a mock confession in sly, despairing aphorisms and false starts — “The active life has always struck me as the least comfortable of suicides.”

So most of Pessoa’s work, like much of Emily Dickinson’s, is as much a creation of the editor’s as his own. Zenith, who has translated some of Pessoa's work, says it consists of

a large but uncertain quantity of discrete, mostly undated texts left in no sequential order, such that every published edition — inevitably depending on massive editorial intervention — is necessarily untrue to the nonexistent ‘original.’

And this, you have to think, is exactly what Pessoa wanted. He did not believe that he had a true voice, which expressed an inner self, because after searching for decades for that self he concluded that there was no such thing. 

“I’m beginning to know myself. I don’t exist,” he wrote. “I’m the gap between what I’d like to be and what others have made of me.” Or he was “the naked stage where various actors act out various plays.” Or, he wrote in a poem, “merely the place / Where things are thought or felt.” 

In one of his poems he wrote,

We are two abysses - a well staring at the sky.

As to where his work came from, if not from himself, he was mystified:

After writing, I read —
What made me write that?
Where have I been to find that?
Where did that come to me from? It is better than me —

He believed everyone else was as complex and ultimately uncentered as he felt himself to be: 

There are no norms. All people are exceptions to a rule that doesn’t exist.

Given this, he believed that communication between people was all but impossible. His most famous poem these days seems to be “Your Eyes Go Sad”:

Your eyes go sad. You're not
Listening to what I say.
They doze, dream, fade out.
Not listening. I talk away.

I tell what I've told, out of listless
Sadness, so often before ...
I think you never listened.

Pessoa did not do much in his life. He lived off his inheritance, read, wrote, sometimes hung out with other artists but had no lovers and no close friends. He probably died a virgin. He scorned busy-ness and said in a dozen different ways that thought was always preferable to action. A dilettante, he once wrote, 

Everything interests me, but nothing holds me.

He also had no teachers, no role models. Obviously he was influenced by books he read and people he knew, but he felt quite alone:
I never had anyone I could call “Master”. No Christ died for me. No Buddha showed me the right path. In the depths of my dreams no Apollo or Athena appeared to me to enlighten my soul.

Pessoa's poetry has a strange diversity to it. I would probably not know a verse of his if I saw it. This is always an issue with translated writing, but clicking from one Pessoa poem to the next you really have no idea what to expect. Much of it does nothing for me; it is obscure, indirect, and has a sort of random quality. But some is nice:

To be great, be whole: nothing that's you
Should you exaggerate or exclude.
In each thing, be all. Give all you are
In the least you ever do.
The moon, because it rides so high,
Is reflected whole in each tiny pool.

The difficulty was deliberate. He once wrote, 

I've always rejected being understood. To be understood is to prostitute oneself. I prefer to be taken seriously for what I'm not, remaining humanly unknown, with naturalness and all due respect.

I found what I have read this week about Pessoa fascinating because I agree that there is a prophecy in his writing. I see around me millions of people with little in the way of self, and I suspect that if people in the past seemed to have more it was because they lived in narrower cultures with more rigid expectations. Freed to be their true selves, millions of people have looked hard within their minds and found nothing: no desires, no ambitions, no passions. No firm nature, just “fluidity,” one of our age's buzzwords.

Love, for much of the current generation, is not the great pursuit or the great passion, but something impossibly distant and unreal. To be truly known by another seems either impossible, or, if possible, horrifying. I am struck by the persistent modern fantasy of going off alone to a cabin in the woods, where one could avoid the whole messy business of dealing with other humans. Pessoa:

I have no ambitions or wants.
To be a poet is no ambition of mine.
It is a way of staying alone.

Suppose it is true that, for many people, a world with too much freedom leads only to alienation and emptiness? That without strict cultural norms, there is only purposeless fluidity? That without social structures, we can hardly communicate with each other?

I know, I alone
How much it hurts, this heart
With no faith nor law
Nor melody nor thought.

Only I, only I
And none of this can I say
Because feeling is like the sky -
Seen, nothing in it to see.
It is not, I assure everyone, that I long to immerse myself in some ancient, rigid tradition, or even in Victorianism. I am sure that has its own terrors. But maybe Pessoa's self-examination showed that the great danger of life in our age emerges at the intersection of neuroscience and freedom: that freed to look inside ourselves for a purpose and a path, we might see all the way through to a nothingness beyond. But maybe Pessoa also understood, in a way, one of the solutions to this predicament, to celebrate the lives we chance to have:

Crown me with roses
And with swiftly wilting leaves.
That will do.

Thursday, July 22, 2021

Mt. Desert Isle 2021


Pictures from Monday's fogbound hike up Parkman Mountain: Thomas and Clara resting, and a general view off the trail. The highlight of the first two days was actually a kayak trip on Sunday morning to visit a rock where seals sometimes hang out; we saw more than twenty seals, half in the water and half on the rock, truly spectacular.


Tidepooling on Tuesday: Clara and Ben exploring, and a picture Clara took of the little squid that was the day's most interesting discovery.


Flowers around the house.


Wednesday Ben and I took a little hike up Acadia Mountain, a hill with a great view of Sommes Sound; fortunately we had sunny weather for the first time this trip.

Ben admired the waterfall on Man O War Brook, so called because it falls almost directly into Sommes Sound and sailing ships sent boats to this spot to fill up their water barrels.


And our Thursday morning hike up Sargent Mountain by a different route.

Canada Lily on the mountain.

Tremont Harbor, where we had lunch.



I feel like we just got here but we'll be on our way in the morning. So farewell, Mt. Desert, until next time.

Links 23 July 2021

Bronze Ax, Luristan (Iran), 1500-1300 BC, now in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art

Amazing collection of historic fans made by Hugenot fan-makers in London.

The political struggle over homelessness in Los Angeles. (NY Times)

Estimating the cost of interruptions on in-school learning, via PA announcements and so on; according to these authors it amounts to 10-20 days/year in some schools.

Conserving a unique Roman sarcophagus with interior reliefs depicting a tomb.

Vaccines are not preventing the spread of new Covid-19 variants but they are dramatically reducing deaths.

Jenny Diski and creativity born from indolence.

Heavily armed "criminals" shoot down Nigerian air force fighter jet.

The rich life around undersea volcanoes.

Cluster of impressive tombs from China's Yuan Dynasty unearthed in Shandong (here and here)

The twentieth-century London tradition of "beanos", in which workers from certain businesses hired buses for one-day vacations in the country.

What happens when the ideas of political scientists escape from the academic world and spread in popular culture.

Long argument that a modified version of Mordehai Milgrom's MOND theory of gravity explains the rotation of galaxies and other cosmological problems much better than Dark Matter theories. Like this author I am extremely skeptical of entities like Dark Matter that nobody can detect or measure and wonder why physicists are so devoted to them.

The vast cultural gulf between Africans and African Americans, sort of a grab bag article but parts are interesting.

The USS Gerald Ford, our newest aircraft carrier, was commissioned in 2017 but still hasn't been deployed and won't be until 2022. The Navy just admitted that the problem was trying to install 23 new, untried technologies at once, from new radars to new elevators.

Brett Stephens, who holds the establishment conservative slot at the NY Times, has lunch with likely future mayor Eric Adams and likes what he hears: little ideology, a lot of pragmatic talk about fighting crime and shoring up the tax base. In America, pragmatic talk almost always beats anything that sounds like ideology.

One quirky archivist's 14 favorite objects in the British Museum.

What Hannah Arendt actually said about totalitarianism and truth.

Wondering why the Dominican Republican has done so much better economically than Haiti; in 1960 they were poor to roughly the same degree, but since then the DR has grown smartly while Haiti has stagnated, and the DR's GDP per person is now about seven times as high.

Folk music by Canadian men: Stan Rogers, Northwest Passage, The Mary Ellen Carter; Garnet Rogers, Night Drive; Gordon Lightfoot, The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald; James Keelaghan, Cold Missouri Waters, Red Wing Blackbird.

Sunday, July 18, 2021

Vacation

Greetings from Maine, where I will be all week. Tuesday I made the mistake of sending out an email to all the people I have been working with lately, reminding them I would be gone and needed to take care of anything crucial before Thursday. This led to a deluge of calls and I worked up to the list minute, which is why my departure was rushed and Friday's links post late. Next time I will just slip quietly out of town.


Friday, July 16, 2021

Links 16 July 2021

Lions from Chauvet Cave, France, c. 31,000 BC

Scott Siskind tries to untangle the costs and benefits of various kinds of coronavirus lockdowns.

Winners of the 2021 Audubon Photography Contest.

The strange experience of seeing your own life in a short story written by a person you've never met.

At the Times, Ross Douthat ponders the French and Indian War, the alternate paths history might have taken, and how we ought to teach children about the past.

One of the winners in Scott Siskind's book review contest covers On the Natural Faculties by the 2nd century AD physician we call Galen, starting from the question: if Galen was a stupid as his modern critics imply, how did he get so famous?

Adventurous Travels visits Avaza, Turkmenistan, "the world's strangest seaside resort."

The world of conservative book publishing, quite interesting.

Long, sad Washington Post story about trying to keep students learning through the pandemic at an elementary school  in the poorest part of town.

Katha Pollitt says "The Left Needs Free Speech"

In New York, creative attempts to disguise scaffolding and construction sheds. (NY Times)

Review of a new history of Central Asia by Adeeb Khalid, focusing on the period since the Russian conquest.

Roughly 1,000 people a day are fleeing Hong Kong. Many are going to Britain, which offered them something like open entry. I wish the US would do the same; surely the people fleeing Hong Kong now have an economic potential as great as any migrants in history. (Washington Post)

The dismissal of Bill Cosby's conviction shows again the extraordinary power of prosecutors in our justice system. (Washington Post) On the other hand this problem is even worse in other countries, such as Japan, where hardly anyone indicted by a prosecutor is ever acquitted. Some European countries have "investigating magistrates" who lead criminal investigations, rule on all preliminary matters like search warrants themselves, and then serve as prosecutors in any eventual trial. The powers of a modern state in criminal matters are simply vast, and somebody has to wield them. But we should never put complete in trust the people who do.

The latest ploy to get Californians to support more controlled burns in their forests is to call it an "ancient American Indian practice." Which is even true.

"More than 93,000 people died of a drug overdose in the U.S. last year — a record number of cases that reflects a rise of nearly 30% from 2019, according to new data released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Officials say the increase was driven by the lethal prevalence of fentanyl, as well as pandemic-related stressors and problems in accessing care." (NPR)

The "conservators" who claimed to have discovered a hidden 17th-century wall painting while restoring a church in 1940 actually painted it themselves.

Photographs of Amsterdam's large heron population. They're everywhere.

An attempt to model the population history of Easter Island using radiocarbon dates – a very iffy business – finds that the population kept growing right up to European contact, so the destruction of all the island's trees did not create a crisis for the people. Interesting if true.

If the climate change alarmists are right, CO2 emissions are about a million times more dangerous than police violence. So why, asks Ezra Klein in the Times, is the climate movement so peaceful and passive?

And one more Scott Siskind, reviewing a book on the global spread of American ideas about mental illness and asking, "does naming and pointing to a mental health problem make it worse?"

Sigur Rós, Valtari, ethereal Icelandic music

Wednesday, July 14, 2021

Hans the Painter

Hans Maler zu Schwaz – that is, Hans the Painter of Schwaz, Schwaz being the village near Innsbruck where he had his studio – was born some time in the 1480s and died between 1526 and 1529. As you can see, little is known about him. But he was highly enough regarded in his time to have worked for the Habsburg court and the Fugger banking family. Above is Anne of Hungary and Bohemia,  c. 1519.

Anton Fugger, 1522.

An unknown beardless man.

Siegmund von Dietrichstein, 1515

Anna Klammer von Weydach, c. 1525

Hating the Past, Losing the Past

The US Bureau of Official Names, which decides what America's places should be called, recently agreed that the word "Negro" should be removed from the names of sixteen places in Texas. Because, it seems, many people now feel that "negro" is an offensive racial slur, all too close to the other N word. (NY Times, NPR) But if you are offended by the word "negro," you can't read fifty years of work by black intellectuals, who used the word with pride. W.E.B. DuBois and Martin Luther King are completely lost to you. You can't get enthused about the Negro Leagues.

I was recently lectured by a reviewer for over-using the word "slave," which is offensive and dehumanizing to enslaved people. But "slave" was the word used by Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, John Brown, and all the other people who actually risked their lives defending the humanity of slaves. The narratives written by former slaves all used the word: Twelve Years a Slave, etc. If the word is so offensive to you that you want to banish it from the language, can you read their writings? Three different young people I know have told me that they really can't, that slavery is so awful to them that they don't want to hear about it at all.

Maybe you're thinking that people can separate the language in old books from what they use themselves, but I don't buy it. Historians can do that; after immersing yourself in any past period for long enough, the vocabulary seems natural and no longer jars. But I very much doubt non-historians can.

And that is the thing I am wondering about history in my time. Many Americans are flat-out offended by the past and want nothing to do with it. Lynn Manuel Miranda was recently attacked on Twitter because Hamilton glorifies evil slave owners, and rather than bothering to defend his work he just said, "It's a valid point." But if we're not going to tell stories featuring slave owners, what stories do we have left to tell? Focusing on the oppressed might work for a few people, but that makes the stories pretty depressing and doesn't get you away from controversy. Plenty of American Indians dislike blacks every bit as much as whites and think they should go back to Africa when the whites go back to Europe. (I was once told this in a way I took to be completely serious.) There is simply no way to narrate North American history that is not offensive to somebody.

The discomfort doesn't end at the borders of the US, either. A few years ago I skimmed an article titled, "Is Medieval History Racist?" The argument was that since medieval history is entirely about white people, it is a fantasy playground for white supremacists and therefore deeply problematic. Chinese and Japanese history are hardly the place to look for racial tolerance, and before the twentieth century African history was every bit as dominated by slavery and the slave trade as that of the US or the Caribbean.

Meanwhile the new paleogenetics is threatening the connections that many people in Britain and Ireland feel with the builders of megalithic monuments, who, it turns out, were not their ancestors but the people their ancestors exterminated.

All of this has me thinking about what it would mean for people to lose all interest in history, and all knowledge beyond a vague sense that it was something bad.

It feels to me like a catastrophe, an abandonment of half of what makes life interesting. I love knowing about the past, reading about the past, watching movies set in the past or in fantasy versions of it. But other people feel differently. I wrote here last year about the fantastic fiction of N.K. Jemisin, which abandons all ties to the historical or mythic past in favor of an entirely imaginary world. Jemisin won the Hugo award three years in a row, I suspect because many American readers are also bored with or offended by the past and looking for something completely different.

But is there any more to our relationship with the past than that? I like it, you don't, who cares?

I have a strong sense that my approach to contemporary events is shaped by my knowledge of history. I believe that knowing some things trumpeted as new are really ancient, and some things proclaimed as tradition go back only a few decades, gives me insight into what is happening in the world. But is that an illusion? Is it the way I justify my beliefs to myself? Does knowing history really lead to better understanding of our own time? I suspect that if it does, it is mainly through knowing about the past 150 years or so. I doubt my learning about Viking heroic poetry or the structure of 14th-century manors is relevant.

It isn't that Negro Mountain is the hill I want to die on; the legislature of Texas voted unanimously to change the name, and how many things have Texas Democrats and Republicans agreed on lately? But despite a lot of rhetoric I don't see the country facing up to the bad parts of our past; I see us running as fast as we can away from all of it.

Turning Mills into Hip Spaces

Interesting NY Times story about the effort to restore economic vitality to Rocky Mount, North Carollina:

Less than a decade ago, the economic malaise in Rocky Mount, N.C., was tangible. Rocky Mount Mills, a big cotton mill that had given the town its identity, had shut down in 1996, costing the area hundreds of jobs. Downtown was deserted. Nobody was hiring.

Now, the mill is a bustling complex with restaurants and breweries. It has a small hotel composed of tiny houses on wheels, a wide lawn where concerts regularly take place and a Whiffle ball field.

Since 2013, Rocky Mount Mills’ current owner, Capitol Broadcasting Company, has redeveloped the site, giving it a dynamic atmosphere with stores and residences. Its leaders are aiming to create a sense of community that will entice out-of-town businesses and workers to settle there, raising the town’s economic prospects and spurring more growth.

Which is cool, I'm all for adaptive reuse of interesting old buildings. But are microbreweries and whiffle ball really an economic substitute for manufacturing? Is this sort of thing sustainable? Or maybe the question is, how many places can pull this off, given that thousands are trying and there is only so much demand?

Tuesday, July 13, 2021

Should We Stop Sending Aid to Poor Countries?

Brett Stephens is an iron ass conservative (to use one of Bush I's favorite phrases), but he may have a point about Haiti:

Following the 2010 earthquake, pundits and economists proposed multibillion-dollar aid packages for Haiti. Ultimately, some $9 billion in aid and another $2 billion worth of oil arrived. Billions were embezzled and wasted. Both President Moïse and his predecessor, Michel Martelly, ruled autocratically and were widely suspected of corruption. A recent story by my colleagues Dan Bilefsky and Catherine Porter, reported from a leafy residential area in Montreal, gives a clear picture of where some of this aid may have ended up.

The problems aren’t all on the Haitian side. In 2016, Yamiche Alcindor painted a devastating portrait in The Times of the work Bill and Hillary Clinton had done in the country. “Fewer than half the jobs promised at the industrial park, built after 366 farmers were evicted from their lands, have materialized,” Alcindor wrote of one Clinton-supported project. “Many millions of dollars earmarked for relief efforts have yet to be spent. Mrs. Clinton’s brother Tony Rodham has turned up in business ventures on the island, setting off speculation about insider deals.”

Yet the question of whether the greater share of blame lies with the donor or the recipient misses the larger point: Aid to Haiti fosters dependence, invites embezzlement, enervates the institutions of state and civil society, discourages local initiatives, misdirects capital to donor-favored schemes, enriches the well connected and enrages everyone else.

It’s also degrading. Treating people as helpless has a bad way of making them so.

A few years ago I read an academic analysis of the impact of aid on the economic condition of recipient countries over the 1960 to 2000 period, and it found that the impact is zero. Countries that received billions in aid were no better off than those that got nothing. In fact if you excluded South Korea from their analysis – which got billions in US aid in the 1960s and 1970s – the effect was negative. The more aid a country received, the worse its economy.

It may be, as some left-wing critics say, that the problem is the way the aid is given: countries often insist that construction projects be completed by contractors from the donor nation, for example, or require that a percentage of the aid be spent on their own products. World Bank aid often comes with stipulations that require capitalist economic schemes and limit land reform.

But that is the reality: a world in which aid would be given wisely and nobly, and then not stolen by corrupt autocrats, is probably beyond our reach. Given the actual state of nations like Haiti and Zaire, doing nothing may be better than throwing more aid money at problems aid money has helped to create.

While I'm on the subject, kudos to Biden for refusing to consider sending American troops to prop up Haiti's self-proclaimed new leader. I suspect this is another point on which Trump would have agreed, reminding us again that they both represent different aspects of the same United States.

Monday, July 12, 2021

Student Athletes, Freedom, and Inequality

One of the big issues in college sports right now is amateurism. It has long been the rule that student athletes cannot be compensated for playing, beyond free tuition and expenses. This goes back to the old, aristocratic spirit that also animated the modern Olympics; the young men rowing for Oxford and Cambridge were something completely different from grubby boxers and what-all who competed for cash. 

What happens to college sports now that the barrier is falling, I have no idea. Most likely just an intensification of the trend we have already seen over the past 25 years, with a few elite schools vacuuming up all the top talent, many of whom will stay in college only for a year before turning pro.

And this is very popular among students:

Eighty-one percent of students in the College Pulse survey said the NCAA takes advantage of student-athletes, and their reasoning often boiled down to money.

“They [the NCAA] make billions of dollars each year while athletes, who tend to be browner and poorer than the student body, make either nothing at all or a few thousand dollars in scholarship incentives,” wrote a student at Grinnell College. “Many do not graduate because of the time commitments from their sports, and the physical toll on their bodies is immense with no further support if they do get injured. I would say all of that is unethical in the extreme.”

Whether the responses were broken down by gender, race or political leaning, students overwhelmingly sided against the NCAA. For example, Black or African American (86 percent), Hispanic or Latino (86 percent) and multiracial students (92 percent) were especially likely to think that the NCAA takes advantage of student-athletes, while 80 percent of white students also agreed.

“Student athletes have so many restrictions placed on them, and schools/NCAA make [an] insane amount of money off of them, without those students seeing that money,” wrote a University of Louisville student. “And let’s be real, student athletes are set up to fail after college most of the time.”

This sort of argument is old and noble; after all the main argument Lincoln advanced against slavery was that black people had the same right as whites to profit from their own labor. I have recently read two memoirs written by slaves who praised their former enslavers for allowing them to keep all the money they earned while working off the plantation; being a slave in a legal sense seemed to bother them less than having their enslavers take half the money they earned. The right of every working person to profit from that labor strikes all of us as fundamental and just.

So it makes sense that many Americans see the unpaid labor of student-athletes as wrong, especially when others profit from it.

But: who will really benefit from this change? Surely not the average athlete. I wonder if the average athlete might even lose a little, since right now universities recruit top talent partly by creating luxurious facilities and so on that all athletes can use. Once they can recruit by offering cash or sponsorships, will they care as much about spiffy weight rooms and athletic dorms?

The beneficiaries will be the top athletic stars, the people who already view college as a brief stop on the way to a professional career. Some of them will no doubt land multi-million dollar deals. Great for them.

But isn't this a perfect example of the mindset that has brought us such extreme inequality? Millions for the stars, nothing for the rest of us? We agree on the principle that people should profit from their own labor, especially those (like top athletes) who work extremely hard. But this Civil Rights principle, noble in the abstract, will in this case just enrich people who would in a few years (barring catastrophic injury) be rich anyway.

Freedom, in and of itself, will not lead to a world I would think of as just.

I find that many Americans who think of themselves as leftist react very strongly against all limitations on freedom. Student athletes should be free to profit from their labor. Marijuana smokers should be free to do their thing, and growers to profit from it. Women should have the same salaries as men in corporate jobs that take up all our time and flog our souls. Working people should be free to drink or gamble away their paychecks even if their kids go hungry.

So long as that is our attitude, we will never create a more equal world.

Sunday, July 11, 2021

A Young Man Reads Anatomy Texts and Wonders What Life Is

From Thomas Mann, The Magic Mountain (1924), translated by H.T. Lowe-Porter:

The volumes were heavy, unhandy. Hans Castorp propped them against his chest or stomach as he lay; they were heavy, but he did not mind. Lying there, his mouth half open, he let his eye glide down the learned page, upon which fell the light from his red-shaded lamp, though he might have read, if need were, by the brilliance of the moonlight alone. He read, following the lines down the page with his head, until at the bottom his chin lay sunk upon his breast — and in this position the reader would pause perhaps for reflection, dozing a little or musing in half-slumber, before lifting his eyes to the next page. He probed profoundly. While the moon took its appointed way above the crystalline splendours of the mountain valley, he read of organized matter, of the properties of protoplasm, that sensitive substance maintaining itself in extraordinary fluctuation between building up and breaking down; of form developing out of rudimentary, but always present, primordial, read with compelling interest of life, and its sacred, impure mysteries.

What was life? No one knew. It was undoubtedly aware of itself, so soon as it was life; but it did not know what it was. Consciousness, as exhibited by susceptibility to stimulus, was undoubtedly, to a certain degree, present in the lowest, most undeveloped stages of life; it was impossible to fix the first appearance of conscious processes at any point in the history of the individual or the race; impossible to make consciousness contingent upon, say, the presence of a nervous system. The lowest animal forms had no nervous systems, still less a cerebrum; yet no one would venture to deny them the capacity for responding to stimuli. One could suspend life; not merely particular sense-organs, not only nervous reactions, but life itself. One could temporarily suspend the irritability to sensation of every form of living matter in the plant as well as in the animal kingdom; one could narcotize ova and spermatozoa with chloroform, chloral hydrate, or morphine. Consciousness, then, was simply a function of matter organized into life; a function that in higher manifestations turned upon its avatar and became an effort to explore and explain the phenomenon it displayed —a hopeful-hopeless project of life to achieve self-knowledge, nature in recoil — and vainly, in the event, since she cannot be resolved in knowledge, nor life, when all is said, listen to itself.

What was life? No one knew. No one knew the actual point whence it sprang, where it kindled itself. Nothing in the domain of life seemed uncaused, or insufficiently caused, from that point on; but life itself seemed without antecedent. If there was anything that might be said about it, it was this: it must be so highly developed, structurally, that nothing even distantly related to it was present in the inorganic world. Between the protean amoeba and the vertebrate the difference was slight, unessential, as com- pared to that between the simplest living organism and that nature which did not even deserve to be called dead, because it was inorganic. For death was only the logical negation of life; but between life and inanimate nature yawned a gulf which research strove in vain to bridge. They tried to close it with myriad hypotheses, which it swallowed down without becoming any the less deep or broad.

Saturday, July 10, 2021

RIP Lauren Berlant

Lauren Berlant was a U of Chicago literature professor and a scourge of establishments wherever she found them. Including within the worlds she inhabited: feminism, Marxism, queer studies. I always appreciated this kind of insight:

Berlant tried to show how claims to unity on the part of the feminist movement are invariably accompanied by complaints from those who felt excluded. Berlant cast doubt on conventional ways of positing social and cultural unity, asking at what price such unity is achieved, and whether it unwittingly relies on mechanisms of hierarchy and exclusion.

Berlant extended this critique to nationalism and to all movements that employed its language, like talk of a Queer Nation. Nationalism, Berlant wrote, always ends up involving "sacrifice, stigmatization, and dispossession." You can believe that your nation, tribe, corporation, political party, or social movement will support and nurture you only by deluding yourself: "All attachment is optimistic."

Berlant held a lot of opinions that make no sense to me, but she had a feeling about groups that I very much share.

Native American Shoulder Bags, 19th Century



Shoulder Bag, Creek, mid Nineteenth Century

In the late 1700s Native American men began wearing shoulder bags like these for formal dress occasions. (For example treaty negotiations with white men, which is why we have several depictions of them in art from the time.) The bags are leather and the form seems to have been inspired by the ammunition pouches worn by European soldiers. The images here come from a new exhibit at the Met, Art of Native America: The Charles and Valerie Diker Collection.

Shoulder Bag, Ojibwa, Nineteenth Century

I love the way this exhibit is presented. My big complaint about the Museum of the American Indian in Washington was that the objects were presented as if they had emerged from a timeless, purely Native past, even though many of them were obvious responses to European imagery and technology. But this exhibit situates all the objects historically at the meeting point of diverse Native cultures with Europe and shows that they were responses to a world that was changing at cataclysmic speed. The exhibit is curated by Patricia Marroquin Norby, a Native American and the Met's new curator of Native American art. (Profile of Norby at the Times)

Ojibwa Bag, early Nineteenth Century

These objects follow a European form, and many of them rely on a technology that was not just foreign but radically new: the industrial techniques that allowed tiny glass beads to be produced cheaply and in huge quantities. The motifs are a mix: some can be traced in precontact Native American art, others are European, while still others seem to be new, springing from the imaginations of these artists.


Bag Made in Kansas by a Delaware artist, Mid Nineteenth Century

The catalog notes that this bag stands at the beginning of the Plains Indian Beadwork tradition. This kind of glass beadwork, which many of us know best as it was made by the Lakota and Cheyenne artists in the late 1800s, was introduced to the region by Native artists from the east who were sent west by the US government to reservations in Kansas and Oklahoma.


Seminole Bag, c. 1830

The Seminole were of course in 1830 not yet much of a people at all, just an ad hoc assemblage of folks who had fled from the destruction of the southeastern tribes, along with a smattering of escaped slaves and white rogues. But some of them continued the artistic traditions they had brought with them on their flight to Florida.

The exhibit is full of fascinating objects, and I may be posting more later. But meanwhile marvel at these and think about the pride and creativity they represent, enacted against the the background of the catastrophe engulfing Native America.

Friday, July 9, 2021

Links 9 July 2021

Jean-Étienne Liotard, Portrait of Maria Frederike van Reede-Athlone at Seven Years of Age

Scott Siskind's review of How Asia Works by Joe Studwell, an important work attempting to explain the great economic success of Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and China. Studwell thinks land reform was the crucial first step, and that growth in the Philippines and Thailand has been impeded by the power of landlords.

And Siskind reviews the status of genetic screening for embryos. (Summary: so long as IVF generates only 2 to 10 embryos per cycle, the technology can't do much beyond screening for the worst problems.)

The K-pop boom was launched by the Korean government to broaden its range of exports. Question: could this be replicated in other places?

One of the first people to study 17-year cicadas in the modern, scientific way was Benjamin Banneker, African American almanac maker, surveyor, etc., born and died in my neighborhood of Baltimore County. So far as I have found, he was the first person to correctly predict a cicada year, in 1800.

The letter Benjamin Bannker sent to Thomas Jefferson with a copy of his almanac, asking Jefferson to support equality for "the African race."

The Beachy Head Lady, a Sub Saharan African in Roman Britain.

Eleven cool artifacts from the wreck of the Mary Rose.

The elderly Iranian couple who confessed to killing their own adult children, saying their offspring had become "immoral."

Review of a new biography of Edgar Allen Poe, focusing on his interest in science.

Tanner Greer says that "culture wars are long wars" because, essentially, they are not resolved until a new generation grows up and takes over.

Strange, long, highly intellectual essay about Wallace Stevens, Harold Bloom, poetry, criticism, Yale, New Haven, homosexuality, the Cold War, and more, only to be read if you are in the mood, but worth it if you are.

The long-abandoned Scottish village of Old Lawers, supposed to be haunted by the ghost of a 17th-century prophetess, is up for sale. More here.

The British Museum Blog takes up historical board games.

Henry VIII tried to erase St. Thomas Becket from England.

Review of a new book by Michael Polan, This is Your Mind on Plants, focusing on the centrality of caffeine to our civilization.

Astronomy photograph of the year finalists, huge images at My Modern Met.

Sound waves transformed into traditional Chinese landscape paintings.

Tesla's autopilot system can prevent some accidents, but it is far from perfect. A series of crashes that took place when autopilot was on raise the question of whether it might encourage the driver to zone out and actually make driving more dangerous. I suspect if we ran the numbers we would find that however bad autopilot might be, people are worse, but the problem of safety measures making people dangerously complacent is a real one, so the question is certainly worth a look. (NY Times)

The Decline of Evangelical Christianity/Rise of QAnon

As recently as 2004, white evangelical Christians felt like they were winning in America. George W. Bush was president, speaking the language of witness. White evangelicals were one of the nation's largest demographic groups, and the new megachurches seemed to be consuming less dynamic mainline denominations. On the culture war issue of the moment, gay marriage, they seemed to be holding the line, and Republicans put anti-gay marriage amendments to the vote in a bunch of states to drive up conservative turnout. They extended their vision of a Christian America into the past, asserting that the leaders of the American Revolution were strong Christians and the nation, from its founding, a Christian state. They also imagined their power growing in the future, hoping that the growing network of Christian academies and the spread of home schooling would create a generation of Evangelical leaders.

Things have changed a lot in 17 years. Now, American Christians feel besieged, gay marriage is the law, and conservative Christians looking for a champion had to turn to a hell-bound sinner who pays hush money to porn stars.

Michelle Goldberg has a column in the Times today responding to the latest polling about American religion. New data from PRRI shows that percentage of Americans identifying as white evangelicals has dropped from 23% in 2006 to 14.5% last year. Other data also shows a decline, although the magnitude is all over the place. That's normal for a landscape in flux; as the meaning of "evangelical" shifts, the way people respond to the question becomes very sensitive to the details of how it is asked. PRRI's data showed a small increase in the mainline Protestant denominations, and their CEO thinks that is because some evangelicals have moved to stodgier denominations. White evangelicals are also the oldest denomination in America, with a median age (among adults) of 56.

(Incidentally this data shows that the percentage of "nones" has dropped a little since 2018, from 25.5% to 23%, but pollsters have found a range of numbers so this may not represent a real decline.)

To Goldberg, this decline explains a lot. She discussed the question with pollster Robert P. Jones, author of several books about the religious right:

White evangelicals once saw themselves “as the owners of mainstream American culture and morality and values,” said Jones. Now they are just another subculture.

From this fact derives much of our country’s cultural conflict. It helps explain not just the rise of Donald Trump, but also the growth of QAnon and even the escalating conflagration over critical race theory. “It’s hard to overstate the strength of this feeling, among white evangelicals in particular, of America being a white Christian country,” said Jones. “This sense of ownership of America just runs so deep in white evangelical circles.” The feeling that it’s slipping away has created an atmosphere of rage, resentment and paranoia.

QAnon is essentially a millenarian movement, with Trump taking the place of Jesus. Adherents dream of the coming of what they call the storm, when the enemies of the MAGA movement will be rounded up and executed, and Trump restored to his rightful place of leadership.

“It’s not unlike a belief in the second coming of Christ,” said Jones. “That at some point God will reorder society and set things right. I think that when a community feels itself in crisis, it does become more susceptible to conspiracy theories and other things that tell them that what they’re experiencing is not ultimately what’s going to happen.”

The notion that a nation of 300 million could belong to anyone in particular is so bizarre to me that it took me years of effort to wrap my mind around it, but I believe white Christians really used to think of the US as their nation. The presence of others had to be tolerated sometimes, but only if they recognized their place. The loss of that sense of ownership, of a sense that this is a place where they were truly at home, that was theirs, has saddened and angered millions of people.

If you want to put a positive spin on contemporary cultural and political struggles, try this: we are witnessing the collapse of the notion that the US belongs to any particular group of people and the rise of a vision of rigid inclusivity that regards ignoring, excluding or slighting anyone as the greatest sin. The weird excesses of wokeness are mostly about battering down the notion that any group has a greater claim than any other to power and belonging. 

Meanwhile the battle conservative white Christians raged to keep ownership of the nation has moved from real world politics to fantasyland, and instead of the Moral Majority we have chat rooms where people share the latest apocalyptic gossip. The assault on the Capitol freaked out a lot of people, but it was 5,000 angry losers taking advantage of a crack in the edifice. It accomplished nothing.

Young Americans are more diverse and less religious than any previous generation. It remains to be seen if wokeness can evolve into a positive, widespread coalition wielding real power. But the notion that white Christians by themselves could rule the nation is dead, and the future of conservatism rests as much with Hispanic Catholics and libertarian immigrants as with evangelical churches and grouchy old white folks.

Tuesday, July 6, 2021

Stacie Marshall Confronts her Family's Past

Stacie Marshall has taken over the running of her family's farm in Dirt Town Valley, Georgia. She is excited by the chance to bring the farm back to life using organic methods, but also worried about about the legacy she has inherited. Two ruined sharecropper's shacks still stand on the farm, memories of a time when the owning family relied on black labor. In 1860, they owned seven slaves. According to family lore they bought their first slave as a wetnurse, when the farmer's wife couldn't produce enough milk for her baby. Not only that, but they acquired the farm in 1833 in a lottery of land stolen from the Creek Indians.

This is a story that could easily come across as ridiculous, but Stacie Marshall is clearly not a ridiculous person, and the telling by Times reporter Kim Severson is nuanced and open-minded. What would it mean to cleanse the land of such a history? To redeem a family? Here is an excerpt:

If anyone in the valley could help Ms. Marshall begin her self-styled healing project, it was Melvin Mosley. He had been the assistant principal at her high school. He is also her father’s best friend.

The two men met as boys, when Mr. Mosley’s uncle lived in one of the shacks on the Scoggins farm and worked for Ms. Marshall’s grandfather. Mr. Scoggins went to the white school, Mr. Mosley the Black one. Every book at Mr. Mosley’s school was a hand-me-down from the white school, but the boys didn’t understand that their educations were different until they started comparing notes.

“One day he asks me, ‘Did you choose white milk or chocolate milk today?’” Mr. Mosley said. “Man, we didn’t have a choice. We didn’t have chocolate milk. I didn’t even know what a spit wad was because we never got straws.”

Chattooga County integrated its schools in 1966, when the boys were in seventh grade. In interviews, the men talked about how unfair segregation was, but their perspectives on the past are profoundly different. Both recalled joining the adults as they baled hay for Mr. Scoggins’s father, and breaking for midday dinner. The Black workers ate outdoors. The white workers went into the house.

“My mama would call them to come in the house, but they said, ‘No, ma’am,’ and stayed out by that wall there,” Mr. Scoggins said. “They were humble.”

To Mr. Mosley, eating outside wasn’t about humility. “We did what we did because that’s what you did,” he said. “That was a sign of the times.”

For decades, he taught in public schools and prisons. At 67, he is a preacher, and lives with his wife, Betty, on 50 acres near Ms. Marshall’s farm.

On a summer day in 2019, Ms. Marshall sat in their yard and told them she wanted to start sharing the whole, hard story of Dirt Valley, and make some kind of amends. She asked if she was on the right path.

Mr. Mosley always considered her a bright girl who should go to college — as he told her after sending her to detention for kissing a boy in the school mechanic shop. His advice now was simple.

“Let’s say that’s the water under the bridge,” he said. “You didn’t do anything wrong.” All she needed to do was to pour as much love on their valley as she could.

“In all of our families, Black or white, there are some generational things that are up to us to break,” he told her. “And when we break it, it is broken forever.”
Remember. Contemplate. Pour love onto the world. That is my formula, too.

Monday, July 5, 2021

Self Portraits by Young Artists





Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Self-Portrait at the Age of 18, 1847; Arthur Hughes, Self-Portrait at the Age of 18, 1851; Frederic Leighton, Self-Portrait at the Age of 18, 1848; Edgar Degas, Self-Portrait at the Age of 20, detail; Pablo Picasso, Self Portrait at the Age of 15Rembrandt, Self Portrait at the Age of 20-22. Frederic Leighton's curly locks are especially amusing if you recall his mature appearance.

The Bloody History of Dundrennan Abbey, Carved in Stone

Dundrennan Abbey in southern Scotland was founded in the 12th century. None of its records survive and little is known about its history.

It's best known sculpture is this depiction of an abbot.

During recent restoration efforts, attention was drawn to this carving. Does that dagger on the abbot's chest show that he was stabbed to death?

At the abbot's feet is this second figure, expiring from a stab wound in the belly. The scholars who made this announcement want it to be a story of an assassination, with the abbot depicted triumphant in the afterlife over the man who ended his time on earth.

Maybe. I mean, we know nothing about this place's history, so why not go with the most fun interpretation?