Friday, June 21, 2024

Renovating the Bailey Mansion

Great feature at the NY Times about the renovation of the Bailey Mansion in Harlem. 

Built by P.T. Barnum's less flamboyant partner in the circus business in 1886-1888, it was featured on the cover of Scientific American in 1890. The architect was Samuel Burrage Reed; the style is one of my favorites, Romanesque Revival.

From 1951 into the 1990s the house was a funeral home run by Marguerite Blake. After she retired from the funeral business she turned into a stereotypical crazy cat lady, and the place started to fall apart.

In 2008, Blake tried to sell the house for $10 million, but inspectors found that the roof had 35 separate leaks and nobody would buy. Toward the end of 2009 the house finally sold for $1.4 million. The eventual buyers said the basement was full of cats and just walking through it they got completely covered with fleas.

The buyers were Martin Spollen and Chen Jie, he from New Jersey and she born in Shanghai. They were not particularly rich and told the Times that they had to borrow money from friends and relatives to raise the purchase price. (Since the house was not not safe for occupancy, they couldn't get a mortgage.) They have been restoring it ever since, doing much of the work themsleves.

The Times say, "It has been a monumental effort driven by love and obsession."

They earn some money by renting the house out as a set for movines and television, but the project has still (of course) been a very expensive hobby. Spollen told the Times, "Our main talent is that we are not in a hurry."

One of the prizes of the house is a large collection of stained glass windows by Henry Belcher.

The former embalming room in the basement, now a woodshop.

What an amazing place.

Links 21 June 2024

Father's Day Card from my younger daughter; text says,
"I drew you a sunflower where the deer can't eat it."

Asking AI to adjudicate Supreme Court cases: Adam Unikowsky thinks Claude 3 Opus is better than the actual court. I mean, who do you trust to respect precedent, Claude 3 or Clarence Thomas?

But here's an argument that AI won't take our jobs. You might think that AI translation would be leading to a decline in jobs for translators, but so far the number of human translators still seems to be rising.  "When creative destruction happens, it’s always easier to see the destruction than the creation." I suspect this is an intermediate stage and before very long AI will be as good as the average human translator, but I won't guess how long that will take.

Intelligent Scott Siskind essay, "Fake Tradition is Traditional."

New Zealand has a Tree of the Year contest, and this year's winner looks a lot like an ent.

Fascinating little Celtic fertility idol.

How much of life on earth is dormant? "We live on a dormant planet. Life is mainly about being asleep."

In January, the discovery of a major deposit of rare earth minerals was announced in Sweden; now a Norwegian company claims to have found an eve bigger deposit in Norway. We won't be crippled by running out of metals.

Audobon photography awards: top 100 here; nice selection here.

With no actual history to speak of, North Macedonia leans on its very tenuous ties to Alexander the Great, to the immense irritation of the Greeks. (NY Times) It's hard to have a nation without national heroes.

Japanse battery maker TDK claims that a new material can increase the energy storage density 100-fold over their current batteries.

Loose Thread Stitchery, the Tumblr of someone who does amazing embroidery.

The amazingly diverse salamanders of the southern Appalachians.

Hoard of medieval silver found in Hungary.

Today's reason to hate the rich: the folks who poisoned the trees blocking their view of Camden Harbor in Maine.

A claim that the camp of the Assyrian army during the siege of Jerusalem has been identified.

Update on the search for Planet 9.

An argument that fossils excavated from Native lands should be repatriated. This piece appeared in Nature with the statement, "According to Lakotan people, they have always lived in Paha Sapa, as they call the Black Hills." This is false both as to the actual history of the Lakotas, whose tradition records that they first saw the Black Hills in the 1750s and did not live there until the 1800s, and to the opinion of better informed Lakota, who know this. And, no, monster stories are not evidence that pre-modern peoples knew about dinosaurs.

Worm charmers.

Some cool Roman armor.

At The Chronicle, Colin Dickey writes that for the past 75 years, many Americans seem to have held that if students emerge from college agreeing with them, they have been educated; if they emerge with different views, they have been "indoctrinated." Many conservatives used to think that professors indoctrinated students into communism, but now the fear is that they indoctrinate them into wokeism. (How and why this changed remain obscure.) Meanwhile, many professors wonder how they are having such a profound impact on students who won't do the reading or show up for class. 

Reason: "Numerous federal appeals courts have ruled that filming the police is protected under the First Amendment, but police around the country continue to illegally arrest people for it."

Photographs of Iceland over the past century, to celebrate the 80th anniversary of its independence. 

This week's music is Orff's Carmina Burana: the whole hour-long thing, the amazing 3:38 of O Fortuna in a live performance with fireworks.

Thread on Twitter/X about the ineffectiveness of KGB intelligence gathering: "Who can any longer doubt that Soviet leaders...would have been far better off throughout the cold war reading and believing Western newspapers, than believing what the KGB told them?"

The German army has placed an order for $9 billion worth of 155mm artillery shells, to supply Ukraine and restock their own arsenals. That's $9 billion for just one category of munitions out of dozens, dwarfing Germany's recent $2 billion order for 100 new tanks. This new era of war and international tension is already very expensive, and it's only going to get worse.

US defense figure Joseph S. Nye, Jr. on Eight Lessons from the War in Ukraine.

Excellent, informative thread on Twitter/X covering the impact of Russian electronic warfare on various NATO-supplied weapons. Longer article version here. From Colby Badhwar, one of the internet's top experts on anything to do with weapons procurement.

CSIS report on Ukrainian resistance to Russian occupation. Involves many women and is especially strong in Crimea.

Autonomous mine-scanning drones have arrived.

Thursday, June 20, 2024

Happy Solstice

May the sun of the longest day drive shadow from your life.

Tuesday, June 18, 2024

The Surreal House of Barnaba Fornasetti

The most interesting house in Milan, to judge from the number of times it has featured in glossy magazines, belongs to Barnaba Fornasetti.

The house was built by Barnaba's grandfather, Pietro Fornasetti, around 1900. The NY Times glosses him as a "typewriter importer," but that's either a grotesque simplification of his career or an outright joke, since I doubt anybody made this kind of money just importing typewriters. I lean toward joke, for reasons that will become clear to you.

The house owes its character to Pietro's son, Piero Fornasetti. Piero was a designer, one of those vaguely artistic characters who would decorate (and sell) aboslutely anything: wallpaper, ceramics, furniture, matchboxes, magazine covers, fabrics, mustard jars. Above is one in one his wallpaper designs that you can still buy.

And here are two of his ceramic plates. He was interested in surrealism, but his work doesn't fit into any particular category; to me it looks like he was aiming for the intersection of "sellable" and "weird."

There are many works by Piero in the house today. This assemblage of butterfly stuff focuses on one of his paintings, The Butterfly Seller (1938).

The bathroom is lined with Fornasetti tiles.

The music room, Barnaba's personal sanctum. Tour guides love taking people into this room because you enter through the back of a giant wardrobe, extra tall because it once held the capes of mounted police.

There are many other such touches in the house: trapdoors, hidden rooms, 

a very tall stack of old auction catalogs,

and lots and lots of stuff. You have to love the oriental slippers left by the bed in the guest bedroom.

Quite over the top, so much so that you wonder how anyone lives here.

On the other hand, the breakfast nook is amazing.

And I think it's good that there's stuff in the world too crazy for me.

Saturday, June 15, 2024

Draft Ukraine-Russia Peace Treaty from 2022 Published

Major story and document dump at the NY Times, summary thread on Twitter/X. So far as I can tell the basic stumbling block was that Ukraine wanted to guarantee its independence from Russia within most of its borders, and Putin would not accept that. One interesting theme is that Ukraine's negotiators were never sure if the Russians were serious, or if the negotiators were really empowered to make a deal. Ukrainian diplomats interviewed by the Times disagreed on this point.

Key details:

Russia, stunned by the fierce resistance Ukraine was putting up, seemed open to such a deal, but eventually balked at its critical component: an arrangement binding other countries to come to Ukraine’s defense if it were ever attacked again. . . . Russia inserted a clause saying that all guarantor states, including Russia, had to approve the response if Ukraine were attacked. In effect, Moscow could invade Ukraine again and then veto any military intervention on Ukraine’s behalf.

Russia wanted to set strict limits on what kinds and number of armaments Ukraine could possess; Zelensky agreed to this in principle but the two sides were far apart on the numbers. This was the clause brandished by the Polish foreign minister in a NATO meeting, saying, "Which of you would sign this?"

You have to love this:

A seven-point list targeted Ukraine’s national identity, including a ban on naming places after Ukrainian independence fighters.

Putin thinks Ukraine is a rebellious province, not a nation, and until that changes there will be no real peace.

Friday, June 14, 2024

The Toltec Problem

Tula, Mexico

When Spanish friars asked the Aztecs about their history, they heard a lot about people called the Toltecs. The Aztecs considered the Toltecs to be their predecessors as overlords of Mexico and the source of much of their culture. Indeed their word for "master craftsman" was toltec. Archaeologists date the Toltec culture to between 900 and 1200 AD.

The So-Called "Atlantean" Warrior Statues at Tula

Aztec lore masters told many stories about Toltec history. Which are, some colonial Spaniards had already noticed, suspiciously similar to stories told across central America about gods like Quetzacoatl. These similarities have spawned a debate that still rages between scholars who think there is real history in these stories and those who think they're just myths that somehow got attached to a list of Toltec kings. If the names were Toltec kings. If there ever were any Toltec kings. Or any Toltecs.

Cē Ācatl Topiltzin Quetzalcōātl, from the Florentine Codex

One example: the Aztecs said that the founder of the Toltec empire was a king named Cē Ācatl Topiltzin Quetzalcōātl, which means something like Quetzalcoatl Prince of Reeds. Quetzalcoatl was of course one of the great gods, and the Aztec myths were full of cities named Reedtown or the like. The son of a god, Cē Ācatl Topiltzin Quetzalcōātl led the Toltecs on a long trek around central America before founding the city of Tollan (Reedville). There he established their civilization and made Tollan into a paradise of a city where all crops yielded double. But he was undone by his evil nemesis, the god Tezcatlipoca. Tezcatlipoca got Cē Ācatl Topiltzin Quetzalcōātl drunk and induced him to commit incest with his sister, which so shamed him that he wandered off alone into the east to die; according to one version, he burned himself alive in a canoe.

Toltec Style Vase, likely from Tula

The rivalry between Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca was one of the great themes of  Aztec myth, so, yeah. The god Quetzalcoatl also traveled east to die; according to the history recorded by the Spanish friar Bernardino de Sahagún, many Aztecs believed that Quetzalcoatl had passed across the sea to the east and would one day return.

Coyote, jaguar, and two eagles, all feasting on human hearts

Besides the stories of the Toltec kings, there are many questions about their capital, Tollan. Most archaeologists identify Tollan with a site called Tula; to archaeologists "Toltec" basically refers to the culture of Tula and its surroundings. But Tula was no paradise; in fact it was much smaller and less wealthy than the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, although the storytellers insisted on the opposite. It may be that the Aztecs had confused Tula with Teotihuacan, was was indeed huge and splendid. But Teotihuacan had been abandoned centuries before the Toltecs appeared in central Mexico.

The "Burned Palace" at Tula

Indeed Tula is so unimpressive that many archaeologists refuse to believe its rulers were overlords of the Valley of Mexico. There are three or four other sites of the period at least as big. So, some archaeologists think the Aztecs invented the business of Toltecs ruling essentially the same territory the Aztecs did, and think that the valley was divided into several small states.


So if you try to read about the Toltecs at any level beyond "look at these cool stones", as I did this week, you wind up hardly reading about the Toltecs at all. The Toltecs are buried under a Talmudic density of argument, and every sentence references what Smith and Montiel wrote what about what Diehl wrote about what Brinton wrote about what Manuel Orozco y Berra published in 1880. (Some people you run into online have opted out of the whole debate by only citing stuff published before 1890.)

Toltec eagle relief

It's a lesson in why it's so hard to write about archaeology for the public. It's easy to write about the thrill of finding treasure in the ground, but geting from that to any understanding of what people were like in the past is just hard. Trying to write a popular account of the Toltecs you could either retell the Aztec legends, which would almost certainly be wrong, or you could try to explain what might really have happened, which would be complex, uncertain, and probably tedious as hell.

So let's just look at some cool pictures of stuff archaeologists call Toltec and leave the wrangling about their history to people whose job that is.

Links 14 June 2024

Joanne Desheil, Stained Glass Forest

Tucker Carlson says those aren't aliens people keep seeing, they're Nephilim, a caste of angels mentioned in the Bible. (Twitter/X)

Delightful little lead doll found by English mudlark.

The latest in wedding gimmicks is to have a trained owl deliver the rings to the bride and groom at the altar. (NY Times, YouTube, and

The migrant rickshaw men of Dehli.

Scott Sumner talks to AI people in San Francisco and wonders if the world is ending.

Comparing modern conversations with AI to 19th-century conversations over the telegraph. A novel about a romance between two telegraph operators appeared in 1879, and by 1886 newspapers were warning of the dangers of "wired love." The eroticism of the disembodied voice is ancient, as is the fear that the unseen speaker might be dishonest and manipulative.

Legend long held that the funerary hut of King Gehzo of Dahomey (r. 1818-1852) had the blood of human sacrifices mixed into the mortar. (Forty-one, victims, the legend says, because 41 is an important number in the local magical tradition.) Some French archaeologists ran the mortar through their lab and found human blood proteins. Also chickens, but nobody much cares about that. Eschewing sensationalism, they published their results in the journal Proteomics. I'm sure they figured that such a claim would make the news no matter where they published it.

California woman, 71, mauled to death by black bear inside her house. A California Department of Fish and Wildlife spokesman says, "Black bears are not dangerous animals."

TerraPower, founded by Bill Gates, breaks ground on their first nuclear reactor site, which is in the middle of Wyoming coal country. They're storming ahead even though the design has not yet been approved by the NRC. (NY Times, AP, TerraPower web site)

Neighborhood Nursing is a program launched by Johns Hopkins University. The goal is to have nurses visit every person in the poor neighborhoods of east Baltimore and offer free health checks. (NPR, program web site) This kind of intervention has been shown to have much greater health benefit than other kinds of programs costing ten times as much, so I have never understood why we don't do it more.

We don't know the shape of the universe, and there are several possibilities. (The Guardian)

Interview with Elliott Higgins, Open Source Intelligence guru and founder of Bellingcat. (Wired)

Recovering prepared tombstones from that 13th-century shipwreck off England.

A Chinese firm sold counterfeit titanium that has gotten into jets made by both Boeing and Airbus. (NY Times, Reuters)

Sabine Hossenfelder (YouTube) doubts predictions of superintelligent AI by 2028; even the enthusiasts say that building one such system would cost a trillion dollars and consume 20% of US electricity production. She finds AI enthusiasts banking on nuclear fusion to supply the necessary power. "These guys are living in a bubble that has groupthink written all over it."

For as long as anyone has kept statistics, women have been more religious, and more involved in the Christian church, than men. In the US this now appears to be reversing, with more young women than men turning away from Christian churches. (NY Times)

Primer on building a datacenter.

The "fire eating" fungi that spread across burned landscapes, "initiating ecosystem reconstruction."

Paywalled New Yorker article about Zach Horwitz, who masterminded the biggest Ponzi scheme in Hollywood history, selling himself as a millionaire movieland insider who made deals with top producers; he parlayed investments in several films into a small-time acting career. I mention this because of something he wrote on his prison blog, that he had been "obsessed with belief in a superior life that existed just beyond my grasp."

The US Pacific Command now has a code name for their plan to stop a Chinese invasion of Taiwan with swarms of underwater, surface, and aerial drones: Hellscape. More at the UK Defence Journal.

Crazy short video of Russian and Ukrainian armored vehicles passing each other on the same road with guns blazing.

Thread on Twitter/X arguing that Russia has the resources for at least two more years of war. They will likely run out of artillery first. They will never run out of men.

Warographics (on YouTube) tries to count the dead soldiers of the Ukraine war, relying heavily on data from Mediazona. Mid-points of their estimates are 85,000 dead Russians and 69,000 dead Ukrainians. The Russian total would be about five times as many as died in Afghanistan, which supposedly forced their withdrawal and hastened the fall of the Soviet Union. Interesting that Putin's nationalist regime is able to endure much higher losses without visible dissent. And note that some European intelligence agencies have issued estimates twice as high as the Mediazona counts.

One reason for the limited political impact may be that so many Russian soldiers are prisoners: Mediazona has documented that the Wagner Group recruited 48,000 prisoners, of whom at least 17,000 died in the battle at Bakhmut. In all, Wagner lost more than 19,500 men to take Bakhmut, with a high of 213 killed in a single day.

Thursday, June 13, 2024

RIP Jerry West

Jerry West (1938-2024) was one of the greatest basketball players of all time, the only person ever to be all-NBA every year of his career. He may have been even better as a basketball executive, assembling two great teams as general manager of the Los Angeles Lakers. Several people are quoted in recent tributes as saying that he was the greatest judge of talent they had ever seen. At The Athletic, David Aldridge writes, "Nobody wanted to win more than Jerry West."

He was also the sad, lonely product of an abusive childhood in a poverty-wracked corner of West Virginia who took up basketball partly to keep away from his father's fists.

The word tortured is often used to describe West. Indeed. Demons, which took root during a difficult and lonely childhood in his native West Virginia, where his imagination was his best friend and he shot thousands of shots so that he wouldn’t have to return home, ate at him throughout his life. There was little love in the West home, and physical abuse of the children at the hand of their father. Jerry West was driven, in the best and worst sense of that word, to strive, to chase perfection, to be hollowed out by defeat and only briefly salved by victory.

“I am, if I may say so, an enigma (even to myself, especially to myself), and an obsessive, someone whose mind ranges far and wide and returns to the things that, for better or worse, hold me in their thrall,” West wrote in his book.

As manager of the Lakers he rarely watched their games; it made him too anxious. Think about that, a man who became a sports legend but who couldn't actually enjoy watching the teams he had built win championships. Most sports people love sports, but with Jerry West it was weirdly more complicated than that. Basketball was the center of his life, but it also wracked his soul.

I have considered this from time to time since I first learned West's story about twenty years ago. I don't think it's true that all geniuses, or even all obsessive perfectionists, are soul-wracked. But it certainly isn't rare. Often, it seems, the path to extraordinary accomplishments starts from misery. Some people become great by throwing themselves into their careers to flee from pain, or to fill up an aching emptiness that ordinary life can't touch.

Talking about West recently, Doc Rivers (a basketball guy) mentioned a funeral sermon he once heard. The preacher said that in the middle of your obituary notice there is a dash, you know, 1938 (dash) 2024. The question is, what was in your dash? Jerry West, Rivers said, filled up his dash, filled it with accomplishments and achievements, plus a family, friends, and nearly universal respect in the basketball world.

Which I thought was a great metaphor. But it skips over the question of everything else that was in West's life, all of the less great stuff concealed by his dash. The pain, the anxiety, the sadness, the unreachable loneliness, the childhood trauma that kept him from ever reveling in his victories the way boys fantasizing about sports glory imagine they would. From the outside it seems like great athletes winning big games must be on top of the world. I'm not sure Jerry West ever felt that way, even for a minute. Every victory he won was shadowed by his defeats and failures; everything he achieved was haunted by what he had gone through.

The universe, it seems, is like that.

Tuesday, June 11, 2024

Do Elephants Have Names?

NY Times:

Scientists say they have found evidence with the help of artificial-intelligence-powered tools that elephants call each other by names.

“They have this ability to individually call specific members of their family with a unique call,” said Mickey Pardo, an acoustic biologist at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and an author of a study published Monday in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution.

Elephants’ trumpeting calls might be their most recognizable sounds, but these “are basically an emotional outburst,” Dr. Pardo said. Lower-pitched rumbles, he said, are more meaningful, as they make up a majority of elephant vocalizations and are used in a wide variety of social situations. “A lot of interesting stuff is going on in the rumbles,” he said. 

Abstract of the article:

Personal names are a universal feature of human language, yet few analogues exist in other species. While dolphins and parrots address conspecifics by imitating the calls of the addressee, human names are not imitations of the sounds typically made by the named individual. Labelling objects or individuals without relying on imitation of the sounds made by the referent radically expands the expressive power of language. Thus, if non-imitative name analogues were found in other species, this could have important implications for our understanding of language evolution. Here we present evidence that wild African elephants address one another with individually specific calls, probably without relying on imitation of the receiver. We used machine learning to demonstrate that the receiver of a call could be predicted from the call’s acoustic structure, regardless of how similar the call was to the receiver’s vocalizations. Moreover, elephants differentially responded to playbacks of calls originally addressed to them relative to calls addressed to a different individual. Our findings offer evidence for individual addressing of conspecifics in elephants. They further suggest that, unlike other non-human animals, elephants probably do not rely on imitation of the receiver’s calls to address one another.

Sunday, June 9, 2024

Enough with the Doom-Mongering

The official maternal mortality rate in the US has risen quite a bit since 2000. But – and the CDC makes this perfectly plain on their web site – this is because of a new, more accurate way of counting the deaths of pregnant women. But Kevin Drum finds people arguing that pointing this out is bad because it will make people stop worrying about maternal mortality. We need to deny reality to create an air of crisis that will lead to something being done. Even some scientists, he finds, are manipulating their data to make the maternal mortality problem look worse.

And everybody is doing this, manufacturing crises to focus attention on the things they care about:

Why do so many people think that things in the US are far worse than they really are? A big part of the reason is that it's not just individual scientists who are manipulating data to protect their own fiefdoms. On the left, practically the entire think tank industry is dedicated to doomsaying in order to keep the public focused generally on the need for stronger social programs.

We need an eviction crisis to maintain focus on the homeless. We need a safety net crisis to maintain focus on the poor. We need an incarceration crisis to maintain focus on racism. We need a wage crisis to maintain focus on the working class. We need an education crisis to maintain focus on the children. We need a police shooting crisis to maintain focus on social justice. We need a jobs crisis among the young to maintain focus on Gen Z. We need a democracy crisis to maintain focus on Donald Trump. We need a tuition crisis to maintain focus on higher education. We need a lead crisis in Flint to maintain focus on Black people. We need a pandemic education crisis to maintain focus on in-person learning. We need a cyberbullying crisis to maintain focus on the ills of social media.

Never mind that there is no eviction crisis. Never mind that social spending has skyrocketed over the past few decades. Never mind that incarceration rates among all races have been falling for over a decade. . . .

This is a particularly bad strategy for progressives. When people are frightened and scared, they tend to vote conservatives. That's why scaring people is a core part of movement conservatism. Conversely, people tend to be more generous and open-minded when they feel good. In the long run, an endless cascade of crises isn't good for the progressive cause, and that's especially true when the crises aren't even real.

I agree completely. But the political angle isn't even the important one; constant doom-mongering is bad regardless of the politics because it makes people miserable. The disconnect between how things are really going in America and the way people feel is, I think, much more of a problem than any of the crises you are likely to see in the news.

Saturday, June 8, 2024

The Bohun Psalter

Scenes from the Life of David

The Bohun Psalter and Hours was produced for the Bohun family, one of the leading noble clans of 14th-century England. Over the years it has featured in numerous scholarly books, articles, and exhibits because we know rather a lot about how it was made.

The text on this manuscript and some of the basic drawing seems to have been done in the 1360s. Some think it was illuminated not long afterward, but the consensus view seems to be that it was set aside for twenty years, and most of the illumination was done in the 1380s. 

The illumination was done by a group of artists who lived in one of the Bohun estates – Pleshey Castle, in Essex – and were maintained by the family. All of these artists, as well as the scribes, were Augustinian canons, basically monks. These canons had a special dispensation from the archbishop to live with and work for the Bohuns. At least ten illuminated manuscripts have been identified as the products of this workshop.

Ape with owl, and a scribal squirrel

When I stumbled on some wonderful pictures of this manuscript I thought I would fill out the story and get more pictures by visiting the web site of the British Library, where this lives under the name MS. Egerton 3277. Alas, the British Library was struck by a ransomware attack last October and lost their entire digital archive. The did have a backup but, as they explain here, they can't use the backup because their servers were so badly damaged that they have still not been able to get their web site back up. They did not even have a functioning catalog until January. 

So here is a selection of what I could glean from the usual spots on the web.