Sunday, June 4, 2023

Hațeg Island's Mini Dinosaurs

I can't believe that I just yesterday learned about Hațeg Island and its small dinosaurs.

Hațeg Island was a large offshore island in the Tethys Sea, that is, the ancient sea betwen Europe, Asia, and Africa, more or less where the Mediterranean and Black Seas are today. It existed during the Late Cretaceous period, probably from around 100 to 66 million years ago. Rocks from this island were discovered near modern-day Hațeg, Romania. The island was lifted by the same mountain-building episode that gave us the Balkans and the Anatolian highlands. Wikipedia suggests that Hainan Island, off the southern coast of China, is a good comparison in terms of size, topography, and climate.

The fascinating thing about Hațeg Island is that the patterns of animal life we know from modern islands were present there in distorted, dinosaur-age form. For example, most terrestrial animals were smaller than their mainland forms. Above are a skeleton of an Inguanadon of the genus Zalmoxes, named after a Thracian god about whom Herodotus told stories of human sacrifice, and a diagram showing how much smaller it was (in purple) than most other Iguanadons. The diagram at the top of the post compares Zalmoxes robustus, from Hațeg, to the next smallest known species.

Here's a Titanosaur from Hațeg called Magyarosaurus. Most Titanosaurs were gigantic beasts, but this one was horse-sized. (The grid is 1-meter squares).

But while many species shrank on the island, the opposite also happened. Just as some islands came to be inhabited by huge flightless birds, Hațeg was home to gigantic pterosaurs. This is Hatzegopteryx, probably the dominant predator on the island. Only very partial fossil remains have been found, so it is unclear whether Hatzegopteryx could fly. But it certainly didn't need to.

Something Important about Politics

Ross Douthat:

Among the various reassessments of Kevin McCarthy following his successful debt ceiling negotiations, the one with the widest implications belongs to Matthew Continetti, who writes in The Washington Free Beacon that “McCarthy’s superpower is his desire to be speaker. He likes and wants his job.”

If you hadn’t followed American politics across the last few decades, this would seem like a peculiar statement: What kind of House speaker wouldn’t want the job?

But part of what’s gone wrong with American institutions lately is the failure of important figures to regard their positions as ends unto themselves. Congress, especially, has been overtaken by what Yuval Levin of the American Enterprise Institute describes as a “platform” mentality, where ambitious House members and senators treat their offices as places to stand and be seen — as talking heads, movement leaders, future presidents — rather than as roles to inhabit and opportunities to serve.

I agree with this completely. One of the weirdest things about American politics since Gingrich has been the number of Senators and Congressmen who openly despise Congress and show no particular interest in the work it does. John Boehner found it almost impossible to lead his Republican troops because so many of them simply did not care if bills or budgets got passed. But McCarthy and Biden do seem to be different:

The platform mentality seemed likely to imprison McCarthy as well, but he’s found a different way of dealing with it: He’s invited some of the bomb throwers into the legislative process, trying to turn them from platform-seekers into legislators by giving them a stake in governance, and so far he’s been rewarded with crucial support from figures like Marjorie Taylor Greene and Thomas Massie, the quirky Kentucky libertarian. And it’s clear that part of what makes this possible is McCarthy’s enthusiasm for the actual vote-counting, handholding work required of his position, and his lack of both Gingrichian egomania and get-me-out-of-here impatience.

But McCarthy isn’t operating in a vacuum. The Biden era has been good for institutionalism generally, because the president himself seems to understand and appreciate the nature of his office more than Barack Obama ever did. As my colleague Carlos Lozada noted on our podcast this week, in both the Senate and the White House, Obama was filled with palpable impatience at all the limitations on his actions. . . . Whereas Biden, who actually liked being a senator, is clearly comfortable with quiet negotiation on any reasonable grounds, which is crucial to keeping the other side invested in a deal. And he’s comfortable, as well, with letting the spin machine run on both sides of the aisle, rather than constantly imposing his own rhetorical narrative on whatever bargain Republicans might strike.

In my lifetime there have two major types of American politician: grandstanders with big ideas who don't trouble much over details like passing budgets, who tend to be loved by their fans and hated by their enemies, and sausage-making brokers around whom an aura of corruption has often hung. We need big ideas and soaring speeches, but we also need people willing to take on the enormous work of governing. Like Douthat, I find it cheering that Kevin McCarthy has turned out to be an effective dealmaker, and that new populist Senator J.D. Vance has been working both sides of the aisle to get support for railroad safety reform. As for Biden, of course, this was always pretty much his only selling point: that he was a reliable mainstream Democrat who could do the work of legislation and budgeting without too much drama. He may end like the first George Bush, not much admired while in office but inspiring nostalgia the next time we fall into angry partisan gridlock.

Friday, June 2, 2023

Seth Godin on Art and Writing

Excellent Tyler Cowen interview with Seth Godin. The first section is about marketing, not my thing, but from there they go on to all sorts of interesting stuff. Loved this exchange on modern art.

GODIN: As I mentioned, I grew up in Buffalo. My mom was the first woman on the board of the Albright-Knox. The Albright-Knox is a —

COWEN: A great museum.

GODIN: Great museum, one of the most important contemporary art museums in the country. You walk into the Clyfford Still room, and you see magic. You see Jasper Johns or Andy Warhol. You see what happened when we started to separate craft from art in the post-photography world. All of that is real.

What is not real is how much paintings cost at auction. How much paintings cost at auction is a by-product of half money laundering and half speculation. It is a by-product of what do you think is going to go up in value tomorrow, not what is good art. People who love art tend to understand the difference between the two, the same way a company can still be a good company and their stock price might not go up.

COWEN: How has immersing yourself in the visual arts improved the other things you do, other than the obvious, “Oh, I try to have my work look nice”?

GODIN: Oh, it has nothing to do with making my work look nice. It’s about the liminal space between here and there. The best audiobook ever recorded is Just Kids by Patti Smith. It’s not about Patti Smith the rockstar; it’s about Patti Smith on a journey from someplace that’s sort of safe to someplace that’s important. When I see artists — whether it’s Miles Davis or Herbie Hancock or Shepard Fairey — do that, that’s what I want. That is what gets me out of bed in the morning.

I am not trying to build companies and make a profit. I’m trying to feel that feeling again of, “Did I do something generative where I explored a liminal space between here and there?” The coolest thing about contemporary art is you can feel that feeling in three seconds if you’re in the right place at the right time, whereas it takes much longer when you’re reading a book. 

And this on writing:

The short version is, publishing is not a business; publishing is an organized hobby.

And there are things in book publishing that are metrics that appear real that aren’t actually useful. So, the first step is to ignore the useless metrics. The New York Times Best Seller List is a fraud. It is not based on actual fact. Don’t bend your life out of proportion to show up on a list that doesn’t make any sense.

But beyond that, why are you writing the book? Who are you writing the book for? What change do you seek to make? Writing a book is a magical thing. It will make you better. Everyone should write one.

Publishing a book is a totally different project, and most people shouldn’t publish their book. Maybe they should just give it away. The shortest version of the advice is — particularly if it’s a novel — take your first novel, post it on the internet for free, send it to 50 friends. If it spreads, if other people want to read it, your second novel will get published, but if your first novel doesn’t spread when it’s free, you probably need to write a better novel.

At this point I think I should just have given The Raven and the Crown away online. Still angling for a way to do that with an audiobook. I would record it myself but it really needs a woman with some kind of British accent. Perhaps AI will be able to do that for me soon.

Links 2 June 2023

Bronze figurine of a scribe riding a wyvern, from Germany, 12th century

Two Chinese shipwrecks full of porcelain found in the South China Sea, dating to the early 1500s. Amazing piles of valuable dishes.

Woman wins cheese-rolling race after being knocked unconscious.

Something very weird is happening in the US economy, where overall GDP is down even though employment is up, which means productivity must have gone down a lot. Nobody seems to understand what is happening. (Kevin Drum, Tyler Cowen)

NASA's UFO task force holds its first public meeting, says 98% of cases have obvious explanations, and "better data" is needed on the rest.

Indonesian boats found in Australian rock art, more evidence of trade between Indonesia and Australia before European contact.

Why George Orwell did not believe in progress.

Heavy rains expose carvings at a Roman fort in Spain.

Freddie deBoer responds to people who attacked him for saying that Jordan Neely should have been involuntarily committed to a psychiatric hospital. His opponents, he says, keep refusing to wrestle with the reality of mental illness, saying things like "All Jordan Neely needed was a home." (If you don't know deBoer, he has written very publicly about his own struggles with severe mental illness, which included being involuntarily committed.) 

A Twitter account for your amusement, Ugly Belgian Houses.

David French says the American right wing is all into promoting "traditional masculinity" these days but seems to have missed that one of the main themes of traditional masculinity is not being hysterical: not moaning that the world is about to end, not thinking the election of Hillary Clinton would have "destroyed America", not shrieking on Twitter about "groomers." (NY Times)

Kevin Drum explains 40 years of the US economy in one chart.

List of bills passed by Minnesota's Democratic-Farmer-Labor legislature. Being passed around in horror by conservatives; actually an interesting look at Democratic priorities, especially as regards abortion. The 40% increase in state spending figure is disputed but this budget summary does show total outlays growing from $43 billion in 2022 to $60 billion in 2024. More official list of bills here.

When the pulp detective magazines of the 1920s took on the KKK.

Theodore Dalrymple reviews a new translation of Kafka's diaries.

I have mentioned here before that the reputation of US Grant as general and president has soared over the past 25 years; just now I noticed a Twitter account called Grant Was the Greatest.

The NY Times remembers Sybil 50 years after its publication launched the madness of "multiple personality disorder." The horror that resulted when first the talk show circuit and then the APA embraced this nonsense still hangs silently over an America where people are outraged about far lesser harms. Not to mention that there are still people in prison after convictions that relied on "recovered memories."

Large language models can play Minecraft.

CNN: "Arizona officials announced Thursday the state will no longer grant certifications for new developments within the Phoenix area, as groundwater rapidly disappears amid years of water overuse and drought."

Brian Caplan, libertarian-leaning economist and anti-wokeness essayist, reviews Louise Perry's The Case Against the Sexual Revolution; despite being as opposed to hook-up culture as Perry, he finds the book shallow and irritating, because even though Perry thinks sexual freedom has been terrible for women she never really denounces sexual freedom or the feminists who promoted it. In the parts of the internet where I hang out a war against sexual liberation is in full swing.

Is there much gender bias in academia? No, says this study, which finds that women are equally successful by most metrics and actually have an advantage in hiring.

Vidya Krishnan on gang rape in India, a tool of caste oppression, religious strife, politics, and general mayhem (NY Times).

Ukraine Links

Claimed kills of this Ukrainian Gephard crew

According to Michael Warren Davis in the American Conservative, the West is supporting Ukraine because Russia is a Christian, anti-gay, anti-trans country and we can't stand that. The existence of people who think opposing homosexuality makes a country into torture, corruption, gangsterism and aggressive warfare "Christian" bewilders me.

Oryx is now showing that Russia has now lost more than 2,000 tanks in Ukraine. That includes 62 new T-90s. Also 3750 other armored vehicles, 405 self-propelled artillery pieces, 202 multiple rock launchers, 114 SAM systems, 32 radars, 37 electronic warfare systems, 82 jet aircraft, 90 helicopters, 2500 trucks, and sundry others to a total of 10,468 major systems.

Detailed instructions for Russian drone pilots.

Podcast on Russia's use of artillery in urban battles, notes that Russia has expended 7 to 14 million artillery shells for rather limited gains; pulverizing cities is not necessarily a good use of artillery. Summary tweet here.

Russian governor says there is no such thing as a man aged 25 to 55 left in Donbass. They have either fled or been killed in the war.

New US weapons shipment to Ukraine. Notable: "Mine clearing equipment and systems; Demolition munitions for obstacle clearing."

Wednesday, May 31, 2023

How Writers Work

The things we lack the courage to do are transformed into stories.

–Georgi Gospodinov, Time Shelter

Tuesday, May 30, 2023

Tao Yuanming, "Substance, Shadow, and Spirit"

Substance speaks to Shadow:

Heaven and Earth exist for ever:
Mountains and rivers never change.
But herbs and trees in perpetual rotation
Grow and are withered by the dews and frosts:
And Man the wise, Man the divine—
Shall he alone escape this law?
Appearing by chance for a moment in the World
He suddenly departs, never to return.
How can he know that the friends he has left
Miss him and think of him?
Only the things that he used remain;
Friends look upon them and their tears flow.
Me no magical arts can save,
Though you may hope for a wizard’s aid.
I beg you listen to this advice—
When you can get wine, drink it.

Shadow replies:

There is no way to preserve life.
Drugs of Immortality are instruments of folly.
I would gladly wander in Paradise,
But it is far away and there is no road.
Since the day that I was joined to you
We have shared all our joys and pains.
While you rested in the shade, I left you a while:
But till the end we shall be together.
Our joint existence is impermanent:
Sadly together we shall slip away.
That when the body decays Fame should also go
Is a thought unendurable, burning the heart.
Let us strive and labour while yet we may
To do some deed that men will praise.
Wine may in truth dispel our sorrow,
But how compare it with lasting Fame?

Spirit expounds:

God can only set in motion:
He cannot control the things he has made.
Man, the second of the Three Orders,
Owes his precedence to Me.
Though I am different from you,
We were born involved in one another:
Nor by any means can we escape
The intimate sharing of good and ill.
The Three Emperors were saintly men,
Yet to-day—where are they?
P’ēng lived to a great age,
Yet he went at last, when he longed to stay.
And late or soon, all go:
Wise and simple have no reprieve.
Wine may bring forgetfulness,
But does it not hasten old-age?
If you set your hearts on noble deeds,
How do you know that any will praise you?
By all this thinking you do Me injury:
You had better go where Fate leads—
Drift on the Stream of Infinite Change,
Without joy, without fear:
When you must go—then go,
And make as little fuss as you can. 

– Tao Yuanming (c. 365-427). Translated by Arthur Whaley

Medieval Chess Sets

The game we know as chess originated in Iran or India or somewhere thereabouts around 500 AD. The names and identities of the pieces changed over the course of the next several centuries; the details of the rules probably did as well, but that is hard to show, since we don't have any written rules from that time. 

Most older chess sets look like this, with the pieces largely abstract. The value of expensive sets came from using expensive materials, like rock crystal or jade. This is the Ager chess set, the oldest in Europe, from 11th-century Catalonia.

Here is an ivory piece from medieval Persia, showing that the identity of the figures was more often suggested than worked out in detail.

Two ivory pieces from Iran, 11th century.

For the most part, the habit of elaborately carving chess piece into human or animal shapes seems to have developed in Europe, sometime around the year 1100. All but one of the oldest dozen elaborately carved chess sets is European. The exception is this one, which was excavated in 1977 at Afrasiab near Samarkand in central Asia and dated to c 700 to 760 AD. No source I have seen explains how the dating was done, so I am skeptical, but the excavation report was presumably printed in Russian and resides only in a few ex-Soviet archaeological institutes, so for now we are going to have to take the excavators' word for it. Anyway this reigns as the oldest dated chess set.

One of the Afrasiab pieces. Elephants commonly appeared in medieval sets, probably in the slots we know as bishop and rook.

This means that the Lewis chessmen, excavated in the Hebrides in 1832 and dated to the 12th century, are not just wonderful but also one of the oldest chess sets carved into recognizable figures.

The Lewis find contained pieces from at least four sets, so in the 12th century these must have been fairly common. Historians in Spain and France have found traces of chess sets in the wills of rich nobles, which confirms that carved sets in valuable materials had become standard luxury items.

The other really famous carved set from medieval Europe resides in Paris and goes by the name of the Charlemagne chessmen. It seems to date to around 1100 AD. As you can see, this set was very elaborate indeed, with pieces so large as to be an impediment to play. And since they don't look very worn, they were probably not played with all that much.

Still with elephants, as you can see.

The queen. Chess historians are fascinated by the rise of the queen, which replaced the Grand Vizier in European sets, probably in the 11th century.

Knight and bishop.

Here is another early queen, from Spain, dated to the early 12th century. From then on the number of surviving pieces gradually increases. I was surprised to find, though, that there are few surviving sets from before around 1500. After 1500 production seems to have exploded, both within Europe and in Asia, where many elaborate sets were made for sale to Europeans who like to play with sets that suggested the exotic east.

 Here is a 15th century king, from Germany.

A Scandinavian bishop from around 1200.

A 12th-century bone piece, which can stand in for thousands that have been found in archaeological digs across Eurasia. Chess sets are cool because they allow artists to explore a fixed theme in any imaginable style, something modern artists are still doing.

Monday, May 29, 2023

In the Woods

Patapsco State Park, this week. Above, mountain laurel.

Wild iris on the river bank.

Feral flowers along the mill race trail. Our "wild" roses are the descendants of bushes planted as cow-proof hedges. 

The jungle along the river. Below, southern catalpa.

Sunday, May 28, 2023

The Tale of Jacob and Josephina

Interesting story:

This touching scene in Roermond, Netherlands, reveals two final resting places nestled within separate cemeteries. The reason? Jacob Werners Constantinus van Gorcum, the husband, was a Protestant, while Lady Josephina Carolina Petronella Hubertina van Aefferden, his beloved wife, was a devout Catholic. Their differing faiths meant they could not be interred side by side in a single graveyard. 

They married in 1842.

When Jacob passed away in 1880, his resting place was designated against the wall. Eight years later, as Josephina breathed her last, her final wish was not to join her family's tomb but to be laid to rest against the same wall as her cherished spouse. Their custom headstones stand as a testament to their enduring bond.
Wonderful. Since anyone could change religion in nineteenth-century Netherlands, I wonder why neither one of them converted to the other's faith? I first supposed that there must have been strong family, inheritance, or professional issues, but then I thought it is possible they may just have been committed to their own churches. None of the online sources about them says.

Kiso Valley

Today's place to daydream about is the Kiso Valley, an oasis of Japanese tradition along the old post road from Tokyo to Kyoto. The road is called the Nakasendo. The modern road through the valley sometimes follows the old post road and sometimes takes a different route, and the unimproved sections of the old Nakasendo are now popular routes for walking between historic towns. 

Most popular of all is a 5 mile (8 km) hike from Magome to Tusmago. Magome is a delightful-looking little town withe many traditional buildings.

More Magome.

The trail climbs up over a significant ridge between two river valleys, and parts of it look like this.

The ridge is national forest land.

You'll also pass numerous Buddhist monuments, because this whole valley was and is a site of Buddhist and Shinto pilgrimage.

Toward the end of the trail is a famous old tea house.

And then down into Tsumago, another delightful town.

Working water wheel in Tsumago.

The other popular section of the Nakasendo runs between Narai and Yubahara. Narai is the largest of the historic post towns.

It has a two old houses still furnished in nineteenth-century style and a museum folklore and history, and you can stay in a traditional inn.

Along the trail to Yubahara you will cross this modern bridge, built in the traditional style with no nails or bolts.

But if those trails are too tame for you, you can take on a much more difficult challenge: hiking the pilgrimage trail to Mount Ontake, a route that goes back to the 9th century. You can do this either as a pilgrim or as a tourist on a guided hike; if you don't feel like walking the whole way you can even do much of it by tram. Assuming that my audience is more likely to be touristing, I caution you that you will meet pilgrims in various depths of spiritual study and you should probably leave them alone.

The scenery on the way up the mountain is spectacular, with several waterfalls.

A famous winter site is the Shirakawa ice pillars, a cliff where trickling water forms an enormous sheet of ice.

You will pass several shrines.

These stones are called reijinhi; each commemorates an ascetic sage who trained on the mountain top.

Trail marker from the nineteenth century.

Besides being beautiful, sacred in Shinto, and suggesting to Buddhists a way to reach Pure Land, these waterfalls had the practical function of providing very rigorous showers for ascetic monks.

View from the top, a spiritual experience for almost everyone.

And then, you know, you're in Japan, so you're never really far from civilization, and you can hike back down for dinner