Sunday, February 5, 2023

Right-Wing Leninists and the Electrical Grid

On Friday the FBI offered a $25,000 reward for information on whoever attacked three electrical substations in North Carolina last month. That makes nine verified gun attacks on electrical substations over the past three months, the others in South Carolina and Oregon. Everyone assumes these are done by "right wing terrorists," since 13 people associated with far right or racist organizations have been convicted of attacks on energy targets since 2016. But what are they trying to accomplish? People talk about "accelerationism," a sort of Leninist doctrine of making things worse to bring on the revolution faster:

“The goal is to create chaos, to spread confusion and damage systems that are vital to the U.S.,” said Ilana Krill, a research fellow at the Program on Extremism and a co-author of the study.

In February 2022, three men pleaded guilty to federal charges connected to a planned attack on substations after they had “conversations about how the possibility of the power being out for many months could cause war, even a race war, and induce the next Great Depression,” the Justice Department said.

That same month, a Department of Homeland Security bulletin warned that domestic violent extremists had recently aspired to disrupt electrical and communications systems as “a means to create chaos and advance ideological goals.”

But thunderstorms, hurricanes, and wildfires already make thousands of attacks on the electrical grid every year, so adding a few more seems like a totally lame way to go about undermining civilization. Squirrels do much more damage than terrorists; the map at shows 17 squirrel attacks in North Carolina in 2019 alone. Consider that most  of Ukraine still has electricity despite  months of Russian missile attacks. Knocking out an electrical grid for months is a hard thing to do.

I imagine the people shooting at transformers are enacting a fantasy of rebellion in a relatively safe and easy way, but I'm open to other suggestions. 

On the other hand, one convicted substation shooter in Utah was some sort of anti-capitalist eco-fanatic, which makes a little more sense. Maybe the two groups will join, forming the "Off the Grid Anti-Social Alliance." There's a plot for a satirical novel. It would focus on two guys, one from each faction; imagine the arguments they would have as they drive from state to state, searching for targets.

Saturday, February 4, 2023

Ancient Nubia

Nubian gold and rock crustal pendant with head of Hathor, 743-712 BC

Nubia can be most simply defined as the place you reached when you sailed south down the Nile beyond the borders of Egypt. Since Egypt grew and shrank over the centuries, depending on the power of its rulers, Nubia tended to move around, its capital travelling north and south by hundreds of miles so as to be at the center of the realm. A Nubian kingdom with monumental architecture and named rulers can be traced back to around 2400 BC, and the state endured in one form or another until the Muslim conquest.

Winged Isis pectoral, 538–519 B.C.

Throughout this whole period Nubia was very much under Egyptian influence. Most of their art looks Egyptian to me, although I'm sure there are local differences known to experts. Over the past few decades there have been several blockbuster exhibititions of Nubian art, I suppose because the Nubians were undeniably black Africans who had a civilization with writing and cities and all that in ancient times.

Cemetery at Meroë

I got into this today via the Getty, which is hosting an exhibit of Nubian jewelry. But most of the objects in that exhibition came from the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, which co-sponsored excavations in Nubia than ran from 1913 to 1932. I found more images at their web site, including the picture above, from the excavations.

Earring with Hathor, 90 BC to 50 AD

Necklace of Cornelian and Travertine, AD 50-320

Anyway here are some of the wonders from those museums.

Alabastron, 593-568 BC

Amulet of Hathor nursing a Queen, 743-712 BC

Globular ceramic vessel with crocodiles, 100 to 200 AD

Ram's head earring, 550-500 BC

Necklace with cylandrical amulem case, of silver, glazed crystal, carnelian, and faience, 1700 to 1550 BC

Electrum collar, 712-698 BC

Closeup-of two necklaces, from the banner to the Getty's exhibit

The Investor

The mature young gentleman is a gentleman of property. He invests his property. He goes, in a condescending amateurish way, into the City, attends meetings of Directors, and has to do with traffic in Shares. As is well known to the wise in their generation, traffic in Shares is the one thing to have to do with in this world. Have no antecedents, no established character, no cultivation, no ideas, no manners; have Shares. Have Shares enough to be on Boards of Direction in capital letters, oscillate on mysterious business between London and Paris, and be great. Where does he come from? Shares. Where is he going to? Shares. What are his tastes? Shares. Has he any principles? Shares. What squeezes him into Parliament? Shares. Perhaps he never of himself achieved success in anything, never originated anything, never produced anything? Sufficient answer to all; Shares.  

– Charles Dickens, Our Mutual Friend

And one more bit of this book:

Mr Podsnap was well to do, and stood very high in Mr Podsnap’s opinion.

That's the thing with Dickens; the plots are mostly riduculous, and this one seems especially contrived and silly, but there's a line like that on almost every page.

Friday, February 3, 2023

Kandahar in 1881

In 2013, the Getty Research Institute acquired an album of nineteenth-century photographs thought to be the earliest ever taken of Kandahar in Afghanistan. The "Album of Kandahar" was assembled by a British medical officer toward the end of the Second Afghan War, 1879-1881.

Kandahar is supposed to have been founded by Alexander the Great in 329 BC. It sits where ancient trade routes from India, Persia and Central Asia cross, in a district of fertile, irrigated land. In 1761 one of the founders of modern Afghanistan, Ahmad Shah, made it his capital, rebuilding the fortifications and making other improvements.

Ahmad Shah's tomb dominated the center of the city.

The Second Afghan War was a British invasion of Afghanistan from India, using a mix of British and Indian troops. The pretext was that Sher Ali Khan, the Afghan ruler, had received a Russian diplomatic delegation but then refused to admit a British one; the British, suffering from nightmares in which Russia's expansion across Asia took them all the way to India, sent an expedition to teach the Afghans not to tilt toward the Tsar. They defeated the Afghans in two battles, marched to Kabul, and forced Ali to become a British client. 

The British/Indian army then withdrew, but as soon as they were safely back over the mountains Ali's younger son Ayub Khan seized power and killed the British ambassador and all the other Brits he could get his hands on. This triggered a second British invasion, which defeated Ayub's forces in a decisive battle at Kandahar. (Which is why the whole British army was there, including their photographer.) Afghanistan then settled down to being a buffer state between the Russian and British empires. Ayub's ambassadors are shown above.

The Getty has published the photographs in a book with a lot of commentary, which you can download for free here.

I find these photographs to be a wonderful glimpse of the past.

Links 3 February 2023

Jordi Garriga Mora, The Minotaur (2007)

Writing in the age of AI: Roald Dahl's 1954 short story, The Great Automatic Grammatizator.

The Harpole Treasure, actually the burial of a Anglo-Saxon noblewoman from the 700s.

I recently stumbled on this long, interesting article on the black history of Maryland's Eastern Shore, written during the debate about the Confederate statue in front of the Talbot County courthouse. One thing that interests me about the region is that during the Civil War the white population was divided and sent more men to fight for the North than for the South. It was only years after the war, during Jim Crow, that the region's whites really went in for a Confederate identity; neo-Confederate nostalgia was stronger in the region than the Confederacy ever was.

Iron Age votive deposits found by metal detectorists in Poland.

Young men rate their own intelligence higher than young women, while for people over 65 it's the reverse. (Short Twitter summary, article) Everyone knows that young men are arrogant, but this study suggests we get over it. What's the story with women?

Vox explainer on Peru's political crisis.

Oh, to be an archaeologist in a place like Rome where you can find an ancient statue of Hercules during routine sewer maintenance.

The fascinating story of an underground Roman aqueduct near Naples, which was discovered by children and then explored by a group of amateur "speleo-archaeologists."

Clay tablets with side-by-side texts in Akkadian and ancient Amorite provide the first real chance for scholars to understand the barely known language of the Amorites, who came from Canaan but founded a kingdom in Mesopotamia. The text includes a list of Amorite gods with their closest Babylonian equivalents. The tablets were probably looted during the second Gulf War in the early 2000s and somehow ended up in an American collection.

Biotech company Colossal promises to bring back a woolly mammoth by 2027. We'll see; this prediction was made in 2022, which makes it just the latest in the 20-year history of "we will have a mammoth in five years" predictions. Their approach involves using CRISPR to edit elephant genes to get them very close to a woolly mammoth genome, not actually cloning a mammoth.

The ideal home for a former Cold War border guard.

Which countries have done best, economically, in the era of globalization since 1990? The winners aren't all in Asia.

English metal detectorists finds gold locket connected to Henry VIII and his first wife.

What to do when a bunch of upperclassmen turn your lower level college class into a dating service?

Short, time-lapse video of exoplanets orbiting a star 133 light years away. Discussion here.

Tyler Cowen wonders if AI Chatbots will evolve to please us, like dogs.

A company called Niocorp wants to mine Niobium deep under southwestern Nebraska. You might think that the old school farm folks of the area would oppose this, but it turns out they support it. Asked why, they say it is because of patriotism; they are convinced that the US needs rare earth metals in its rivalry with China. (NY Times, Niocorp web site.) Or maybe it's because mining is the sort of old school, tough guy activity people like that generally support, and patriotism is just a contributing factor that they can cite when asked by a reporter to justify their position.

Study of bones suggests the Vikings brought dogs and horses with them when they invaded England.

Astronomers provide more evidence that we don't understand the big structure of our universe.

Ukraine Links

Rob Lee on Twitter: "Russia is not playing for a tie. It is still seeking to seize more territory and to force other concessions on Kyiv."

Keeping track: NATO nations have now promised 321 main battle tanks to Ukraine, and around 120 should be delivered in the first wave.

Oryx reports that Ukraine is now visually confirmed to have lost more than 450 tanks since Russia began its invasion of the country on February 24. On the other hand,Ukraine has received 450 MBTs from NATO and is set to receive at least 100 more, besides having captured 546 MBTs.

The creator of Rybar, an important Russian military blog, says on television that the Russian VDV (airborn and air assault forces) had lost 40 to 50% of their men by September. When the war started there were 45,000 men in the VDV, which puts their loss at 18,000 to 22,500. The units that saw the heaviest fighting, like the 331st regiment, presumably took higher losses than that already grim average. These men don't all have to have been killed; these losses could include those who were captured and the seriously wounded or psychologically incapacitated. But anyway some of Russia's most elite formations have been ravaged.

Twitter thread from American milblogger DefMon, with his thoughts on what Ukraine should do going forward; he thinks that this winter they should be trying to damage Russian forces rather than advance.

Oryx on Russian tank production.

From artilleryman Thomas Theiner, a primer on how a NATO armored assault is supposed to work. And a follow up on supply, recon, etc. "Remember, too many supply trucks is always still too few supply trucks."

And on a historical note, Theiner reminds us that he published Russia's invasion plan on January 28, 2022, having obtained it from NATO military sources, and he wonders why more of the intelligence officers who denied this was happening haven't been fired. One thing his sources missed was the helicopter-born assault on Kyiv, which I thought was interesting because US intelligence definitely warned Ukraine that the attack was coming.

Short video of Ukrainian troops assaulting Russian trenches.

Good map showing the extent of Russian advances toward Bakhmut since the summer.

Thursday, February 2, 2023

Willem Schellinks

Willem Schellinks (1623-1678) was a Dutch painter and engraver born into an interesting family in Amsterdam. His father was a surveyor. One brother emigrated to North America and became a whaler; another joined the Dutch East India Company and travelled to India. Schellinks seems to have sketched wherever he went. It was his good fortune to be taken on a grand European tour by a rich acquaintance in 1661-1665, and most of the work you see online originated from the journal he kept during that journey. Above, a house built into a Roman Aqueduct.

Plaza of the Duomo in Messina, Sicily

Neptune Fountain in Valletta

Milvian Bridge in Rome

Boat from Malta

Fortress in Syracusa Harbor

House of Sir Arnold Braams.

Dutch Market Scene

River Scene

Somehow it didn't happen that way

Scott Siskind, after reviewing the arguments over how bad AI Chatbots will be:

I’m nervous writing this, because I remember the halcyon days of the early 2000s, when we all assumed the Internet would be a force for reason and enlightenment. Surely if everyone were just allowed to debate everyone else, without intervening barriers of race or class or religion, the best arguments would rise to the top and we would enter a new utopia of universal agreement.

The scale at which this project failed makes me reluctant to ever speculate again about anything regarding online discourse going well.

I never thought that, but I did at one time think it would be easy to find online communities I wanted to be part of. As a certain former president would say, "Sad!"

The Anti-Fascist

In 1931 the exiled anti-fascist Lauro De Bosis flew, in a flimsy wooden aeroplane, from Marseille to Rome. Arriving in the skies over the Italian capital, he dropped leaflets, then turned back. The round trip was too long for such an aircraft, and De Bosis did not expect to complete it. He had left behind, ready for publication, a text called The Story of My Death. On the return journey his plane – out of fuel – crashed into the sea. One of his leaflets contained a warning to those less principled Italians who were, gladly or with glum pragmatism, getting by in fascist Italy: "Accept nothing from fascism. All that it can give you is the price of your prostitution."

–Lucy Hughes Hallett

Wednesday, February 1, 2023

The Treasure Hunt


In the spring of 1945, a couple of weeks before the liberation of the Netherlands from its Nazi occupiers, five German soldiers buried four ammunition boxes filled with gold, jewels and watches in a woodsy part of a sleepy Dutch village.

Nazi soldiers had snatched the valuables, which could be worth millions, off the street after they were blown out of a bank vault during an explosion in the city of Arnhem in the late summer of 1944, documents show.

What the men who buried the loot probably did not know was that one of their fellow soldiers, a man named Helmut Sonder, was lying in the bushes with a war injury, observing the scene and committing it to memory. Afterward, Mr. Sonder drew a meticulous map that showed exactly where (by three poplar trees) and how deep (about 1.7 to 2.3 feet) the treasure had been buried.

The map is above; the Dutch national archives released it to the public last month, as part of an annual release of previously classified material.

Of course not everyone in the tiny town of Ommeren is happy that outsiders have descended on them with metal detectors and shovels. That nobody has found it yet makes me wonder if the whole thing could be a hoax, or perhaps a misdirection on Sonder's part, because four ammunition boxes full of metal would set a metal detector screaming from five feet away. One possibility is that the spot has been built over or maybe there is a utility pole standing right next to it, something that would interfere with the signal.

More at the NY Times.

Tuesday, January 31, 2023

Coderch & Malavi

Spanish sculptors. Joan Coderch was born in 1959 in Barcelona; Javier Malavia was born in 1970 in Guipúzcoa, Valencia. They formed their joint project to explore figural sculpture of the human form "in the footsteps of masters of figuration such as Maillol, Rodin, Marini and Bourdelle." These are mostly small works you can buy copies of for your living room. Lots more at their web site. Above, Galene.



The Great Swan,
and Detail

, and details

Bog Bodies

European archaeologists have published a comprehensive study of all the known "bog bodies," meaning all the corpses and skeletons to have been recovered from peat bogs in Europe. (NY Times, physorg) They counted more than a thousand, the first one a Mesolithic skeleton from 6,000 BC. Some of them were probably poor souls who drowned or died otherwise mundane deaths, but hundreds of them seem to be victims of sacrifice. This is especially true for the Iron Age, from 600 BC to 400 AD. This is the era of the famous bog bodies, like Tollund Man (above) and the Yde Girl.

Of the 57 bog people whose cause of death could be determined in Dr. van Beek’s study, at least 45 met violent ends, and quite a few were bludgeoned or suffered mutilation and dismemberment before they died. Tollund Man, dating to the fifth century B.C. and dredged from a Danish peat bog in 1950, was hanged. Bone arrowheads were found embedded in the skull and sternum of Porsmose Man, recovered from peat elsewhere in Denmark. Seven victims appear to have been slain by several means, a practice that scholars call overkilling. Almost all of the overkills in Dr. van Beek’s study occurred from 400 B.C. to 400 A.D.

Two features recur among Iron Age bog bodies: youth and disability. Many bodies were those of adolescents, at the cusp between childhood and adulthood. . . . The Yde girl had severe scoliosis, a twisting of the spine that meant her growth was stunted and she would have walked with a lurch.

Actually the sample is numerically dominated by the 380 skeletons found at Alken Enge in Denmark, where a whole defeated army seems to have been offered to the gods. But the bodies that look like sacrifices are indeed often young, and several were probably disabled. I have written here many times about the ancient tradition that associated shamanic or other magical powers with physical disability, which endured in folklore into the nineteenth century. So they might have been chosen because people with twisted bodies were considered better messengers to the gods; or, it might be that they were considered dangerous threats that the community was better off without.

"Overkill" is a favorite topic of people interested in ancient sacrifice. Both Irish and Welsh literature have several examples of people who managed to be killed in three ways at once, which scholars as far back as the 17th century dubbed the "threefold death." Merlin is the most famous such victim; in one medieval story he is stabbed with a spear, hanged, and drowned simultaneously, while in a different story his prophetic powers are confirmed when he foresees this end for another. The idea was mooted that this was a memory of ancient sacrificial practice. So when Lindow Man emerged from an English bog in 1984, everyone was very excited that he seemed to have been stabbed in the neck, strangled, and hit on the head with an ax in rapid succession. Sadly these synthetic studies have failed to find much evidence that threefold killing was ever common. There are, however, several fairly clear cases of double killing, usually strangling and stabbing, which makes me wonder if maybe drowning in the bog was the third form.

Why bogs? Well, for one thing, we don't know how many Iron Age sacrifices were done that way, it's just that only in bogs are their bodies preserved well enough for us to identify them as sacrificial victims. But if it was a common part of sacrifice, it must be connected to the ancient fascination with places that are in between. Executions used to be held on the borders of communities, or in the unclaimed lands between them. Peat bogs were in-between places, beyond the community's defined edges, in the vacant spaces between villages and farms. They were also in-between in an elemental sense, part land and part water – which is also what made them dangerous places where people often drowned. So if you wanted to get away from the world of clear definitions and firm boundaries, out to a place where the edges were less hard and the barriers between worlds thin, you might well decide to hold your ritual in a peat bog and let the victim sink into the watery lands between here and there.

Monday, January 30, 2023

John Singer Sargent in Spain

I toured this exhibit with various of my children a few months ago but never got around the writing the review I had planned.

It was ok, but sadly it was missing the real masterpiece that emerged from Sargent's time in Spain, El Jaleo (1882).

There I am.

La Carmencita, 1890

I love Sargent's sketches of medieval architecture.

While in Spain Sargent did several paintings of poor Roma people, which at the time was a liberal thing to do, but now raises eyebrows because he didn't get their consent or solicit their input. So the organizers of the exhibit went out and did it, and these painting come with lots of statements from Roma people about how happy and proud these paintings make them. Such is art in the modern world.

White Ships, 1908