Friday, November 30, 2012

Kurt Vonnegut's Term Paper Assignment

From a course he taught at the Iowa Writers' Workshop in 1965. Surrounded by lots of amusing verbiage, but this is the gist:
I invite you to read the fifteen tales in Masters of the Modern Short Story (W. Havighurst, editor, 1955, Harcourt, Brace, $14.95 in paperback). Read them for pleasure and satisfaction, beginning each as though, only seven minutes before, you had swallowed two ounces of very good booze. “Except ye be as little children ...”

Then reproduce on a single sheet of clean, white paper the table of contents of the book, omitting the page numbers, and substituting for each number a grade from A to F. The grades should be childishly selfish and impudent measures of your own joy or lack of it. I don’t care what grades you give. I do insist that you like some stories better than others.

Proceed next to the hallucination that you are a minor but useful editor on a good literary magazine not connected with a university. Take three stories that please you most and three that please you least, six in all, and pretend that they have been offered for publication. Write a report on each to be submitted to a wise, respected, witty and world-weary superior.

Violence, Mental Health, and History

Science News:
When sociologist Mike Tomlinson began combing through the health records of people in Northern Ireland, he wasn’t interested in suicide. He was on the hunt for links between poverty and international conflict. But he came across a startling trend. From 1998 to 2008, the rate at which men in their mid-30s to mid-50s were committing suicide rose alarmingly fast, more quickly than the rate for the rest of Northern Ireland’s population.

At first, that spike made no sense. A peace agreement reached in 1998 transformed Northern Ireland into a prosperous and tranquil place. Economic indicators had been surprisingly good. Suicide rates in neighboring countries were all gently falling. Nothing seemed to explain why so many of these men were killing themselves.

But Tomlinson found a hint in the men’s pasts. They had all grown up in the late 1960s and the 1970s, during some of the worst violence Northern Ireland had ever experienced. Called the Troubles, this warlike period brought religious and political fighting that pitted neighbor against neighbor. Children of the Troubles lived with terrorism, house-to-house searches, curfews and bomb explosions. Trauma early in life had rendered men more vulnerable to taking their own lives later, Tomlinson proposed in July in International Sociology.
Some neuroscientists now think they can pinpoint the brain changes brought on by early exposure to trauma, so this effect seems to have physical correlates.

As a historian, these studies always make me think about past periods of great violence, like the Hellenistic Age or the early Middle Ages. Surely those societies had high rates of what we would call mental illness. How did that change them? Obviously those cultures were not crippled, any more than European society was crippled by World War II. Some have argued that, in fact, civilization's most creative periods have been particularly violent, from Sumer to the 20th century. I am not so sure, but it is obviously true that very violent societies can create remarkable art and impressive new institutions.

Does that mean that on the level of societies, the impact of violence is actually modest? Or does it have positive effects that balance the negative ones? Could it be that growing up in violent, troubled times causes some people to crack, but others to become tougher and more creative? Or that the shock to old institutions brings new talent to the fore?

Drumclay Crannog

Crannogs were man-made islands that the ancient Irish built in lakes and bogs, presumably for safety. They were built from Neolithic times into the Middle Ages, and some were inhabited into the 17th century. Some were small things that held only a single structure, while others were much larger and held whole compounds. (More here.)

Excavations at Drumclay Crannog in Fermanagh, near Enniskillen in Northern Ireland made the news this week because of some remarkable discoveries. Crannogs had a tendency to slowly sink into the pond muck, so new material in the form of wood or earth was always being added. This pushed the older surface down under the water, where, especially in bogs, objects of wood, bone, and leather can be preserved. In the two pictures above you can see the structure of logs that formed the crannog's core; immediately above is the round pattern of one of the houses. All of this sank into the mud, taking much evidence of daily life with them:
Iron, bronze and bone ornaments have been discovered at the crannog, along with the chess-like pieces believed to have been part of the game. Parts of log boats, leather shoes, knives, decorated dress pins, wooden vessels and a bowl with a cross carved on its base have also been unearthed during the six-month dig. 
The Drumclay Crannog was occupied from around 600 CE to 1600. There were four or five houses on the platform, likely the home of an extended family or clan.

The walls were wattle and daub (branches covered with mud); above is a section of wattle wall. The roofs were thatched.

The only stone in this crannog was in the hearths of the houses.

The houses were small, but the residents were not poor, and since the finds included iron weapons their leader may even have considered himself a nobleman. One of the archaeologists describes the finds:
It shows people lived in houses that would have been little bigger than a large modern living room, cooking and sleeping in the same space. The walls were insulated with heather and other plants. The objects found indicate that people were very sophisticated in their tastes, living as farming families, butchering their own animals and ploughing the land for crops. They were very skilled at metalworking and woodworking, excelling at carpentry to construct the houses and crafting and decorating wooden containers of all sizes. They played board games probably around the fire on cold evenings. They wove their own cloth, having spun the wool from their own sheep.
Below, a sample of finds; bone comb, bronze pin, wooden gaming piece:

To understand the society of northern Europe in this period, you have to get your mind around the concept of wealthy, cultured aristocrats who lived in what look like huts to us, or else in unbearably cold and dank stone fortresses. Their wealth was shown in the gold ornaments on their homespun clothing, their power in the number of men they could call to battle, their refinement in their knowledge of poetry, music and the law. Their homes were crude, their food boring, most of their clothes nothing special, but they knew their ancestry going back many generations and considered themselves fully the equal of  villa-dwelling Romans.

The reconstructed crannog at at Craggaunowen, Co. Clare.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Alpha Centauri B has Planets

Alpha Centauri B has planets! The two stars of the Alpha Centauri binary system are the closest stars to our Sun, a mere 4.36 light years away. The newly discovered planet orbits very close to its star, but it seems to be about the same size as Earth and its orbit has ripples that may indicate other worlds farther out.

Of course, 4.36 light years is still 25.6 trillion miles, or 41.2 trillion kilometers, so to get there in a reasonable time will still take a warp drive.

Turritopsis dohrnii and the Dream of Eternal Life

Lots of speculation on the web these days following Nathaniel Rich's big article in the Times magazine on Turritopsis dorhnii, the "immortal jellyfish."
Like most hydrozoans, Turritopsis passes through two main stages of life, polyp and medusa. A polyp resembles a sprig of dill, with spindly stalks that branch and fork and terminate in buds. When these buds swell, they sprout not flowers but medusas. A medusa has a bell-shaped dome and dangling tentacles. Any layperson would identify it as a jellyfish, though it is not the kind you see at the beach. Those belong to a different taxonomic group, Scyphozoa, and tend to spend most of their lives as jellyfish; hydrozoans have briefer medusa phases. An adult medusa produces eggs or sperm, which combine to create larvae that form new polyps. In other hydroid species, the medusa dies after it spawns. A Turritopsis medusa, however, sinks to the bottom of the ocean floor, where its body folds in on itself — assuming the jellyfish equivalent of the fetal position. The bell reabsorbs the tentacles, and then it degenerates further until it becomes a gelatinous blob. Over the course of several days, this blob forms an outer shell. Next it shoots out stolons, which resemble roots. The stolons lengthen and become a polyp. The new polyp produces new medusas, and the process begins again.
Actually this sort of immortality may be a common feature of animals in that range, hydras and sea cucumbers and whatnot.

Personally, I fail to see the relevance for human life. Note the intermediate stage Turritopsis passes through on its way to rejuvenation: "it becomes a gelatinous blob." How much memory or personality would be likely to survive that? The study of hydrozoans may shed some light on cancer and such -- they do very cool things with micro RNA -- and it is fascinating in its own right, but it seems to me that our brains are not good candidates for the sort of rebirth some simpler animals can undergo.

Face it, people, we're not going to live forever.

The Sign on the Suicide Cliffs

Wait a minute. A dead flower will never bloom.

--Sign at the Sandanbeki cliffs, Japan, a popular suicide spot

No Walls

During the protests that led to the overthrow of Egypt's dictator Mubarak, the police blocked off some routes into Tahrir Square with barricades. Cairo's artists then staged a "No Walls" event, painting over the barricades with images of the streets beyond. Photo by Mosa'ab Elshamy, from National Geographic.

Tiny Houses in Washington

The tiny house movement takes another step forward with the construction of a "tiny house community" near Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. On an alley lot, a group called Boneyard Studios is installing three houses, each less than 200 square feet.

The tiny house movement was born from an environmentalist, anti-consumption backlash against the huge houses of contemporary America. Whether these small spaces can actually house more than a few fanatics remains to be seen. I think the community plan being followed in DC might be a good approach, adding some neighborliness and solidarity to the formula. It might be more fun to live in a cluster of these homes, inhabited by like-minded people, than in a single such house wedged in among people who think you're a weirdo.

Of course living in tiny houses is nothing new; it's how most of humanity used to live and a lot of it still does. In colonial America, most people lived in houses smaller than 400 square feet, and they had big families and had to cook over open fires. So there is nothing essential to life that you can't fit in one of these houses.

I confess a fascination with these myself. I live in a pretty big house, but then I have five children and assorted other hangers on, so the place rarely feels empty. What people with more typical families do in their 4,000-square-foot monsters is something of a puzzle to me. I sometimes feel the revulsion with mountains of stuff that drives people to these shacks, and the though of such a simplified life seems appealing.

But then the reality of my life intrudes. Maybe in some other life.

Ye Olde Kitchen Hearth

Deerfield, Massachusetts, 1850s.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Ron Paul, Liberty, and Majority Rule

Ron Paul's farewell speech in Congress focused on one of libertarianism's themes, the conflict between liberty and majority rule. To Paul, liberty matters more, and majority rule should be restrained whenever it infringes on what he regards as important liberties. He also offered a reading of American history in which things were going along just grand until the Progressive era, when
The majority of Americans and many government officials agreed that sacrificing some liberty was necessary to carry out what some claimed to be ‘progressive’ ideas. . . . Pure democracy became acceptable.
Setting aside the bizarre notion that the America of slavery, Indian wars, lynchings, and so on was a paradise of freedom, I note once again the deep distrust or even dislike of other people that libertarianism embodies. The interfering majority cannot be trusted to do what is right.

Paul also tried a little counterfactual economic history. Encroachments on liberty, he argued, have greatly impeded economic growth:
Some complain that my arguments make no sense, since great wealth and the standard of living improved for many Americans over the last 100 years, even with these new policies. But the damage to the market economy, and the currency, has been insidious and steady. It took a long time to consume our wealth, destroy the currency and undermine productivity and get our financial obligations to a point of no return. Confidence sometimes lasts longer than deserved. Most of our wealth today depends on debt.
I certainly do complain that his arguments make no sense. We really are much better off since the Progressive movement, the New Deal, and the Great Society. If that contradicts Paul's economic theories, then his theories must be wrong, because the reality of our prosperity cannot be denied. And so far as I can see, most Americans are not libertarians because they understand this.

But the real problem is that Paul's argument prize liberty over every other possible good. Why? Where is it written stone that liberty is the only measure of a good society? I submit that this is a fatuous notion, especially when it is only applied to our relationship with the government. In practice, a weak government only allows the strong to oppress the weak without interference; even in the small government paradise of medieval Europe, many kings thought they had a special duty to protect widows and orphans.

Liberty is a good thing, I think, but it is far from the only good thing. Community, solidarity, freedom from fear and want, health, education, housing, clean air, clean water -- these are also good things. No perfect world can be created by ignoring all the possible blessings of life in favor of one. We can only try to balance them as best we can.

Can the Truth be Blasphemous?

Henry MacDonald in The Guardian:

When water started trickling down a statue of Jesus Christ at a Catholic church in Mumbai earlier this year, locals were quick to declare a miracle. Some began collecting the holy water and the Church of Our Lady of Velankanni began to promote it as a site of pilgrimage.

So when Sanal Edamaruku arrived and established that this was not holy water so much as holey plumbing, the backlash was severe. The renowned rationalist was accused of blasphemy, charged with offences that carry a three-year prison sentence and eventually, after receiving death threats, had to seek exile in Finland.
I imagine this will settle down soon enough, but meanwhile, pity the rationalist agitator who merely tells the truth.

Interestingly, part of Edamaruku's case is that he is being charged under a law passed by the British in 1860, which he says conflicts with the free speech protections in India's post-independence constitution.

Saturn's North Polar Vortex

This huge storm, 2000 km across, may be a permanent feature of Saturn's north pole.

So Glad McCain Never Became President

Yesterday Slate reporter Dave Weigel attended a meeting of the Foreign Policy Initiative, at which a bunch of neocon intellectuals and Republican lawmakers ranted against proposed cuts in the Defense budget. For some reason American voters still say they trust Republicans to balance the budget more than Democrats, even though Republicans have not cared about the deficit since Reagan was elected. They want lower taxes and more Defense spending, deficit be damned -- and lately they have been up in arms against any cuts in Medicare spending, too. Weigel:
The hawkish, interventionist wing of the party can’t succeed if the cuts aren’t stopped. The most forward-looking part of the FPI’s conference came when the French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy chatted with Sen. John McCain. They quickly agreed that America needed to intervene in Syria, setting up a partial no-fly zone and arming rebels. “War weariness is a big factor,” said McCain, griping about the possible opposition. “People are very weary, and there’s a fear of getting into a prolonged conflict.” But that would be overcome. So would the defense cuts.
McCain's belligerence has been completely untamed by our exhausting interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq. I, for one, am deeply war-weary, and have no plans to overcome it.

75 Year Budgeting?

Matt Yglesias responds to a proposal from Senator Dick Durbin to craft a 75-year budget for Social Security:
If people want to waste their time on this, I don't have a huge objection to the idea of somewhat higher taxes and somewhat skimpier benefits, but I think it's pretty silly. Recall that 75 years ago was 1937. Any minute spent in 1937 worrying about actuarial projections about 2012 as opposed to, say, Adolf Hitler or the Great Depression would have been a minute wasted.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012


Parenting is no sport for perfectionists.

--Andrew Solomon


Seize me, goddess of night,
Tear me out of time’s inching progress,
The slow, painful drip
Of second, minutes, hours
Counted out in worry and regret,
Passing like chained prisoners
Shuffling in endless procession
Step by slow and measured step
Toward distant dawn

Swallow me, beast of darkness,
Rip me from the prison of myself,
Poison me with dark dreams,
If that is your price,
But carry me from this wakeful hell
Through oblivion and forgetting
To sleep’s empty fields
Where thought is blotted out
And there is nothing.

George Steinmetz, the Desert from Above

From an exhibit of aerial photographs of the desert by George Steinmetz, titled Desert Air, on display at the National Geographic in Washington. Above, the Karnasai Valley, near the Chad-Libya border. Below, salt pans in the Sahara. More here.

Gender Bias in Voting is Disappearing

A recent study of the 2012 elections showed that one reason women did better than ever is that gender bias is disappearing both from the news coverage of the candidates and in how the voters see them. The study found no statistical differences in how male and female candidates were covered and perceived.

Monday, November 26, 2012

The Light of the Church

Great column by E.J. Dionne describing all the work New York's Catholic parishes have been doing to help people whose lives and homes were devastated by Sandy. As he says, this is what the church should be talking about when they present themselves to the world:
But above all, the bishops need to learn what I’ll call the St. Francis de Sales lesson. A church looking to halt defections among so many younger Catholics should understand that casting itself as a militantly right-wing political organization — which, face it, is what some of the bishops are doing — clouds its Christian message. Worse, the church seems to be going out of its way to hide its real treasure: the extraordinary examples of generosity and social reconstruction visible every day in parishes such as St. Francis and in the homeless shelters, schools, hospices and countless other Catholic entities all over the nation.

Politics divides Catholics. The works of mercy bring us together and also show the world what the power of faith can achieve.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Syrian Rebels Advancing

The Syrian civil war drags on, but perhaps there is some movement toward an eventual resolution:
In the past week, the rebels have seized five important military facilities in the north, the east and near the capital, Damascus, capturing sizable quantities of weaponry, further isolating remaining government positions and freeing up opposition fighters to focus on attacking Assad’s forces.
These are not big victories, but
Taken together, however, the gains underscore the steadily growing effectiveness of the rebel force and the accelerating erosion of what had once been one of the region’s most powerful armies, now severely depleted and on the defensive along almost all of the country’s many battlefronts.
Each time they seize a base, the rebels capture more heavy weapons, exclude the government from another part of the country, and raise their confidence. Some of the experts cited in the Post think the government might be on the edge of collapse, while others expect the war to drag on for a long time yet.

Ancient Arabia at the Sackler

The Smithsonian's Sackler Gallery in Washington is hosting an exhibit titled Roads of Arabia, devoted to the ancient history of the Saudi kingdom. Looks wonderful. Above, an anthropomorphic stele from the site of Ha'il north, dating to around 4,000 BCE.

A gold mask from a royal tomb outside the city of Thaj in the northeast, 1st century CE.

Tombstone from the early Muslim period, 9th century CE.

Scenes of Winter

Lithuanian Trees by Matas Juras. From National Geographic.

It's wintry out here, although there's no snow, and I have winter on my mind. Below, Hamlin Lake, Michigan, by John Dykstra.

Educated Americans Leaving in Record Numbers

Throughout the Great Recession, the news has been full of stories like this one:
When the best job Mikala Reasbeck could find after college in Boston was counting pills part-time in a drugstore for $7 an hour, she took the drastic step of jumping on a plane to Beijing in February to look for work.

A week after she started looking, the 23-year-old from Wheeling, West Virginia, had a full-time job teaching English. "I applied for jobs all over the U.S. There just weren't any," said Reasbeck, who speaks no Chinese but had volunteered at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. In China, she said, "the jobs are so easy to find. And there are so many."
Now Emily Matchar, whom we last met on this blog as a chronicler of the return to traditional female crafts among her young friends, has joined the exodus:
After applying for 279 jobs over two years, my husband finally got the offer he’d been hoping for: a well-paid position teaching philosophy at a respected university. We should have been thrilled. There was just one little thing. The job was in Hong Kong.

“I feel like we’re being deported from our own country,” my husband said.

“It’ll be an adventure,” I replied, trying to sound game.

“I wasn’t looking for an adventure,” he said. “I was just looking for a job.”
There seems to be some statistical backing for the belief that more and more young Americans are heading for Asia to find jobs. The State Department says the number of Americans working and studying abroad has reached its highest level ever, 6.3 million. An organization called conducts surveys of Americans about their plans to move abroad, and they have found a real surge in interest, especially among the highly educated.

You can see this in a positive light: Americans are joining the world, and are no longer so parochial that they can't even imagine moving overseas. And academics are a special case, since we have been turning out more Ph.D.s than there are professorships for thirty years now. The choice for many philosophers, historians, physicists, and others has long been to go overseas or find another career, and if more are now willing to emigrate, well, good for them.

But the litany of college graduates unable to find decent jobs is also depressing, and makes me wonder about the future of work. In a stable, advanced economy, will there ever again be enough work for all the highly educated people? Britain has been exporting many of its best educated young people for decades; is that the path we are on?

Obama Nibbles at Inequality

According to Zachary Goldfarb, Obama has made reducing inequality the most important goal of his Presidency. His health care law is designed to get coverage for millions, largely funded by higher taxes on the rich. He wants to undo the Bush tax cuts on the rich, but leave taxes on the middle class low. He has fought to preserve education funding even if that means cuts in programs that help the poor and elderly.

All of which I applaud. But:
Faced with a divided Congress that imposes significant limits on what he hopes to accomplish, it may seem, in 20 years, that Obama only tinkered at the margins. Several of the nation’s leading experts on inequality say that although he has pushed in the right direction, he may have to push much harder if he wants to make a significant mark.

“Obama’s proposals are not strong enough, per se, to undo the very large inequality increase the U.S. has experienced since the 1970s, particularly when it comes to the incomes at the very top,” Emmanuel Saez, an economics professor at the University of California at Berkeley and one of the world’s top experts on the subject, told me. “To really make a dent, you would need to consider more radical policies.”
This is what I think; I cannot see any set of politically possible policies that would seriously reduce inequality in the US. Moving beyond the possible, there are things that might work but might not. Saez seems to advocate World War II-era tax rates of 70 to 90 percent on the highest incomes; but in such a globalized era, would that even work? or would it just cause the whole financial industry to shift to London and the Cayman Islands? Another expert cited by Goldfarb wants free day care and preschool for everyone. I suspect that would help a little at the bottom, but, not as much as some people think, and it would do nothing about the growing disparity between billionaires and the rest of us.

Only a fundamental change in how our society thinks about money and success would do that, a return to the concept of enough that has vanished from our lexicon.

War Zone Sex, or, Human Nature is an Interesting Thing

Iraq veteran Laura Cannon reflects on military sex scandals:
I had no idea that a combat zone would be such a sexually charged environment. Blame it on amped-up testosterone pouring out of aggressive, athletic men. Or blame it on combat stripping even the strongest of men and women down to their core, raw emotions. Combine that with forming special bonds with comrades who promise to do whatever it takes to ensure your safe return home, including sacrificing their life for yours. What do you think happens? Let me tell you, covert combat sex ranks high on the list of life’s thrills. I’m a comfortable civilian now, and I know it’s impossible to inject that intense passion back into my life. But I reflect on it almost every day. There’s nothing that compares to making love at war.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

The Biracial President at Thanksgiving

Just a note that this year's White House Thanksgiving menu includes both greens and green bean casserole.

Holi Festival, Dresden

A Hindu festival that traditionally involved throwing colored powder, turned by Germans into a flashmob experience.

David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas

Behind the times as usual, I first heard of David Mitchell's 2004 novel last month, apropos of the upcoming movie. I checked my library and discovered that all of the copies were out and also spoken for on their eventual return. I was so intrigued by what I had read that I ordered myself a copy, the first novel I have bought in years. My paperback copy arrived with a whole section of rave notices calling it "astonishing," "miraculous," "wonderful," and so on. I eagerly opened it and began to read.

Cloud Atlas is a highly structured experiment, an attempt to arrange disparate tales told in different voices into a semi-coherent whole. The theme seems to be how human actions and choices matter to the course of history. There are six tales, which we first encounter in chronological order and then the reverse, so 1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - 5 - 6 - 5 - 4 - 3 - 2 - 1. The first is set in the mid nineteenth century, followed by one in 1931, one in the 1970s, one in the 1990s, and then two in the future.  One is a journal, one a group of letters, one an interview, one an oral performance, one a first person narration, and one third-person omniscient. There is always a small connection between each and the next, although these connections did not really strike me as relevant or important.

Some of the voices really are quite wonderful. I enjoyed the letters of a rakish composer chased out of England by debt collectors, producing his masterpiece in a troubled exile, and I loved the two future pieces. The nineteenth-century journal was tedious, perhaps because in some ways it was too authentic to the genre of a nineteenth-century travel journal. The two more standard pieces, those from the late twentieth century, are dismal. I hated both of them. They are, as somebody in one of the stories comments, like bad movie scripts, with cardboard villains doing eeeeeevil deeds for no particular reason. One of them is the hinge of the story, too, showing most concretely how one person's actions can change the whole future. Since Mitchell is said to be such a sophisticated writer, this must have been intentional; but why? Perhaps it was an attempt by Mitchell to distance himself from the book's surface moral, which amounts to "do good and the world will end up better."

In the end I felt about this book as I do about most such experiments. What is valuable in Cloud Atlas has nothing to do with the showy structural games, the narrative tricks, the carefully planted connections between one tale and the next. The good parts are good for the traditional reasons: they are well-written stories about well-developed characters doing interesting things in a well-described and morally complex world. The rest is window dressing.

If you are science fiction fan I recommend getting a copy when it reappears in your library and reading the two parts of "An Orison of Sonmi-451," the best sci-fi novella I have read in years. You might also give "Sloosha's Crossin' an' Ev'rythin' After" a try, if the narrator's dialect doesn't bother you. But I would skip the rest.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Contraception and Abortion

The people who oppose abortion most vociferously also tend to be dubious about birth control, which has always bothered me. The US abortion rate has fallen to its lowest level since Roe v. Wade, and why? Better birth control.

It seems to me that if we had perfect birth control, there would be very few abortions. Right?

Gridlock all Around

As budget talks in America inch toward the "fiscal cliff" with no sign of a deal, I wanted to point that we aren't the only ones having this problem. Talks over the European Union budget have just collapsed. The underlying problem is the same as ours, the inability of conservatives and liberals to agree on whether the world economy needs less taxation or more spending.

Today's Castle: Castle del Monte, Apulia

Emperor Frederick II (1194-1250) was one of the great rulers of the Middle Ages. Heir both to the Kingdom of Sicily and the throne of Germany, he had a remarkable intellect and formidable energy. Among his many interests --mathematics, poetry, falconry, medicine, law -- was castle building. He built or restored dozens, mainly in southern Italy.

The one we know as Castle del Monte was a new foundation, begun in 1240. Its small size and high degree of ornamentation make many historians think that it was not mainly for defense, and it is often described as a hunting lodge.

The castle is a near-perfect octagon, with a mathematically precise plan. There is no practical reason for such a symmetrical design, so the castle was an intellectual and aesthetic exercise as much as a house or fortress -- very much in keeping with Frederick's reputation.

Stone vaulting in one of the trapezoidal halls.

The castle was once highly decorated with marble sculptures, but many were removed by later kings to palaces in Naples and elsewhere. Only a few pieces remain, including this corbel.

The castle was acquired by the Italian government in 1876, and restored at great expense. The government had struggled against the papacy to unify Italy, and they made Frederick II, who also battled against the papacy to bring Italy under his control, one of their historical heroes. This picture shows the interior before restoration began.

The interior today. There was once a wooden balustrade at the level of the upstairs door, running all around the courtyard.

A glove preserved at the castle, said to have belonged to Frederick II.

Ferdinand Hodler

Ferdinand Hodler (1853-1918) was one of the most prominent Swiss artists of the fin de siecle era. His earlier work was strongly realistic and had a sort of earthy nationalism, depicting Swiss people and typical Swiss interior scenes. Above is my favorite work I have seen from this period, An Artisan Reading, 1881.

In the 1880s he moved outside and began painting landscapes and rural scenes. Much of this work resembles, in both style and subject matter, that of the French impressionists. Above, Autumn Evening (1892).

A self-portrait of the 1890s.

Willow Tree, 1891.

A Forest Stream.

I like these a great deal.

Beginning in the 1890s, Hodler came under the influence of symbolism and the new psychology of the unconscious. His first famous work in this style is Night (1890), said to be an "autobiographical painting on the theme of sleep and the fear of death, but also on the relationship between men and women." Make of it what you will.

Chosen, 1894.

Truth, 1891.

I have to say that I am not crazy about these, and I find them uninteresting except as documents of the strange mood that overtook Europe in those years.

Fortunately, Hodler continued to paint landscapes and rural scenes. Some of his mountains in particular are obviously charged with symbolic meaning, but to me this does not detract from their beauty and force. Above, Lake Thun Landscape.

Leman Lake seen from Chexbre, 1905.

Der Niesen, 1910.

The Dancer (Giulia Leonardi), 1910, which I find to be a truly sparkling portrait.