Thursday, February 28, 2013

Retrofitting Suburbia: Silver Spring, Maryland

I've written a couple of times here about the major effort underway in Virginia to turn the isolated office buildings and malls of Tysons Corner into a walkable downtown. Similar plans are afoot in many suburban communities, including Silver Spring, Maryland.

It was recently announced that the owners of The Blairs, a big apartment complex on the edge of Silver Spring's downtown, want to turn their car-friendly enclave,  now about half parking lots, into a real urban neighborhood.

Above, as the property is now.

And as it would be in the new, $625 million plan.

So far, no sign of major opposition, and Montgomery County is committed in theory to this kind of densification, so this should go ahead.

Why People Go To College

Matt Yglesias:
. . . . there's quite a bit more to the signaling function of higher education than just credentialing. In particular, since going to college is a normal bourgeois thing to do in America in 2013, doing it indicates that you are a normal American who subscribes to normal bourgeois values. A summer intern who's just finished up her third year at Yale doesn't have any kind of particular credentials, but we know that she probably has very good SAT scores and sounds like an exceedingly normal person. A young woman who got a 1600 on her SATs and has been spending the past three years working at 7-11 and watching Open Yale Courses videos sounds like a huge weirdo.
It may, as certain teenagers I know say, be "stupid" for employers to think this way, but it is in fact how they think.

Gorillas Know How to Play in the Leaves

Today's Weird Historical Footnote: Dog Suicide in the 1890s

In the heyday of Yellow Journalism, the papers loved both outrageous stories about animals and emotional tear-jerkers. Writers at the New York World found a way to bring them together, via stories of dog suicide:
Nero, another Newfoundland, from New Jersey, was “buried with honors,” according to The World’s headline. Nero was a purebred dog with a working-class lineage. Despite his imperious name, he was the dog of Frank Hall, a railroad coal man, and a creature well known to the train engineers, who, the article reports, he would greet by running alongside the tracks. Nero was a cheerful dog, until Hall whipped him for tearing his daughter’s dress. After that, “the way he shunned the society of his little mistress and her companions; his silence and abstraction and loss of appetite, were all direct and irrefragable evidence of the deadly purpose that was forming in the canine mind.” He committed suicide by throwing himself in front of a train (after drowning, this seems to have been the most popular method). The engineers who witnessed his death recalled Nero with tender affection. “It was as plain a case of suicide as you ever heard of,” said the driver of the offending train in The World. “I felt just as bad as if I had struck a man. It took all the nerve out of me.”
Shame, it seems was the main cause of canine self-destruction. J.P. Morgan's bulldog His Nibs, once a champion show dog, was held by the papers to have died of shame after being bested in battle by the neighbors' cat.

More here in great little article by John Patrick Leary.

Castel Gandolfo

So where does a pope retire to? Why, to his summer residence at Castel Gandolfo, of course. It's nothing special from the front,

but it does had a nice location, two observatories,

and an amazing garden with a view toward Rome eight miles away.

Those Italians and their geometric gardens. Perhaps they like well-ordered gardens because everything else about Italian life is so messy.

I have to say the furniture does nothing for me. But those marble floors!

And should his ex-holiness get tired of the rather drab decor in his palace, he can step next door, where the attached church has a dome by Bernini. I am reminded of Leo X, who is said to have remarked, "Let us enjoy the papacy, since God has seen fit to give it to us."

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Natural World Close-Up

I've spent my lazy hours today perusing a lovely book I got out of the library, The Natural World Close-Up, edited by Giles Sparrow. It's a terrific collection of microscope images, with nice explanations of what you are seeing. Some are just amazing. Above is the foot of an ordinary house fly, showing its exquisite design. (x1500)

The trichomes (tiny hairs) of a sage leaf. Each hair has a "secretory head," which exudes droplets of oil from its tip. It is this oil that gives sage its smell and taste. (x690)

The scales of a beetle's carapace (x720).

Spores exiting the fruiting body of a moss. (x490)

The hairs on a bee's leg, laden with pollen grains. (x500)

That's no harpoon, it's the hunting spike of a cone shell. (x15)

Nummulitic Limestone from north Africa (x3). There are hundreds of other pictures in the book, which I highly recommend.

Politics and Your Neat/Messy Office

Is this real? Or just another silly psychological stunt?
Conservatives' bedrooms tended to include more organizational items, including event calendars and postage stamps. They also contained more conventional decorations and items, including sports paraphernalia. Bags of various types, American flags in particular, and alcohol bottles and containers. In general, conservative bedrooms were somewhat neater, cleaner, fresher, organized, and well lit. They were also significantly more likely to contain household cleaning and mending accessories such as laundry baskets, irons and ironing boards, and string or thread. These results appear to confirm theoretical contentions that concerns with cleanliness, hygiene, and order are related to political conservatism (see Table I). Conservative offices tended to be more conventional, less stylish, and less comfortable, in comparison with liberal offices. The bedrooms of liberals suggested that their occupants were indeed relatively high on Openness to Experience. They contained a significantly greater number and variety of books, including books about travel, ethnic issues, feminism, and music, as well as a greater number and variety of music CDs. including world music, folk music, classic and modern rock, and "oldies." Liberal bedrooms also contained a greater number of art supplies, stationery, movie tickets, and a number of items pertaining to travel, including international maps, travel documents, books about travel, and cultural memorabilia. Offices and workspaces used by liberals were judged by our coders as being more distinctive, colorful, and "fresh," and as containing more CDs and a greater variety of books. It should be noted that because of the fairly large number of statistical tests conducted, it is possible that some of the significant findings were obtained by chance. 


Pictures like this one never cease to astonish me.

This is the rock of Masada, a natural fortress overlooking the Dead Sea where King Herod built a palace retreat. After the Romans sacked Jerusalem in 70 CE, the remaining Jewish rebels retreated to this place. Perhaps they thought they would be safe here. But in both of these pictures you can see the ramp, rising up from the right, built by the Roman legionnaires when they besieged the place. They used a natural spur of rock, but still they moved a huge quantity of stone to build this. The cliff is 300 feet (90 m) tall, or, perhaps better, very tall but not tall enough.

The ramp from the bottom. They also built a huge siege tower with a ram, and when the ramp was ready they pushed the tower to the top and broke through the fortress walls. They found that the defenders and their families, 960 people, had all committed suicide rather than surrender.

The Roman camp, which looks strikingly like every single other Roman camp throughout their vast empire.

Today Masada is one of Israel's top tourist attractions. It strikes me, though, that it has an ambivalent meaning. I suppose Zionists get all misty-eyed about the great sacrifice their ancestors made for freedom. But anti-Zionists could get equally excited imagining that some future great empire would do to Israel what the Romans did.

Alternate Lives

Our unlived lives—the lives we live in fantasy, the wished-for lives—are often more important to us than our so-called lived lives. We can’t (in both senses) imagine ourselves without them.

--Adam Phillips

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Mystery Porcelain from Rural Virginia

Twelve years ago I was carrying out an archaeological survey of the Prince William Forest Park in north-eastern Virginia. One of the places we tested was a small African American settlement known to its inhabitants as Batestown. These houses were abandoned in the late 1930s, when the park was set up. We were mainly trying to find out how old the settlement was, but as usual most of what we found in our quick survey dated to the end of occupation. On one of these house lots, amongst the usual dreck of a rural house abandoned in the 30s -- enameled pans, zinc washtubs, clear glass bottles, ironstone hotelware -- we found three or four sherds of a very striking blue and white pottery.

They were porcelain, their colors bright as sunshine against the drab iron and glass. The design was distinctive, and I found them lovely. I wondered what they were, but amidst all the tasks that came up at the end of that project, I never followed up.

This afternoon I was standing in a friend's living room when I glanced at her China cabinet and saw the exact same design. She has a whole collection. "Phoenix ware," she called it. It came from her grandmother, she said, who got it because it was a give-away at her local movie theater back in the 30s.

We googled various versions of "phoenix porcelain" and eventually found a bunch of lots for sale on Ebay, along with a description of the ware. It was made in Japan and imported into the US mainly between 1920 and 1950. It was sold at Woolworth's, among other places. There must once have been many thousands of these in American houses, but by now most have disappeared into landfills.

But there is still enough around that you can get a set for under a hundred dollars, and the next time I feel flush I think I may buy some saucers or bowls. Whenever I see them I will remember finding those sherds in the woods, and wondering how they came to be there.

More Political Anthropology: Napoleon Chagnon, or, the Real Fierce People are Professors

Marshall Sahlins, longtime University of Chicago professor and leading light of American cultural anthropology, resigned from the National Academy of Sciences on Friday. He offered two reasons for his resignation. The second was two partnerships for research between the NAS and the American military, and the first was the election to the NAS of Napoleon Chagnon.

Chagnon might be the world's most famous anthropologist; his book on the Yanomamö of Venezuela and Brazil, The Fierce People, sold more than a million copies and was assigned in thousands of courses. He might also be the world's most controversial anthropologist. He sees his work as a branch of evolutionary biology, and these days his most famous claim is probably that Yanomamö men who had killed other men had more children than those who had not, and therefore that violence was a successful evolutionary strategy.

As a statement about human evolution, Chagnon's claim is utterly banal; who doubts that violence can be a successful evolutionary strategy for men? You kill the other guy, take his wife, and have children with her. In Darwinian terms, you win. All the scientists out there are scratching their heads now, wondering what could possibly be controversial about this. Lions do it, elephant seals do it, humans do it.

But this misunderstands American anthropology. Anthropology in the US has always been only partly about studying humanity. It is just as much about offering a critique of western civilization, based on insights gained from studying other cultures, and of advocating on behalf of the threatened, indigenous peoples of the world. From World War I to Vietnam, the first was primary, and anthropologists were mostly fighting the patriarchy and its militarism. So you can see why Chagnon's work is offensive to the followers of Margaret Mead. These days, it is advocacy for threatened cultures that mainly exercises anthropologists, and it is here that Chagnon has really gotten himself into hot water. As a scientist, he says, it is his business to study events, not shape them, and he has flatly refused to get involved in things like disputes between the Yanomamö and logging companies. Chagnon is also, it has to be said, a jerk, who routinely slings insults at his academic opponents and dismisses their work as "fluff."

Simmering dislike of Chagnon boiled over in 2000 with the publication of Darkness in El Dorado by journalist Patrick Tierney. Tierney accused Chagnon of a lost list of crimes that started with helping to start a measles epidemic among the Yanomamö so as to better study the development of immunity in a "virgin soil" population. That one has been pretty conclusively refuted, but other charges live on. The most serious is that the way Chagnon collected his genealogical data exacerbated the violent tensions that he found so fascinating.

Here, to give you an idea of the issues involved, is a passage from Marshall Sahlins' own review of Darkness in El Dorado:
The '60s were the longest decade of the 20th century, and Vietnam was the longest war. In the West, the war prolonged itself in arrogant perceptions of the weaker peoples as instrumental means of the global projects of the stronger. In the human sciences, the war persists in an obsessive search for power in every nook and cranny of our society and history, and an equally strong postmodern urge to "deconstruct" it. For his part, Chagnon writes popular textbooks that describe his ethnography among the Yanomami in the 1960s in terms of gaining control over people.

Demonstrating his own power has been not only a necessary condition of Chagnon's fieldwork, but a main technique of investigation. In a scientific reprise of a losing military tactic, he also attempted to win the hearts and minds of the people by a calculated redistribution of material wealth, and in so doing, managed to further destabilize the countryside and escalate the violence. Tierney quotes a prominent Yanomami leader: "Chagnon is fierce. Chagnon is very dangerous. He has his own personal war." Meanwhile, back in California a defender of Chagnon in the e-mail battles has lauded him as "perhaps the world's most famous living social anthropologist." The Kurtzian narrative of how Chagnon achieved the political status of a monster in Amazonia and a hero in academia is truly the heart of Darkness in El Dorado. While some of Tierney's reporting has come under fire, this is nonetheless a revealing book, with a cautionary message that extends well beyond the field of anthropology. It reads like an allegory of American power and culture since Vietnam.
Vietnam, Vietnam, Vietnam; for American leftists of a certain age, it defines everything. And note that as in so many other cases, sensitive anthropologists have adopted what they say is a better spelling of the tribal name, so as to distinguish themselves from imperialists. But there are real issues with Chagnon's fieldwork. His funding came from the Atomic Energy Commission, which wanted to study the mutation rate in a population that had no exposure to nuclear contamination. Chagnon's assignment was to collect blood samples and genealogical information from as many people as he could, across dozens of villages. This prevented him from developing the kind of close relations with informants that ethnographers value, and it led him to employ questionable tactics in getting those crucial samples. Sahlins again:
Needing blood and information quickly, Chagnon would announce his visits to a village in the guise of a Yanomami warrior: dressed only in loincloth, body painted red, feathered--and carrying a shotgun. His field kits have been known to contain chemical mace and an electric stun gun. He tried to cultivate a reputation for dangerous magical power by engaging in narcotic shamanistic seances. When someone stole from him, he got children to inform on the thief; then he returned the favor by carrying off the latter's hammock until he got his stuff back. . . .

But he indeed had a delicate problem. He badly needed to know the people's names and their genealogies. This information was indispensable to the AEC biological studies. He was also engaged in an absurdist anthropological project, which he took seriously, of finding ancestor-based lineage institutions among a people who by taboo could not know, could not trace and could not name their ancestors--or for that matter, could not bear to hear their own names. To utter people's names in their presence is the gravest offense, a horror: "In battle they shout out the name because they are enemies." As for the dead, they are completely excluded from Yanomami society, ritually as well as verbally, as a necessary condition of the continued existence of the living. But for the sake of science, Chagnon had to know--and so set in motion an opposition between their humanity and his epistemology that developed progressively through his professorial career. Chagnon invented draconian devices for getting around the name taboos. He exploited animosities within the village to induce some people to tell on others. He "bribed" (his quotation marks) children to disclose names when their elders were not around. Most productive of all, he went to enemy villages to get people's genealogies, and then confirmed the information by seeing if they got angry when he recited the names to their faces. By the early 1970s Chagnon had collected some 10,000 Yanomami names, including 7,000 names of the dead. It must have caused a lot of pain and hate.
The Yanomamö are one of those societies that enforce equality through intense jealousy; when anybody has anything that his peers do not, they hound him until either he shares or violence breaks out and the excess wealth is destroyed. To get the cooperation he needed, Chagnon handed out valuable presents -- knives, axes, kettles -- to certain people while denying them to others. According to his critics, this led to fights and even killings, which Chagnon then filmed for western audiences. He stirred up so much trouble that in 1976 the government of Venezuela banned him from doing any more fieldwork.

Fast forward to the 1980s, when Chagnon started claiming that his genealogies show the benefits of violence for men. Your genealogies are bunk, said his critics, and if your subjects were killers it was only because you instigated the rivalries behind those killings. Furthermore, they said, Chagnon misunderstood Yanomamö society and counted as killers men who were said to have killed by sorcery, and even those who shot arrows into a dead man as a way of saying that they would have killed him if given a chance. Chagnon answered that he had worked very hard to get that genealogical information -- which, really, nobody can deny -- and if his critics don't like his results, they should do their own studies. But of course the sort of anthropologist whose very identity is based on embracing the outlook of the people he or she studies cannot even ask a Yanomamö man his name, let alone his ancestry. So the status of those genealogies remains up in the air, and people seem to react to them mainly based on how they feel about the whole enterprise of sociobiology. I am dubious myself. One of the big problems with studying human evolution is that we give meanings to words like "brother," "cousin," and "murderer" that are rather different from the ones evolutionary biologists give them, and the ambiguities involved in asking the Yanomamö about fatherhood and feuding seem to me to be too great to place a lot of numerical faith in the answers.

The most serious criticism of Chagnon's evolutionary argument is that he met the Yanomamö at a time when their culture was being rapidly destabilized by contact with outsiders. If it was not Chagnon himself who upset their traditional arrangements, the entry of loggers, prospectors, government officials, traders, tourists, and others into the region certainly did overturn the old order. Can the rate of violence in such a society at such a time really tell us much about evolution in the distant past? Probably not. But on the other hand, can anybody look at the fierceness of the arguments that Chagnon has set off and say that we are not an inherently violent species?

When is Fantasizing a Crime?

Gilberto Valle is on trial this week for conspiracy. The evidence against him all comes from emails and postings to Internet chat groups, where he laid out in detail plans to torture, rape, kill, and eat women, including his own wife. The prosecution says these were actual plans that Valle intended to carry out.
“You are going to see in these conversations that Mr. Valle is engaging in detailed strategic discussions about real women that he has identified,” Mr. Jackson said. He cited “one conversation where Mr. Valle discusses a specific real woman, a specific real woman that he knew, and discussing the logistics of fitting her into an oven.”
As for the defense:
Officer Valle’s lawyer, said in her opening statement that if the jurors had been scared by what the prosecution had described, “who could blame you?” The allegations were shocking and gruesome, she said, “the stuff that horror movies are made of. They share something else in common with horror movies,” she added. “It’s pure fiction. It’s pretend. It’s scary make-believe.”

Ms. Gatto suggested that the stakes for Officer Valle, who has been charged with conspiracy to commit kidnapping, a charge that carries a maximum sentence of life in prison, went far beyond his case. She said cases like his test “bedrock principles, the freedom to think, the freedom to say, the freedom to write even the darkest thoughts from our human imagination.”
I have to say that I can't decide what to make of this. On the one hand I am very disturbed by the whole notion of thought crimes, and I think that in our approach to child pornography we are descending into inquisition territory. On the other, who is going to object to some kind of punishment for a man whose idea of a good time is to chat with his buddies about exactly how to kill and cook his wife?

UPDATE: Valle was convicted on almost all the counts. The jury deliberated for nearly four days.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Vasudeo S. Gaitonde

Vasudeo S. Gaitonde (1924-2001) was sometimes called India's most renowned abstract painter. In the difficult way of so many artists, Gaitonde insisted that "there is no such thing as abstract art." He called his work "non-objective," although I can't really see what the difference would be. Very few of Gatonde's works have titles; the one above is from 1987.

I discovered Gaitonde because his works are really big on the art auction circuit these days. Every major sale of Asian art seems to include at least one, some selling for as much as $950,000.

An early work with a title, Two Faces (1957).

According to an unsourced account of his career that I have found on several web sites,
Gaitonde's works are known for evoking subliminal depths. . . . Art, for Gaitonde, is a process complete in itself and in exploring his inner spaces and transient realities it helps him move towards himself. A non-conformist, Gaitonde always kept himself away from anything that would be extraneous to his identity as a painter. He as evolved as painter who is increasingly more meticulous in the presentation of his identity.

I suppose that means he tried to keep out of politics. But he did live his whole life in India, unlike some other notable artists of his generation. I like these ink on paper works better than the colored canvases; these two especially seem quite striking to me.

These are rather charming, too.

I wonder if anybody has theories in which this work is somehow "Indian", rather than part of the worldwide abstract movement. Does it look Indian? Could anybody who didn't know Gaitonde's work identify it as Indian? I certainly could not. But some of it is nice, and some of it is interesting, so far as abstract art goes.

Moralistic Therapeutic Deism

I just learned that there is a term for the wishy-washy religion of the average American, "moralistic therapeutic deism." The term was coined in 2005 by sociologists Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton, who interviewed 3,000 teenagers about their beliefs. According to them the tenants of MTD are:
  1. A god exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth. 
  2. God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions. 
  3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself. 
  4. God does not need to be particularly involved in one's life except when God is needed to resolve a problem. 
  5. Good people go to heaven when they die.
I think this is a much better description of what Americans believe than "Christianity."

American Kids are Learning More

At least as measured by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a respected test as these things go. It is especially heartening to see how much black and Hispanic kids are improving. There is so much despair surrounding educational reform, so I thought I would share this basic and rather cheering fact.

Scared of the Sequester, or, Panic on the Darkling Plain

William Kristol is very worried about the defense spending cuts scheduled to happen Friday:
The plain is darkling. The world grows more dangerous. Yet we heedlessly slash our military preparedness. Iran hastens toward a nuclear weapon, which would pose an existential threat to Israel and signal a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. Yet the president nominates for secretary of defense a man who is patently unqualified for the position, who despises Israel, and who has a record of being exceedingly solicitous of Iran. We win in Iraq and make progress in Afghanistan, thanks to the valor and sacrifice of our troops, and the president puts these accomplishments at great risk because he chooses to pander to public war weariness rather than attend to America’s national interests.

Our political armies are confused or ignorant. A foolish and dangerous sequester looms, one both parties promised would never happen. But neither party now can be troubled to put forth a credible proposal to avert it. President Obama views the moment as an opportunity for scoring cheap political points. Republicans are so desperate for a “victory” over Obama that they now embrace Obama’s foolish idea, and so are willing to sacrifice national defense for minor cuts in domestic spending which will in no way fundamentally change our trajectory toward national insolvency and a nanny state.
This notion that the world "grows more dangerous" baffles me. How is Iran having the bomb any more dangerous than Pakistan or North Korea having the bomb? And how does any of that compare to the nuclear standoff between the US and the Soviet Union, which the world somehow managed to survive?

Isn't this a democracy, where the citizens are supposed to decide for themselves which wars are worth fighting?

I have much more at stake here than the average American, since I make my living off the largess of the government, and some projects I was planning to spend the year working on may be cut. But, really, $85 billion out of the whole Federal budget, and our civilization is at risk? Oh, the darkling plain! Oh, the ignorant armies! Will no wise man step forward to save us from this clash by night?


UPDATE: Pat Buchanan -- yes, I'm quoting Pat Buchanan, so shoot me -- said of similar hysteria from Jennifer Rubin,
Remarkable. Our uncles and fathers turned the Empire of the Sun and Third Reich into cinders in four years, and this generation is all wee-weed up over Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Penguin Bubbles, or, Science Uncovers Another Miracle of Nature

Marine biologist Robert Hughes knew nothing about penguins, but he had recently been talking to his wife about the properties of  the new high tech swim suits used by Olympic competitors. So when he saw a video of emperor penguins leaving a trail of bubbles through the water, he wondered what the bubbles were for. Did they help the penguins move faster? So he chatted up a friend, John Davenport, an expert in animal locomotion. But Davenport didn't know either, and when they reviewed the literature they discovered that nobody seemed to know. So they decided to find out for themselves:
With the help of Poul Larsen, a mechanical engineer at the Technical University of Denmark, they analyzed hours of underwater footage and discovered that the penguins were doing something that engineers had long tried to do with boats and torpedoes: They were using air as a lubricant to cut drag and increase speed.

When an emperor penguin swims through the water, it is slowed by the friction between its body and the water, keeping its maximum speed somewhere between four and nine feet a second. But in short bursts the penguin can double or even triple its speed by releasing air from its feathers in the form of tiny bubbles. These reduce the density and viscosity of the water around the penguin’s body, cutting drag and enabling the bird to reach speeds that would otherwise be impossible.
For me, the real significance of this is the sheer astonishment of it. Air lubrication is cutting edge engineering in the twenty-first century -- indeed, we would not have thought to look for it in nature if engineers were not working out how to use it on our own machines -- but penguins were there long ago. To know this reductive scientific fact about penguins does not make them less wonderful, but more so.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

The General and the President

One of my favorite parts of Thomas Ricks' The Generals was the section on Franklin Roosevelt and Douglas MacArthur. When Pearl Harbor was attacked MacArthur was the US Army's commander-in-chief in the Pacific, which put him directly in the path of the Japanese advance, and he played a large role throughout the war.

But why? George Marshall, Army Chief of Staff, hated MacArthur, and MacArthur's dismal performance during the defense of the Philippines would have been a perfect excuse to sack him. (The forces MacArthur had to defend the islands outnumbered the Japanese attackers by 3 to 2.) Yet Marshall, who relieved hundreds of other commanders, left MacArthur in place.

According to Ricks, Marshall did so because Roosevelt ordered him to. Roosevelt wanted MacArthur in the army because he feared the damage MacArthur would do if he were outside it and free to criticize Roosevelt's handling of the war. MacArthur was a politically ambitious man -- he tried to get the Republican nomination for President in 1944 and again in 1952 -- and his politics were far right, almost fascist. Roosevelt once remarked that the two most dangerous men in the country were MacArthur and Huey Long. On another occasion Roosevelt said that to keep the whole country united behind the war effort he needed a war hero with bona fide anti-New Deal credentials. MacArthur, of course, fit that bill perfectly.

Roosevelt and MacArthur met once during the war, in Hawaii in 1943. MacArthur was supposed to brief the president and discuss strategy. Instead he lectured FDR about the political, electoral implications of not returning to the Philippines, offering a detailed rundown of how this would hurt the president and the Democrats in various states. Roosevelt's aides were outraged, but the president himself was all smiles. As Ricks says, he was probably relieved to discover how naive MacArthur was about American politics.

It's a fascinating glimpse of the political wheels within wheels that are part of anything as big as a war, and another look at Roosevelt's astonishing political acumen.

Thomas Ricks, The Generals

Amateurs talk about tactics, an old saw has it, but professionals talk about logistics. Actually, as Thomas Ricks explains in The Generals (2012), in the US military what professionals talk about is personnel policy. Figuring that what obsesses our officer corps must be of some importance to the rest of us, Ricks has written a book about how the US Army selects and trains its senior officers.

Oh great, you're thinking, what could possibly be less interesting than a 300-page book about military personnel policy? Yet I found The Generals fascinating. It shows American military history from World War II to the present in a new light, and it also confronts one of the most difficult and important questions of our bureaucratic age: how to arrange a huge organization so that it finds and promotes the people it needs to provide effective leadership. Since the organization in question is supposed to fight wars, further questions arise, such how to tell in peacetime which officers will lead well when the shooting breaks out, and how to make sure that the army is run for the benefit of the nation as a whole and not just for its own officers.

Ricks begins with a long section on George Marshall, who was the Army Chief of Staff during World War II. Marshall, Ricks argues, created the modern American army. Some of his policies are still in place, and others, Ricks thinks, should be brought back. When he was put in charge, in 1939, Marshall immediately began readying the army for war. With Roosevelt's backing he engaged in a major housecleaning of peacetime officers he thought were too old, cowardly, or weak to command in war. By December, 1941 he had sacked 600 officers, promoting younger, bolder men into their places. After the fighting started he and his chief subordinates continued to sack officers at a frightening pace, removing dozens of division and brigade commanders over the course of the war. As Ricks says, there is no way that such a policy can really be fair to the officers. No doubt Marshall sacked some capable officers before the war because they looked old and tired to him, and no doubt some of the men removed in combat had just been unlucky. But on the whole the policy of rapid relief made the army stronger. And that is the point. Armies do not exist to be fair, but to win wars; they should serve the national interest, not the interests of their officers.

Marshall also had a certain kind of man in mind to become a general in his army. He was suspicious of flamboyant martinets like Patton and MacArthur, and he sidelined them as much as possible. His ideal officer was a team player, able to get along with his staff, subordinates, superiors and allies. Marshall valued energy more than intellect, resolve more than subtlety. Not that he disliked smart men; he was himself brilliant, and for the top job in Europe he picked the extremely intelligent Eisenhower. But he wanted doers, not thinkers. Ricks speculates that while this policy worked well in World War II, it may be the root reason why the American army has often been lead by unimaginative bureaucrats, the sort of people who end up being eulogized as "great Americans" rather than brilliant leaders.

To me the most interesting part of the book was the section on Vietnam. What I have read about the war has mostly been written by outsiders who were hostile to the whole project, and who were not even trying to be fair to American commanders. So it was news to me how many American officers were every bit as critical of Westmoreland's war as any journalist. Rather than adapting the counter-insurgency tactics used successfully by the British in Malaya, and recommended by the US Marines in Vietnam, Westmoreland insisted on a "search and destroy" strategy. He sent US troops running around the highlands looking for Viet Cong units, using massive firepower in a mostly vain attempt to kill guerrillas faster than the communists could replace them. The measure of military success became the "body count," which was a terrible idea in the first place -- as many pointed out at the time, the North controlled how many men they sent into battle, so they could always arrange the war to keep their losses at level they could accept -- and also set the stage for the corruption and cynicism that erupted at My Lai.

In Ricks' telling, the army was ruined by the war. By 1970, junior officers were approaching open rebellion against their superiors, and the soldiers, of course, were rolling grenades at their officers. (There were more than 200 confirmed cases of "fragging" during the war, and who knows how many hundreds of unconfirmed attempts.) The massacre at My Lai was ordered by officers and covered up by their bosses, but then it was investigated and prosecuted by other officers who were horrified by what happened, and the tensions led to fistfights in officers' clubs. At the end of the war one senior general told the new Chief of Staff, "this army is on its ass." And part of the problem was personnel policy: the army decided that while soldiers and officers would both do 1-year rotations to Vietnam, the officers would spend half of their year in staff assignments and only 6 months commanding in the field. Only a few officers volunteered for a second tour, so from 1967 on US troops were led by Lieutenants and Captains with an average of 3 months combat experience. No wonder Viet Cong veterans were so scornful of American fighting ability. The future army leaders who came out of the war, like Colin Powell and Norman Schwartzkopf, emerged determined that nothing like Vietnam would ever again happen to their army.

The most talked about section of the book has been the last, on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Ricks has been a vociferous critic of the US military's performance in those wars -- his book about Iraq is called Fiasco -- and he lays more on here. To Ricks one of the Army's worst flaws has been its refusal to relieve failing commanders. The last time an American brigade or division commander was relieved for cause was in Korea. Ricks singles out Tommy Franks and Ricardo Sanchez as two men who should have been relieved, but were instead allowed to finish their scheduled command rotations. It was Franks who bungled the Tora Bora operation in Afghanistan, allowing Osama bin Laden to escape to Pakistan, and yet he was left in place as head of Central Command to bungle the invasion of Iraq as well. And when a commander with a clue was found (Ricks is a fan of David Petraeus), he was rotated home after just one year. When the army brass was questioned about this policy, they said it was "fair" to officers to give several men a chance at the top field commands. That dreaded word "fairness," to Ricks, signals an army being run in the interests of the officers rather than the national interest. Ricks believes that more army officers, especially division commanders and their staffs, should have had to stay in theater for two, three, or even four years, rather than just one. Officers like to talk about sacrifice, he says, so maybe we should ask more of them.

If you have any interest in what the US Army actually does, and how officers think about it, read The Generals.

Teacher Quality and Student Evaluations

The question of how to improve our schools has been hung up for a decade now on the question of teacher "quality" and how to measure it. Pouring over the mass of data from standardized tests, education experts have noticed a huge difference from teacher to teacher in how much they raise the test scores of their students. One group of experts says that this is the right measure of teacher quality, but this is resisted by others, especially teachers, who hate the thought of evaluating teaching by that one metric. Now testing guru Thomas Kane is back with a new study of 3,000 elementary school teachers that looked at test scores, student evaluations of the teachers, and how teaching experts judged videos of these teachers in the classroom. The study showed that all of the measures pointed in the same direction: the teachers rated highly by their students, and whose videos were scored highest, were also the ones who raised test scores the most.

I find it especially interesting that the most effective teachers were also rated as more "enjoyable" by their students. Observing my own children, I have noticed a strong correlation between academic problems and whether they are enjoying school; real educational crises only appear when the child is miserable.

The importance of observation is also worth noting. In my teaching career I have only been observed once, and I found it very helpful; I would very much like to be observed again, but universities don't seem to make much use of it.

Interesting interview with Kane about the study; the study itself is here.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Gregory Kondos: Modern Landscape

The Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento is holding an exhibit of Gregory Kondos' work to celebrate the American painter's 90th birthday. Above, Sacramento River with 32 Palms, 2001.

He calls his work "modern landscape," and for once an artist has a slogan that makes sense. These are landscapes interpreted through the lens of abstraction; the elements are still recognizable, but they are treated as some painters use abstract forms. On the Sacramento River, above, was commissioned in 2000 for a large wall in the California State Library.

Kondos was a son of Greek immigrants, born in 1923 in the immigrant bastion of Lynn, Massachusetts but raised in Sacramento. His early studies of art, encouraged by his parents, were interrupted by the three years he spent on an aircraft carrier during World War II. He later completed his degree, spent a year at the Art Center College of Design in Los Angeles and then went to California State University in Sacramento. He taught at Sacramento Junior College for 27 years, retiring in 1982. Most of his critical and financial success has come since his retirement, a career path that I find very hopeful. One critic, noting how many paintings Kondos has done of the Sacramento River, dubbed his oeuvre "the old man and the river." Above, The Windmill of San Francisco.

Emerald Bay, Tahoe.

Yellow Rose.

Sunny River Day. A bit too much like an abstraction of gumballs for me, but you have to give a painter some room for experimentation.

This is the painting, which I saw in an ad for the Crocker Museum exhibition, that first alerted me to Kondos' existence, but they didn't bother to give its title.

I like these, and they are quite distinctive without being in any way ugly. When you do an image search for works by a painter, Google always brings up a bunch of paintings not by him. In this case I found that I could tell unfailingly, from just the thumbnail, which works were by Kondos and which were not. Plus, you all know that these days I'm fascinated by artists who achieved success over 50, after long careers spent doing things like teaching junior college.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Today's Cathedral: Durham

In 1076 the Saxon Earl of Northumberland, Waltheof, rebelled against William the Conqueror. Like most who defied the Conqueror, he lost his head. (Literally.) William engaged in a famous campaign now remembered as the "harrowing of the north," which pretty much wiped out the native nobility. This ended the problem of Saxon revolts but left him with a new security headache: who would defend England against the Scots? William trusted only a handful of the noble captains he had brought with him -- he knew perfectly well that many were pirates who would stab him in the back if given half a chance -- and that trusted few already had key appointments in he south. So he had no secular ally he was willing to install as a mighty Earl of Northumberland on the Saxon model.

William had great relations with the church of Normandy, and he brought many churchmen across the channel to help him rule his new kingdom. So he turned to the church for help with his security problem. He divided responsibility for holding the north between a reduced earl and a mighty bishop. He made the Bishop of Durham ruler of a whole county and gave him, within that realm, all the powers of the king. In return the Bishop Palatine, or Prince Bishop, would raise armies and build castles to help defend the realm.

Durham was already a wealthy bishopric, holder of the bones of St. Cuthbert, Northumberland's patron saint. With the new lands given by William, it became suddenly one of the wealthiest sees in Britain. The new bishop, William of Calais, therefore decided that the existing church was not grand enough for his mighty see. In 1093 he began construction of a great church in the Norman style, a variant of the Romanesque.

The structure was largely complete by 1133, another sign of the bishop's great wealth. There are later additions, such as the Galilee Chapel, but on the whole Durham is one of the most intact Romanesque churches in Britain. The nave (above) is especially complete.

The cathedral was part of a large complex that included a castle and a Benedictine monastery, set on a high bluff in a bend of the river Weir.  "Half church of God, half castle 'gainst the Scot," Walter Scott called it.

The cathedral was one of the first built with ribbed vaulting, one of innovations that made the great high medieval cathedrals soar. As with most of those innovations, we have no idea what genius invented this system, which reinforces the impression that he cathedrals somehow sprung up from the spirit of the age, rather than being (as they were) designed by particular men to please particular patrons.

A door knocker.