Friday, February 28, 2014

Businsess Interests vs. Social Conservatives

The insider scuttlebutt on Arizona Governor Jan Brewer's veto of a law protecting the "religious freedom" of anyone in the state not to do business with gay people is that she was pushed to it by business interests:
Business leaders in Arizona and Washington called the campaign to kill 1062 a moment of triumph for the corporate world, and a reflection of how the need to attract talented employees and project a tolerant image to consumers has overridden virtually any other political imperative businesses face in a state like Arizona.

“I’m not a military person, but it was a DEFCON 1 situation,” said Glenn Hamer, president of the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry. “It would have been catastrophic, economically, if that bill had been signed.”
It strikes me that business interests hold the key to political power in America right now, allying with social conservatives to defeat unions and government spending on the poor and then with liberals to defeat anti-gay laws they fear would hurt their bottom lines. Money talks.

Religious conservative Rod Dreher:
This story could hardly be a clearer demonstration of the fact that, contrary to what so many conservative Americans wish to believe, the corporate class is no friend of traditional religion. In fact, as the Politico story makes clear, American business leaders are a far greater threat to Christian morality than all the faculties of all the universities in the country.
I wonder if social conservatives and liberals will ever be able to get together and restrain the winner-take-all economy.

Subject Headings

Just a few I encountered in the Library of Congress System while browsing New England -- History:
Azorean Americans--New England--History.
Beards--Social aspects--New England--History--19th century--Juvenile literature.
Disasters--New England--History.
Floor coverings--New England--History.
Games for girls--New England--History--19th century--Juvenile literature.
Golf--New England--History.
Love-letters--New England--History--19th century.
Masculinity--New England--History.
Mycotoxicoses--Social aspects--New England--History.
New England--History--Miscellanea.
Now, I ask you, if juvenile literature related to the social aspects of beards in New England history rates its own sub-heading, what could possibly be under Miscellanea?

Kaff Jinoon

Kira Salak explores the Libyan Desert:
We rendezvous with the Tuareg man who is supposed to guide us for the next few days. But after Magdy explains our plans, he says, “To hell with you,” and walks off. This becomes the usual reaction whenever we approach any Tuareg about guiding us, and all because I want to visit to the “Devil’s Hill.” Kaff Jinoon. It’s a curious series of eroded sandstone peaks jutting from the dunes north of Ghat. Unique not only for its two obelisk-like spires, or horns, it’s also believed to be Grand Central Station for genies—spirits—from thousands of miles around. And not just any spirits, but those most wicked and base. The spirits of torturers and murderers. The spirits of those wrongly slain. Lost and sickened souls, attracted to the vortex that is Kaff Jinoon.

Clapperton and his companion Dr. Walter Oudney camped near the mountain, to the terror and vexation of their Tuareg guides who believed that small, red-bearded devils lived on it and caused mischief to all who passed, while spirits taking on the appearance old men materialized out of the night to terrify lone travelers. It was considered akin to suicide to go anywhere near the dreaded mountain. Wrote Clapperton, “[My guide] Hatita said he would not go up it for all the dollars in the world.” And it’s the same story now in Ghat, no Tuareg willing to travel with us to the mountain, no matter how much we’ll pay. They all have their own stories. There were the French tourists a few years back. They drove out to the mountain, thinking it’d be a good joke to climb it, but as soon as they got out of their car they were attacked by swarms of wasps. Libyan authorities found the group wandering along the road, unable to get in their vehicle, their faces covered with stings. And this, I’m told, was minor. Much worse has occurred. Like the Libyan soldier at a checkpoint near the mountain who saw something so awful, so terrifying, that he went into shock and couldn’t walk for a year. To this day, he is unable to speak of what he saw. And then there is the man who swore by Allah that he saw an entire army division march around the base of the mountain one night—a ghost army, that disappeared before his very eyes.

Jinoon and its vicinity has been considered a stomping ground for evil genies for centuries. Intrepid Arab traveler Ibn Battuta first wrote about this desert in the 14th century, describing it as a place “haunted by demons; if the [traveler] be alone, they make sport of him and disorder his mind, so that he loses his way and perishes.” Western explorers journeying in the Fezzan regarded such tales with derision, determined to see the mountain and to try to climb it. In 1822, Dr. Oudney made the first recorded attempt, reaching the mountain’s 4,500-foot-high saddle and returning without incident. “The Doctor has got a high reputation for courage for his visit to Jinoon,” Clapperton wrote about his friend’s successful climb, “and every newcomer is sure to ask him about it.” Later explorers were less successful. British adventurer John Richardson attempted the climb in 1853, getting lost on the descent and wandering in the desert, near-death, for two days. Robust German explorer Heinrich Barth had an almost identical experience in 1857. I am determined to see the place. I want to climb the mountain. We decide to go there unguided. . . .

People Used to Drink a Lot

Stanton Peele notes that America's Founding Fathers were, by our standards, heavy drinkers:
It is impossible for Americans to accept the extent to which the Colonial period—including our most sacred political events—was suffused with alcohol. Protestant churches had wine with communion, the standard beverage at meals was beer or cider, and alcohol was served even at political gatherings. Booze was served at meetings of the Virginian and other state legislatures and, most of all, at the Constitutional Convention.

Indeed, we still have available the bar tab from a 1787 farewell party in Philadelphia for George Washington just days before the framers signed off on the Constitution. According to the bill preserved from the evening, the 55 attendees drank 54 bottles of Madeira, 60 bottles of claret, eight of whiskey, 22 of porter, eight of hard cider, 12 of beer, and seven bowls of alcoholic punch.

That's more than two bottles of fruit of the vine, plus a number of shots and a lot of punch and beer, for every delegate. That seems humanly impossible to modern Americans. But, you see, across the country during the Colonial era, the average American consumed many times as much beverage alcohol as contemporary Americans do. Getting drunk—but not losing control—was simply socially accepted.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

715 More Planets

The Kepler Space Telescope may be dead, but the enormous mass of data it collected is only now bearing real scientific fruit: 715 new planets orbiting 305 stars. Now there are more than 1700 known planets in the galaxy. The universe truly is full of worlds, as we have been fond of imagining. If only they weren't so far away!

Mammoths and Passenger Pigeons are Edging Back

Nathaniel Rich has written a pretty interesting piece about some of the scientists working on "de-extinction." Here he explains the actual methods being used to turn band-tailed pigeons into passenger pigeons:
Should scientists succeed in culturing a band-tailed-pigeon germ cell, they will begin to tinker with its genetic code. Biologists describe this as a “cut-and-paste job.” They will replace chunks of band-tailed-pigeon DNA with synthesized chunks of passenger-pigeon DNA, until the cell’s genome matches their working passenger-pigeon genome. They will be aided in this process by a fantastical new technology, invented by George Church, with the appropriately runic name of MAGE (Multiplex Automated Genome Engineering). MAGE is nicknamed the “evolution machine” because it can introduce the equivalent of millions of years of genetic mutations within minutes. After MAGE works its magic, scientists will have in their petri dishes living passenger-pigeon cells, or at least what they will call passenger-pigeon cells.

The biologists would next introduce these living cells into a band-tailed-pigeon embryo. No hocus-pocus is involved here: You chop off the top of a pigeon egg, inject the passenger-pigeon cells inside and cover the hole with a material that looks like Saran wrap. The genetically engineered germ cells integrate into the embryo; into its gonads, to be specific. When the chick hatches, it should look and act like a band-tailed pigeon. But it will have a secret. If it is a male, it carries passenger-pigeon sperm; if it is a female, its eggs are passenger-pigeon eggs. These creatures — band-tailed pigeons on the outside and passenger pigeons on the inside — are called “chimeras”. Chimeras would be bred with one another in an effort to produce passenger pigeons. Novak hopes to observe the birth of his first passenger-pigeon chick by 2020, though he suspects 2025 is more likely.
Various scientists complain to Rich that this is not really bringing back the passenger pigeon, just inserting certain passenger pigeon genes into the genes of other pigeons to create something that looks sort of like a passenger pigeon. It is a fair comment on the methods being used right now, but what about the methods of 50 years from now? Who wants to say that in 50 years we won't be able to extract a full mammoth genome from a frozen carcass, insert it into the egg cell of one of these pseudo-mammoths and get something that is, genetically, fully a mammoth? Or that we won't create a population of mammoths in a Siberian national park that will, over the centuries, develop their own mammoth way of life as their genes gradually reassert themselves? In a rapidly progressing science it is a bad mistake to assume that the current technology is the best we can do.

Surreal Landscapes by Jim Kazanjian

American artist born around 1982. A critic says:
By recomposing photographs (rather than shooting them), Kazanjian liberates himself from the fastidious burdens of representation, although he remains tethered enough to exploit photography’s knack for maintaining its own honesty despite a track record that repeatedly suggests otherwise. In Kazanjian’s hands, this freedom from naturalistic vision gives way to an uncanny space that is familiar but foreign—a fantasy both wild and gloomy.
More at his web site.

Hypocrisy and Reform

The Republican Party has put itself in a terrible bind over entitlement spending. On the one hand, they want to shrink the government, or at least limit its growth, and that can't be done without limiting entitlements. On the other hand, they depend entirely on the votes of people over 55, and they have positioned themselves as the defenders of older people against "death panels" and other threats. Hence they produce incoherence like these two tweets from Senator Orrin Hatch:

Via Matt Yglesias.

Sinead O'Connor, Molly Malone

I do not think it is possible to sing any better than this.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

From My Children

From Clara, the only one of my children who can write in cursive.

Ben was very proud of these weapons.

Robert made cookies and put a sign on them that said, These are special birthday cookies because this sign says so.

And Thomas made me my very own character sheet. You might have to click on this to read it, but I am a first level human wizard with an intelligence of 17:

Pirate Stairs, Ireland

These steps at Dutchman's Cove in Castletownsend, County Cork, near the southest tip of Ireland, were carved out of the rock for use by pirates and smugglers. Niches were carved into the rock nearby, apparently for signal lights.

Tiny House for the Homeless

The tiny house movement has been driven mainly by eco-hipsters looking for a simplified, low carbon footprint lifestyle. But if a 99-square-foot house is good enough for a hipster who could afford more, why not for a homeless person who has been living in a cardboard box? The house above was built by an outfit called Occupy Madison Build, which is trying to get the city to let them set up a village of these at a derelict garage.

Opportunity Village Eugene has built 18 small houses for 30 homeless people at a cost of around $80,000, which is very cheap compared to other sorts of housing.

This is an offshoot from a nationwide movement to help the homeless by, basically, giving them housing, which the second President Bush made the centerpiece of his efforts in this direction. (My liberal friends give me disbelieving looks when I tell them that W had a great program against homelessness, but he did.) What homeless people need most is stability, so giving them an apartment rent free for a year can turn their lives around in a way that no other program ever has. It costs money, but when these people are living on the street they cost us hundreds of thousands in medical bills and other expenses; one group of five hardcore homeless men studied by some academics were costing us more than $100,000 a year each just in emergency room care. So providing them an apartment and a phone costs us no more than what we are already doing, and since some people are able to get their lives back together and find jobs and so on the program saves money in the long term.

Tiny houses strikes me as an even better idea than apartments, if it can be done affordably. Hardcore homeless people tend to hate shelters because of the lack of privacy and so on, and who wants a bunch of homeless drunks in your apartment building?

Plus it's just nice to see the energy that went into the Occupy Anywhere movement being directed toward actually helping somebody.

Orchid Mantis

A Birthday Card

Some of my friends understand my sense of humor.

Privacy Watch

The ATM just wished me a happy birthday.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Snow in Washington

Too bad that winter had to come back, but at least it came back  in a lovely way. This morning it was like a Christmas card here, the air full of giant flakes. These were taken at lunch, when it was a little less snowy but still nice.

Weerapong Chaipuck

Thai photographer who likes to give his profession as "retired traveler," but he is getting a lot of attention on the art blogs these days. Amazing pictures; more here.


Did the World Wars Change Anything?

Tom Streithorst:
If we imagine a German diplomat or general falling asleep in February 1914 and waking up today to see a prosperous Germany dominating a peaceful Europe, he would be pleased but not be surprised. The fall of the multiethnic Austrian Hungarian and Ottoman empires and their replacement by nation states was also predictable. No one in 1914 would have been astonished to learn that 100 years later Russia would remain an exporter of raw materials and its politics would be authoritarian, oligarchic, and corrupt. Britain’s half-hearted relationship towards the rest of Europe would startle no one. What would shock our German general is the realization that it took two brutal world wars and the rise and fall of communism to achieve this outcome. Disastrous defeat twice over did not impede Germany’s rise. . . .

On the one hand, even deeply important historical events can be seen as accidents or flukes. On the other, over the longer term history seems tied to the profound processes of demographics, technology, culture and institutions that have little to do with the actions of mere men. To put it another way, even if Christopher Columbus had never gone to sea, cassava would nonetheless be a staple crop in Africa today and a Nahuatl speaking emperor would not be ruling Mexico. If we explore the counterfactual and assume that World War I had not broken out in 1914 and so the Russian Revolution not occurred in 1917 and Hitler not come to power in 1933, we might still end up with a world pretty close to what we have today. I’m not sure what that tells us about the value of the study of history.
I think this is only true at a certain scale. Zoom in, and little details like wars in which millions die matter rather a lot to people's lives. Even something like where the Polish-German border is drawn can completely upend the lives of thousands of people.

Zoom out even farther, and it becomes nonsense to say that "Germany" has some sort of character that endures throughout history; I doubt any generalization you might want to make about the Germans would apply to the ninth century.

Different things about life change at different speeds, so if you define an arbitrary period (1914 to 2014, say) you can always find some things that have not changed. But plenty has.

Monday, February 24, 2014

The Backwoods Boy Tastes of Civilization, and Finds it Not to His Liking

From the memoirs of Joseph Doddridge, who grew up in the frontier country of western Virginia in the 1770s and 1780s:
I well recollect the first time I ever saw a tea cup and saucer and tasted coffee. My mother died when I was about six or seven years of age. My father then sent me to Maryland with a brother of my grandfather, Mr. Alexander Wells, to school. At Colonel Brown's in the mountains, at Stony Creek Glades, I for the first time saw tame geese, and by bantering a pet gander I got a severe biting by his bill, and beating by his wings. I wondered very much that birds so large and strong should be so much tamer than the wild turkeys. At this place, however, all was right, excepting the geese. The cabin and its furniture were such as I had been accustomed to see in the backwoods, as my country was then called. At Bedford everything was changed. The tavern at which my uncle put up was a stone house, and to make the change still more complete it was plastered in the inside, both as in the walls and ceiling. On going into the dining room I was struck with astonishment at the appearance of the house. I had no idea that there was any house in the world which was not built of logs; but here I looked round the house and could see no logs, and above I could see no joists; whether such a thing had been made by the hands of man, or had grown so of itself, I could not conjecture. I had not the courage to inquire anything about it. When supper came on, “my confusion was worse confounded.” A little cup stood in a bigger one with some brownish looking stuff in it, which was neither milk, hominy nor broth: what to do with these little cups and the little spoon belonging to them I could not tell; and I was afraid to ask anything concerning the use of them.

It was in the time of the war, and the company were giving accounts of catching, whipping and hanging the tories. The word jail frequently occurred: this word I had never heard before, but I soon discovered, and was much terrified at its meaning, and supposed that we were in much danger of the fate of the tories; for l thought, as we had come from the back-woods, it was altogether likely that we must be tories too. For fear of being discovered I durst not utter a single word. I therefore watched attentively to see what the big folks would do with their little cups and spoons. I imitated them, and found the taste of the coffee nauseous beyond anything I ever had tasted in my life. I continued to drink, as the rest of the company did, with the tears streaming from my eyes, but when it was to end I was at a loss to know, as the little cups were filled immediately after being emptied. This circumstance distressed me very much, as I durst not say I had enough. Looking attentively at the grown persons, I saw one man turn his little cup bottom upwards and put his little spoon across it. I observed that after this his cup was not filled again; I followed his example, and to my great satisfaction the result as to my cup was the same.

The introduction of delft ware was considered by many of the backwoods people as a culpable innovation. It was too easily broken, and the plates of that ware dulled their scalping and clasp knives: tea ware was too small for men; they might do for women and children. Tea and coffee were only slops, which in the adage of the day "did not stick by the ribs." The idea was they were designed only for people of quality, who do not labor, or the sick. A genuine backwoodsman would have thought himself disgraced by showing a fondness for those slops. Indeed, many of them have, to this day, very little respect for them.
"Delft" here just means nice dishes, like "china." Incidentally this is a good text for explaining why "civilized" folk devoted so much attention to their tea sets and other dishes; even quite poor tenant farmers in the long-settled regions had Pearlware teacups. If you did not own such things and know how to use them, you were immediately identifiable as either a backwoods barbarian, a beggar, or a immigrant from somewhere you would not want to admit.

Signs of Spring

Taken Saturday in Richmond, Virginia, where it was 65 degrees (18C). It was a false dawn -- we are due for more cold and maybe even more snow later this week -- but it sure was nice while it lasted.

Anselm Feuerbach

Anselm Feuerbach (1829-1880) was born at Speyer on the Rhine, the son of a well-known archaeologist. He attended art schools in Düsseldorf and Munich, then embarked on a peripatetic career that took him to Antwerp, Paris, Karlsruhe, Venice, Rome, and finally Vienna, where he became a professor at the academy in 1873. Above is one of his most famous paintings, Iphigeia (1862).

Feuerbach's first major work was Storyteller at the Well, painted in Paris in 1852.

Feuerbach was a classicist, fascinated by ancient art and dismayed by the anti-classicist tendencies of his own age -- Impressionism, etc. He complained about the "contempt of technique" that such work represented. He took his inspiration from the Italian Renaissance and the classical ideas that he thought Renaissance work expressed. Above, self-portrait of 1857.

Portrait of Nanna Risi, 1860. Risi was a famous Italian beauty who was also painted by Frederic Leighton. After painting her, Feuerbach fell in lover with her; she left her husband and child to be with him, and they had a passionate affair that lasted about five years.

Risi appears in about twenty of his paintings, almost always looking away or down. What's with that? Eventually she left him for another man. Legend has it that years later Feuerbach saw Risi begging on the street and passed by without speaking to her.

Paolo and Francesca, 1864.

Medea, 1870.

Resting Nymph, 1870. That's Lucia Brunacci, Feuerbach's post-Risi model and also his lover.

Peonies, 1871.

The Symposium of Plato, 1873. I suppose that's Alcibiades entering riotously from the left. Is that Plato receiving him? I suppose Socrates must be one of the old men to the right, but he is certainly not emphasized. This gives me a sneaking suspicion that Feuerbach did not read the Symposium very carefully.

Among Feuerbach's friends was the composer Johannes Brahms; after Feuerbach died, Brahms composed Nänie, a piece for chorus and orchestra, in his memory. You can hear three minutes of it for free here.  Self Portrait of 1873.

European Norms in Ukraine

One of the big issues in Ukraine's political conflict is whether the nation should be part of the new Europe, oriented toward the west and the EU, or distance itself from the EU and move closer to Russia.

The swift fall of President Yanukovych after 82 people were killed in fighting between protesters and police says to me that in key ways Ukraine is already part of Europe. In much of the world (Syria, Iran) a willingness to use violence against protesters is part of what keeps people in power; in the west, so many deaths are a political crisis in their own right. Don't get me wrong, I am not saying that the deaths filled the whole Ukrainian establishment with so much remorse and loathing that they all spontaneously turned against Yanukovych. He had many enemies and no doubt there has been much murky dealing behind the scenes. I am saying that the fighting greatly weakened rather then strengthening him. When what brings down a leader is not lack of toughness but insufficient concern for the feelings of the people, something important has changed in the political world.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Ca' Dario

Today's Venetian Palazzo is Ca' Dario, which is cool in two ways. First, the facade,with its unique windows. Second, it has a curse. Or so people say; I pass along what I learned from a dubious web site:
The first to die was the daughter of Giovanni Dario who committed suicide; this was followed by the murder of their son Vincenzo. The sad and terrible history continues right up until recently. In the last fifty years or so the list of casualties includes the following:

 • The famous tenor Mario Del Monaco seriously injured in a car accident in 1964.
 • Count delle Lanze in the 70’s who was murdered.
 • Count delle Lanze's Croatian murderer was in turn murdered in London.
 • Christoper Lambert – the manager of The Who who committed suicide by supposedly falling down stairs.
 • Nicoletta Ferrari died in a suspicious car accident in the 80’s.
 • Raul Gardini in the late 80’s committed suicide under suspicious circumstances.
The back.

I'm not sure how old these chimneys are -- original? 17th-century? -- but old enough that most of the palazzos have lost them. Ca' Dario is one of the few with a full surviving set.

Because Ca' Dario has always been in private hands, there aren't many pictures of the inside, but based on this one that seems to be just as well. The Baroque mirror is bad enough, but that Austrian stove is such a false note.

Still, it has that amazing facade, which as you can see hasn't changed much since 1880. And a curse!