Wednesday, September 30, 2015


I know it's too early to fret, but when I have a crew in the field I obsess about the weather, and this map from the National Hurricane Center doesn't bode very well for getting test units dug next week.


Looks to be headed far away from me now. So on the one hand I won't have to deal with flooding, but on the other my life remains ordinary.

Great Falls in the Rain

We had torrential rains last night, and it was still drizzling this morning. So the Potomac was high, and the falls were roaring.

High water on the river.

Views of the mouth of Difficult Run last week and today.

Falls on Difficult Run.

Spot the Frog

Head of a Young Bacchus

Likely 1 to 50 CE. In the Getty.

Democracy in Kurdish Syria

Interesting little account by Carne Ross about the Kurdish-ruled area of northern Syria (including Kobani), a place with very little government:
After the authority of the regime of President Bashar al-Assad collapsed at the start of the Syrian revolution in 2011, the Kurds took advantage of the vacuum to set up government without a state. There is no top-down authority, even within the military. One Y.P.G. commander gently corrected me when I addressed him as “general.”

“We have no ranks,” he said — and sure enough, his uniform bore no insignia of seniority. “We are a team.”

Alongside the men of the Y.P.G., fighters from the Women’s Protection Units, or Y.P.J., also fight at this front. Behind the lines, too, women are prominent in the forums in villages and towns that are part of Rojava’s democratic experiment.

Most of Syria has broken up along ethnic lines. But in Rojava, members of the Arab and Assyrian minorities are deliberately included. . . .

Self-government in Rojava means that, as much as possible, decisions are made at the local, communal level. In one village, women and men sat separately, reflecting local tradition. Like most political meetings, it was lengthy and sometimes boring, with the usual long-winded speeches (but not all from men). But anyone could speak, without distinction, and young and old alike stood up to debate jobs, medical services, even the menace of kids riding their bikes too fast around the village.
In the modern era democratic experiments have appeared before, mainly in times of civil war, most famously the Paris Commune. In a state of crisis that forces everyone to get along or die, they can work for a while. In peace, they tend to slide back into bureaucracy. Is that inevitable? I suspect so. For one thing, one of the biggest political groups in Syria, the supporters of sharia and an Islamic state, are mostly on the other side of the temporary border. If peace is ever made those people will have to be incorporated back into the state; presumably in any sort of democratic set-up they would have to be given a political party. It would be a lot harder for every one to get alone with a bunch of ex-al Qaeda men at the table.

But the regular appearance of such self-rule makes me optimistic about our species.

The European Court of Human Rights on Sharia Law

I took some grief for supporting Ben Carson's statement that he could not support a Muslim president. Sunday he issued a clarification:
I would have problems with somebody who [is] not willing to reject sharia and all the portions of it that are talked about in the Quran....You have to make a specific declaration and decision to reject the portions of it.
Specifically, he said, any Muslim candidate would have to reject what sharia says about the rights of women and non-Muslims. Which ought to be uncontroversial among liberals; as Kevin Drum pointed out, the European Court of Human Rights rejected Sharia law on the same grounds:
The Court considers that sharia, which faithfully reflects the dogmas and divine rules laid down by religion, is stable and invariable....It is difficult to declare one’s respect for democracy and human rights while at the same time supporting a regime based on sharia, which clearly diverges from Convention values, particularly with regard to its criminal law and criminal procedure, its rules on the legal status of women and the way it intervenes in all spheres of private and public life in accordance with religious precepts. .... The Court concurs that sharia is incompatible with the fundamental principles of democracy.
What I was trying to say in my previous post is that 1) I do not accept and will never accept the confounding of religious and secular law; 2) a major school of Islamic thought, perhaps the major school, insists that sharia is at the heart of Islam, and that no state using another legal system is really Islamic; and 3) whatever the situation used to be in the past, right now sharia is much more important politically than any other system of religious law. This creates major problems for Islamic democracies, for example in Turkey. I want to keep this conundrum far away from American politics. I do understand that it is ridiculous to worry that sharia is some kind of threat to Americans, but then it is probably also farfetched to speculate about a major Muslim candidate for president.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Listening to Dickens

My working life divides pretty neatly into two parts, office and field. When I am in the office I spend 90 minutes every day on the train, and I read. When I am in the field I spend at least that much time and sometimes hours more in my car, and I listen to recorded books. Some of the best time I have had commuting in my car has come from listening to Simon Vance read Charles Dickens.

I tried to read Dickens at several points in my life, but the only one of his books that I ever really enjoyed was The Pickwick Papers. I think the only ones I finished were that and Great Expectations.

But since I started listening to Dickens I have enjoyed and finished David Copperfield, Oliver Twist and Bleak House, and just now I an nearly finished The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby. I vastly prefer hearing these books to reading them. For one thing, some of the best parts are comic conversations, and everybody knows that the right intonation and timing can make or ruin a joke. For another, Dickens liked to write in dialect, which I hate reading. But with a reader who understands the accents and can bring them to life, these passages become verbal music.

The David Copperfield and Nicholas Nickleby I listened to were recorded by Simon Vance, one of the leading audio performers in the world. He is wonderful. He has thought as hard about how the characters should sound as Dickens did about their names, and I love the voices he gives to all the main players. His Mrs. Nickleby is one of the greatest comic characters I have ever encountered in a book. He can also read a thick Yorkshire accent in a way that is completely convincing but also perfectly understandable at 70 mph. If you can find his versions, get them.

Dickens is not one of my favorite writers. His plots are silly and moralistic, and his theory of the world seems to be that everyone is either good or bad, and all our problems arise from badness. He was remarkably ignorant about many parts of his own world, especially business and politics. (What, exactly, did Scrooge do? What was made in Gradgrind's factories? What fills the Cheerybles' warehouse?) As George Orwell complained, he seems to think that the only problem with capitalism is that capitalists are not nice enough, and his books are full of rich men like the Cheerybles, or Scrooge after his transformation, who trot around giving away money and patting sweet tykes on the head. Which is nice, but as a theory of social change it leaves a lot to be desired. His ideas about love and marriage (in his books, anyway) are solidly bourgeois and Victorian. What I enjoy about Dickens is the many comic scenes and brief descriptions of people, places, and events. This is why I liked The Pickwick Papers so much; it is really just a series of amusing episodes with no overarching plot at all. (The description of the duel may be my favorite comic scene ever, in any medium.) I also enjoy being reminded that in other times and places, people spoke and acted differently. And since the plot is of no real importance, it doesn't really matter if something on the road distracts you and you miss a few lines.

As I head back down to Virginia tomorrow, I will be listening to the melodrama of Nicholas Nickleby's family, and enjoying myself very much.

The Art of Ancient Sumer

They called themselves ùĝ saĝ gíg-ga, the black-headed ones. Their semitic-speaking neighbors called their land Shumer or Sumer, and this is the name that comes down to us. They were living in southern Mesopotamic by 4100 BCE, but when they actually arrived there and where they came from are hard questions and the subject of much scholastic sound and fury. Their language has no known relatives, and their own stories about wandering the earth and being led by the gods to their later home are too much like many other such stories for cynical moderns to accept them. (Ebih II, superintendant of Mari, c. 2400 BCE)

Wherever they came from, once they settled in Sumer they embarked on a remarkable reinvention of human life. Controlling the flow of rivers with complex irrigation systems, they grew enough food to support large numbers of non farmers. They gathered together in towns that grew into small cities, surrounded by brick walls. (Bronze and silver bull, origin unknown, c. 2900 to 2600 BCE)

Their rulers invented a new status for themselves; no longer war chiefs or elders, they became kings and sat on thrones in lavish throne rooms, surrounded by officials and armed guards. (An unknown ruler c. 2400-2200 BCE, from the Louvre)

As they grew wealthier, they invested much of their surplus in religion. Over the centuries their temples grew into towns in themselves, and the platforms that held their shrines rose into little mountains. (Group of votive idols from the Tell Asmar Hoard, c. 2900-2600 BCE).

Enlil, the great god of earth.

Male and female worshipers, now in the the Louvre, c. 2100 BCE

To keep track of their wealth the temples developed ever more elaborate aids to memory -- different shapes and numbers of clay counters, sealed in clay envelopes; little pictures and numbers scratched on clay; and finally written lists with symbols that could be read aloud as words. If they were not the inventors of writing, they were among its first practitioners. (Tablet of Ur-Nammu, c. 2100 BCE).

Because they wrote, we know their names. This is the famous ruler Gudea of Lagash (c. 2150-2100 BCE), holding a vessel overflowing with water that symbolizes mastery of the rivers and canals.

One of Gudea's female relations.

Vase from Warka, c. 2200 BCE.

Among the human activities the Sumerians pioneered may have been warfare. Of course people have always fought, but our first evidence for armies who stood shoulder to shoulder and fought pitched battles comes from Sumer. (Spearmen from the Stele of Vultures, set up to celebrate a victory by Lagash over its neighbor Umma, c. 2500 BCE.)

They loved art, and filled their temples, palaces and tombs with beautiful things. (Steatite lion with inlay)

Ostrich egg cups from Ur, c. 2600 BCE.

Much of the most beautiful art from Sumer comes from the Royal Tombs of Ur, excavated by British, American and Iraqi archaeologists between 1922 and 1934. The tombs date to between 2600 and 2400 BCE. Part of their fame derives from the amazing objects found in them, but part also from the evidence that dozens of servants or slaves were sacrificed to accompany the kings and queens to the afterlife. (Base of a gold bowl from Ur)

The famous Standard of Ur, from the royal tombs.


The Ram in the Thicket.

Lion's head from a throne.

Golden vessels.

Inlay and bull's head from the famous lyre.

The lyre as reconstructed.

And my personal favorite, a copper goat's head with a divine triangle on its forehead. I love these things, so old, and so evocative of a strange and distant world.

Monday, September 28, 2015

The CIA's Torture Rebuttal

Seven senior CIA men -- George Tenet, Michael Hayden, Porter Goss, John McLaughlin, Michael Morell, Jose Rodriguez, John Rizzo, and Philip Mudd -- have produced a response to the Senate Committee's report on torture. Retired CIA officer Philip Giraldi read it, and he is not impressed:
The CIA rebuttal narrative goes something like this: the Senate report on torture was written by Democrats who were out to get the Agency and is therefore little more than a partisan hatchet job that targeted some senior officers. The book includes multiple assertions that the senators and their staffers willfully ignored things like “context,” which means that everyone was terrified that a bunch of bearded guys in caves were about to overthrow our Republic, justifying extreme measures.

And those Democrats, who ought to have known better, refused to accept that torturing people produced valuable information that saved “hundreds and even thousands of lives,” even arguing instead, perversely, that the sought-after intelligence was or could have been obtained without the physical coercion. Per the authors’ rebuttal that’s because information is like money—you can never have too much of it, an argument they label “corroboration.” Also, according to the authors, all of the CIA’s conduct was completely legal (even when someone was getting banged around before being hung from a wall and forced to listen to nonstop Michael Jackson tapes) because of authorization provided by Justice Department and White House lawyers, all of whom were indisputably men of great honor who would not lie or conform to political pressure under any circumstances. . . .

I also tried to find proof that the book’s contributors saved the claimed thousands of lives, but all I came up with were generic assurances based on “what if” terrorist plots, suggesting to the completely gullible that if the CIA had not been torturing terrible things might have happened somewhere and at some time. The rebuttal also did not address directly any of the scores of fully documented cases of incompetence and egregious brutality that are recorded in the Senate Intelligence Committee report.
These men belong in prison for war crimes, but instead they have cushy retirements and get to publish a book justifying those same crimes. Makes me ill.

Are Democracies More Stable than Dictatorships?

At the U.N. today, Obama said:
I believe in my core that repression cannot forge the social cohesion for nations to succeed. The history of the last two decades proves that in today’s world, dictatorships are unstable. The strongmen of today become the spark of revolution tomorrow.
This got me wondering; are democracies really more stable than dictatorships? It is true that some of the oldest regimes in the world (the UK, the US) are democracies. But on the other hand it seems that in much of the world democracies are routinely overthrown, leading in some countries (Thailand, Pakistan) to a revolving door of elected and military regimes. So what is the actual story?

Here is some data, from a serious-looking academic paper:

Leaving aside the question of how one assigns regimes to one category or another, you can see that democracy is no guarantee of stability. The very long-lived democratic regimes of the U.K., the U.S., Canada, and Scandinavia raise the mean duration of democratic regimes in Europe, but even within the western world they are not the norm. In the rest of the world, there is little difference between the different types of regimes, and much instability no matter the system.

I wonder what these tables would look like if we added "monarchy + aristocracy" as a regime type and extended the time line back to the classical world?

Putin vs. Obama on Syria

In accordance with this logic, we should support tyrants like Bashar al-Assad who drop barrel bombs to massacre innocent civilians because the alternative is surely worse. . . . Let’s remember how this started. Assad reacted to peaceful protest by escalating repression and killing and in turn created the environment for the current strife.
We think it’s an enormous mistake to refuse to cooperate with the Syrian government and its armed forces who are valiantly fighting terrorism face to face.

There is no other solution to the Syrian crisis than strengthening the effective government structures and rendering them help in fighting terrorism.
I do understand the reluctance to cooperate with Assad -- he is a vicious thug, plus our allies in Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Turkey and Israel all really hate him and would be furious if we gave him even verbal assistance.

But so far as I can see, he is the only alternative to the Islamic State; our wishing for a moderate government in Syria won't make it happen. I worry that the longer we indulge this fantasy of a moderate Syria, the more likely it is that Hillary or Marco Rubio will end up ordering in American troops in a doomed attempt to make a democratic phoenix rise from Syria's ashes.

Plus, while we fret about Assad, the government we created in Iraq -- who are actually threatened by the Islamic State, and can't just sit around wishing for better options-- just signed a deal to cooperate with Assad, Putin and Iran against the jihadists.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Varlam Shalamov, the Poet of Kolyma

Kolyma was the heart of Stalin's Gulag, a vast Siberian territory governed by the NKVD, populated mainly by thousands of prisoners who mined gold and cut down trees. One of its many inmates was Varlam Shalamov (1907-1982), sent there in 1937 for his opposition to Stalin's rule. Shalamov is now well-known as the author of Kolyma Tales, a thousand-page collection of short stories, many of them very short, widely considered to be the most accurate account of life in Kolyma. Kolyma Tales was not published until 1989, seven years after Shalamov's death.

Shalamov seems to have considered himself more of a poet than a memoirist. His poetry, however, is not widely read either in Russia or elsewhere. Robert Chandler recently wrote an appreciation of Shalamov's verse that you can find online here. Chandler reads the poetry side-by-side with the prison narrative, and admires the way Shalamov remained a poet and a lover of poetry throughout his 12-year imprisonment. Some of his poems, as Chandler translates them, seem to be about this act of clinging to life and hope through poetry:

From a frost-chilled
line of poetry
my anguish will drop
like a ripe berry.

Rosehip juice will dye
fine crystals of snow –
and a stranger will smile
on his lonely way.

Blending dirty sweat
with the purity of a tear,
he will carefully collect
the tinted crystals.

He sucks tart sweetness,
this purple honey,
and his dried mouth
twists in happiness.


Alive not by bread alone,
I dip a crust of sky,
in the morning chill,
in the stream flowing by.

Something like this, from a long poem titled Roncesvalles, reads completely differently when you imagine it being written by a man laboring in the Kolyma gold mines:

And it may have been Roland’s horn
that called me, like Charlemagne,
to a silent pass where the boldest
of many bold fighters lay slain.

I saw a sword lying shattered
after long combat with stone –
a witness to forgotten battles
recorded by stone alone.

And those bitter splinters of steel
have dazzled me many a time.
That tale of helpless defeat
can’t help but overwhelm.

I have held that horn to my lips
and tried more than once to blow
but I cannot call up the power
of that ballad from long ago.

There may be some skill I’m lacking –
or else I’m not bold enough
to blow in my shy anguish
on Roland’s rust-eaten horn.

For years Shalamov had nothing to write with at all, but could only compose his poems in his head and try to remember them. Later, after he became a medical orderly and acquired some very minor privileges, he could find pencil stubs and scraps of paper. It was enough:

Our tools are primitive
and simple:
a rouble's worth of paper,
a hurrying pencil.

That’s all we require
to build a castle –
high in the air –
above the world’s bustle.

Dante needed nothing else
to build the gates
of icy Hell.

The Pearly Kings and Queens

A London tradition dating back to 1875, still going strong:
The tradition began more than a century ago as a way to raise money and add a dash of cheer and cheekiness to ordinary London life. Pearly Kings and Queens have become icons of working class culture with 'royal families' now in every borough in the capital. Henry Croft, the original Pearly King and founder of the movement, was an orphan who later became a street sweeper. He got the idea for the decoration of Pearly outfits after working alongside apple sellers who festooned their suits with buttons down the sides of the legs and on the waistcoat and cap. He designed his own bright outfit with pearl buttons he found during his job as a street sweeper.

He became a local attraction and used his popularity to collect money for his old orphanage. His success meant other charities called on him to help raise funds for them, and so he asked the market traders to help him - and the Pearly Kings and Queens were born.

 More at the Daily Mail and This Spitalfields Life.