Saturday, October 31, 2015

Halloween Afternoon

Peak mums.

Carving pumpkins designed by Ben and Clara.

Robert's girlfriend Halley makes a flowered circlet for Clara's costume.

And Clara on her way. Once I left her with her friends, I headed home; this is the first time in twenty years I haven't been trick-or-treating.

A Fine Dessert

A Fine Dessert is a children's book by author Emily Jenkins and illustrator Sophie Blackall that has received several mentions as one of the best children's books of 2015. But this has embroiled the book in controversy about slavery:
The book tells the story of blackberry fool, a dish that made its way from the 18th century English countryside to the back patios of present-day San Diego. Along the way, it makes a stop through slave-era South Carolina, where a mother and daughter prepare a field-to-table dessert for their masters. . . .

The Times review paused from praising A Fine Dessert for "paying strict attention to historical accuracy" to note its "bold and somewhat unsettling choice [to] portray a smiling slave woman and her daughter in 1810 Charleston."

Some critics outside the traditional kid-lit world say that subject deserves more scrutiny. In a long discussion on Twitter, one called the illustrations "candy coated images of slavery." Commenters on the "Calling Caldecott" blog described them as "watered down," "troubled" and "horrifying." Another commenter on illustrator Sophie Blackall's blog questioned why she hadn't solicited feedback from African-American beta readers as to how they felt about the book's depiction of slavery.
I think that if your reaction to any image of a slave not looking miserable is "horror," you have a distorted view of both slavery and human nature. More to the point, if the reaction to depictions of slavery in children's books is anger and recrimination, then authors will just leave slavery out, which would be in my mind a much greater injustice.

NPR interviewed Blackall, the illustrator, and here is some of what she said:
Ultimately, the way we look at pictures is incredibly complicated. I cannot ensure my images will be read the way I intended, I can only approach each illustration with as much research, thoughtfulness, empathy and imagination as I can muster.

I feel some of the reaction has grown from the circulation of this understandably disturbing phrase 'smiling slaves,' and that this section of the book is being taken out of context of the book as a whole. . . .
Reading pictures is a subjective experience. In the illustrations the enslaved mother does not smile at all; she is somber and downcast when serving the white family, and tender and solicitous when alone with her daughter. The child smiles twice. I thought long and hard about those smiles. In the first scene, the mother and girl are picking blackberries. I imagined this as a rare moment where they were engaged in a task together, out of doors, away from the house and supervision, where the mother is talking to her child. It is an intimate moment, but the mother is not smiling. The girl has a gentle smile.
I believe oppressed people throughout history have found solace and even joy in small moments, and this was my intent. The second smile comes as the girl completes her task of whipping the cream. It's hard work, which we see in the middle frame, and the smile was intended to convey pride in completing the task. She looks up to someone, presumably her mother, as if to say, 'I did it!' To my mind, in the greater context of this section of the book, those two smiles are not gratuitous. The words 'smiling slaves' suggest multiple, happy-seeming enslaved people. That is certainly not what I intended.
Compared to Blackall's understanding approach, I think all of the critics look like narrow-minded fools.

Ewe Fetish

Fetish (magical idol) from the Ewe people of central Africa, from the Cavin Morris Gallery. One shudders to think what sort of spell this was used to cast.

Happy Halloween.

Not Taking the Candidates Seriously

David Brooks thinks Marco Rubio would be a great president because he can't possibly mean what he says:
Rubio has emphasized that new structural problems threaten the American dream: technology displacing workers, globalization suppressing wages and the decline of marriage widening inequality.

His proposals reflect this awareness. At this stage it’s probably not sensible to get too worked up about the details of any candidate’s plans. They are all wildly unaffordable. What matters is how a candidate signals priorities. Rubio talks specifically about targeting policies to boost middle- and lower-middle-class living standards.
Brooks said very similar things about Mitt Romney four years ago; like many moderate conservatives, he chose to focus on Romney's overall record and mien, ignoring all the stuff he promised in his campaign.

I think this is a terrible mistake. Back in 2000, I thought W couldn't possibly be serious about his massive tax cut plan, because it was wildly unaffordable. He was serious, the cuts were passed, and the national debt ballooned by a trillion dollars. Just ask the voters of Kansas if wildly unaffordable tax cuts have gone out of style.

Even if it is true that Rubio really is focused on the macro-economic forces battering the middle class, that doesn't mean he has any clue what to do about it. Like most Republicans he remains committed to the belief that a regime of lower taxes and less regulation will magically jumpstart growth and reduce inequality. I freely admit that Democrats also have no clear plan for helping the middle class, but it seems to me that what all the Republicans are proposing has been tried in America since 1981. The result has been an amazing surge in billionaires and little if any improvement for the rest of us. Why would anybody think that more of the same would lead to a radically different result? How would cutting taxes and reducing regulation -- and so far Rubio has talked mainly about regulation of the energy sector -- help alleviate the pressures put on wages by globalization and robots?

Ever since Reagan, Republicans have been running on  a platform of blaming the government. If changes in the economy are hurting your particular group, whoever you are, the solution is lower taxes and less regulation. It's an interesting case of the hammer/nail problem; when you are ideologically committed to hammers, every problem becomes a nail. Regardless of how many times you have banged away at the same board.

So I say, listen to what the candidates are saying. Pay attention to the details. If the campaign budget is based on a fantastic notion of what the world is like, then likely the administration will be, too. We had that under W and I don't know why we would want to do it again.

Friday, October 30, 2015

In Kentucky, You Can Shoot Down Drones Hovering Over Your House

Great news from Kentucky:
A man dubbed the Drone Slayer for shooting a miniature aircraft out of the sky has had a criminal case against him thrown out. William Meredith drew his shotgun and took out a Phantom 3 drone after spotting it above his home in Hillview, Kentucky, this summer - landing him in jail and prompting legal proceedings.

Mr Meredith was charged with criminal mischief and wanton endangerment for destroying the $900 drone in July - but this week had both of them thrown out by a judge.

Rebecca Ward, a district court judge in Bullitt County, Kentucky, said she believed claims that the drone was hovering so low over Mr Meredith's single-story home that it was violating his privacy, local news station Wave3 reported.

She threw out both charges after hearing from witnesses who said the drone was hovering low - claims disputed by its owner, David Boggs, who says the aircraft was some 200 ft above the house.
Heck, 200 feet seems awfully close to me.

The Ushtogaysky Square

One of the many ancient earthworks or "geoglyphs" discovered in Kazakhstan, mainly by amateurs using Google Earth.

Georgetown in the Fall

It has been a glorious week in Washington and I have tried to take a walk every day. Today was the most beautiful yet, and as it happens I spent the whole day in Georgetown, drilling holes along the waterfront. The sky was brilliant blue, the trees beyond description.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

The Mysterious Ziwiye Hoard

Around 1950, objects started to show up on the antiquities market in Iran that were said to come from a treasure hoard discovered by peasants. The stories said that the treasure was found at a mound near the village of Ziwiye in northwestern Iran. Some stories added the detail that the hoard was in a metal chest found eroding out of the side of the mound. But no outsider ever saw the chest or the exact site of the find.

The British Museum describes the discovery like this:
These gold fragments probably come from Ziwiyeh in north-west Iran. This site is a large mountain top citadel fortified by a massive wall. The citadel is approached by a monumental staircase cut out of the rock which winds around the mountain. The site attracted clandestine excavators and many objects, now scattered in museums around the world, are alleged to have come from here. The looting of the site occurred in about 1946, when local shepherd boys are supposed to have discovered some gold objects. These drew the attention of local villagers and then of antiquities dealers to the site.
(Rhyton in the form of a Ram's head, now in Teheran.)

Many of the first objects to show up had been hacked apart, as if a bunch of ignorant peasants had divided them in the simplest available way. This gold plaque in the Scythian style of the 7th century BCE is one of them.

The problem with considering all the objects said to come from Ziwiye as a single hoard is that they are in three distinctly different styles: Scythian, Persian, and Mesopotamian. This gold plaque, now in the Met, is obviously Assyrian or Babylonian. This combination of sources is not impossible. Some archaeologists think this was the treasure of a Median prince -- the Medes were related to the Persians but not identical -- who had diplomatic relations with the Persian heartland, Assyria, and the steppes. But given the lack of context for all of these finds, it is impossible to reach any such conclusion.

Ceramic vessel in the Met.

I suspect that there was a treasure hoard from Ziwiyeh -- that seems the simplest way to get the story started -- but that later on all sorts of objects were assigned that mysterious origin to raise their value. Some of them may be fake.

Gold belt.

Gold vase with lions.

The Met has dozens of alleged Ziwiye objects like this fragment of an ivory panel, perhaps from a chest. Very Assyrian.

I always love these stories of fabulous artifacts that appear mysteriously on the marketplace, leaving archaeologists to track their origin as best they can. Wherever they came from, this is an amazing array of wonders from a fascinating time and place, as the ancient world of Babylon and Syria lingered on into the era of the classical Persian and Scythian kingdoms.

The Broomway

Robert MacFarlane:
If you consult a large-scale map of the Essex coastline between the River Crouch and the River Thames, you will see a footpath -- its route marked with a stitch-line of crosses and dashes -- leaving the land at a place called Wakering Stairs and then heading due east, straight out to sea. Several hundred yards offshore, it curls northeast and runs in this direction for around three miles, still offshore, before cutting back to make landfall at Fisherman's Head, the uppermost tip of a large, low-lying and little-known marshy island called Foulness.

This is the Broomway, allegedly the deadliest path in Britain and certainly the unearthliest path I have ever walked. The Broomway is thought to have killed more than a hundred people over the centuries; it seems likely that there were other victims whose fates went unrecorded. Sixty-six of its dead are buried in the little Foulness churchyard; the bodies of the other known dead were not recovered. If the Broomway hadn't existed, Wilkie Collins might have had to invent it. Edwardian newspapers, alert to its reputation, rechristened it the Doomway. Even the Ordnance Survey map registers, in its sober fashion, the gothic atmosphere of the path. Printed in large pink lettering on the 1:25,000 map of that stretch of coast is the following message: 
Public Rights of Way across Maplin Sands can be dangerous. Seek local guidance.
When the Broomway was established, possibly in the Middle Ages and certainly by the eighteenth century, it was the only way to reach Foulness, which is why the route was discovered and marked with the brooms that gave its name. More:
After 300 yards the causeway ended for real, dipping beneath the sand like a river passing underground. Further out, a shallow sheen of water lay on top of he sand, stretching away. The diffused light made depth-perception impossible, so that it seemed as if we were simply going to walk onwards into ocean. We stopped at the end of the causeway, looking out across the pathless future. . . .

We stepped off the causeway. The water was warm on the skin, puddling to ankle depth. Underfoot I could feel the brain-like corrugations of the hard sand, so firmly packed that there was no give under the pressure of my step. Beyond us extended the sheer mirror-plane of the water, disrupted only here and there by shallow humps of sand and green slews of weed. I thought of the lake of mercury that allegedly surrounds the grave of the First Emperor of China.
From The Old Ways: a Journey on Foot (2012), which is actually about a lot of separate journeys, at least one by boat, but so far I have enjoyed it very much.

Vote for New Zealand's New Flag

The government of New Zealand wants to replace its Union Jack-containing colonial flag; out of 5,000 entries reviewed by a commission, these are the finalists. Personally I like #3, a Maori design element called a Koru. The designer said:
I wanted to represent not just this generation, but my children’s generation and their children’s generation. In Māori kōwhaiwhai patterns, the koru is based on a fern frond unfurling and represents new life, growth and peace. For these reasons the koru has crossed cultures and become part of New Zealand’s visual language.
If nothing else I've learned today that in New Zealand a lot of people are obsessed with ferns. But note that first there has to be a referendum on whether to change the flag at all, and polls are showing 60 percent opposed. Probably the argument that will do most to persuade New Zealanders to change flags is that the current one looks so much Australia's that nobody else can tell them apart.

China Ends the One Child Policy

China's "one child" policy never applied to half the country, and even in the cities it has been springing leaks in every direction for twenty years. Now it is officially ended, and all urban couples are allowed two children. The policy was successful in reducing China's birth rate, which fell faster than in other rapidly developing Asian countries; if China's rate had tracked economic development like Korea's did, there would be tens of millions more Chinese people. On the other hand, it was a repressive measure that blighted many lives.

But now, of course, birth rates are plummeting in all developed countries, and China is more likely to face a shortage of working-age people than a surplus. Demographers have probably been telling the government to repeal the law for at least a decade. And now they have.

Something like this makes one wonder about how much government matters. Since 1945 people in Japan, Korea, and China have all gone through similar rapid transitions from high birth rate rural societies to low birth rate urban ones; Europe and North America experienced the same "demographic transition" over a longer time frame. Government policy has influenced these changes at the margins, but on the whole they have happened everywhere regardless of what the government did. Some of the facts of modern life -- urbanization, bureaucracy, struggles over pollution, changes in transportation and mobility, etc. -- have been pretty much worldwide. In the face of such enormous forces, how much do our votes matter?

The Ceremonial Sword of Palermo

Made before 1220, except for the pommel, which is later. Now in Vienna.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Large amounts of Money

Apple has more than $205 billion in cash. Or rather in bank accounts, since there aren't that many actual bills in the world. They seem to have no plans to do anything with it.

India has an ambitious plan to reduce coal use by installing solar panels on rooftops all over the country; they are aiming for a fivefold increase in solar power generation by 2020. They are looking for $100 billion to finance the effort.

Which sounds like a lot of money until you realize that Apple could do it and still have $105 billion in the bank.

Le Mans Cathedral

Today's cathedral is at Le Mans in France, because I saw the picture above online and started wondering why the historic architecture files in my brain didn't seem to have any entry for Le Mans.

The cathedral is a hybrid, with a Romanesque nave and a Gothic choir.

The nave was built in 1150 to 1180; construction was partially funded by Henry II of England.

Henry's father, Geoffrey Plantaganet, Count of Anjou, is buried here; this is the effigy on his tomb.

When the nave was built, it was attached to an 11th century choir. But no sooner was the nave paid for than the diocese set its sights on enlarging and modernizing the choir. This took a while because it required moving a section of the city's walls. Construction of the choir began in 1217 and was completed in 1251. The choir is a Gothic masterpiece, but the effect is marred a bit because it is so much larger in scale than the nave.

Views of the interior.

The glory of the cathedral is the stained glass; most of the thirteenth-century windows from the choir survive.

The Cathedral is dedicated to Saint Julian of Le Mans, the town's first bishop. According to his legend, he was consecrated at Rome in the mid 3rd century and sent to preach to the Cenomani tribe. When he arrived he found they were suffering from a drought and their wells had run dry. Julian thrust his staff into the ground and prayed, an a spring gushed forth, ensuring a favorable reception for his preaching. The miracle is shown on this panel of stained glass from the cathedral. This dates originally to the twelfth century, making it one of the oldest surviving works of stained glass, but it was extensively restored in the nineteenth century.

This window gives you a better idea of what the twelfth century glass looked like before the neogothicists got at it. The top and bottom are modern installations, created from fragments of other, damaged windows, but the two middle panels have been only minimally restored.

Prehistoric menhir installed next to the church in 1778.