Monday, February 29, 2016

I Profess

I profess the uncertain
with gratitude.

–Jane Hirshfield

Coptic Storage Jar

Paint on unglazed earthenware, 7th century CE. In the Met.

Teams and Societies

Moderately interesting article in the Times Magazine about Google's quest to create better work teams. In software, at least, it has been shown that teams work better than individuals:
In Silicon Valley, software engineers are encouraged to work together, in part because studies show that groups tend to innovate faster, see mistakes more quickly and find better solutions to problems. Studies also show that people working in teams tend to achieve better results and report higher job satisfaction. In a 2015 study, executives said that profitability increases when workers are persuaded to collaborate more. Within companies and conglomerates, as well as in government agencies and schools, teams are now the fundamental unit of organization. If a company wants to outstrip its competitors, it needs to influence not only how people work but also how they work together.
But teams vary as much from each other as individuals, if not more; some work great, others squabble and accomplish nothing. So Google set out to find out what made some teams better. They formed something called Project Aristotle to examine all the existing literature on team effectiveness and also to study Google's own teams.
No matter how researchers arranged the data, though, it was almost impossible to find patterns — or any evidence that the composition of a team made any difference. ‘‘We looked at 180 teams from all over the company,’’ Dubey said. ‘‘We had lots of data, but there was nothing showing that a mix of specific personality types or skills or backgrounds made any difference. The ‘who’ part of the equation didn’t seem to matter.’’

Some groups that were ranked among Google’s most effective teams, for instance, were composed of friends who socialized outside work. Others were made up of people who were basically strangers away from the conference room. Some groups sought strong managers. Others preferred a less hierarchical structure. Most confounding of all, two teams might have nearly identical makeups, with overlapping memberships, but radically different levels of effectiveness. ‘‘At Google, we’re good at finding patterns,’’ Dubey said. ‘‘There weren’t strong patterns here.’’
I think this is an important if utterly unsurprising finding. What makes for a good group is extremely complicated and in some ways mysterious.

I am not much interested in groups myself, but I am very interested in societies, and it struck me that if social scientists can't figure out the dynamics of six person teams, what hope do we have of understanding what makes a city or a nation tick?

The one concrete thing that the Google researchers ended up with was that the unwritten rules or "norms" that govern group behavior are key. This is certainly the case for societies; if societies work at all it is because they have moral and behavioral norms that almost everyone accepts, and the difference between smoothly functioning and troubled societies (Denmark vs. Greece, say) has a lot to do with differing norms. Once norms are in place, of course, it is very, very difficult to change them. At Google,  the most effective teams have norms that encourage input from everyone. The Times writer makes much of this, but I doubt it has very wide applicability; after all it is very hard to get a job at Google, and the atmosphere is on the whole positive, so the average team is stocked with smart, highly motivated people. I doubt that is the case in, say, the Detroit Public Schools, or thousands of other troubled work places.

The main thing I have learned from my immersion is business is that nobody really knows how to run a company. Since there is no real knowledge about management, we get an endless rotation of fads and buzzwords that help not at all and are often an annoying distraction. Again, if we can't figure out how to run a company with a thousand employees, is it any wonder we have so much trouble running a nation of 300 million?

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Agne Gintalaite: Beauty Remains

Agne Gintalaite is a Lithuanian photographer born in 1977. Gintalaite has mostly been supporting herself as a fashion and "lifestyle" photographer for Lithuanian magazines; should you be curious, you can see some of this work at her Tumblr. She hit the big time last year with these amazing photographs of Soviet era garage doors on the outskirts of Vilnius.

She photographed about 200 of them, and then arranged them into collages.

Individually, the doors aren't much. But it was an act of genius to use them as elements in these semi-abstract compositions.

Hitler vs. Stalin

Timothy Snyder explores the perennial question, who was the worst dictator?
In the second half of the twentieth century, Americans were taught to see both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union as the greatest of evils. Hitler was worse, because his regime propagated the unprecedented horror of the Holocaust, the attempt to eradicate an entire people on racial grounds. Yet Stalin was also worse, because his regime killed far, far more people—tens of millions, it was often claimed—in the endless wastes of the Gulag. For decades, and even today, this confidence about the difference between the two regimes—quality versus quantity—has set the ground rules for the politics of memory. Even historians of the Holocaust generally take for granted that Stalin killed more people than Hitler, thus placing themselves under greater pressure to stress the special character of the Holocaust, since this is what made the Nazi regime worse than the Stalinist one.

Discussion of numbers can blunt our sense of the horrific personal character of each killing and the irreducible tragedy of each death. As anyone who has lost a loved one knows, the difference between zero and one is an infinity. Though we have a harder time grasping this, the same is true for the difference between, say, 780,862 and 780,863—which happens to be the best estimate of the number of people murdered at Treblinka. Large numbers matter because they are an accumulation of small numbers: that is, precious individual lives. Today, after two decades of access to Eastern European archives, and thanks to the work of German, Russian, Israeli, and other scholars, we can resolve the question of numbers. The total number of noncombatants killed by the Germans—about 11 million—is roughly what we had thought. The total number of civilians killed by the Soviets, however, is considerably less than we had believed. We know now that the Germans killed more people than the Soviets did. That said, the issue of quality is more complex than was once thought. Mass murder in the Soviet Union sometimes involved motivations, especially national and ethnic ones, that can be disconcertingly close to Nazi motivations.
Snyder settles on 6 million for the total number of non-combatants murdered or intentionally starved by Stalin's regime.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Hillary and Black Voters

Hillary got a higher percentage of black voters (87%) in the South Carolina primary than Obama did in 2008 (79%).

Clinton Looks Forward to the Big Race

In her South Carolina victory speech, Hillary said the necessary things about the upcoming primaries – not taking anything for granted, competing for every vote. But she is clearly setting herself up for a confrontation with Trump:
We don’t need to make America great again. America has never stopped being great. But we do need to make America whole again. Instead of building walls, we need to be tearing down barriers. . . . We need more love and kindness in our hearts and more respect for each other, even when we disagree. I know it sometimes seems a little odd for someone running for President these days, in this time, to say we need more love and kindness in America. But I'm telling you from the bottom of my heart, we do. We do. We have so much to look forward to. There is no doubt in my mind that America's best years can be ahead of us. We have got to believe that. We've got to work for that. We have to stand with each other. We have to hold each other up. Lift each other up. Move together into the future that we will make.
The "American never stopped being great" line aligns her with Obama, whose last few big speeches have all expressed a belief that this America – more multicultural, less racist, less sexist – is the best America ever.

The Clothes of the Copper Men

The ancient copper mines of Timna in Israel were in a scantly populated desert. Yet at times they were quite intensely worked, by so many men that in all likelihood water had to be brought in for them on the backs of donkeys. An expensive operation, to be sure, but the mines were still valuable enough that the Israelites and the Edomites fought over them for generations. Recent archaeology there has turned up interesting evidence about the men who lived in barracks and dug the copper from the ground.

Tunnel in the ancient mines.

In the richer burials, fragments of cloth have been found, made of finely spun wool. The weaving was simple, but the wool came in different shades of whitish to brownish to orangish, and some of it was dyed red or blue, and the weavers used both the natural and artificial colors to make patterns in the cloth. So now we can imagine the overseers of these mines, clad in wool tunics decorated with bands of red and blue.

The Yosemite Firefall

Every year at Yosemite around this time, when the conditions are just right, the setting sun turns Horsetail Falls into what is called the Firefall. This seems to have been a great year for Firefall viewing, since there are hundreds of pictures coming up online.

For What Binds Us

There are names for what binds us:
strong forces, weak forces.
Look around, you can see them:
the skin that forms in a half-empty cup,
nails rusting into the places they join,
joints dovetailed on their own weight.
The way things stay so solidly
wherever they've been set down—
and gravity, scientists say, is weak.

And see how the flesh grows back
across a wound, with a great vehemence,
more strong
than the simple, untested surface before.
There's a name for it on horses,
when it comes back darker and raised: proud flesh,

as all flesh,
is proud of its wounds, wears them
as honors given out after battle,
small triumphs pinned to the chest—

And when two people have loved each other
see how it is like a
scar between their bodies,
stronger, darker, and proud;
how the black cord makes of them a single fabric
that nothing can tear or mend.

—Jane Hirshfield

Friday, February 26, 2016

Politics and Anti-Politics

Reaching for a definition of politics, David Brooks settles on this one from Bernard Crick:
Politics is a way of ruling divided societies without undue violence.
Much reminiscent of my favorite definition of justice, from Learned Hand:
the tolerable accommodation of the conflicting interests of society.
Democracy is and always has been the art of compromise. And yet within all democratic societies there are people with no interest in compromise, people who think that the other side is evil and justice demands the complete victory of their own cause. Uncompromisable conflicts are very dangerous to democracies; the one over slavery nearly destroyed America and left at least 600,000 dead.

Brooks is very worried that opposition to compromise, which he calls "antipolitics," is on the rise in America. Groups like the Tea Party, he writes are not political but antipolitical:
Ultimately, they don’t recognize other people. They suffer from a form of political narcissism, in which they don’t accept the legitimacy of other interests and opinions. They don’t recognize restraints. They want total victories for themselves and their doctrine.

This antipolitics tendency has had a wretched effect on our democracy. It has led to a series of overlapping downward spirals:

The antipolitics people elect legislators who have no political skills or experience. That incompetence leads to dysfunctional government, which leads to more disgust with government, which leads to a demand for even more outsiders.

The antipolitics people don’t accept that politics is a limited activity. They make soaring promises and raise ridiculous expectations. When those expectations are not met, voters grow cynical and, disgusted, turn even further in the direction of antipolitics.

The antipolitics people refuse compromise and so block the legislative process. The absence of accomplishment destroys public trust. The decline in trust makes deal-making harder.
And Donald Trump, says Brooks, is antipolitics personified:
People say that Trump is an unconventional candidate and that he represents a break from politics as usual. That’s not true. Trump is the culmination of the trends we have been seeing for the last 30 years: the desire for outsiders; the bashing style of rhetoric that makes conversation impossible; the decline of coherent political parties; the declining importance of policy; the tendency to fight cultural battles and identity wars through political means.
The hardening of attitudes in American politics is indeed rather mysterious. First of all, it is not the desire of the majority; in 2012 majorities of both Republican and Democratic voters told pollsters that they wanted politicians to work together to find solutions to our problems. I think partisan gridlock is partly the result of our political system. The combination of geographic districts with a society strongly divided along sectional lines seems to multiply our partisan differences, since most Congressmen represent either deep blue cities or deep red exurbs. Plus, most Americans don't care enough to vote in primaries, leaving them to hard-core partisans.

There is also a strange, apocalyptic mood in the country. Last week I picked up a science fiction novel by a young writer that had gotten some good attention, and discovered that it was yet another post-apocalypse story about the collapse of civilization. Why has popular culture turned so dark? Some people think it is a reflection of bad economic times, but the 1930s gave us a huge explosion of happy stories and silly musicals. Against this cultural background the claims of politicians like Ted Cruz that America is "sliding over the cliff" seem almost normal. The sense of crisis fuels hard-line politics; if you think we are on the edge of disaster, you have little interest in compromise with the forces of ruin.

Given all this, I find the rise of Trump rather encouraging. Instead of an actual fascist with a private army of black shirts, we have a reality television star who likes to insult people via twitter. Trump talks tough, but I think he has less interest in political extremism than Cruz, Rubio or Sanders. I think a wall along the whole Mexican border is a little silly, but it would hardly be a grave threat to our democracy. If the result of all our political gridlock and angst is the Trump campaign, I am left feeling that things could be a whole lot worse.

Daniel Agdag's Crazy Machines

Australian artist Daniel Agdag makes fantastically intricate sculptures out of cardboard and paper. Lately he has been focusing on surrealistic flying machines. Above, The Pilot, 2015.


The Northerly, 2015.

The Southerly, 2015.

The Editor, 2015. Below, two I found posted without names. More at This is Colossal and Agdag's web site.

Tough Talk in Louisiana

Bobby Jindal was governor of Louisiana for a while, but he wasn't much interested in the job. He spent his whole time in office running for president, in pursuit of which he pushed deep tax cuts and offered a long list of special tax break to corporations who would set up or expand operations in the state. The result is a huge budget shortfall in a state that already had a pretty small government. Among the people unhappy about the situation is the sheriff of suburban New Orleans:
Jefferson Parish Sheriff Newell Normand on Tuesday (Feb. 23) said Bobby Jindal was an "idiot" that he regrets endorsing and admonished fellow Louisiana Republicans for resisting proposed tax increases aimed at closing the enormous budget shortfall left behind by the former governor.

Normand, the most popular elected official in conservative Jefferson Parish, lamented the state's budget crisis and its potential effects on law enforcement during a speech at the Metropolitan Crime Commission's annual awards luncheon.

"The state budget, what a mess," Normand said. "Bobby Jindal was a better cult leader than Jim Jones. We drank the elixir for eight years. We remained in a conscious state. We walked to the edge of the cliff and we jumped off and he watched us.

"And guess what? Unlike Jim Jones, he did not swallow the poison. What a shame."

Normand accused Jindal of "trying to rewrite history" since leaving office, attempting to deflect responsibility for budget gaps estimated at $943 million between now and the June 30 end of the fiscal year. The state is also estimated to face a $2 billion shortfall in the 2016-17 budget year.
Remember that Normand is the elected sheriff of one of the most conservative counties in America:
"We're facing enough challenges today," Normand said. "We do not need to face the stupidity of our leadership as it relates to how we're going to balance this budget, and talking about silly issues, because we're worried about what Grover Norquist thinks. To hell with Grover Norquist. I don't care about Grover Norquist. Give me a break."

Norquist, the founder and president of Americans for Tax Reform, is the leading promoter of anti-tax pledges signed by many Republican politicians nationwide.

"We have to look at ourselves critically as a party, and figure out where we are and what we're going to be about," Normand said Tuesday. "The fact that the Republican leadership in this state is now trying to blame Gov. John Bel Edwards, who's only been in office a little over 40 days, is absolutely incredulous to me.

"C'mon folks, we have to wake up. Let us be honest about what we're doing. Propose a solution. Let's work together and collaboratively toward an outcome that's going to make sense for us as a society."
If the sheriff of Jefferson Parish can call for tax hikes, maybe all is not lost in America.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Potomac River Terraces

Lidar map of some of the terraces I have been exploring along the Potomac River in Washington. You can see some of the complex flood chutes, terrace remnants and so on I mentioned. The flat blue is the river. The bands of color toward the bottom are the bluffs; the terrace is in aqua, with shading to indicate relief. Detail below.

This dataset actually comes from FEMA, so it is probably part of their plan to seize control of the country on Obama's "last" day in office. But meanwhile it can serve my archaeological purposes.

Daniel Arsham

Two views of an exhibit at SCAD in Savannah. More at This is Colossal.

A Survey of German Opinion in 1939

I'm reading a biography of Geoffrey Pyke (1893-1948), a half mad Englishman who, among other things, escaped from a German prison camp in 1916, made and then lost a fortune speculating in metals futures, founded a "scientific" kindergarten where the Bloomsbury set sent their children in the 1920s, organized volunteer mechanics to repair abandoned trucks and cars to serve as ambulances in the Spanish Civil War, tried to interest Churchill in a scheme to tie the Nazis down in Norway with a troop of saboteurs mounted on snowmobiles, developed a system for de-icing ships in winter storms, and convinced MI-5 that he was a senior Soviet agent, although they never proved it.

In the 1930s Pyke got interested in opinion polling and was one of the founders of Mass Observation. As World War II approached, Pyke convinced himself that if he could find out and publicize the actual opinions of Germans about Hitler and his plans for war, he could somehow either shame Hitler out of attacking Poland or even drive him out of power. In the summer of 1939 he recruited ten volunteers who spoke good German and sent them all to Germany to ask people a fixed list of ten questions. The idea was to engage people in conversation and then ask the questions as casually as possible. Pyke encouraged the volunteers to perform as mad Englishmen (one took his golf clubs), acting too silly and British to be taken for spies. Since Hitler at that point was still hoping that Britain would not go to war over Poland, these crazy British tourists were monitored by the Gestapo but tolerated.

And what did they find out?
According to their survey, most Germans did not think Hitler's desire for territorial conquest justified war. Nor did they think war was imminent. 'Though they admitted the political situation was dangerous,' explained Raleigh, 'they seemed to have perfect faith in the fact that Hitler didn't want war and could obtain what he wanted without precipitating one.' Equally surprising, and key, was the high proportion of those interviewed who were either fed up with the government or professed no opinion. Ambivalence about the Nazi regime – given its nature and the effort required to be anything other than supportive – suggested that these subjects were closer to being anti-Nazi in sentiment than pro-Nazi. A surprising number of people wanted a war just to see Germany lose, as this would mean the end of Nazi rule. Others opened up about their dislike of anti-Semitic discrimination, one man confiding in Smith that he had recently been playing the Violin Concerto in E Minor by Mendelssohn, a banned Jewish composer. 'If that's bad music,' he had said, 'then it's bad government.' . . .
Using a modified version of the Gallup technique, based on 232 completed conversations, they estimated that just 16 percent of the German population felt that territorial conquest justified war. If there was a conflict, just over a third of those interviewed wanted Hitler and Germany to lose. Only 19 percent imagined German was capable of victory if facing an alliance of Britain, France, Russia, and Poland, while more than half the German population felt the Nazi Party was unjust in its treatment of society, failing to treat rich and poor alike. Sixty percent of those Germans they spoke to disapproved of the government's attitude towards Jews.
Of course this was just a few hundred people, and the sample could have been biased since by definition they were all willing to talk to Englishmen about politics. That did not exclude Nazis, since they did talk to a few quite rabid Hitlerites, but you can certainly see how this might have tilted the findings. But these findings fit with other facts, such as that the Nazis never actually won an election. If Hitler ever had the real support of a majority of Germans, it was only for a brief period in 1940-41, and personally I doubt that.

But it didn't matter. Modern history shows that a highly motivated, highly organized minority can take over great states and mold them to its will, creating situations in which personal opinion matters not at all.

Quotations are from Henry Hemming, The Ingenious Mr. Pyke (2015), pp. 200, 214.

Trump on Campus

The news from Rutgers:
Surely, there's no place less likely to become the site of an impromptu Trump rally than a college campus. And yet, at a recent Rutgers University event, throngs of students erupted into cheers of "Trump! Trump! Trump!"

Would many of them cast a vote for Trump in a GOP primary? Probably not. For these students, Trump is not the leader of a political movement, but rather, a countercultural icon. To chant his name is to strike a blow against the ruling class on campus—the czars of political correctness—who are every bit as imperious and loathsome to them as the D.C.-GOP establishment is to the working class folks who see Trump as their champion.

That might not be much comfort for the numerous people on the right and left—myself and most of my colleagues included—who consider Trump a narcissistic, fearmongering authoritarian peddling a destructive, fascistic policy agenda. But what if his supporters aren't actually applauding his agenda: what if they're merely applauding the audaciousness of his performance?
The focal point of this little tempest at Rutgers was an appearance by British writer and Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos, whose speeches are a sort of performance art aimed at violating every liberal norm and offending as many groups as possible. Yiannopoulos is gay, but he takes particular delight in mocking gay men; he calls this year's American swing his "Dangerous Faggot Tour."

My sons are into similar comedians; they find nothing funnier than somebody who dares to insult everyone and violate as many taboos as possible. I find my eldest son particularly interesting in this regard, since he doesn't seem to have a prejudiced bone in his body. Once when his mother questioned some complaint he made about trans people, he sort of sighed and said, "Mom, I have a close trans friend," which is true. But he absolutely cannot stand to be told that there are things he shouldn't say or jokes he shouldn't tell; this is quite literally the only thing that I have ever seen him get really angry about.

I think that the answer to "for whom does Trump speak?" is not people who are economic victims; Trump draws support from all economic categories. Trump speaks for people who feel silenced by the dominant discourse and unable to say what they think about Muslims, blacks, Mexicans, gays, and preachy liberals. I don't think they are close to a majority of Americans, but they are clearly a large minority.

Obviously this has something to do with racism and sexism, but I don't think that is the whole story. It also represents what I can only call two different personality types, or maybe two different ideas about society. We saw in the college protests this year many young people demanding that the world be made safer for them, especially safer from offensive jokes and ethnic slurs. Then there are people like my sons, who feel that freedom means little if it doesn't mean the freedom to laugh at things you find funny and especially to puncture whatever pieties are held up for you by the social powers.

In our post-modern world, some of our brightest political flash points don't concern the distribution of resources, but what it is permissible to say.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Filippo Lippi, Coronation of the Virgin

Fresco in Spoleto Cathedral, Painted in 1467-1469. Details below.

The New World Music is Heavy Metal

World culture watch:
Today’s “world music” isn’t Peruvian pan flutes or African talking drums. It’s loud guitars, growling vocals and ultrafast “blast” beats. Heavy metal has become the unlikely soundtrack of globalization.

Indonesia is a metal hotbed: Its president, Joko Widodo, wears Metallica and Napalm Death T-shirts. Metal scenes flourish in Latin America, Eastern Europe, Russia and Scandinavia. China got an early seeding of metal 25 years ago when U.S. record companies dumped unsold CDs there. In a male-dominated genre, Russian band Arkona is fronted by singer Maria Arkhipova. Language barriers are less significant in the metal world, which is all about the sound, an often dissonant drone not grounded in any one musical tradition.

The explosion of local bands around the world tends to track rising living standards and Internet use. Making loud music is expensive: You need electric guitars, amplifiers, speakers, music venues and more leisure time. “When economic development happens, metal scenes appear. They’re like mushrooms after the rain,” says Roy Doron, an African history professor at Winston-Salem State University.
A few months ago someone sent me a link to photo essay on heavy metal fans in Nigeria, which gave me a strange sense of seeing the world through distorting lenses.

Picture at the top is an Indian band called Demonic Resurrection.

A Roman Tavern in Gaul

Archaeological news from southern France:
At first the researchers thought they’d uncovered a bakery. In a room near a key intersection in Lattara, excavations over the last five years revealed the remains of three indoor gristmills and a trio of ovens, each three to four feet across, commonly used to bake flatbread. A home cook had no need for equipment on such an industrial scale.

In another room just across a courtyard, earthen benches lined the walls and a charcoal-burning hearth occupied the middle of the floor. Those features suggested a sit-down joint rather than a takeout counter.

The menu must’ve been extensive. Fish bones littered the kitchen, and bones from sheep and cattle were found in the courtyard. The floors were scattered with shards of fancy drinking bowls imported from Italy, as well as debris from large platters and bowls.
Interesting to note how this operation was set up, with food served in a separate room from the kitchen, where people sat on benches against three walls. Below the kitchen is a street, and above it is a courtyard with a prominent drain.

View of the kitchen, with three ovens and what the excavators take to be three stone platforms that supported rotary querns.

Delegate Math

According to Chris Cillizza of the Post, a "Republican insider" handed him a back-of-the envelope calculation laying out the Republican delegate math:
Something cataclysmic is going to have to happen — and soon — to keep Trump from being over or very close to the 1,237 delegates he needs to be the party's nominee when these primaries end on June 7.

Trump and the Norms He Violates

From a commenter on Conor Friedersdorf's blog:
Our norms of civic decency were evolved for a reason. Watching Trump violate those norms is a really good reminder of why we evolved those norms in the first place.

On the other hand, those norms have been profoundly subverted and corrupted for a while now, and used as often as mere cover for all manner of awfulness.

An an example, we’re all very accustomed to politicians “lying” the way that lawyers lie – which is to say, shading, obscuring, and hiding the truth, suggesting, and implying, relying heavily on euphemism and omission, walking right up to the line without ever quite crossing. That is the refined, college-educated way to lie. When Trump just lies brazenly, and then shrugs indifferently when called on it, it’s a really tacky and unfortunate way to be. But it also kind of throws into relief that what he’s doing isn’t really very far off from the not-quite-lying-but-actually-totally-lying that is handled constantly with more refined rhetoric.

One gets the sense from our current political class that, for example, torture and unconstrained drone strike assassination isn’t actually morally wrong as long as you adopt a furrowed brow and a constipated facial expression, sigh loudly, and say in your most patronizing voice, “This hurts me than it hurts you. I’m sorry I have to do this.” It’s adopting the “serious” tone that matters, not the actual content of your actions.

And it is profoundly ugly when Trump just gleefully says, more or less, I love torture and we’re going to be doing a lot of it. BUT, on the other hand, it’s not so clear at all that his stance on those things would really be any more assertive than people who adopt more pleasant, civil, “serious” rhetoric on these topics. And so again his sin becomes his rudeness and general obnoxiousness, his low classness, not the content of what he claims he’s going to do.

Which is a long-winded way of saying, I think Trump can exist because our norms have become hollowed shells of what they purport to be. Our norms have been gamed. It feels very much like we’ve gotten to a point where people in many of our institutions, in positions of authority, follow the letter of the law about civic decency, but have almost entirely abandoned the spirit of the law. Trump just takes the last little leap and ditches the letter of the law too.
In many ways Trump is the candidate America deserves.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Oregon's Minimum Wage Bill

Bourree Lam at the Atlantic:
Last week, Oregon’s house of representatives passed a bill that would make the state’s minimum wage one of the highest in the country. While the bill still needs the approval of Oregon Governor Kate Brown for the bill to pass, Brown has already said that she intends to sign the bill.

But what’s most noteworthy about the Oregon bill isn’t how high the minimum wage will be. It’s that different minimum wages will go into effect in different parts of the state, roughly based on their population density. In and around Portland, the state’s biggest city, the increase will be the largest: The minimum wage will rise there to $14.75 in 2022. Outside of Portland, the minimum hourly wage in mid-sized counties will go up to $13.50 over the next six years, and more rural areas will see theirs increase to $12.50.
This seems like a plausible approach to me. If the goal is to give all workers a living wage, then maybe that wage should be tied to what it actually costs to live in different parts of the country.


From a Times Op-Ed on School integration:
Diverse classrooms reduce racial bias and promote complex reasoning, problem solving and creativity for all students.
From a Vox article on where Donald Trump's supporters are concentrated:
The broad pattern here uniting the South with the Northeast may strike many as bizarre, since these two regions typically find themselves on opposite sides of political disputes.

But as Duke University sociologist Kieran Healy has observed, many surprising-looking maps of the United States end up largely tracking a map showing which parts of the United States contain large numbers of African Americans. . . .

The map is not a perfect match for the Trump support map but it is pretty close. Both African Americans and Trump supporters are generally located in an arc that starts in eastern Texas, sweeps east toward the Atlantic Ocean, and then up through the Washington-Boston megalopolis. Michigan is blacker than the red of the Midwest, and it's Trumpier too.

Of course, that's not to say that Trump is popular overall in Northeastern states like New York and Massachusetts. The defining characteristic of these places in partisan politics is that they contain very few Republicans. It's just that those Republicans who do live in the Northeast tend to like Trump.
I think the racial situation in America is far too complex for generalizations like "diverse classrooms reduce racial bias." Seems to me that more exposure to other races and ethnic groups makes some people more open and tolerant, and others more closed and intolerant.

Monday, February 22, 2016

A Roman Magical Intaglio

The Latest from our War in Syria

Officials with Syrian rebel battalions that receive covert backing from one arm of the U.S. government told BuzzFeed News that they recently began fighting rival rebels supported by another arm of the U.S. government. . . . A Syrian rebel group that the CIA has been arming in collusion with other governments came under attack from the Kurdish YPG that the Pentagon has armed to fight ISIS.
Daniel Larison explains:
U.S. support for one group is now directly undermining its effort to support another, and that’s happening because the U.S. is pursuing two separate and often contradictory goals in Syria at the same time. Remember this the next time you hear a Syria hawk on the campaign trail demand that the U.S. sink even deeper into the morass of Syria’s civil war.

The U.S. is lending support to anti-regime rebels to maintain the fiction of backing a “moderate” opposition, and it is backing the YPG as part of the war against ISIS, which is the administration’s real priority. Given the fractious nature of anti-regime forces and the multi-sided nature of the civil war, it was probably inevitable that different U.S.-backed groups would end up fighting each other. Arming these groups doesn’t provide Washington with any influence or control over how they use the weapons the U.S. provides, and each one has its own agenda and priorities.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Dead Run

Pictures from Friday, when my colleague Tiffany and I checked out some areas along the Potomac River where we will be working soon. It was a dim, gray, late winter day, but it was still wonderful in its way.

The Potomac in flood.

An old steatite quarry. It was probably used by ancient Indians, but so far as we could see all traces of their presence had been erased by work in the 19th century.

Mysterious iron thing by the quarry, which I thought looked like the chest armor of a video game ogre.

Icicles along Dead Run.

A waterfall.

And proof that I was there.