Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Possible Fossils 3.7 Billion Years Old

The oldest fossils on earth are stromatolites, the imprints of humpy structures built up by the bacteria we call blue-green algae. Until this week the oldest stromatolites were dated to around 3.45 billion years ago. Now there is a new claim that the structures in the image above are primitive stromatolites 250 million years older, around 3.7 billion years old. If true (and even the discoverers say it is iffy) that doesn't leave a whole lot of time for life to appear on earth. The episode of intense asteroid assault called the Late Heavy Bombardment ended around 3.8 billion years ago, and since the oldest continental rocks date to after that time, the bombardment seems to have melted much of the crust. (As on the moon, creating its lava "seas.") On the generally accepted theory that life had to evolve after the bombardment ended, it must have done so in 100 million years. Of course 100 million years is an unimaginably long time, but then life is unimaginably weird and complex, and 100 million years doesn't seem like all that long for it to evolve.

On the other hand some people think there is evidence of life (skewed carbon isotope ratios) in zircon crystals from before the bombardment, and scenarios have been dreamed up allowing life to survive in deep undersea vents or some such place. But if either theory is right there has been life on Earth for most of its history, which I find quite astonishing.

Democracy and Southern Secession

The Confederate states prided themselves on their democratic values and believed that they were standing up for freedom. The decisions they made to secede from the Union were made in special conventions elected for the purpose. But there was a big problem withe the way those conventions were chosen:
We use the Southern secession movement of 1860-1861 to study how elites in democracy enact their preferred policies. Most states used specially convened conventions to determine whether or not to secede from the Union. We argue that although the delegates of these conventions were popularly elected, the electoral rules favored slaveholders. Using an original dataset of representation in each convention, we first demonstrate that slave-intensive districts were systematically overrepresented. Slaveholders were also spatially concentrated and could thereby obtain local pluralities in favor of secession more easily. As a result of these electoral biases, less than 10% of the electorate was sufficient to elect a majority of delegates in four of the six original Confederate states. We also show how delegates representing slave-intensive counties were more likely to support secession. These factors explain the disproportionate influence of slaveholders during the crisis and why secessionists strategically chose conventions over statewide referenda.
This was not new; these special elections followed the traditional election rules of each state. But those rules counted slaves and free blacks as whole people (vs. 2/5 in the US Constitution) for the purpose of drawing electoral districts, although of course only whites could vote. Thus is districts with many slaves the power of white voters was greatly magnified, in some cases 20-fold.

This probably did not make much difference in the Deep South, where anti-Republican sentiment was strong. But for North Carolina and Virginia it was decisive – which is why many whites in western Virginia eagerly accepted Lincoln's offer to help them organize their own state, casting off rule by the slave-owners for the first time, and many in western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee would have done the same if they could have.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Peter Paul Rubens: Drawings

Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) was a Dutch Baroque painter whose finished compositions are just too much for me: too much color, to much action, too many lions and hippos, too much exposed female flesh. But his drawings show his talent. Reclining Pan, 1610, made from the original sculpture during a tour of Italy.

Isabella Brant, c 1629, his first wife.

 Forest Path.

 Old Man in Profile.

Young Woman with Folded Hands, 1629-1630.

 George Villiers, the 1st Duke of Buckingham, 1625.

 Landscape with Fallen Tree.

Two renderings of his son Nicholas.

Studies for Daniel in the Lion's Den, 1613.

Portrait of a Lady in Waiting to the Infanta Isabella, c. 1625.

Possible self-portrait of the 1620s.

The Clinton Foundation, the Powell Foundation, and the Way Politics is Done

I think this piece from Matt Yglesias is important:
In 1997, after a distinguished career in military service that culminated with stints as national security adviser under Ronald Reagan and chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, Colin Powell launched a charity. Named America’s Promise, it’s built around the theme of Five Promises to America’s children. And while I’ve never heard it praised as a particularly cost-effective way to help humanity by effective altruists, it was surely a reasonably good cause for a famous and politically popular man to dedicate himself to.

Needless to say, however, Powell continued to be involved in American political life. His sky-high poll numbers ensured he’d be buzzed about as a possible presidential or vice presidential nominee, either as a moderate Republican or as an independent. Realistically, that wasn’t in the cards, and Powell was smart enough to know it. But his support for George W. Bush during the 2000 campaign lent him valuable credibility, and his recruitment to serve as Bush’s first secretary of state was considered an important political and substantive coup by Bush.

So what about the charity? Well, Powell’s wife, Alma Powell, took it over. And it kept raking in donations from corporate America. Ken Lay, the chair of Enron, was a big donor. He also backed a literacy-related charity that was founded by the then-president’s mother. The US Department of State, at the time Powell was secretary, went to bat for Enron in a dispute the company was having with the Indian government.
Yglesias is not trying to smear Colin Powell, but to put the Clinton Foundation in context. Yes, people gave money to the Clinton Foundation because they wanted to make a connection with the Clintons, or to keep an old one going. Some of them later asked the Clintons for favors. But that, my friends, is how the world is run and always has been run. In our era the system has become on the whole less nakedly corrupt than it used to be – when, for example, Ben Franklin's manifold connections throughout the Pennsylvania government insured that he became and remained the colony's printer without ever submitting a bid. But the world still runs on personal connections, especially at the highest levels.

I have several times mentioned here a book that made a huge impression on me, the joint memoir that George H.W. Bush and Brent Scowcroft wrote about their foreign policy in 1988-1992. I would argue that the elder Bush had the best and most successful foreign policy of my lifetime, so I suggest taking his views seriously. And to Bush, absolutely everything is about personal connections. Every time there is a crisis, he says something like "so I called my good friend the Emir," "so I reached out to an old friend who was the President's chief of staff", or "fortunately my good friend the Ambassador was also in the room, so we were able to work things out." When things go badly it is because the people involved don't have enough prior knowledge of each other, and their suspicions make honest dealing impossible.

That is the world in which the Clintons move. Of course they want to get to know all the world leaders, master diplomats, movers, shakers, Nobel prize-winning economists, etc. they can meet, because, hey, you never know when there will be a blow-up and you'll need to call on such a person for help. And all those people want to get to know them.

Obviously this sort of thing can be a ready cover for naked corruption, and even without crass influence buying it makes it easy to turn power into money. If you think that any sort of trading access and influence for money is corrupt, then the Clintons are corrupt. But, you know, Pennsylvania has never again achieved the degree of excellence in printing they got from Ben Franklin, and nobody who has not played this game is going to have the kind of connections that Bush put to such good use over the re-unification of Germany and reversing Saddam Hussein's conquest of Kuwait.

The elite dominance of international affairs does create other problems. It means that sometimes the opinions of ordinary voters seem hardly to matter at all, compared to semi-secret understandings reached between old golf buddies. I regularly complain about the weird elite consensus that dominates American decision making about questions like Syria, full of tough talk about drawing red lines and standing up for our friends. Obama seems to feel the same way; one of his proudest accomplishments in foreign policy is the time he stood up to that consensus and refused to order missile attacks on the Syrian government. I value Obama's moral contribution to our foreign and military policies – his ban on torture, his attempts to reduce rather than escalate violence, his refusal to smile at authoritarian regimes – but honestly the practical results have been less than stellar. (Far batter than Bush II, in my view, but that's a low bar.)

All of which is a roundabout way of saying that Hillary Clinton is not particularly corrupt. Morally, she is a perfectly ordinary member of our political elite: she has taken money from her friends but never sold out a position she cared about for cash. Nobody can find any example of her being bribed into a position she would otherwise have opposed. In fact there were recently headlines because she keeps abusing for-profit colleges even though leaders in that industry have given thousands to the foundation.

If what you want is a radical overthrow of the capitalist, hierarchical, militarized world, obviously Hillary is not your candidate. She is a creature of the system as it exists. But nobody owns her, and no amount of giving to her foundation or paying her speaking fees will change her approach to the presidency.

Apple's Back Taxes

Like most other global corporations, Apple makes huge efforts to avoid paying taxes. They have based their European operations in Ireland partly because the Irish government offered them big tax breaks, and they have finagled their spreadsheets to make much of their profit show up in Ireland rather than in the US.

But the EU has had enough:
Europe’s antitrust enforcer ordered Ireland on Tuesday to claw back billions from Apple over illegal tax breaks, a move that will ramp up trans-Atlantic tensions over how much global companies should pay to countries where they do business. . . .

The clawback from Apple, which covers 10 years of back taxes of up to 13 billion euros, or about $14.5 billion, from Apple, is the largest of its kind since the European Commission, the executive arm of the 28-member union, started going after member states that favored selected companies.
I obviously don't know if this decision is according to law, but it feels like just desserts to me. Apple benefits more than almost anyone else from the neoliberal global economic regime, so they can damn well pay their share of the cost of maintaining it. From each according to his abilities, as a famous political thinker once said.

Transcribing Civil War Telegrams

Volunteers are helping the Huntington Library transcribe and decode a cache of 15,971 Civil War telegrams, all sent to or by the telegraph office at the War Department in Washington. The thirty-five leather-bound ledgers were kept by Thomas Eckert, a Lincoln confidant who ran the telegraph office. Lincoln spent many hours hanging around the office; it was his usual spot during major battles. The telegraph ledgers appeared on the private rare book market back in 2008. They were bought by a dealer who only later realized how valuable they were, and rather than put them up for auction he arranged their sale to the Huntington.

Two examples:

US Grant to Secretary of War Stanton:
I would call attention to the fact that our white troops are being paid whilst the colored troops are not. If paymaster could be ordered here immediately to commence paying them it would have a fine effect.
Maj. Gen. Robert Schenck, describing the assembly of Lee's army just prior to the invasion of the North in 1863:
Their Cavalry force at Culpepper is probably more than thrice twelve thousand. I would advise that the militia of Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Ohio be at once called out as there is doubtless a mighty raid on foot.
There is no real news in the telegrams, which mostly cover very familiar ground, but they take us to the scene of the action in a very immediate way.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Melungeon Chic

Good article in the Economist about the Melungeons, one of the "tri-racial isolate" groups of the Appalachians. They have been recognized as a distinctive group since the late 1700s, and research suggests that they descend from interracial marriages made in the seventeenth century before rigid rules about slavery and race were imposed in America. Throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries they fought against being classified as part black, claiming to be anything else: Turkish, "Portyghee," one of the lost tribes of Israel. Now most of the people contacted by the Economist accept the 2012 genetic study (which I wrote about here) showing that they are mostly a mix of European and African, with some American Indian. They are the children of the frontier, where peoples met and mixed beyond the strictures of any settled world.

And now that attitudes toward race have shifted so dramatically in America, the Melungeons are becoming cool:
Those who feel this way share some characteristics. Most (though not all) are fair-skinned. Several report suspicious silences about their families’ pasts, plus a childhood sense of not quite fitting in. Sometimes there are foreign names among their forebears. And, very often, they had never heard of the Melungeons until middle age.

Nan Tuckett, for instance, was raised amid whispers of Cherokee blood; a strand of her family had dark skin and hair and roots in Virginia. As an adult she both converted to Judaism and discovered an affinity with the Melungeons. “They’re such an open loving people,” she explains at the MHA event. “I want to be able to go into any group of people and feel like I belong”. Kathy Lyday, a board member of the MHA, believes she has Indian blood on both sides of her family; on her mother’s there were dusky folk with Hispanic names such as Alfonso and Carlos. She came to the Melungeons through her academic work (she teaches American literature); initially she wanted to establish a link, but now is simply intrigued. “We’re all mixed race to some degree, if you grow up in this part of the world”, Ms Lyday reasons.

It is easy to be sceptical of such a discretionary association. As Ms Schrift says, it bestows on those who choose it an ethnic loyalty at once exotic and, these days, stigma-free. It dissociates them from white America’s past sins, replacing that guilty legacy with the afterglow of trials overcome, plus a mantle of victimhood that may properly belong to others. In one interpretation, such feel-good ethnic tourism threatens, as Ms Schrift puts it, to render the term Melungeon “so elastic that it really has no meaning at all.” To join the Melungeons, she says, is to acquire “a skeleton key to identity”.

On the other hand, there may be a deeper honesty, and a kind of idealism, in this voluntary embrace of a mixed-ethnic background—a make-up common to millions of Americans, but which many remain reluctant to acknowledge. And there is something optimistic and timely about the vision of race that the Melungeons imply. These days, on university campuses and beyond, the old, humanistic faith that everyone is the same at heart has been ousted by an essentialist idea of black- and whiteness, which sees the experiences of each as distinct, even mutually incomprehensible. The grievances that underpin this attitude are often legitimate, but the result is that race in America can sometimes seem like a prison. The notion of racial categories as fluid and optional, even invented, is a refreshing counterpoint to this ossifying sense of unbridgeable difference.


In today's bizarre news, one lightning strike killed more than 300 reindeer in Norway. Apparently herding animals clump together during storms to shelter each other, rendering them horribly vulnerable.

The Problem with Neoreactionaries is their Ignorance of History

Vox has put up a nice "explainer" on the alt-right phenomenon, which I recommend. Much of the alt-right is a boiling cauldron of resentment, cynicism, racism, and misogyny, directed against the current liberal consensus but not pointing toward anything in particular. I find one piece of the movement more interesting: the people who call themselves "neoreactionaries." Neoreactionaries hate democracy and long for some sort of strong-man rule, perhaps by a king, and they think the world is getting worse, not better. There is enough material in the Vox essay to identify the basic problem with neoreaction, which is that although its proponents claim to venerate the past, they actually know nothing about it. Among their number there is not a single historian, nor even anyone who could pass as a decent amateur. They cherry pick the odd fact from history but they always yank it out of context, and they never come to grips with either what the past was like or how we got to the situation we are in.

I find neoreaction interesting because I agree that in some ways the world has gotten worse. It is hard to point to events in the pre-modern past as bad as the Holocaust, or regimes as murderous as those of Hitler and Stalin. Modernity's great benefits have come at a high cost in both human and environmental terms. Democracy as we practice it can indeed be perfectly absurd, and our system sometimes makes it all but impossible to fix messes that a hypothetical strongman could sweep away with a decree. In a world full of naive progress-worshipers and no alternative to democracy with any serious following outside the Chinese communist party, neoreactionary critics are performing a service of sorts. Two mainstream writers who recently tried to come to terms with neoreaction are Tyler Cowen and Ross Douthat, and their pieces are also worth reading. Cowen thinks the neoreactionary  impulse is ancient and comes up with a list of important thinkers with neoreactionary leanings: Aristotle, Hobbes, Montesquieu, Jonathan Swift, John Calhoun, James Fitzjames Stephens, Nietzsche, Carl Schmitt, Martin Heidegger, and Lee Kuan Yew.

So neoreactionaries sometimes have a point, and they are part of an old tradition of thinkers who despise progress and think the important things about human society will never change.

If only they didn't get everything wrong.

Mencius Moldbug (as he calls himself) is one of the leading neoreactionary writers. His favorite attack on contemporary society is made by comparing the safety of major cities in late Victorian Britain to the violence of our own age. And this is, in a limited sense, true; the lowest homicide rates ever recorded were in Britain between 1880 and 1930. It would be amazing if we could achieve such social peace again. But in this regard late Victorian Britain is highly unusual; almost all other past societies were much more violent. In the period I studied for my dissertation, 1272-1348, England was about as violent as Baltimore is now. On the whole, insofar as we have the statistics, the US and Europe have been relatively peaceful in the post-World War II era, certainly much nicer than the Iron Age. Nor was late Victorian Britain much of a traditional society. It was on the contrary one of the most forward-looking, progress-worshiping, radically transforming societies the world has ever seen. I believe that the world changed much more between 1830 and 1930 than it has changed since, but anyway it is not arguable that the world was changing very fast in the London and Manchester of 1910. So the low crime rates of that era are a lousy argument against modernity. Plus, late Victorian Britain, the society that achieved the lowest violent crime rates ever measured, was a democracy.

Every argument made by the neoreactionaries has this same problem. Yes, it is true that in some ways some past societies were better than ours. So? Unless you understand those particular issues in the context of their times, you cannot begin to conceive of why that society had that admirable feature, and you certainly cannot plan to recreate it in our own age.

The worst and most ignorant arguments to come from the neoreactionaries have to do with government. Here is a good example:
Hitler and Stalin are abortions of the democratic era - cases of what Jacob Talmon called totalitarian democracy. This is easily seen in their unprecedented efforts to control public opinion, through both propaganda and violence. Elizabeth's legitimacy was a function of her identity - it could be removed only by killing her. Her regime was certainly not the stablest government in history, and nor was it entirely free from propaganda, but she had no need to terrorize her subjects into supporting her.
I agree that Hitler and Stalin were modern rulers not really imaginable in a medieval context, but otherwise this is absolutely wrong. Elizabeth used widespread terror against her own subjects, executing hundreds of English Catholics among others. Her secret police were very active in putting down the many very real conspiracies against her. So long as you were not a Catholic or a radical dissenter, life in Elizabeth's England was a lot less scary than life under Hitler, but that is not really much of a recommendation. And if you expand the picture to Ireland, where they remember her as one of the bloodiest rulers in history, Elizabeth's government begins to look very much a grim, violent despotism.

Much of the support for alt-right thinking comes from a libertarian distrust of how democracies manage the economy. (Peter Thiel: "I no longer believe that freedom and democracy are compatible.") Democratic governments, they think, have to stay in power by "buying votes," hence high taxes to fund welfare schemes; they imagine that kings and other well-settled despots did not have to engage in such chicanery. Somehow it has escaped their notice that kings and queens like Elizabeth did not pursue libertarian economics. On the contrary Elizabeth was one of the great practitioners of proto-crony capitalism, granting her favorites all sorts of monopolies and other business privileges, from a woad-growing syndicate to the Virginia Company. If what you want is capitalist, pro-growth economics, democracies have on average a much better record than any other sort of government.

More broadly, neoreactionaries seem to believe that kings did not have to practice politics. This is utter nonsense. Kings, like modern dictators, had to constantly bribe various constituencies to stay in power, even more so if they wanted to enact any changes to the system. Most of them also had to threaten some of their subjects with violence, backed up with the real thing whenever necessary.  In fact a government like that of the US, Britain or Denmark in the 20th century has a degree of legitimacy that very few kings or emperors in history have ever managed. Monarchs were after all regularly overthrown, and without representative institutions the balance of power between the center and the provinces was often set by armed conflict; hence the long series of peasants' wars and lesser violent disturbances. To prevent anarchy, powerful factions (every society has powerful factions) had to be bribed, intimidated, incorporated into the power structure, or otherwise managed. A good example of how this works in the modern context is provided by Egypt, where a series of dictators have kept the army loyal by allowing its officers to control large parts of the economy through various corrupt schemes.

Every government has to bribe its supporters, because every government has to struggle to maintain its legitimacy. And if you don't understand that, then you simply don't know enough about human societies and governments to be taken seriously as a political reformer.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

August Flowers

The Tattooed Professor Raises an Awkward Question about Education

I am predisposed to despise anyone who calls himself The Tattooed Professor, and while I completely disagree with him, his reaction to that U of Chicago letter to freshmen is instructive:
As a faculty member, I would be enormously dismayed if my dean sent this letter to my incoming students. Because now they’ll come into my class already having received a clear message about what my institution seems to value-and it isn’t them. The Chicago letter reeks of arrogance, of a sense of entitlement, of an exclusionary mindset; in other words, the very things it seeks to inveigh against. It’s not about academic freedom, it’s about power. Know your place, and acknowledge ours, it tells the students. We’ll be the judge of what you need to know and how you need to know it. And professors and students are thus handcuffed to a high-stakes ideological creed. Do it this way, in the name of all that is holy and true in the academy. There is no room here for empathy, for student agency, or for faculty discretion.

Displaying empathy for the different experiences our students bring to the classroom is not a threat to our academic freedom. Allowing for a diversity of perspectives to flourish, even when that diversity might challenge the very structure of our course and its material, is not a threat but an opportunity. Our first reaction to expressions of student agency, even when they seem misguided or perhaps frivolous, should not be to shut it down. If we really value academic freedom, then we need to model that with and for our students. Ableism, misogyny, racism, elitism, and intellectual sloppiness deserve to be called out. That’s not a threat, that’s our students doing what they’re supposed to as engaged citizens of an academic community. This year, we should challenge ourselves to quit fixating on caricatures and hypotheticals and instead acknowledge the actual landscape of teaching and learning in all its messiness and complexity. When we act out of fear, we do harm. When we assume the worst from our students, that’s what we often end up getting-from them and from ourselves. We can do better than this.
Ok, so the U of Chicago is elitist. Isn't that the point?

As I wrote about the Oberlin protesters: if you don't believe that professors have something students don't, call it wisdom or knowledge or power or whatever, why are you in college? If you explicitly reject, as the Tattooed Professor does, that notion that "We’ll be the judge of what you need to know and how you need to know it," what are professors for?

There used to be a publication called The Insurgent Sociologist, and one night when I was bored in the U of Minnesota library I thumbed through it. It consisted entirely of far left professors bemoaning their part in The System. That is, they rejected the hierarchical structure of society, and it drove them crazy to ponder that half the point of college is picking the people who will occupy the upper rungs of the structure.

The point is that from a far left perspective it is very difficult to justify university education. For my whole lifetime the far left in America has been all about attacking privilege and hierarchy, and rejecting the notion that some people are better than others. If college graduates are not in some sense better than non-students, why have colleges? And if professors are not in some sense better than students, why should students listen to them?

Obviously this is crude language, and we could formulate more subtle distinctions; professors aren't better, they just have useful technical knowledge, or some such. But to some people the whole set-up of a classroom is hierarchical and therefore wrong. I wonder how the Tattooed Professor would justify his salary, if he doesn't think he knows any more than his students about what they ought to study?

Amatrice: the Lost Town

Images of Amatrice, the town at the epicenter of Italy's August 24 earthquake. At least 200 residents of the town were killed and half its buildings destroyed. Many of the rest are unsafe and will have to be demolished. Some people are making brave noises about returning, but given the extent of the devastation and the region's declining population, the town may never be rebuilt.

And below, before and after shots of San Agostino, a fifteenth-century church.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Australian Landscapes: Arthur Streeton and Penleigh Boyd

In my random wanderings through the internet's art displays I stumbled across two Australian artists I like: Arthur Streeton (1867 – 1943) and Penleigh Boyd (1890 – 1933). Both painted landscapes in a style sometimes called Australian Impressionism. Above is the painting that first started me exploring these characters, Landscape with White Gum by Boyd, 1922.

Arthur Streeton was part of the "Heidelberg School", a group of artists who introduced Impressionism to Australia. Heidelberg was an outer suburb of Melbourne where Streeton liked to paint. This is one of his Heidelberg paintings, Golden Summer, Eaglemont, 1889. To get a sense of how these wide paintings look you'll have to click on them.

Portrait of Streeton in 1891, when his friends called him "Smike."

Two more Streeton landscapes, The purple noon's transparent might, 1895, and Still glides the stream, and shall for ever glide, 1890. The titles are quotations from Shelley and Wordsworth, transposed to scenes of Australia. Streeton lived from 1897 to 1906 in England, and he returned during the Great War to serve as a medical orderly in London's hospitals.

He painted several battlefield landscapes, all of the quiet aftermath of battle rather than the bloody mess.  Mount St. Quentin, 1918.

And one more, Railway Station, Redfern.

Penleigh Boyd came from a whole family of painters – both of his parents, one of his brothers, and three of his nephews all painted professionally. The Three Sisters, 1914.

He followed along after the Heidelberg Group and was much influenced by them. The River, 1919.

Winter Triumphant. Which is not sentiment I associate with Australia, although I know that have winter of sorts in the southern parts.

Ghost Gum at Kangaroo Flat, 1921. A very Australian name for our final Australian painting.

Friday, August 26, 2016

Civil War and Foreign Intervention, or, Why Syria's Nightmare Drags On

Historians who study civil wars say that foreign intervention tends to make them last much longer:
Most civil wars end when one side loses. Either it is defeated militarily, or it exhausts its weapons or loses popular support and has to give up. About a quarter of civil wars end in a peace deal, often because both sides are exhausted.

That might have happened in Syria: the core combatants — the government and the insurgents who began fighting it in 2011 — are both quite weak and, on their own, cannot sustain the fight for long.

But they are not on their own. Each side is backed by foreign powers — including the United States, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and now Turkey — whose interventions have made Syria an ecosystem with no entropy. In other words, the forces that would normally impede the conflict’s inertia are absent, allowing it to continue far longer than it otherwise would.

Government and rebel forces are supplied from abroad, which means their arms never run out. They also both draw political support from foreign governments who do not feel the war’s costs firsthand, rather than from locals who might otherwise push for peace to end their pain. These material and human costs are easy for the far richer foreign powers to bear.

This is why, according to James D. Fearon, a Stanford professor who studies civil wars, multiple studies have found that “if you have outside intervention on both sides, duration is significantly greater.”
There is much more in that article, including evidence that foreign intervention leads to more atrocities against civilians. In the Syrian case foreign support seems to make it impossible for the war to ever end, since whenever one side starts losing the other side's sponsors step up their support until the stalemate is re-established.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

The Hunterston Brooch

Hiberno-Scottish, made around 700 CE. Found in either 1826 or 1830 (depending on whose memory was right) by two workmen digging drains at the foot of Goldenberry Hill.


Details. The brooch is now in the National Museum of Scotland. Some think it was made in Ireland, but the National Museum says that it mixes a predominantly Irish style with Anglo-Saxon elements and was therefore most likely made in western Scotland where the two traditions met.

The University of Chicago Welcomes New Students

With a warning about the intellectual dangers of education:
Welcome and congratulations on your acceptance to the college at the University of Chicago. Earning a place in our community of scholars is no small achievement and we are delighted that you selected Chicago to continue your intellectual journey.

Once here you will discover that one of the University of Chicago’s defining characteristics is our commitment to freedom of inquiry and expression. … Members of our community are encouraged to speak, write, listen, challenge, and learn, without fear of censorship. Civility and mutual respect are vital to all of us, and freedom of expression does not mean the freedom to harass or threaten others. You will find that we expect members of our community to be engaged in rigorous debate, discussion, and even disagreement. At times this may challenge you and even cause discomfort.

Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so called ‘trigger warnings,’ we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.

Fostering the free exchange of ideas fosters a related University priority – building a campus that welcomes people of all backgrounds. Diversity of opinion and background is a fundamental strength of our community. The members of our community must have the freedom to espouse and explore a wide range of ideas.

Peace in Colombia?

Today's best news is the signing of a peace accord between the government of Colombia and the FARC rebels, which may end a conflict that has been going on for fifty years:
Peace in Colombia now looks more likely than ever.
Count me as skeptical, though, that this will really solve Colombia's problem with violence. Because there is still the big issue of drugs:
But even if the deal is approved by the public, its success is anything but guaranteed.

Will it be accepted by all rebels, who vowed to bring a Marxist revolution to Colombia but are being asked to accept far less?

How will thousands of guerrillas — many of whom were kidnapped as children and know only life in the jungle — find their way into mainstream society, and will they be accepted there?

And perhaps most crucially: Will the rebels give up not only their weapons, but their control of the lucrative drug trade as well?

The State Department calls the FARC a terrorist organization that “controls the majority of cocaine manufacturing and distribution within Colombia, and is responsible for much of the world’s cocaine supply.”
I have a feeling that many rebels will give civilian life a try and then decide that life as a well-paid soldier of a drug-funded revolution was a better deal.

But we can always hope, and we should never stop trying to bring violence to an end.

Protesting Mosquito Control

The latest magic bullet in the ancient war between humans and mosquitoes is a genetically modified strain:
Oxitec scientists said they had reduced the population of Aedes aegypti mosquitoes, which carry the Zika virus, by 90 percent or more in other areas where the company’s modified mosquitoes have been released, including Brazil. The male mosquitoes carry synthetic DNA as larvae. They are hatched and then released as adults to mate with females (who do all the biting) in the wild. The DNA infuses their offspring with too much protein, causing them to die.
Given the immense slaughter mosquito-borne diseases wreak on humanity, this seems like a good idea to many of us. But a plan to test these genetically-neutered mosquitoes in Key West is running into the same sort of unease with technology that drives vaccine avoidance and many other issues:
“People here can survive what nature throws at them,” said Gilda Niles, 64, who arrived in Key West from Cuba in 1967 and moved to Key Haven in 1980, when it was just a plot of earth with cheaper land, water on three sides and more space. “Hurricanes, bring them on; long-timers here seldom evacuate. Mosquitoes, well, that’s the price of paradise. Zika, this too shall pass, like dengue. But science and government, I’m not so sure about.”
We can survive anything but science and government – there's a sentiment to ponder. How did we get here, and what can we do about it?

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Two Pictish Hoards: Norrie's Law and St. Ninnian's Isle

Hoard from Norries' Law, near Fife, 6th or 7th century, consisting mostly of hack silver. This was found in 1819 by workmen who spirited away much of it before the landowner found out what was going on. So some of the silver was probably melted down and re-used, which is appropriate in a way because that is what hack silver was for.

One of the fascinating things about this hoard is the pairs of objects, one of which is old and worn, the other new; presumably the new is a copy of the old. This, combined with the large amount of hack silver, makes this look like the contents of a silversmith's workshop.

Notice the two brooches, one old when it went the ground, the other new.

Detail of silver pins with enameled heads

Detail of plaque

And a famous hoard from St. Ninian's Isle, 8th century. Discovered in 1958.

Pennanular brooch, silver gilt

Mount, silver, and detail

Silver bowl, and detail

Scabbard end with Latin inscription.