Friday, July 28, 2017

Burghead and its Bulls

Burghead was once the largest known Pictish fort, an impressive earthwork covering much of this peninsula on Scotland's north coast. It was probably the royal seat of the Pictish kingdom of Fortriu.

Then in the early nineteenth century a town was built here, probably to house some of the thousands of cotters being cleared from the Countess of Sutherland's massive estates. In the course of building the town, most of the fort was destroyed. But some salvage archaeology done over the course of the nineteenth century as the place expanded led to many discoveries, including more than two dozen of these lovely tablets known as the Burghead Bulls. Six still survive; this one is in the British Museum. Nobody knows what the bulls represent; perhaps this was the emblem of the ruling house.

Recently there has been more archaeology in Burghead, and it has led to some good results. Among other things the investigators think they have identified a long house dating to the 9th century, perhaps the hall of a Pictish king.

It is always a mistake to assume that later construction has destroyed archaeological sites; sometimes the destruction is thorough, but more often much has been buried and survives. After all remains of Roman London have been found among the City's office towers, and traces of 17th-century New Amsterdam in downtown Manhattan.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Population Continuity and Ancient Canaan

Much of the news about ancient DNA has been about radical discontinuities: the replacement of people by invaders and so on. But DNA from five skeletons excavated in ancient Sidon, Lebanon, dating to around 1700 BCE, is remarkably like that of current Lebanese. The investigators posit that 90 percent of contemporary Lebanese genes come from ancient Canaanites.

Of course this is just one study, but it supports other evidence that the populations of the Middle East have been quite stable since the spread of farming. This goes against the idea one can get from the Old Testament that the Israelites exterminated the Canaanites, or at least did great slaughter among them.

Meanwhile in Finland

The Finns have moved on from traditional high-powered sports to crazy local creations, like Swamp Soccer:
The genesis of swamp soccer was in 1998, when creative town officials in Hyrynsalmi cooked up a festival-like event that would make use of the area’s vast swamplands. Thirteen teams showed up for the first tournament. Since then, the competitive field has grown to about 200 teams.

The recent matches — six-on-six, with 10-minute halves — were played on 20 fields of varying squishiness, spread out over 50 acres of swamp. Finnish rock echoed through the woods.

People striding on seemingly firm ground would disappear suddenly into the soft earth, as if descending a stairway. Some tottered on their hands and knees, like babies. Others stood still, until they were waist-deep in muck. The scores were generally low. Many of the players were drunk.

It’s hard to imagine an uglier version of the Beautiful Game.

“You play, you lose, you win — no one cares,” said Sami Korhonen, 25, of Kajaani, who was playing in the tournament for the ninth time. “The whole game is so tough, you’re totally wiped out when you’re done.”
And many others: hobby horse riding, sauna sitting, mosquito killing, air guitar contests, and wife carrying, in which the winner received the wife's weight in beer.

Personally I think this is much healthier than getting obsessed about the doings of millionaire professionals. Sport is supposed to be fun.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Deborah Gans and Kiki Smith, Window for the Eldridge Street Synagogue, NYC

Completed in 2010.

Sperm Counts Really are Declining

Major new meta-analysis of sperm counts worldwide find the same thing as earlier studies:
After adjusting for factors like the subject's age and time without ejaculation, they found that the sperm concentration in western men has fallen from an average of 99 million per milliliter in 1973 to 47.1 million per milliliter in 2011—a 52.4 percent drop. Total sperm counts, or the number of sperm in an entire sample, fell by almost 60 percent. Yet similar drops were not found in the non-western samples.
This isn't anything like a crisis yet, since 47 million per million is still quite fertile. But what is causing this? And will the trend continue?

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Sylvain and Ghyslaine Staƫlens, Cavalier

2015. Via Cavin-Morris Gallery.

Nicolas Berdyaev's Amazing Footnote

From The Divine and the Human, English Translation 1949, p. 6
Only the second interpretation is worthy of God and worthy of man. Here too there ought still to happen an immense change in the knowledge of God, a change which will be an emancipating change. Man does not easily awaken from his ancient nightmares in which the ego has tyrannized over both himself and God; and hence the crucifixion of God. The ego has been a fatality both for the human self and for God.1  . . .
1This was once revealed to me in a dream.
2See R. Otto, Das Heilige. He has some interesting thoughts about the moralization, rationalization, and spiritualization of sacred things.

Jonathan Swift on Growing Old

Jonathan Swift wrote this list in his journal in 1699 at the age of 32:
When I come to be old.

Not to marry a young Woman.
Not to keep young Company unless they reely desire it.
Not to be peevish or morose, or suspicious.
Not to scorn present Ways, or Wits, or Fashions, or Men, or War, etc.
Not to be fond of Children, or let them come near me hardly.
Not to tell the same story over and over to the same People.
Not to be covetous.
Not to neglect decency, or cleenlyness, for fear of falling into Nastyness.
Not to be over severe with young People, but give Allowances for their youthfull follyes and weaknesses.
Not to be influenced by, or give ear to knavish tatling servants, or others.
Not to be too free of advise, nor trouble any but those that desire it.
To desire some good Friends to inform me wch of these Resolutions I break, or neglect, and wherein; and reform accordingly.
Not to talk much, nor of my self.
Not to boast of my former beauty, or strength, or favor with Ladyes, etc.
Not to hearken to Flatteryes, nor conceive I can be beloved by a young woman, et eos qui hereditatem captant, odisse ac vitare.
Not to be positive or opiniative.
Not to sett up for observing all these Rules; for fear I should observe none.
The Latin means, more or less, that heirs hate and shun their benefactors.

Via Lists of Note.

Monday, July 24, 2017

The Seal Who Makes Noises

This video made my whole family collapse in giggles.

The Democrats' "Better Deal"

The Democratic Party has announced a semi-populist new platform they're calling the Better Deal. So far there are three planks:
  • Tough anti-trust enforcement;
  • Fighting high prices on prescription drugs;
  • Create 10 million jobs through a $275 billion infrastructure program and "targeted tax breaks" rewarding companies that create high-wage jobs
I'm all for the first two items, and I support more infrastructure spending. But I think targeted tax breaks are a sham; if you want to cut corporate taxes, just cut them, don't add a hundred pages of new regulations.

On the whole I think this is ok, but not particularly inspirational. To make this good politics there would have to be more specifics: what monopolies are we taking on? What is the strategy for cutting drug prices, and how would people benefit? What are we going to build?

The Conception of Alexander the Great

Conception of Alexander the Great, Les faize d'Alexandre (translation of Historiae Alexandri Magni of Quintus Curtius Rufus), Bruges ca. 1468-1475. Poor Philip is so left out.

British Library, Burney 169, fol. 14r

San Pietro extra Moenia, Spoleto, Italy

The church of St. Peter outside the Walls near Spoleto was built in the 11th century. This spot had long been a cemetery, and a shrine in the cemetery held what were said to be St. Peter's chains. (Photo by Paolo Monti, 1967)

View of the church from a distance. The old church was burned in 1329 during one of those endless fights between Guelphs and Ghibellines, and it was then rebuilt. The interior was completely remodeled in the 17th century. But the sources I have found say that the facade is "an almost completely intact example of the Umbrian Romanesque style."

The famous facade.

Details. Top to bottom: Jesus, from the water, speaks to his apostles; the torments of hell; a lion gnaws on a fallen gladiator; a peasant plowing with two oxen; a mother antelope saves her kid from a snake; scenes from the life of Jesus.

Dutch Students and Weed

The latest study:
For decades, marijuana use and sale had been legal in the Netherlands and could even be purchased at coffee shops and cannabis shops around the region, which led to a massive increase in drug tourism — people coming to the Netherlands with the intention to purchase or use pot. In time, the city of Maastricht saw its crime rate triple compared with that of cities further from the border. To curb the drug tourism problem (mostly coming from, as the study authors write, “bad tourists” from France and Luxembourg), cannabis shop owners in 2011 issued a “partial prohibition” policy change, which only allowed people from specific nationalities to buy cannabis on their premises. Interested customers had to present a valid Dutch, German, or Belgian ID to be granted entry to a cannabis shop.

This policy created a unique situation, the study authors write, where students at the university could be separated into groups — those that could legally obtain marijuana and those that could not — and their academic performance could be measured. They concluded that students who could no longer legally buy cannabis increased their grades substantially — particularly in classes that required more math or numerical knowledge.
I can think of many problems with this study, the first of which is that foreign students in the Netherlands may well be particularly interested in legal weed, so they may not be the best group on which to perform such a study. But my general impression of my children's generation is that marijuana is considered among them the drug of slackers, avoided by kids with any ambition.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Mt. Desert Isle 2017

Images from my vacation in one of my favorite places. We had four days of perfect weather – the chief risk of a Maine vacation is that it might be cold and rainy the whole time, even in July – we kayaked out to see the seals, we hiked up mountains, we played by the shore.

And now I am home, ready for the rest of my life to resume.

Luz Long and Jesse Owens

In the 1936 Berlin Olympics, Jesse Owens won four gold medals under the eyes of Hitler. He also made a friend, German long jumper Luz Long, who congratulated Owens after his winning jump in front of the whole stadium. The two remained friends and wrote numerous letters to each other. This is Long's last letter to Owens, written from North Africa in 1941, not long before Long was killed:
I am here, Jesse, where it seems there is only the dry sand and the wet blood. I do not fear so much for myself, my friend Jesse, I fear for my woman who is home, and my young son Karl, who has never really known his father.

My heart tells me, if I be honest with you, that this is the last letter I shall ever write. If it is so, I ask you something. It is a something so very important to me. It is you go to Germany when this war done, someday find my Karl, and tell him about his father. Tell him, Jesse, what times were like when we not separated by war. I am saying—tell him how things can be between men on this earth.

If you do this something for me, this thing that I need the most to know will be done, I do something for you, now. I tell you something I know you want to hear. And it is true.

That hour in Berlin when I first spoke to you, when you had your knee upon the ground, I knew that you were in prayer.

Then I not know how I know. Now I do. I know it is never by chance that we come together. I come to you that hour in 1936 for purpose more than der Berliner Olympiade.

And you, I believe, will read this letter, while it should not be possible to reach you ever, for purpose more even than our friendship.

I believe this shall come about because I think now that God will make it come about. This is what I have to tell you, Jesse.

I think I might believe in God.

And I pray to him that, even while it should not be possible for this to reach you ever, these words I write will still be read by you.

Your brother,
Owens did indeed go to Germany and meet Karl Long; he ended up being the best man in Long's wedding.

From Letters of Note

The Paris Flood of 1910

In late January, 1910, the Seine flooded Paris. It never breached the city's flood walls; instead it reached beyond them by pushing up through the sewers. This was a slow-motion event, with the water rising gradually for more then a week, and then taking nearly a month to drain away entirely. Property damage was great but not a single person was killed. More here.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

What Died in the War

Before the Civil War, Oliver Wendell Holmes had been a passionate abolitionist, an idealist, a follower of Emerson, a believer in the pursuit of earthly perfection. After serving for nearly three years in the war, being wounded three times, and seeing the two best friends of his youth killed, he went on to be one of the founders of Pragmatism. Pragmatism is a complicated phenomenon but at its root is a deep suspicion of passionate belief, and a conviction that the wise should devote their efforts to smoothing over conflicts between different factions.
Holmes believed that it was no longer possible to think the way he had as a young man before the war, that the world was more resistant than he imagined. But he did not forget what it felt like to be a young man before the war. "Through our great good fortune," he said in the speech in which he memorialized Abbott's advance into Fredericksburg, "in our youth our hearts were touched with fire." — a sentence that both ennobles the antislavery cause and removes it to an irretrievable past. . . .

In 1932, after he had retired from the Court and was nearing the end, Holmes tried to read aloud to Marion Frankfurter, Felix Frankfurter's wife, a poem he liked about the Civil War, but he broke down in tears before he could finish it. They were not tears for the war. They were tears for what the war had destroyed. Holmes had grown up in a highly cultured, homogeneous world, a world of which he was, in many ways, the consummate product: idealistic, artistic, and socially committed. And then he had watched that world bleed to death at Fredericksburg and Antietam, in a war that learning and brilliance had been powerless to prevent. When he returned, Boston had changed, and so had American life. Holmes had changed too, but he never forgot what he had lost. "He told me," Einstein reported, "that after the Civil War the world never seemed quite right again."
–Louis Menand, The Metaphysical Club

The Wind Bloweth where it Listeth

The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit.

–Jesus to Nicodemus, John 3:8

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Partisan Bitterness and Higher Education Funding

Polls show that American conservatives have an increasingly negative view of universities, and Freddie de Boer is worried that academic leftists are goading Republican lawmakers into slashing their funding:
I am increasingly convinced that a mass defunding of public higher education is coming to an unprecedented degree and at an unprecedented scale. People enjoy telling me that this has already occurred, as if I am not sufficiently informed about higher education to know that state support of our public universities has declined precipitously. But things can always get worse, much worse. And given the endless controversies on college campuses of conservative speakers getting shut out and conservative students feeling silenced, and given how little the average academic seems to care about appealing to the conservative half of this country, the PR work is being done for the enemies of public education by those within the institutions themselves. And the GOP has already shown a great knack for using claims of bias against academia, particularly given the American yen for austerity.

Meanwhile, in my very large network of professional academics, almost no one recognizes any threat at all. Many, I can say with great confidence, would tell you that they don’t want the support of Republicans. There’s little attempt to grapple with the simple, pragmatic realities of political power and how it threatens vulnerable institutions whose funding is in doubt. . . .

In 2010 I wrote of Michael Berube’s What’s Liberal About the Liberal Arts?, “the philosophy of non-coercion and intellectual pluralism that Berube describes and defends so well isn’t just an intellectual curiosity, but an actual ethos that he and other professors live by, and which defends conservative students.” I grew up believing that most professors lived by that ethos. I don’t, anymore. It really has changed. For years we fought tooth and nail to oppose the David Horowitz’s of the world, insisting that their narratives of anti-conservative bias on campus were without proof. Now, when I try to sound the alarm bells to others within the academy that mainstream conservatism is being pushed out of our institutions, I get astonished reactions – you actually think conservatives should feel welcomed on campus? From arguments of denial to arguments of justification, overnight, with no one seeming to grapple with just how profound the consequences must be. We are handing ammunition to some very dangerous people.
Honestly given how the average liberal arts professor feels about Republican legislators, it's a marvel that many states provide any funding for higher education at all.

People Behind the Coexist Logo Can't Get Along, Sue Each Other

Legal battles are raging among the creator of the original Coexist logo, Polish artist Piotr Mlodozeniec (above); the folks who trademarked that logo and began selling it on t-shirts etc. without Mlodozeniec's permission; and the folks who created the famous bumper sticker (below). Mlodozeniec says he isn't bothered by competition from the bumper sticker version but he is aesthetically annoyed because he considers it terribly ugly. I like it. But knowing that the people behind it can't coexist is troubling.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Ansel Adams, White Branches at Mono Lake

Ronald Reagan Supported National Health Care

From a review of Henry Olsen’s new Reagan biography, The Working Class Republican: Ronald Reagan and the Return of Blue Collar Conservatism:
Most readers of Olsen’s book will be surprised to learn that Reagan embraced universal coverage. In “A Time for Choosing” — Reagan’s celebrated conservative manifesto delivered at Goldwater’s 1964 Republican National Convention — Reagan declared, “No one in this country should be denied medical care for lack of funds.” In a speech to the Phoenix Chamber of Commerce — in Goldwater’s backyard — Reagan said, “Any person in the United States who requires medical attention and cannot provide for himself should have it provided for him.”

While Reagan opposed “compulsory health insurance through a government bureau for people who don’t need it or who have . . . even a few million dollars tucked away,” he championed the Kerr-Mills Act of 1960, a law introduced by two Democrats that gave federal money to states with which to provide medical care for the elderly in need. Reagan said that he was “in favor of this bill — and if the money isn’t enough, I think we should put up more.”
Avik Roy explains:
In the 1960s, Reagan opposed Medicare for two principal reasons: participation was mandatory, and because Medicare spent scarce taxpayer funds to subsidize coverage for wealthy people—even millionaires—who didn’t need the help. But Reagan explicitly supported the role of government in subsidizing care for every American who could not otherwise afford it.
One of the root factors in our health care drama is the requirement that hospitals treat everyone who comes in regardless of whether they can pay. Many states had these laws for decades, but the Federal requirement goes back to 1986, signed into law by Ronald Reagan.

At the time that provision was hugely popular, and it remained so until fairly recently. Within the past decade many Republicans have turned against it. That is partly due to reflexive opposition to Obamacare but also due to a growing understanding that this one law pretty much requires massive Federal intervention in health care; you can't get to a really libertarian system unless hospitals can turn people away.

Maybe with the failure of the current Republican Obamacare repeal effort we can get back to trying to make the system work better, drafting a bill that can get votes from both parties. Wouldn't that be a refreshing change?

Maids vs. Madams in India

Class warfare in Noida, India:
The madams in the luxury gated community went to yoga classes and toddler playgroups; the maids soundlessly whisked away dirty dishes and soiled laundry before retreating, at night, to a nearby shantytown of tin sheds and plastic tents.

This kind of arrangement has persisted across India for decades, in apparent harmony.

But early on Wednesday, at the Mahagun Moderne in Noida, on the outskirts of New Delhi, India’s capital, the madams and the maids went to war.

A dispute between a maid and her employer erupted into a full-blown riot, as hundreds of the maid’s neighbors, armed with rocks and iron rods, forced their way into the complex and stormed her employer’s apartment. In response, thousands of families have locked their maids out, saying they can no longer trust them in their homes.
Every once in a while, the hostility that simmers beneath the smooth surface of human relations breaks out.

Saturday, July 15, 2017


I'm off to Massachusetts and Maine for a week, so don't expect much blogging until I return.

Rivers of Paradise Carpet

17th century; in the National Museum in Istanbul.

From Lack of Love I Will not Ever Die

From lack of love, I will not ever die,
so says the stingy, cold, and lordly rage
imprisoned with pride inside his gilded cage,
conversing with a pretty, blonde, white lie.

And let them lift their glasses, raise a toast
to wish the whole world ill in ancient Greek,
forever finding fault. And let them boast
like Belshazzar who feasted, while the meek,
thin, ragged Daniel fed on yeast-free bread,
while understanding what the king could not,
interpreting what royals had forgot,
seeing the privileged ones were good as dead –
that Love which made this vast, black Universe
his cure for any demagogue’s blank curse.

–Jennifer Reeser

Friday, July 14, 2017

Salisbury Plain Long Barrow

Wonderful aerial image of a Neolithic long barrow being excavated on the Salisbury Plain near Stonehenge. This structure was spotted in aerial images of the wheat field where it lies, which led to the investigation. It dates to around 3600 BCE. No word yet on whether any skeletons or other remains survived the thousand years plowing that came close to completely erasing it.