Thursday, June 22, 2017

Self-Branding for Experts

Dutch art investigator Arthur Brand made it into the news this week by promising to recover, before the end of the year, the paintings stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum back in 1990. Which was a great publicity stunt in itself, but that is only the beginning of his public relations genius. In the course of reading half a dozen stories about him, I have found him described as a "vigilante art hunter," a "super sleuth," and "the Indiana Jones of the art world." Impressive, Mr. Brand. Now find the paintings.

Stonehenge Backwards

Everybody knows that Stonehenge points toward the midsummer sunrise. Which it does, viewed from a certain angle. In the computer rendering above, the midsummer sunrise is along the line extending toward the upper right.

But what if the monument actually pointed in the other direction? Because if you follow the line that extends toward the lower left, that points toward the midwinter sunset. (Isn't astronomy cool? No wonder people used to be so obsessed with it.) This photograph of a model shows how impressive it might have been to watch that sunset through the tallest trilithon.

There is other evidence that Stonehenge was mainly a midwinter temple. Deposits of sheep and cow bones from feasting have been found nearby, and they seem to have been butchered in winter, not summer. The other grand neolithic monuments of the region (e.g., Newgrange in Ireland) are generally focused on midwinter astronomy.

Plus, the European tradition as a whole just puts a lot more emphasis on the midwinter solstice than midsummer; compare Christmas to St. John's Day or July 4th to get the general idea.

Obviously we don't know and may never, and anyway the monument could equally well serve both functions. But sometimes I find it fascinating  to turn  things around and look at them from the opposite direction.

Let's Get Back to Quilting

The BBC reports on political turmoil in the online quilting community:
It started with political chat and ended up with abusive messages, calls for boycotts and an online civil war between liberals and conservatives. A familiar story, perhaps - only this time it happened in the world of quilting.

The traditional American hobby has - like knitting, baking and other skills - been given a new lease of life by social media, through Reddit discussions, online commerce and the ease of spreading tips and knowledge via digital videos.

But in recent weeks, online communities and bloggers have been discussing a series of screenshots which appear to show socially conservative quilters organising campaigns and hurling insults about other enthusiasts who don't share their political beliefs.
Ok, "Conservative with a Common Interest" is a secret Facebook group, so if they want to mock liberals in a closed forum that's their business, right? But then this:
Members organised a drive to send complaints to an exhibition which had put out a call for quilts protesting against the Trump presidency. They contacted the sponsors of one liberal quilter to suggest that she should be dropped because of her opposition to Trump.

They sent homophobic messages to gay artists and contacted quilting trade shows, asking organisers to cancel classes run by quilters they thought were too liberal.

And they suggested boycotting certain quilters, or reporting them to the IRS - the American tax authorities - so that they would be tied up in tax investigations. Targets were chosen because of their support for things like Planned Parenthood and and women's rights, among other liberal causes.
Quilting has long been a political art in America, as projects like the AIDS quilt or the anti-Trump quilt show, but really. Trying to get the IRS after liberal quilters?

But I was pleased to read that after quilting blogger Eric Suszynski exposed this group, the most common response he got was,
Let's not talk about it, let's move past it. Let's ignore this problem and get back to quilting.

Truth and Trust

Tom Friedman called ethicist Dov Seligman to get his perspective on the current political situation in America:
“What we’re experiencing is an assault on the very foundations of our society and democracy — the twin pillars of truth and trust,” Seidman responded. “What makes us Americans is that we signed up to have a relationship with ideals that are greater than us and with truths that we agreed were so self-evident they would be the foundation of our shared journey toward a more perfect union — and of respectful disagreement along the way. We also agreed that the source of legitimate authority to govern would come from ‘We the people.’”

But when there is no “we” anymore, because “we” no longer share basic truths, Seidman argued, “then there is no legitimate authority and no unifying basis for our continued association.”
This is indeed the great danger, and the thing most to be feared. What to do about it is the great question, and I have heard no compelling answers.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Yawns at CERN

Since the announcement of the Higgs Boson in 2012, no news from the frontiers of particle physics:
Some 5,000 physicists are back at work here at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, watching their computers sift the debris from primordial collisions in search of new particles and forces of nature, and plan to keep at it for at least the next 20 years.

Science is knocking on heaven’s door, as the Harvard physicist Lisa Randall put it in the title of her recent book about particle physics.

But what if nobody answers? What if there is nothing new to discover? That prospect is now a cloud hanging over the physics community.

It’s been five years and more than seven quadrillion collisions of protons since 2012, when the collider discovered the Higgs boson, the particle that explains why some other elementary particles have mass. That achievement completed an edifice of equations called the Standard Model, ending one significant chapter in physics.

A 2015 bump in the collider data hinted at a new particle, inspiring a flood of theoretical papers before it disappeared into the background noise as just another fluke of nature.

But since then, the silence from the frontier has been ominous.

“The feeling in the field is at best one of confusion and at worst depression,” Adam Falkowski, a particle physicist at the Laboratoire de Physique Théorique d’Orsay in France, wrote recently in an article for the science journal Inference.

“These are difficult times for the theorists,” Gian Giudice, the head of CERN’s theory department, said. “Our hopes seem to have been shattered. We have not found what we wanted.”
The particular thing many physicists wanted was supersymmetry. Supersymmetry is a theory that fixes some mathematical problems with the Standard Model by positing an entire suite of particles "symmetric" to the more familiar ones, but at much higher energies. Some versions of the theory posit that some of those particles should have showed up in the CERN data by now. They have not, leading to what one researcher called "a massacre of theories."

The physics we have provides all the knowledge we need to get on with high-tech civilization, but it doesn't explain the universe. The hope was that CERN's colliders would yield new data that would point toward new kinds of explanations. But that hasn't happened, and physicists don't know where else to turn for answers.

Emmanuel Macron and En Marche

France has a completely new government. The new president, Emmanuel Macron, is the nation's youngest leader since Napoleon. The parliament is dominated by the new party Macron created just last Fall, a "centrist" entity called En Marche! The ranks of its representatives include more than a hundred who have never before held public office, including a survivor of the Rwandan genocide who was adopted by a French couple and a mathematician who won the Fields Medal for his work on "proofs of nonlinear Landau damping and convergence to equilibrium of the Boltzmann equation." In one sense this is rather remarkable: French politicians tend to hang around for decades, and many come from families that have been in politics for generations. For a party to go from creation to majority in six months must be some kind of record.

And yet.

Macron may be a new man, but so far as I can see he has no new ideas. He seems to me like a standard representative of the global elite, eerily like Bill Clinton or Tony Blair, or maybe more like a white, uncool Barack Obama. His election manifesto is full of political biolerplate like, "What is our program? Bringing France into the 21st century." I spent fifteen minutes perusing the manifesto and I did not find a single plank that Obama and many other American Democrats would not have endorsed – in fact Obama did endorse Macron.

Some of this was strategy on Macron's part. His plan was to be the sane, professional, non-corrupt, pro-Europe, anti-racist, alternative to Le Pen, so there was a studied vagueness to much of what he said. More than most such documents, the En Marche! manifesto was designed not to lose any votes rather than to generate enthusiasm. The absence of a single interesting idea or controversial proposal was intentional. But that, to me, is rather chilling.

Macron does have a record in government, so we know something about what he is likely to do. He favors reducing some regulations on business to help create jobs, and he supported the controversial El Khomri law that made it easier for French companies to fire workers. He thinks the future of the French economy depends on making French companies more competitive through eased regulation and making French workers more competitive through better education and training. He supports a strong welfare state and comprehensive environmental protections, including a major effort to reduce CO2 emissions. He is strongly anti-racist and has opposed bans on head scarves but has tried to stake out a middle position on immigration, calling for both more aid to legal immigrants and tougher border control to keep out others. He is somewhat hawkish in foreign policy and has called for a UN backed military effort to remove Assad from power in Syria.

Is anti-racism plus neo-liberalism a solution to our problems? Or will it just keep the world idling along as it has been, with more and more inequality, economic and social alienation, permanent disability, terrorism, anxiety, and anger? Does it promise any hope for dealing with the bewildering future?

I know many educated French people feel that they dodged a bullet when Macron defeated Le Pen, but I have a nagging suspicion that they dodged the bullet by stepping into a bottomless mire.

Macron would probably say, and I know Obama would say, that the path we are on – globalization, diversity, the mixed economy, every-increasing pressure to study hard and work hard or else fall out of the middle class – is going to be a hard road, but it's the only road to a prosperous, democratic future. You may not like it, but there just is no other way.

There are no shortcuts to prosperity and stability, just unceasing effort.

And maybe that's right; I certainly don't have any other ideas.

I just have a bad feeling that unless something happens to change the political trajectory, the world's democracies are in for an upheaval that will make this year's Trump/Brexit explosion seem like spilled milk.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017


As the arc of the sun reaches its peak, may it lift your spirits to their highest.

South Carolina Raises its Gas Tax

In South Carolina last month, the legislature overrode the governor's veto of a major increase in the gas tax. The current tax in 16.75 cents/gallon; under the new law the tax will raise 2 cents/gallon each year for the next six years, to a total for 28.75 cents. The money is all allocated to infrastructure spending, mainly major upgrades to existing highways and catching up on deferred highway maintenance. Sorry to be so far behind the news, but I just learned about this from a company-wide conference call in which our highway engineers in the southeast were excited about the business opportunity this presents; if this made any appearance in the national media, I missed it.

South Carolina is by some measures the most conservative state, with a rock-solid Republican majority. As in Kansas, it has turned out that cutting taxes and minimizing government have limits as a long-term strategy for running a state no matter how conservative the voters. As South Carolina's roads have deteriorated and its traffic has worsened, people have began to agitate, not for tax cuts, but for better service from the state government.

Helicopter Parenting and Authoritarianism

I've been wondering when somebody was going to make this argument, and here it is:
American childhood has taken an authoritarian turn. An array of trends in American society are conspiring to produce unprecedented levels of supervision and control over children’s lives. Tracing the effects of childrearing on broad social outcomes is an exercise in speculation. But if social scientists are correct to posit a connection between childrearing and long-term political outcomes, today’s restrictive childhood norms may portend a broader regression in our country’s democratic consensus.

Since the early 1980s, American childhood has been marked by a turn toward stringent adult control. Support for “free range” childhood has given way to a “flight to safety” characterized by unprecedented dictates over children’s routines.

More so than any other generation, parents and educators have instill in millennials the idea that, as Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt put it, “life is dangerous, but adults will do everything in their power to protect you from harm.”
This author (Pratik Chougule) notes the various signs we have seen of a waning attachment to democracy, especially among the young, and wonders if childrearing is to blame:
Whether or not an authoritarian scenario unfolds in the United States could depend on childrearing trends. Indeed, social scientists have long argued that the origins of authoritarian societies can be discerned in childhood pathologies.

Among the most far-reaching adherents of this view was the late psychologist Alice Miller, a student of authoritarian regimes. Through her study of Nazism and Soviet communism, Miller concluded that dictatorships emerge when an entire generation of children is raised under authoritarian conditions replete with excessive forms of control and discipline. In the case of Nazi Germany, Miller is convinced that Hitler would not have come to power but for turn-of-the-century German childrearing practices that emphasized “unthinking obedience” and discouraged creativity.
I have long wondered about this. On the one hand it seems that big changes in childrearing ought to have big effects on everything else in society, but on the other this is hard to document. I can believe that there was a lot of rigid parenting in early 20th-century Germany, but was it really worse than a hundred years earlier? Or than in Britain at the same time? Does anybody know how parenting changed or didn't in 20th-century China? In general I have found it hard to draw clear lines from parenting styles to anything else.

Plus I think this narrative exaggerates how much American parenting really changed. My children all spent a lot more time inside than I did, but that was in spite of my constantly nagging to go out rather than my trying to keep them in. I think cable television and video games have had more to do with increasing sedentism in children than rigid parenting.

And, I think the biggest threat to American democracy is angry partisanship, not risk aversion.

But as I said I have long pondered the broader impacts of changes in child-rearing, and I wonder what the political effects of  anxious parenting will be.

Altamura Cathedral

Altamura is a small city in southeastern Italy, in the district of Bari. It was refounded in 1232 by Emperor Frederick II, after being badly damaged and partially abandoned in some war or another.

Frederick also commissioned the church, which was built between 1232 and 1254. At first it was not a cathedral but only a royal chapel – Frederick and the Pope did not get along, and while the emperor could build all the chapels he wanted only the Pope could create a bishopric. But a later treaty between popes and emperors gave it episcopal status.

The church was restored after a fire in 1316, which we know because an inscription records that Robert of Anjou sent workers to help.

The north portal seems to date to that time.

In 1485 the church was elevated and status and various accounts state that it was enlarged, restored, or rebuilt. Historians used to imagine a major reconstruction in the early 16th century, and some said that it was realigned, the altar and entrance switching ends. However work done during the most recent restoration seems to have disproved that notion. This means that the wonderful entrance is back to being an original work of Frederick's artisans, still in its original location.

Details from the door; the bottom shows Herod ordering the Massacre of the Innocents.

The interior has obviously been much changed; the overall look may date to the 16th century but many pieces are more recent still. But the basic structure of the columns and arches is medieval.

Black and white photos were taken by Paolo Monti in 1970; via wikimedia commons.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Leaders and States

From the Vox review:
The most telling moment in The Putin Interviews, director Oliver Stone’s four-hour conversation with Russian President Vladimir Putin, recorded over the course of nearly two years, comes late in the second hour.

Stone is trying to get Putin to say whether he does or doesn’t like then-presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. Putin demurs entirely, but offers up a theory of how power functions.

Should Sanders become president, Putin says, he would suddenly realize the vast weight of the American bureaucracy that existed underneath him. He might make some changes to the US on a domestic level, but he would ultimately be unable to change that much — the person at the head of the state matters less than the centuries of power the state has accumulated and will protect at all costs. People aren’t responsible for what happens; the vast structures surrounding them are. Look at Barack Obama, Putin suggests. He sincerely wanted to close the Guantanamo Bay prison, and did he? No. You can’t fight the state.

This is telling for two reasons. The first is that it, if true, explains Putin’s motives in regards to the United States in the time since that interview was conducted in 2016. But the second reason is even more telling. This isn’t just how Putin sees [insert US president here]. It’s how he sees himself: as a conduit for the vast sweep of history, guided less by his own political beliefs and desires than by forces even he can barely understand.
I believe something like this, but for the "vast sweep of history" I would substitute "all the forces operating on the nation and its politics right now." Some of those forces have to do with the weight of history (race in America, for example) but others may be very new, such as the rise of tech monopolies. In any case the best the president can do is nudge things a tiny bit one way or the other; even with the help of a friendly Congress he can do very few things that will still seem important in a century.

The Onion Sums Up the Fall of Men

‘This Here Is Probably Our Bestselling Love Seat,’ Says Man Who Would Have Been Powerful, Revered Warrior 4,000 Years Ago

Silver God

Silver mask of a god, most likely Jupiter, 1 to 150 CE. 18 × 13 × 5 cm (7 × 5 × 2 in.). In the Getty.

Individualism Watch

Here's another item in my ongoing series explaining American politics through our obsessive individualism, this one from the Washington Post:
Call it the All About Me trip

“One of the greatest gifts you can give yourself” is permission to travel alone.
Mind you I'm not objecting to this idea; I'm a citizen of this world, too, and I've taken many trips alone. I just note the emphasis in our age on giving to yourself. Which is why, I think, libertarians have suddenly sprouted up all around us, and why it is so difficult for us to carry out any sort of grand common project like national health care.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Today's Sentence

The outrage machine may be careening out of control.

–Emily Peck

Castle Sween

Castle Sween may be the oldest stone castle in the Scottish highlands, although its early history is as myth-mixed as all other knowledge of the medieval highlands.

It overlooks Loch Sween on the west coast, inland from the Isle of Jura, nearly due west from Glasgow.

The name is the English form of the Gaelic Suibhne, said to be the name of the 12th-century builder. He was remember as Suibhne the Red, progenitor of the MacSweens. Knowledge of that dim period comes from much later sources, especially the Leabhar Chlainne Suibhne, the Book of the Sons of Sween. This is the traditional genealogy of Clan Sweeney, written in Ireland in the 16th century:
The Leabhar Chlainne Suibhne states that Suibhne was the son of Donnshléibhe, son of Aodh Aluinn, son of Anradhán. The account claims that Anradhan was the younger son of Aodh Athlamhan. When his brother succeeded their father, the two brothers quarreled with each other, and Anradhán sailed to Scotland. There he conquered half of the country before making peace with the King of Scots, by marrying his daughter. Suibhne is credited within the account to have built Castle Sween. His son is named as Maolmhuire an Sparáin ('Maolmhuire of the Purse').
Everything in that account that can be checked against other sources is wrong, so we're not dealing with an accurate record even by the loose standards of Celtic oral history. Some historians try to make sense of this, but so far as I can it might be pure imagination. Still, somebody built the castle a good while before 1300, and how cool to have a family history called the Leabhar Chlainne Suibhne.

In the 13th century the Scottish MacSweens were a powerful clan, controlling land ten miles to the north and south of the fortress. But toward the end of the century they lost out in an obscure struggle with the Stewart Earls of Menteith, who ended up in control of Castle Sween. So when Edward I of England began trying to subdue Scotland in what we now know as the Wars of Braveheart, the MacSweens supported Edward in the hope that they would get their lands and castle back. It worked, for a while, but after the great warrior Longshanks died in 1307, succeeded by a son who preferred music and boating to fighting, Robert Bruce began to win the war. In 1308 he took the castle after a brief siege and granted it to Angus Og, one of his lieutenants.

In 1310 the MacSweens were back, besieging the castle from land and sea with English help. This event was remembered in an Irish source called the Book of the Dean of Lismore as “a tryst of a fleet against Castle Sween”. The siege failed, however, and that branch of the MacSweens thereafter fades from Scottish history.

Somehow the castle ended up in the hands of the Scottish king, because in 1376 he granted it to John I, one of the MacDonald Lords of the Isles.They held it to 1490, when it was taken by the MacDonalds' great enemies, the Campbells, who made it part of their Earldom of Argyll.

The castle was fought over again in 1647, during the event that the English call their Civil War. That conflict is known elsewhere in Britain as the Wars of the Three Kingdoms, since there was a lot more going on than just a fight between Charles I and Parliament. Castle Sween was attacked and burnt by Alasdair MacColla, a leader of Clan MacDonald who took the side of the Stuart king and the Irish Confederates against the Scottish Covenanters and the English Parliament. (The Campbells, of course, took the side of the Covenanters. That's how things worked in the Highlands.) MacColla became notorious for a campaign he led across the highlands in 1644-1645. After joining forces with the King's Lieutenant, James Graham of Montrose, he fought and won seven battles, some against great odds. He had a policy of killing every Campbell man he met, and he was accused of murdering women and children as well. This included several families' worth he was accused of burning to death in what the Campbells still remember as the "Barn of Bones." But MacColla was killed late in 1647 at the Battle of Knocknanuss in Ireland, and in general the defeat of the Stuart cause was even more complete in Scotland than in England.

What happened to Castle Sween after 1647 I have not been able to determine. But sometime in the 20th century it acquired an interesting neighbor, the Castle Sween Caravan Park. So aerial photos of the castle are mostly full of campers. My wife pointed out that in olden times it would have been surrounded by huts, so maybe this is just modern feudalism.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Jules Joseph Lefebvre

Scanning what I've put up on my blog lately, I thought, it's really time for a post on a painter from the past. I thought about someone from the Renaissance but couldn't find anything that grabbed me; ditto the Baroque. I ended up back at the art closest to my heart: 19th-century academic painting. I've already done my favorites (Alma-Tadema, Waterhouse, Sargent), but there are plenty of others. This painting in particular (Odalisque, 1878) grabbed my attention, so today we feature Jules Joseph Lefebvre (1836–1912).

I would tell you about Lefebvre, but really there isn't much to tell. He had exactly the career you would expect for a 19th-century French academic painter: École des Beaux-Arts, then a prestigious Prix de Rome scholarship to study in Italy, professorship at the Académie Julian, three gold medals in the Salon, member of the Légion d'honneur. Besides having one of the most common French names of the period, he also looked exactly like you would expect. Lefebvre even died in 1912, the perfect year for a figure from Europe's great era to take his leave of earth. (Girl with a Mandolin).

Like William-Adolphe Bouguereau and numerous other painters of that period, he had a thing for lovely young women. If you google Lefebvre and go to the images tab, the first three dozen pictures are all lovely young women. Which is not truly representative of his work – he did mythological scenes and many portraits of men – but on the other hand it isn't entirely unfair, either. My elder daughter and I were just joking about Lefebvre's great range: reclining women, standing women, historical women, Biblical women, mythical women, women with clothes, women without clothes, women partially dressed. . . . (Mary Magdelene at the Cave, 1875)

Portrait of the Prince Imperial, Eugene-Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, in 1874. After his father Napoleon III was overthrown (in 1870), the Prince went to England, where he entered the army and ended up getting killed in the Zulu War, largely due to his own rashness. I've always found that quite perfect; I mean, what else was he going to do? And when you think in the big picture about European colonialism, some of it was driven by capitalists and strategic thinkers and other semi-rational people, but much of it was just young men whose violent energies drove them forth across the world looking for places unbound by the corset stays of 19th-century civilization, places of struggle and blood where they could cast aside their starched shirts and kill or die like men in stories. Never underrate this mad energy as a force in history.

Graziella, 1878. She was a character in a famous story by Alphonse de Lamartine, in which the protagonist falls in love with the daughter of a Neapolitan fisherman. (Note Vesuvius in the background). This was commissioned by a wealthy patroness, so in this case we can't blame the subject on Lefebvre's own obsessions.

Nymph with the Young Bacchus, 1866.

Morning Glory, 1879.

Portrait of M Fitzgerald, 1889.

Judith, 1892.

Young Woman with a Rose, 1901.

Yes, this one has a milquetoast look about her, but then she is supposed to be the Patient Griselda.

If I had to choose a time to live in before my own, I think it would the 19th-century Europe. At least I would be huge fan of the official art of my time, free from the alienation that grips me whenever I behold most 20th-century painting or architecture. Lefebvre and his colleagues had my idea of beauty, and of art. And I would choose to die in 1912, before the Great War turned the hopes of that world to dust.

The Waste Land



What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water. Only
There is a shadow under this red rock,
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you:
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.


The river’s tent is broken: the last fingers of leaf
Clutch and sink into the wet bank. The wind
Crosses the brown land, unheard. The nymphs are departed.
Sweet Thames, run softly, till I end my song.
The river bears no empty bottles, sandwich papers,
Silk handkerchiefs, cardboard boxes, cigarette ends
Or other testimony of summer nights. The nymphs are departed.
And their friends, the loitering heirs of city directors;
Departed, have left no addresses.
By the waters of Leman I sat down and wept
Sweet Thames, run softly till I end my song,
Sweet Thames, run softly, for I speak not loud or long.
But at my back in a cold blast I hear
The rattle of the bones, and chuckle spread from ear to ear.


After the torchlight red on sweaty faces
After the frosty silence in the gardens
After the agony in stony places
The shouting and the crying
Prison and palace and reverberation
Of thunder of spring over distant mountains
He who was living is now dead
We who were living are now dying
With a little patience

Here is no water but only rock
Rock and no water and the sandy road
The road winding above among the mountains
Which are mountains of rock without water
If there were water we should stop and drink
Amongst the rock one cannot stop or think
Sweat is dry and feet are in the sand
If there were only water amongst the rock
Dead mountain mouth of carious teeth that cannot spit
Here one can neither stand nor lie nor sit
There is not even silence in the mountains
But dry sterile thunder without rain
There is not even solitude in the mountains
But red sullen faces sneer and snarl
From doors of mudcracked houses

If there were water
And no rock
If there were rock
And also water
And water
A spring
A pool among the rock
If there were the sound of water only
Not the cicada
And dry grass singing
But sound of water over a rock
Where the hermit-thrush sings in the pine trees
Drip drop drip drop drop drop drop
But there is no water . . .

In this decayed hole among the mountains
In the faint moonlight, the grass is singing
Over the tumbled graves, about the chapel
There is the empty chapel, only the wind’s home.
It has no windows, and the door swings,
Dry bones can harm no one.
Only a cock stood on the rooftree
Co co rico co co rico
In a flash of lightning. Then a damp gust
Bringing rain

–T.S. Eliot, 1922

Friday, June 16, 2017

Human Sacrifice in Shang Dynasty China

Yinxu in northern China is believed to be the site of Yin, the capital of the  Shang Dynasty between about 1300 and 1000 BCE. Discoveries there have included "oracle bones" that preserve the earliest examples of Chinese writing and a vast royal cemetery.

The best preserved elite tomb is that of Lady Fu Hao, above. This dates to around 1250 BCE.

Chariot from a tomb, preserved in the "Hall of Chariots" at the site.

The royal cemetery also includes numerous – hundreds, probably – of pits where obviously non-elite people were buried. Many of these were headless, mutilated corpses buried without any grave goods.
Prior worked revealed an extraordinary number of ritual human sacrifices were conducted during the Shang dynasty, which spanned from the 16th century B.C. to the 11th century B.C. It is the earliest dynasty in China for which archaeologists have evidence. For instance, sacrificial pits are common across the entire site of the last Shang capital, Yinxu, which researchers discovered in 1928 in central China's Henan Province. Scientists have estimated that over the course of about 200 years, more than 13,000 people were sacrificed in Yinxu, usually males ages 15 to 35, and that on average, each sacrificial ritual there likely claimed at least 50 human victims. The biggest sacrifice found so far killed at least 339 people.
Yinxu is in the news because the results of chemical analysis of the bones have been published, and they provide evidence for the theory that the victims were war captives. This type of study is usually done on teeth, because the chemical composition of tooth enamel is more or less permanent. That of other bones changes with time, as the calcium in the bones is swapped out. But since most of the sacrificial victims at Yinxu had no heads, using teeth was not an option. So other bones were studied. The results showed that the chemical composition of the major bones is different from that of local people, but that of some smaller bones is much more similar to the local pattern.

This suggests that the victims came from some distance away (the major bones) but had lived in Yinxu for some years, which led to gradual replacement of the minerals in their bones, changing the signature of the smaller ones. Most likely they were slaves for years until an occasion came along that required a massive sacrifice, at which point they were all beheaded and tossed into a pit.

Advice for the Left from an Experienced Human Rights Lawyer

Conor Friedersdorf spoke to an experienced human rights lawyer about the American left today, and the lawyer had lots of advice:
The foundations of human rights struggles - and triumphs - lie in perilous battles. Slavery, Nazism, apartheid and more. Each ethos was entirely incompatible with the basic communal principle of “do no harm.” A struggle against them was necessarily existential. They either had to be eliminated entirely, or suffered completely. A contrary view could neither be accepted nor tolerated. Its proponents had to be ruthlessly destroyed. In the battles listed above, that was the correct approach.
But maybe things have changed:
Today, in developed democracies, that is no longer the case. There is considerable futility in adopting an ardent, classic human rights struggle for much of what is being sought by the Left. The nature of the struggle has changed. The goal is improving the peace that we have, not winning the war we are waging. The goal is to be able to live in the same street, not claim that street as ours. . . .

Seeking the advancement of human rights in a democracy is like seeking a better marriage with your spouse. You should always seek a better marriage.

Sometimes, that results in a fight. The purpose of the fight should never be to destroy your spouse. The purpose of the fight is to keep living with your spouse. To do that, choose your disputes carefully and over only the most vital of matters. Accept that your spouse is seeking certainty and security, just as you are. If you believe in individual dignity, accept that their thoughts and actions may not reconcile with yours and that trying to shame them will make the relationship intolerable. Most importantly, once the fight is over, seek reconciliation. After all, you have to live with one another.
This is how I feel. In America, Europe, and elsewhere, the key legal battles over women's rights, minority rights and gay rights have been won. What is needed now – and I mean especially what is needed now to protect those victories and insure equal rights in the future – is reconciliation.

Push people too hard, and they would rather vote for Donald Trump than agree with you.

Jails as Drug Treatment Centers

As the nation's opiate epidemic continues to worsen – preliminary figures for 2016 show 59,000 overdose deaths nationwide, up 19% from 2015's record total – states are getting desperate for solutions. Some are trying approaches that would never have been considered a decade ago, for example Kentucky's experiment with installing full-fledged drug treatment centers in jails:
The sheer dimensions of the opiate-addiction epidemic are forcing new ideas. One of them, now being tried extensively in Kentucky, is jail not as a cost but as an investment in recovery. Jails as full-time rehab centers — from lights on to lights out.

Jailing addicts is anathema to treatment advocates. But as any parent of an addict can tell you, opiates are mind-controlling beasts. A kid who complained about the least little household chore while sober will, as an addict, walk through five miles of snow, endure any hardship or humiliation, to get his dope.

Waiting for an addict to reach rock bottom and make a rational choice to seek treatment sounds nice in theory. But it ignores the nature of the drugs in question, while also assuming a private treatment bed is miraculously available at the moment the addict, who is usually without insurance, is willing and financially able to occupy it. The reality is that, unlike with other drugs, with opiates rock bottom is often death. . . .

Jail may in fact be the best place to initiate addict recovery. It’s in jail where addicts first come face-to-face with the criminal-justice system, long before they commit crimes that warrant a prison sentence. Once in custody and detoxed of the dope that has controlled their decisions, it’s in jail where addicts more clearly behold the wreckage of their lives. And it is at that moment of clarity and contrition when they are typically plunged into a jailhouse of extortion, violence and tedium.

In the red state of Kentucky, a relentless opiate-addiction epidemic is changing long-held dogma about how to deal with addicts. Families who once supported a “throw away the key” approach to addiction are thinking differently now that their loved ones are strung out. Kentucky is also the only state that elects its jailers. This gives them more autonomy than their counterparts elsewhere. It also inspires more budgetary accountability to voters, and thus an acute awareness of the costs of cycling inmates in and out and back in again.

Kenton County is among the latest of two dozen Kentucky county jails that have started full-time “therapeutic communities” aimed at rehabilitation within their walls, providing inmates the services that private treatment centers offer on the outside. Much of the impetus has come from the state’s Department of Corrections, which a decade ago began transitioning its prisons away from pure lockups to providing drug treatment.
It will take years to find out how well this works, but meanwhile it certainly seems worth trying to me.

Luca di Tomme, St. John the Baptist

c. 1380

"Deadbeat Dads"

David Brooks summarizes research by Kathryn Edin and Timothy J. Nelson on absent fatherhood among the poor folks of Philadelphia and Camden, New Jersey:
Pregnancy is rarely planned among the populations they studied. Typically the parents are in a semi-relationship that is somewhere between a one-night stand and an actual boyfriend-girlfriend bond. The couple use contraception at the beginning, but when it becomes understood they are “together,” they stop. They don’t really talk about pregnancy, but they sort of make it possible.

When the men learn that their partner is pregnant, they don’t panic, or lament all the freedom they are going to miss. On the contrary, three-quarters of the men in Edin and Nelson’s research were joyous at the news. The men are less likely than the women to want to end the pregnancy with an abortion.

These guys have often had a lot of negativity in their lives. The child is a chance to turn things around and live a disciplined life. The child is a chance to have a respected role, to find love and purpose.

The men at this stage are filled with earnest resolve. They begin to take the relationship more seriously and commit to the kid during infancy.

The key weakness is not the father’s bond to the child; it’s the parents’ bond with each other. They usually went into this without much love or sense of commitment. The fathers often retain a traditional and idealistic “Leave It to Beaver” view of marriage. They dream of the perfect soul mate. They know this woman isn’t it, so they are still looking.

Buried in the rigors of motherhood, the women, meanwhile, take a very practical view of what they need in a man: Will this guy provide the financial stability I need, and if not, can I trade up to someone who will?

The father begins to perceive the mother as bossy, just another authority figure to be skirted. Run-ins with drugs, the law and other women begin to make him look even more disreputable in her eyes.

By the time the child is 1, half these couples have split up, and many of the rest will part ways soon after. Suddenly there’s a new guy living in the house, a man who resents the old one. The father redefines his role. He no longer aims to be the provider and caregiver, just the occasional “best friend” who can drop by and provide a little love. This is a role he has a shot at fulfilling, but it destroys parental responsibility.
Is there a solution to this problem? A way to get  young people to be more serious about parenthood and pair-bonding? Actually we know of two: one is religion, and the other is going to college and entering the middle class. How to make either real for the people of Camden is a hard problem, and I can't think of anything else to try.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

What Helps Low Income Children Learn

Freddie deBoer got modestly famous as a left-wing political blogger, but he eventually got tired of political wrangling and abandoned that effort. Now he just writes about education research, his academic specialty.

This week he features a big new study, a meta-analysis of a 101 studies from the past 15 years, all looking at various interventions that were intended to raise the test scores of low-income American elementary and middle school students. Except for one study that deBoer doesn't like, they all find modest effect sizes; the basic take-away from this study is that helping poor kids learn more is hard, no matter what you try.

Scanning the chart above, you see that what helps most is more attention, especially individualized attention from adults. One-on-one tutoring works better than anything else. As deBoer puts it, What Actually Helps Poor Students? Human Beings.

Our Unpredictable President

Two stories that underscore the confusion generated in Washington by the Trump administration's inability to maintain a coherent policy on anything. First Trump held a meeting yesterday in which he told 15 Senators that the House health care bill stinks:
One source said Trump called the House bill “mean, mean, mean” and said, “We need to be more generous, more kind.” The other source said Trump used a vulgarity to describe the House bill and told the senators, “We need to be more generous.”
Of course that's the same bill that he celebrated in a Rose Garden ceremony when it passed the House. "A great plan," he called it. I'm very happy that Trump now finds the bill mean, which I think is a good description, but I think if I were a Republican Senator I might be a tad frustrated right now.

And then back to news from Qatar. You may recall that a few days ago Trump was calling Qatar a major supporter of terrorism and supporting the Saudi-led blockade of the country.
Qatar will sign a deal to buy as many as 36 F-15 jets from the U.S. as the two countries navigate tensions over President Donald Trump’s backing for a Saudi-led coalition’s move to isolate the country for supporting terrorism.

Qatari Defense Minister Khalid Al-Attiyah and his U.S. counterpart, Jim Mattis, completed the $12 billion agreement on Wednesday in Washington, according to the Pentagon.

The sale “will give Qatar a state of the art capability and increase security cooperation and interoperability between the United States and Qatar,” the Defense Department said in a statement.
This seems like a case of the Defense Department just ignoring the president and carrying on as if Obama or Bush were still in charge. Will Trump notice? If so, what will he do?

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Bear Teams

From Popular Mechanics, 1923.

Opening Fire

The guy who opened fire on the Congressmen at baseball practice, and the guy who made the armed investigation of the pizza parlor said to be the base of the Clintons' sex slave ring, are nuts.

But on the other hand they are only taking seriously the rhetoric we hear all around us every day. If Republicans are really Nazis, if Democrats are really out to destroy America, then we should take up arms against them. If half the things that Breitbart published about Obama were true, then we should all have been trying to assassinate him. If Ted Cruz is right that America is "sliding off the cliff," opening fire on the opposition seems like the least we should do. If corporations really want to enslave us, blowing up their headquarters and killing their CEOs should only be the first two steps.

If we took seriously the rhetoric that pours forth every day from both the right and the left, then we ought to be having a civil war.

And yet so far only a few lunatics have drawn these conclusions. I am not sure what to make of this.

I suppose that at some level sane people understand the extreme rhetoric is bullshit. The savage words express frustration and give vent to anger but don't really mean what they naively seem to. So long as most people understand this, we will be ok.

But I don't like it. I don't like the fulmination, the cultivation of anger and hate, the denunciations that lump ordinary Republicans and Democrats together with Nazis and Bolsheviks. I don't like it that the route to wealth and fame is through saying things that, taken literally, should lead to mass slaughter in the streets. I worry that at some point not just a few crazies but a few hundred will turn to guns and bombs, or even a few thousand. What then?

All the broadcasters spouting anger and hate, all the prophets of doom, all the spreaders of dark conspiracies, and all the rest of that damnable crew should stop.

If we continue to believe their our neighbors are our worst enemies, we will end up killing each other.


I remained somewhat befuddled by how a lot of things happen in the world.

– Jill Lepore. From this interesting interview.

Kenan Malik: Cultural Appropriation is the New Blasphemy

One of my heroes, Indian/British scientist and writer Kenan Malik, has written a forthright defense of cultural appropriation:
It is just as well that I’m a writer, not an editor. Were I editing a newspaper or magazine, I might soon be out of a job. For this is an essay in defense of cultural appropriation. . . .

What is cultural appropriation, and why is it so controversial? Susan Scafidi, a law professor at Fordham University, defines it as “taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission.” This can include the “unauthorized use of another culture’s dance, dress, music, language, folklore, cuisine, traditional medicine, religious symbols, etc.”

Appropriation suggests theft, and a process analogous to the seizure of land or artifacts. In the case of culture, however, what is called appropriation is not theft but messy interaction. Writers and artists necessarily engage with the experiences of others. Nobody owns a culture, but everyone inhabits one, and in inhabiting a culture, one finds the tools for reaching out to other cultures.

Critics of cultural appropriation insist that they are opposed not to cultural engagement, but to racism. They want to protect marginalized cultures and ensure that such cultures speak for themselves, not simply be seen through the eyes of more privileged groups.

Certainly, cultural engagement does not take place on a level playing field. Racism and inequality shape the ways in which people imagine others. Yet it is difficult to see how creating gated cultures helps promote social justice. . . .

Campaigns against cultural appropriation reveal the changing meaning of what it is to challenge racism. Once, it was a demand for equal treatment for all. Now it calls for cultures to be walled off and boundaries to be policed.

But who does the policing? Every society has its gatekeepers, whose role is to protect certain institutions, maintain the privileges of particular groups and cordon off some beliefs from challenge. Such gatekeepers protect not the marginalized but the powerful. Racism itself is a form of gatekeeping, a means of denying racialized groups equal rights, access and opportunities.

In minority communities, the gatekeepers are usually self-appointed guardians whose power rests on their ability to define what is acceptable and what is beyond the bounds. They appropriate for themselves the authority to license certain forms of cultural engagement, and in doing so, entrench their power.

The most potent form of gatekeeping is religion. When certain beliefs are deemed sacred, they are put beyond questioning. To challenge such beliefs is to commit blasphemy.

The accusation of cultural appropriation is a secular version of the charge of blasphemy. It’s the insistence that certain beliefs and images are so important to particular cultures that they may not appropriated by others.
Notice the astonishing question-begging of that phrase "without permission." Whose permission? When Disney made Moana they engaged with numerous Polynesian artists, writers, and actors, who gave their strong support, but they still ended up accused of cultural appropriation by many self-proclaimed Polynesian spokespeople. The only way to avoid such accusations would be for them to never make movies set outside Europe. Is that what we want? How would that fight racism?

Kenan Malik is a rationalist who has spent his whole career promoting the universal values of the Enlightenment against obscurantism wherever he finds it. To him, cries of cultural appropriation are exactly like the attacks made by mullahs against Salman Rushdie, in which they turned the wrath of their followers on an outsider in order to shore up their own power.
In fact, it’s more troubling because, as the critic Adam Shatz has observed, the campaign against [cultural appropriation] contains an “implicit disavowal that acts of radical sympathy, and imaginative identification, are possible across racial lines.”
That last point is, I think, the crucial one. The argument against cultural appropriation comes down to believing that people of different races cannot understand each other, cannot identify with each other, cannot really even help each other. If so, the racists are right, and a multi-cultural society is simply impossible.

Classical Analogies for our Times

Ross Douthat says that the problem with the new production of Julius Caesar featuring a Caesar who looks like Donald Trump is not that it encourages assassination, it's that Caesar is the wrong analog for Trump. I agree completely; Caesar was a man of astonishing ability and energy, successful as a general, diplomat, politician, writer, and reformer of the calendar, and one of the greatest orators oratory-obsessed Rome had ever seen. No, for a proper Trump figure in the ancient world, we're going to have to look elsewhere:
Consider “Crassus,” the story of how a sordid real-estate speculator made a vast fortune as a Roman slumlord, rode both slave labor and the fear of slave rebellions to political influence, and leveraged his wealth to a share of power alongside his more dashing frenemies, Pompey and Caesar.

Look long at the heavy face of Marcus Licinius Crassus: Do you not see a certain resemblance to our president? Ponder his record, from the wall (!) that he attempted to build across an Italian peninsula to seal in Spartacus’s slave revolt, to the creepy and illicit pursuit of a Vestal Virgin relative (though he probably just wanted her property). Is it not, by Roman standards, rather Trumpian?

Sadly I fear that Shakespeare’s “Crassus,” now showing in the theater of my imagination, might be just as controversial as the new “Julius Caesar” were it staged as an evocation of the Trump era, since it would end with its slain-by-Parthians Crassus having molten gold, a symbol of his avarice, poured into his open mouth.

Happily our political world is somewhat more humane than Rome’s, and no fate so vile and vivid awaits any of our sagging republic’s leaders.

But when the full story of our era is written, I would bet on Trump being remembered more like a Crassus than like a Caesar — as an important but not decisive player in our march toward an ever-more-imperial executive, notable for his greed and pride and folly, but eclipsed by even more dangerous figures yet to come.
I agree about how Trump will be remembered. As for the more dangerous figures yet to come, I have my doubts. Trump has certainly shown that there is a path to power for a nationalist demagogue, and some of my friends worry that a smarter, more ruthless and (let's face it) less ridiculous man might try to follow it. But I wonder if the unrolling disaster of the Trump administration may provide a sort of inoculation against future endeavors in that direction, at least for a few decades.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Unsinkable Sam

One of the great things about the internet is the window it can give you into other people's delightful obsessions. Consider the amazing wikipedia article on Ship's Cats, obviously a true labor of love. Part of the table of contents:

That's more notable examples than they have for most categories of famous people. Let's hear the tale of one of the examples, the famous Unsinkable Sam:
Previously named Oscar, he was the ship's cat of the German battleship Bismarck. When she was sunk on 27 May 1941, only 116 out of a crew of over 2,200 survived. Oscar was picked up by the destroyer HMS Cossack (ironically one of the ships responsible for destroying Bismarck). Cossack herself was torpedoed and sunk a few months later, on 24 October, killing 159 of her crew, but Oscar again survived to be rescued, and was taken to Gibraltar. He became the ship's cat of HMS Ark Royal, which was torpedoed and sunk in November that year. Oscar was again rescued, but it was decided at that time to transfer him to a home on land. By now known as Unsinkable Sam because of surviving the three sinking-ships, he was given a new job as mouse-catcher in the Governor General's of Gibraltar office buildings. He eventually returned to the UK and spent the rest of his life at the 'Home for Sailors'. A portrait of him hangs in the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich.