Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Kilian Schönberger: Blue Forest

Photographs taken in the famous "Hallerbos" bluebell wood in Belgium. More at the artist's web site.

Putin's Strategy: Get Americans to Hate Each Other

The Times:
In its prepared remarks sent to Congress, Facebook said the Internet Research Agency, a shadowy Russian company linked to the Kremlin, had posted roughly 80,000 pieces of divisive content that was shown to about 29 million people between January 2015 and August 2017. Those posts were then liked, shared and followed by others, spreading the messages to tens of millions more people. Facebook also said it had found and deleted more than 170 accounts on its photo-sharing app Instagram; those accounts had posted about 120,000 pieces of Russia-linked content. . . .

The Russia-linked posts were “an insidious attempt to drive people apart,” Colin Stretch, the general counsel for Facebook who will appear at the hearings, said in his prepared remarks. He called the posts “deeply disturbing,” and noted they focused on race, religion, gun rights, and gay and transgender issues.
The Wall Street Journal:
Russian-linked account activity went far beyond paying for polarizing ads dropped into Facebook members’ news feeds. At least 60 rallies, protests and marches were publicized or financed by eight Russia-backed Facebook accounts from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C., according to a review by The Wall Street Journal, which looked at archived versions of now-deleted Facebook posts and interviewed activists, attendees and others familiar with the events, most of which were posted on Facebook. Facebook said in September that it had found 470 such accounts that it says belonged to Russians and that sought to exploit social divisions in the U.S. through provocative issue ads…

At least 22 of the 60 events actually took place, such as a May 2016 protest of an Islamic center in Houston planned by “Heart of Texas”, a Russia-created page that supported Texas secession and posted the “Blue Lives Matter” rally in Dallas two months later. On June 25, 2016, following the shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Fla, “LGBT United” organized a candlelight vigil, where one of the victim’s brothers spoke. Both were covered by local media and attracted a dozen or more attendees.
National Review:
The Russian government didn’t really want to help Trump, and they didn’t want to help the Clinton campaign, either. (They may have felt they would get a better deal from Trump, but they certainly weren’t willing to put aside their efforts to exacerbate political and cultural tensions over that.) Russia is no true friend to either the American political right or left: “Event listings show how Russia-backed pages organized protests for and against the same issues. The page “Born Patriotic” planned 17 pro-Trump rallies on the same day in August 2016 while “Black Matters” hosted anti-Trump rallies after the election.” They wanted Americans angry, lashing out at each other, and paralyzed and weakened by our own internal political and cultural divisions. It appears many Americans helped make their task way too easy for them.
On the one hand, what a clever strategy. On the other, Americans hate each other so much without Russian help that this may have made no difference, and besides, what does Russia really gain from all their work, other than making themselves feel clever?

To me the thing worth noting is that Americans are so divided they would rather ally with Vladimir Putin against the other party than band together against a rotten dictatorship trying to ruin our democracy.

Quote for the Day

From a BBC piece on the big Viking meet-up at Wolin in Poland, organized by an international group called the Jomsborg Vikings:
The true Viking message, which the Jomsborg Vikings try to promote, is one of tolerance and diversity.

Questioning Everything

The better a school or professor is, the better they train their students to question everything.

This came from Scott Alexander here, but it is really a truism of our intellectual culture. It is the mantra of our higher education: question, question, question.

Is that, as believers of many sorts would argue, the root of the modern problem? Are we anxious, depressed, alienated, and obsessed with politics because we don't believe enough? And do we believe so little because we have gotten so good at questioning?

I was born with a skeptical turn of mind and in my youth fell madly for the sort of science that specialized in debunking whatever people used to believe. My heroes were bold opponents of the status quo: Galileo, Giordano Bruno, Thomas Paine, Darwin, Richard Feynman, Lynn Margulis, Martin Gardner, Carl Sagan.

Years ago I reached a state of believing very little, and I am no longer so impressed by skepticism. The whole culture of debunking, "destroying," "smashing," and whatever else people do on the internet and late-night television leaves me cold. To anyone with a modern education, debunking is too easy; we can all think of a hundred reasons why anything might not be true. The challenge, given what we know and how we have been taught, is to believe in anything. I am not thinking of fools who believe what Trump says or what pours from left-wing sociology departments; I mean things one can believe in without being a fool. My current heroes are people who have absorbed all that modern skepticism has to offer but still maintain positive commitments: Learned Hand and the rest of the Pragmatists, Rainer Maria Rilke, Barack Obama.

Questioning everything should be the first step in finding one's own way in life, not the final stage.

Our Basic Problem

David Brooks:
These days, partisanship is totalistic. People often use partisan identity to fill the void left when their other attachments wither away — religious, ethnic, communal and familial.
If we do not stop this process — the ongoing division of the country into red and blue blocs that feel nothing but hatred and disdain for each other, that are woven into people's identities at the most fundamental level — then our democracy is doomed.

Monday, October 30, 2017

What Partisan Journalists are Doing

I was struck by these lines from Michael Gerson, on conservative journalists who defend by Trump by attacking Robert Mueller:
They are dropping lit matches in the dry tinder of American politics. And they would be responsible, in part, for the resulting wildfire.
Indeed America seems to be full of people who, like the Joker, just want to see the world burn.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Antoni Maria Fabrés i Costa

Antoni Maria Fabrés i Costa (1854-1938) was a Catalan (Spanish?) painter who did a wide range of work but seems to have made most of his money off Orientalism. Above is a self-portrait of around 1920.

Fabrés was born into a middle class but artistic family, son of a draughtsman and nephew of a silversmith. He attended the Escuela de Bellas Artes in Barcelona, where he actually specialized in sculpture; at 21 one of his sculptures won him a scholarship to study in Rome. There he gave up sculpture and switched to painting. He also acquired the international habits they kept him moving around Europe and beyond for the rest of his life. Potrait of Laura Groot, detail.

After ten years in Rome he moved back to Barclona in 1886, but then in 1894 he moved to Paris where he opened a large studio equipped with all the props needed for his Orientalist scenes. The Thief, and detail; the Arabic plaque declares that this man has been condemned to death for stealing the objects hung above his head. This must have sold well, because Fabrés used an identical set-up for at least one other painting.

He also did multiple variations on the theme of The Sultan and his Favorite.

The Sorceror's Corner.

The Warrior's Repose.

In 1902 Fabrés moved to Mexico to become the head of a prestigious artistic academy, staying until 1907. Here is a view of Mexico City he painted sometime during that stay.

Then it was back to Barcelona, and then on to Rome, where he seems to have spent the 20s and 30s. Here is his most famous work these days, The Madwoman (1910).

In his prime Fabrés was known as a "realist," which is hard to figure when you look at his array of sultans and harems. But works like The Madwoman and this, Washerwomen at the Manzanares, show why he got that reputation.

Portrait of Gloria Fabrés, 1920.

Saturday, October 28, 2017


Glimpses of life in the Bronze Age Aegean Sea, on painted potsherds. From Museums of Greece.

The Local Murder

Every winter a murder of crows makes its home along the commercial strip near my house, moving as a group, feeding in parking lots and around dumpsters. At least on cold or stormy nights they nest in the nearby woods, which run right up to the back parking lots of some buildings. I once stumbled upon them on an evening walk, bedding down for the night in two low hawthorn trees, but sadly I had no camera. Today there were an even dozen in this tree by the grocery store parking lot. Crows are territorial, even in the winter when they are not nesting, so although I am no expert in recognizing crows it does seem likely that we have only one resident murder each winter.

I have wondered, watching them, why there aren't more. The food supply seems close to infinite from a crow's point of view, given the sheer number of businesses along this mile-long strip. But I have never seen more than about this number at once. Nor can you count on finding them at any particular place in their territory, about which they constantly roam. Sometimes I go for weeks without seeing them, making me wonder if they spend some of their time in other neighborhoods, or even other cities. They are like illegal immigrants keeping a low profile, always on the move, never wearing out their welcome. And I delight to see them whenever our paths cross.

Confederate Statues and Mao T-Shirts

Bret Stephens has a column in the Times wondering why moralists so outraged at any sympathy toward Nazis or slave owners are silent on the crimes of Communism, and are in fact quite likely to sympathize with radical leftists. After quickly summarizing the horror of the Ukraine famine and the complicity of western reporters in covering it up, he asks:
How many readers, I wonder, are familiar with this history of atrocity and denial, except in a vague way? How many know the name of Lazar Kaganovich, one of Stalin’s principal henchmen in the famine? What about other chapters large and small in the history of Communist horror, from the deportation of the Crimean Tatars to the depredations of Peru’s Shining Path to the Brezhnev-era psychiatric wards that were used to torture and imprison political dissidents?

Why is it that people who know all about the infamous prison on Robben Island in South Africa have never heard of the prison on Cuba’s Isle of Pines? Why is Marxism still taken seriously on college campuses and in the progressive press? Do the same people who rightly demand the removal of Confederate statues ever feel even a shiver of inner revulsion at hipsters in Lenin or Mao T-shirts?
These are good questions, but they do have answers.

The first is that nobody has clean hands. All the major religions have murderous extremists in their pasts; all nation states were forged in blood. Capitalism has its own long list of crimes, from the machine-gunning of striking coal miners to drug-price profiteering. One of its crimes, the trans-Atlantic slave trade, had a toll in misery and death that enters the same hellish league as those of Hitler and Stalin. If we have to reject any big idea that has at any time helped to cause cruelty and murder we are going to be left with very few big ideas.

The second is that none of these denunciations – of red terror, Nazi monstrosity, Confederate perfidy, capitalist complicity in the slave trade – has much to do with either morality or history. They are rhetorical moves in contemporary politics. The point of demanding the removal of Confederate statues is to emphasize the historical plight of African Americans and press for greater political attention to their needs. Brett Stephens is alarmed by Che t-shirts because he fears a new wave of leftism led by Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders, and he wants to fight this new leftism by tying it to Stalin and the ongoing collapse of Venezuela.

The third is psychological, and more complicated. Many people are outraged about the current state of the United States and Britain. It maddens them to see that some people are billionaires while others go hungry; that some people can work all their lives and never earn what a clever take-over artist can profit from a single stock scam; that poor people who can't afford bail spend years in jail and end up pleading guilty to felonies as the only way they can get out, while rich people with good lawyers can get away with murder. Some people express this outrage by getting interested in communism, or at least wearing Che t-shirts. The point is not to endorse Maoism, it is to say that they are not ok with things as they are. This slides into a fourth point, which is that many people are drawn in psychological and philosophical ways to extremism. Systems like those of the US and Britain are mushy gruels made from compromise after compromise, spawning bureaucracies with hair-splitting rules and lawyers who get rich devising ways to game the system.

Faced with the monstrous edifice of the mixed-economy-semidemocratic-legalist-bureaucratic-police state, which can only be budged in minor ways by ordinary politics, some people long to sweep it all away and start over. Intellectuals seem particularly prone to this fantasy. Like purist programmers who recoil from a gigantic "kluge" like Windows, they long for a clean, simple system in which principles lead to rules in a clear, logical way. They want justice to shine forth like the sun, not be hidden behind roiling clouds of interest, tradition, profit, legislative horse-trading, and whatever else so befouls the air of our times.

I believe that life among social mammals can never be simple and neat, that we are condemned by our very natures to compromise solutions. I also believe that the huge nations and bewildering economies of modern times only make that more true. Given that our social and economic systems are so complex that nobody comes close to understanding them, I think that gigantic kluges are the best that we can possibly do. But I understand the frustration our systems breed, and the longing for a radical solution. So I don't mind if people vent their frustrations by wearing Che t-shirts or flying Confederate flags in their own yards. I have faith that our systems are strong enough to survive a great deal of rhetorical abuse. But the strength of our system is not infinite, and if it not defended with vigor, it must eventually fall. Since the chance that a better system would replace it seems to me remote, I have cast myself as a defender of things as they are. Yes, we can do better in many ways, and should. But not at the cost of overturning the pillars of our system: electoral democracy, the mixed economy, and a firm belief in human rights.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Willy Pogany, Illustrations for Tannhäuser

Willy Pogany (1882-1955) was born Vilmos Andreas Pogány in Szeged, Hungary, but he left his home country in 1902 and never lived there again. After shorts stays in Munich and Paris he moved to London in 1904.

There he did his most famous illustrations, including a series of Wagnerian operas in 1910 to 1913.

Pogany was influenced by both the great Edwardian illustrators, such as Arthur Rackham, and the current Art Nouveau style.

In 1916 Pogany left London and moved to America, where he lived for the rest of his life. In America he illustrated everything from the Bible to soap commercials. He ended up working in Hollywood as an art director.

Tannhäuser tells the story of a great singer who rejected the advances of the goddess Venus in order to return to the human world. He falls in love with a mortal woman but ends up separated from her and both die tragically.

But, his love of the Virgin Mary procures Tannhäuser's salvation, and he is able to join his beloved in heaven.

What these pictures have to do with that story, I have no idea, but I just love them.

You can see just from this one project that Pogany could work in a variety of styles, all amazing.

Middle Caste Woes

Caste, money, and happiness in India:
A large number of empirical studies have investigated the link between social status and happiness, yet in observational data identification challenges remain severe. This study exploits the fact that in India people are assigned a caste from birth. Two identical surveys of household heads (each with N=1000) in rural Punjab and Andhra Pradesh show an increasing pattern in economic welfare across the hierarchy of castes. This illustrates that at least in rural regions, one’s caste is still an important determinant for opportunities in life. Subsequently, we find that the castes at the top are clearly more satisfied than the lower and middle castes. This result, which is in line with predictions of all major social comparison theories, is robust across the two case studies. The pattern across low and middle castes, however, is less clear, reflecting the complex theoretical relationship between being of middle rank on the one hand, and behaviour, aspirations and well-being on the other hand. In the Punjab sample, we even find a significant U-shape, the middle castes being the least happy. Interestingly, these patterns resemble those found for Olympic Medalists (first documented by Medvec et al. 1995).

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Jeff Flake Exits Stage Right, Protesting Lamely

Senator Jeff Flake delivered an impassioned speech denouncing Trump and calling on his fellow Republicans to oppose the president, but then added that he is dropping his re-election bid rather than fight against a Trump-backed candidate.

Looks as if the Republican establishment is a bunch of low-energy weaklings just as Trump likes to complain.

I mean, if Trump is "casually undermining our democratic ideals," shouldn't leaders who want to defend those ideals take a stand against him? Sure, Flake would probably lose, but if the fight matters as much as he says, why is he bowing out? What does he plan to do instead?

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

And Now Leon Wieseltier

Pigs, it seems, come in all sorts. We have jet-setting celebrity cave men like Donald Trump and Harvey Weinstein, bragging about the models and actresses they lured to their luxury motel suites; we have Roger Ailes, constructing Fox New as a personal fantasy of beautiful but tough women showing their legs under his glass tables, but unable to get any more from them than a too-long hug; we have priests who can't keep their hands off the altar boys and high school teachers unhinged by the youthful sexuality of their students. For me the discovery of new exo-planets was somewhat dimmed when I discovered that astronomer Geoff Marcy, whose team at that point had discovered more distant worlds than any other, sexually harassed his students for decades; investigators found pictures of female students on his cell phone that he took during his own lectures.

We also have men who seem thoughtful and interesting, some of them rooted in old moral and religious traditions, posing as prophets while they reach under their guests' skirts or slip rohypnol into their drinks. Men who have expressed much that is best in humanity in philosophy, politics and art – Picasso, Arthur Koestler, Woody Allen, Bill Cosby – turn out to be monsters when it comes to sex and women.

Which brings me to Leon Wieseltier, who just lost his chance to launch a new magazine called Idea after former employees launched a small movement to expose him:
Several women on the email chain said they were humiliated when Mr. Wieseltier sloppily kissed them on the mouth, sometimes in front of other staff members. Others said he discussed his sex life, once describing the breasts of a former girlfriend in detail. Mr. Wieseltier made passes at female staffers, they said, and pressed them for details about their own sexual encounters.

One woman recounted that while she was attempting to fact-check a column Mr. Wieseltier wrote, he forced her to look at a photograph of a nude sculpture in an art book, asking her if she had ever seen a more erotic picture. She wrote that she was shaken and afraid during the incident.

Mr. Wieseltier often commented on what women wore to the office, the former staff members said, telling them that their dresses were not tight enough. One woman said he left a note on her desk thanking her for the miniskirt she wore to the office that day. She said she never wore a skirt to the office again.
As to scale, so far this looks more like Roger Ailes than Bill Cosby, pathetic fumbling that frightened women mainly because of Wieseltheir's power as their boss and a cultural icon. But, oh, Leon. Why you? You sometimes seemed so wise, as able as anyone in our fallen time to articulate why some people still value religious tradition. Here is just one example of the way Wieselthier brought old Jewish wisdom up to date, from his essay remembering his friend Leonard Cohen:
We sometimes read and studied together, Lorca and midrash and Eluard and Buddhist scriptures and Cavafy. We could get quite Talmudic, especially with wine. In Judaism there is a custom to honor the dead by pondering a text in their memory. Here, in memory of Eliezer ben Nisan ha’Cohen, is a passage on frivolity by a great rabbi in Prague at the end of the 16th century. “Man was born for toil, since his perfection is always being actualized but is never actual,” he observed in an essay on frivolity. “And insofar as he attains perfection, something is missing in him. In such a being, perfection is a shortcoming and a lack.” Leonard Cohen was the poet laureate of the lack, the psalmist of the privation, who made imperfection gorgeous.
Wieseltier has appeared several times on this blog, sometimes because I agreed with him and sometimes because I didn't. He had much to say. When I agreed with him I found his words moving and profound, and when I disagreed I found him interesting to argue with.

Sex often functions as the wild card in human nature and human societies. It leads to the crossing of lines and the breaking of rules, to the mixing of ethnic groups and the violation of class boundaries, because it makes people crazy. Mingled with power, it turns even wise men into thugs.

The good news is that the ancient conspiracy to sweep all these crimes under the rug seems to be breaking up. How much that will protect new generations of women from male predators remains to be seen.

Monday, October 23, 2017

Sotheby's Islamic World Sale

Some highlights from Sotheby's upcoming Arts of the Islamic World sale in London. This is a prince's coat from India, embroidered with Basra seed pearls,19th century.

Illuminated manuscript of the Diwan of the Persian poet known as Hafiz, from Qajar, 19th century.

An Ottoman agate-hilted dagger with gem-set silver scabbard, Turkey, probably 18th century

Detail from a page of illumination in gold, India, Deccan, Bijapur or Golconda, circa 1600

A gold and silver-inlaid brass penbox, probably Seljuk Mosul, late 13th century

Details from a large painted three-panel screen depicting the City Palace at Udaipur and Lake Pichola, India, 19th century

A gilt saddle-axe (tabarzin), North-West India, Bikaner, 18th century

A princess seated in an interior, possibly Desavarati Ragini, attributable to Mihr Chand, India, Oudh, circa 1770

A large pair of enamelled bracelets with tiger heads, North India, 19th century