Thursday, November 30, 2017

And Now South Carolina

Home now from my latest adventure. Spent the last day in coastal South Carolina, in a place that looked like this.

As much I love how live oaks and Spanish moss look, I have to tell you that doing archaeology in these palmetto thickets is no picnic, even if you can forget about the snakes. But what an adventure this was.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Ethics and Art at the Louvre Abu Dhabi

The Louvre Abu Dhabi has finally opened, five years late, on an artificial landform dubbed Happiness Island. This is a licensing deal for sorts; for $1.15 billion petrodollars, Abu Dhabi received the right to use the Louvre name for 30 years, during which time the franchise can borrow extensively from the Louvre and France's other state-owned museums. New York Times art critic Holland Cotter visited the new museum and produced a meditation on the intersection of art, politics, and ethics:
A walk through Mr. Nouvel’s domed museum complex, with its luminous shade and its breeze-channeling sea vistas, is an enchantment, almost enough to make you forget grim physical and social realities that went into creating it. And the manifold beauty of galleries filled with charismatic objects nearly persuades you not to remember that art is a record of crimes as well as of benign achievements. It takes an exercise in ethical balance to engage fully with our great museums, to walk the shaky bridge they construct between aesthetics and politics. A mindful visit to the Louvre Abu Dhabi requires this balance. That may be what is most universal about it.
Besides those "grim social realities" – for example that Happiness Island was built by contract laborers from South Asia, the palaces of ancient Egypt by slaves – there is the reality of art world insiderism. This gives us works like the one shown above, “Food for Thought — Al Muallaqat,” by Saudi artist Maha Malluh. I kind of like this, but it is an assemblage of stew pots blackened by use:
they retain the marks of the past but also the imprint of the stories told during mealtimes in nomadic tradition. Maha Malluh has transformed the pots into a visual poem, in tribute to classical Arab poetry.
Which is just the sort of thing that makes so many regular folks residents of flyover country grouchy about the snobbery of coastal elites. Elite art often appears as a celebration of division, that is, the division between people who get it and people who don't, to the greater glory of the former.

I find that I enjoy contemporary art best as a sort of lark. If I enter the museum in an exploratory frame of mind, ready to laugh at what amuses me and to be impressed by anything that seems amazing, I enjoy myself. But if I enter in the reverent mood I carry into cathedrals and the Met, I end up grouchy about the weirdness of a world that pays Jeff Koons millions for metal balloon animals. Do you suppose Maha Malluh was paid more for this assemblage of pots than the men who made these earned in their lifetimes, or he is perhaps not at that pinnacle of the profession yet?

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

More from the North Carolina Woods

Spent my morning here, helping to get my new field project going on another perfect day.

Saw many more interesting plants. Pitcher plant.

I think these are native azaleas.


Sadly I had hit the road to another place this afternoon, and now I'm in another hotel room, this one in South Carolina. I arrived in the dark but I'll try to get some pictures of Spanish moss tomorrow.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Gender Neutral French

Surely we all knew this was coming:
“My homeland is the French language,” author Albert Camus once wrote—and many French people would agree. That’s why any attempt at changing the language is often met with suspicion. So the uproar was almost instantaneous when, this fall, the first-ever school textbook promoting a gender-neutral version of French was released. . . .

In French, pronouns, nouns, and adjectives reflect the gender of the object to which they refer. So, le policier is a policeman; la policière is a policewoman. The language has no neutral grammatical gender. And there are many nouns (including those referring to professions) that don’t have feminine versions. So, a male minister is le ministre and a female minister is la ministre. What’s more, French students are taught that “the masculine dominates over the feminine,” meaning that if you have a room full of ten women and just one man, you have to describe the whole group in the masculine.

Feminists who believe that these features of the French language put women at a disadvantage disagree about how best to remedy them. Most recommend creating feminine versions of all professional nouns and/or using neutral nouns whenever possible. Many also recommend a grammatical tool that consists of adding a “median-period” at the end of masculine nouns, followed by the feminine ending, thus indicating both gendered versions of every noun (like musicien·ne·s, which would read as “male musicians and female musicians”). Some have even recommended creating a gender-neutral pronoun (the equivalent of how “they” is sometimes used in English, or “hen” in Sweden). These and other recommendations have collectively become known as “inclusive writing.”
I don't have strong feelings about this sort of thing. Languages are always changing to reflect changing social realities, so you won't find me dying on a cross of traditional grammar. My only suggestion would be that any changes made in the cause of inclusiveness make the language simpler, not more complex. For example, there was an American a few years ago who changed her name from Cooperman to Cooperperson; why not just Cooper? Instead of complex mixes of endings, I support the adoption of single, gender-neutral words, like just dropping the word "actress" altogether and calling all performers "actors," as many women in movies already do.

In North Carolina's Timber Lands

I'm on the road, on a four-day trip to the Carolinas. Today in a strange sort of forest North Carolina's coastal flatlands. Some of it was so dense that none of my pictures turned out, but, much of it looked like this.

Or this.

Lots of interesting plants were growing in the sunny spaces between the pine trees, including this amazing flower, and all of those below.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Graham Sutherland, Datura Flowers


kumrads die because they're told

kumrads die because they're told)
kumrads die before they're old
(kumrads aren't afraid to die
kumrads don't
and kumrads won't
believe in life) and death knows why

(all good kumrads you can tell
by their altruistic smell
moscow pipes good kumrads dance)
kumrads enjoy
s.freud knows whoy
the hope that you may mess your pance

every kumrad is a bit
of quite unmitigated hate
(travelling in a futile groove
god knows why)
and so do i
(because they are afraid to love

e.e. cummings, 1935

Cummings grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts, among society socialists; his parents were big movers in the Unitarian church and friends with people like William James. In World War I he volunteered for the ambulance corps but was eventually arrested for writing anti-war letters home. He had little interest in politics until a friend talked him into visiting the Soviet Union in 1931. The friend presumably hoped that Cummings would be converted to communism, but the opposite: he came home a violent anti-communist and began writing poems like this. I was immediately struck by this because so many westerners who went to the Soviet Union in that era came home impressed and enthusiastic; but the horror was there for anyone with eyes to see, even before the purges and the famine.

No, I don't really understand his insistence on peculiar spellings and omitted punctuation. Maybe it was that his poems were actually very traditional (some of them sonnets, even) so he had to do something to make his work seem interesting and avant garde. Most of Cummings' poems are untitled, so they are known either by their first line or by their number in his collected works. This is 40.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

2017 Epson International Pano Awards

Amazing array of panoramic photographs; my blog has the wrong format for displaying these, but if you click on them they look great. Dustin Lefevre, Water and Ash (Dettifoss, Iceland)

Frederic Huber, Rainbow over Monument Valley.

Francisco Negroni, Image of Fear (Lightning at Calbuco Volcano, Chile)

Darren Moore, Ten Huts. A 100-second exposure of huts on the Essex coastline in the United Kingdom.

Isabella Tabacchi, The Battle (Lagazuoi Mount, Italy). Many more at the Atlantic.

Change in Saudi Arabia

Tom Friedman traveled to Riyadh to interview crown prince Mohammed bin Salman (M.B.S.) and talk to other Saudis, and the result is a long article that practically bubbles over with enthusiasm. He calls recent events the "Saudi Arab Spring":
Unlike the other Arab Springs — all of which emerged bottom up and failed miserably, except in Tunisia — this one is led from the top down by the country’s 32-year-old crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, and, if it succeeds, it will not only change the character of Saudi Arabia but the tone and tenor of Islam across the globe. Only a fool would predict its success — but only a fool would not root for it.
He emphasizes two things about the new regime. First, the anti-corruption drive, which led to the arrest of hundreds of wealthy Saudis:
The stakes are high for M.B.S. in this anticorruption drive. If the public feels that he is truly purging corruption that was sapping the system and doing so in a way that is transparent and makes clear to future Saudi and foreign investors that the rule of law will prevail, it will really instill a lot of new confidence in the system. But if the process ends up feeling arbitrary, bullying and opaque, aimed more at aggregating power for power’s sake and unchecked by any rule of law, it will end up instilling fear that will unnerve Saudi and foreign investors in ways the country can’t afford.

But one thing I know for sure: Not a single Saudi I spoke to here over three days expressed anything other than effusive support for this anticorruption drive. The Saudi silent majority is clearly fed up with the injustice of so many princes and billionaires ripping off their country. While foreigners, like me, were inquiring about the legal framework for this operation, the mood among Saudis I spoke with was: “Just turn them all upside down, shake the money out of their pockets and don’t stop shaking them until it’s all out!”
And second, the prince's move toward a moderate interpretation of Islam. The people around the prince do not consider the Wahhabi sect to be the real tradition of Islam, or even of Saudi Arabia, but a radical movement imposed on the people after 1979:
Indeed, M.B.S. instructed me: “Do not write that we are ‘reinterpreting’ Islam — we are ‘restoring’ Islam to its origins — and our biggest tools are the Prophet’s practices and [daily life in] Saudi Arabia before 1979.” At the time of the Prophet Muhammad, he argued, there were musical theaters, there was mixing between men and women, there was respect for Christians and Jews in Arabia. “The first commercial judge in Medina was a woman!” So if the Prophet embraced all of this, M.B.S. asked, “Do you mean the Prophet was not a Muslim?”

Then one of his ministers got out his cellphone and shared with me pictures and YouTube videos of Saudi Arabia in the 1950s — women without heads covered, wearing skirts and walking with men in public, as well as concerts and cinemas. It was still a traditional and modest place, but not one where fun had been outlawed, which is what happened after 1979.
I do not consider Tom Friedman to be a person of good judgment – for starters, he supported Bush's invasion of Iraq – but knows a lot more about the Middle East than I do, so maybe it is worth taking his enthusiasm seriously. Actually it may be that his support for overthrowing Saddam and his admiration for the new regime of M.B.S. stem from the same source, his sense that the Middle East is so messed up that only radical shake-ups have any chance of leading to real improvement.

I have three serious concerns about the events in Saudi Arabia. The first is that the prince and his father have taken a very hard line against Iran and regularly compare Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to Hitler, and I worry they could either stumble into war or provoke one if they got in trouble domestically. The second is that M.B.S. seems like a would-be tyrant to me, and the history of the Middle East is full of leaders who talked radical reform when they came to power but clung to it until they themselves became the corruption. And the third is what the Saudi proponents of puritanical Islam might do in response to these reforms; a repeat of the violent struggle in Egypt between the military regime and the Muslim Brotherhood seems well within the possible.

But it feels good to me to think that change for the better is at least possible.

Friday, November 24, 2017

N.K. Jemisin on Being Placed in the African American Fiction Section

N.K. Jemisin, a African American writer of fantasy fiction, heard from a reader that her books were in the African American Fiction section of the local public library, and she had this and much more to say:
I hate the “African American Fiction” section. HATE. IT. I hate that it exists. I hate that it was ever deemed necessary. I hate why it was deemed necessary, and I don’t agree that it is. I hated it as a reader, long before I ever got published. And now that I’m a writer, I don’t ever want to see my books there — unless a venue has multiple copies and they’re also in the Fantasy or General Fiction section.

“But Nora,” I hear (some fictional respondant) saying. “You’re black. You write about black people, among others. Doesn’t that mean you belong there?”

My answer: “No. And the next person who rolls up in my blog talking about where black readers, writers, or characters belong is going to get popped in the mouth.”
I have to think that when an author calls herself "N.K." she is signalling right there that she wants to be known by what she has written, not anything else about her identity. Plus her fantasy novels include people of many different skin tones, but none of them are African American:
On the micro scale, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms doesn’t belong in the AAF section because it Contains No Actual Black People.
Race is just a hard problem in America, and the question of how to think and speak about an African American writer is can be complicated in the same way as all our other race questions. But I think that we have black authors of science fiction, vampire fiction, high fantasy, and every other genre is a great thing and a good sign about where we could end up in a generation or two.

Leaf Pile 2017

The best things are simple things, like a leaf pile on a perfect Fall day.

The London Pet Panic of 1939

From a review (TLS Sept 22) of Hilda Kean's The Great Cat and Dog Massacre: the Real Story of World War II's Unknown Tragedy, shocking for anyone who knows how the English feel about their pets:
In light of these narratives of the British as good, unflappable animal lovers, the central historical event around which Kean's book revolves is shocking. At least 400,000 cats and dogs (around 26 percent of London's cat and dog population) were euthanized in London in the first week of the war. This mass euthanasia was not legally required or even recommended by the British government, was opposed by veterinarians and animal charities, and occurred during the period of the "phoney war", long before the bombs began to fall over London. Rather than following decrees from above, the killings were instead the result – Kean argues – of the separate decisions of different individuals, often parents, many of whom euthanized family pets despite the heartfelt protests of their children or, where children had been evacuated, without telling them at all. . . . In some cases the killing of pets may have been a displaced expression of panic. Some pet owners, when called to the military, could not bear to think of their beloved pets being handed over to others; some owners feared that their pets would end up roaming lost and scared after bombing raids, and believed it would be kinder to kill their animals before that could happen.
Of course other animal owners reacted differently, sharing their rationed food with pets even if it meant going hungry; the government thought about restricting the production of dog food but realized that most dog owners would just feed their pets human food instead, and dog food was easier to produce. But what a weird event, just another of the million ways World War II continues to shock and disturb.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Chameleon catching a dragonfly, Salalah, Oman. Photograph by Abrar Sekhi, who spent five hours sitting and waiting to take a picture using a shutter speed of 1/4000 of a second. From National Geographic.

The Final Form of Love

Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore, we must be saved by hope. ... Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore, we are saved by love. No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our standpoint. Therefore, we must be saved by the final form of love, which is forgiveness.

--Reinhold Niebuhr

The Interstellar Visitor

Artist's representation of Oumuamua – oh-mu-ah-mu-ah, Hawaiian for "messenger" – an asteroid that is visiting our solar system from somewhere else in the galaxy. We know this because of its orbit and 40,000 mph speed, which will carry it right back into interstellar space again. It is the same dark red color as many objects from the Oort Cloud at the edge of the solar system, and since it is spinning around its long axis it must be made of solid rock; ice would fly apart under the strain. Sadly for fans of Rendezvous with Rama and Pushing Ice, it seems to be a natural object. But then aliens advanced enough to send interstellar probes would have no difficulty fooling our primitive sensors, would they?

What Things Can Teach Us

This is what the things can teach us:
to fall,
patiently to trust our heaviness.
Even a bird has to do that
before he can fly.

— Rainer Maria Rilke, Book of Hours, II, 16

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Late Fall Color

All taken on a 15-minute walk in Washington, today. One of many things I feel thankful for.