Monday, April 30, 2018

Tacuinum Sanitatis

The Tacuinum Sanitatis is a Latin adaptation of the Taqwīm as‑siḥḥah, or Maintenance of Health, a medical treatise written by the Christian Arab Ibn Butlan of Baghdad in the 11th century. The approach is strictly classical, long on moderation, especially balancing the four humors.

The manuscript survives in dozens of copies, mainly from the 14th and 15th centuries. Most were illustrated. The treatise covers many topics but my favorite illustrations all come from the section describing the medical effects of various plants. At the top, Wormwood, from the Austrian National Library, ONB Cod. Ser. n. 2644,  made in Northern Italy, c 1380-1400. Above, Squash, from a 14th-century manuscript in the Biblioteca Casanatense, Rome.

Figs, from the ONB manuscript.

No idea. Doesn't look like any plant I know, and I don't recognize that Latin word. Also from the ONB manuscript.

More figs. From a manuscript in Liege, c. 1380-1400.


Melons. BNF NAL1673, early 15th century.

Cabbage. From a manuscript in the British Library, c. 1400.

Rue. from the BNF manuscript, early 15th century.

Garlic, from the Biblioteca Casanatense manuscript, 14th century.

Incels, Jihadists, and the Problem of Lonely Young Men

Alek Minassian, the "incel" who killed ten people with a truck in Toronto last week, may have had more in common with jihadist terrorists than his anger and his method of attack:
Mr. Minassian is obviously a deeply troubled individual. And mass murder is driven by a variety of psychological factors. But much of Mr. Minassian’s trouble seems to have been fueled or exacerbated by the frustration and shame that accompanied his lack of sexual contact with women. This would have made him feel unfulfilled and indignant, and also weak and unmanly. The sense of shame from not being able to perform a culturally approved sex role may be a key to understanding his murderous rage. It may also be another thread connecting him to other violent actors whose ideology is different from his own, yet whose actions are similar. It is not difficult to spot parallels with the world of jihadism, where women and sex are similarly fixated on to an extraordinary degree.

Among those who identify with the “incel” movement, there is a pathological fixation on sex and women, and there is a self-pitying perception that everyone else, except the community of “incels,” is having sex. Women are craved, but they are also reviled for what the incels believe is their selective promiscuity: They seem to be having sex with everyone but them. This is internalized as a grave personal insult. The function of the “incel” movement is to transform that personal grievance into an ideology that casts women as despicable sexual objects.

The core emotion that animates “incels” is sexual shame. It’s not just that these men are sexually frustrated; it’s that they are ashamed of their sexual failure. At the same time, they are resentful of the sexual success of others, which amplifies their own sense of inadequacy. This explains why they gravitate toward an online subculture that strives to rationalize their shame and redirect the blame for their failure onto women.
Of course this is notoriously true of jihadists, whose veering between naked lust and puritanical religion has excited comment for decades.

In my experience, the fastest way to make a woman angry is to hint that women are somehow to blame for all this: if only some woman had loved this man and taken care of his physical needs, we wouldn't be in this mess. Which, let me emphasize, is NOT what I am going to say.

What I am going to say is that the emergence of a mass class of lonely, angry young men is a serious problem for our society. Young men are dangerous; young men without women in their lives are especially dangerous. Ancient warrior societies (Spartans, Zulus, Comanches) often separated their young warriors from their families and their wives to keep their battle fierceness razor sharp. That fierceness would be refined through group loyalty, competition, and stories of past heroes, the whole generation shaped into a terrible fighting machine for the nation.

The way to domesticate men is to get them married and settled into households where relationships with their wives and children assume the greatest importance. When do young gang-bangers leave their gangs? When they get married.

The danger of our time is that all-male internet groups will fill the role of the ancient war band: providing an echo chamber where male pride and rage can be reflected back on itself until it reaches the level of a scream.

Not so long ago, when a young woman got pregnant, the pressure of the families was exerted to get the couple to marry. This, it was felt, would both solve the immediate problem and provide a path into adulthood for the couple: the responsibilities of parenthood and couplehood would stabilize them, and the father, however dubious he appeared, would be tamed by marriage and apply himself to manhood in a proper way. But if you've ever seen Teen Mom, you know this is no longer the case; these days the teen mom's parents are more likely to recoil in horror from the baby daddy and try if possible to exclude him completely from the picture.

Which is another side of the "incel" problem: we have all these young men that nobody wants to marry or even date, and nobody wants to have as a son-in-law, and who feel economically useless and politically voiceless. Who feel that they are not part of our society or anything else. In them the loneliness of modern mass society is concentrated in its most dangerous members.

I expect a lot more trouble from this disconnect, whether it takes the form of incel terrorism or something else. Because young men without sex, without women, without strong ties to the society around them, are a menace.

Saturday, April 28, 2018

Aegean Idol

Neolithic, 5000-3000 BCE. From Phoenix Ancient Arts.

Surely one of the Best Public Service Announcements Ever

The news from London:
A spreading fear of pet vaccines’ side effects has prompted the British Veterinary Association to issue a startling statement this week: Dogs cannot develop autism.

Friday, April 27, 2018

The Arrest of Joseph James DeAngelo

Retired police officer Joseph James DeAngelo has been arrested, accused of being the Golden State Killer. The case against him looks strong, so let me pause to celebrate the fall of a monster.

And then move on to wonder about how he was caught.

What the police did was to run DNA samples from old crime scenes – The Golden State Killer's last crime was in 1986 – and then compare them to profiles posted on genealogy web sites. They identified people who were probably related to their suspect. Then they used family trees posted online to find someone of that family who was the right age and lived in the right town. They identified DeAngelo as a possible suspect. Then they grabbed some of his trash to get a sample of his DNA "left in the public domain" and indeed he was a match to their crime scene samples.

Brilliant police work but I find it a bit creepy. Civil libertarians have always resisted letting the police build up a DNA library of the whole population, but that is pretty much what the DNA testing web sites are doing. This is new, rapidly advancing technology, so if it is already good enough to help the police zero in on DeAngelo it will soon be good enough to identify the author of every spit wad, fingerprint and stray hair left anywhere in the country. This is happening without your consent, because some relative of yours has already posted your family tree at, and most likely some near relation has posted his or her DNA profile. This has already been used by adopted children to break through legal seals on their birth records and track their birth families, with traumatic results.

Another danger is that DNA technology can work from tiny samples. You leave DNA everywhere you go, on everything you touch. Crime scene DNA testing has already identified as least one incorrect suspect that I know of, the worker who built a duct where a body was later found. Fortunately the police sorted that one out, but do you trust them to do that in every case? A clever killer will now do his deed wearing surgical scrubs or a hazmat suit but be sure to leave lots of DNA around from another likely suspect. If there's a gang killing, and blood at the crime scene matches someone known to be active in a rival gang, will the police bother to investigate further? I imagine a world in which careful people will burn all their hair and fingernail parings like those terrified of witches used to do.

Anyway, that's the world we live in. Between your own internet history and family DNA posted online, strangers can now learn a vast amount of intimate stuff about you. This will help catch future serial killers but it is also bound to have lots of unanticipated effects.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

John William Waterhouse, The Easy Chair

After half an hour of searching I have given up trying to figure out who this is. But what a perfectly delightful portrait.

"I Feel Pretty": Beauty, Confidence, and the Foolish Commentariat

In spite of all the evidence, some people insist on believing that we live in uniquely horrible times. Consider, for example, the cry of outrage that a harmless-sounding Amy Schumer movie called forth from Amanda Hess:
“I Feel Pretty” is based on a pretty little lie: Looks don’t matter. It’s what’s on the inside that counts.

In the film, the down-on-herself Renee (played by Amy Schumer) conks her head in a SoulCycle accident and awakens believing that she has miraculously become supermodel-hot. She revels in it — charging into a bikini contest, snagging a promotion and basking in the affections of a beefy corporate scion — only to discover that her looks never changed a bit. The benefits she thought she accrued through beauty were won instead through her newfound self-confidence.

The movie suggests that the only thing holding back regular-looking women is their belief that looking regular holds them back at all. That attitude puts the onus on individual women to improve their self-esteem instead of criticizing societal beauty standards writ large. The reality is that expectations for female appearances have never been higher. It’s just become taboo to admit that.

This new beauty-standard denialism is all around us. It courses through cosmetics ads, fitness instructor monologues, Instagram captions and, increasingly, pop feminist principles. In the forthcoming book Perfect Me, Heather Widdows, a philosophy professor at the University of Birmingham, England, convincingly argues that the pressures on women to appear thinner, younger and firmer are stronger than ever. Keeping up appearances is no longer simply a superficial pursuit; it’s an ethical one, too. A woman who fails to conform to the ideal is regarded as a failure as a person.
Well, you know, if a philosophy professor says it, in actual book, it must be true.

Argh. I'm not going to tell anybody that looks don't matter; of course they do. And they always have. But the notion that they somehow matter more now than ever before is simply crazy. For starters, women can now get jobs and support themselves, which puts contemporary women under a lot less pressure than in the days when you had to get a man to support you. If somebody told me that looks mattered more in the 1950s than ever before, I might believe that, but now? No.

Plus, there is a lot of evidence that the message of I Feel Pretty is correct. I know women who would score no higher than the 60th percentile on some computerized test of beauty but have made themselves into sex symbols through the sheer force of their personalities. Attitude and clothes can take you a long way. Moving on to more important things, there just isn't much evidence that beautiful people are happier or more successful in love. Ugly people get and stay married at about the same rate as beautiful people. The only strong effect anyone has found is that very handsome men have trouble staying married, a double-edged sword if there ever was one.

I'm not trying to argue that the world is just; after all, confidence is every bit as unevenly distributed as beauty, and it may be just as geneticly determined. But the world is unjust along many axes, and beauty, if you ask me, is so far down the list that nobody ought to be obsessing over it or writing anguished op-eds about happy movies.

More on the Iron Age Massacre at Sandby Borg

The Times has more on a story I wrote about back in 2013, the fascinating archaeology at Sandby Borg on the Swedish island of Öland. Some time around 500 CE, the fortified settlement was attacked and its inhabitants slaughtered, their bodies left to lie among the ruins of their houses. Twenty-six victims have been identified so far.

To me the most interesting thing about this sad spectacle is that nobody ever went back to loot the bodies. I speculated back in 2013 that the site was thought of as cursed. The investigators mused to the Times that the attack was made to prove a point, perhaps because the residents defied a chieftain who considered himself their overlord, or a group that was determined not to be messed with. The attackers left the bodies where they fell to emphasize their message, daring anyone to come back and bury or otherwise touch them. Which makes sense.

But both could be right; the message first and the stories of the curse later. Because it is hard to see why the message would still carry fatal force twenty years after the attack, when the site would still be well known and highly visible.

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Finland Ends its Experiment with Universal Basic Income

The news from Finland:
For more than a year, Finland has been testing the proposition that the best way to lift economic fortunes may be the simplest: Hand out money without rules or restrictions on how people use it.

The experiment with so-called universal basic income has captured global attention as a potentially promising way to restore economic security at a time of worry about inequality and automation.

Now, the experiment is ending. The Finnish government has opted not to continue financing it past this year, a reflection of public discomfort with the idea of dispensing government largess free of requirements that its recipients seek work.
The Finnish experiment was intended to solve a problem they and other European countries have with their relatively generous unemployment benefits: they discourage people from taking less-than-perfect jobs, because any work reduces your benefits. Economists have worried that unemployed young people don't take part-time jobs that might lead to better jobs later on, or start small businesses, because losing their benefits makes the effort seem not worth it. So, they reasoned, why not just give people money and see what they do?
The basic income trial, which started at the beginning of 2017 and will continue until the end of this year, has given monthly stipends of 560 euros ($685) to a random sample of 2,000 unemployed people aged 25 to 58. Recipients have been free to do as they wished — create start-ups, pursue alternate jobs, take classes — secure in the knowledge that the stipends would continue regardless.
The data has not bee released yet, so we don't know what actually happened. But we know how people felt about it:
The Finnish government’s decision to halt the experiment at the end of 2018 highlights a challenge to basic income’s very conception. Many people in Finland — and in other lands — chafe at the idea of handing out cash without requiring that people work.

“There is a problem with young people lacking secondary education, and reports of those guys not seeking work,” said Heikki Hiilamo, a professor of social policy at the University of Helsinki. “There is a fear that with basic income they would just stay at home and play computer games.”
Which, honestly, some of them do. But so do other unemployed people.

Universal basic income is a very old idea, going back at least to Thomas More's Utopia. Among its advocates have been economists like Milton Friedman – who also liked it because it would not discourage people from seeking work – and Martin Luther King. These days people are interested in it because they worry robots and AI will cause enormous job losses.

I am interested in the question posed by this study; what would people do if they had this guaranteed income? But given the widespread anger at people who collect money when they might be working I expect it would take an economic catastrophe to make this happen.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Bollywood and Capitalism in India

For the first 35 years of its history, India was dominated by socialist governments, and there was as much opposition on the left (from communists) as on the right. Then in the 1980s this started to change, and conservative parties supporting free markets became competitive across the nation. Why? Maybe because the culture was turning against collectivism and toward individual freedom. Nimish Adhia sees signs of this in the movies:
The injunction of performing one’s duty without regard to outcomes has been the basis of much of the Indian philosophical and religious discourse.

The dilemma is recurrent in Indian films…. From the 1950s to the 1980s, the dilemmas invariably resolve in favor of duty. The mother in Mother India (1956) shoots and kills her wayward son as he attempts to kidnap a woman—an action that would have been shameful for the village. “I am the mother of the entire village,” she says as she picks up the gun. As the son collapses to the ground, she wails and rushes to his side, and is shown to lament his death for the rest of her life, but the film valorizes her as “Mother India.”

… But then starting with Ram Teri Ganga Maili (1986) there is a spate of films that celebrate the assertion of one’s desire. The assertion commonly takes the form of falling in love—an audacious act in a society where the sexual mores are conservative and a majority of marriages are arranged on basis of familial and community criteria. The young lovers in the big hit Qayamat se Qayamat tak (Doomsday to Doomsday, 1988) elope and endure enormous hardships on account of their families’ opposition. The families had a falling out in the past when they were neighboring landlords in the country. The demands of familial loyalty, shown to arise in this way from a feudal setup and concluding in the death of the young lovers, are condemned by the film as savage and outdated. “We are not the property of our parents,” the young man once counsels his beloved. “We need not be carriers of their legacy of hate.”
I am not sure that an emphasis on personal freedom always has to lead toward capitalism, but the connection seems to be a strong one.

Via Marginal Revolutions

Workers and Students in the France of 1968

Mitchell Abidor writes on the New York Review of Books blog about the spring and summer of 1968 in France, when strikes by workers and massive student protests created a sense of revolutionary crisis. A myth has grown up around that summer, that workers wanted to join radical students in launching a revolution in France but were betrayed by the French Communist Party (PCF) and its labor union organization, the Confédération Générale du Travail (CGT). Abidor says he heard this version of events
fairly consistently from rank-and-file student and leftist participants in the May events whom I interviewed for my oral history of May ’68, May Made Me. Prisca Bachelet, who helped the students at Nanterre organize their occupation of the university administrative offices on March 22, 1968, and who was present for every decisive moment of the May–June days, said of the CGT leaders that “they were afraid, afraid of responsibility.” Joseph Potiron, a revolutionary farmer in La Chapelle-sur-Erdre, near Nantes, said the strikes “ended when the union leaders pushed the workers to return to work.” For the writer Daniel Blanchard, the occupations were a fraud: “The factories were very quickly occupied, not by the workers but by the local CGT leadership. And this was an essential element in the demobilization of the strikers.” Éric Hazan, at the time a cardiac surgeon and now a publisher, viewed the Communists’ actions as “Treason. Normal. A normal treason.”
There is, however, no reason to think that this is true. There was hardly any communication between the student radicals and striking factory workers, so student leaders who talked up a worker-student partnership were just making things up. Nor is there any evidence that a revolution by workers and students would have succeeded if it had been tried. After all, the elections of the next year returned the right-wing parties to power with an increased Parliamentary majority.

According to Abidor, the workers were never interested in social revolution, and the 10% pay raise they ended up getting was as much as they ever expected. Unlike the students, they read the mood of the country and understood that more substantial change was never in the cards:
For the Communists, broader demands were simply foolhardy, given the forces in play. Likening the situation in 1968 to the general strike of 1936 was an ahistorical error of political analysis for someone like Guy Texier, a CGT leader at the naval shipyards of Saint-Nazaire. The gains obtained in the 1930s, such as paid vacations, were granted under Léon Blum’s Popular Front government—a socialist administration—and, he said, “in May ’68 we didn’t have that.” In Texier’s view, the Communist assessment was correct: “We didn’t accept that the movement in support of the workers’ demands follow after the political movement. There was no prospect… at the time for a left-wing policy.” The Communists may have been poor revolutionaries, but they were politically astute. They knew the workers, knew what they would fight for, and got them what they wanted.
Since 1968, the communist party has faded as a political force in France. But that has not released some inherent radicalism in French workers; quite the opposite:
Once it lost the PCF as the mediating force to represent its grievances, the French working class fulfilled Herbert Marcuse’s 1972 warning that “The immediate expression of the opinion and will of the workers, farmers, neighbors—in brief, the people—is not, per se, progressive and a force of social change: it may be the opposite.” The PCF understood this latent conservatism in the working class of 1968. Not so the New Left student movement. In the end, it had only workerism without workers (ouvriérisme sans ouvriers).
This struck me as significant because of the ambivalent position of factory workers in the politics of our own time. Speaking in generalities, factory workers are not exactly conservative in either the US or Europe. Many hate Wall Street and their corporate bosses, they are not notably religious, and they are as divided as the rest of us about an aggressive foreign policy. They strongly support Social Security and Medicare and some would like national health insurance. On the other hand they are as uninterested in the revolutionary aims of our woke leftists as French workers were in 1968. There is a huge cultural divide between factory workers and left-wing activists, and workers simply do not trust anyone of the left to speak for them.

In the past few elections white factory workers have gone Republican, but I do not thing that is a strong attachment, and I think a Democratic candidate who could cross the cultural gap could get many to vote Democrat again. Because in terms of right vs. left, many of them have no clear home.

Monday, April 23, 2018

Jethro Buck

Contemporary British Painter, born around 1987. The Forest, 2014


He has a particular interest in Indian miniature painting, which you can see in paintings like this one, The Night of the Glowing Sembar. 2013.

Blackbird, 2014

Goose under an Alder, 2014. Many more on his web site.

Today's Social Science Statistic

There is a large and statistically significant reduction in the female suicide rate following the change to unilateral divorce. Further, this effect seems to grow as the effects of divorce law reform percolate through society, presumably reflecting couples learning about the new law, social norms about the family adjusting, and spouses starting to understand their new rights. Averaging the effects over the twenty years following reform suggests an aggregate decline of 5-10%. For male suicides, these estimates indicate no discernible effect.

– Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers, Bargaining in the Shadow of the Law: Divorce Laws and Family Distress. NBER 2003

David Reich, "Who We Are and How We Got Here: Ancient DNA and the New Science of the Human Past"

Friends have been asking me for years if I can recommend a book on the new science of ancient DNA. I have always said, "No, the field is changing too fast." But now there is finally something I can recommend, David Reich's very impressive Who We Are and How We Got Here.

There is not much original in this book, which summarizes the results of ancient DNA studies over the past decade. Reich has been in the thick of those discoveries, first as part of the team that showed Neanderthals and modern humans had interbred, then as the leader of a lab that has read and analyzed a huge amount of DNA. His writing is not great but it is good. You may find some of his technical explanations hard to follow; I did, and have been reading about this stuff for years. My advice is that if you get bogged down in a particular passage, just skip it and go on. If you do that, you should be able to get a huge amount of information out of this book however minimal your background in genetics or statistics.

I have been writing here all along about the big discoveries, which I would say are these:
  • Modern humans interbred with Neanderthals, and outside of Africa human genomes are on average 1 to 2 percent Neanderthal.
  • Modern humans in East Asia also interbred with another lineage of archaic humans we call Denisovans, although as Reich shows in this book the identity of Denisoavans is a complex story.
  • Our modern races are not ancient branches of the human tree, but the result of mixing that has taken place since the origin of agriculture; 20,000 years ago Eurasia was home to a different assortment of races, and the first farmers of Syria were as different, genetically, from those of Iran as Chinese and Welsh are today.
  • There are in the Eurasian family tree groups with no clear obvious descendants today, such as "ancestral West Eurasians"; we call these "ghost populations".
  • Modern Europeans are descended from three quite different ancient groups: the Paleolithic hunter-gathers of old Europe, the farmers who migrated from the Middle East beginning around 9,000 years ago; and invaders who came in from the Steppes during the Bronze Age.
  • The people of India are a mix of an ancient population ("Ancestral South Asians"), farmers who migrated from Iran during the Neolithic, and West Eurasians; the West Eurasian invaders seem to have come in multiple waves beginning in the Bronze Age. As you would expect by looking at people in India, the mixture of West Eurasian ancestry is much greater in the north, but there is some admixture even in the far south. This mixture skews male, indicating that the invaders were majority male, or else that they did their most successful breeding with local women.
  • East Asians are a mixture of an ancient Yangtze Valley ghost population, which spread after the invention of agriculture, with numerous other ghost populations, in particular one in the Yellow River Valley; modern Han Chinese originated within the past 5,000 years from a mixture of those two and possibly other groups.
Reich concludes by recapitulating the essay he published in the Times on whether this genetic data confirms or will feed racism. I have wondered why he went out on a limb over these issues, and some of my friends have as well. I can only imagine that he knows or expects that genetic data is going to come out that somebody will think has racist implications, and he wants to get ahead of the curve.

One of the anti-racist points Reich makes in both his book and his Op-Ed is that modern races are all mixtures of ancient races. There are no pure racial types; miscegenation is our legacy and our origin. It is true that some groups have remained relatively pure for the past 3,000 years or so, but compared to the vast sweep of human evolutionary history that just isn't very long.

In other words, the vast movements and upheavals of modern times – migrations, conquests, the rise and fall of empires, the disappearance of old peoples and the appearance of new ones – are not an aberration. The medieval world seems to have experienced a few thousand years or so of comparative stasis and endogamy, leaving us a legacy of people who think they belong to a pure race (Koreans, Japanese, Han Chinese, Germans, Jews, Celts). But that only goes back a certain distance, and we now have the tools to peer back much farther. In that long view, migration and mixing are the human norm.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Facebook Rumors and Real Riots

The crap that spreads via Facebook is bad enough in America, but can be downright deadly in places with weaker governments and stronger hates:
Past the end of a remote mountain road, down a rutted dirt track, in a concrete house that lacked running water but bristled with smartphones, 13 members of an extended family were glued to Facebook. And they were furious.

A family member, a truck driver, had died after a beating the month before. It was a traffic dispute that had turned violent, the authorities said. But on Facebook, rumors swirled that his assailants were part of a Muslim plot to wipe out the country’s Buddhist majority. . . .

The rumors, they believed, were true. Still, the family, which is Buddhist, did not join in when Sinhalese-language Facebook groups, goaded on by extremists with wide followings on the platform, planned attacks on Muslims, burning a man to death. . . .

Time and again, communal hatreds overrun the newsfeed — the primary portal for news and information for many users — unchecked as local media are displaced by Facebook and governments find themselves with little leverage over the company. Some users, energized by hate speech and misinformation, plot real-world attacks.

A reconstruction of Sri Lanka’s descent into violence, based on interviews with officials, victims and ordinary users caught up in online anger, found that Facebook’s newsfeed played a central role in nearly every step from rumor to killing. Facebook officials, they say, ignored repeated warnings of the potential for violence, resisting pressure to hire moderators or establish emergency points of contact.
I highly recommend the whole article, by Amanda Taub and Max Fisher. There is a real sense in which peer-to-peer media are taking us backward, from the centralized media world to that of village rumor. In some ways that is liberating, but the overall effect may turn out to be disastrous. They sum up:
Facebook’s most consequential impact may be in amplifying the universal tendency toward tribalism. Posts dividing the world into “us” and “them” rise naturally, tapping into users’ desire to belong.
Which brings me back to one of my favorite quotations of recent years, from Twitter co-founder Evan Williams:
I thought once everybody could speak freely and exchange information and ideas, the world is automatically going to be a better place. I was wrong about that.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

The Peggy and David Rockefeller Collection at Christie's

Curious about what Rockefellers collect, I immediately clicked on the ad for the upcoming Christie's sale of this collection. Quite impressive, really. There are more than a hundred paintings, all from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, almost all French or American. I don't like all of it but I can see that it is all first-class work, or else by a first-class artist. This is Paul Signac, Antibes (la pinède), 1917.

Georgia O'Keeffe, Near Abiquiu, New Mexico, 1931.

There are five Monets; this is Extérieur de la gare Saint-Lazare, effet de soleil, 1877

Lots of raving from their experts about this Picasso, The Apple.

Wassily Kandinsky, Winter Study with Mountain, 1908

Charles Burchfield, Country Home in Midsummer, 1951.

Juan Gris (1887-1927) La table de musicien, 1914.

Van Gogh, Beet Planting.

Friday, April 20, 2018

Richard Russo, "Bridge of Sighs"

Most of the fiction I read is either fantastic, historical, or set in strange, far away places. But every once in a while, curious about what I might be missing. I try a "mainstream" novel set in contemporary America or Europe. Thus Bridge of Sighs (2007) by Richard Russo, which I grabbed off the "recommended" shelf at the library on a whim. Russo won the Pulitzer prize for an earlier book (Empire Falls) and this one garnered enough extravagant blurbs and mentions on ten best books of the year lists to make me think it represents the better sort of American middlebrow fiction.

Bridge of Sighs is built around the reminiscences of Louis Lynch, 60-year-old, lifelong resident of the upstate New York town of Thomaston. It focuses on his childhood and his high school years, with a bit about the earlier lives of his parents and the events of his sixtieth year. Besides his family the main characters are his best boyhood friend, who eventually becomes a well-known artist, and the girl who becomes his wife.

I found it pleasant to read, mostly, and I made it through all 650 pages. It has some good characters and good material on psychology and family dynamics. The town feels like a real place. It is smoothly written and has some lovely reflective passages, like this one:
The line of gray along the horizon is brighter now, and with the coming light I feel a certainty: that there is, despite our wild imaginings, only one life. The ghostly others, no matter how real they seem, no matter how badly we need them, are phantoms. The one life we're left with is sufficient to fill and refill our imperfect hearts with joy, and then to shatter them. And it never, ever lets up.

Blame love.
But oh, the plot. The travesty, the ignominy, the horror of the plot. It makes one question the whole literary world of our time, that such a book could be praised, that anyone could consider it among the ten best of anything.

The main thing is the love triangle involving the narrator (a big doofus with a heart of gold), his friend the intensely-wired, multiply-divorced artist, and the narrator's conflicted wife. The sheer, utter obviousness of this, and the ham-handed way it was set up, made me cringe over and over. It was even worse than the equally obvious, ham-handed love triangle at the heart of the last mainstream novel I assayed, Jonathan Franzen's Freedom. Gag me. Aren't there any other plots?

And though the set-up is bad, the resolution is even worse: the exciting artist dies of a heart attack chasing after the train on which rides the woman he should have pursued in high school but foolishly left behind on his way to artistic fame. I kid you not. He actually drops dead, clutching at his heart, watching the Best Woman He Ever Knew disappear into the distance toward her happy home and doofus husband.

But that's not what I wanted to write about. Even more than the appalling love triangle, what bothered me was the way the story focuses in on the senior year of high school. This year, we see, is the fulcrum on which the rest of our lives depend. After that, nothing meaningful happens, just the unrolling of a script dictated by the choices of that Fateful Year. You leave or stay home, go to college or don't, pick a mate, and the rest is history. By comparison to that time of freedom and possibility, of action or potential action, adulthood is blah: no change, no secrets to reveal, no new worlds to explore.

I decided to write a review of this forgettable book to ask about that basic premise: that high school is the most vibrant part of life, and that what happens then determines all else. Does anybody out there think that is normal, or even common? Sure, who you marry matters, but with age at first marriage creeping up towards 30 it no longer has much to do with what happens when you're 17, if it ever did. Whether you go to college matters, but plenty of people do that years after high school, even decades. Is the world full of people who spend their time remembering high school and regretting the things they did or didn't do, unable to feel the same excitement about the events of their adult years?

It all seems so small to me, so blinkered. Russo focuses so intently on the ties between these dozen or so people in the same small town that he leaves out vast tracts of what people do with their lives and their minds. The narrator's parents were conventional Catholics, but neither they nor anybody else seems to have much faith or to see what happens in terms of God's plan. Nobody cares about science or the Moon landings. Vietnam is just a place local boys went, to die or come back. There is a little about racism, and one troubled gay kid, but otherwise no politics. The sixties never really happen. There is very little art, even though two of the characters are artists, and not even much music. Nobody thinks about history or dreams about the far future. We watch this old factory town fade as the factories shut down, but we see nothing of the new economy, not even a single cell phone.

Stripped of religion, art, science, and politics, life in this little town reduces to a high school contest over who is cool and who dates whom. No wonder adults never change course, but only follow the one laid out in adolescence; in this world there is nothing new, only old friendships, old loves, and old mistakes.

It is utterly foreign to life as I have experienced it. Do all the reviewers who praised it to the skies feel like Russo about high school and adulthood? Or is something else going on that I have missed?

Trauma and Life

The latest on humans thriving under somewhat adverse conditions:
Studies of the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing of April 19th, 1995, indicate that the traumatic event resulted in people seeking to strengthen their bonds with loved ones: Divorce rates went down, and birth rates went up.
My immediate reaction to the 9-11 attacks was a surge of patriotism; it was the only time in my life I ever felt like waving a flag from an overpass.

Too much trauma is clearly bad for people and can destroy institutions, but sometimes it seems to me that we need a certain amount. Or maybe that our world is set up for a certain amount; we would hardly have invested nation states with so much power if we did not fear attack from dangerous enemies. Maybe marriage also seems more important and more worth preserving under threat of serious loss.

We did not evolve to be safe and comfortable all the time. Wrenching events change us – sometimes for the worse, but maybe sometimes for the better.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Emanuel Macron and the Discontents of Centrism

I was never a believer in Emanuel Macron. He posed as a new man untainted by past mistakes and scandals, and when his new party swept into power some people heralded a new dawn for France. (Others were just relieved that he beat Le Pen, but really there was a lot of "new beginning" rhetoric in some quarters.) But so far as I could see, Macron had no new ideas about how to improve either the quality of life or the quality of politics. His election presaged, not a new departure, but more of the same: more debates about immigration, and more argument over the neo-liberal economic policies he has promoted. And now, with danger of a far-right government pushed aside for now, millions of French people are turning against him:
The undisguised hostility has made clear that, less than a year into this new presidency, anti-Macron sentiment is emerging as a potent force. It is being fueled by a pervasive sense that Mr. Macron is pushing too far, too fast in too many areas — nicking at the benefits of pensioners and low earners, giving dollops to the well-off and slashing sacred worker privileges.

The souring of the public mood is reflected in Mr. Macron’s drooping poll numbers among workers and the middle class. (His popularity remains high among those that the French call “executives.”) It is also seen in the streets, where a wave of strikes and demonstrations is testing Mr. Macron’s resolve as never before.
The French railway system has been shut down by strikes, universities are closed, nurses and orderlies are "working to rule" in many hospitals, and more. Challenged by an interviewer to explain why all these disturbances have broken out at once, Macron could only fume,
Your question is biased! The discontent of the railway workers has nothing to do with the discontent in the hospitals!
Which is not true; whatever the particulars, all of these disputes flow from the attachment of French people to their system of lengthy vacations, early retirements, generous healthcare, and safe jobs. Macron, along with most mainstream economists, believes that France must curb its welfare state and encourage entrepreneurship to compete in the 21st century. His main defense of his policies is to accuse his opponents of "intellectual dishonesty." That is, he thinks they are blaming him for stating the facts, and opposing his actual plans with calls for an alternative that they cannot themselves define.

Like Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, and Barack Obama, Macron thinks the old economy of safe factory jobs is just dead, and nothing can bring it back.The future requires us to get more education and more skills, and to constantly update our skills in an ever-changing world. The role of the government is to help people get those skills, to cushion the transitions when an industry collapses, and to take care of those who cannot work. Otherwise it's up to us.

There is a harshness to this worldview, but it does have two virtues: it faces the facts as its adherents see them, and it offers a clear program for the future. All of these "new left" leaders have supported a template that includes reducing some regulations, encouraging new industries rather than protecting old ones, promoting education, and opening the nation to the world so the best people, ideas, and investments will flow in. Using the tax code to somewhat ameliorate the increasing inequality that is bound to follow. I feel certain that it is not the best possible plan, but it is a plan and experience shows that it can work in a basic way.

But this approach is vulnerable to attacks from every direction. Libertarians decry the high taxes and continued government interference in markets. Conservatives hate the embrace of change for its own sake (as they see it) and the welcoming of foreigners and foreign influence. Leftists hate the emphasis on investment and profit, the disregard shown to older workers, the way decisions that mean life or death for communities are made in distant boardrooms or Davos cocktail parties. Many people of all sorts hate the upheaval, or fear the prospect of it. Emotionally it is weak stuff, as we saw in the campaign of Hillary Clinton, putting Democracy in peril to the gut appeal of blood and soil nationalism, or (perhaps, in the future) revolutionary socialism.

Ten years ago I thought we would always muddle through, that because there is no real alternative to the representative democracy/mixed economy/open world system, we would keep going down this path pretty much by default. But recent events have shown that you don't need a real alternative, that the emotional appeal of our system so weak, its rewards so paltry, is victims so many, that a completely fake alternative will do. I suspect Emanuel Macron will eventually be defeated by one, fulminating to the end that only he sees reality and knows what must be done.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

The New American History

The version of Microsoft Word in which I am currently writing objects to capitalizing "Confederate."

Today's Big Number

Viruses raining from the sky:
Each day some 800 million viruses fall onto every square meter of the planet.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Chinese Farming and Incremental Science

What the world needs right now, I think, is not so much grand scientific breakthroughs is more effort devoted to making minor improvements in ordinary things. Like this major government agricultural effort in China:
Running from 2005 to 2015, the project first assessed how factors including irrigation, plant density and sowing depth affected agricultural productivity. It used the information to guide and spread best practice across several regions: for example, recommending that rice in southern China be sown in 20 holes densely packed in a square metre, rather than the much lower densities farmers were accustomed to using.

The results speak for themselves: maize (corn), rice and wheat output grew by some 11% over that decade, whereas the use of damaging and expensive fertilizers decreased by between 15% and 18%, depending on the crop. Farmers spent less money on their land and earned more from it — and they continue to do so.
I am convinced that very few of the ways we do things are truly optimal, from sowing rice to timing traffic lights, and I look forward to many more similar efforts.

The Margravial Opera House in Bayreuth

Bayreuth's 1748 opera house has just re-opened after a six-year, $36 million renovation; the Times has an appreciation and many more pictures.

The opera house was the project of Wilhelmine, Margravine of Brandenburg-Bayreuth, daughter of King Frederick William I of Prussia and sister of Frederick the Great.
An ambitious polymath who composed music, wrote verse and corresponded with Voltaire, she built Bayreuth’s intimate yet elaborate Margravial Opera House, one of the most outstanding surviving examples of Baroque theater architecture in Europe.
The architect was Joseph Saint-Pierre, and the interiors were designed by Giuseppe Galli Bibiena and his son Carlo. Few of these Baroque theaters remain, partly because they are so expensive to maintain and partly because they are so small. This was a theater for the aristocratic elite, of whom there just weren't very many, so seating for 450 was a great plenty. Hard for an opera company to make money on those terms today. Or even in the nineteenth century, when Richard Wagner built his own 2,000-seat Festspielhaus outside of town, where the Bayreuth festival is still held. But how wonderful that at least one of these has been restored to its original glory.

Monday, April 16, 2018

No-Fly Zone

She fears something but can't say what.
She goes in reverse, mopping up her own tracks.
When she sleeps, it's always the same foggy night.

The dead have stopped knocking. No answer.
Their big cars hover along her block, engines
Idling, woofers pumping that relentless bass

Into the bones of her house. All night they pass
Bottles cinched in bags back and forth
Through open windows.

I want to wake her. Drag her by the gown
Down into the street where her parents
Are alive again, laughing like stoned teenagers

At some idiot joke. Look, I want to say,
The worst thing you can imagine has already
Zipped up its coat and is heading back
Up the road to wherever it came from.

–Tracy K. Smith

The Latest Numbers on the Anglo-Saxon Migration to Britain

Recent studies of DNA from early medieval skeletons provide a new estimate of what portion of the English genome derives from Anglo-Saxon invaders:
Our research concluded that migrants during what’s now thought of as the Anglo-Saxon period were most closely related to the modern Dutch and Danish—and that the modern East English population derived 38 percent of its ancestry from these incomers. The rest of Britain, including today’s Scottish and Welsh, share 30 percent of their DNA with these migrants.
That's a quite high percentage as these things go; the people of Turkey are genetically only about 10 percent Turkish. So the new result confirms significant migration into post-Roman Britain.

The data also show mixing of immigrant and native populations within a few decades of arrival.

Equally interesting is the spread of the migrants: according to this data, lowland Scotland and south Wales both have about the same percentage of Anglo-Saxon genes as Sussex or the Midlands. I have encountered several Scots online who hate this, but there is a reason most Scots speak English and already did by the time of Edward I.

František Kupka

František Kupka (1871-1957) was a Czech artist who spent most of his adult life in Paris. During his long career he painted in many different styles. The works you are mostly likely to see online are symbolist paintings and engravings done around 1900; this is one of two works titled The Path of Silence, 1903.

Kupka trained at the Academy of Painting in Prague; according to the biographies at the Guggenheim and Centre Pompidou his early works were historical scenes in a realistic style. I suppose they look like this, A Papal Ceremony, which is dated 1904.

But certainly the first famous works are the Symbolist pieces. The Black Idol (Resistance), 1903.

Babylon, 1906. These were painted in Paris, where Kupka moved in 1896.

During his first decade in Paris Kupka did all sorts of illustration work, especially satirical pieces for left-wing publications. Money, 1902.

Kupka became a famous artist because of his involvement in the creation of Abstraction. He started working in this vein around 1910. Localization of Graphic Motifs, 1912.

There's a lecture in French on the Pompidou Center web site that argues the real aim of these early abstractions was telepathy:
Many pioneers of abstraction considered non-objective painting as a transitional step before the more radical solution of a direct transmission of emotions, "spirit-to-mind."
Study for the Language of Verticals, 1910-1912.

Kupka was certainly a highly spiritual man, into Anthroposophy and other cults as well as orthodox Catholicism, and many abstract painters aimed to bypass the rational brain and communicate directly with the subconscious. But whether Kupka really believe art might eventually evolve into telepathy I cannot tell you. Form of Blue B I, c. 1925.

Divertimento I, 1935.

Kupka continued to experiment with new approaches throughout his career; this is one of a series of paintings he based on machinery, Machine Drill, c. 1928.

A fascinating little look at the history of art in the Modern era.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Dish with Visconti Arms

Majolica, 1480-1500

The Decline of White Urban Accents in America

Big industrial cities across the US used to have distinctive accents, but they are fading fast. They were the verbal expression of a certain kind of community that no longer exists. Edward McClelland:
The “classic Chicago” accent, with its elongated vowels and its tendency to substitute “dese, dem, and dose” for “these, them, and those,” or “chree” for “three,” was the voice of the city’s white working class. “Dese, Dem, and Dose Guy,” in fact, is a term for a certain type of down-to-earth Chicagoan, usually from a white South Side neighborhood or an inner-ring suburb. . . .

The classic accent was most widespread during the city’s industrial heyday. Blue-collar work and strong regional speech are closely connected: If you were white and graduated high school in the 1960s, you didn’t need to go to college, or even leave your neighborhood, to get a good job, and once you got that job, you didn’t have to talk to anyone outside your house, your factory, or your tavern. A regular-joe accent was a sign of masculinity and local cred, bonding forces important for the teamwork of industrial labor.

A 1970s study of Chicago steelworker families found that housewives were less likely than their husbands to say “dese, dem, and dose,” because they dealt with doctors, teachers, and other professionals. After the mills closed, kids went to college, where their teachers told them not to say “dese, dem, and dose,” and then they took office jobs requiring interaction with people outside the neighborhood.
The Daleys were the political leaders of old Chicago and sounded like it; more recently the city has been led by Rahm Emanuel, who sounds like what he is, a former Washington policy hand.

Language is social, and big changes always represent big changes in the societies that use it. The transformation of Pittsburgh and Chicago from industrial centers to post-industrial meccas of office life has of course meant changes in the way people speak.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

The Bias Toward Action

So we've been launching missiles again, because faced with any kind of crisis we just have to "do something." Emma Ashford:
Mr. Trump evidently shares the assumption that America must do something in response to atrocities in Syria — a wholehearted embrace of the Washington bias toward action.

In this, Mr. Trump and his predecessor have something in common: Both he and Barack Obama came into office promising to change America’s foreign policy, but when faced with crises, both yielded to pressure to intervene. This bias toward action is one of the biggest problems in American foreign policy. It produces poorly thought-out interventions and, sometimes, disastrous long-term consequences, effects likely to be magnified in the era of Mr. Trump.

The concept of a bias for action originated in the business world, but psychological studies have shown a broad human tendency toward action over inaction. Researchers have found that World Cup goalkeepers, for example, are more likely to dive during a penalty kick, though they’d have a better chance of catching the ball by remaining in the center of the goal. . . .

The American policymaking system reinforces this tendency. Political pressure and criticism from opponents, combined with the news media’s habit of disparaging inaction, can render even the most cautious leaders vulnerable to pressure. America’s overwhelming military strength and the low cost of airstrikes only add to the notion that action is less costly than inaction.
So we end up with messes like the ones in Iraq and Libya, and we keep stirring the pot in Syria despite the lack of evidence that lobbing in missiles helps anything.

Listen to Talleyrand, a real genius of foreign policy: Most things are achieved by inaction.

Friday, April 13, 2018


Why are graduate students depressed?

A big study made the news recently arguing that graduate students in academic fields suffer from depression at a rate six times the general population. I am not impressed by this study, which is based on surveys that people volunteer to take online, but it is only the latest in a long line of studies with the same general conclusion. Why?

Tyler Cowen suggests possible causes:
1. The ordeal of studying and possibly finishing is extreme, and extreme ordeals depress people. . . .

2. The task of studying and possibly finishing is correlated with a kind of extreme lassitude, and that in turn is correlated with depression.

3. Graduate students become depressed as they realize they have chosen poor life paths.

5. Graduate students are undergoing a transformation of their personalities, and being turned into intellectual elites, but this process is traumatic in several regards, thus leading to frequent depression. The chance of depression is part of the price of admission to a select club.
I find number 5 interesting.

But I think the main cause is in the kind of person who elects for graduate study. People who opt to spend several years of their lives in advanced study of arcane matters are not normal. Their abnormality makes them more interested in theoretical puzzles than most people, and also more prone to depression.

It may also be that a sense of being stuck and not getting on with life as one ought weighs on people; I loved graduate school at first but after three or four years I was ready for it to be over, and yet still it went on.

Other thoughts?

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Tulips and a Few Others

Flowers outside the swanky hotel where I attended a conference today.