Sunday, September 22, 2019

Dick van Duijn's Famous Squirrel

Impossibly endearing images of a ground squirrel from Dutch photographer Dick van Duijn. 

Jet Necklace Excavated on the Isle of Man

Excavating a Bronze Age tomb on the Isle of Man, archaeologists found a spectacular jet necklace. These were widely traded luxury items at the time, found on several British and French sites; I posted another one here. The jet seems to come from Yorkshire although other sources are possible. This one is said to be 4,000 years old.

This one was made up of intricate plates that presumably formed a symmetrical design; I can't wait to see what it looks like reassembled.

George Packer and the NYC Public Schools

George Packer has a long essay in the Atlantic explaining how his experience sending children to the New York City public schools turned him against progressivism. New York has a crazy system with all different kinds of schools -- neighborhood schools, regional schools, magnet schools, charter schools -- and educated parents desperately game the system to get their kids into what are considered the best schools. This creates all kinds of moral traps for a liberal, since the "better" schools are much whiter than the system as a whole. Anyway Packer's kids eventually ended up in a neighborhood school that was a little weird -- no multiplication, a year-long unit on the geology and bridges of the city -- but ethnically mixed, with committed teachers and plenty of learning. His son was happy there.

The problems started when the city started allowing parents to opt out of standardized testing, and the principal launched a crusade to get the whole school to opt out of what she considered racist tests that put too much stress on students. Packer notes that although this caused huge anxiety to the parents his son seemed not to care at all, and found the test no more stressful than any other day. For the father, though, the experience felt like a totalitarian attempt to shame him into renouncing his own principles. It was the first of many.

Then came the bathroom blow-up, when to satisfy one trans kid the principal proclaimed all the bathrooms in the school unisex, without bothering to inform the parents. After a lot of drama, the kids simply ignored the new signs and went back to using the bathrooms that used to be assigned to their sex. Eventually the school system, in a moment of sanity, announced a policy that schools had to have one unisex bathroom but the rest could remain gendered.

Then came one of the other weird things about the NYC system, the competitive exams for middle school. Packer's son went through the testing and ended up in a school he and his parents found satisfactory, but the next year Mayor de Blasio eliminated the exams as racist and unfair. There was a meeting at Packer's son's school, but the presenter merely announced the change and then refused to answer questions.
De Blasio's schools chancellor, Richard Carranza, has answered critics of the diversity initiative by calling them out for racism and refusing to let them "silence" him. As part of the initiative, Carranza has mandated anti-bias training for every employee of the school system, at a cost of $23 million. On training slide was titled "White Supremacist Culture." It included "Perfectionism," "Individualism," "Objectivity," and "Worship of the Written Word" among the white supremacist values that need to be disrupted. In the name of exposing racial bias, the training created its own kind.
Packer summarizes his thinking:
In politics, identity is an appeal to authority -- the moral authority of the oppressed: I am what I am, which explains my view and makes it the truth. The politics of identity starts out with the universal principles of equality, dignity, and freedom, but in practice it becomes an end in itself -- often a dead end, a trap from which there's no escape and maybe no desire for escape. Instead of equality, it sets up a new hierarchy that inverts the old, discredited one -- a new moral caste system that ranks people by the oppression of their group identity. It makes race, which is a dubious and sinister social construct, an essence that defines individuals regardless of agency or circumstance -- as when Representative Ayanna Pressley said, "We don't need any more brown faces that don't want to be a brown voice; we don't need black faces that don't want to be a black voice."

At times the new progressivism, for all its up-to-the-minuteness, carries a whiff of the 17th century, with heresy hunts and denunciations of sin and displays of self-mortification. The atmosphere of mental constriction in progressive milieus, the self censorship and fear of public shaming, the intolerance of dissent -- these are qualities of an illiberal politics.

I asked myself if I was moving to the wrong side of a great moral cause because its tone was too loud, because it shook loose what I didn't want to give up. It took me a long time to see that the new progressivism didn't just carry my own politics further than I liked. It was actually hostile to principles without which I don't believe democracy can survive. Liberals are always slow to realize that there can be friendly, idealistic people who have little use for liberal values.
Listen, people of the left, when you lose the George Packers of the world, you have lost every election before a single vote is counted.

I worry that if we can't get identity politics under control there is no future for liberalism in America.

Saturday, September 21, 2019

Westgate and African Policing

At noon on September 21, 2013, four armed men entered the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya and opened fire on everyone they saw. They were soldiers of al Shabaab, a fundamentalist Muslim party that had taken over much of Somalia. After Kenya invaded Somalia to destroy them and bombed their towns, killing hundreds of civilians, they decided to strike back at some Kenyan civilians.

In the telling of Ben Rawlence, what followed reads like a lesson in everything wrong with Kenya's government. The first police units did not arrive for 90 minutes, and they immediately began arguing about jurisdiction. Frustrated by the slow police response, some vigilantes found guns and went in on their own, helping many trapped people escape.
Eventually, at four p.m. the police 'Recce' unit entered the building without uniforms or badges and were soon engaged in a fierce gun battle with numerous heavily armed opponents. Only after their commander was killed did they retreat and realize the people they'd been firing at had been the Kenyan army advancing from the rear entrance. They didn't go back, but by then the attack was all but over. Sixty-one people lay dead in the mall. . . .

The next morning, President Kenyatta made a statement that bore little resemblance to the facts on the ground. Ten to fifteen 'armed terrorists' were still inside the mall, he said, and they had hostages. 'We have reports of women as well as male attackers. We cannot confirm details on this. Our multi-agency response unit has had to delicately balance the pressure to contain the criminals with the need to keep our people still held in the building safe. . . .'

The second day at the Mall ended in darkness, rain and gunshots. The third began with heavy gunfire, condemnations from world leaders and a massive explosion followed by black smoke billowing into a gray, baffled morning sky.
Not until the sixth day did President Kenyatta address the nation to say that Kenya had 'shamed and defeated our attackers.'
But in the following days, as the truth emerged about the fiasco of the response by his government, the incompetence and criminal looting of the mall by the army, and the frustrating of any investigations by the police, the shame was most squarely on him. The number of terrorists would be written down, from fifteen to eight and then, finally, to four. Wild clams from the foreign minister of attackers from the US, UK and several other European countries would be proved false. Pictures would emerge of mountains of empty beer bottles and banks and shops stripped clean by soldiers. The collapse of the parking lot claimed to have been caused by a fire started by the terrorists would turn out to be the result of a tank shell fired, allegedly, to obscure the fact that the vehicles inside had been stolen by the army. The FBI and UK Metropolitan Police would leave Nairobi in disgust having offered to help investigate only to find their efforts unwanted. The New York Police Department would release a report which claimed the most likely scenario was that the four terrorists escaped at the end of the first day of the siege. 
President Kenyatta appointed a commission to investigate, but they never issued a report.

From Ben Rawlence, City of Thorns: Nine Lives in the World's Largest Refugee Camp (2016), pp. 321-325.

Today's Cathedral: Naumburg

Around the year 1000, Markgraf - Count of the March, or Borderland - Ekkehard I founded a new town in eastern Germany. They called it New Town, like hundreds of other places founded in that era as Europe embarked on a 250-year growth spurt; in German, Naumburg. Ekkehard had the clout to have his new town made a bishopric, and construction of the cathedral was underway by 1030. Ekkehard had not lived to see it, since he was assassinated in 1002; it was a tough time.

Of that first cathedral only parts of the crypt survive, along with this 12th-century crucifix.

A complete rebuilding of the church began in 1210, still in the Romanesque style.

Then in 1250 construction on a new choir, this time in Gothic idiom. The architect is known to us as The Master of Naumburg, and his touch has been detected in other German cathedrals, including Mainz and Strasbourg.

Besides the structure the Master was responsible for the remarkable early Gothic sculptures, the most famous thing about the church. These are not saints but the secular founders of the town and the cathedral: Count Ekkehard II, Margrave Hermann of Meissen, and their wives, Uta and Reglindis. (Ekkehard and Uta above)

Hermann and Reglindis.

Construction continued into the sixteenth century, when the upper reaches of the towers were rebuilt.

There is an amazing array of medieval sculpture.

Thirteenth-century Last Supper.

Ivy capital.



Friday, September 20, 2019

Ben Rawlence, "City of Thorns: Nine Lives in the World's Largest Refugee Camp"

This book was a lucky impulse buy for me. Wandering in an independent bookstore, the kind I wish the world had more of, I considered that I ought to show my support by buying something, and this was to hand and looked interesting so I bought it. I'm glad I did, because it is amazing and eye-opening and not in my public library.

Ben Rawlence is a former researcher for Human Rights Watch turned journalist, and City of Thorns (2016) chronicles life in Kenya's Dadaab refugee camp, at that time (2010-2015) the largest in the world. Nobody is sure how large, since the Kenyan government forbade the UN to take a census, but best estimates for the peak population come in around 800,000 people. Most of them were Somalis, fleeing the war that has torn their country apart for a generation. There were also Ethiopians, who fled a civil war in the Ogaden region that most westerners have never heard of, and a few others. These days the camp still exists but has shrunk to about a quarter of what it was it its peak, most of the residents having gone back to Somalia or vanished into Kenya's large Somali population.

Rawlence tells the stories of nine camp residents, based on extensive interviews with them and what others told Rawlence about them. You might think that this would be a very depressing book, but I did not find it so. Yes, it is full of horrors, from starvation to corruption to suicide bombing. But it is also a tale of amazing resilience, of people getting on with their lives despite terrible hardship, and of generosity. Rawlence would probably dispute that last, since he spends much time complaining about the refusal of most nations to accept more than a trickle of refugees, and about the harsh discrimination against them, but it was the kindness of strangers that kept all these people alive through decades of war and a terrible two-year drought.

Almost all the people in the camp lived in shelters like the ones shown in these photos, a frame of wood cut from scrubby thorn trees covered with UN tent fabric. Around them was the bare red soil, dust in the dry season, mud when the rains came. Water came from deep wells, distributed to central pumps where people collected their daily ration in plastic bottles. Rations had to be collected every two weeks by waiting in a long line.

Dadaab was set up in 1991, and Rawlence met people who had been there ever since. Some of those early arrivals prospered in the camp's weird economy, based on UN food aid, other kinds of relief, work for relief agencies, and smuggling. Sugar, in particular, was smuggled from Somalia into Kenya on a massive scale, to avoid Kenya's high import tariff; after reading about the amount smuggled and the complicity of the police one can only assume that the tariff exists mainly to allow well-connected Kenyans to take a cut of the smuggling profits. Some of those early arrivals had founded thriving businesses selling things like cell phone time, television watching, vegetables, meat, clothing, household goods, and kat, the ubiquitous drug of the Horn of Africa. It is fascinating to see that even among people who would all be considered desperately poor in the US there are differences in wealth that seem very important to the people of Dadaab.

In 2010, before the crisis of the great famine, two week's rations for an adult consisted of:
3 kg. wheat flour
2 kg. rice
1 kg. beans
1/2 l. cooking oil
1/2 cup salt
That's enough calories to live on, but since in fact most residents sold some of them to get money for phone time or television time or vegetables or to save for a wedding feast or a thousand other things, many people were slowly starving. And that was before the crisis.

The horrible famine of 2011-2013 was caused by a complete failure of seasonal rains two years in a row, exacerbated by the ongoing war. Half a million more people became refugees, and thousands died, many of them in the desert on their way to Dadaab. The arrival of hundreds of new refugees every day for months, many of them close to death, led to a huge crisis that got the attention of the world media and led to surge of donations, which eventually brought the crisis under control. But for a while the situation was very grim. The UN issued ration cards to everyone who showed up at the camp, under the assumption that nobody who was not an actual refugee would want to live on flour, beans, and rice in a squalid refugee camp. But during the crisis thousands of Kenyans showed up at the camp, because at that time there was no food anywhere else in the region.

There were other ways that life in the camp was better than outside it. The Medical care provided by NGOs was better than that available to many Kenyans. Education was also provided, primary school for all children and high school for a select group. One of the mothers Rawlence chronicles thought at one point about going back to Somalia but decided to stay in the camp because there her daughter could continue in school, which would be impossible in Somalia.

In Rawlence's telling the worst dangers of life in Dadaab were not physical but psychological. One of the rules set by the Kenyan government was that the refugees could not work, so they would not take jobs from Kenyans. Many did anyway, for example for the smugglers or for businesses in the camp, but this was difficult and many could find nothing to do. (Those who worked for aid agencies were theoretically "volunteers" and were paid only a tenth of what a Kenyan got for the same job.) Getting by day to day on their UN rations, any spending on entertainment paid for by going hungry, nowhere to go, nothing to do, nothing to see but red dust, thorn trees, and huts roofed with UN tenting, many fell into despair. They dreamed about being accepted for resettlement in Europe or Australia, but less than 1 percent ever were. They fantasized about heading across Africa to the Mediterranean and boarding a boat for Europe, but that is expensive and many who tried were robbed and ended up stranded in some other nowhere place even farther from home. Of those who did make it to the sea, many were drowned. The refugees in Dadaab knew this, but in certain moods they said they would rather die trying to reach Europe than live any longer in the noplace of Dadaab.

Yet most went on: working when they could, finding ways to amuse themselves when they could not, marrying, raising families. Among other things they created soccer leagues with several different levels of play, mosques, churches, musical groups, and a radio station that broadcast stories of refugees collected by refugee reporters. The Muslim extremists who ruled much of Somalia, al Shabaab, tried to recruit in the camp but found very few supporters; the refugees had fled from them and their violence and even the promise of power and regular pay tempted only a few to join them.

Many westerners are dubious about creating refugee camps and keeping them running for decades. Do the camps, perhaps, keep conflicts going longer by creating a sort of safety valve where threatened people can flee and survive, rather than facing the prospect of surrender or death? Do refugee camps keep people living in places where the environment simply will not sustain them? Do they efficiently prevent people who must move from assimilating into their new homes? Maybe. But they also give victims of war a chance to live again.

Links 20 September 2019

Cover to Jules Michelet's La Sorcière (Witchcraft), 1862.

During tournaments, chess grandmasters burn calories like marathon runners. The average top player loses 10-12 pounds over the course of a 10-day tournament, and a championship match had to be cancelled in 1984 after Anatoly Karpov lost 22 pounds.

Cryptography in Renaissance Venice. They had an official Cryptographer by 1506.

"Pseudoaddiction" has become a hated word for drug companies pushing opiates and has even been denounced in the US Senate, but really it is one way of trying to understand the very complex problem of who should get pain killers and how much. Sometimes people begging for more morphine are addicts, but sometimes they are just in terrible pain, and if you think it is easy to tell the difference you should read this article.

Excellent long article by Robert Wroth on the hell that is Yemen at war, with some background on how it got that way. Trigger warning: awful photos of famine victims.

In Nairobi, concrete tenements are replacing shacks as the main housing for the poor. How you feel about this news might say something important about you.

The Free Library of Philadelphia owns a copy of Shakespeare's First Folio, printed in 1623, that was annotated in the 17th century. Jason-Scott Warren claims the annotator was John Milton, and several scholars have chimed in and said they agree.

Brazil as a green country:
It is unfair to single out Brazil for criticism. It is one of the world’s greenest countries: over 60 per cent of its territory is covered with natural vegetation, its agriculture grew based on productivity gains and technology rather than land expansion, and about 45 per cent of its energy comes from renewables, compared with a global average of 14 per cent. It also has one of the world’s most stringent land usage regulations, known as the forest code. How many farmers around the world are required to leave aside 20-80 per cent (depending on the biome) of their native forest land?
Amusing obituary of a lifelong prankster.

Zaddies: the current vogue for white-haired male runway models.

Remembering the time when two Viet Cong commandos sank a major US warship in Saigon harbor. The North Vietnamese put this on a postage stamp, but the US government denied it had even happened and I just learned about it today.

Following the Transumanza in Italy, the ancient journey of cattle from summer to winter pasture, very authentic except for the tourists and the two documentary film teams.

This week's web site: Orkneyjar, a wonderful collection of articles on the history, archaeology, folklore, and everything else about the Orkneys.

Thursday, September 19, 2019

The Lille Panther

Imagine this kitty came up to your window and meowed to come in. It was roaming rooftops in Lille, France yesterday before being cornered by police and captured.

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

More on Money and Happiness

Money has some effect on how happy you are, but not very much. The latest attempt to quantify the relationship comes from Justin Wolpers, who finds that to raise your happiness by one standard deviation you would have to raise your income by 1,640%.

And remember that this is not a flat curve, and most of the impact comes at the bottom; once you're in the upper middle class the impact of more money on happiness is hard to measure and you are not likely to notice.

Two things that are worth more than all the money in the world: a good marriage and a group of friends you see on a regular basis.

Being too Interested in the Nazis

For most of my life the niche of "people who seem too interested in the Nazis for their or our good" was mainly filled by war buffs. After all the Werhmacht really was an amazing war machine, and the Nazi bid for supremacy as a stark act of mechainzed Will to Power had something awesome about it. It was a common theme of discussion among table-top wargamers that the designers were all pro-Nazi, assigning German units higher strengths than history suggests they deserved.

Anyway I was thinking about that because of a new art exhibit in the Netherlands focusing on Nazi design. Fascism after all was partly an aesthetic movement. Its central rituals were massively choreographed displays of uniforms and precision marching, and its leaders were very interested in cultivating a style to match their swagger. In writing about 1945 Tony Judt found several witnesses who mourned the fall of Nazism as an aesthetic catastrophe; one wrote, "I will never see anything truly beautiful again."

If the Times has it right, the curator of this exhibit is mainly a rebel bad boy who wants to tweak the noses of earnest liberals:
In an interview with De Volkskrant, a Dutch newspaper, last year, he positioned himself as a renegade, describing the Dutch museum world as “too feminine” and “destructively politically correct.”
But his exhibit makes many people nervous because of the return of far-right politics in Europe. Is now really the time, critics ask, to remind people that the Nazis had cool posters?

Will we now see a category of suspiciously pro-Nazi people who claim to just be interested in their design, you know, because of its technical excellence?

The Nazis are fascinating, even to many liberals, even to many Jews. They just are. I am very curious about them, and honestly I would probably read more about them if I didn't sometimes get a sense of personal corruption and complicity from doing so.

And yet they are not like the medieval Mongols or the Assassins, far enough away from us that no harm can come from admiring their efficiency. The Nazis still have real followers determined to do evil things. As I said, I don't read much about the Nazis any more because I have the guilty sense that paying so much attention to them only feeds destructive politics in our own time. But I have a hard time condemning others who give in to the temptation to watch.

Billionaires are Changing

Thomas Edsall, from a piece about how the richest Americans are giving less money to Republicans:
This downward trajectory coincided with the steady transformation of the sources of wealth for those on the Forbes list. In 1982, when the list was first published, solidly Republican manufacturers and energy producers dominated — 89 of the 400 richest Americans having made their fortunes in oil.

By 2018, 59 of the Forbes 400 had made their fortunes in technology, including six of the top ten: Jeff Bezos, No. 1; Bill Gates No. 2; Mark Zuckerberg, No. 4; Larry Ellison, No. 5; Larry Page, number 6; and Sergey Brin number 9. Eighty-eight more made their money in the financial sector. In contrast to the 1982 Forbes list, only 14 on the 2018 list made their money in manufacturing and 24 in energy.
Incidentally Trump is on track to raise more money from small donations than any candidate in history.

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Appian Way

By Lucio.

Are Unions Back?

GM workers just walked out on strike, trying to leverage what seems to be an upsurge of support for unions and strikers across America:
Successful strikes beget more strikes. When nearly 50,000 General Motors workers walked out at 11:59 p.m. Sunday, it was just the latest in the largest burst of strikes in decades. Last year’s victorious teachers’ strike in West Virginia was the initial spark, helping inspire statewide walkouts in Oklahoma and Arizona as well as strikes in Kentucky, Colorado and Los Angeles.

The G.M. strikers could taste labor’s newfound successes and momentum.

The teachers’ unions felt unusually robust public support, as parents and students marched with them. Union leaders and union members felt a new boldness from the surge of good will. This helped inspire a strike last fall by 7,700 Marriott workers in eight cities, and those workers trumpeted a message that resonated far beyond their industry: that their pay increases were not nearly keeping up with soaring housing costs, so they could not survive on one job.

The hotel workers’ success in turn helped inspire the strike by 30,000 Stop & Shop workers in New England in April. Union leaders there were surprised by the deep community support the grocery workers received — supermarket cashiers have never been as beloved as public-school teachers. Politicians stepped up, too. Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar and Elizabeth Warren marched alongside them. The G.M. strikers are no doubt counting on similar political backing.

The strong public opinion behind these strikes can be tied to Americans’ widespread dismay with wage stagnation and income inequality, even as corporate profits are flying high. While job numbers and economic growth are strong, many American are barely getting by. . . .

All this might help explain why a recent Gallup poll found that public approval for unions has climbed to 64 percent, up from 48 percent a decade ago and near its highest level in 50 years. An M.I.T. study last year found that nearly 50 percent of nonunion workers say they would vote to join a union if they could, up from 32 percent in 1995.
I find all this very encouraging. Opinion on both the left (Berniebros) and the right (Trumpism) has moved in favor of workers and what Marxists used to call "industrial action." If some of the energy we have been devoting to hating the other party can be channeled into unionization and fighting for pay increases, we might actually achieve something beyond claiming corpses on Twitter. But note that even now the highest number any poll has produced for workers wanting to unionize is 50 percent, and it will take a lot more support than that to bring unions back as a major tool of economic leveling. I still doubt that our individualistic age will go there.

Monday, September 16, 2019

Ranbow Falls

Yosemite Falls in just the right light, from a video shot by Greg Harlow.

Today's Place to Daydream about: The Orkneys

The Orkneys are a rainy, windswept, sea-lashed chain of about seventy islands, home to millions of seabirds, hundreds of dolphins and whales, myriad wildflowers, and amazing monuments that mark 5,000 years of human history.

The southernmost islands about 10 miles off the north coast of Scotland. Only 20 islands are inhabited by humans, the rest being left to terns, gulls, majestic sea eagles, puffins, and feral sheep that feed on seaweed.

Parts of the islands are rocky, with spectacular cliffs and scenery like the west Highlands.

Other parts are low and sandy.

Wildlife: a puffin, feral sheep, a gray seal, a white-tailed sea eagle.

The biggest town is Kirkwall on Mainland, the biggest island; this is the old harbor. Kirkwall was founded by Vikings who took over the islands in t he ninth century, holding them until 1468, when they became part of Scotland as the dowry of a Norwegian princess.

Kirkwall is home to St. Magnus Cathedral, built by the Viking Jarls. Construction began in 1137 and it was essentially complete by 1400.

The most famous monuments of the islands are Neolithic. These include the wonderful little village of Skara Brae, c. 3200-2200 BC, buried in sand and then partially exposed by a great storm in 1850. Love the stone furniture.

There are several great tombs, most notably Maeshowe on Mainland and the Tomb of Eagles.

There is a famous stone circle, the Ring of Brodgar.

And two great Brochs built by Picts in the 1st millennium AD.

I especially like the layering of history one can find. For example, some Vikings dug their way into Maeshowe, probably in the 12th century, and left about twenty runic inscriptions. Most are just graffiti --  Haermund Hardaxe carved these runes, Ingebjork is a fair widow -- but one records that in 1153 the men of Jarl Harald broke into the mound in search of treasure to fund their Crusade to the Holy Land.

Some Viking also made the famous little carving known as the Maeshowe Dragon, the model for thousands of pieces of jewelry.

Seems like a wonderful place to be on this slow Sunday afternoon.