Thursday, February 28, 2019

Chancay Llama

From the Chancay culture, modern Peru, 1000-1450 CE. Now in the Walters.

Why No Attack on Trump Matters

Conservative Christian writer Rod Dreher:
The Republicans on the Committee are ripping into Cohen hard on his credibility, or lack thereof. It’s interesting to consider that the Republicans are attacking Cohen for being a scum-sucker for the things he did during the years he was working for Trump. It is certainly true: Michael Cohen is a sleaze. He essentially admits it in testimony, says he’s going to jail, and deserves to. You can say: Why should we believe him now?

Well, read his testimony. It’s 100 percent believable, 100 percent consonant with what we know about Donald Trump’s character. Seriously, read the testimony. Say with a straight face that that doesn’t sound like the Donald we know. Seriously. Come on.

So, you are asking, how could you possibly vote for a man like Trump? The answer is: the moral and political cost of giving power to the other side is even greater. You know why I say that; I’m not going to go into it any further here. We talk about this in some form all the time. It is possible that everything Michael Cohen says today is 100 percent true, and it is still a more moral choice to vote for this immoral man, Trump, rather than for a leader of the party of infanticide, left-wing identity politics, and the rest.
One of the issues Dreher brings up "in some form all the time" is that it will soon be impossible for anyone with conservative views about sexuality to hold a job in America. Dreher and his friends think what happened to Brendan Eich, fired for donating money to an anti-gay marriage group, is what will happen to all of them if Democrats get control of the government. So they support Trump in full knowledge of what an awful person he is.

The only way to ratchet down hyper-partisanship and restore some sort of normality and decency to government is to ease up on the culture wars. If you think it is necessary to fight the culture wars at the barricades, decency be damned, you are going to have to put up with a whole lot of awful politics.

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Battle Armor of Jan III Sobieski

Worn when he led his Polish army to help lift the Turkish siege of Vienna in 1683.

Actually the army Sobieski led to Vienna was only half Polish, the rest of his 60,000 men drawn from all around the German-speaking lands. Sobieski was placed in command partly because as a king he was the highest ranking leader and partly because he had already fought in a staggering number of battles – against Prussians, Swedes, Russians, Tatars, other Poles, and more – none of which I had ever heard of until I read his wikipedia biography.

Vienna was under siege by a Turkish army said to number 140,000. Probably not an accurate number, given that half of a typical Turkish army was unpaid irregulars who came along to plunder, but anyway it was a big army. Sobieski attacked them within hours of his first men arriving on the scene, the sort of action that makes the commander a bold hero when it works and an incautious fool when it fails. That time it worked; the Turks fought for a while but were never really able to get into a fighting formation, and when Sobieski personally led a great cavalry charge at their flank they fled in confusion.

And, see, you don't have to be handsome to be a dashing war hero.

Billionaires and Everyone Else

Will Wilkinson, former libertarian and now a professed "centrist," goes after Democrats who think the mere existence of billionaires is a sign of something very wrong with a country. Wilkinson compares a country's rank on the Human Development Index, a generally left-leaning assessment, with the number of billionaires per capita, and he finds that six countries have both higher HDI ranks and more billionaires than the US:

Human Development
Index rank
per capita rank
Hong Kong
United States
New Zealand
Personally I would be happy to run up taxes on the rich and redistribute some of their money to the poor, but I am as uncomfortable as Wilkinson with some of the "eat the rich" rhetoric coming from the American left these days. The countries on the list above are good places to live in large part because they try to follow their own rules and treat everyone decently. All people in these societies have rights, including rich people. I think inequality is a threat to our democracies but it might be true that anger is a worse one, and that always needs to be guarded against.

All the best places in the world to live have mixed economies with a large element of capitalism. There are no socialist nations anywhere near as nice. Under capitalism, some people get really rich. You may not like it, but that just seems to be how things are at this stage of technological and social development.

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Greek Chapel, Wiesbaden, Germany


In New York, Giving Up on Struggling Schools

The Times reports:
Mayor Bill de Blasio is canceling one of his signature education initiatives, acknowledging that despite spending $773 million he was unable to turn around many long-struggling public schools in three years after decades of previous interventions had also failed.

The end of the initiative, called Renewal, is a blow to Mr. de Blasio, who had hoped that success would bolster his effort to build a national reputation for innovative policies. Urban educators around the country had also looked to Renewal as a model for improving underperforming schools in historically troubled districts, rather than closing them.

Instead, the program has been plagued by bureaucratic confusion and uneven academic results since Mr. de Blasio began it in 2014. Though some of the nearly 100 low-performing public schools have shown better results, many have fallen short of the improvements that Mr. de Blasio predicted. The Renewal label itself caused parents to seek other options, causing enrollment in some schools to plummet. . . .

The question of how to fix broken schools is a great unknown in education, particularly in big city school districts. While some small cities like Lawrence, Mass., and Camden, N.J., have achieved some success with different strategies, no large school system has cracked the code, despite decades of often costly attempts.
I am old enough now to remember dozens of educational fads that have all come and gone without making any real impact on the sad reality of American education: the more poor students, the worse the school.

Monday, February 25, 2019

Nancy Blum's Subway Mosaics

New work by Nancy Blum at New York's 28th Street subway station, titled Roaming Underfoot.

Sunday, February 24, 2019

The Holy Roman Empire is Back

The Holy Roman Empire around 1400

From the eighteenth century to World War II German historians were mostly scornful of the Holy Roman Empire. It was seen as a failure, a ramshackle arrangement whose baroque constitution and lack of central authority allowed foreign powers to meddle in German affairs, preventing Germany from achieving its destiny as a unified state.

After the Nazis, of course, things looked different to many Germans. The non-sovereign Empire, with its lack of coercive power and emphasis on consensus decision-making, looked to some like an alternative to strong national states and the dangers that went with them. Coupled with the rise of Early Modern Europe as a recognized field of study, this led to a slow but steady increase in scholarship about the Empire and its institutions. More recently it has been the obvious parallel to the European Union that generates interest; how can a non-sovereign association of states that must achieve consensus on all decisions work?

The Holy Roman Empire after the Peace of Westphalia in 1648

I've just read one of the products of this new scholarship, The Holy Roman Empire: a Short History by Barbara Stollberg-Rilinger (2018, German edition 2013). This is a dry little book not recommended for anyone but professional historians, but it is packed with information about things like the legal system and how the Imperial Estates (Parliament-like meetings of the member communities) worked. It also shows how the Empire's institutions evolved over the 1495-1806 period.

Alas for fans of non-sovereign, non-coercive polities, the Holy Roman Empire did not work not very well. The Empire certainly did achieve certain notable things, especially preserving the peace among its member states most of the time. The empire had hundred of theoretically independent parts, including dozens of cities and very small lordships, and across the early modern period it mostly kept them from fighting each other. It also raised a large amount of money for wars against the Turkish invaders, especially in the long war that culminated in the second siege of Vienna in 1683, and constructed a common legal code (again, without sovereignty or coercive power) that is still the basis of German law.

But the Empire ultimately failed in one of its main goals, keeping its stronger members from oppressing their weaker neighbors, and its inability to resolve the crisis created by the Reformation led to a century of religious war. It also failed to protect its people from foreign invaders and intriguers. The lion's share of the battles in Europe's early modern wars were fought on the Empire's soil, including battles between the French and the Spanish, between the French and the English, and later between the French and the Russians, and this was partly because of its intrinsic weakness. (Breitenfeld, Breisach, Blenheim, Austerlitz, etc.) The Empire was devastated during the Thirty Years War, when armies from France, Sweden, Denmark, Spain, and England marched and fought on its soil. It lost large chunks of territory to better-organized states. When Napoleon finally abolished it, hardly anyone mourned.

Let me pass along this paragraph from Stollberg-Rilinger's conclusion, under the heading What was the Holy Roman Empire?
The Holy Roman Empire was a political association based on tradition and consensus. Its structure relied partly on old customary rules and procedures and partly on mutual agreements between its members. Top-down statutes had little or no place in such an association, because the Empire lacked a supreme legal authority that could enforce its decisions on all the other members. Legal and political rights in the Empire were either practices surrounded by an aura of antiquity and espoused, uncontested, for a long time on the ground, or consensual agreements between the Imperial members. It was especially the written fundamental laws of the empire that possessed such a consensual character, although even they were only islands in the midst of the vast ocean of customary law. The Imperial legal order did not have the character of a systematic and well-organized written constitution. Rather, it was an aggregation of often conflicting laws, rights, privileges, and legal procedures that grew slowly over many centuries.

Saturday, February 23, 2019

Advice for Rulers

Don't fight in the north or the south. Fight every battle, everywhere, in your mind. Everyone is your enemy. Everyone is your friend. Every possible series of events is happening all at once. Live that way, and nothing will surprise you. Everything that happens will be something that you've seen before.

--Peter Baylish to Sansa Stark, Game of Thrones

The Blended Noble Family of 7th-Century Niederstotzingen

DNA from ancient bones has opened up many new avenues of research. One that has not yet gotten a lot of attention outside the profession is analyzing the family relationships of bones from cemeteries. For example, certain elite graveyards have been thought to be the burial places of particular royal or aristocratic families, and the study of DNA can sometimes show whether this is true. This approach was recently taken by Irish and German archaeologists to a famous graveyard from the early Middle Ages.

The thirteen warrior burials at Niederstotzingen, in southern Germany near the Danube, were made between about 580 and 620 AD. They were excavated in 1962. The excavators thought these were from the elite of the people known to the Romans as the Alemanni. The spectacular grave goods seem to represent a variety of backgrounds, however; some look Frankish, some like objects from Lombard Italy, while some like the helmet below are imports from Byzantium.

Mitochondrial and Y chromosome DNA was extracted from 11 burials, and it represented two distinct Y-chromosome lineages but nine different mitochondrial haplotypes. This means that the men were more closely related through their fathers than through their mothers. So this was a patrilineal or at least a patrilocal clan.

Sufficient DNA for full genome analysis was extracted from eight of the burials, all men. They showed that five were closely related; likely all first cousins or closer. These were all from the same Y-chromosome lineage. But the other three were from a different lineage and were not at all related to the first five; in fact they seemed to be from different populations altogether. Two seem most closely related to people from Italy.

The excavators did not note any particular association between the genetic background of these men and the grave goods they were buried with; the most Frankish and most Lombard looking artifacts were found with two men of that closely related family. Perhaps, they suggest, this was a matter of personal style. Or it might, I add, represent difference in where they had been or under whom they had served, since luxurious weapons and armor were in that society frequently given by lords to their most noble and useful followers.

As to why three unrelated men were interned in this family graveyard, the investigators suggest that they were adopted into the family from outside. We know from written records that sons from one noble or royal house were often sent to be raised in another. Sometimes this was a way of strengthening relations that were already good, and sometimes it was more like taking hostages, with every shade in between. To bury an unrelated person in your family plot seems like it should have been a sign of a very strong relationship indeed: as the investigators say, "kinship and fellowship were held in equal regard." So perhaps both the diverse styles of metalworking and the diverse genetic backgrounds show us that this was an internationally connected clan, with both household members and weapons from Lombard Italy at least, and possibly other kingdoms as well.

Friday, February 22, 2019

Er Lannic

Half submerged stone circle on a small island in Morbihan Bay, Brittany, France.

The Perils of Trying to Host an Open Discussion about Our Culture Wars

Scott Alexander blogs about controversial topics. When his blog started to get popular he banished all commenting and arguing about these topics from his site and with some friends set up a Reddit thread (r/slatestarcodex) for such discussion; then they peeled off the Culture Wars stuff into a separate thread (r/CW) for people who wanted to argue about things like homosexuality and feminism. And some people have said that these were by far the best actual discussions of this stuff they had ever seen.

Now Alexander has given up on the thread and closed it down, and posted a long explanation of why. A sample:
People settled on a narrative. The Culture War thread was made up entirely of homophobic transphobic alt-right neo-Nazis. I freely admit there were people who were against homosexuality in the thread (according to my survey, 13%), people who opposed using trans people’s preferred pronouns (according to my survey, 9%), people who identified as alt-right (7%), and a single person who identified as a neo-Nazi (who as far as I know never posted about it). Less outrageous ideas were proportionally more popular: people who were mostly feminists but thought there were differences between male and female brains, people who supported the fight against racial discrimination but thought could be genetic differences between races. All these people definitely existed, some of them in droves. All of them had the right to speak; sometimes I sympathized with some of their points. If this had been the complaint, I would have admitted to it right away. If the New York Times can’t avoid attracting these people to its comment section, no way r/ssc is going to manage it.

But instead it was always that the the thread was “dominated by” or “only had” or “was an echo chamber for” homophobic transphobic alt-right neo-Nazis, which always grew into the claim that the subreddit was dominated by homophobic etc neo-Nazis, which always grew into the claim that the SSC community was dominated by homophobic etc neo-Nazis, which always grew into the claim that I personally was a homophobic etc neo-Nazi of them all. I am a pro-gay Jew who has dated trans people and votes pretty much straight Democrat. I lost distant family in the Holocaust. You can imagine how much fun this was for me.

People would message me on Twitter to shame me for my Nazism. People who linked my blog on social media would get replies from people “educating” them that they were supporting Nazism, or asking them to justify why they thought it was appropriate to share Nazi sites. I wrote a silly blog post about mathematics and corn-eating. It reached the front page of a math subreddit and got a lot of upvotes. Somebody found it, asked if people knew that the blog post about corn was from a pro-alt-right neo-Nazi site that tolerated racists and sexists. There was a big argument in the comments about whether it should ever be acceptable to link to or read my website. Any further conversation about math and corn was abandoned. This kept happening, to the point where I wouldn’t even read Reddit discussions of my work anymore.

Some people started an article about me on a left-wing wiki that listed the most offensive things I have ever said, and the most offensive things that have ever been said by anyone on the SSC subreddit and CW thread over its three years of activity, all presented in the most damning context possible; it started steadily rising in the Google search results for my name. A subreddit devoted to insulting and mocking me personally and Culture War thread participants in general got started; it now has over 2,000 readers. People started threatening to use my bad reputation to discredit the communities I was in and the causes I cared about most.
So that's why nobody wants to be associated with any actual discussions of controversial topics, and why most people limit their online activity to sites full of people who agree with them about everything. It's just too risky to be in any associated with opinions your allies might find offensive.

Thursday, February 21, 2019


If you are told that someone is talking badly of you, don’t defend yourself against the story but reply: “Obviously he didn’t know my other faults, or he would have mentioned them as well.”


A Devil

From the Codex Gigas, a large-format Bible created in the early 13th century in the Benedictine monastery of Podlažice in the Czech Republic.

Hate, Violence, Madness, Terrorism

Federal authorities have arrested Coast Guard Lt. Christopher Paul Hasson, 49, accusing him of plotting terrorism. Searching his computer they found lists of enemies he hoped to kill, including Democratic leaders and journalists at CNN and MSNBC. They also found a letter he wrote in 2017 to some of his online connections:
Dear friends, maybe that’s a bit of a misnomer. Acquaintances more likely. Hope this finds you well. I am dreaming of a way to kill almost every last person on the earth. I think a plague would be most successful but how do I acquire the needed/ Spanish flu, botulism, anthrax not sure yet but will find something. Interesting idea the other day. Start with biological attacks followed by attack on food supply. . . Have to research this. Two pronged attack seems it might be more successful. Institute a bombing/sniper campaign. What can I do, I will not do nothing. . . It seems inevitable that we are doomed. I don’t think I can cause complete destruction on my own, However if I could enlist the unwitting help of another power/country would be best. Who and how to provoke???

. . .

Liberalist/globalist ideology is destroying traditional peoples esp white. No way to counteract without violence. It should push for more crack down bringing more people to our side. Much blood will have to be spilled to get whitey off the couch. For some no amount of blood will be enough. They will die as will the traitors who actively work toward our demise. Looking to Russia with hopeful eyes or any land that despises the west’s liberalism. . . .

During unrest target both sides to increase tension. In other words provoke gov/police to over react which should help to escalate violence. BLM protests or other left crap would be ideal to incite to violence. Gun rights people will never rise, need religious to stand up. Please send me your violence that I may unleash it onto their heads. Guide my hate to make a lasting impression on this world. So be it.
To untangle the strands of white supremacist ideology, longing for apocalypse, and just plain insanity in this document is beyond me. This, I think, is the real danger that confronts our world: that the broken will be drawn to ideologies that turn their madness into a weapon against all of us. Through the internet they find support, amplification, and advice on how to act. With guns their power is limited, but what happens when they can also find instructions on how to engineer deadly plagues?

Fortunately in this case some of those listening seem to have been FBI spies. Lt. Hanson was careless in his use of computers, including the one at his government job. So he was stopped in time. Others, as we know, have not been.

Guide my hate to make a lasting impression on this world.

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Getting the Look

From the Times:
One in three South Korean women have undergone cosmetic surgery between the ages of 19 and 29, a Gallup Korea poll has found — a trend that mirrors the narrow beauty standards epitomized by K-pop stars.


Interesting news from Syria, where two American women who joined the Islamic State say they made a horrible mistake and want to come home:
That was more than four years ago. Now, after being married to three Islamic State fighters and witnessing executions like those she had once cheered on social media, Ms. Muthana says she is deeply sorry and wants to return home to the United States.

She surrendered last month to the coalition forces fighting ISIS, and now spends her days as a detainee in a refugee camp in northeastern Syria. She is joined there by another woman, Kimberly Gwen Polman, 46, who had studied legal administration in Canada before joining the caliphate and who possesses dual United States and Canadian citizenship.

Both women, interviewed by The New York Times at the camp, said they were trying to figure out how to have their passports reissued, and how to win the sympathy of the two nations they scorned.

“I don’t have words for how much regret I have,” said Ms. Polman, who was born into a Reformed Mennonite community in Hamilton, Ontario, to an American mother and Canadian father and who has three adult children.

Ms. Muthana said, “Once I look back on it, I can’t stress how much of a crazy idea it was. I can’t believe it. I ruined my life. I ruined my future.”
These two women are just a small part of a big problem, what to do with hundreds of westerners who went to fight for the Islamic State. My inclination is to be merciful. I doubt there are many people among this group who don't regard the whole affair as a disaster at the least, and from what I read many have sincerely turned against the ideology that once inspired them. What better way to inoculate our societies against fundamentalism than people with first-hand experience of what a nightmare it was in practice?

I suppose there is a danger that some remain faithful, but given how comprehensively the Islamic State has been defeated I don't see them as a threat. If they wanted to be martyrs they would be dead by now, rather than languishing in refugee camps. Maybe in twenty years some will start to remember their jihadist days as a grand adventure and encourage young relations to follow in their footsteps, but I think that is a small risk and I am willing to take it in the name of mercy and reconciliation.

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Statue of the Lector Priest Kaaper

Old Kingdom, 5th Dynasty, ca. 2494-2345 BC. This statue is made from sycamore wood, eyes made from rock crystal rimmed with copper.

The statue was recovered from Kaaper's tomb, a Mastaba in in North Saqqara.

It was excavated by French archaeologist Auguste Mariette around 1860. According to his account, an unpopular mayor in the village had died, and when the local workmen looked into the eyes of this statue they believed that he had returned. Thus, Mariette dubbed it the Sheikh el-Balad, The Headman of the Village.

Coal Still Losing in a Rout

The latest news in the War on Coal is that despite the president's best efforts, the TVA voted to close two more coal-fired power plants by 2023. Both plants are 50 years old and it will cost the TVA $320 million less to get the energy from natural gas and renewables than it would to upgrade those old plants. The math is simply inescapable.

Since Trump's election the pace of coal plant closures has actually increased:
In total, more than 23,400 MW of coal-fired generation were shut in 2017-2018 versus 14,900 MW in 2009-2012.

Monday, February 18, 2019

Illustrations of Goethe's Faust

Goethe's Faust has been published in hundreds of editions in all the European languages, many of them illustrated. So there is a very rich store of pictures to go with his story. Which I have only read in German, as a college sophomore, barely understanding what was happening, so I couldn't tell you what most of these show. (Richard Westfall, Faust and Lilith, 1831)

Different versions of Faust's Dream, from top to bottom: August von Kreling, 1877; Eugène Delacroix, 1828; Carl Gustav Carus, 1851.

Faust in his Study: Ary Scheffer, 1831; August von Kreling, 1877; Carl Gustav Carus, 1851.

Faust and Mephistopheles: Harry Clarke, 1925; Anton Kaulbach, 1900; Maurice Boutet, 1878.

Old Faust, Salvador Dali, 1968

Faust and Marguerite, Harry Clark, 1925

Mephistopheles: Eugène Delacroix, 1828; Eduard von Grützner, 1895


Amusing internet exercise in which people cutely summarize their graduate work. Some are posted with the actual thesis titles, others not. Examples:

Either they’re lying, I’m lying, or we need a better model.
Psychology, Yale University.

Fishing isn’t sustainable because we catch too many fish.
History of Science, Harvard

I tried to stress out invertebrates but couldn’t; they had already lived a stressful life.
Environmental Toxicology, King’s College London

If you give people controls, they can adjust things
Audiology, San Diego State University

“A comparison of self-adjusted amplification settings vs current hearing aid settings of experienced hearing aid users”

Brain Maps: the only kind where you don’t find anything
Biomedical Informatics, Stanford University

Nazi Science Was Bad and They Should Feel Bad: A Review
Forensic Archaeology, Nottingham Trent University

Heute Kühe, Morgen die Aurochs: A Critical Study of the Work of the Heck Brothers

Rich people liked to buy and look at fancy things.
History of Art, University of Pennsylvania

I studied a protein for 4.5 years nobody ever studied before. Now I know why.
Biochemistry, University of Hohenheim

Turns out teenagers don’t trust their teachers no matter how much you make them meditate
Educational Science, Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München

Comparing and strengthening compassion, trust and motivation in adolescent students through compassionate meditation

I asked some farmers what they thought was important about farming. Turns out, it depends.
Sociology, Warren Wilson College

Becoming a Farmer: the Political and Ideological Priorities of First-Generation Farmers

Reading these has led me to wonder how I would summarize my own thesis. Maybe,

Medieval justice: hang the homeless criminals, lecture the ones with homes and tell them to look after each other better.

Saturday, February 16, 2019

Gaming Lions

Ivory Board Game Pieces, Early Dynastic Period, ca. 3100-2890 BC.

This game is known to moderns as The Coil, because it seems to have been played on a round board that took the form of a coiled snake. Now in the Egyptian Museum, Cairo. From Egypt Museum.

New Discoveries in Pompeii

For the most part Italian archaeologists have stopped uncovering more of Pompeii, since they can't properly manage what they have already unearthed. The discoveries I have reported on here have mostly been in areas of the city uncovered long ago, made by digging a little deeper to find things already buried before the eruption.

But over the past decade the site's managers have grown concerned about one part of the city, where heavy rains were eroding soil from unexcavated houses and threatening their contents. So they obtained a large grant from the European Union to undertake new excavations. 

So far the most spectacular finds have been in one house, two rooms with frescoes they call the Leda Bedroom and the Narcissus Alcove. Amazing that the paint should be so bright after nearly 2000 years.

This lararium was found in a house not far away.

Another grimly fascinating discovery was made in the Stable of Civita Giuliana, where archaeologists have uncovered three horses who were killed and buried in elaborate military harness. I suppose they were being readied for an escape that came too late.