Tuesday, April 30, 2019

He's Back

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, founder of the Islamic State, is alive and releasing videos, five years after the Russians said they killed him in a bombing raid, twelve years after the first of at least three times the Americans said they had killed him. Quite a survivor.

Monday, April 29, 2019

Politicizing Architecture, or, My Taste Puts Me in Disturbing Company Sometimes

Grimly fascinating article on how debate over traditional vs. modern architecture has been taken over by politics in general and alt right trolls in particular:
It should be noted that few people in this community are architects themselves. Most are simply admirers of particular forms of architecture, like Romanesque, Baroque, Neoclassical and Gothic. And to a passerby, they seem harmless enough. But for those who follow the alt-right, Architecture Twitter has become an increasingly prominent voice in the wider “online culture war,” where people proselytize about a return to “European traditionalism” in all its senses, including everything from “fixed gender roles” to forcibly segregating white people from ethnic minorities.

In particular, they see the construction of modern buildings — especially those built between 1940 and 1970 and distinguished by block-like concrete or glass and industrial materials like steel (see: the Tate Modern in London or the Guggenheim in New York City) — as a physical representation of the threat to “Western values.”

“Buildings broadcast a message. Good and bad architecture can lift, or subdue a message… aesthetic ugliness promotes ugly behavior,” says 35-year-old Paul Joseph Watson, a commentator on Infowars, in a video titled “Why Modern Architecture SUCKS.” Watson refers to modernist architects — those who designed buildings after World War II, like Ernő Goldfinger, Owen Luder and John Bancroft — as “the social justice warriors of their time” who actively “rebelled against beauty.” By creating large concrete tower blocks — often with the intention of building social housing for the poor — Watson believes they attempted to “socially engineer society” like the Soviet Union.
Which, incidentally, is true about some modernist architects, but not all of them; the Guggenheim was by Frank Lloyd Wright, whose politics are hard to classify but certainly weren't left.

But the thing that really amused me about this debate was the reaction of leftists, who say things like:
Brutalist buildings were characterized by simple, block-like structures that often featured exposed concrete and were constructed in the belief that architects should design buildings with their function in mind first and foremost. As a result, brutalist architects would usually prioritize public space over monuments to gawk at. “Many Brutalist buildings expressed a progressive or even utopian vision of communal living and public ownership,” writes Felix Torkar in Jacobin magazine. (To that end, brutalist buildings were often favored by European governments as social housing for impoverished communities.) “The battle to protect them is also a fight to defend this social inheritance.”
Or else they fall back on a sort of bemused contempt, pointing out that alt right Youtube guys don't understand what Postmodernism means.

Let me tell you, none of these alt right guys hate modernism any more than I do, and I absolutely agree that Brutalism is a crime against humanity. If it were up to me I would tear down every bare concrete building on the planet. Plus, there is the weird fact that all the architecture in the world looks the same; an observer with a modicum of knowledge can date any 20th- or 21st-century building to the right decade with 90 percent accuracy. Why? If it isn't because the whole profession is under the control of an elite cabal, then whey aren't there any big, public buildings in the whole world that I love? There's plenty of other art being made for people with my tastes, but no architecture.

So here I am again, wondering why I keep ending up in groups full of cranky conservatives — lovers of Gothic architecture and portrait painting, scholars of Indo-European myth, fans of The Vikings — if not downright Nazis. (I may have mentioned that one of my favorite scholarly books is a 19th-century German folklore study that I read in a special Nazi Party edition endorsed by Himmler.)

My mind is in the Enlightenment, but the artistic parts of my soul dwell in the misty past.

Our Lady of Reims

Thirty kings of France were crowned at Reims, beginning with Clovis in 496 and ending with Charles X in 1825.

In 1429 Jean of Arc led the French army that seized Reims from the English, allowing Charles VII to be crowned in the cathedral as was proper for a French king. This is widely considered to the turning point of the last phase if the Hundred Years War.

The older cathedral that stood here was destroyed by fire in 1211, and construction of the new one began soon after. Since Reims was a wealthy archbishopric and also had royal patronage, the construction was unusually rapid and the church was open by 1238 despite a three-year halt caused by a violent struggle between the cathedral chapter and the town that broke out in 1233. (The townspeople rose up against the bishop's taxes and the fact that disputes over them were settled in his own court -- unfairly, they thought -- and drove him out, and he responded by placing the town under interdict, which went on for three years.)

The church was largely complete by 1330. Wikipedia:
Unusually the names of the cathedral's original architects are known. A labyrinth built into floor of the nave at the time of construction or shortly after (similar to examples at Chartres and Amiens) included the names of four master masons (Jean d'Orbais, Jean-Le-Loup, Gaucher de Reims and Bernard de Soissons) and the number of years they worked there, though art historians still disagree over who was responsible for which parts of the building.The labyrinth itself was destroyed in 1779 but its details and inscriptions are known from 18th-century drawings. The clear association here between a labyrinth and master masons adds weight to the argument that such patterns were an allusion to the emerging status of the architect (through their association with the mythical artificer Daedalus, who built the Labyrinth of King Minos).
The canons responsible for destroying the labyrinth said they did so because children kept playing on it during mass, but I think we can safely assume that this was another skirmish in the millennial struggle between the Church and the Enlightened Master Masons over the fate of our souls. And if not, why hasn't someone put this in a famous thriller yet?

The church once had an amazing array of sculpture, although sadly much has been lost or damaged.

But of course the real reason I am writing about Reims now is that it was very heavily damaged during World War I, when the roof burned even more completely than that of Notre Dame de Paris this year. Witnesses said that when the lead on the roof melted it poured out of the mouths of the gargoyles.

Reconstruction began immediately after peace was signed, with support from all over the world, including a generous check from John D. Rockefeller. Behold the steel roof beams.

Yet the outside still looks wonderful.

I am sure there were many debates about the reconstruction, and no doubt there are details offensive to purists. But the cathedral is still beautiful, still much praised, and still retains its ancient associations with French royalty. To me this is a model of how a great old building should be rebuilt.

Sunday, April 28, 2019

A Massacre in the Bow and Arrow Wars

Interesting archaeological news from Alaska:
Archaeologists have uncovered a 350-year-old massacre in Alaska that occurred during a war that may have started over a dart game. The discovery reveals the gruesome ways the people in a town were executed and confirms part of a legend that has been passed down over the centuries by the Yup'ik people.

A recent excavation in the town of Agaligmiut (which today is often called Nunalleq) has uncovered the remains of 28 people who died during the massacre and 60,000 well-preserved artifacts.
The settlement was burned down, and the top layer was full of arrow points.
Some of the 28 people found "had been tied up with grass rope and executed," said archaeologist Rick Knecht, adding that "they were face down and some of them had holes in the back of their skulls from what looks like a spear or an arrow." When exactly the massacre occurred is not certain, though Knecht said the complex was constructed sometime between A.D. 1590 and 1630. It was destroyed by an attack and fire sometime between 1652 and 1677, he added.
That was during what the Yup'ik call the "Bow and Arrow Wars," a long series of tribal conflicts. The oral tales of that time trace the conflicts back to some original crime, in one version an accident during a dart game when one boy put out another's eye. In others it was a rivalry over a woman. Some historians now think the underlying cause was the Little Ice Age, which made Alaska very cold during the 17th century and may have led to food shortages. Whatever the cause, it is an amazing archaeological site and an amazing find, the latest from a very fruitful cooperation between the tribe and the University of Aberdeen in Scotland.

Luc-Olivier Merson

Luc-Olivier Merson's career took the form of an interesting curve, with a very rapid ascent to the heights of the art world, followed immediately by a long, gradual decline that ended with his death in poverty, forgotten by the world. Above is the most famous painting from his time at the top, Rest on the Flight into Egypt (1879), still a staple of museum Christmas cards.

Merson (1846-1920) was born into an artistic family in Paris, son of a painter and critic. He had the youthful career expected of a French artist on the rise: studied at the École des Beaux-Arts, exhibited his first work at the Paris Salon at the age of 20, then won  the Prix de Rome and spent five years in Italy. (Truth, 1901)

The Wolf of Gubio, 1877. (The wolf terrorized the town until it was tamed by St. Francis, or so the story goes.)

In 1881 he had a great success with this painting, which illustrates a passage from Victor Hugo's Hunchback of Notre Dame:
Sometimes one caught sight, upon a bell tower, of an enormous head and a bundle of disordered limbs swinging furiously at the end of a rope; it was Quasimodo ringing vespers or the Angelus. Often at night a hideous form was seen wandering along the frail balustrade of carved lacework, which crowns the towers and borders the circumference of the apse; again it was the hunchback of Notre-Dame. Then, said the women of the neighbourhood, the whole church took on something fantastic, supernatural, horrible; eyes and mouths were opened, here and there; one heard the dogs, the monsters, and the gargoyles of stone, which keep watch night and day, with outstretched neck and open jaws, around the monstrous cathedral, barking. And, if it was a Christmas Eve, while the great bell, which seemed to emit the death rattle, summoned the faithful to the midnight mass, such an air was spread over the sombre façade that one would have declared that the grand portal was devouring the throng, and that the rose window was watching it. And all this came from Quasimodo. Egypt would have taken him for the god of this temple; the Middle Ages believed him to be its demon: he was in fact its soul.
Despite this hit, Merson's career was already on the downslope. Academic painters like him had been pushed out of the limelight by the Impressionists, and he was no longer able to earn a decent living selling paintings. So he turned to other sorts of work: illustration, murals in public buildings, designing stained glass and mosaics. He did several more paintings from The Hunchback and eventually an edition was produced illustrated with his drawings. (Esmerelda giving Quasimodo Water in the Stocks, 1905)

He also designed stamps for the French postal service, and these days he is probably as famous among stamp collectors as among art lovers.

Alberich and the Rhine Maidens, illustration for Wagner's Ring.

After the Battle, illustration for a book about the French Jacquerie or Peasants' Revolt of 1358.

Procession of Saints, probably a preparatory sketch for a mural. And to close, more of his illustrations to The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

Saturday, April 27, 2019

Diversity in America

I just love these maps from the Times, which show that while suburban neighborhoods across America are getting more diverse because blacks and Hispanics are moving in, inner city neighborhoods are getting more diverse because white people are moving in:
In the African-American neighborhoods near downtown Raleigh, the playfully painted doors signal what’s coming. Colored in crimson, in coral, in seafoam, the doors accent newly renovated craftsman cottages and boxy modern homes that have replaced vacant lots. . . .

Here, and in the center of cities across the United States, a kind of demographic change most often associated with gentrifying parts of New York and Washington has been accelerating. White residents are increasingly moving into nonwhite neighborhoods, largely African-American ones.

In America, racial diversity has much more often come to white neighborhoods. Between 1980 and 2000, more than 98 percent of census tracts that grew more diverse did so in that way, as Hispanic, Asian-American and African-American families settled in neighborhoods that were once predominantly white.

But since 2000, according to an analysis of demographic and housing data, the arrival of white residents is now changing nonwhite communities in cities of all sizes, affecting about one in six predominantly African-American census tracts. The pattern, though still modest in scope, is playing out with remarkable consistency across the country — in ways that jolt the mortgage market, the architecture, the value of land itself.

In city after city, a map of racial change shows predominantly minority neighborhoods near downtown growing whiter, while suburban neighborhoods that were once largely white are experiencing an increased share of black, Hispanic and Asian-American residents.
Of course the sort of change taking place in formerly black, inner city neighborhoods makes people nervous. But I can't get too upset about this because, as far as I am concerned, this is what we want. We don't want a world in which no white person would ever buy a home in a majority black neighborhood, where people are just plain scared to live next door to someone of a different race. As that fear fades, things will change, and change will always hurt someone. But does anybody want to bring back segregation?

Graduate School

Graduate students experience depression and anxiety at six times the rate of the general population, Gumport mentioned.

A study produced by Paul Barreira, director of Harvard’s University Health Service, found that “the prevalence of depression and anxiety symptoms among economics Ph.D. students is comparable to the prevalence found in incarcerated populations.”

Friday, April 26, 2019

Unconvincing Denials and Cat Names

The Journal du Dimanche newspaper reported that France’s Europe Minister, Nathalie Loiseau, wrote this on her private Facebook page.
I've ended up calling my cat Brexit. It wakes me up meowing like crazy every morning because it wants to go out, but as soon as I open the door, it just sits there undecided and then looks angry when I put it outside.
First she tried to deny this but now she says she did write it but it was a joke. I suppose that would fall under "many a truth is spoken in jest."

Cat Culling in Australia

The government of Australia is serious about preserving what is left of its native fauna. The threat is certainly dire:
Since the First Fleet’s arrival [in 1788], 34 mammal species have gone extinct in Australia. All of them existed nowhere else on earth; they’re gone. More than 100 mammal species in Australia are listed as between “near threatened” and “critical” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. The continent has the highest mammal extinction rate in the world. . . . “Recent extinction rates in Australia are unparalleled,” John Woinarski, one of Australia’s foremost conservation researchers, told me. “It’s calamitous.”
By contrast only one species of native mammal has gone extinct in North America since European settlement. For a long time the main threat to these animals was people, who shot and trapped many species to extinction. But these days the threat is invasive animals: rabbits that outcompete native herbivores, cane toads that poison carnivores, and small predators. European foxes and cats, it seems, are a threat that native marsupials simply can't cope with. Cats in particular are thought to have played a leading role in the extinction of 22 species.

Extreme situations have generated extreme responses, like the introduction of myxomatosis, a disease that killed somewhere around 5 billion rabbits in the 1950s. And now, a massive campaign aimed at killing 2 million feral cats. Nobody knows how many feral cats there are in Australia, but they live across the entire continent and the government thinks there are 6 million.

While the campaign against cats is only one part of a program that also includes the mass slaughter of other introduced species, it is of course the part that has attracted the most global attention. Hundreds of thousands of people have signed online petitions against cat culling. Most of that opposition comes from people outside Australia, though, and the government is ignoring it. Australians have seen sensitized over the decades to the threat posed by non-native species and to the reality that their native animal life might disappear, and most people seemed resigned to the slaughter.

One of the vast global forces transforming our planet is the mixing of animals and plants from ecosystems that evolved separately for millions of years. When that mixing happens, some species lose out. If we want to preserve some of that ecosystem diversity, we are going to have to take drastic action.

Thursday, April 25, 2019

DNA from a Mass Grave of Crusaders

DNA has been recovered from the skeletons in a burial pit in Lebanon dated by artifacts and radiocarbon to the 13th century, when the nearby Castle of St. Louis was a stronghold of the Crusaders. The men in the pit had all met violent ends. The researchers:
were able to recover DNA from temporal bones and perform whole-genome sequencing to confirm that the men were Crusaders -- quite a feat considering that the bodies had been burned and buried in a warm, humid climate. Both factors cause DNA to degrade.

The researchers weren't expecting the diverse origins of the men. Some were from Spain and Sardinia, four were locals who were probably recruited to fight, and two carried mixed genetics indicating that they were the result of relations between Crusaders and locals.

"Our findings give us an unprecedented view of the ancestry of the people who fought in the Crusader army. And it wasn't just Europeans," said Marc Haber, first author of the study and a postdoctoral fellow at the Wellcome Sanger Institute, in a statement. "We see this exceptional genetic diversity in the Near East during medieval times, with Europeans, Near Easterners, and mixed individuals fighting in the Crusades and living and dying side by side."
Quite interesting.

Fertility Decline in Dogs

If you've long been wondering why sperm counts are declining so much in men, here's a new datum for you:
A study led by researchers at The University of Nottingham has discovered that the fertility of dogs may have suffered a sharp decline over the past three decades.

The research, published in the academic journal Scientific Reports, found that sperm quality in a population of stud dogs studied over a 26-year period had fallen significantly.

The work has highlighted a potential link to environmental contaminants, after they were able to demonstrate that chemicals found in the sperm and testes of adult dogs -- and in some commercially available pet foods -- had a detrimental effect on sperm function at the concentrations detected.
If it's true that sperm counts in dogs have declined dramatically – this is, after all, the first study to find this – then that means the cause is probably something common to both dogs and humans, and that probably means an environmental contaminant.

On the other hand some people say the whole thing is overblown because sperm counts vary for so many reasons – time of day, season of the year, temperature of the scrotum, time since last ejaculation, even how excited the man is – that we just don't have any good baseline data to work from.

Monday, April 22, 2019


Greece, c. 520 BC, now in the Cleveland Museum

 Iron Age Jerusalem.

Syria, 12th century AD

Huron, Mantle Site in Ontario, c. 1500 AD

Egyptian sherd depicting Bes, part of British archaeologist Flinders Petrie's collection.

New Forest Ware from Roman Britain.

New Zealand, late prehistoric.

From India with an early example of Tamil writing.

From medieval Caesarea Maritima, now in Israel.

Sherd from a stoneware bottle ("Bellarmine") depicting a peasants' dance. Sixteenth century.

Assyromania in Victorian England

I just learned, from the British Museum's blog, that the publication of Henry Layard's 1849 book on the excavations at Nineveh triggered a mania for all things Assyrian much like the Egyptian mania that followed the opening of King Tut's tomb.

Among other things the public uproar over the publication inspired the government to pay to ship all those very heavy winged bulls to Europe; they had been sitting, crated, in the port of Basra for months. Above, newspaper illustration for the arrival of one of the bulls at the museum, an event covered by all the press.

A British aristocrat garbed as Queen Semiramis.

Porcelain objects inspired by Assyrian art.

Bracelet decorated with an Assyrian lion hunt. What a wonderful little bit of historical trivia.

Spring in the Woods

Near my house yesterday, the most beautiful day of the year so far.