Wednesday, July 31, 2019

RIP Neil Estern

American sculptor (1926-2019) who despised abstraction; he told an interviewer, "Art wasn’t meant to be a mystery." He got his start designing dolls. He had his biggest success late in life, winning major commissions like the FDR Memorial.

His bronzes had the intentional roughness of much 20th-century bronze work, which I always found a little offputting; for some reason many sculptors of that era were determined not to be too classical, or too much like Renaissance masters.

But this portrait of Fala might actually be the most widely loved American sculpture of the century. Really. You should see all the people taking photographs of it.


As all historians know, the past is a great darkness, and filled with echoes.

— Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale

Monday, July 29, 2019

The Bersted Warrior

In 2008, the grave of an Iron Age warrior was excavated near Chichester in West Sussex, England, where it happened to be in the way of a new housing development. It dates to around 50 BC.

The grave included a bent sword, a shield, and an array of large pots.

The most striking find was the warrior's helmet, which had an elaborate bronze crest to which, the excavators think, long tufts of horsehair were once attached. Quite the showman.

Sunday, July 28, 2019

A Cloud of Butterflies

This week my garden has been so full of butterflies that people driving by stop to look. At one glance one can see twenty or thirty at once, sometimes three on one zinnia flower. It's glorious. At least that's one good thing about the very hot weather we've had: the butterflies love it.

Saturday, July 27, 2019

Should Only Winners Get Trophies?

This is a question that divides Americans in many ways, for example 80% of Libertarians opt for winners only, vs. 53% of Democrats. But the biggest difference is by income. Scott Alexander comments:
The richer, whiter, and better educated you are, the less likely you support prizes-for-everybody and the more likely you are to support winner-take-all. In other words, the people saying everyone’s participation should be celebrated whether they win or not are probably the people who don’t expect to win very often.

Friday, July 26, 2019

Links 26 July 2019

Mosaic recently unearthed in Alexandria, Egypt, from Roman times.

American houses have gotten a lot bigger since 1970, but people don't like their new big houses any better than their old small houses, unless they are bigger than the other houses in their neighborhood.

Also, having a big bank balance makes people feel richer than a much larger amount of property or investments.

In Sweden, an Iron Age man was buried in a boat with his horse, dog, and sword.

In Mesa, Arizona, a policeman fatally shot an unarmed man who was on his knees with his hands up. Even though this was captured on video, he was acquitted of homicide. He was fired from the force, but then he was briefly rehired so that he could claim disability because, he says, he suffers from PTSD from killing an unarmed man.

In 2009, the European Union gave a one billion Euro grant to a team of neuroscientists who proposed to create a computer simulation of a human brain. They promised they would do it in ten years. They failed.

Scott Alexander summarizes Tom Wolfe's The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (a famous narrative of the origins of hippie drug culture) so you don't have to read it.

The NY Times brought together some artists and curators and asked them to name the 25 art works that best define the era since 1970. I had the same reaction as another old fud, David Brooks. Let me just state my credo here: politics is not the most important thing in human life, and when your art is just politics something vital is lost.

But there is one very interesting work among the 25, Arthur Jafa's short film "Love Is the Message, the Message Is Death." It is political, but it is not just political; it is also art.

We might run out of sand.

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

RIP Rutger Hauer

Tears in the rain.

Isaiah 60: the Glory of Zion

Arise, shine, for your light has come,
     and the glory of the Lord rises upon you.
See, darkness covers the earth
     and thick darkness is over the peoples,
but the Lord rises upon you and his glory appears over you.
     Nations will come to your light,
and kings to the brightness of your dawn.
     Lift up your eyes and look about you:
All assemble and come to you;
     your sons come from afar,
and your daughters are carried on the hip.

Then you will look and be radiant,
     your heart will throb and swell with joy;
the wealth on the seas will be brought to you,
     to you the riches of the nations will come. . . .

Then you will know that I, the Lord, am your Savior,
     your Redeemer, the Mighty One of Jacob.
Instead of bronze I will bring you gold,
     and silver in place of iron.
Instead of wood I will bring you bronze,
     and iron in place of stones.
I will make peace your governor
     and well-being your ruler.
No longer will violence be heard in your land,
     nor ruin or destruction within your borders,
but you will call your walls Salvation
     and your gates Praise.

The sun will no more be your light by day,
     nor will the brightness of the moon shine on you,
for the Lord will be your everlasting light,
     and your God will be your glory.
Your sun will never set again,
     and your moon will wane no more;
the Lord will be your everlasting light,
     and your days of sorrow will end.
Then all your people will be righteous
     and they will possess the land forever.
They are the shoot I have planted,
     the work of my hands,
for the display of my splendor.
     The least of you will become a thousand,
the smallest a mighty nation.
     I am the Lord;
in its time I will do this swiftly.

New International Version

The Weirdness of the Old Testament

Phil Christman, from his review of Robert Alter's new translation of the Hebrew Bible:
I always appreciate the weirdness of early Exodus, but then you hit the back half of the book, where God spends several chapters telling Moses exactly how to build a temple, and then Moses (or his secretary or, fine, be that way, “the redactor”) spends several chapters telling us that that’s exactly how he did it, quoting the earlier passages verbatim, page after page, and … here, reader, my attention will go no further. It turns and rebukes me, like Balaam’s ass. Someday, I keep telling myself, I’ll find the proper angle of view to see it whole. My patience with the text will attest to God’s with me.

Still, these are strange and alien volumes, and by this point the Bible’s body count and terrifying strictness have begun to make the alienation more than simply aesthetic. You start to wrestle with a special version of the same problem that worries every theist: if God is all good and merciful, and intends, finally, only restoration and wholeness, then why … all this? Why not skip to the good part? You can ask that question about all human history, and about the millennia of death and extinction that preceded human existence, and also about whatever future is left to life. The books themselves provoke such questioning – “Will you really wipe out the innocent with the guilty?” – even as they forbid it – “Who is this who darkens counsel?”

Those doubts only increase with the violence of Joshua, hero to gun-toting colonialists in modern America and modern Israel alike, and Judges, a book that ends in horrifying violence against an unnamed woman. As Israel begins nation-building in earnest (“Give us a king!”), the prophets register their anger at injustice, but they are at least equally insistent about ritual observation and location, a subject about which readers who aren’t practicing Jews don’t even have the option of having an opinion.

At worst, the picture that emerges for a modern reader is of a God more concerned with setting up elaborate rules than with the Dignity of All People and Concern for Individual Human Lives that thumbnail sketches of Western history often credit these texts with inventing. If God actually isn’t like this, then why does God start out by seeming like this? And why inspire a book so easy to misuse? No one has answered this question satisfactorily. No one can. But no one can answer these questions satisfactorily when we pose them about human history, either. The nihilist fails worst of all, since, having explained the slowness and ineffectiveness of the good by refusing to acknowledge its existence, he thus shuts his eyes to more than half of human life.

It is depressing, after so many years, to be asking the Bible the same questions I started asking it at eight years old. They are naive ones, but I come by them honestly, having been raised to believe that the Bible could have no mistakes. This hermeneutic could not survive a confrontation with the text’s own complexities, its self-contradictions and frank insufficiency as a rulebook for every question. The Bible has a proof text against eating owls, none against molesting children. It tells us that every person shall answer for their own acts, and that their children will pay for the parents’ sins. It posits universal brotherhood, then tells Israel to kill all the Amorites. Et cetera. Any village atheist can fill in further blanks. To some extent, the contradiction seems patterned, intentional, as though God liked to make rules in order to break them. Some texts insult eunuchs, others exalt them. Some texts seem to promote a hatred of everything that isn’t Israel, but the whole book of Ruth exists to insert alien blood into David’s line. . . .

Biblical inerrancy is a modern doctrine, and these kinds of reactions, too, invite the accusation that I am judging an ancient text by standards not native to it. Indeed, I am. This is a necessary step in a process called “reading.” My disgust and confusion are forms of information; they measure my distance from the text’s world. A reading that entered fully into the text’s thought-world, that required no haggling or silent dissent on the way, would be a useless exercise – you could bring nothing back from it; it would dissolve like a dream.

Taxes and Spending

Via Kevin Drum, two lovely charts that show our budgetary realities. Above, Federal spending as a percentage of GNP. Below, Federal taxes as a percentage of GNP. You can see that measured this way spending has been basically flat while taxes have gone down quite a bit. The uptick in the spending graph around 2009-2011 was mainly due to economic contraction, not increased spending; spending went up only a little. The debt is certainly rising but that is basically because nobody cares; Obama worked hard to make an increase taxes/cut spending deal, but really neither Republicans nor Democrats wanted it and since he left the scene everybody has said damn the debt, full speed ahead on spending increases and tax cuts.

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Farewell to Maine

Final hike, up Cadillac Mountain. You can drive to the top of Cadillac and I object to hiking up things one can drive up, but it really was a delightful hike and I am glad I let my prejudices go. View of Eagle Lake from the mountain.

Small tarn on the mountainside full of cotton grass.

Among the drive-up tourists on the summit.

Cairns marking the way down.

Lilies at my sister's house in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where we stopped on the way home.

Monday, July 22, 2019

Renaissance Shipwreck in the Baltic Sea

A trading vessel from around 1500 AD has been found on the floor of the Baltic Sea, in remarkable condition.

Stills from a video at the Times.

Sunday, July 21, 2019

Women's Voices have Gotten Deeper

Cecilia Pemberton at the University of South Australia studied the voices of two groups of Australian women aged 18–25 years. The researchers compared archival recordings of women talking in 1945 with more recent recordings taken in the early 1990s. The team found that the “fundamental frequency” had dropped by 23 Hz over five decades – from an average of 229 Hz (roughly an A# below middle C) to 206 Hz (roughly a G#). That’s a significant, audible difference.
Obviously this is just one study, but I it corresponds to what everyone I have asked thinks. Everyone I have asked has also offered the same reason: feminism and changes in power dynamics.

Friday, July 19, 2019

Mount Desert Isle Part III

Tidepooling at the culvert down the road from our house. This is an artistic photo taken by my elder daughter showing me and three other children.

Above, dead crab, live crab, and two live hermit crabs in a tiny area. We saw at least 25 hermit crabs.

 View from the top of Acadia Mountain this morning.

Small waterfall at the mouth of Man O War Brook, where generations of sailors filled their barrels with fresh water, including some from the British Navy.

One of the best things about Maine is the flowers.

Against Benevolent Dictators

Stephanie M. Rizio and Ahmed Skali:
Supposedly well-intentioned dictators are often cited as drivers of economic growth. We examine this claim in a panel of 133 countries from 1858 to 2010. Using annual data on economic growth, political regimes, and political leaders, we document a robust asymmetric pattern: growth-positive autocrats (autocrats whose countries experience larger-than-average growth) are found only as frequently as would be predicted by chance. In contrast, growth-negative autocrats are found significantly more frequently. Implementing regression discontinuity designs (RDD), we also examine local trends in the neighbourhood of the entry into power of growth-positive autocrats. We find that growth under supposedly growth-positive autocrats does not significantly differ from previous realizations of growth, suggesting that even the infrequent growth-positive autocrats largely “ride the wave” of previous success. On the other hand, our estimates reject the null hypothesis that growth-negative rulers have no effects. Taken together, our results cast serious doubt on the benevolent autocrat hypothesis.
Obviously this result is subject to all the qualifications we have talked about here before, like how to define democracy or measure economic growth through periods of regime change. But anyway these scholars found that dictators do on average worse than the regimes they overthrow.

Thursday, July 18, 2019

Mount Desert Isle Part II: Sargent Mountain

First real hike, on Tuesday. View from halfway up.

And from the top.

Younger daughter on the summit.

 Various relatives.
Younger daughter with an amusing cairn.

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Lawrence M. Principe, “The Secrets of Alchemy”

The Secrets of Alchemy (2013) is the best introduction to alchemy that I have read, and it includes some great stuff on the testing of alchemical recipes in modern labs. If you’re curious about alchemy, read it. Meanwhile, a short primer on this ancient and mysterious art:

In the ancient and medieval worlds, alchemy was not distinguished from any other sort of chemistry, and people we call alchemists did other sorts of chemical experiments. But the core of alchemy was the transmutation of metals, especially the transmutation of “base” metals such as lead or mercury into silver or gold. The central goal of alchemy was already established by the time our first surviving alchemical manuscript was written. That is On Apparatus and Furnaces by Zosimus of Panopolis in Roman Egypt, written around 300 AD. Zosimus was already drawing on an extensive previous literature, and he was engaged in debates with his contemporaries. (One of the authorities he cites is a woman named Maria, who gave her name to a method for heating compounds in water that evolved into the bain-marie of French cooking.) Anyway Zosimus gave instructions for methods used in transmutation, especially exposing one substance to vapors drawn from another substance. He described different kinds of transmuting agents, from simple agents that could only (in our terms) catalyze one reaction to the highest level, a substance that could transmute any metal into any other. That supreme reagent came to be called the Philosopher’s Stone. Most authorities did not think it was a literal stone, leading to it being called “the stone that is not a stone” and similar things.

The remarkable thing about alchemy, to me, is that serious, educated people kept on trying to transmute lead into gold down into the 1700s, but none of them ever succeeded. Why did people keep banging their heads against this lead wall for 1500 years?

First, because their theories of matter told them that it should be possible. You have probably heard of the most famous ancient theory of matter, the Four Elements of Empedocles. Empedocles taught that all matter was composed of earth, air, fire, and water. To this Aristotle added four characteristics: hot, cold, wet, and dry. There were other theories, but all of them agreed that all the materials we see around us are made up from differing proportions of a few simpler substances. Therefore it ought to be possible to transform any substance into any other. Not everyone agreed; alchemists were regularly attacked by other scholars who argued that the combination of elements to make up gold or silver had been done by God using powers that humans did not and could not possess. But that seemed to many of the more scientifically minded like special religious pleading, and the belief that any substance could be transmuted into any other remained widespread until modern chemistry was established after 1750. Using Aristotle’s schema, most authorities agreed that while lead and mercury were cold and wet, gold was much hotter and drier; therefore, for a thousand years the basic recipes of alchemy involved reacting the cold, wet base metal with something considered hotter and drier, such as sulfur or antimony.

Second, because the chemical manipulations alchemists could perform seemed to those who performed them at least as amazing as turning one metal into another. This is true on multiple levels. The chemistry itself was impressive, turning metals into white powders, red liquids, or crystal trees – that is, when it worked. Some of these reactions are fairly difficult even in a modern lab, and for people working with impure materials and shoddy equipment they could take years of effort. Principe describes trying to replicate one 16th-century recipe that involved an ore of antimony called stibnite. He could not make it work until he ordered stibnite from the same Eastern European region as that used by his source, whereupon the reaction worked perfectly, turning the gray ore into yellow glass. (The eastern European ore contained 2% quartz as an impurity.) You would have to multiply this a hundredfold for workers in medieval conditions. An alchemist who had labored for years to create one of the intermediate products on the way to the Stone and then finally succeeded would have his faith in the overall process dramatically revived. Plus, if it took five years to achieve the first or second step, then perhaps it seemed perfectly plausible that the last might take a lifetime.

Third, much of the alchemical literature was written in deliberately obscure ways. It is not clear how this started, since Zosimus was already doing it, but it remained part of the alchemical tradition down into the 1700s. Some of the tricks involved giving the materials nicknames, using metaphors for reactions (like marriage for mixing things together) and dispersing knowledge across a whole text or multiple texts, so that a metaphorical description of an action might be given in one chapter and the explanation of the metaphor given in another chapter or book. To the beginner, alchemical texts presented a fa├žade of extreme obscurity that might take years to master. Those who stuck with it were rewarded with membership in a club of real insiders, the magi who understood the obscure texts and used that knowledge to pry into the secrets of matter.

Fourth, and most mysterious, were the many eye-witness testimonies to successful transmutation. Some of these have the feel of folklore or friend-of-a-friend stories, including one about the Byzantine emperor’s storehouse of transmuting powders that goes back to an Arabic text of the 9th century. But others were written in the first person by scholars with reputations for great integrity. Robert Boyle (1627-1691), one of the creators of modern chemistry and a founder of the Royal Society, was convinced that transmutation was real by a mysterious stranger who visited him around 1680. Boyle’s notes refer to him only as “the Traveller.” This Traveller had a paper envelope containing grains of a coarse powder that looked like ground rubies. The Traveller put one grain of this substance into a crucible with mercury and heated it over a fire for 15 minutes. When the crucible had cooled enough for its contents to be handled, Boyle was shocked to discover that it contained, not mercury, but “a solid Body.” It felt, thought Boyle, heavier than the mercury they had started with, and when he tested it later it seemed to be gold.

Page from one of Isaac Newton's alchemical notebooks

Many such stories survive from the 16th and 17th centuries. What can they mean? If Boyle’s Traveller was a fraud, what was his goal? Boyle gave him no gold or silver, only mercury that was used up in the reaction. There were plenty of stories about men who said that given some small amount of gold they could multiply it and then absconded with the gold, but there also are many like Boyle’s in which a financial motive is hard to find. Could these stories, even Boyle’s, actually be instructive fictions; by not naming this “Traveller” is he telling us we have entered the realm of myth? That would be, I think, very unlikely for the hard-headed Boyle, whose most famous book is called The Sceptical Chemist. I am not at all sure what to make of these tales.

While scientists of the 1600s like Boyle and Newton were very interested in alchemy, that changed in the 1700s. You might think that learned opinion was turned against alchemy by scientific progress, but that is not really so; the alchemists had been driven out of chemistry decades before Lavoisier and others discovered the reality of chemical elements in the late 1700s. This parallels what happened with witchcraft, which was banished from British and French lawcourts by Enlightenment attitudes a century before the scientific revolution had born much fruit. Anyway the progress of chemistry after 1750 sealed the argument, keeping alchemy out of science for good. But not out of the civilization. People kept practicing alchemy across the 19th and into the 20th century, and for all I know they still do. More interesting is a dramatic shift in how alchemy was perceived. Beginning around 1850 people began to argue that alchemy had never really been about making gold, but was instead a spiritual practice focused on purifying the soul. This view drew strength from some of the metaphorical texts written by alchemists but does violence to their history: they really were trying to make gold, and only a few thought the state of the alchemist’s soul was relevant. But this new idea spread like wildfire through occult and spiritual circles, embraced by people like Arthur Waite (of the Tarot deck) and Carl Jung. From there interest in alchemy entered avant garde artistic circles such as the Surrealists, who made much use of alchemical concepts.

These moderns embraced alchemy because they were fascinated with transformation. Alchemy interested them as a language for speaking about transformation on many levels: of society, of the self, of the soul, of the civilization. And perhaps this fascination with dramatic change also explains part of why so many smart people devoted so much effort to mixing metals and reagents in crucibles and exposing lead to sulfurous vapors for so many long centuries

Monday, July 15, 2019

Mount Desert Isle 1: Wonderland

First day and half of vacation. I'm on Mount  Desert Isle, Maine, with four of my children and assorted other relatives. These pictures are from Wonderland, on the Atlantic.

Wild turkeys by the driveway.

Yesterday afternoon on Beech Mountain, our traditional first hike.