Monday, September 30, 2019

Government and the Internet

The latest polling:
Using surveys of 840,537 individuals from 2,232 subnational regions in 116 countries in 2008-2017 from the Gallup World Poll and the global expansion of 3G networks, we show that an increase in internet access reduces government approval and increases the perception of corruption in government. This effect is present only when the internet is not censored and is stronger when traditional media is censored.
Suppose it turns out to be true that the inevitable effect of uncensored social media is increased political polarization and decreased respect for government and most other institutions. Is that an argument for censorship?

How to Talk to Graduate Students

Saturday, September 28, 2019

Today's Castle: Pfalzgrafenstein

I have posted here before about fake castles; but here is one that looks fake but is an actual medieval fortress.

Pfalzgrafenstein Castle sits in the Rhine River near the town of Kaub, where the great river is confined between cliffs only 250 m (800 feet) apart. This creates dangerous rapids, and before nineteenth-century dredging and rock-dynamiting the river was passable only in a narrow channel near the east bank. That made Kaub the perfect place to collect tolls.

So in 1326 the Holy Roman Emperor Ludwig the Bavarian -- scion of the Bavarian ducal house, the Wittelsbachs -- built the keep of this castle and began enforcing a steep toll. People from the Pope down protested, but Ludwig thumbed his nose at them, and the toll collecting went on, ending only in 1867.

Ludwig expanded the post by building the hexagonal outer wall in 1338 to 1340.

Ludwig made himself unpopular in many other ways beyond the toll collecting, so he was not able to pass his imperial crown on to his son, and the princes elected Charles IV of Luxembourg instead.

The cute tower roofs were added in the seventeenth century, but most of the stone work dates to the fourteenth century.

In the nineteenth century the castle looked like this and was the subject of many Romantic engravings.

But after it became a museum in 1946 the curators decided to restore it to its 17th-century appearance, and back then it was plastered and whitewashed.

Still, what an amazing thing to see from the river.

Friday, September 27, 2019

Michelle McKinney

Contemporary British artist. More at her web site.

Links 27 September 2019

Maria Callas in the film Medea, 1969

Accusing people of bias is generally a bad idea, since it proves nothing and leads nowhere.

Octopi change colors in their sleep. (video) Are they dreaming?

Tyler Cowen says the way to reform the Economics Ph.D. is to abolish it.

Online, we are all Expressivists.

Spitalfields Life visits Malplaquet House, an amazing 1742 mansion in London. "Over the top" doesn't come close.

The US as a gerontocracy: "The U.S. doesn’t have a Politburo, but if you calculate the median age of the president, the speaker of the House, the majority leader of the Senate, and the three Democrats leading in the presidential polls for 2020, the median age is … uh … 77."

How country music pioneer Jimmie Rodgers became a demigod for one African tribe (video).

Today's hopeful news in architecture: a call for architects to abandon concrete, because of the greenhouse gases created in its manufacture. I doubt the calculations for how much CO2 emissions would be reduced are right, but I hate concrete buildings so much I am willing to endorse any argument for ceasing to build them.

Photos of Soviet Metro Stations, very cool.

The spreading consequences of Europe's "right to be forgotten."

The more democracy people have, the less they like it, and vice versa. Or so says this study.

How many swing voters are there in the US? The estimates covered here range from 6 to 16 percent.

For you academic nerds: Foucault's analysis of 1970s neoliberalism.

"A painting that for years hung over a hotplate in a Compiegne kitchen has been identified as a 13th- century tempera-on-panel by Cimabue."

Offshoring, not so much: many American firms find that they save more by moving jobs to Ohio.

In 2002, the US military staged a major simulation of invading Iran. Iran won. In 2004 when the Atlantic staged a tabletop, geopolitical wargame with major defense and diplomatic luminaries – the Israeli Prime Minister was played by the Israeli ambassador to the US, etc. – Iran survived easily, taking serious losses but also inflicting major losses on the US and its allies.

Thursday, September 26, 2019

Boeing Crashes and the Human Factor

The NTSB investigators looking into the two deadly crashes of Boeing's 737 Max say the company failed to account for "the human factor":
The agency said Boeing had underestimated the effect that a failure of new automated software in the aircraft could have on the environment in the cockpit. When activated, the system, known as MCAS, automatically moves the Max’s tail and pushes its nose down. The system contributed to two crashes in less than five months that killed 346 people and caused regulators around the world to ground the plane. Boeing did not fully inform pilots about how MCAS functioned until after the first accident. . . .

In conversations with airlines and aviation unions following the crashes, Boeing executives said that the accidents could have been avoided if pilots had simply run a standard emergency procedure. But officials with the safety board suggested that Boeing was too confident the average pilot could easily recover the plane in that situation, because the company had not considered the chaos that ensued inside the cockpit.

“They completely discounted the human factor component, the startle effect, the tsunami of alerts in a system that we had no knowledge of that was powerful, relentless and terrifying in the end,” Dennis Tajer, the spokesman for the American Airlines pilots union, said of Boeing. . . .

When Boeing developed the Max, it assumed that if MCAS activated erroneously, pilots would immediately react by performing a standard emergency procedure. But the company had tested the possibility of an MCAS failure only in isolation, failing to account for just how chaotic the cockpit would become when the activation caused other malfunctions.

On the doomed Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines flights, a faulty sensor triggered MCAS, which produced a cascading number of warnings that may have overwhelmed the pilots.

“They did not look at all the potential flight deck alerts and indications the pilots might face,” said Dana Schulze, the director of the Office of Aviation Safety at the safety board. “Multiple alerts and indications have been shown through years of research to have potentially an impact where pilots will not respond as perhaps you might have intended.”
This sounds to me like the essence of bad design, followed by bad testing and bad training for pilots. If the NTSB is right and the pilots in the fatal crashes faced not just one warning but a whole series, then the failure of Boeing to plan for that and prepare pilots to face it looks murderous to me.

Natalia Goncharova

Natalia Goncharova (1881–1962) was a Russian avant-garde artist who moved to Paris in 1921 and lived there for the rest of her life. (The Cyclist, 1913)

She was born into an aristocratic landowning family and she did many images of happy rural life. (Khorovod, 1910)

She moved to Moscow in 1892 to pursue her education in a series of boarding schools and colleges. for a while she pursued a scientific career but ended up switching to art. (Self Portrait with Lilies, 1908)

Beginning around 1906 she entered the avant garde art scene in Moscow, joining groups with names like Jack of Diamonds and Donkey's Tail and participating in what would later be called "happenings." But her interest in western art was always mixed with a love of old Russian imagery, including religious scenes. I have had trouble learning anything concrete about her personal religious beliefs, but it looks to me like she was spiritual in the Blavatsky/Steiner way, like many other artists of her time. (Gardening, 1908)

Cats, 1913, in a style Goncharova invented and called Rayonism. One of the most interesting things about Goncharova is that she simply loved making art and never showed any sign of being tortured about it. She said that everything she did expressed her joie de vivre.

After war broke out in 1914 Goncharova produced a long series of these prints, titled Images of War. This is The Doomed City.

She did not flee Russia immediately after the Revolution, but stayed until her husband and several of their friends were attacked in the Bolshevik Press for copying western art. Seeing the writing on the wall, the moved to Paris. (Linen, 1913)

After moving to Paris she was involved with  the Ballets Russes, which impressario Sergei Diaghilev operated partly as a home in exile for Russian artists. She first caught the attention of Parisian artists and critics through her set and costume designs.

In those designs she employed many Rusian folk motifs, like these. When she was once asked how she felt while painting, she said, "free and full of courage."

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Not Enough Radicals

The latest polling:
A new poll from Quinnipiac University found that half — 50 percent — of Democratic and Democratic-leaning voters want a candidate who supports major changes across the board — even if those policies are harder to pass into law. A slightly smaller margin — 42 percent — preferred a Democratic nominee that backs minor changes, easier to pass into law. This trend also translates into specific policies, like Medicare-for-all; 49 percent of Democratic voters favor replacing the current private health insurance system with a public system, compared to 44 percent who support building on the Affordable Care Act. The poll has a 3.2 point margin of error.
About 45% of Americans are "Democrats or lean Democratic," or at any rate that is close enough for our purposes. That means that only 23% of Americans favor the sort of "major changes across the board" likely to be put forward by a Democratic president. Heck, let's be generous and give them a third of non Democrats for certain measures; that still only gets them to 41%. Which is just not enough to carry through radical changes.

So long as radicals are only a quarter or less of the population, they are doomed to frustration.

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Four Day Work Week?

The latest proposal from the left wing of Britain's Labour Party is a four-day work week. I am interested but dubious. I spent an hour last night reading about this and I learned that a few American companies have tried 4-day, 32-hour work weeks. Some studies show they make workers more productive, but not enough to make up for the lost 8 hours. But I have to say the state of the scholarship looks primitive to me. Thoughts?

Criticism Hurts, Especially from Women

"While praise from a manager has no effect, criticism negatively impacts workers’ job satisfaction and perception of the task’s importance. When female managers, rather than male, deliver this feedback, the negative effects double in magnitude."

– via Marginal Revolutions

The Dolmen of Guadalperal

Exposed after fifty years under water due to a severe drought that has drained Spain's reservoirs.

Tunisia Fast-Forwards its History

The only place where the Arab Spring led to an enduring democratic government is Tunisia. The Tunisian elite is perhaps the most western in the Arab world, and the least Arab; I know a Tunisian man and he once told me, proudly I thought, that his people were "Berber-Phoenician-Greek-Roman-Arab-Turkish-French, and probably a few other things." Tunisian democracy has gotten this far through a remarkable spirit of compromise and a series of power-sharing agreements between the two main parties: Ennahda, a conservative Islamic party that has consistently gotten the most votes in Parliamentary elections, and Tahya Tounes (Long Live Tunisia), the secular party that has the most support in the urban middle class and has led all the governments so far.

The news out of the first round of presidential voting last week seems to be that Tunisian voters are already tired of bland, compromising centrism and looking for something new. The candidates from Ennahda and Tahya Tounes both failed to make the second round; instead the candidates will be a lawyer who says he has never voted before and a local media mogul in jail on charges of tax evasion:
There have been warning signs that this politics of consensus would prove hollow. There has been a sharp decline in public confidence in political institutions: Trust in parliament has fallen to 14 percent, and trust in political parties stands at just 9 percent, according to a recent Arab Barometer survey. That explains the low turnout for the Sept. 15 vote. Tunisians have been making their political claims through street protests: There have been up to 10,000 protests every year since 2016.
As to why, well
Promises of economic recovery have not been fulfilled, and both unemployment and inflation remain high. . . . Many Tunisians hope that this public rejection of the political elite will reset the system and revive the promises of the 2011 uprising for accountable, legitimate government and wider economic opportunities for all.
I have to think that globalization is also involved. Tunisians follow the news from Europe closely, so they know that Europeans are not at all satisfied with their own blandly centrist governments.

Democracy is a balancing act. For it to work, the voters have to demand accountability; otherwise it slides into corruption and back room dealing. But if what the voters are demanding is simply not possible, that won't work either, opening the way to grandstanding liars (ahem) and authoritarianism. The things Tunisian voters are said to be demanding make me nervous.

Monday, September 23, 2019

Ancient Bird Proverbs

Before urbanization and industry people lived intimately with birds, and their language was full of them. Some of the ways birds appear in the proverbs of ancient Greece and Rome still make sense to us:
One swallow doesn’t make a summer
Birds of a feather flock together
A bird in the hand
A cuckoo in the nest
But others have faded from speech:
Go to the crows (rot in hell)
To throw a vulture (an unlucky cast of dice)
Further than a kite roams (a huge distance)
Birds love figs but won’t plant them (no pain, no gain)
Eagles don’t catch flies (don’t bother with trifles)
Owls to Athens (coals to Newcastle)

How American Liberalism is Undermining Conservative Islam

British writer Ben Sixsmith is fascinated by the way American liberalism is taming Islam, not by banning it but by presenting religion as another path to self-fulfillment. American liberals are opposed to banning the hijab and are instead hijacking it for their philosophy:
The accidental subversive genius of American liberalism has been in presenting the hijab not as a symbol of faith but as a symbol of choice. Right-wing critics resent this because, of course, the hijab is often imposed on people rather than being chosen. By encouraging Muslims to defend traditional dress on the grounds of choice, though, liberals and leftists have encouraged them to internalize individualistic standards. The hijab becomes less of a religious symbol, virtuously accepted according to God’s will, than an aspect of one’s personal identity, which one is free to shape and exhibit according to one’s wishes.
.  .  .  .  .

The news presenter Noor Tagoudi’s 2016 Playboy interview was another interesting case. Playboy, of course, is a lot more famous for featuring women with naked breasts than veiled hair, but Tagoudi’s message was far less out of place than one might have imagined. She praised the variety of individual fulfillment rather than any kind of religious norm: live your life as your truest self and encourage others to do the same!

One need not homogenize diverse forms of Islamic belief to suggest that this kind of relativism is very new and very American. A Muslim hijabi and an atheist drag queen—what is the difference so long as they are living life as their truest selves?

This concern for individual choice and the individual identity is extended to others. More American Muslims support gay marriage than American Christians. Ilhan Omar, who some conservatives comically believe is some kind of radical Salafi, took a stand this year on behalf of transgendered competitors in sports. Granted, American Muslims are bound to be more liberal than European Muslims because they tend to have originated from the educated middle classes, but America’s power as an engine of secularization remains incredible to behold.
This is in accordance with what I have long maintained: if you let people be truly free, they will come to value that freedom and defend it. This is the long-term promise of a liberal world.

The World Mood: Surly and Distrustful

British journalist William Davies asks why nobody trusts the media:
A recent survey found that the majority of people globally believe their society is broken and their economy is rigged. Both the left and the right feel misrepresented and misunderstood by political institutions and the media, but the anger is shared by many in the liberal center, who believe that populists have gamed the system to harvest more attention than they deserve. Outrage with “mainstream” institutions has become a mass sentiment. . . .

The appearance of digital platforms, smartphones and the ubiquitous surveillance they enable has ushered in a new public mood that is instinctively suspicious of anyone claiming to describe reality in a fair and objective fashion. It is a mindset that begins with legitimate curiosity about what motivates a given media story, but which ends in a Trumpian refusal to accept any mainstream or official account of the world. . . .

The current threat to democracy is often seen to emanate from new forms of propaganda, with the implication that lies are being deliberately fed to a naive and over-emotional public. The simultaneous rise of populist parties and digital platforms has triggered well-known anxieties regarding the fate of truth in democratic societies. Fake news and internet echo chambers are believed to manipulate and ghettoise certain communities, for shadowy ends. Key groups – millennials or the white working-class, say – are accused of being easily persuadable, thanks to their excessive sentimentality.
But, says Davies, this is wrong. Very few people are actually insulated from mainstream news, or dependent entirely on extreme voices. Many Trump voters and Brexiteers are quite well informed on what the mainstream media say, they just refuse to believe it.
This diagnosis exaggerates old-fashioned threats while overlooking new phenomena. Over-reliant on analogies to 20th century totalitarianism, it paints the present moment as a moral conflict between truth and lies, with an unthinking public passively consuming the results. But our relationship to information and news is now entirely different: it has become an active and critical one, that is deeply suspicious of the official line. Nowadays, everyone is engaged in spotting and rebutting propaganda of one kind or another, curating our news feeds, attacking the framing of the other side and consciously resisting manipulation. In some ways, we have become too concerned with truth, to the point where we can no longer agree on it. The very institutions that might once have brought controversies to an end are under constant fire for their compromises and biases.
Where this ends up, I have no clue. But I think a complete disappearance of any shared account of the world is quite possible, especially as digital fakery gets better and better.

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 began on a new choir, this time in the 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.