Friday, January 31, 2020

Links 31 January 2020

A Taino Zemi (ancestral spirit) from the Caribbean, 1000-1500 CE

Today's mind-stretching exercise: physicists trying to correct errors in quantum computers found that their error-correcting equations seemed to produce space-time as a side-effect.

Earthworms as a destructive invasive species.

The al Shabaab group in Somalia, which the US considers a terrorist organization, has banned single use plastic bags, citing their environmental harm.

The $60 billion stock trading tax scam.

According to this study, legalizing marijuana raises cigarette use by 4-7%.

The Fourth Spy at Los Alamos: Oscar Seborer, who may have showed the Soviets how to make the triggers for implosion bombs.

Bernie Sanders vs. trans rights activists is deontology vs. consequentialism.

Robin Hanson on Parasite, Joker, and class conflict. (Incidentally I thought Joker was good, and Joaquin Phoenix's performance sensational.)

Literature and Self-Help, a long history of mutual suspicion with a few fruitful interactions.

Warren Buffet sells his newspapers, saying he can't find any way to reverse their decline.

A review of “the best and the most thoughtful statement we have of what might be termed the Flight 93 mindset — the feeling, among a certain type of white conservative, that the changes of the past half century have amounted to a war on the country and the civilization that they knew and loved.”

And now Vexit, a plan to have counties in western Virginia secede and join West Virginia.

The terrible "sweating sickness" of 15th- and 16th-century England.

Conor Friedersdorf on  the 1619 Project, the World Socialist Web Site, and different ways of seeing the past.

Thursday, January 30, 2020


The British Museum has a new exhibit on Tantra, a religious and philosophical movement from India. With a history of nearly 1500 years, Tantra defies simple description, but it often involved horror, shock, pain, sexual passion, and other extreme emotions as ways of reaching the divine. One of the oldest Tantric stories has it that their god Bhairava "decapitated the orthodox creator god Brahma to show the superiority of the Tantric path and used his skull as a begging bowl." Human bones were used in many Tantric rituals, orgiastic sex in others.

Tantra came to include a great tradition of sorcery, and practitioners said they could fly, turn invisible, and kill with their eyes. Many rulers became devotees, convinced that Tantra could enhance their hold on power. This was called the "Yoga of force," and it involved self-discipline through positions and exercises much like those used in western Yoga today.

In the 19th century Tantra inspired some of India's early anti-British revolutionaries, who used images of Kali like this one as emblems of the coming violent uprising against foreign rule.

Tantra came to America and Europe in the early 1900s. It had a great flowering with the 1960s, practiced by those who thought sexual liberation would usher in a new age of peace and harmony; or, for those with a more violent bent, a revolution that would sweep away capitalism and the state alike.

And now, of course, Yoga has become a way that middle class women manage the stress of their families and corporate jobs.

Thus the age we live  in.

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Roger Scruton's Conservatism

Conservative English philosopher Roger Scruton, about whom I have written here several times, died last year. His old friend Robert George wrote a piece for the Times to explain what Scruton's "conservatism" consisted of. Scruton was a staunch anti-communist, but he differed in many ways from other anti-communists:
First, he believed that the free-market enthusiasm of Margaret Thatcher and Milton Friedman made economic policy too central, relying on it too much to solve social problems and shape society. In this respect, he thought, it shared an error with its great foe, Marxism.

Second, though Roger believed in market mechanisms and fervently opposed central planning and what he saw as a dependency-inducing welfare state, he denied that the outcomes of free exchanges are automatically just. Liberty, while important, was for him only one important value among others like community and solidarity, order and decency, honor and faith.

And so he thought a variety of regulations may be needed, and therefore justified, to protect persons and valuable institutions of civil society. . . . Here, Roger joined the iconic American neoconservative Irving Kristol in giving capitalism only “two cheers” — perhaps no more than one and three-quarters. . . .

Central to Roger’s disagreement with his more libertarian allies was his belief in unchosen (and in that sense “natural”) obligations — duties we have simply by virtue of being human and born into a certain family, community, or nation. We do not come into the world as bare individuals who can develop an identity entirely from scratch.

Indeed, Roger was the leading philosophical defender of love of home and one’s own, what he called “oikophilia.” . . .

Roger’s oikophilia, and his rejection of “multiculturalism” (which he considered anti-cultural in that it melted the different cultures into a monoculture of contemporary upscale progressive ideology), provoked ignorant and excitable people to accuse him of xenophobia and racism. In fact, Roger respected other cultures a great deal more than most progressives of my acquaintance do. He learned Arabic in order to read the Quran, and he admired the tradition-transcending contributions of the great medieval Islamic philosophers. He made careful, in-depth studies of Hindu and other Eastern traditions of faith precisely in search of the wisdom he regarded them as possessing.
Scruton was also an environmentalist in the same way as Prince Charles or Wendell Barry, with a revulsion against chemical poisons used in the name of greater efficiency, or pouring concrete onto ancient woodlands.

My readers know that I am attracted to this strand of conservative thought but can't embrace it. For one thing it has an impracticality about it that troubles me. I actually agree that economics is not the most important thing, and that people need friends, families, communities, and spiritual succor more than they need extra stuff. But there is something off about rich men tut-tutting when other people worry too much about money. Easy for Roger Scruton to oppose paving over farms or forest for new housing, since he already lived in a lovely old farmhouse on an estate worth a million pounds. Any real vision for human thriving has to balance the desire to preserve against the need to provide decent homes and decent livings for the millions who lack them, and I never got the sense that these conservatives had thought of a way to do so. Indeed they sometimes come across as anti-human, sharing with radical Greens a revulsion against the human mass, and a wish that a few billion people would conveniently disappear.

Scruton's “oikophilia.” also has an appealing side. He really loved traditional rural England, but he also loved other traditions and other places – Morocco, Italy, India. In practice, though, this made him a strong opponent of immigration. He did not want to see those traditions he admired mixed up together; we should all stick to our own and celebrate what we inherited. Like the men of the French Nouvelle Droit (see here and here) he abhorred the corporate sameness of the modern world. I sometimes agree, but when these ideas form policies the victims always seem to be poor immigrants rather than rich capitalists. Although Scruton himself does not seem to have had any feelings against Jews, you can see how easily these attitudes can be shaped into a hatred of those wandering people who insist on their separateness and refuse to join wonderful local communities.

I believe in democracy in a deep sense: that our vision for the world has to be based on giving people what they want. I understand the philosophical, moral, and ecological dangers of such a view, and I have never thought that most humans can really be trusted to choose rightly. The alternatives, though, all come down to some sort of elitism, and I don't think elites can be trusted, either. All people matter. Simply waving ones hand at the billions who are not your sort or your neighbors, wishing they would just go away, will not do.

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Ceija Stojka: the Devouring

Ceija Stojka was a Roma woman who survived Auschwitz. For the next forty-five years she mostly kept quiet about it. Then, around 1990, she began to paint. She was untaught but she painted with a frenzied energy, creating well over a thousand works before she died in 2013. She made two sorts of paintings, which curators now call "light" and "dark." The "light" paintings mostly show rural scenes or traditional Roma life.

The "dark" paintings illustrate the Holocaust. Some intellectuals thought the very idea of art that depicts the Holocaust was obscene, but as Primo Levi noted a long time ago, some survivors felt compelled to revisit their experiences.

We call this event the Holocaust. In Hebrew it is the Shoah, that is, “calamity.” In the Romani language, it is Porajmos: the “devouring.”

Despite their crudeness, these move me greatly. And below, one "light" painting that isn't so light.

The Online Advertising Bubble

How many times have you searched for some site or publication and been returned two links to the same thing: a paid link at the top and then the unpaid link just below it?

Economist Steve Tadelis noticed the same thing, and he started asking online ad experts about it. They told him, our data shows that search advertising works. He asked to see the data. They told him about their secret, proprietary algorithms. He kept asking to see the data. When he finally did, he thought it was bogus, just graphs showing that the more firms spent on advertising, the higher their sales.

At one point he served as a consultant to eBay, and he tried to persuade them to stop buying ads and see what would happen. They told him sales would fall dramatically and refused. Then, for unrelated reasons, eBay got into a dispute with Microsoft and decided to cancel all their adds on Microsoft's search engines. The advertising team braced for sales to fall by at least 5 percent. But that didn't happen:
The experiment continued for another eight weeks. What was the effect of pulling the ads? Almost none. For every dollar eBay spent on search advertising, they lost roughly 63 cents, according to Tadelis’s calculations.
To Tadelis this means most of the money spent on online advertising is wasted, and he fully expects the $273 billion online advertising business to collapse; he calls it the new tech bubble.

I suspect that "collapse" may be too strong a word, but it would not surprise me at all to see the ad revenues at Google and Facebook fall just like those for magazines have. After all the whole field is supposed to be data driven, and the data increasingly shows that people buying online ads are massively overpaying.

Hear Me

So I pray the gods may hear even me and let my whispered yes tower above my shouted no and mount all the way to their heavenly realm.

– Lois McMaster Bujold

Monday, January 27, 2020

How Would You Set Up a Non-Racist, Non-Sexist Introductory Humanities Course?

The Yale Art History Department has announced that they are eliminating an old and popular course, Introduction to Art History: Renaissance to the Present. According to the Yale Daily News,
this change is the latest response to student uneasiness over an idealized Western “canon” — a product of an overwhelmingly white, straight, European and male cadre of artists.
(Straight? Really?)

I get this; there is something narrow-minded about a course solely on western art whose title doesn't even bother to mention that it is solely about western art.

But what, you ask, will replace this introductory course? In a word: nothing. Unable to agree on what a non western-centric introductory course would be like, they are declining to offer one.
Instead of this singular survey class, the Art History Department will soon offer a range of others, such as “Art and Politics,” “Global Craft,” “The Silk Road” and “Sacred Places.”
Perhaps they learned something from historians, who have spent decades trying to create World History courses to replace Western Civ, only to find themselves offering a grab bag of random facts at something like a high school level. What, exactly, can you say about world history in a semester?

The underlying message is, I think: all art is cool. All people are important. It doesn't matter which art or which people you study as long as you are learning about something.

Which is a defensible position. But if no knowledge is more important than any other knowledge, why study art or history at all? If there is nothing in particular that an educated person is supposed to know, why go to college? If there are no great books that might change you in important ways, why read any books other than the ones that most amuse you? If no art is greater than other art, why not skip the museum and watch Buffy reruns?

I can imagine a university that moved gracefully from a too-western, too male-canon to a more inclusive canon while still holding on to old-fashioned notions of excellence. But I don't see that happening. What I see is a surrender to chaos.

Chen Yifei

Chen Yifei (1946-2005) was one of the leaders of the still-onrushing wave of big-money Chinese artists. I like his paintings and his career reflected modern Chinese history in interesting ways.

Chen Yifei was born in 1946 in Ningbo, in coastal Zhejiang Province, but he grew up mostly in Shanghai. Showing talent in art, he was sent to study Socialist Realism at the Shanghai College of Art. When he graduated, in 1965, the Cultural Revolution was in full swing, and his early attempts at painting got him denounced for “capitalist behavior.” He responded by throwing himself into official propaganda, executing several huge portraits of Mao and a lot of stuff like the painting above, Red Flag No. 1.

In 1980, as China started to open up, Chen went to the US to study; he later said that he arrived with $38 in his pocket, no job and no place to live. He found a job as an art restorer and enrolled at Hunter College, eventually earning an MA.

He returned to China in 1990 and went back to Shanghai. Over the next few years he painted numerous scenes of the town of Jiangnan, famous for its canals.

He also began painting the works that eventually made him rich and famous, of beautiful Chinese women in vaguely traditional garb. In the 1990s some critics denounced Chen for his commercialism, but I suspect there was a political point to his work. By getting rich he was showing his contempt for the communist system that had humiliated him and his enthusiastic support for the more open, capitalist China that was growing up in Shanghai. You can also read these works as celebrating both pre-Maoist Chinese culture and beauty for its own sake, things one was not allowed to champion under orthodox Maoism.

Chen made several trips to Tibet and painted the people he met there.

As China got rich he got rich with it, and now his paintings sell for millions.

Saturday, January 25, 2020

Pekka Hämäläinen, "Lakota America"

Pekka Hämäläinen wrote one of my favorite books of American history, The Comanche Empire, so when his new book came out I eagerly ordered a copy. Lakota America (2019) is a more narrowly political book, with less ethnography and ecology, but shows the same profound scholarship and perhaps even greater insight into past societies and events. It is not an easy to read but after finishing it I know things I did not know and understand history in a new way, which is the greatest praise I can give a historian's work.

Sioux history begins in the late 1600s, when they lived mostly in what is now Minnesota, along the boundary between the forest and the tallgrass prairie. For the first century of their history we have two kinds of sources: the accounts of French traders and soldiers and the Native records known as winter counts (above). The oldest of these reach back to the very early 1700s. They are series of pictographs, usually one for each year, written in a spiral pattern. They require interpretation, but by anchoring oral tradition to particular times and places they create a generally trustworthy record of how some Indians saw the major events of their lives. Hämäläinen makes much use of them to show how differently the world sometimes looked from the Native perspective.

From those first mentions, and probably before, the Sioux were a numerous and powerful people. Hämäläinen makes this one of his themes. The Sioux conquered other tribes because there were just more of them, 20,000 or so when tribes like the Kiowa, the Crow and the Pawnee never numbered more than 5,000. The Sioux were not politically united. They were divided into seven tribes: Yankton, Yanktonais, Mdewakantons, Sissetons, Wahpetons, Wahpekutes, and Lakota. Their name for themselves is Očhéthi Šakówiŋ, the Seven Council Fires. The Lakota, who in the 19th century made up a majority of the Sioux, were further divided into seven bands, including the famous Hunkpapa and Oglala. But they saw themselves as one people and there was no civil war among them (although there were plenty of murders), and they generally allied to oppose outsiders. To Hämäläinen the secret of their success was the institutions, rituals, vocabulary and other cultural practices they used to bind such a large group of people together in a rapidly changing world. The identity of being Sioux was powerful and appealing enough that it endured and grew despite the turmoil the people lived through. In that era of frequent, deadly epidemics it was also vital for large tribes to incorporate newcomers into their ranks, and the Sioux also excelled at this, rivaled perhaps only by that other great warrior people, the Iroquois.

To me the most striking thing about plains Indian life is how new it all is. The plains Indians as we know them did even really exist until they had horses, which did not reach the northern plains until around 1700. Based on the winter counts, the Sioux got their first mounts in the 1740s. Horses did not breed very well in that land of bitter winters and frequent droughts, so it took decades for the Sioux to build up herds big enough to support them in a life on the plains. The first depiction of a mounted raid in a Sioux winter count comes from 1757. It was the Lakotas, always the westernmost of the Sioux tribes, who took the lead in this, and over the next fifty years they gradually became the dominant group within the broader Sioux brotherhood. In the 1750s the Lakota began moving onto the plains, but it took a long time for them to become true plains people, rather than inhabitants of river valleys who sometimes ventured onto the plains to hunt. From the booming fur trade with the French they acquired guns, although they continued to use the bow and arrow as well right down to the 1870s.

With horses and guns the Lakota pushed westward to the Missouri. This was an act of war, for other Indians already lived there: horse-riding tribes like the Kiowa and Cheyenne and also farmers who built villages along the rivers, such as the Mandan and Arikara. Hämäläinen calls the Lakota world that developed an empire, based on dominion by force over all those they encountered. Some tribes they drove off the plains entirely: Omahas, Poncas, Otoes, Iowas, and more, who fled toward the lower Missouri and the protection of European soldiers based in St. Louis. The Lakota destroyed several river villages, slaughtering or enslaving their inhabitants, until the cowed river people accepted their overlordship. The Arikaras became serfs, forbidden from leaving their villages and forced to trade their corn and beans to the Lakota at whatever price their masters felt like paying; the Lakota reminded them of who was in charge by regularly taking Arikara horses and women and daring them to complain. All other Indians, they told one British delegation, "were their slaves or dogs" (89).

When Lewis and Clarke met them the Lakota dominated a 1000-mile stretch of the winding Missouri River, from the White River to the Knife. These Americans were shocked by the way the Lakota dominated the village Indians and called them "savages," but they also figured out that it was the Lakota who held the power. For the next 70 years the Lakota were the focus of US policy in the region. One of Hämäläinen's themes is that while we imagine the Lakota and the US as rivals, they were for a long time allies, and the US government helped the Lakota solidify their vast plains empire. Trade, gifts, and eventually rations distributed at Indian Agencies helped make the Lakota stronger than other Indians, allowing them to extend their power farther and farther west.

Pushing westward from the Missouri the Lakota reached the Black Hills. The Black Hills were a great resource for any people living on the northern plains, for often these elevations caught rain when the rest of the country was dry. They were also visually stunning and, all the people who lived around them thought, spiritually charged. It was in the Black Hills, the Lakota later said, the the Great Spirit first breathed life into humans. Through the first half of the 1800s the Lakota world stretched from the Black Hills to the Missouri. But they did not stay even there. As more and more white men moved up the Missouri and the Platte, the eastern buffalo herds thinned, and the Lakota responded by shifting farther west, waging war against the Crow, Utes and others for the lands around the Yellowstone, Powder, and Bighorn Rivers. As late as 1875, just two years before the war that broke their power, the Lakota were conquering lands along the Yellowstone and Bighorn Rivers from the Crow and Utes; winter counts from 1871-1875 have much more about fights with other Indians than the looming crisis with the US government.

Eventually, of course, the Lakota were broken and forced to settle on reservations that were tiny compared to the vast empire they had controlled just a few years before. It is a sad tale of ecological devastation and human loss, of people killed and a whole way of life exterminated. But the Lakota of course have endured and still remain, their language and traditions much stronger than those of most Native American peoples.

Starting in 1851, the US government signed a series of treaties with the Lakota that gave them rights over vast areas on the plains. The most important was the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868. In the map above, the blue area is the Great Sioux Reservation as the treaty defined it, which was given to the Lakota as their property in perpetuity; the other areas were not granted so fully but the Lakota were guaranteed the right to hunt on them so long as the buffalo herds endured. In the south, that did not last very long, but North America's last great bison herds were found west of the reservation toward the mountains. This treaty is, so far as I understand it, still in force, and in 1980 the US Supreme Court found that the Black Hills in particular had been unfairly stolen from the Sioux and Cheyenne. They ordered the government to pay compensation. The government offered $122 million, which the Indians refused, saying that they wanted their sacred land, not cash. Hämäläinen quotes one Lakota as saying, "It's always been ours. It will always be ours." (389)

What are we, in the 21st century, to make of these claims?

One of the Sioux winter counts records the year when they first set eyes on the Black Hills; depending on how you work the chronology, this might be any year from 1765 to 1776. This was at least 22 years after two French traders named François and Louis de La Vérendrye visited the Black Hills, which happened in 1743. It is also at least 85 years after a certain Robert Bedell landed in New York, founding the North American branch of my family, which in turn is about 60 years after certain of my other ancestors landed at Jamestown. When my ancestors reached the Chesapeake Bay country, where I now live, the Sioux were still in Minnesota, and harvesting wild rice was much more important to their culture and economy than hunting buffalo. Most of the online histories record that the Lakota conquered the Black Hills not long after they discovered them, but Hämäläinen thinks that did not happen for decades and that the Black Hills were not really Lakota territory until around 1820.

The Lakota conquest of the Black Hills and indeed their whole plains empire did not happen in the distant, misty past. It was recorded as it happened, both by the Native compilers of winter counts and Euro-American observers. It was accompanied by great violence against other Native Americans, some of  whom had claims to the Black Hills or the Missouri River country that went back centuries or millennia before the Lakota arrived on the scene. It may well be that modern Lakota have among their ancestors Mandan or Arikara people who had long lived in this land, but that is not how they defend their own claims; they defend them as Sioux.

I do not say this to refute Lakota claims; after all the US government signed those treaties and then flagrantly violated them. My point is that the distant past is not always a very good guide to what we should do in the present. The case of the Black Hills shows that it does not take centuries to make a place a sacred home. Under the right circumstances it takes only a generation.

Any given place may be the sacred home of several different peoples. If the Sioux did manage to reclaim the Black Hills I suspect they would then be challenged by other Native Americans – Crow, Blackfoot, Cheyenne – who were in the Black Hills before them. Who would adjudicate those claims? And what, meanwhile, about Euro-Americans whose ancestors came to the Black Hill to mine gold in 1875, and whose families have therefore been in the Hills for twice as long as they belonged to the Lakota?

I am skeptical of all claims that one place belongs to one people; these claims are the root of wars around the world, most notably in Israel/Palestine. My goal is always for all of us to live together, as best we can, regardless of whose ancestors did what to whose. That is past. What counts is the future, and how we can make it better for everyone.

Friday, January 24, 2020

Art Gimmicks

These days it's hard to make it as an artist without a good gimmick to set you apart. Like, Mark Powell does fine drawings, but nobody would buy just any fine drawing, so he does his on used envelopes.

Victoria Villsana puts colored yarn on back and white photos of old celebrities.

Matt Wilson makes bird sculptures out of cutlery.

And then there's Adam Hillman, who organizes things very neatly;

Ruby Silvious, who paints on teabags;

Taylor Holland, whose frames just hold more frames;

Randa Haddadin, who draws on her own body;

Rebecca Szeto, who makes portraits out of paintbrush handles;

Curtis Talwst Santiago, who puts tiny scenes in old music boxes;

Ekaterina Panikanova, who distributes her drawings across multiple old books and other pieces of used paper;

And Matt Adrian, who spurces up his bird photographs with bizarre titles.

But I give my Gimmick Prize to Lucy Sparrow, who makes whole stores full of felt food. Let a hundred thousand flowers bloom!

Who's Excited about the Future?

Michelle Goldberg has an essay in the Times arguing that one reason our mood is so sour is that nobody is excited for the future:
The dearth of optimistic visions of the future, at least in the United States, is central to the psychic atmosphere of this bleak era. Pessimism is everywhere: in opinion polls, in rising suicide rates and falling birthrates, and in the downwardly mobile trajectory of millennials. It’s political and it’s cultural: at some point in the last few years, a feeling has set in that the future is being foreclosed. When the Sex Pistols sang, “There is no future” in the 1970s there was at least a confrontational relish to it. Now there’s just dread.

The right and the left share a sense of creeping doom, though for different reasons. For people on the right, it’s sparked by horror at changing demographics and gender roles. For those on the left, a primary source of foreboding is climate change, which makes speculation about what the world will look like decades hence so terrifying that it’s often easier not to think about it at all.

But it’s not just climate change. In his forthcoming book, The Decadent Society, my colleague Ross Douthat mourns the death of the “technological sublime,” writing that our era “for all its digital wonders has lost the experience of awe-inspiring technological progress that prior modern generations came to take for granted.” This is true, but doesn’t go nearly far enough. Our problem is not just that new technologies regularly fail to thrill. It’s that, from artificial intelligence to genetic engineering to mass surveillance, they are frequently sources of horror.
There is certainly nothing new about imagining grim futures; I grew up with nuclear winter and the population bomb. I am not that scared of climate change, which I think we could reverse if we had to. (Think nuclear winter.) Yet I also have a sense that in our time the future has lost its gleam. What is there to be excited about? Walking on Mars, I guess, but that seems to be getting farther away rather than closer. Some people are enthused by self-driving cars, but I mainly see that as a job killer and anyway I would rather have good public transit. Twenty years ago the internet seemed like a transformative wonderland, but now the undeniable wonder is degraded by the cancerous spread of spyware, clickbait, cyberbullying, dark pornography, and conspiracy theories, not to mention vanished bookstores and shuttered record shops.

Meanwhile, threats loom up everywhere. Many of the smartest people in the country are working on how to keep superhuman AI from killing us all. People are turning against democracy just when surveillance technology may make any dictatorships we do set up impossible to overthrow. Ethnic and religious strife gnaw constantly at all attempts to create peace, and our weapons keep getting more deadly as the institutions we set up to bring humanity together crumble. Looking around the world I get a sense that we may simply not be capable of living the free, peaceful future the Enlightenment imagined; too many of us need hate or turmoil to survive.

I am not an especially gloomy person. I think often that I may have been born in humanity's happiest time, with astonishing wealth and the receding threat of world war. But even I have trouble finding reasons to be thrilled about the future. I would be interested in suggestions for things to look forward to, if anyone has ideas.

Links 24 January 2020

Grant Collier, Black Canyon of the Gunnison

New York's plan for revitalizing the Erie Canal: parks, kayaking, and "a whitewater rafting destination."

Speaking of canals, the Assyrian king Sargon II (r. 722-705 BC) had his workers carve reliefs along the walls of one of his.

If you have to lose your wallet or phone, you should do it in Japan, where they are amazingly effective at returning lost items to their owners.

Another revolutionary co-opted by the system: one of the founders of Occupy Wall Street is on his way to Davos, saying "I want to discover its revolutionary potential."

When Al Capone bought big blocks of stock in miniature golf companies.

Video of an alligator carcass sunk to the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico.

Critique of Wendell Barry's "small is good" anti-modernism.

Two views of smartphones and teenage depression. Here's an argument that smartphones are behind the increase in depression, self-harm and suicide among teenage girls. And here's a meta-study arguing that the link between smartphone use and mental health problems is "small and inconsistent."

Tardigrades can be killed, and fairly easily: by hot water.

To many people, "rational" and "reasonable" mean quite different things, with "rational" implying cold, hard, and selfish, and "reasonable" implying something more open and social.

Interesting pro-rent control article by an economist, who finds little evidence of bad economic effects.

Courts are striking down "ag-gag" laws that prohibit investigators from photographing conditions inside factory farms. Because those photographs have political meaning, most judges have found that suppressing them is a clear violation of the First Amendment.

Essay by Ewen Callaway at Nature on how archaeologists and historians are coming to terms with the findings of paleogenetics.

Thursday, January 23, 2020

The Joy of Hate

Ezra Klein:
In 2006, Will Blythe published a book with a title I have never forgotten. It was called To Hate Like This Is to Be Happy Forever. How can you walk by a book with those words slashed across the cover? What could it be about?

When I picked it up, I was surprised to see that it was an exploration of the rivalry between the Duke and University of North Carolina basketball teams and the way that rivalry had given shape and meaning to the author’s life in moments when little else did. “The living and dying through one’s allegiance to either Duke or Carolina is no less real for being enacted through play and fandom,” Blythe writes.

Creating "West Side Story"

The Times is running a long piece by Sasha Weiss about a new production of West Side Story, which relates the new effort to the creation of the original. I think is one of the best things I have read about artistic collaboration. The coming together of the new team
replicates an important aspect of the original “West Side Story,” which sprang from a group of ambitious, restless artists who recognized, in one another, forces of equal and opposite weight. For years, Robbins had been talking to the composer Leonard Bernstein and the playwright Arthur Laurents about a musical based on “Romeo and Juliet” that would seamlessly combine dance, music and storytelling. Discussion of the project began in the late 1940s — they first toyed with a story about Jews and Catholics on the Lower East Side. Over the next several years, as the three were diverted by other projects, none of them entirely lost sight of it. It was a shared fantasy — still inchoate but somehow powerful.

One day in 1955, according to most accounts, Bernstein and Laurents were lounging by a hotel pool in Los Angeles. Bernstein was in town conducting; Laurents was working on a screenplay. The subject turned to the headlines in that day’s paper about Chicano gang violence. The two fell to talking. What if they revised their original idea of an East Side story and made it about white and Latino teenagers? Bernstein, who was married to Felicia Montealegre, a Chilean, was immersed in Latin music, and he could immediately hear rhythms and melodies. When they told Robbins of their new idea, he seized on the dance possibilities. Getting away from their own experiences, as descendants of immigrant Jews, and mapping their sense of outsiderdom onto a different set of tribal animosities proved freeing. All three were gay men in various states of acceptance of their sexualities, and a story of forbidden love may have been a way to write clandestinely about their own lives. They set to work.

Soon after a pair of experienced lyricists turned down the project in 1955, Laurents ran into Stephen Sondheim, who was then only 25, at a party and remembered having heard him play a few songs from an unproduced musical shortly before. He invited him to audition for Bernstein. By that point, Bernstein had written lyrics to a number of songs, but he quickly understood that Sondheim was the superior lyricist and was eager to work with him.

All four men had uncompromisingly high standards but different strengths. . . . Working together was not always easy. During the rehearsal period, Bernstein would sometimes retreat across the street to a bar to avoid Robbins after a particularly unpleasant argument. . .  Robbins was a fierce editor of the material until the very end, scrapping and reworking songs (“Something’s Coming” was written just a few weeks before the play debuted) and driving the actors to tears. The four collaborators gradually arrived at a shared vision, discovering what Sondheim later called “a wholeness” — a synthesis of dramatic language, music and dance.
This sort of shared creation is utterly foreign to me; my art is writing stories, done alone, and I find the thought of shaping a play through bitter arguments in the midst of rehearsals downright scary. But this seems to be the way a lot of plays, movies, television, and ensemble music are made. I was reading recently about Miles Davis' famous jazz record “Kind of Blue”, which has spawned a 60-year argument among fans over who was responsible for what and even a lawsuit among heirs. Davis himself ended up attributing it more or less to the spirit of the age:
“So What” or “Kind of Blue” . . . they were done in that era, the right hour, the right day, and it happened. It’s over; it’s on the record.
I wonder about all claims for truly original creation. Art springs from both a broader culture and a narrow circle of friends and collaborators; it is made in an era, an hour, a day. Robbins, Bernstein, Laurents and Sondheim were all individually brilliant, but they were also all men of a certain time and place, knowing many of the same things, responding to the same artistic world, and especially responding to each other.

The same I think holds even more for science and technology. Watson and Crick worked out the structure of DNA because the equipment needed to solve the problem was available and the broader progress of organic chemistry provided the necessary background; ten years earlier the problem could hardly have been defined, and ten years later it would have been trivial. Things like the circular saw, the steamboat, and the computer have dozens of putative "inventors;" they appeared when the state of technology and business was right for them, rather then from the efforts of some lone genius.

We are, first and foremost, social beings, and everything we do makes sense only in light of relations with others.

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Bronze Age Sippy Cups

From  Austria, 1200-800 BCE. Some of them are saturated with fatty acids from milk, so it's pretty clear what they are. These were all recovered from infant burials.

Monday, January 20, 2020

Larry David and the MAGA Hat

Kyle Smith at The Corner:
David’s character “Larry David” is, famously, an inveterate curmudgeon who is constantly getting in brouhahas over minor questions of etiquette or misunderstandings. On the new episode, Larry finds himself unable to avoid having lunch with a disliked colleague in the comedy world (Phil Rosenthal, also playing himself). He knows that his usual tricks won’t work on Rosenthal, so he can’t escape by having a friend call during the lunch to say he’s needed back at the office. So Larry hits on a brilliant idea: He wears a red MAGA cap to the lunch. Rosenthal immediately blanches, looks around the restaurant, and discovers he’s getting dirty looks from black customers and other diners. Horrified that people might associate him with Trumpism, he hastily makes his excuses and exits. Larry is triumphant. He even finds other uses for the MAGA cap; sitting at a sushi bar in close quarters, he puts on the cap and finds that the people who were going to squeeze in next to him instead flee in horror. He brags that the hat is a useful “people repellent.” But in a potentially dicey traffic situation with an angry biker, Larry puts on the hat and defuses the situation because the hat signals to the biker that he’s a kindred spirit. . . .

The MAGA hat has many meanings, does it not? It doesn’t really mean “Make America Great Again.” It’s more like a badge of defiance, of apartness. It says, “You’re all annoying.” It says, “I want no part of this.” It says, “Things used to be better.” It says, “Buzz off.” It says, “I’m deplorable.”
I think this nails one major strain of Trumpism.

Cynicism and Disrespect

Via Marginal Revolutions, a new paper on cynicism and respect:
We tested how cynicism emerges and what maintains it. Cynicism is the tendency to believe that people are morally bankrupt and behave treacherously to maximize self-interest. Drawing on literatures on norms of respectful treatment, we proposed that being the target of disrespect gives rise to cynical views, which predisposes people to further disrespect. The end result is a vicious cycle: cynicism and disrespect fuel one another. Study 1’s nationally representative survey showed that disrespect and cynicism are positively related to each other in 28 of 29 countries studied, and that cynicism’s associations with disrespect were independent of (and stronger than) associations with lacking social support. Study 2 used a nationally representative longitudinal dataset, spanning 4 years. In line with the vicious cycle hypothesis, feeling disrespected and holding cynical views gave rise to each other over time. Five preregistered experiments (including 2 in the online supplemental materials) provided causal evidence. Study 3 showed that bringing to mind previous experiences of being disrespected heightened cynical beliefs subsequently. Studies 4 and 5 showed that to the extent that people endorsed cynical beliefs, others were inclined to treat them disrespectfully. Study 6’s weeklong daily diary study replicated the vicious cycle pattern. Everyday experiences of disrespect elevated cynical beliefs and vice versa. Moreover, cynical individuals tended to treat others with disrespect, which in turn predicted more disrespectful treatment by others. In short, experiencing disrespect gives rise to cynicism and cynicism elicits disrespect from others, thereby reinforcing the worldview that caused these negative reactions in the first place.
It seems obvious how being treated badly could fuel cynicism, but notice that the study also finds cynical people are treated more disrespectfully. This seems in line with Scott Alexander's essay on "nothing makes sense except in light of inter-individual variation" I linked to last month.

Sunday, January 19, 2020

Francis Bacon's Studio, 1998

By Perry Ogden and Annie Wright. Quite a mess.

It had looked like that for a long time; from Bacon's face I would say this was taken in the 1960s.