Tuesday, June 30, 2020

My Defense of George Washington

I wish to offer two points in defense of statues of George Washington:
  1. He evolved. As a young men he dreamed only of retiring from military glory to the most traditional sort of planter wealth, but over the course of his life he came to doubt the virtue of war and he turned decisively against slavery and the plantation economy, throwing his administration behind capitalism and free labor. 

  2. Founding a stable democracy in a large, diverse country is one of the most difficult achievements of humanity. That the US did this we owe in part to George Washington's commitment to his own principles, and his refusal to seek or cling to power.
I was inspired to write this by a column from Charles Blow, who wrote,
On the issue of American slavery, I am an absolutist: enslavers were amoral monsters.

The very idea that one group of people believed that they had the right to own another human being is abhorrent and depraved. The fact that their control was enforced by violence was barbaric.
The thing about this absolutism is that it condemns, not just a bunch of famous white Americans, but pretty much everyone who lived between the Neolithic and AD 1800. Every farming and herding society we know of recognized slavery. I really do not know of a single exception, and if there is one somewhere that hardly vitiates the basic point: for 5,000 years, slavery was part of human life. A handful of utopian mystics did occasionally call for its abolition, but they were vanishingly rare and nobody paid them any mind. Even Jesus accepted slavery; is Blow demanding that we take down all his statues? St. Paul told slaves to honor their masters: are we going to rip his letters out of the Bible?

What was new in the modern period was not slavery but the first real movement for the abolition of slavery. This got started in the 1600s but made no real impact until the mid 1700s. It was catapulted to prominence by the Enlightenment and the revolutionary agitation that birthed the American and French Revolutions. Yes, there were a lot of hypocrites who believed in freedom for white men but not for women or slaves, but there were enough who took freedom seriously to start a movement that grew  until slavery was banished from Europe and its colonies. It took a century, but sometimes that's how long things take.

I know I have written this before but I keep coming back to it because I think it is supremely important: we only think slavery is bad and democracy good because of the Enlightenment, because of the principles that men like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson fought to make real. If we live in a world that believes in democracy and equal rights, we owe that to them. What amount of failure and hypocrisy on their part is enough to cancel that out? People like Blow seem to think that freedom and democracy are human universals that were somehow corrupted by colonial slavocrats, but in fact they had to be invented. Our whole system of values would simply baffle a medieval or ancient person.

Like others of his time, George Washington lived this change. Raised in a plantation world where slavery was a natural as the blueness of the sky, he only thought of how he could get more land and slaves for himself. Raised in a military culture, he dreamed of battlefield glory. He was so ambitious for military honors that his rashness sparked the Seven Years War between England and France, and he survived only because of the courtesy of an aristocratic French officer. But he changed with the times. A warrior when young, he was a President of peace, whose maxims about avoiding foreign war have been cited by the party of peace in every American generation. Exposed by his political career to other sorts of people and other ideas about society, he came to see that slavery and the whole plantation world were anachronisms that America had to leave behind. He was too moderate a man to call for the immediate abolition of slavery, but he hoped that the progress of business and the spread of democratic ideals would soon render it irrelevant. True, he didn't free his own slaves until he died, but if his whole generation had done that, as many of them promised, American history would have been very different. 

Besides the principles of democracy, there is the practice. If you think it should be easy to stage a revolution and then create a democracy, look around the world: at Mexico, Colombia, Brazil, Argentina, Thailand, Egypt. At Venezuela, sliding into chaos. At China, where a heroic attempt to found a Republic collapsed into warlordism and civil war, leading eventually to Mao's bloody tyranny. At France, where the thrill of 1789 led only to Terror and Napoleon. For quite a long time the United States was the only large, diverse democracy in the world, the only example showing that such a thing was even possible. The leaders of Russia and China still think it is impossible for their countries, as do many Brazilians. If you have not paused to consider what an extraordinary achievement this was, perhaps you should.

How many great leaders of men have been offered the chance to seize dictatorial power and then declined it with as much grace as George Washington? I think the stabilization of American democracy owes quite a bit to him personally, and to me that alone is an achievement that justifies all of his honors.

Come to think of it, I have a third thing to say: there are no perfect people. Everyone has sins. Lincoln, as I wrote here recently, supported colonizing freed slaves back to Africa; FDR accepted segregation as the price of the New Deal; US Grant demolished the Confederacy but then allowed the destruction of the Plains Indians. If we're not going to give up on the whole business of putting up statues to heroes, we're going to have to grant people some leeway. It is enough to me that modern figures were on the right side of history, however one might define that. If they took the other side –John Calhoun, Jefferson Davis, etc. – then maybe their statues have to come down. But I think it is a huge mistake to condemn people who worked or fought for freedom because they did not get all the way to where we are now.

Monday, June 29, 2020

Solomon Maimon: Wandering Jew

Solomon Maimon (1753- 1800) was a rabbi's son who was lured away by western philosophy, becoming a confidant of Immanuel Kant and other Enlightened luminaries. In 1793 he published an autobiography, which was recently issued in a new translation and reviewed by Audrey Borowski in the March 6 TLS:
Married off to the daughter of an innkeeper as a Talmudic prodigy at the age of eleven, Maimon worked as a tutor, flirted with Hasidism at the court of Rabbi Dov Ber in Mezritch, grew disillusioned with the movement's lack of intellectual seriousness, and traveled to Berlin to study medicine. However, anti-Jewish restrictions reduced him to roaming Germany for months as a bedraggled beggar until 1780, when he finally succeeded in breaking into Berlin intellectual circles. He had the support – partly financial – of several employers and generous patrons, including the rabbi of the Jewish community in Posen and, later, the freethinking Count Adolf von Kalckreuth. This unsettled way of life suited him rather well: he would later describe those years as the "happiest and most successful" period in his life, when, unencumbered by familial responsibilities – having abandoned his wife and son back in Poland early on – he could devote himself fully to the contemplative ideal, while nonetheless deriding the "idleness" of those Jewish scholars had left behind at home.

Maimon jumped from one discipline to another, from astronomy and mathematics to medicine, philosophy and literature. He had immersed himself in books and absorbed philosophical systems from the moment he had access to his father's library, finding good in – and building on – each of them, even attempting to revise Kant's transcendental philosophy by drawing on Leibniz's concept of infinitesimal calculus.

Yet Maimon never really contemplated putting theory into practice, and as a result often found himself o the brink of disaster. His journey towards intellectual self-perfection often reads like a picaresque novel, complete with nocturnal flights, abductions, corrupt clerics, debauched princes, disgruntled Poles and mischief of various kinds;. These episodes form a tragicomedy in which wit, humor and self-awareness provide an antidote to the ambient misery. Early in his marriage, he engaged in "constant warfare" with his abusive mother-in-law, whom he "paid back with interest" and on whose head he eventually dumped a pot of milk. In the middle of one night he dressed up as his late mother in order to haunt his mother-in-law and threaten her with eternal damnation. 
Though he never completed his medical studies, Maimon concocted medicines and wrote prescriptions for patients, "not wanting to content himself with theory." As he writes himself, "one can imagine how that went. At lest it had the happy consequence of making me realize that I hadn't grasped much of what goes into being a practicing doctor. Maimon also tells us that a blatant attempt at self-advancement – conversion to Protestantism – failed because he could accept only a demystified version of Christianity. He therefore resigned himself to remaining a "stubborn Jew."
As his motto Maimon took a line from the Talmud, "Lovers of wisdom have no rest in this world or the world to come."

Excellent article on Maimon's career and philosophy here.

The Pandemic and the Future of Working from Home

Teleworking has gone in and out of fashion over the past 30 years; some companies have embraced it for a while and then give it up, ordering everyone back to their cubicles. 
Marissa Mayer, the chief executive of Yahoo, created a furor when she forced employees back into offices in 2013. “Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people and impromptu team meetings,” a company memo explained.

Tech companies proceeded to spend billions on ever more lavish campuses that employees need never leave. Facebook announced plans in 2018 for what were essentially dormitories. Amazon redeveloped an entire Seattle neighborhood. When Patrick Pichette, the former chief financial officer at Google, was asked, “How many people telecommute at Google?” he said he liked to answer, “As few as possible.”
Depending on who you ask, these and other companies ended telework either because they realized it wasn't working or because their numbers took a downturn and they panicked.

This time around, the numbers for most companies have been good; here is John Sullivan, a professor of management:
The data over the last three months is so powerful. People are shocked. No one found a drop in productivity. Most found an increase. People have been going to work for a thousand years, but it’s going to stop and it’s going to change everyone’s life.
That isn't true about the past and might not be true about the future, but it seems to be true about right now. For now, things are going great with millions of office workers working from home. What does it mean?

It might turn out to be just another way to micromanage employees, or to make them compete against each other. Here is one CEO:
I kind of learned who was really doing the work and who was not really doing as much work as it looked like on paper that they might have been doing, . . . With some of the supervisory, middle-management people I’m starting to wonder if I really need them.
I find that I am about as productive as ever, but I am having trouble separating work from everything else. Working from home with four children in the house I get a steady stream of distractions, so that to really get in eight hours I have to get back on my computer after dinner and work for a couple of hours. It's great not to have to commute 90 minutes each way, but on the other hand I'm getting a lot less reading done. Plus it's sort of lonely.

I think the brutally efficient thing for my company to do would be to close our DC offices and make us all work from home. I don't get anything out of working in the office that would really justify the cost of renting that space. On the other hand I have worked over the years with many home-office people who were manifestly not invested in the success of what we were doing together, so I can see that there are sometimes costs.

So I don't know. But I have a feeling that after this is finally over most people will go back to their offices and their commutes.

Kawase Hasui

Kawase Hasui (1883 - 1957) was a Japanese painter and printmaker born in Tokyo. According to wikipedia, 
From youth Hasui dreamed of an art career, but his parents had him take on the family rope and thread wholesaling business. Its bankruptcy when he was 26 freed him to pursue art.
(One of Hasui's paintings, Coastal Landscape, 1927)

Which makes me wonder; did the business fail due to circumstances beyond Hasui's control, or maybe because he wasn't paying attention? Or did he actively sabotage it so he could get back to being an artist? And maybe you shouldn't entrust the family business to a son who desperately wants to be doing something else?

And here is an insight into Japan's artistic community in the 1910s: Hasui approached Kiyokata Kaburagi (a maker of prints in the traditional style) to teach him, but 
Kaburagi instead encouraged him to study Western-style painting, which he did with Okada Saburōsuke for two years. Two years later he again applied as a student to Kaburagi, who this time accepted him.
So even those Japanese artists determined to keep the Japanese tradition alive thought it was important to learn something of western-style art. I think a print like the one above, Hasui Kayagafuchi Rapids in Chōmonkyō Gorge, shows a strong western influence.

Hasui did his share of famous Japanese scenes like temples and bridges, I suppose because they sold well, but what really interested him was ordinary scenes of Japanese cities and rural places. He traveled widely around Japan with a sketch book, drawing scenes that he would later carve into wood blocks. Above is a street scene in Nagasaki, from Selected Views of Japan.

I find the mixture of realism and nostalgia in some of these compelling; this is a scene from Twelve Months of Tokyo.

Detail from Snowy Kiyomizudo, Ueno. From this gallery site, which has many of these for sale.

Here's an image I was startled to see in a Japanese woodblock of the 1920s: Abandoned Rice Warehouse at Karatsu,

Hama-cho River Bank,
detail, 1925

Tochinoki Hot Springs in Higo Province


Winter Moon over Toyama Plain
, 1931. If you would like to see more, wikimedia has dozens.


Sunday, June 28, 2020

In Mississippi, the Confederate Battle Flag Comes Down

The Times:
Mississippi lawmakers voted on Sunday to bring down, once and for all, the state flag dominated by the Confederate battle emblem that has flown for 126 years, adding a punctuation point to years of efforts to take down Confederate symbols across the South.

The flag, the only state banner left in the country with overt Confederate imagery, served for many as an inescapable symbol of Mississippi’s racial scars and of the consequences of that racial history in defining perceptions of the state.
The votes were 91-23 in the House and 37-14 in the Senate.

The best-case scenario for Trump's time in office was always that he represented the last gasp of white power, neo-Confederate politics, and that his crudeness and failures would end up discrediting that whole side of American political life. 

This act gives me hope that something like that is coming to pass.

What the Smart People Said about the Pandemic in April

Tyler Cowen on April 9:
I don’t view “optimal length of shutdown” arguments compelling, rather it is about how much pain the political process can stand. I expect partial reopenings by mid-May, sometimes driven by governors in the healthier states, even if that is sub-optimal for the nation as a whole. Besides you can’t have all the banks insolvent because of missed mortgage payments. But R0 won’t stay below 1 for long, even if it gets there at all. We will then have to shut down again within two months, but will then reopen again a bit after that. At each step along the way, we will self-deceive rather than confront the level of pain involved with our choices. We may lose a coherent national policy on the shutdown issue altogether, not that we have one now. The pandemic yo-yo will hold. At some point antivirals or antibodies will kick in: “There are perhaps 4-6 drugs that could be available by Fall and have robust enough treatment effect to impact risk of another epidemic or large outbreaks after current wave passes. We should be placing policy bets on these likeliest opportunities.” We will then continue the rinse and repeat of the yo-yo, but with the new drugs and treatments on-line with a death rate at maybe half current levels and typical hospital stays at three days rather than ten. It will seem more manageable, but how eager will consumers be to resume their old habits? Eventually a vaccine will be found, but getting it to everyone will be slower than expected. The lingering uncertainty and “value of waiting,” due to the risk of second and third waves, will badly damage economies along the way.
Emphasis mine. The one thing I would add is that while the disease is still spreading rapidly the death rate seems to be down. Not sure what that is about – the most vulnerable are already dead? the virus is evolving to be less lethal? – and anyway we can't be sure yet that this is real.

The Castaways of Tromelin Island

The story of Tromelin Island is sad and fascinating in equal measure. The island is a sand bar with an area of about 240 acres (97 hectares), 275 miles (450 km) east of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean. Until 1761 it was just another ocean islet where thousands of seabirds nested.

On the night of July 31, 1761, the French frigate L'Utile was sailing to Mauritius with a cargo of 160 slaves purchased illegally in Madagascar. Not that slavery was illegal in the French empire, but the trade was regulated, and Captain Jean de Lafargue had no license. This might explain why he insisted in sailing onward through complete darkness in gale force winds, even though his charts showed islands in the area. Around midnight the ship collided with a submerged sandbar near the island and was torn open. This was a large ship with a crew of 140, and 123 of them were able to escape in boats or clinging to wreckage. While saving themselves they abandoned their human cargo, but 60-80 Malagasys were able to swim to the island.

There the survivors set up two camps, one for the French sailors and one for the Malagasys. Captain Lafargue went mad, or so the ship's purser later testified, and first officer Barthélémy Castellan du Vernet took command. The Frenchmen dug a well, built shelters, and set about assembling a new ship from the ruins of the old. Within two months they built a marginally seaworthy vessel, which they dubbed La Providence. She was big enough for themselves, but not for the Malagasys. The Frenchmen sailed off, du Vernet solemnly promising the Malagasys that he would return for them. Captain Lafargue died on the voyage to Mauritius.


French frigate of the 1760s, similar to L'Utile

According to our written accounts, du Vernet fully intended to keep his promise, but the governor of Mauritius was furious about the whole disaster and refused to allow it. After all, the Seven Years War was raging, and France, he said, could not spare a ship to rescue survivors of this misbegotten criminal venture. Du Vernet appealed over the governor's head but in Paris the matter ended up being forgotten when the French East India Company went bankrupt and required a royal bailout. Eventually, in 1775, du Vernet persuaded a new governor to let a ship stop at the island. This was La Sauterelle, which was prevented from approaching the island by fierce surf. They  sent a small boat carrying two men to the island, but it was dashed on the reef. One man swam back to the ship, the other to the island. Two other ships that followed were also unable to make landfall. At last in 1776, fifteen years after the shipwreck, a certain Jacques Marie Boudin de la Nuguy de Tromelin found a safe anchorage for his ship, rescuing the survivors and not forgetting to name the island for himself. Only seven women and an eight-month-old boy remained. They were taken to Mauritius and freed by the new governor, an opponent of slavery; the child and his mother were taken into the governor's own household.

And that was pretty much the story until 2006, when archaeologists from the French group GRAN, led by Max Guérout, arrived at the island. Over the course of four six-week sessions they investigated the island, uncovering marvelous remains from the castaway period. 

The archaeologists were guided by a map drawn by the ship's pilot, which showed the locations of a furnace and an oven. Guérout's team first searched for the oven, finding bricks (salvaged from the wreck) and many nails, which suggests that boards from the ship were burned. 

The castaways eventually settled at the highest point on the island, which unfortunately was also the location of the buildings of a weather station. It was not therefore until the second session, in 2008, that these three stone building foundations were found.

One of these was probably a kitchen.

Among the finds were copper bowls like this one.
That year, the team also found six copper plates or bowls. These items had clearly been salvaged from the wreck, and then possibly hammered into new shapes. More remarkable was how they had been repaired—some up to eight times—over the course of 15 years. “To repair a copper plate is not so easy,” says Guérout. The castaways had to cut pieces of copper from other objects for patches, drill holes through both patches and plates, and then use small rolled pieces of copper as rivets, which they then hammered into place. The repairs are reflections of patience and industry, and reminders of the passage of time. 
Excavation in the kitchen produced 18,000 animal bones. Most of these were seabirds, especially sooty terns, which once nested at Tromelin in huge numbers. There were also fish bones – notably giant trevally, which were probably speared on the reefs – and a few turtle bones. 


And more domestic objects:
In this oval-shaped building with five-foot-thick walls, there was a stack of six more copper vessels, topped with a conch shell, and a deposit of 15 cleverly made spoons. These were cut from copper with small wings at the base that could be folded over a twig to make a handle. In total, 45 domestic objects were found there, and in another building were tools, iron tripods to hold cooking vessels, and big lead bowls—probably made from lead sheets kept on L’Utile to patch holes at sea. The archaeologists also found pieces of flint and the metal against which they were struck, which addresses how the castaways started and maintained fires. 
As to the fate of the castaways:
Guérout believes that most of the 60 to 80 slaves died within the first couple of years. A group of 18 had apparently departed the island not long after they were abandoned, but it is unknown whether they ever reached Madagascar. Some 15 survivors endured for the following 10 years or so. Just months before the rescue, three men and three women, as well as the French sailor stranded from La Sauterelle (who had witnessed two failed rescue attempts himself), had left the islet on a raft with a sail of woven feathers. They were never heard from again. The testimony of the seven remaining women and the records of La Dauphine have been lost. Only the archaeology that has been conducted on the island can reveal their story of abandonment, survival, and, ultimately, community-building. 
All the quotes here come from a long article at Archaeology Magazine  I first learned about Tromelin from Atlas Obscura. Wikipedia also has an article which notes that the Marquis de Condorcet made the fate of the Malagasys' marooned on Tromelin part of his indictment of slavery. Article by Geroux about how the castaways fed themselves, in French, available at academia here.

Incidentally it seems that the island's vegetation was once much lusher than it appears in these photographs, but it was decimated by the rats introduced to the island by French ships. Over time the rats also ravaged the nesting seabirds, eliminating seven of the eight species that nested there in 1761. But in 2005 the rats were successfully eradicated from the island, and since then both the vegetation and the birds have rebounded.

Saturday, June 27, 2020

A Sad Protest against Stalinism

In 1974 the Center for Art and Communication (CAYC), an Argentinian art center famous for its innovative exhibitions, hosted a show of conceptual art by 24 Hungarian artists, Hungría 74, and produced a portfolio now at the Getty Research Institute.

One of the objects in the show, Like a Bird, consisted of a cage that had been transformed by the artist István Haraszty into a conceptual piece. He installed an electrical-magnetic system, which controlled the door’s movement in relation to the position of a bird inside the cage. As the artist explained
"When the bird sits on the red-black resting pole, the door of the cage opens. When it flies towards the door, the magnetic field disappears. And the door once again closes."
Below, some of the artist's notes on the installation.


Friday, June 26, 2020

Pawpaw Trees and Deer

Some parts of the woods near my house are full of young pawpaw trees. Pondering this the other day I got to wondering; are there more pawpaw trees now than there were when I was growing up? Yes, my memory said. The amazing pawpaw patch I stumbled across in 2014 was at that point unique in my experience; to me, growing up, pawpaws had always been something so rare that to find even one fruit was a noteworthy event. The trees in our woods are mostly young, with few mature specimens.

Then I thought, I bet this has something to do with deer.  So I looked it up, and the National Park Service helpfully explains the connection:
In recent decades, naturalists have noted the expansion of pawpaw from well-drained, lowland habitats into drier, upland forests. This phenomenon appears to be driven, at least in part, by patterns of deer browse. Deer find pawpaw foliage unpalatable and, therefore, avoid browsing pawpaw seedlings and saplings. Instead, they preferentially browse species such as spicebush (Lindera benzoin), oaks (Quercus spp.), red maple (Acer rubrum), and blackgum (Nyssa sylvatica). Deer avoidance of pawpaw is evident in NCRN forest data. . . .
So, yes, the spread of pawpaws from moist, sheltered spots along rivers to dry uplands is all about what deer will and won't eat. When I was young there were few deer in the forests I frequented, so there weren't many pawpaws.

Deer are radically reshaping the forests of temperate North America, and if we don't get serious about killing them we will end up with strange, impoverished woodlands. Pawpaw trees are not tall, with a maximum height of 50 feet, but in some areas they may end up taking over from taller trees: 
If deer populations remain high, the forest canopy height may decline over time, particularly in areas where pawpaw is the only understory species available to replace dead or dying canopy trees. Or, perhaps the forest canopy would become patchier, with short patches dominated by pawpaw and tall patches dominated by other species that are represented in the sapling layer of the forest (American beech, for example, is deer-browse resistant and the second most common sapling in NCR forests). 

Interestingly, a similar phenomenon has been observed in over-browsed forests in central Pennsylvania. In these forests, the small, understory species striped-maple (Acer pensylvanicum) has become increasingly common in the forest understory over a 60-year observation period. At the same time, tree species that are capable of growing into the forest canopy have declined by 85%. Striped maple and American beech were found to make up 82% of all trees in the deer-browsed forests.
Forest that consist entirely of beeches and pawpaws. . . . 

Where the Revolution Lives

Ross Douthat has a column today pointing out that the protest explosion shows again how out of touch Bernie Sanders is with today's young radicals:
Throughout his career, Sanders has stood for the proposition that left-wing politics lost its way after the 1970s by letting what should be its central purpose — the class struggle, the rectification of economic inequality, the war against the “millionaires and billionaires” — be obscured by cultural battles and displaced by a pro-business, pro-Wall Street economic program. This shift has made left-of-center political parties (in Europe as well as the United States) steadily more upper middle class and conservatism steadily more blue collar, but the promise of Sandersism was that the transformation need not be permanent: A left that recovered the language of class struggle, that disentangled liberal politics from faculty-lounge elitism and neoliberal economics, could rally a silent majority against plutocracy and win. . . .

Now, under these strange coronavirus conditions, we’re watching a different sort of insurgency challenge or change liberalism, one founded on an intersectional vision of left-wing politics that never came naturally to Sanders. Rather than Medicare for All and taxing plutocrats, the rallying cry is racial justice and defunding the police. Instead of finding its nemeses in corporate suites, the intersectional revolution finds them on antique pedestals and atop the cultural establishment.

And so far, as my colleague Sydney Ember noted last week, this revolution has been more unifying than Sanders’s version — uniting the Democratic establishment that once closed ranks against him, earning support from just about every major corporate and cultural institution, sending anti-racism titles skyrocketing up the best-seller list, even bringing Mitt Romney into the streets as a marcher and inducing Donald Trump to make grudging noises about police reform.
If you ask these protesters, they of course claim to care about economic justice. But their actions make clear that they care a whole lot more about racial justice. There is much more anger against statues of Robert E. Lee than against Elon Musk.

And before that we had Me Too, a movement of justice for sexually harassed women that generated much more fire and passion than Medicare for All ever did.

The kind of measures we might actually take to flatten the economic pyramid are just boring compared to fighting back against police violence. Most Americans understand, I think, that economic justice is a hard problem and the fight for it unending and mostly frustrating. Given that victories on the economic front seem so distant and likely to be small, the fights against racism and rape seem more urgent.

The Fairies are Back


The fungus that has been gradually spreading across our front lawn for two years sprouted toadstools again this week, still keeping remarkably to its semi-circular pattern.

Links 26 June 2020

cyv2 on Flickr

Ben Pentreath enjoying life in quarantine at his country house in Dorset.

Matt Yglesias reviews The End of Policing by Alex Vitale, finds it unconvincing.

NY Times photo and text essay about the building of huge container ships. I wanted more diagrams, but still interesting.

Chanters House, Samuel Taylor Coleridge's boyhood home, is up for sale; they're even throwing in the 22,000-volume library. Asking price is £7 million.

Interesting NY Times story about Kim Jong-un's sister, Kim Yo-jong, who has lately been the face of the North Korean regime.

Nice Smithsonian article on the Maya city of Uxmal.



Delightful 5-minute video of a deep dive off Australia's west cost.

Slate interviews seven police officers about the current situation.

NY Times obituary of Zeev Sternhell, a Holocaust survivor and social scientist who spent the past 20 years arguing that Israel was falling captive to the same kind of extreme nationalism that drove the Jews out of Europe.

Yangyang Cheng at the NY Times on the Chinese government's use of traditional medicine to promote nationalism.

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

The Durrington Shafts

Great graphic from The Guardian showing the new discovery on the Salisbury Plain near Stonehenge.: a vast circle of huge shafts, 10m across and 5m deep, surrounding the Neolithic settlement of Durrington Walls.

The mapping of the shafts was all done by radar. At least one of the shafts has been cored, and the soil produced a radiocarbon date of 2500 BC, which matches well with Durrington Walls.

I have no clue what these are and neither, so far as I can tell, does anyone else. Somebody will have to fully excavate a couple of them. Much of the news coverage I have seen assumes that these pits were left open, and that they were all open at the same time. I am skeptical; such a hole in the ground would start to wash in after the first rain, so I am betting they were dug for some ritual purpose and then filled back in. But that's the sort of thing excavation will reveal. It is very easy to tell soil that washed into a hole from soil that was shoveled in, and you can still tell even if the hole was maintained, the soil shoveled out of the bottom as it accumulated. (As with, for example, military entrenchments.) If they had wooden walls, that should also be apparent. And if they were burial pits, that will seriously make some excavator's day.

I also wonder about the layout. The excavators are enthused about the surveying calculations involved in creating this pattern, but the map above shows quite a bit of error. Stonehenge itself is made to a much higher standard of surveying accuracy. Maybe over time the position of the earlier shafts was lost?

This thing is certainly another sign of how willing the Neolithic people of Britain were to put gigantic efforts into moving earth and stone.

Ingenuity, the Mars Helicopter

The next rover for Mars, Perseverance, is scheduled to launch on July 20. Riding along with it is a bit of new technology: a tiny helicopter that is supposed to be the first machine to fly in Mars' thin atmosphere. This is a proof of technology mission, not really about exploration, and the mission description just says "one or more flights within 30 days." I find myself wondering why the NASA's press pages make so little of the name; I had to search all the way to the "Mission Fact Sheet" to find that it even has a name. I suppose NASA is trying to keep expectations low, afraid that if they talk too much about it by name people will be disappointed if it only makes one 10-second flight, or never gets off the ground at all.

Ingenuity weighs 1.8 kg (4 pounds) and its rotors span 1.2 m (almost 4 feet). The blades are supposed to spin at 2400 rpm. It does have cameras, so it may get us some nice photographs of the rover in the Martian landscape.

Landing for Perseverance is scheduled for February 18, 2021. Maybe they will fly the copter to celebrate my birthday on the 26th.

Monday, June 22, 2020

Assyrian Warfare from "The Treasures of Nineveh"

Austen Henry Layard's 1853 book on his excavations at Nineveh contains many striking images of Assyrian warfare drawn from stone reliefs. I was struck by the long mail coats being worn by many figures, such as these archers.

These chariot archers appear to be wearing similar armor.

More mounted archers.

This panel depicts Assyrian troops invading a mountainous country, perhaps giving some idea what their army looked like on the march.

But it is the images of siegecraft that really draw military historians. They depict several different ways of attacking a walled city: scaling ladders,

mining  under the walls,


and the use of siege towers and battering rams.

The Assyrians had no navy of their own but they acquired warships when they conquered Phoenicia.

And one more, fighting outside a city.

A Good Morning for Schadenfreude

Lots of laughing at the pitfalls of the other side this morning. At one point the three "most viewed" articles on the NY Times web site were all about what a bust Trump's rally in Tulsa was, and how mad he was about it.

Meanwhile the Fox News crowd can't stop sharing reports of gunfire two nights in a row in Seattle's police-free "autonomous zone," leaving one dead and one hospitalized. 

Sunday, June 21, 2020

The Horses of Bi’r Hima

Bi’r Hima is a rock art site in Saudi Arabia where the carvings were added to over thousands of years. 

Most of the panels look like fairly convention Bronze or Iron Age stuff.

But then there is this remarkable horse, so famous it has a name, Al Ukhdood. I have to think that this is from the calssical period, but it hasn't been dated so it remains a mystery.

Koality Dad

Father's Dad card made by my youngest daughter.

Austen Henry Layard, The Monuments of Nineveh from Drawings Made on the Spot, 1853

Allow me to revel in the wonder of living in an age when I can find complete scanned copies of thousands of classic books online. Of course we have all seen many of the wonderful things Layard excavated at Nineveh in photographs, but there is still something about these drawings. Plus, one tends to see the same famous images over and over, and some of the ones in this book I had never seen before.

I cut so many images out of my new pdf copy that I'm going to spread them over two posts, this one for non-military images and then one just for battles and sieges. This is Layard's rendering of the court in front of the great hall; there were traces of paint on some of the stone when it came out of the ground, so this wasn't entirely made up, but I have a feeling that the colors were originally much brighter.

Winged bull.


I was fascinated by these, which are detailed drawings of the robes worn by kings in some of the reliefs. Layard says the designs were embroidered on the robes.


Decorative elements from halls and courtyards. The great reliefs were only one element of complex decorative schemes that involved many floral and abstract elements.

Procession of the gods.

Painted head of a nobleman.


The mounds as they were discovered, and James Fergusson's painting of the palace at its height.