Monday, August 31, 2020

Connoisseurship Fails Again

In 1951, somebody gave the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford a postcard-sized oil painting on wood said to be by Rembrandt.

In 1981 it was examined and dismissed as an imitation by the Rembrandt Research Project and hidden away.

“They saw it in the flesh and decided it wasn’t a Rembrandt painting,” Ashmolean curator An Van Camp explained to The Guardian. “They said it might be an imitator painting in the style of Rembrandt and is possibly made before the end of the 17th century, so not even in Rembrandt’s lifetime.”

The painting was placed in the basement

But the painting is now back on display after study showed that it was from the same piece of wood as another, more famous and well authenticated Rembrandt work. (Wooden panels for paintings were made by splitting wood into thin pieces, so you can sometimes line up the irregularities in the wood and show they are from the same tree.)

These people who think they can tell who painted a picture just by looking at it, they are wrong. Of course it isn't a very good painting, but for mysterious reasons that matters not at all compared to who painted it.

Killing Police Reform in California

The Sacramento Bee has an editorial summing up all the police reform bills pending before the California legislature, most of which currently lack the support to pass. They include:

  • The Deadly Force Accountability Act (Assembly Bill 1506). This bill by Assemblyman Kevin McCarty, D-Sacramento, would allow local law enforcement leaders and district attorneys to request that the California state attorney general investigate police shootings.
  • Police Decertification (Senate Bill 731). This crucial bill by Steve Bradford, D-Gardena, would allow California to decertify police officers who break the law or engage in serious misconduct.
  • Police record transparency (SB 776). This bill by state Sen. Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, would mandate increased transparency from law enforcement agencies.
  • A ban on chokeholds.
A bill that would have required officers to intervene when other officers us excessive force has already been defeated.

These bills aren't passing because Republicans uniformly oppose them, and these Republicans are supported by many Democrats, most of whom are Hispanic. The Democratic coalition that governs California depends on the support of Hispanics who vote Democrat for reasons of ethnic history but who are in fact quite conservative on many issues, including crime and the police. California's black voters also have a history of supporting "tough on crime" candidates (like Kamala Harris).

Democrats who dream of a progressive future driven by racial change need to remember this. In the US, blacks and Hispanics mostly vote Democrat because they think Republicans are racists, but they are not on the whole very progressive about a long list of issues that include gay rights, police reform, the environment, and taxes.

If you can remember back to George W. Bush and Karl Rove, they had a plan to insure the Republican future by somehow toning down the racism, and anti-immigrant feeling and getting Hispanics and immigrants to support them on the basis of religion and attitudes toward crime and government spending. It didn't work because it turned out racism and anti-immigrant feeling were too important to the Republicans' white base, but that doesn't make conservative Hispanics a great fit for a progressive coalition.

Saturday, August 29, 2020

Corporate Religion

Weirdly hilarious article by Nellie Bowles in the Times about consultants who advise corporate clients on how to make the workplace more spiritual.

In the beginning there was Covid-19, and the tribe of the white collars rent their garments, for their workdays were a formless void, and all their rituals were gone. New routines came to replace the old, but the routines were scattered, and there was chaos around how best to exit a Zoom, onboard an intern, end a workweek.

The adrift may yet find purpose, for a new corporate clergy has arisen to formalize the remote work life. They go by different names: ritual consultants, sacred designers, soul-centered advertisers. They have degrees from divinity schools. Their business is borrowing from religious tradition to bring spiritual richness to corporate America.

In simpler times, divinity schools sent their graduates out to lead congregations or conduct academic research. Now there is a more office-bound calling: the spiritual consultant. Those who have chosen this path have founded agencies — some for-profit, some not — with similar-sounding names: Sacred Design Lab, Ritual Design Lab, Ritualist. They blend the obscure language of the sacred with the also obscure language of management consulting to provide clients with a range of spiritually inflected services, from architecture to employee training to ritual design.

Their larger goal is to soften cruel capitalism, making space for the soul, and to encourage employees to ask if what they are doing is good in a higher sense. Having watched social justice get readily absorbed into corporate culture, they want to see if more American businesses are ready for faith.

This was my favorite part:

Evan Sharp, the co-founder of Pinterest, hired Sacred Design Lab to categorize all major religious practices and think of ways to apply them to the office. They made him a spreadsheet.

“We pulled together hundreds of practices from all these different religions and cultural practices and put them in a spreadsheet and just tried to categorize them by emotional state: which ones are relevant when you’re happy, which are relevant when you’re angry, and a couple other pieces of metadata,” Mr. Sharp said.

When he had the data, he said, he took a few days and read it all. “This sounds embarrassingly basic,” he said, “but it really reframed parts of religion for me.”

Just imagine this nerdy atheist CEO saying, "I need to get a better handle on this religion thing – can somebody make me a spreadsheet?" Sure, boss.

My serious response is that this is a sad result of the withering of all other forms of community. If your co-workers are the only group of people you associate with, then the only way you can have any sort of shared spiritual experience is with your co-workers. If I didn't play basketball I would regularly go for months during which the only time I was together with a group of other adults would be at work.

The second part of my serious response is that this is doomed to fail, because for me at least the competitive world of corporations is just profoundly unspiritual. Everything I can think of that might make my work more meaningful would cost money and take time and therefore make my group uncompetitive, and it's hard to feel spiritual about losing your job to someone who cuts more corners. One of my corporate employers went a kick for a while about "mindfulness," which I found bizarre, because for me the essence of mindfulness is in taking the time to do things in a satisfying way. For me that would mean more thorough research, more careful analysis, more collaborative work with other smart people, more time spent mentoring new people and generally sharing knowledge with others, and so on, and it would also mean passing on projects that didn't connect to my personal intellectual interests. All of which would mean a straight march to the unemployment line.

The Advice of Flavius Agricola

An epitaph, 2nd century AD;

My home was Tivoli; I was called Flavius Agricola. I am the one you can see lying there, just as I used to lie at dinner, carefully looking after myself for all the years Fate allowed me. I never spared the wine. My darling wife, Flavia Primitiva, died before me, chaste and attentive worshipper of Isis, with whom I spent thirty years of happiness. For consolation, she left me her body's fruit — Aurelius Primitivus, who will tend my grave with piety and will preserve for ever my resting-place. Friends, who read this, heed what I say: mix the wine, bind the flowered garland round your brow, and drink deep. Do not shun the pleasures of love with beautiful women. When death comes, earth and fire devour all.

Lazar Vozarević

Lazar Vozarević (1925-1968) was a Serbian artist. I never heard of him until today, but he seems to have been a pretty big deal in post-war Yugoslavia. Most of his stuff I have found seems like pretty ordinary mid-century modern work, but I love these bronze-colored abstractions.


One thing I love about the Hellenistic world is the mingling of cultures and religions that produced wonderful amalgams like this head from Gandhara in Afghanistan, which scholars say is Herakles-Vrajrapani. Probably 2nd-3rd century AD.

Friday, August 28, 2020

Axes and Keys

Viking warriors were buried with weapons. Women of status were often buried with keys. This is from the description of the grave of a wealthy couple in Denmark who were buried around 950 AD:

The man was buried with a large battle ax. . . . For her part, the woman in the tomb was laid to rest in a wagon, known to be a typical practice for Viking women of noble birth. Intriguingly, the archaeologists also found two keys buried with the woman. Many Viking women were buried with keys, which symbolized their control over the home and the domestic sphere, including the distribution of food and clothing to the family. One of the keys found in the particular woman’s grave served as, in Nielsen’s words, “a symbol of her power and status as a great lady.” 

The association of keys with prominent women was not absolute, and a few men were also buried with keys. Certain skeptical archaeologists have used this fact to undermine the whole symbolic association of keys with women, but keys found with men are actually rare, so the association holds pretty well. And the kind of keys you are most likely to see in a museum, with a decorative handle, are only found with women. They were worn on the outside of the woman's clothing so everyone could see her status.

Chest from the Oseberg Ship Burial

To understand the importance of the key you have to imagine a noble Norse household, a crowded place where there were numerous servants, tenants, supplicants, visitors, and so on. Anything valuable and portable was either worn on the person or locked in a chest. As the holder of the keys to the chests, the woman who headed the household controlled access to its valuables, including the money. No major purchase could be made without consulting her. Among the things kept in these chests was cloth, so the key-holding matron also controlled who received cloth for new clothes.

The power of these noble women was real. Viking marriages, at least at the elite level, seem to have been much more equal than in the Mediterranean world. Plus, this was a maritime society in which important men were often gone for much of the year, leaving the women in charge.

We humans love symbols. It fascinates me that in this world they found complementary symbols for the roles of prominent men and women: an ax to represent the man's prowess in battle, and the key to represent the woman's mastery of the home.

Links 28 August 2020

Sebastião Salgado

Online digital version of Tim Robinson's famous map of the Aran Islands in Ireland.

Classical Monuments covers the Lion Sarcophagus in Pisidia

Interview with Nigerian-American writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie about race, gender and what feminism means around the world.

The "mall short": how hedge funds made a ton of money off the collapse of shopping malls (NY Times)

My Modern Met piece on Petra, with great pictures.

Preserving Australia's ancient Wollemi pines, a relic of the Cretaceous.

Razor blades get dull because sometimes hair can crack steel.

Saul Griffith, a major expert on electricity generation, has a plan to decarbonize America and generate millions of jobs.

A pet cemetery in Roman Egypt: 86 cats, 9 dogs, and 4 monkeys imported from India.

Wreck of a nearly intact 17th-century cargo ship called a fluytschip found on the sea floor off Finland.

Tim Alberta on the "Grand Old Meltdown;" one Republican veteran tells him that all the party stands for now is "Owning the libs and pissing off the media."" But in the same magazine, Rich Lowry has a different view. 

Photographs of London's old secondhand book shops taken in 1971.

Thursday, August 27, 2020

In America, Imprisoned by Bureaucracy

Even when one part of our justice system tries to do the right thing, the good is usually undone by some other stupid policy.  Danielle Allen in the Post:

As the nation has come to know, California depends on incarcerated people for the hard, dangerous work of fighting wildfires, a situation that has existed since World War II. Like all firefighters, those who have joined crews while serving prison sentences are heroes. My beloved cousin Michael, now dead, did time in California’s system from 1995 to 2006 and was one of those firefighters. In 2003, he fought what was then the biggest fire in California’s history. It was the best year of his life, I believe. This is so wrong that I weep to write it.

In letters and a journal, Michael wrote about what it meant to him to fight fires. “When I had got up to the front the flames were high and hot. I could feel myself growing stronger instantly. . . . Sometimes I was 3 to 4 feet from the fire and at other times I was two feet away. As I worked I could feel my arms and shoulders become heavy as mortar stones. But that only fueled me.” He took pride in being given one of the toughest jobs on the crew: “Some underestimate the work of using a saw during a fire which is why many don’t last on the saw. To use the saw takes strength, determination, and heart. It is a very grueling task and probably the most important one.” Whereas for most of his time in prison, Michael saw “a hill of years to climb,” in 2003, he wrote, “Time is flying by so fast I can hardly keep up with the days.”

The most painful part of Michael’s reentry was that there was no way for him to be considered for employment on any of the fire crews he’d worked with. He’d gone to jail after committing three robberies and an attempted carjacking in a three-day period. He was 15, and it was his first arrest. Now, 11 years on, Michael had found his calling — tear-inducing, breath-smothering work fighting wildfires. The fire camps, though, were not in Los Angeles, and the law required Michael to be paroled back to the county where he had committed his crimes. The path he’d found during incarceration was no longer available to him.

This is the great wrong of California’s inmate firefighting program. It shows us exactly what offenders need to set their lives to rights: the opportunity for meaningful and recognized work that connects them to society and positive social relationships. Yet the program is based on a system of justice that largely denies people such pathways — mass incarceration.

Years and years in prison inevitably deplete a healthy capacity for social connectedness. Inmates who successfully reenter society must overcome that; they have to do the time and undo the time. Firefighting helped Michael undo the time, but he couldn’t extend that experience after he was released.

The inmate firefighting program has always seemed to me like a great idea; I have read other pieces over the years by men who felt saved by it. But why, oh why, do we have these crazy policies that prevent men the state has trained to fight fires (at considerable expense) from fighting fires after release? The array of rigid rules that keeps everyone from even trying to do the right thing makes me gnash my teeth, and I don't understand why we can't build into the system points where somebody can waive these rules when it would help both the ex-con and the community.

Is the Pandemic Self-Limiting?

Interesting data from Manaus, Brazil, which had a very severe coronavirus outbreak, never did much about it, but has seen the pandemic fade in a way similar to cities which took more severe measures. Other places have relaxed their restrictions and seen second waves, but the second wave is always less deadly than the first.

It really seems like the first wave of this disease is always the worst. Does the first wave just carry off the most vulnerable people? Or is there some sort of "virgin soil" effect that makes the first infection worse? Do the most vulnerable people take measures to protect themselves even when others do not?

It looks to me like the disease is shifting into a sort of chronic mode, still out there, still dangerous, but not the awesome killer it was when it first arrived.

Wednesday, August 26, 2020

Costly Signaling, or, Why Trump Says Outrageous Things

The political strategy of Trump and his friends might be summarized as 1) divide the country into two warring sides, and 2) pose as the perfect champion of one side. As Thomas Edsall explains, this is why Trump often says things that seem pointlessly outrageous and offensive:

According to Joshua Greene, a professor of psychology at Harvard, Trump is expert at sending “signals that are music to the ears of his base,” signals that ineradicably affirm his membership in the populist right wing of the Republican Party.

Green argued in an email that when

Trump says that a judge of Mexican ancestry can’t do his job, or attacks women for their physical appearance, or makes fun of a disabled reporter, or says that there are good people on both sides of a violent neo-Nazi rally, or that Haiti is a “shithole.” or that the “Second Amendment People” can maybe do something about Hillary Clinton, Trump is very deliberately and publicly excommunicating himself from the company of liberals, even moderate ones.

In Greene’s view, Trump offers a case study in the deployment of “costly signals.”

How does it work? Greene writes:

Making oneself irredeemably unacceptable to the other tribe is equivalent to permanently binding oneself to one’s own. These comments are like gang tattoos. And in Trump’s case, it’s tattoos all over his neck and face.

At the same time, Trump’s “costly signals” make his reliability as a protector of white privilege clear.

John Tooby, a professor of anthropology at the University of California-Santa Barbara, described the signaling phenomenon in a 2017 Edge talk as an outgrowth of what he calls a “coalitional instinct.”

“To earn membership in a group,” Tooby says, “you must send signals that clearly indicate that you differentially support it, compared to rival groups.”

This, Tooby notes, encourages extremism: “Practical and functional truths are generally useless as differential signals, because any honest person might say them regardless of coalitional loyalty.” Far more effective are “unusual, exaggerated beliefs,” including “alarmism, conspiracies or hyperbolic comparisons.”

This phenomenon of “costly signalling”  drives a lot of political behavior in the US right now. Many statements are made all over the place simply from a desire to show everyone where you stand in a powerful way. I think the popularity of something like QAnon is all about this, about signaling that you are such a strong Republican you will consider anything; or, on the other side, talk about Revolution.

Tuesday, August 25, 2020


Margaret Talbot has a long article about boredom research in the New Yorker. 

Fundamentally, boredom is, as Tolstoy defined it, “a desire for desires.” The psychoanalyst Adam Phillips, describing the feeling that sometimes drops over children like a scratchy blanket, elaborated on this notion: boredom is “that state of suspended animation in which things are started and nothing begins, the mood of diffuse restlessness which contains that most absurd and paradoxical wish, the wish for a desire.” In a new book, “Out of My Skull: The Psychology of Boredom,” James Danckert, a neuroscientist, and John D. Eastwood, a psychologist, nicely describe it as a cognitive state that has something in common with tip-of-the-tongue syndrome—a sensation that something is missing, though we can’t quite say what.

In Talbot's account researchers are divided between those who think boredom is a universal human thing, in fact shared by many animals, and those who view it as a particularly modern condition. My reading of history and anthropology is that people have always suffered from boredom, and to the extent that they were less bored than we are it was because they were scrabbling to survive. I do find it interesting that the explosion of amusements – the internet, 500 televisions channels – has not reduced how much boredom people report feeling. I suppose this is because most of what we consume is so unfulfilling as to leave us thirsting 

And this for all the educators in the audience:

A 2016 paper found that, for most Americans, the activity associated with the highest rates of boredom was studying. (The least: sports or exercise.) Research conducted by Sandi Mann and Andrew Robinson in England concluded that among the most boring educational experiences were computer sessions, while the least were sturdy, old-fashioned group discussions in the context of a lecture. Mann, in “The Science of Boredom,” makes worthwhile observations about two tactics that help people feel less bored while studying: listening to music and doodling. . . . The boredom trough of school may also be a matter of age: studies that have looked at boredom over the life span have found that, for most people, it peaks in their late teens, then begins to drop.

Personally I understand boredom in terms of a barrier that has to be climbed to get to something I would enjoy doing. For example, I might really enjoy a backpacking trip with my brother or my sons, but that would involved me in a mountain of planning and organizational effort that I don't feel like getting into right now. Even something simple like a family boardgame involves getting enough of my children to agree to 1) play a game, and 2) agree on what game to play. Working on one of my writing projects requires a level of effort that is often insurmountable but sometimes, for whatever reason, trivial and easily brushed aside. 

This, I think, is the connection between boredom and mild or moderate depression: depressed people find even small obstacles between them and pleasure impossible to overcome, so they spend more time doing nothing. I think this also explains teenage boredom: teenagers are restless but lack the organizational and financial resources to arrange to do the things that might distract or fulfill them. 

Factionalism vs. Ideology

 Lee Drutman in 2017:

Neither Liberal nor Conservative: Ideological Innocence in the American Public, a new book by political scientists Donald Kinder and Nathan Kalmoe, makes a clear and compelling case that most voters neither fully understand nor particularly care about ideology. The book didn’t come out until late May, nearly six months after the election was decided. But its antecedents go way back. In fact, Kinder and Kalmoe bill their book as an update of a classic 1964 essay by the renowned political scientist Philip Converse, The Nature of Belief Systems in Mass Publics.

Converse documented that five in six Americans lacked a meaningful understanding of what it even meant to be a liberal or a conservative. For them, politics was a clash not of ideologies but of interests and group loyalties. They chose their leaders by figuring out who was on their side.

About one in six voters—roughly 17 percent—did, however, think in ideological terms. Interestingly, this number hasn’t changed in fifty years. These voters are still consistent in their opinions from year to year, and pay close attention to politics. They consume lots of news, and tend to be well educated. If you’re reading this article in this magazine, chances are that you are one of them.

But for most people, politics is still about groups and identities. As Kinder and Kalmoe write, “public opinion arises primarily from the attachments and antipathies of group life.” We can’t escape from a basic fact: there is a “deep human predisposition to divide the social world into in-groups and out-groups.” . . .
If we are not very ideological, why are our politics so ugly?
Ideology and partisanship are different things. Ideology is an intellectual framework, a “form of cognition” that “supplies citizens with a stable foundation for understanding and action.” Partisanship is a form of teamsmanship, an almost fervid attachment to one’s own side. Ideology requires a detailed policy understanding to make sense of politics. With partisanship, all you need to know is whether you are a Democrat or a Republican. . . .

Democrats generally espouse “liberal” policy positions, while Republicans generally take “conservative” ones. Loyal followers of both parties make these positions their own. As a result, what passes for “conservative” or “liberal” is mostly just what party leaders say it is. And when what they say is inconsistent, most voters follow without worrying about the inherent contradictions. Witness, for example, how much Donald Trump has managed to change Republican public opinion on trade policy and Russia, while still calling his position “conservative”—much to the chagrin of the true conservative intellectuals, who have a well-reasoned set of principles to guide their thinking.

This very much agrees with my experience. I remember once talking to a kinsman of mine who always voted Republican but seemed to have no clear idea what policies Republicans stood for. As far as he was concerned. Democrats represent blacks, Hispanics, big-city atheists, and labor activists, and Republicans represent white suburbanites like him.

Sometime the whole business just baffles me, like ancient debates over Arianism or Iconoclasm. But sometimes it makes me worry that we might take our politics as team sports approach all the way to civil war.

Monday, August 24, 2020

Jerry Seinfeld Explains Why NYC Will Come Back

Seinfeld reponds to an article by an unnamed person who moved to Miami, saying New York is dead:

Oh, shut up. Imagine being in a real war with this guy by your side. . . .

He says Everyone’s gone for good. How the hell do you know that? You moved to Miami. Yes, I also have a place out on Long Island. But I will never abandon New York City. Ever.

And I have been onstage at your comedy club Stand Up N.Y. quite a few times. It could use a little sprucing up, if you don’t mind my saying. I wouldn’t worry about it. You can do it from Miami.

There’s some other stupid thing in the article about “bandwidth” and how New York is over because everybody will “remote everything.” Guess what: Everyone hates to do this.  

You know why? There’s no energy.

Energy, attitude and personality cannot be “remoted” through even the best fiber optic lines. That’s the whole reason many of us moved to New York in the first place.

You ever wonder why Silicon Valley even exists? I have always wondered, why do these people all live and work in that location? They have all this insane technology; why don’t they all just spread out wherever they want to be and connect with their devices? Because it doesn’t work, that’s why.

Real, live, inspiring human energy exists when we coagulate together in crazy places like New York City. Feeling sorry for yourself because you can’t go to the theater for a while is not the essential element of character that made New York the brilliant diamond of activity it will one day be again.

You found a place in Florida? Fine. We know the sharp focus and restless, resilient creative spirit that Florida is all about. You think Rome is going away too? London? Tokyo? . . . 

You say New York will not bounce back this time.

You will not bounce back. In your enervated, pastel-filled new life in Florida. I hope you have a long, healthy run down there. I can’t think of a more fitting retribution for your fine article.

This stupid virus will give up eventually. The same way you have.

We’re going to keep going with New York City if that’s all right with you. And it will sure as hell be back.

Saturday, August 22, 2020

The Optimistic View of American History

 Obama sums it up:

I'm in Philadelphia, where our Constitution was drafted and signed. It wasn't a perfect document. It allowed for the inhumanity of slavery and failed to guarantee women -- and even men who didn't own property -- the right to participate in the political process. But embedded in this document was a North Star that would guide future generations; a system of representative government -- a democracy -- through which we could better realize our highest ideals. Through civil war and bitter struggles, we improved this Constitution to include the voices of those who'd once been left out. And gradually, we made this country more just, more equal, and more free.  . . .

Last month, we lost a giant of American democracy in John Lewis. Some years ago, I sat down with John and the few remaining leaders of the early Civil Rights Movement. One of them told me he never imagined he'd walk into the White House and see a president who looked like his grandson. Then he told me that he'd looked it up, and it turned out that on the very day that I was born, he was marching into a jail cell, trying to end Jim Crow segregation in the South. What we do echoes through the generations.

Whatever our backgrounds, we're all the children of Americans who fought the good fight. Great grandparents working in firetraps and sweatshops without rights or representation. Farmers losing their dreams to dust. Irish and Italians and Asians and Latinos told to go back where they came from. Jews and Catholics, Muslims and Sikhs, made to feel suspect for the way they worshipped. Black Americans chained and whipped and hanged. Spit on for trying to sit at lunch counters. Beaten for trying to vote.

If anyone had a right to believe that this democracy did not work, and could not work, it was those Americans. Our ancestors. They were on the receiving end of a democracy that had fallen short all their lives. They knew how far the daily reality of America strayed from the myth. And yet, instead of giving up, they joined together and said somehow, some way, we are going to make this work. We are going to bring those words, in our founding documents, to life. I've seen that same spirit rising these past few years. Folks of every age and background who packed city centers and airports and rural roads so that families wouldn't be separated. So that another classroom wouldn't get shot up. So that our kids won't grow up on an uninhabitable planet. Americans of all races joining together to declare, in the face of injustice and brutality at the hands of the state, that Black Lives Matter, no more, but no less, so that no child in this country feels the continuing sting of racism.

To the young people who led us this summer, telling us we need to be better -- in so many ways, you are this country's dreams fulfilled. Earlier generations had to be persuaded that everyone has equal worth. For you, it's a given -- a conviction. And what I want you to know is that for all its messiness and frustrations, your system of self-government can be harnessed to help you realize those convictions.

You can give our democracy new meaning. You can take it to a better place. You're the missing ingredient -- the ones who will decide whether or not America becomes the country that fully lives up to its creed.

Note that "North Star" was Frederick Douglass's abolitionist newspaper.

I am of course a sucker for this kind of rhetoric, pioneered by abolitionists, of invoking the spirit of the nation's founding while calling on it to do better. It went on through the Progressives and the Civil Rights movement and so on down to Obama, its greatest contemporary practitioner. 

I say again that this, not cynicism or talk of revolution or attacks on the Revolution and the Founding Fathers, is the only way for the Left to win elections in America. There is no need to "recast" the nation's history or find some entirely new way to tell it; what is needed it to pick up this strain of the song and carry it on.

Friday, August 21, 2020

Human Teeth, Civilization, and Incels

From an utterly weird article by William Brennan on incels and orthodontics, I extract this bit about the history of our teeth:

On a Friday in August, I met with an anthropologist named Janet Monge in a ground-floor classroom at the Penn Museum in Philadelphia. Monge is a warm and voluble person, with a mane of gray-white hair and an easy smile. Since the early 1990s, she has been the keeper of one of the world’s largest and most geographically diverse collections of ancient skulls, housed at the University of Pennsylvania. The specimens had originally been gathered by the physician Samuel Morton in the 19th century. Monge noted that Morton collected the skulls for racist purposes, measuring the projection of his specimens’ jaws in an attempt to assess their level of civilizational enlightenment. The same large, forward-grown jaws the Mews prize as signs of health and beauty, Morton disdained as markers of inherent cultural and biological inferiority. 

The Morton specimens sat in cases all around, peering out at us with enormous, empty sockets and gleaming teeth. In a plastic container, Monge had placed skulls from the Middle East, West Africa, Eastern Europe and beyond. When I asked her if she’d ever seen an ancient specimen with crooked teeth, she didn’t hesitate: “No, not one. Ever.” Most of the skulls in the Penn collection date from a 40,000-year period starting late in the Stone Age and ending around 300 years ago, yet “they all have an edge-to-edge bite,” “robust” jaws and “perfect” occlusion, Monge said.

But then, in specimens from people who lived two centuries ago or less, Monge noted a striking change: The edge-to-edge bite completely disappears, and malocclusion suddenly runs rampant. She pointed to a skull on a nearby shelf — that of a woman who lived in 19th-century North America. Unlike the ancient skulls, this postindustrial woman’s maxilla was crinkled and small; the teeth that remained sat crammed together. “I always told my students, ‘Something happened 200 years ago and nobody has an edge-to-edge bite anymore — and I have no freaking idea why,’” Monge said. She took the skull of a preindustrial Siberian man out of her container and clicked the mandible into place. The bone was thick; the teeth met so neatly that they appeared pulled from an Invisalign ad. Monge laughed, her open mouth revealing a pair of missing molars. She cradled the skull in her hand. “Isn’t that just perfect?”

Both Brennan and Monge seem not to have done enough research to learn that many people have wondered about exactly this change in our teeth, including me. 

In 2013 when I last wrote about the impact of modern diets on our teeth I mused, "Perhaps when the Undomesticated Men finally make their appearance in the mountains of Idaho, they will raise their children without forks and make them gnaw their meat off the bone, so their teeth don't go soft and over-civilized." I had no idea that many men were already doing this, and that within five years "mewing" –trying to force your teeth back into a Paleolithic posture – would be a fad endorsed by various YouTube personalities and particularly common among "incels" who think women won't have them because their faces are too weak and unmasculine.

Tonight's Ominous Fortune

Life will soon become interesting.

Annie French

Annie French (1872-1965) was another one of the remarkable women who attended the Glasgow School of Art in Scotland during its heyday in the late 1800s. Love these illustrations.

Steve Bannon and "We Build the Wall"

Steve Bannon always seemed like a cynical man on the make – "thrice divorced disciple of Mammon," as one Catholic journalist put it – and as Michelle Goldberg says he could be remarkably nasty to his own political supporters:

So it’s fitting that when Bannon on Thursday became the most recent member of Trump’s 2016 campaign staff to be arrested, it was on charges of defrauding gullible Trump supporters. According to a federal indictment, Bannon, along with his associates Brian Kolfage, Andrew Badolato and Timothy Shea, ran a crowdfunding campaign, We Build the Wall, ostensibly to help fund Trump’s promised southern border barrier. The project became, said prosecutors, a source of illicit personal enrichment.

We Build the Wall was run as a nonprofit, and assured donors that “100 percent of funds raised” would go toward wall construction. Some donors, said the indictment, wrote to Kolfage that “they did not have a lot of money and were skeptical of online fund-raising campaigns,” but they were “giving what they could” because they trusted his promises.

According to the indictment, Bannon used a separate nonprofit to siphon off over $1 million, some of which was used to pay Kolfage, who also received money through a shell company set up by Shea.

Among other things, the indictment says, Kolfage used the funds to pay for “home renovations, payments towards a boat, a luxury S.U.V., a golf cart, jewelry, cosmetic surgery, personal tax payments and credit card debt.” (He seems to have used the boat, called the Warfighter, to sail in one of Trump’s beloved boat parades.)

On Thursday, Trump tried to distance himself from Bannon and We Build the Wall, first saying he knew nothing about the group, then contradicting himself and saying he disliked it. But lots of Trumpworld figures have been involved with We Build the Wall. . . .

I don't want to make this too much of a partisan attack; one of the most striking things about American politics over the past thirty years has been the prominence of powerful consultants for whom elections are a business. (James Carville, Karl Rove, David Axelrod). The Washington Post ran a long story about what happened to the millions that Sheldon Adelson spent in 2008 and 2012 on his favorite Republicans, and most of it ended up in the pockets of campaign consultants, advertising firms (often owned by the same consultants), polling operations (ditto), and so on. So far as the Post could tell, all that money had zero political impact. 

These guys have built many of the big mansions that have gone up by the hundreds in the DC suburbs. They prey on the importance of politics to Americans and their desire to have some influence on it. Now, if they are actually decisive in winning a big election for their side, most of the donors will feel that they got their money's worth. But how would anyone know which consultants were important and which were not? Maybe George W. Bush won in 2000 because Karl Rove was a genius, but then again maybe it was just a combination of Clinton fatigue and weird ballot design.

The difficulty with telling who is actually having any impact on politics creates openings into which  whole schools of sharks have swum with delight, snapping up all the money they can.

But that being said, the particular bunch of Republican sharks that trails after Trump seems remarkably sleazy.

Let's Hope

America’s history tells us that it has been in our darkest moments that we’ve made our greatest progress. That we’ve found the light. And in this dark moment, I believe we are poised to make great progress again. That we can find the light once more.

–Joe Biden

Links 21 August 2020

Pelican wing necklace from a 16th-century Spanish shipwreck off Florida

Strange story from the LA Times in which the LA police chief disciplines a bunch of his employees for acting like a gang, including having an off-duty brawl with members of Los Banditos.

Two-minute video taken in 1902 from a suspended train line in Wuppertal, Germany, like drone footage 118 years old. The train is still running, by the way.

Amboseli National Park in Kenya is reporting an "elephant baby boom," with 170 calves born so far this year, including two sets of twins.

Changing the lyrics to "The Night they Drove Old Dixie Down" (I had to explain to my mystified children that in 1969 this was a protest song and Joan Baez a leftist.)

More protests in Thailand, where student activists are denouncing the ruling junta and also calling into question the powers of the monarchy. Thailand's oscillation between democracy and military rule looks set to continue, with no real stability in sight. (Washington Post)

In central Germany, a plague of field mice is causing significant damage to crops.

Between 1964 and 1973 the US flew 580,000 bombing missions over Laos, one every eight minutes for nine years. By some counts this makes Laos the most bombed country in history.

The Roman Emperors Project: Daniel Voshart has created photorealistic images of every Roman emperor to 285 AD.

Popcorn popping in ultra slow motion.

Notebooks of a 19th-century English shipwright, full of sketches of his work and people he met.

Price fixing and criminal trials in the canned tuna industry.

California's rolling blackouts show the difficulty with phasing out nuclear power plants and trying to dramatically reduce carbon emissions at the same time.

Bizarre illustrations of demons from a 1921 Persian book on magic.

Conspiracy Theories and Family Breakdown

Every so often a news story emerges that suggests our problems are all interconnected at a deep level. Witness the news that Millie Weaver, a "reporter" for InfoWars whose usual beat is the Deep State conspiracy that she claims controls the world, had been arrested. She live-streamed the event, claiming she had no idea what she might have done and hinting she was about to publish a major scoop. Her supporters set up a legal defense fund for her that quickly gathered $170,000 in donations.

Eventually the police filed paperwork at the courthouse about the arrest, and this their version of the story:

Weaver is formally facing three felony charges for robbery, evidence tampering and obstruction of justice, as well as a misdemeanor domestic charge over an April family fight gone wrong. Weaver’s husband, Gavin Wince, and her brother, Charles Weaver, are facing the same charges.

The incident in question took place on April 25, when Millie Weaver began arguing with and insulting her mother, Felecia McCarron, according to a police report. McCarron started a recording on her phone, in an apparent attempt to catch Weaver, Weaver’s brother, and Weaver’s husband talking about her. The Weavers and Wince allegedly tried to take her phone away in a scuffle, and all three allegedly “wrestled Felicia to the ground.”

“Chuck grabbed Felicia’s arm as Gavin grabbed the other,” the report reads. “Millie joined in and they all threw Felicia to the ground and held her down.”

The trio succeeded in taking the phone, according to McCarron’s account, in what constitutes the “robbery” Weaver is charged with. McCarron, who suffered a small abrasion in the scuffle, fled to a neighbor’s house and called 911. While there, she saw Charles Weaver running to the back of the house, in what she took to be an attempt to hide her phone.

When deputies arrived, the Weaver siblings and Wince claimed that McCarron suffered from mental issues and had in fact lost her phone days earlier, the report alleges. But deputies became suspicious of the trio, suspecting that they were making up the explanation on the spot.

So here we have a conspiracy-mongering "journalist" who springs from the sort of family where people videotape each other's tantrums to be used as evidence later, shove their own mothers around, lie to the cops, and steal each other's phones. Is there a connection? Is our crazy politics just a reflection of our disordered private lives, of the craziness we show outside the voting booth?

I had a vision of an America like this when I was watching "Tiger King" with my sons, of a crazy nation of narcissistic lunatics cuddling with tigers, waving guns around, taking too many drugs, nursing grudges, blaming everyone but themselves, and so on, spiraling up what looks like attempted murder.

I don't think this is our whole problem. There are plenty of very angry people with decent family lives and steady jobs. But I do think some of our national craziness just reflects the craziness of our citizens.

Thursday, August 20, 2020

Why People Tolerate Police Brutality

India has its own problems with out-of-control police:

For decades, India has absorbed case after case of police brutality, torture and extrajudicial killings. Every year, scores of Indians are killed in what activists call “fake encounters,” and many more, activists say, are tortured to death in police custody.

Many of these killings have been extensively covered in the Indian news media, and some have set off a few strikes and demonstrations. But rarely have they provoked widespread protests calling for change.

Nothing is ever really done about the problem for the usual reasons: ethnic or religious divisions, and fear of crime:

According to a lengthy report by the National Campaign Against Torture, an Indian rights group based in New Delhi, the capital, at least 1,731 people were killed in custody last year. The majority of the victims, the report said, were the usual victims of abuse: Muslims and lower-caste Hindus. . . .

Many Indians, exasperated with the sclerotic functioning of an overburdened and often corrupt law enforcement system, crave justice and welcome the elimination of people they see as criminals. 

“There are outright public celebrations of police killings,” said Devika Prasad, head of police reforms at the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, a human rights organization. “The extremely slow judicial process and low conviction rates make people fear that criminals will get away with their crimes. That’s why many see these killings as just.”

When people are afraid, either of random violence or of group conflict, they will support, even revel in, savage violence by those they see as their defenders.

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Boogaloos and Meme Wars

Long, thoughtful article by Leah Sottile in the Times about the Boogaloo "movement," which some people find frightening. Like so many other weird contemporary movements they have attracted followers through the meme boards at 4chan. One of their favorite memes is,

Learn to hate or die silently.

To which I wish to offer a counter:

Learn to love or die by your own hate.

Tuesday, August 18, 2020

Mary Boleyn

This portrait, a 17th-century copy of a lost Tudor original, was once thought to be a portrait of Mary Boleyn, the older sister of Anne Boleyn and at one time Henry VIII's mistress. Then in the late 1800s the identification was questioned and since then it has been cataloged as "Portrait of a Lady." Now some Dutch scholars have thrown a lot of science at it and they think the old identification was correct, and that this is a copy of a lost Hans Holbein portrait of Mary. They think the copy is by Remigius van Leemput, who worked in the studio of Van Dyck.

A Biden Conservative

Bret Stephens, who fills the "establishment conservative" slot at the NY Times, muses on his electoral choices:

The other day I spotted a sticker that read, “Settle for Biden, 2020.” It spoke for me.

To be a Biden conservative is to feel about as much enthusiasm for the presumptive Democratic nominee as a Sanders socialist might, albeit from the opposite direction. Everyone is aware of the former vice president’s foibles. . . .

The most obvious recommendations for Joe Biden are a succession of “isn’ts.” He isn’t Donald Trump. He isn’t Bernie Sanders. He isn’t angry, bigoted, cruel, demagogic, erratic, frightening or gross. He isn’t going to drive Americans to distraction or the country into a ditch.

Does anyone seriously doubt that, on the day President Biden enters office, the country would revert to a more normal version of itself — more so, at any rate, than it has been in the Bizarro World of the Trump years? . . .

Beyond the state of the political parties is the state of the country. I came of age as a conservative when the great domestic issue of our time was the size and reach of the federal government. Under Trump, Republicans are hardly better than Democrats on that issue, and in many respects worse. Federal debt as a percentage of gross domestic product has never been higher since World War II. The gap between government spending and federal revenue has rarely been wider. “What, Me Worry?” says Alfred E. Trump.

But the domestic issue of our time is not the size of government. It’s the unity of the country. We are living through the most serious social unrest in 50 years. We have a president who sparks division by nature and stokes it by design.

Part of the country believes the government conspires against them. Another part believes history has conspired against them. The idea that these beliefs won’t get further radicalized in a second Trump administration is fantasy.

Whatever else he does, Biden won’t expend his political capital belittling, demeaning and humiliating other Americans. He won’t treat opponents as enemies, or subordinates as toadies, or take supporters for fools. . . .

I also came of age as a conservative when the great foreign policy issue of the time was the survival and unity of what used to be called “the free world.” That was a world that believed in more-open borders, more free trade, greater unity among the democratic powers, greater resolve against the totalitarian powers of the day.

Whether it’s in his love letters with Kim Jong-un, his scorn for NATO, his asperity toward Angela Merkel, his credulity with Vladimir Putin, his undermining of the alliance with South Korea or his fire and flattery with Beijing, Trump is wrecking the idea of a free world, and of the possibility of America’s leadership of it. Conservatives used to care about this. They still should.

When you divide the world in two, you necessarily put a disparate group of people in each half, and this is particularly true of "right" and "left." Trump has shaken up American politics because he produces a different divide than say Mitt Romney or George W. Bush. Trump has no appeal to people for whom conservatism means reverence for old things, or a love of order and decorum. He has no respect for intellectual or religious traditions, for care about spending money or the unintended consequences of appealing new laws. I think the only reason he was able to win at all was the intense partisanship of our time, which has millions of conservatives preferring any Republic to any Democrat.

Intellectually, Trump has been very clarifying for me. By contemplating his supporters I have come to understand that most American voters don't much care about the conservative, constitutionalist way of feeling and thinking that animates the George Wills of the world. What they connect with is what you might call high school football conservatism: reverence for toughness, sneering contempt for the weak, a willingness to inflict pain and humiliation to reach your goals – partly because to such people failure and pain are how you become stronger, and if you are nice to the other team out of pity or whatever they will never grow strong themselves. Life is a struggle in which you are either a winner or a loser, and which side you fall on depends on your own efforts, your own willingness to pick yourself up after each setback and forge on. Those who win deserve our respect. Loyalty to the team is paramount, which ultimately means a willingness to fight to the bitter end for your own side. 

Most American conservatives have accepted the end of laws that discriminated on the basis of race or sex, but they are dubious of contemporary civil rights movements. These all seem to argue for turning down the intensity of the competition, for giving people some sort of underground tunnel into the end zone without fighting their way down the field. Big institutions of any sort are suspect because they degrade or hide individual initiative and make ways to the top for those who couldn't compete on their own but get ahead by boot-licking or graft– by "corruption," the all-purpose word for whatever keeps the good, hard-working, knock-taking people from coming out on top. To these people life is tough but it is fair, in the sense that where you end up depends on what you do. When that doesn't happen, the problem must be corruption, must be that the playing field is somehow being tilted by sinister forces, either seen (immigrants, feminists, bureaucrats) or unseen (the UN, Davos, the Deep State).

Brett Stephens and George Will probably agree with some of what I just wrote; they love "free market competition" and education built around toughening people up for life in a tough world. What they cannot stand is the barbarity of it, the tawdry high-school taunting, the dismissal of any morality but that of winning, the constant stoking of anger against enemies real or imagined. Also the conspiracy theories, since they understand perfectly well that all the apparatus limiting competition and coddling the losers has been chosen by the voters; Medicaid may be a mistake, but there is no mystery about where it came from. What they fear is the erosion of the rules, written and unwritten, that they think have kept America stable for 150 years.

What remains to be seen is whether in America there can be an alliance of the sane people, the ones who understand cause and effect, who see the need to keep the country together, against the people fired up to smash the other team and drive for the end zone. To achieve that alliance, everyone will have to give up something; sane conservatives and sane liberals disagree on a lot. But what happens if everyone abandons the center in pursuit of victory for their own side, whatever that means, is a worrying question. Looking around the world you can see a dozen examples of people who have thrown away democracy rather than see the other side win, and there is no historical guarantee that the US won't one day go the same path.

Monday, August 17, 2020

John Singer Sargent, Prodigy

John Singer Sargent was born in 1856. In 1869, 1870, and 1871 his family spent time in Switzerland, and he carried along his sketchbook. The painting above was done in 1870, when Sargent was 14 years old. How is that even possible? That's a pretty big image and I invite you to click on it and be awed.

These three were done the year before, when Sargent was only 13. Sargent received no formal training in art until 1874, years after these were done.

But it's the works from 1870, what were later called Sargent's Splendid Mountain Watercolors, that astonish. Can you imagine this kid walking into some art class and handing this portfolio to his teacher? And it's not like he burned out young or anything; he was still making beautiful art in the 1920s, more than 50 years later.

Here's a question: looking at these you can see that some people are simply born with a talent for art. Why? What would the evolutionary significance of that be? In complex societies artistic skill can be a good route to financial and thus reproductive success, but why did hunter gatherers evolve this trait? It is clearly quite distinct from general intelligence or verbal skill. It is its own thing, and wherever it came from John Singer Sargent was just born with a boatload of it.

Knausgaard on Nazism

Karl Owe Knausgaard's monumental autobiographical novel is called My Struggle, "Min Kamf" in Norwegian. The final volume makes it clear that this was no thoughtless act, and that Knausgaard is obsessed with Hitler and Nazism. Half of this volume is a digression in which Knausgaard uses the diaries of ardent Nazis and other sources to reconstruct why people were drawn to Nazism and what that ought to mean to those of us living after the Nazi catastrophe. Knausgaard is especially interested in Fascist art, and as Jon Baskin explains in the New York Review of Books:, he twice brings up Leni Riefenstahl's film Triumph of the Will.

The first comes during a discussion of the conversion of Martin Heidegger and other German intellectuals to Nazism. Quoting a German journalist on how Nazism provided a “widespread feeling of deliverance, of liberation from democracy,” Knausgaard indicates the sense we can get of “this aspect of the Third Reich—the popular demonstrations, the torchlit parades, the songs, the sense of community, all of which were unconditional joys to anyone who participated—by watching Riefenstahl’s films of the Nuremberg Rally… where all these elements are present.” Precisely because Riefenstahl’s film was so meticulously staged, Knausgaard alleges, it is striking how its “content far eclipses the fact, because emotions are stronger than all analyses, and here the emotions are set free. This is not politics, but something beyond. And it is something good.”

Knausgaard does not mean “good” in the moral sense. He refers to the feelings of the people involved in the marches and parades. As he does throughout the four-hundred page section, Knausgaard attempts to reconstruct the thoughts and emotions of those who were attracted to National Socialism, under the principle that it is impossible to understand the emergence of Nazism—“the last major utopian movement in the west”—without understanding what moved the people of Germany, and later of other European countries, to embrace it. And what moved them, in Knausgaard’s view, was not the Nazis’ promise to redistribute income, or Hitler’s analysis of world affairs, or even, initially, their hatred of the Jews. What moved them was, rather, the joyful feeling of togetherness and community, of being able to transcend not only the fragmented democracy of the Weimar period but politics altogether.

To some people, belonging is the most important thing, and division the most intolerable. Those who will not go along with the great project of togetherness must be attacked – which also reinforces the togetherness of the insiders – and if possible eliminated. Knausgaard:

In National Socialism, philosophy and politics come together at a point outside the language, and beyond the rational, where all complexity ceases, though not all depth. . . . 

Watching Riefenstahl’s film of the rallies in Nuremberg, its depiction of people almost paradisiac in its unambiguousness, converged upon the same thing, immersed in the symbols, the callings from the deepest pith of human life, that which has to do with birth and death, and with homeland and belonging, one finds it splendid and unbearable at the same time, though increasingly unbearable the more one watches, at least this was how I felt when I watched it one night this spring, and I wondered for a long time where that sense of the unbearable came from, the unease that accompanied these images of the German paradise, with its torches in the darkness, the intactness of its medieval city, its cheering crowds, its sun, and its banners… [and] I came to the conclusion… that it came… from something in the images themselves, the sense being that the world they displayed was an unbearable world.

What is unbearable, to Knausgaard, is paradise itself, the place of strong emotions and powerful unity, the abolition of uncertainty and dissent. The crime of Nazism is in this view that it sought perfection.

I do not think this is a complete picture of Nazism's sins or its appeal; I would put more emphasis on the Will to Power, on the desire to make the world (including our enemies) conform to our own will in every particular. But I share this sense that ecstatic togetherness is intensely, profoundly dangerous, and that our only safety in the long run comes from the celebration of difference and dissent.

Whenever any mob of people denounces some individual for thought crimes, I am immediately sympathetic to the person denounced; it does not matter how right-thinking the mob and how obnoxious the dissenter, my emotional sympathies are always with the outsider. 

When any politician fantasizes about complete victory, about utterly vanquishing the opposition, I cringe. Hatred of the opposition makes me queasy, even when the opposition is neo-Confederate Trumpists, because we NEED opposition. Or at least I do.

When anyone talks about revolution or really any radical political change, I shudder; I see mass executions, re-education camps, secret police. Anarchists especially make me nervous, because they think that after the revolution we're all going to magically agree. What, I want to ask, are you going to do with the people who won't go along? But I don't really want to know the answer.

I recognize this as a possible weakness in myself. Demonstrations horrify me because I hate the sight of people marching and chanting, but I have from time to time overcome my horror sufficiently to participate. In a mass world, we need mass politics to get anything done, and we need to harness emotional energies to make any change. But there is a part of me that regards all political enthusiasm as a bargain with the devil and fears where it might lead.

Sunday, August 16, 2020

Fire Tornado

Lassen County, California, yesterday, one of at least five, which caused the National Weather Service to issue its first-ever Fire Tornado Warning.

Eivør - Trøllabundin

Anyone for some weird, ethereal music sung in Faroese? Then let me introduce you to Eivør. These days she has transcended the Faroes and sings mostly sings in English to broader European audiences, but I like the earlier, weirder stuff better. See also here and here.

Natalia Goncharova

Illustrations to a French translation of the Tale of Tsar Saltan by Alexander Pushkin, 1921. Below, a pencil sketch. More of her work here.

Biden's Strategy Follows Conor Lamb's

In 2018, Conor Lamb won a special election in the suburbs of Pittsburgh, a district Trump won by 20 points. Joe Biden knows the politics of Pennsylvania as well as anybody – he comes from the part of northern Delaware that is essentially a suburb of Philadelphia – and he campaigned for Lamb when nobody thought Lamb could win. According to Reid Epstein in the Times, Biden's strategy is a duplicate of the one used by Lamb:

Mr. Lamb’s victory showed Democrats how to prevail in Republican territory during the Trump era: focus on kitchen-table issues; inspire defections from college-educated suburban voters — especially women — who had been core Republican voters for decades; and offer conservative-leaning voters a sober, reassuring alternative to a chaotic president.

It helped that Mr. Lamb was a Marine veteran and a former federal prosecutor — a résumé of service to the country that he and fellow Democrats used to contrast themselves with Mr. Trump and Republicans who came from the business world.

Mr. Biden has likewise used his decades of experience in the Senate and eight years as vice president to highlight his own public service, while reminding audiences that he regularly ranked among the least-wealthy senators. . . .

“There are a lot of people who voted for me in 2018, not so much for reasons of policy or party, but just reasons of change,” Mr. Lamb said from atop a picnic table during an outdoor interview this past week in a park near his home in Mt. Lebanon, a suburb. “People were unsatisfied with how things were going, and I promised that I would do my job differently than the guy you had before me. And I think that’s what Vice President Biden is basically doing.”

When Mr. Lamb won in March 2018, he served notice for Democrats aiming to wrest control of the House and give the party control of at least one lever of the federal government. The answer to defeating Trump-aligned Republican candidates was not to emphasize the president’s erratic, divisive tenure in the Oval Office. Instead Democratic candidates focused narrowly on policies affecting voters’ lives, like protecting provisions in the Affordable Care Act and casting Republicans as a party pandering to corporations and the very rich, attacking the 2017 tax cut that Republican Party leaders had intended to use as the tent pole achievement for their midterm campaigns.

During his remarks at Mr. Lamb’s rally, Mr. Biden called the tax cut “obscene.” . . .

In Congress, Mr. Lamb is a rank-and-file Democrat who has not rocked the boat or voted against the party’s leadership on any significant issues. At home, he’s cultivated an image of a Democrat focused on Pennsylvania jobs above all else — a sentiment he says Mr. Biden has echoed.

“No matter what side of an issue my party was on when I went to Washington, I would be fighting for their jobs no matter what,” Mr. Lamb said.

One reason Biden generated so little enthusiasm among Democratic activists during the primaries was that he refused to spend his time attacking Trump's character or corruption and would not sign up for big new policies like Medicare for All. The activists wanted someone who would match Trump insult for insult and promise big change in the country. Biden's plan all along has been to attack Trump as just another Republican on the side of the rich and present an alternative in style by acting with dignity.

Saturday, August 15, 2020

A Thought about Religion

Show me my way in life, and I will build you a shrine.

– Danny Thomas

Crop Domestication in the Amazon

As I have written here before, there is a raging debate about the ancient peoples of the Amazon, and thus about to what extent the great rain forest is "natural". One reason the debate continues is that Amazonia is a terrible place to do archaeology: there is little stone, so most tools were made of wood and bone, which don't survive in the intense heat and rot. There are few places where deep soils accumulate along rivers, so the remains of the whole past are mingled together in the shallow surface layer.

Nonetheless knowledge is slowly building up. Something of a consensus has emerged among archaeologists that farming in the region began by 2000 BC, and that dense populations developed in some parts of the region, surviving until the arrival of Europeans and their diseases. Seeking to learn more about these people who left little behind but some earthworks and a lot of boring brown pottery, archaeologists are now looking to a new kind of evidence: the forests themselves. This is from a new paper by Charles Clement and a bunch of others: 

During the twentieth century, Amazonia was widely regarded as relatively pristine nature, little impacted by human history. This view remains popular despite mounting evidence of substantial human influence over millennial scales across the region. Here, we review the evidence of an anthropogenic Amazonia in response to claims of sparse populations across broad portions of the region. Amazonia was a major centre of crop domestication, with at least 83 native species containing populations domesticated to some degree. Plant domestication occurs in domesticated landscapes, including highly modified Amazonian dark earths (ADEs) associated with large settled populations and that may cover greater than 0.1% of the region. Populations and food production expanded rapidly within land management systems in the mid-Holocene, and complex societies expanded in resource-rich areas creating domesticated landscapes with profound impacts on local and regional ecology. ADE food production projections support estimates of at least eight million people in 1492. 

By this time, highly diverse regional systems had developed across Amazonia where subsistence resources were created with plant and landscape domestication, including earthworks. This review argues that the Amazonian anthrome was no less socioculturally diverse or populous than other tropical forested areas of the world prior to European conquest. 

The evidence is complex and all of this is controversial. One discovery is that while the oldest evidence for the domestication of many tropical plants comes from coastal Mexico (hot peppers, cacao) or coastal Peru (sweet potatoes), the wild ancestors of those plants live mainly in the Amazon. Thus, say the authors, it makes sense that they were domesticated in Amazonia. (Other scenarios are possible; our strawberries come from the New World but were first successfully domesticated in Europe, having been brought over as wild plants.) Also, many areas of the Amazon forest show signs of having been intensely managed in the past. Archaeologists learned about these practices by talking to Amazon natives who still do this. Areas that look to the untrained eye to be wild forests turn out to be semi-tamed by practices like selective burning, cutting down undesirable trees, encouraging useful plants, killing predators, and so on. These authors believe that vast stretches of the Amazon were manged in this way; for example, they think the Brazil nut tree was very rare before people came along, and its presence in what amount to groves across the region is due to human action. "Wild" stands of the acai palm (photo at top) are now considered a reliable sign of nearby prehistoric or early historic villages.

Language also provides another kind of evidence. We know that in East Asia and North and Central America the languages of early farming groups spread widely into other areas, and languages native to early farming areas area widely distributed across Amazonia.

Taking this biological and linguistic evidence together with the ever growing archaeological record makes me more convinced that there was a large human population in the Amazon, and thus that Amazonia is in no sense an untouched wilderness. In fact in may be time to retire that whole way of thinking about the natural world.