Thursday, December 31, 2020

Links 31 December 2020

Edward Burtynsky, Uralkali potash mine, Russia, 2017

The Haunting of Girlstown, or Villa de las Ninas, a strict Catholic girls' boarding school in Mexico struck by an epidemic of hysterical afflictions. Fascinating account by David Hernandez.

Insteresting little essay by Juliet Lamb about a major 1960s project on Pacific seabirds that was somehow connected to Cold War military science.

Interesting NY Times article on five small businesses that have thrived during the pandemic; one saw sales rise 4,000%.

Reforesting Iceland, which has gone from hardly any trees a century ago to having a viable lumber industry: 5-minute video, article.

Review of a book about the "demons" who appear in thought experiments across the history of science: Maxwell's Demon, etc. (Washington Post)

NY Times article on John Conway's Game of Life, a simple cellular automata program that has fascinated mathematicians and others since it was first introduced 50 years ago.

Ted Gioia's 100 Best Albums of 2020. Consider making a resolution to hear lots of new music this year; I did last year and it went very well for me. Or maybe resolve to rehear all the old songs you once loved but haven't heard in ages. But keep music in your life.

Andrew Sullivan reviews a new book on the conservative tradition (NY Times)

The forgotten pandemic and recession of 1957.

Short piece on Alfred Ely Beach's plan for a pneumatic subway in New York, unveiled in 1867. And more at wikipedia. Since I never saw "Ghostbusters II" (who did?), I didn't know a fantasy version Beach's tunnel appears in the movie.

Interview with Dana Goia about the importance of Ray Bradbury, and science fiction generally, in US literary and pop culture. Of the 50 top-grossing movies before 1950, only one was sci-fi or fantasy; since then the figure is 47, or 94%. Goia thinks Bradbury created a new form of speculative fiction that helped drive this change.

Dry but informative article on why corporate diversity training doesn't work, with some thoughts on how to make it better.

In corporate America, the phrase of the year is "you're on mute."

Best science photos of 2020.

A different take on why so many Germans supported Hitler: greed.

Drawings and reconstructions of Byzantine architecture by Antoine Helbert.

Great NY Times piece by Nancy Warnik about Walter Tevis, the novelist behind The Queen's Gambit, The Hustler, and The Man who Fell to Earth:

In a 1981 interview, Tevis said he’d realized in middle age that “life is worth living.” He hoped to write one book per year for the rest of his life. Just three years later, he died of lung cancer, at 56.

Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Quarantines and History

Chapel of St. Mary Magdalene, Stourbridge, England, the sole surviving building of a great leper hospital

Representative Jim Jordan of Ohio wondered on Twitter what the Founding Fathers would make of our pandemic shutdowns. He got a history lesson from people who know about, for example, the Philadelphia yellow fever epidemic of 1793, which led the government to abandon the city, and then to Congress passing a law in 1796 explicitly authorizing federal officers to assist with quarantines.

European governments had been using draconian powers to control disease since the leprosy outbreak of the 11th century, when they forced the sufferers into special hospitals. The Black Death at first moved too fast for governments to do much about it, but later outbreaks of the plague were all limited by quarantines, border closures, port closures, and so on. 

Disease, along with war, has long been considered one of the circumstances in which governments might assume arbitrary powers. After all, our ancestors were far more vulnerable to death by disease than we are, and they knew it and feared it.

Tuesday, December 29, 2020

"It's a Wonderful Life" in Maine

Ralph and Lisa Turner run Laughing Stock Farm in Maine, where they grow organic vegetables that they always sold wholesale to restaurants in Portland. In March, all the restaurants in Maine were shut down because of the pandemic, and they were left with ten tons of unsold produce plus eight greenhouses full of unharvested plants. They didn't have the financial reserves to ride out the loss of all that income and still plant for the fall, so they were looking at bankruptcy.

Not knowing what else to do, they decided to open a farm stand. They sent out emails to people they knew in the neighborhood and in the restaurant business and began bagging up produce for sale. Lisa Turner: 

We bagged up stuff as if we were going to have maybe 10 people a day come. 

We sent it out to probably 450 email addresses — and then people just started sharing it and sharing it and sharing it. The first day it was like, wow, that was a lot of people. And I had to refill some stuff that I wasn’t really expecting to.

The eggs were flying out of here — we had kind of a back stock of eggs. We went through 130 dozen eggs in two and a half days. It was insane.

I called a friend who has a beef farm. And I said, we’re doing this — what’s your minimum delivery? Just bring me some stuff. She said, yeah, we can bring 40 pounds. I never got it into the freezer. I never got it priced. People were taking it out of the box and saying, how much is this? I had to look at the invoice and figure out what I was going to charge for it. It was nothing that we had imagined. It was the nuttiest thing we had ever seen.

It was so astonishing that you couldn’t process it. It really did feel like people were just coming in and throwing money at you. There were people who came in and were just like, yeah, here, keep the change. I’m going to take a $3 bag and I’m giving you a $10 bill, keep the change.

There were a gazillion people. . . .

It was like when they threw money at Jimmy Stewart. There were people coming in, just wanting to help. It was a lot of our customers and friends. And it was also a lot of people that we’ve never met.

If you want to live in a better world, one less focused on money and profit, with more room for friendship and caring, more room for small organic farms, make it happen.

Monday, December 28, 2020

The Sword of Tiberius

The sword of Tiberius is a fine Roman sword found in 1848 near the city of Mainz in Germany, once the command center for Rome's Rhine frontier. It now resides in the British Museum. The wonderfully preserved scabbard is brass, ornamented with tin and gold. It is a good weapon, but not truly an elite one such as a member of the imperial family would have worn; it might have belonged to a junior officer

People have been arguing about what the main image represents since it was found. The old interpretation was that the seated man is Emperor Tiberius (r. AD 14-37), receiving his adopted son Germanicus. That appears to be Victory behind Germanicus, and maybe Mars behind the emperor.

Then the modern skeptics went to work, arguing that this might be just about any two noble Romans from any period, etc., etc. When I was in the museum in the 1990s the signs said that this used to be known as the Sword of Tiberius but that attribution was now discredited.

But now, in the post-modern era of the Higher Naiveté, the notion that this might actually be two known figures, commemorating a particular event, has come back into favor. British Museum curator Thorsten Opper lays out the case in this blog post. The images on the scabbard seem individualized, so they are meant to be somebody in particular, and given the scale they resemble Tiberius and Germanicus well enough. And it certainly looks like a great victory is being celebrated.

The historian Tacitus tells us that after a series of increasingly costly, indecisive victories beyond the Rhine, Tiberius simply declared victory over the Germans and recalled the aggressive Germanicus to Rome, where he received a Triumph. While one never knows, I think the claim that this scabbard represents that event is a strong one, and I for one will go on believing it until new evidence is discovered. So I imagine it belonged to some ambitious man of a second-rate family, gone off to Germany to rise through the ranks, carrying at his side a bit of propaganda that demonstrated his fidelity to the imperial family.

Sunday, December 27, 2020

German Police Training and Neo-Nazism

The German government is publicly obsessed with Nazism: how it happened, how to keep it from happening again. Germany is regularly held up as an example of how a nation should deal with crimes in its past; I have seen half a dozen times this year the argument that the US should take the approach Germany takes to the Holocaust in dealing with our legacy of race slavery. The German police in particular all receive special training in their history; “cadets across the country are now taught in unsparing detail about the shameful legacy of policing under the Nazis.” They visit concentration camps, meet Holocaust survivors, are taught about how it feels to be persecuted.

And the result is, well:

Germany has been besieged by revelations of police officers in different corners of the country forming groups based on a shared far-right ideology.

“I always hoped that it was individual cases, but there are too many of them now,” said Herbert Reul, the interior minister of North-Rhine Westphalia, Germany’s most populous state, where 203 police officers are under investigation in connection with reported far-right incidents.

For Mr. Reul, the alarm sounded in September, when 31 officers in his state were found to have shared violent neo-Nazi propaganda. “It was almost an entire unit of officers — and we found out by chance,” Mr. Reul said this past week in an interview. “That floored me. This is not trivial.”

That's from an article in The Times titled, 

She Called Police Over a Neo-Nazi Threat. But the Neo-Nazis Were Inside the Police

Now I am not saying that there is nothing we can do about Neo-Nazis, or about racism. But if you think, as many Americans seem to think, that acquainting people with the facts about past crimes is somehow going to reform them, you are just plain wrong. The German police get more anti-racist training than the general population, and have ended up more racist.

The great preponderance of the evidence shows that anti-bias training has no effect, and many studies find that it has an effect opposite to what was intended. In fact I have never seen a major study not funded by anti-bias training companies that finds a positive effect.

If you think you can train people out of racism, sexism, or any other sort of bias, you should consider the German police. Because the anti-bias training they receive goes far beyond what any American company or university has ever offered, and it is not working.

Revisiting Denis Forkas

I wrote about Russian artist Denis Forkas Kostronomas back in 2016, but he has continued to produce darkly fascinating work. Above, Hortus Aureus, 2017.

Lateral View of a Vigile in Hell
, Study for Kerberos sculpture, 2020

Sketch #4 from the Visio Tnugdali series, 2016 

Dream of Parasitic Grove
, 2020. Very creepy narration of this dream here.

The Valediction Cartouche, 2017-2018

Aitna III / Three Immortal Archons, 2017. More at the artist's web site.

Saturday, December 26, 2020


 If you don't share what you have, you're gonna lead a lonely life.

–David Bamberger

New Food Shop Uncovered in Pompeii

Archaeologists in Pompeii have unveiled a new thermopolium or hot food shop uncovered last year.

Love the animals in the frescoes. Pompeii gives one the impression that all sorts of Roman surfaces were painted, not just in the houses of the wealthy but in what seem like regular places of business: food shops, brothels, bakeries. It seems like the ancient world was a brightly colored place.

Carlo Bugatti's Art Nouveau Furniture

Carlo Bugatti (1856-1940) was an Italian furniture designer and manufacturer who spent much of his working life in France. Love these or hate them, you have to admit they are original and striking.

Thursday, December 24, 2020

Background Cities

I am fascinated by the little worlds one glimpses in the backgrounds of Renaissance landscapes and history paintings, a wonderful array of castles, towns, cities, and mountains. There are hundreds of these little wonders lurking in painting after painting; the problem is finding images big enough to show the necessary detail, since some of these wonders are quite small. Above, the Limbourg Brothers, from the Tres Riche Heures.

Van Eyck, the Ghent Altarpiece, 1432

Albrecht Durer, from The Sea Monster.

Herri met de Bles, Landscape with Saint Christopher, 1535 - 1545

Two from Albrecht Altdorfer, The Battle of Alexander at Issus.

Didier Barra, Landscape with Buildings

Vittore Carpacci, Holy Conversation

Herri met de Bles, The Road to Calvary, 1550

Another Durer, St. Michael the Archangel

Three by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Gloomy Day, The Parable of the Sower, and Hunters in the Snow, all dated 1565.

Lucas Gassel, Panoramic Landscape with Judah and Tamar and Return of the Prodigal Son

Joachim Patinir, Landscape with St. Jerome, c. 1520

And another Patinir, an imaginary Jerusalem from a cycle that depicted all the main episodes in the life of Jesus on one canvas.

The Annunciation to the Shepherds

12th century, Basilica of San Isidoro, León

Chartes Cathedral

Fresco by Taddeo Gaddi in the Basilica of Santa Croce, Florence,  1332 to 1338

15th-century missal, Germany

The Emerson-White Hours, Flemish, 15th century

Abraham Hondus, 1663

Rembrandt. I love it that the angels stampeded the cattle.

Thomas Cole

Jules Bastien-Lepage, 1875

Heinrich Vogeler, 1902

Lothar Mannewitz, church window in Rostock.