Monday, March 29, 2021

Raymond Chandler and His Cat

Crime writer Raymond Chandler sent this letter to an editor in March, 1945:

A man named Inkstead took some pictures of me for Harper’s Bazaar a while ago (I never quite found out why) and one of me holding my secretary in my lap came out very well indeed. When I get the dozen I have ordered I’ll send you one. The secretary, I should perhaps add, is a black Persian cat, 14 years old, and I call her that because she has been around me ever since I began to write, usually sitting on the paper I wanted to use or the copy I wanted to revise, sometimes leaning up against the typewriter and sometimes just quietly gazing out of the window from a corner of the desk, as much as to say, “The stuff you’re doing’s a waste of my time, bud.” Her name is Taki, and she has a memory like no elephant ever even tried to have. She is usually politely remote, but once in a while will get an argumentative spell and talk back for ten minutes at a time. I wish I knew what she is trying to say then, but I suspect it all adds up to a very sarcastic version of “You can do better.” I’ve been a cat lover all my life (have nothing against dogs except that they need such a lot of entertaining) and have never quite been able to understand them. Taki is a completely poised animal and always knows who likes cats, never goes near anybody that doesn’t, always walks straight up to anyone, however lately arrived and completely unknown to her, who really does. She doesn’t spend a great deal of time with them, however, just takes a moderate amount of petting and strolls off. She has another curious trick (which may or may not be rare) of never killing anything. She brings em back alive and lets you take them away from her. She has brought into the house at various times such things as a dove, a blue parakeet, and a large butterfly. The butterfly and the parakeet were entirely unharmed and carried on just as though nothing had happened. The dove gave her a little trouble, apparently not wanting to be carried around, and had a small spot of blood on its breast. But we took it to a bird man and it was all right very soon. Just a bit humiliated. Mice bore her, but she catches them if they insist and then I have to kill them. She has a sort of tired interest in gophers, and will watch a gopher hole with some attention, but gophers bite and after all who the hell wants a gopher anyway? So she just pretends she might catch one, if she felt like it.

She goes with us wherever we go journeying, remembers all the places she has been to before and is usually quite at home anywhere. One or two places have got her–I don’t know why. She just wouldn’t settle down in them. After a while we know enough to take the hint. Chances are there was an axe murder there once and we’re much better somewhere else. The guy might come back. Sometimes she looks at me with a rather peculiar expression (she is the only cat I know who will look you straight straight in the eye) and I have a suspicion that she is keeping a diary, because the expression seems to be saying: “Brother, you think you’re pretty good most of the time, don’t you? I wonder how you’d feel if I decided to publish some of the stuff I’ve been putting down at odd moments.” At certain times she has a trick of holding one paw up loosely and looking at it in a speculative manner. My wife thinks she is suggesting we get her a wrist watch; she doesn’t need it for any practical reason–she can tell the time better than I can–but after all you gotta have some jewelry. . . .

Via Letters of Note

Robert Pinsky, "Glory"

Pindar, poet of the victories, fitted names
And legends into verses for the chorus to sing:
Names recalled now only in the poems of Pindar:

O nearly unpronounceable immortals,
In the dash, Oionos was champion:
Oionos, Likmynios's son, who came from Midea.
In wrestling, Echemos won—the name
Of his home city, Tegea, proclaimed to the crowds.
Doryklos of Tiryns won the prize in boxing,
And the record for a four-horse team was set
By Samos from Mantinea, Halirothios's son.

And Pindar, poet of the Olympian and Isthmian
And Pythian games, wrote also of the boundless
And forgetful savannas of time. What is someone?
The chorus sing in a victory ode—What is a nobody?

Creatures of a day, they chant in answer, Creatures
Of a day. So where is the godgiven glory Pindar says
Settles on mortals?—Bright as gold among the substances,
Say the chorus, paramount as water among the elements.

Not in the victory itself, petty or great,
Of rich young Greeks contending in games.
Not in the poetry itself, with its forgotten dances
And Pindar spinning among tiresome or stirring
Myths and genealogies, the chanted names
Of cities and invoked gods and dignitaries—

Striving, O nearly unpronounceable athletes,
To animate the air with dancing feet raising
A golden pollen of dust: a pervasive blur
Of seedlets in the sunlight, whirling—beyond mere
Victory or applause or performance,
As victory is beyond defeat.

The one who threw the javelin furthest
Sang the chorus, chanting Pindar's incantation
Against envy and oblivion, was Phrastor.
And when Nikeus grunting whirled the stone
Into the air and it flew past the marks
Of all the competitors, Nikeus's countrymen
Shouted his name after it, Nikeus,
Nikeus, and the syllables so say the lines Pindar
Composed for the sweating chorus to chant—radiated
For a spell like the silvery mirror of the moon.

Sanctions Hurt People, not Regimes

Azadeh Moaveni and Sussan Tahmasebi have a piece in the Times today protesting that sanctions on Iran mainly hurt the very people who hate the regime most, middle class women.

A few weeks after the Trump administration withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal in May 2018, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo condemned “brutal men of the regime” in Tehran for oppressing Iranian women who were demanding their rights. “As human beings with inherent dignity and inalienable rights, the women of Iran deserve the same freedoms that the men of Iran possess,” Mr. Pompeo said. . . .

The decimation of Iran’s economy is unfolding in the lives of the very constituency that has been working for reform and liberalization, and in whose name Mr. Pompeo and other leading American officials speak: middle-class Iranian women. The slump is tearing away at their fragile gains in employment, upper management positions and leadership roles in the arts and higher education, while reducing their capacity to seek legal reforms and protections.

When the sanctions hit, Mahsa Mohammadi, a 45-year-old editor and language teacher in Tehran, was saving to pay for a graduate degree in education at a university in Istanbul. Her rent in Tehran doubled because of inflation, and she was forced to move with her young son to a small city with no cultural life.

Inflation continued rising; the rents doubled again. Ms. Mohammadi lost most of her income from English tutoring. No one could afford language classes anymore. She could then no longer afford even the small city. She moved to a cheaper, conservative hamlet near the Caspian Sea where people look down on divorced mothers. Studying abroad is now an increasingly elusive dream.

“All our demands and hopes have whittled away,” she said. “The pressure is unbearable.”

The problem with using sanctions as a weapon against repressive regimes was laid out by George Orwell in 1984. Orwell's mega-states fight endless wars against each other, partly to whip up patriotism but partly to use up resources that would otherwise lift the populace out of poverty and therefore out of their complete dependence on the regime. Digging and refilling enormous holes, he wrote, would work just as well, but war was more plausible.

Many social scientists have said the same thing more analytically: poverty helps thugs stay in power, because when resources are scarce they control the only path to a decent material life.

On the other hand we tried to opposite tack with China, thinking that trade and openness and rising incomes would moderate their regime, and that hasn't worked very well, either.

I am not sure where this leaves us, since I think war with Iran would be disastrous for everyone. Perhaps admitting that events in other countries are not really something we can or should try to do something about.

Saturday, March 27, 2021

Spring in Catonsville

Flowers in my yard and a nearby tree, today. And below, the scene at the frog pond this afternoon, where there has been a mass hatching, so many tiny tadpoles that it took Ben and me a minute of staring at the black masses to realize they were made up of hundreds of wriggling tadpoles.

Beast Men: Berserkir and Úlfhéðnar in the Viking Age

It is, or can be, difficult to get masses of men to slaughter each other. Many of us have a strong reluctance to take other human lives. To help men overcome this reluctance, warrior societies have come up with many strategies, some of them involving training or symbols like uniforms, others essentially psychological. These days we talk often about how people dehumanize their enemies, thinking of them as less than human, and we can document such degradation of enemies back to the beginning of history. But there is another ancient strategy for getting men to kill without compunction, and that is persuading them to dehumanize themselves.

Beast warriors are known around the world: Aztec eagle warriors, African leopard and lion men, Cheyenne wolf soldiers. These were men, often elite professional soldiers, who took on the role of predators, pushing humanity from their minds by assimilating themselves to powerful, deadly animals. The Iron Age Norse had two kinds of beast warriors: Berserkir or "Bear Shirts" and Úlfhéðnar or "Wolf Coats." These are not figments of modern romantic imagining, but are actually among the best-documented parts of Viking Age culture. They are attested in dozens of surviving texts, from the oldest fragments of Viking poetry to the last romances composed on 15th-century Iceland. It was not rare for warriors to be buried wrapped in or lying on bear skins, which archaeologists can tell because they left the paws of the bear attached, with their bones and claws.

But after acknowledging their existence we have pretty much exhausted what historians agree on about Viking beast men; there is no statement you can make about them that someone will not dispute. What were they for? How were they chosen? What was it like to be one? These are all hard questions, but I think there are plausible answers.

The oldest extended description of Viking beast men comes from a 9th-century poem called Haraldskvæði, describing the army of Harald Fair-Hair:

   I'll ask of the berserks, you tasters of blood,
   Those intrepid heroes, how are they treated,
   Those who wade out into battle?
   Wolf-skinned they are called. In battle
   They bear bloody shields.
   Red with blood are their spears when they come to fight.
   They form a closed group.
   The prince in his wisdom puts trust in such men
   Who hack through enemy shields.

This passage introduces one of the important themes about these men, that they were associated with kings. It was only the greatest lords who could keep troops of such men, perhaps because they were not much use for anything but fighting. They formed a key element of royal armies. And they came in troops; usually this was something men did collectively, not individually.

Notice that the Haraldskvæði more or less lumps the bear shirts and the wolf coats together. Other texts suggest that they fought quite differently. In one interpretation of these texts, Úlfhéðnar were lightly armed troops who carried javelins and fought as skirmishers – like Roman velites, who also sometimes wore wolf skins. Berserkir were by contrast heavily armed and fought as shock troops, used to man the prows of warships and to break enemy shield walls. That makes sense, but I think it is not well-documented; most Norse authors seem to have considered wolf and bear men to be essentially the same thing. The later sources, especially the late medieval "romances" from Iceland, take a negative view of the beast men, who appear as stock villains. But there is no evidence of this in the early texts, so it may be a Christian prejudice.

Both Berserkir and Úlfhéðnar were specially devoted to Odin. Indeed in poetry they were often simply called "Odin's men." To become a beast man was for the Vikings a religious vocation. It seems likely that you became one by swearing a solemn vow to Odin, and thus that men chose this status themselves. Most warriors were not beast men, even in royal retinues, so it does not seem that anyone was required to join. It may be relevant here that Norse kings were also specially devoted to Odin, a god of kings among many other roles, and that kingship was in part a religious office. 

The most distinctive thing about these men was of course their battle fury. Battle madness is a phenomenon known around the world, and we have hundreds of detailed descriptions from every continent. One interesting point is that in this state of fury many men have seen the world tinged with red, and there are possible physiological explanations. Norse poets also used this device; when they spoke of "reddened spears" they often did not mean the red of blood, but the red that tinged the whole world when the fury took you. The Norse word for this was berserkergang, quite literally to "go berserk." Most of our descriptions of battle fury give it a random quality, something that fell suddenly on certain men in particular circumstances, for example when a friend or their lord was killed. The remarkable thing about the Norse beast men was that they cultivated the ability to do this whenever called upon. They were not just subject to battle fury, but made a profession of it.

How did they do that?

According to our sources, they: howled; shouted, chewed on hot coals; ran through raging fires; bit their shields; danced violently; brandished their weapons; beat their swords or spears on their shields; practiced horrible grimaces and frightening postures; and filled themselves with rage. Since a bag of henbane seeds was found in the grave of the Sorceress of Fyrkat, people had considered that chewing those seeds might have been part of berserkergang. (That's what they do in The Vikings.)

These are techniques adopted from shamanism. More or less, beast men achieved battle fury using the same techniques shamans used to enter trance states: drugs, violent movements, pain, shouting, rhythmic noise, hyperventilation. But the key to shamanic trance is none of these things. It is an internal training of the mind, and there are shamans who can enter trance states pretty much at will and only go through the routine of dancing and drumming because the audience expects it. You get better at it with practice, which is why shamanism is a profession. (This ability is almost certainly bad for your overall mental health, which is why shamans are generally considered crazy.) Norse beast men did not "go berserk by chewing on their shields," but by devoting themselves to the pursuit of trance states for years and decades.

Shamanism makes sense only if you believe the world is full of spirits, whose acts often determine human fate. This is another way that the Norse beast men were shamanistic, since the Vikings believed the battlefield was a spirit realm. They thought Odin stalked every battleground. With him came a horde of the battle spirits we call Valkyries, flying female goddesses of killing and death. Norse poetry about battle consists in large part of one kenning after another based on the names of the 30-odd famous Valkyries: Skuld's banquet, Skogul's clamor, Gunnr's lawcourt; Gondul's weaving; without a list of these names handy you can hardly read Norse war poetry. The Valkyries did not just choose dying warriors to lead to Valhalla, but participated in the fight. They sharpened some weapons and blunted others, blinded some men while giving others keen sight, guided spears and arrows to their targets or whisked them away. It was their actions, and behind them the will of Odin, that determined victory or defeat. The bear shirts and the wolf coats, dedicated to Odin, were on special terms with the Valkyries, who led them into their battle fury. Of course that did not mean the Valkyries would necessarily help them win, since Odin was an unreliable patron who might decide to grant victory or might instead decide that he needed all these men in Valhalla right now.

As I said, most Norse warriors did not become beast men. Yet I still think this phenomenon sheds some light on the enduring mystery of the Viking expansion. The Vikings were, when you think about it, almost insanely brave. They sailed far beyond the limits of profit or good sense, made war on kingdoms with far more men and money, sacrificed their lives in crazy expeditions with little chance of success. We used to think that they settled widely, leaving descendants across Europe, but recent genetic studies have found little trace of them in Britain, Ireland, or Russia. Except on a few islands they were a small minority everywhere they went, dominating for a brief time by sheer ferocity. 

The Vikings did this, it seems, because they made a religion of violence and devoted their lives to it. 

That was of course not all of the Norse world, which was much about raising sheep and babies, or trading salt fish for wine. But their cult of killing and death was what made the Vikings such a phenomenon.

They left their homes and families, separating themselves from everything that might have softened their fury. Once across the dangerous sea they entered a world where devotion to Odin was everything, where ever man's or woman's fate was already fixed by the gods, where the best they could hope for was to die so gloriously that songs of their ends might be sung and remembered. It was in war, and only there, that they transcended the limits of the normal human world. In battle they could cross the boundary of reality and experience something more, something beyond what anyone who stayed home with the cows could ever know, something that justified earthly existence and opened the doors of Asgard. They floated to heaven on a tide of blood, half that of their enemies, and half their own.

Friday, March 26, 2021

Links 26 March 2021

Ferruccio Scattola, La Festa del Redentore a Venezia

Nineteenth-century science fiction authors explored human-caused climate change, some seeing disastrous results from trying to manipulate the climate.

Virtual tour of the Capitoline Museum in Rome.

Sign of the times: solar farm to be built on old Maryland coal mine.

Maya diplomat Apoch'Waal, "standard bearer" for the king of Calakmul, paid for one stair of a new temple to bear an inscription describing his glorious career – the Maya equivalent of putting your name on a park bench, I guess – but somehow ended up buried nearby in a very modest grave. The excavators think ill health (arthritis and tooth abscesses) may have contributed to his decline in status. On the other hand a diplomatic career always carries the risk of blundering badly and earning the extreme displeasure of your boss.

Plants grew in Greenland's interior a million or so years ago, meaning it has been ice free within the Pleistocene. And could presumably be so again, raising global sea levels 21 feet. (Washington Post) Another important discovery made in material that has been on a museum shelf for decades.

According to this study, becoming an expert in a field numbs the emotion you used to get from it. If true, this is a good argument for always pursuing new interests.

People with social anxiety are not looking forward to the pandemic's end. And that actually covers a lot of people; 43% of the respondents to one survey are at least ambivalent about the return of face to face interaction. (New York Times)

The Old Copper Culture: Native Americans around the Great Lakes began making copper implements as much as 9,500 years ago, certainly by 7,000 years ago. Then they stopped.

Pacific sperm whales learned how to avoid being killed by whalers, possibly by communicating with each other.

The scam of using a fake candidate to siphon votes seems to have flipped a state senate election in Florida. 

That time William Butler Yeats kicked Alistair Crowley down a flight of stairs. (It was a white magic vs. black magic showdown, but physical force prevailed over incantations.)

Sometimes elections matter. On the other hand: Biden Keeps Trump's Title 42 Policy, Closing Off Asylum at the Border.

With Burmese pythons and green iguanas always in the news, Florida bans 16 species of exotic reptiles. (Washington Post)

Interesting piece on Georgia's Korean community focusing on the difference in generations (New York Times)

Twenty years ago environmentalists were very dubious of fish farms, many of which used wild fish for feed. But that is changing as fish food scientists (really) find ways to make nutritious meal from plants: "Between 2000 and 2017, the study found, the production of farmed fish tripled in volume, even as the catch of wild fish used to make fish feed and fish oil declined." (New York Times)

These economists studied England from 1250 to 1870, say productivity was unchanged from 1250 to 1600 but then started to rise around 4% per decade until 1810, when it accelerated to 18% per decade. Evidence is accumulating that 17th-century economic growth in Europe was real and impressive.

Mu magazine is a Japanese purveyor of stories about Bigfoot, Aliens, Atlantis, nuclear cover-ups and the like, but they wouldn't touch Q-Anon: “It’s too naïve for our readership,” their editor said. (New York Times)

Violence escalates in Myanmar/Burma, with Molotov cocktails thrown in cities and rebel militias training in the jungle. (New York Times) Honestly it sounds like the start of a Syria-sized disaster.

Covid-19 in the NBA: it would be hard to find a group of humans with better lung function than professional basketball players, but many players take a month to get back to normal even after "recovering" from an infection and returning to play, more than twice as long as for the flu.

Thursday, March 25, 2021

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

Libera Terra

For decades the Italian government has been confiscating land from the Mafia and other organized crime groups. But for a long time they didn't know what to do with it, since they couldn't sell it and didn't want to get into farming themselves. Much of it just languished. Then anti-Mafia Sicilians pushed for a law that would allow for the land to be leased to cooperatives that would support local people. This law was passed in 1995, and by 2001 some cooperative farms were up and running in Sicily and Calabria.

The most prominent group involved is Libera Terra, an offshoot of the anti-Mafia organization Libera. Libera Terra runs nine co-ops in Sicily, all raising organic crops with sustainable methods. Their products are sold to high-end restaurants and gourmet shops through Alce Nero, a major organic food marketer. This is pretty small-scale in economic terms – Libera Terra employs about 170 people and its revenue is about $8 million a year – but you have to applaud any effort to take from the Mafia and return to the people.

The crooks of course hate this, and there have been numerous arson attacks and the like against these operations. Interviewed in New York a few years ago, a Libera Terra spokesman said,

Yes, despite all they still get threats. I have spoken with many of these guys working the fields and the stories are endless. Machines are stolen, lands are set on fire…I was talking to one worker from Sicily who told me that in order to see what was happening at night he started sleeping in his car, parked by the field…every morning he would then find a single bullet on top of the car. At first he didn’t react but collected all the bullets. Later he made a necklace out of these bullets and started walking around town wearing it, just to show that he was not intimidated.
The Mafia after all originated as a way for Sicily's landlords to control their estates and put down unrest among the peasants, so it makes sense that the fight against them should include returning power over the land to the people who work it.

Tuesday, March 23, 2021

African American Refugees in Civil War North Carolina

Every once in a while I read a document that makes me feel like I am witnessing history happening. If you've read anything about the US Civil War you know that one of the major themes was the self-liberation of slaves, who took off for Union lines by the hundreds of thousands. The government in Washington did not actually formulate a clear policy about these refugees until 1864, so it was left to commanders on the spot to make decisions. At first a few commanders sent escaped slaves back. But the idea quickly spread that since the Confederates used slaves to build fortifications, they were potential weapons and could therefore be seized under military law as "contraband of war." Hence, they came to be called "contrabands." I've been reading through a collection of documents relating to these refugees and I stumbled across this report from Vincent Colyer, who headed up the effort to employ and assist refugees in New Bern, North Carolina after it was taken by Union forces in 1862:

Agreeably to your request, I give you a brief report of the freed blacks in the department of North Carolina during the time they were under my charge. I received my appointment a few days after the taking of Newbern. . . .

My first order from Genl Burnside under this appointment, was to employ as many negro men as I could get up to the number of five thousand to offer them eight dollars a month and one ration of clothes. They were to work on the building of forts. This order remained standing on my books up to the day I left the Department, July 6th, without our ever being able to fill it. Up to the time I left there were not over twenty five hundred able bodied men within our lines, so that it will be readily understood why the negroes were never a burden on our hands.

The truth was we never could get enough of them, and although for a little while there were a few more at Roanoke Island than were wanted there after the fort was completed.

There were in all in the department 10,000 of them, 2,500 were men, 7,500 women and children.

They were at the following places: at Newbern and vicinity 7.500; at Roanoke Island and posts adjacent 1,000; at Washington, Hatteras, Carolina and Beaufort 1,500.

In the four months that I had charge of them the men built three first class earthwork forts: Fort Totten at Newbern, a large work. Fort Burnside on the upper end of Roanoke Island & [. . .] at Washington N.C. These three forts were our chief reliance for defence against the rebels. in case of an attack. have since been successfully used for that purpose by our forces under Major Genl Foster.

The negroes loaded and discharged cargoes for about three hundred vessels, served regularly as crews on about forty steamers, and acted as permanent gangs of laborers in all the Quatermasters, Commissary and Ordnance offices of the department.

A number of the men were good carpenters. blacksmiths coopers &c. and did effective work at bridge building, ship joining &c. The large railroad bridge across the Neuse was built chiefly by them [see photo at top] as was also the bridge across Batcholors & other creeks & the docks at Roanoke Island & elsewhere. Upwards of fifty volunteers of the best & most courageous were kept constantly employed on the perilous. but most important duty of spies, scouts and guides. In the work they were invaluable and almost indispensable. They frequently went from thirty to three hundred miles within the enemy's lines; visiting his principle camps and most important posts and bringing us back important reliable information.

They visited Kingston Goldsboro. Trenton Onslow Swansboro, Tarboro of points on the Roanoke river; after these errands barely escaping with their lives. They were pursued on several occasions by blood hounds and two or three of them were taken prisoners; one of these was shot; the fate of the others not known. The pay they received for this work was small but satisfactory. They seemed to think their lives were well spent, if necessary in giving rest, security, and success, to the Union troops, whom they regarded as their deliverers. They usually knelt in solemn prayer before they left, & on their return, from that hazardous duty. . . .

Those in the neighborhood of Newbern were ordered to report at my office as soon as they arrived within our lines. They obtained quarters in the out-houses, kitchens and poorer classes of dwellings, deserted by the citizens on the taking of Newbern. They attended our free schools & churches regularly and with great earnestness. They were peaceable, orderly, cleanly, & industrious. There was seldom a quarrel known among them. They consider it a duty to work for the U.S. government & though they could in many cases have made more money at other conditions; there was a public opinion among them that tabooed any one that refuses to work for the Government. The churches & schools established for their benefit, with no cost to the government, were of great value in building up this public opinion among them.

As I have previously related, that the men frequently led foraging parties, to places where supplies necessary for the department were obtained. In this way we obtained boat-loads of pine and oak wood for the hospitals and government offices, a steam boat load of cotton bales for the protection of the gunboats, a number of horses and mules for the Quarter Master Department, and with forage for the same. Sheep were obtained at no other cost than the small wages of the men. Without doubt property far exceeding in value all that was ever paid to the blacks, was thus obtained for the Government. 

One of the issues historians have recently studied is the gendering of the relief effort. On plantations, women labored in the fields beside the men. African Americans considered this one of the stigmas of slavery and protested bitterly when Union officers tried to make refugee women dig ditches and the like. Now that they were free, they expected that the divisions between men's and women's work would be honored for them as for all other free people. So I was interested to see that at New Bern, the Union army respected this demand:

The women and children supported themselves with but little aid from the government by washing, ironing, cooking, making pies, cakes &c. for the troops The few women that were employed by the government in the hospitals received $4 a month, clothes and one ration.
One "ration" meaning food for one person over time.

Vincent Colyer spent the rest of the war in other humanitarian pursuits, founding the United States Christian Commission to aid refugees and educate freedmen and freedwomen. It strikes me that one of the mainsprings driving the modernization of the world has been the proliferation of people like Colyer, who when told about a daunting problem – a million refugees in a war zone, say – immediately set to work building an organization to meet the need.

And another has been the desire of people to be treated as human, and the enormous efforts they will put into achieving that goal.

Ella Standage, "Beginners Egyptian Hieroglyphs is on Tuesdays"

Ella Standage is a classics student who creates collage poems made mostly from cut up texts, posting them on a blog called "a language only the dead speak." I found several of her pieces interesting but the one below is my favorite. She says it was composed from snippets of emails and course texts, except that the lines in italics are quotes from her Middle Egyptian professor. It took me two readings of this to realize it was a carefully composed poem, not an accidental assemblage.

Monday, March 22, 2021

Finding the Fort at St. Mary's City, Maryland

When they established their colony at St. Mary's City in 1634, on land they had purchased from Tayac (high king, more or less) Kittamaquund of the Patuxent Indians, Maryland's founders built a wooden fort. Much like Englishmen had earlier done at Jamestown. They lived in the fort for 8 years before they spread out into the surrounding area, building a very loose sort of town. And also much like at Jamestown, the location of that original fort was forgotten within a century. When archaeologists started poking around St. Mary's City in the 1930s they naturally hoped to find it. But, again as at Jamestown, it took a long time to do so.

Now they have finally found it. This is big news in Maryland archaeology partly because various prominent people have taken stands over the years about where it ought to be, which have turned out to be wrong. The actual location is one of those that people have suggested, but it was ignored because 1) there weren't especially many early artifacts, and 2) it is not the most obvious interpretation of such written records as we have.

The actual discovery was made by my friend Tim Horsley, the best geophysical archaeologist in North America. Directed to the spot by St. Mary's City archaeologist Travis Parno, Horsley found the fort's palisade using ground-penetrating radar in 2018. Nothing was said at the time, and Parno's crew have spent the past two years ground-truthing Horsley's GPR map.

This has all now been revealed via a story in the Washington Post, and honestly the whole affair seems a bit off. That Post story is the only announcement I can find, and there is nothing about the discovery on the Historic St. Mary's City web site. It looks like they were planning to make an announcement on March 25. Today's story comes with precious few graphics – the only site map is the image above – and no prepared materials. Did they rush out the news because they feared someone was about to scoop them? If so they have only themselves to blame, since they have been sitting on the discovery for going on three years.

But anyway it's wonderful news, and it point toward the future of archaeology in an interesting way. Archaeologists like to dig in the dirt and study the artifacts they find there. Somewhat sadly, that is no longer the cutting edge of the field. Geophysical methods – ground-penetrating radar, magnetometry, soil resistivity – are the way to find things. The study of population movements and the like is now the domain of DNA labs, and increasingly sophisticated methods for dating things like the pigment in cave paintings are superseding archaeological judgment.

Time counts and keeps counting, leaving old ways of doing things behind.

And yet here we have the site of Maryland's founding, and likely the excavation of the site in coming years will produce amazing things.

Sunday, March 21, 2021

Exploring Heidelberg

Heidelberg is an ancient university town in southwestern Germany, where memories of theological debates and student duels jostle with cutting edge research institutes. 

Today it is a pleasant city of 140,000 people, including 25,000 students.

We begin our exploration by crossing the old bridge across the Neckar River, which is not actually very old by Heidelberg standards, dating to 1788. It boasts several statues, including this one of Minerva.

We pass through the bridge gate.

Into the old city.

Making our way through the streets we pass an "Outsider Art" museum, Museum Haus Cajeuth, which might be interesting if we're in that sort of mood.

Making our way west we come to  the Kurpfälzische Museum, devoted to the history of the region. Heidelberg is an ancient settlement; a Celtic fortress stood on the hill above the modern town by 400 BC. Heidelberg means "holy mountain", and it is thought that the sacredness of the spot dates to those times; a Celtic sanctuary has been found on the nearby mountaintop. The Romans arrived in 40 AD, when a fort was built here. In 369 Emperor Velentinian I built a larger fortress and a bridge over the river. A large cemetery of that period has been excavated, producing artifacts like this Roman glass.

A post-Roman settlement here is mentioned in documents starting in AD 769. In 863, a monastery was built on the Heiligenberg, within the ramparts of the Celtic fortress. A town called Heidelberg is first mentioned in 1196. The museum has many medieval artifacts, as well as later works of art like this masterpiece by Tilman Reimanschneider.

From the museum we turn back southeast toward the university, founded in 1386. Here in 1518 Martin Luther defended his 95 theses so successfully that the faculty was converted to Protestantism, and Heidelberg became one of the intellectual centers of the new faith. This is the library, completed in 1905.

The university has long spilled beyond the boundaries of the old city, with research centers and satellite campuses across the suburbs. But much of it remains here, occupying a jumble of building of many periods. The university had fallen on hard times in the 1700s but was refounded in 1803, becoming a great center of the Romantic movement in Germany and thriving ever since.

Continuing east we come to the Church of the Holy Spirit, a gothic construction built largely in the 1300s.

Around the cathedral are many medieval and Renaissance buildings. Directly above is the town hall.

The Corn Market, with a view of our next destination, the Castle.

Heidelberg Castle is a mishmash of construction from many periods, beginning in the 1200s. 

The early castle, shown here around 1600, was largely destroyed by two sieges during the 30 Years War. The first was in 1621, when the Catholic League drove out the Protestants. In 1634 the Swedes took the city back for the Protestant side, and the Austrians came to retake it. They had seized the town and were getting ready to blow up the castle's walls when a French army arrived – the Catholic French had just entered the war on the Protestant side – and chased off the Austrians. After the war the castle was rebuilt but not refortified, so it served as a ducal residence and administrative center. The castle had another moment in the sun in 1815, when the Emperor of Austria, the Emperor of Russia and the King of Prussia met there to form form the "Holy Alliance". 

One of the many interesting things in the castle now is the Apothecary Museum, with actual apothecary's shops from the seventeenth and late eighteenth centuries. In Germany today many people still take old herbal remedies, so there is a lot of non-historical interest in the ingredients and methods interpreted here.

One of the best things to do in Heidelberg to to ascend the mountain behind the town to get the wonderful views. You can either walk, up a steep trail known as the Philosophers' Walk,

or ride the funicular railroad.

Either way you are rewarded with splendid views of this lovely city.

Sexual Polarization in America

A coincidence of adjacent news stories at Yahoo last week put me in mind of something. One was the latest revelation about Andrew Cuomo's aggressive pursuit of any nearby attractive woman, and the other was about the Grammys. For those of you who wisely stay out of touch with that sort of thing, the big event at this year's Grammys was a musical number/sex show from winner Megan Thee Stallion and Cardi B that, we read in boastful tones, inspired a huge number of complaining phone calls to the FCC. (The only other thing I have even seen mentioned about the show was Harry Styles' boa.) As the Cuomo story unfolds it seems to me that he has done some reprehensible stuff, but the first few allegations amounted to "making clumsy passes at women while working." 

So what, exactly, is the sexual climate in America today? We have on the one hand a resurgent neo-Victorianism that has my professor friends afraid to say a single thing about sex in their lectures, lest they get accused of sexual harassment. That doesn't happen very often, but you do see a lot of complaints like the one I was recently shown on Rate My Professor: "He talks about sex and it makes me uncomfortable." This for a literature course that includes Chaucer and Shakespeare, difficult authors to cover asexually. I mentioned here in 2017 the Tumblr donnybrook that erupted when a blogger who focuses on Renaissance art declined to put a "nudity" tag on those posts so followers could opt to block them. The web sites that have correctly identified me as a straight man in my 50s like to offer me teaser links for collections of sexy advertisements from the 70s, and I don't have to click to remember major firms using transparent double entendres and the like that would get them cancelled today.

The fastest growing sexual orientation in the US is "asexual." Asexual people have been campaigning to have their own stripe in the Pride flag, which they imagine would be black.

Ross Douthat, a Christian conservative who worries a lot about the declining birth rate, has an essay this week complaining about the disappearance of romance and romantic sexuality from the movies:

In the modern blockbuster, as the film writer R.S. Benedict put it recently: “Everyone is beautiful. And yet, no one is horny.” Movie stars have never been so ripped and chiseled and godlike; they have to be, if they aspire to play a Marvel or DC superhero. But unlike the old Olympians, these gods rarely seem to have the hots for one another, and their movies mostly exist within the parameters of early adolescence, with little adult smoldering permitted.

He also complains about the disappearance of romance from animated Disney films and the replacement of rom-coms with movies like 

the best picture nominee “Promising Young Woman,” set in a present-day dating landscape so bleak that it makes you want to cancel heterosexuality itself.

And on the other side, we have a world in which cam girls can become minor celebrities, Only Fans is big business, dozens of female stars have made the bikini shot and the cleverly nude selfie a cornerstone of their publicity campaigns, and Grammy winners moonlight modeling lascivious lingerie.

One part of this has to do with female empowerment; Cuomo under this logic should be cancelled because he is ruining women's careers, whereas Megan Thee Stallion and all those cam girls are pursuing their own dreams and getting paid for it. But count me skeptical that we could even hope for a world that celebrates sexual boldness but where powerful men never make aggressive passes at women.

On the subject of sex, we are schizophrenic in both senses: of two minds, and out of touch with reality.

Of course there is nothing new about this, and it may be that every culture suffers from sexual confusion. I've been reading a lot lately about Siberian shamanism, and let me tell you we have nothing on the Chukchi when it comes to messed-up sexuality. (Traumatic rape by demons of people who are dreaming or in trance states is a common theme.) Sex is a chaos agent difficult to contain within any sort of social organization.

But I can't see anything good coming out of our current confusion. When things are praised in one context and condemned in another, people will constantly do the wrong thing in the wrong context and cause pain for others and themselves. And what, exactly, are teenagers supposed to think about the adult sexual world and how they should act in it? 

Saturday, March 20, 2021

Liam Wong

Liam Wong was born in Scotland in 1990 and emigrated to Canada after graduating from Abertay University. He was the art director at Ubisoft for six years, working on games like Far Cry and Assassin's Creed. Then he bought a camera and has built a big following on Instagram, mainly for his photographs of Tokyo and other cities at night.

Obviously Blade Runner is a big influence on these. Below, something different to show his range.