Sunday, May 30, 2021

Be Like the Octopus

Heart, turn your mottled character
To match all your friends, mixing
The temperament each one has.

Keep the temperament of an octopus,
Much-twisting creature, which looks just like
Whichever rock it keeps company with.

At one moment follow along this way,
At another be otherwise in your skin.
Wisdom, you know, beats rigidity.

Theognidea 213-218, translated by The Lion of Chaeronea

The Theognidea is a collection of poems said to be by Theognis of Megara, 6th c. BC, but probably containing works by others.

The Roman Villas of Boscoreale

Boscoreale is a district of Naples where the eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79 buried a series of Roman villas under about 8m (25 feet) of volcanic tephra. The villas were not discovered until the second half of the 1800s, more than a century after Pompeii and Herculaneum. Only one of the villas can be toured today, and that the most plebian of the lot; the others were reburied after excavation. Most famous are the villa of Publius Fannius Synistor and the Villa della Pisanella.

Plan of the Villa of P. Fannius Synistor

This villa was excavated by the landowners in the 1890s; above is a view of the dig from the edge of the 8m-deep pit. It was not especially large and did not have a sculpture collection.

What it did have was an extraordinary array of frescoes. Most of these were already a century old when the villa was buried. This was somewhat unusual in the Roman world. Most rich Romans seem to have repainted their houses every few decades in up-to-date styles rather than tolerating worn, faded, out of fashion paintings. 

Perhaps the owners of this villa (P. Fannius Synistor seems to have been one, but there are other candidates) were not as rich as they had once been, so they put off repainting, or perhaps they simply knew they were not likely to get anything better than the magnificence they already had.

The 19th-century owners of the property cut the frescoes out and sold them; some are in Naples but the biggest lot ended up at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. They got the whole cubiculum or master bedroom, which you can see above as it was installed in 2007.

More. The painting at the top of the post is also from this villa. The Met has a whole book on the villa you can read online, produced for the reinstallation of the collection in 2007.

Plan of the Villa della Pisanella

The Villa della Pisanella was discovered in 1876 but mainly excavated in the 1890s. This photograph shows part of the storage area for olive oil that was a striking part of the complex.


Drawing of the terracotta gutters. Makes my plain vinyl gutters seem a bit ridiculous.

Plaster cast of a wooden cabinet preserved as a void in the volcanic material.


A fresco.

But the most remarkable discovery at the Villa della Pisanella was the skeleton of a man, one of three people trapped in the house when it was engulfed, and the chest he seems to have been dragging out of the house. The chest was full of silver, 102 pieces that we now know as the Boscoreale Treasure.

I'm not clear on what Italian law said about excavated antiquities in this period, but various sources say that the silver treasure was smuggled out of the country and sold illegally. I haven't seen any such statement about the frescoes, so maybe the law on architectural elements was different from that covering treasure. (It certainly was in England.) Anyway when this stuff started showing up on the black market in France Baron Edmond de Rothschild heard about it and sent his agents out to track it all down; he managed to buy about 90 percent of it, and those pieces ended up in the Louvre.

More pieces.

Modern copy of a remarkable cup, and 19th-century drawing. Not sure why there aren't any contemporary photographs of the original, but I can't find one. Certainly doesn't look like any other piece of Roman art that I know. (Update: see here)

What an extraordinary array of art from just a handful of middling villas, buried by chance in one dreadful afternoon.

God Cancels the Rebel Angels

John Milton narrates the battle in which the loyal angels drive Satan's rebels from heaven:

I might relate of thousands, and their names
Eternize here on earth; but those elect
Angels, contented with their fame in Heaven,
Seek not the praise of men: The other sort,
In might though wonderous and in acts of war,
Nor of renown less eager, yet by doom
Cancelled from Heaven and sacred memory,
Nameless in dark oblivion let them dwell.

Paradise Lost, Book VI

Saturday, May 29, 2021

The Ballad of Romaine Tenney

Since we've been talking here about the issues surrounding building in America, it seems like a good time to bring up one of infrastructure's most famous victims: Romaine Tenney. Tenney farmed 90 acres of southern Vermont that happened to be in the way of Interstate 91. Many country folks protested the new highway, but except for Tenney they all eventually took their buyouts and moved on. Tenney refused to leave. He went on milking his cows and cutting his hay as construction got under way around him. Eventually the state ran out of patience and sent sheriff's deputies to remove Tenney.

Before they arrived, Tenney's whole farm erupted in flames. The fire was out of control long before a fire truck arrived. Police said they found a fired rifle by Tenney's bed and a few bones, but the fire had burned so intensely there was little of his body left. Some neighbors refused to accept the coroner's report, and a few went on putting food out in the woods for him for years. "Like leaving cookies for Santa Claus," one remembered recently.

Over the years there have been dozens of stories about Tenney; his defiance strikes a chord with many people. Here is Howard Mansfield from Yankee magazine:

In the summer of 1964, Romaine Tenney was a bachelor farmer. He milked 25 cows by hand on his farm in Ascutney, Vermont. He had no electricity in his house, used no gas-powered machinery. He cut his firewood with an axe and a saw; cut his hay with workhorses. He didn’t own a tractor or drive a car. When he went to the nearby big town of Claremont, across the river in New Hampshire, he’d walk the six miles–except that he probably never walked all the way. People always picked him up. Everyone knew Romaine. With his long beard, felt hat, and overalls, he was a familiar sight. Romaine enjoyed visiting on these rides, and all his neighbors liked him. His farm was right on the major road between Ascutney and Claremont; the road hugged his cow barn, and neighbors would often stop to chat. He rose late and worked late into the night. “You could drive by at midnight and there he would be in his barn, fixing some harnesses or just puttering about,” said Deputy Sheriff Robert Gale. It was as if Romaine held the office of Bachelor Farmer in town.

There are at least three songs about Tenney; Sean Murray's "The Ballad of Romaine Tenney" is here.

For many in Vermont and elsewhere, Tenney stands for everything that has been swept away in the rush to modernize, for all the people crushed under the cavalcade of progress.

Here is Ellen Barry in the New York Times:

The highway brought change to Ascutney in a great rush. The village green was clear-cut and bulldozed, the wooden bandstand taken down, the dirt roads paved and widened.

In their place appeared the generic landscape of an American highway exit: service stations and highway signs, motels and mobile homes, the staccato of jake brakes on eighteen-wheelers. Romaine Tenney’s farm would be the site of a Park and Ride, where commuters could park their cars and board buses into Hanover.

DeForest Bearse was 8 the year of the fire. Her house was near Mr. Tenney’s, and every time the highway engineers detonated an explosive charge, it shook. Her brother hung a pencil from the ceiling of the living room, over a sheet of paper, so that with every blast, it would leave a mark.

“I can still feel what he felt,” she said. “That feeling of utter hopelessness, when your life changes and there is nothing you can do about it.”

On the other hand: the leadership of Vermont was united behind the new highway. Now, Vermont is an economically thriving state, but it was not in 1960. The textile mills that built Burlington were mostly shuttered, and the state's dairy farms were disappearing; in the 1950s, more than a third closed. Economists and politicians said that without better connections to the Interstate network, Vermont would wither and die. Most likely that is not true, and I-91 by itself had only a small part in Vermont's turnaround. But should cranky bachelor farmers have a veto over what their societies can do?

Howard Mansfield:

Romaine’s story stands as a regret. Romaine stands as the lost and the last; he’s the lost authentic life, the unrecoverable past.

How much do we owe to the Romaine Tenneys of the world, and how much do they owe to us?

Friday, May 28, 2021

Some Choice Words from Grose‘s Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1788)


Individualism and Altruism

Interesting essay in the Times by Abigail Marsh asking whether America's individualism – however you measure that trait, the US always come out at or near the top – makes us worse people. Marsh says it does not, and that in fact Americans are by most measures among the world's most altruistic people. We give more to charity, donate more organs, care more about animal rights, and so on. Marsh:

How does individualism manage to promote altruism? One possibility, supported by other research, is that people in individualist cultures generally report greater degrees of “thriving” and satisfaction of life goals — and as noted above, such subjective feelings are meaningfully correlated with greater amounts of altruism. (Indeed, research has shown that being altruistic, in turn, promotes greater feelings of personal well-being, creating a virtuous circle.)

Another possibility is that individualism boosts altruism by psychologically freeing people to pursue goals that they find meaningful — goals that can include things like alleviating suffering and caring for others, which studies suggest are widespread moral values.

A third possibility is that individualism promotes a more universalist outlook. In focusing on individual rights and welfare, it reduces the emphasis on groups — and the differences between “us” and “them” that notoriously erode generosity toward those outside one’s own circle.

This is interesting but not, I think, definitive. Americans give more to charity partly because we pay lower taxes and have a less robust welfare state. Americans donate more money to victims of disasters in faraway places, personally, but governments like those of Norway and Germany devote a much bigger percentage of their budgets to such efforts.

I do agree with the main point, though, which is that old-fashioned group loyalty is not necessarily an ethical boon. Sometimes strong communities tightly control their members and punish any violation of common values with shunning or worse. And sometimes strong communities are hostile to outsiders; much of human history consists of strong communities that looked after their own waging war against other, similarly strong communities.

No system is perfect. Raised an American, I prefer the freedom of our system, but I recognize that our mutual indifference can be a serious problem. A world in which people care for each other without wanting to control each other, and without hostility to outsiders, seems beyond our reach.

Links 28 May 2021

Terracotta sarcophagus mask from Egypt, 2nd Century AD

Cool photographs of micrometeorites.

Quintus Valerius Soranus was a Latin poet, grammarian, and tribune of the people in the Late Roman Republic. He was executed in 82 BC while Sulla was dictator, ostensibly for violating a religious prohibition against speaking the arcane name of Rome. And here is a theory that Ovid was exiled for hinting too cleverly about the secret name, which (says the author) connects the Seven Hills of the city to the Seven Stars of the Pleiades. Who knew Rome even had a secret name? Wonderful.

Ancient Israelites ate plenty of non-kosher fish.

12-minute video about new wind power technologies that don't involve giant spinning  blades.

David Brooks interviews Joe Biden (New York Times)

More artifacts found in pits at the Chinese archaeological site of Sanxingdui. (Previously on this site here.)

Does a single brain dysfunction, sometimes called the "p factor", underlie many different psychiatric conditions? One piece of evidence is that the siblings of people with schizophrenia are more likely than others to have a wide range of not obviously related mental problems: depression, ADHD, etc.

Anne Boleyn's prayer book, from which she read on the morning of her execution, was preserved within a network of her female relatives – a subversive act which could have gotten them executed – and the names they wrote in it as they passed it around can be read with ultraviolet light.

Body of missing man found in dinosaur statue.

Ross Douthat says Foucault is now more cited on the Right than the Left. After all his whole project was to criticize the web of Power/Knowledge that controls the world, and if most of the knowledge and power are on the left, then it's the right than can make better use of Foucault. Who has been saying "Trust the science'? (New York Times)

Tyler Cowen says economists no longer argue policy via articles and books but on Twitter, and "This is not necessarily progress."

Phil Scott is the wildly popular Republican governor of Vermont, America's most liberal state. The popularity of Scott and other Republican governors of liberal states (Hogan in Maryland, Romney in Massachusetts) suggests to me that what many Americans want is liberal policies with a moderately conservative, straight-talking face.

As a struggling, unpublished novelist John Steinbeck wrote a werewolf mystery novel, the manuscript for which is still held by his estate. Since the title is "Murder at Full Moon", I doubt it is very good, but one is still intrigued.

Is WNYC experiencing an epidemic of bullying or an epidemic of whining? (New York Times) Fascinating that the station has seen multiple cases of people accusing each other of bullying; seems like this happens in the aftermath of shouting matches.

Authoritative-seeming take-down of recent UFO videos; many of the objects may be camera artifacts, or else their extraordinary movements are actually caused by movement of the camera itself. With links to video analysis.

First song from Chris Thile's new album (he was the mandolinist and lead singer of Nickel Creek)

Forest gardening – modifying tracts of forest to contain more plants useful to humans – was practiced by native peoples in coastal British Columbia. What looks like a hemlock forest to you was a carefully maintained landscape containing unnatural concentrations of berry bushes, plants with edible roots, etc.

Phone shaking device that allows you to earn fake steps and miles, for fitness challenges and games like Pokemon Go.

Hilarious review of 1001 Arabian Nights, part of Scott Siskind's book review contest.

The US housing market is insane.

A plague of mice is threatening the agricultural areas of southeastern Australia. 

California has a "red flag" law that allows the police to seize weapons from people deemed a threat to the rest of us. The law has been invoked 3,000 times in five years. But it didn't stop the actual San Jose shooter even though he sounds like a good candidate for red flagging.

Some people working from home have created stylish "tiny offices" in closets and similar spaces. (Washington Post)

Mindat is a town of about 50,000 in a forested, mountainous part of Myanmar. Many people there have guns, because hunting is a big part of local culture. When Myanmar's military launched their coup the people of Mindat resisted, using their hunting rifles to drive away the first small forces sent against them. But eventually the military got serious and sent in a heavily armed battalion, driving the resbels into the forest. In the end their resistance only made things worse. Depressing for gun lovers but also for anyone who cares about human freedom.

Thursday, May 27, 2021

How the American Media Shut Down Debate over the Origins of Covid-19

Matt Yglesias has a long essay laying out the timeline of the theory that Covid-19 escaped from a lab in Wuhan, and especially the media coverage of that theory. (If that link won't work, try accessing from Marginal Revolution). Despite what you could have read in the Times and many other places, there was never a scientific consensus that the virus emerged from the Wuhan wet market. The very first serious western publication about the pandemic's origins, in The Lancet in January 2020, pointed out that several of the first cases had no connection to the market, including the earliest case so far identified.

Then Senator Tom Cotton, a noted China Hawk, started saying the virus might have escaped from the Wuhan virus lab and demanding more information. For this he was attacked across many media outlets on the left and the right – remember that at that point Trump was downplaying the virus and saying the Chinese had it under control. The fact checkers at Politico 1) said Cotton had claimed the virus was a Chinese bioweapon, and 2) gave him a "pants on fire" rating for that claim, which he never made. 

And so it went. Many media outlets said it was the "scientific consensus" that the virus came from the market, which it never was, and many equated the claim that it escaped from the lab with the claim that it was an engineered bioweapon, when those are totally different things. Scientists who tried to argue that the market theory was implausible were shouted down on Twitter and called "conspiracy theorists" in the press.

What especially interests Yglesias is the manufacturing of a "scientific consensus" where there was none:

Beyond the gross irresponsibility of the earliest media coverage, I think the story of Dr. Chan and her struggle to be heard illustrates the perils of expert dialogue on social media.

Social media is truly social in the sense that it features incredible pressures to form in-groups and out-groups and then to conform to your in-group. Unless you like and admire Cotton and Pompeo and want to be known to the world as a follower of Cotton-Pompeo Thought, it is not very compelling to speak up in favor of a minority viewpoint among scientists. Why spend your day in nasty fights on Twitter when you could be doing science? Then if you secure your impression of what “the scientists” think about something from scanning Twitter, you will perceive a consensus that is not really there. If something is a 70-30 issue but the 30 are keeping their heads down, it can look like a 98-2 issue.

I do not know a lot about science, so I will not opine how generally true this may or may not be.

But in economics, which I do know well, I think it’s a big issue. If someone tweets something you agree with, it is easy to bless it with an RT or a little heart. To take issue with it is to start a fight. And conversely, it’s much more pleasant to do a tweet that is greeted with lots of RTs and little hearts rather than one that starts fights. So I know from talking to econ PhD-havers that almost everyone is disproportionately avoiding statements they believe to be locally unpopular in their community. There is just more disagreement and dissension than you would know unless you took the time to reach out to people and speak to them in a more relaxed way.

My strong suspicion is that this is true across domains of expertise, and is creating a lot of bubbles of fake consensus that can become very misleading. And I don’t have a solution.

RIP Eric Carle

I raised five toddlers and read to them every night for many years. At some point all of them loved The Very Hungry Caterpillar. There is little in life I have loved as much as reading to toddlers a story they enjoyed, so thank you, Eric Carle.

Removing Urban Freeways

Urban freeway in Rochester, NY before removal

Interesting feature in the New York Times today about plans to demolish urban freeways across the US, which is part of Biden's unpassed infrastructure program. These roads have always been controversial; many were fought before and during construction in the 1950s and 1960s, and quite a few planned roads were blocked. Most were routed through poor, minority neighborhoods, because that was a lot easier and cheaper than trying to demolish middle class white neighborhoods. 

Former freeway corridor in Rochester

The idea behind these roads was to make it easier for people with jobs in the city to commute in from the suburbs. Living in the city was not much on anyone's mind; middle class people were moving to the suburbs by the millions, and cities were desperate to hold onto their downtown office districts as their only possible lifeline to the future. If that meant demolishing a few square miles of "slums," so be it. I remember "city of tomorrow" drawings from that period that showed central cities with essentially no housing, just office towers and freeways.

Now people are hoping that demolishing freeways will revitalize inner cities by making them better places to live. And that could work. But, again, there will be a cost:

A common argument, said Mr. Dunwoody, the artist and community organizer, is that if the highway is removed “folks are now going to be looking at our neighborhood, and bringing in yoga studios and coffee shops to move us out. People don’t want to get gentrified, get pushed out, get priced out.”

But they most certainly will. If we move to a model where people live closer to their work, then the people who work in downtown office towers will have to move to inner city neighborhoods, bidding up the price of nearby housing. There is no other way to reduce commuting. Rents and house prices have been low in some neighborhoods because nobody with money wants to live there. If commuting decreases, that will change.

Across the country, attempts to prevent "gentrification" have almost all failed; we just don't have the stomach for the sort of draconian limits on who can live where that would stop it. Plus, cities all depend on property taxes for most of their revenue, so any policy that keeps property values low hurts them.

Of course the other solution would be to move the jobs out of the cities to new office parks in the outer suburbs, and making commuting to cities harder will probably cause some of that, too. Who does that help? It certainly won't reduce CO2 emissions. I know some of you are thinking, "switch to commuting by rail and subway," but just try to build a new rail or even streetcar line in the US today. It has taken 35 years to build Maryland's Purple Line and it still may not ever be finished, plus the construction of new transit stops drives up local rents even more than tearing down highways.

Two major trends in America are colliding here: the push to reduce CO2 emissions and the rising price of urban housing. It looks to me like they are going to keep colliding, and grinding a lot of people between them.

I am always bothered when people speak about one issue in isolation, not even considering how it relates to anything else. The people pushing to demolish urban freeways seem to have no broader vision for a nation with a rising population increasingly concentrated in the biggest cities. They just want the eyesore in their neighborhood gone, and they imagine that can happen without anything else changing.

I don't think that can happen.

Tuesday, May 25, 2021

The Persistence of Inherited Jobs

The New York Times has a fascinating article out showing how likely people in certain professions are to have a parent in who had the same job. For example, the child of a doctor is 19 times more likely to be a doctor than a random person. But that's a small effect compared to what prevails in fishing; the child of a fisherman is 362 times as likely to be a fisher as a random person. Some other professions:

Fishers      362x as likely
Textile machine operator     159
Medical and laboratory techs     126
Aircraft mechanics    118
Librarians    106
Printing press operators    91
Dishwashers     91
Human resources managers    78
Textile machine operator    75
Packaging machine operators    39
Bartender   36
Lawyers    27

I was really surprised that there is a big effect for human resources managers; why would that be?

More data at the link, sorted by the effect of mother vs. father. It's fascinating to see how strong these patterns are in our allegedly free world.

Baku's Oil Boom

I'm still listening to Simon Momtefiore's marvelous Young Stalin (2008), and I was blown away by his description of Baku in the early 1900s. Baku, an old Persian town on the Caspian Sea, was one of those places where oil oozed naturally from the ground, and the inhabitants had long burned it for cooking and heating. Wells were drilled by the 1500s to get a purer, better burning product. Only a small amount was exported, by packing it in barrels. 

The oil was most famously used for the perpetual flame burning at an ancient Zoroastrian fire temple. (Which is still there, its fires still burning.)

Things started to change after Baku was conquered by the Russian Empire in 1806. Baku was connected to a large part of Russia via the Volga River and a growing system of canals, and oil exports gradually increased. Baku changed from being an almost entirely Persian community to a multi-ethnic city, with large populations of Armenians, Jews, Russians, and others.

Oil production really took off in the 1870s, and this caught the eye of outside investors. In 1882 the Nobel brothers from Sweden founded an oil company called Branobel in Baku; in 1883 the Rothschild banking family opened their own Baku firm. The company that eventually became Royal Dutch Shell was also founded here. This grim photograph shows the Baku oil field in 1879.

By the 1880s Baku had the look that Americans associate with an oil boom town, with a forest of wooden derricks.

By 1900 Baku was world famous and there are hundreds of photographs.

The Branobel refinery. The Nobels and the Rothschilds vied in technological innovation, and modern refining techniques and much else were pioneered here.

Among other innovations the Nobel brothers built one of the world's first oil tankers, the Zoroaster, to carry oil from Baku up the Volga into Russia. What made this a "tanker" was that instead of loading the ship with barrels, the oil was pumped directly into the hold and then pumped out again. This was a steam-powered ship, so great care had to be taken to keep the coal burning under the boilers from somehow igniting the oil. That's why before this time oil had generally been shipped on sailing vessels.

The oilfield workers lived in shanty towns close by the wells; the largest was known as the Black City. The whole city stank of oil but it was worst in the workers' district. Oil regularly rained down from the sky, blackening everything. It ran in ditches and lay in pools on the ground. It tainted the water and the air. One foreign writer calculated that life expectancy in the oilfield districts was about 25 years, on par with the worst periods of industrial Manchester and Liverpool.

Fires were frequent. These caused horrific injuries and a few deaths, and since they frequently burned for weeks they added to the awful pollution. When Stalin was in Baku in the early 1900s he set at least one fire and extorted money from the oil firms by threatening to set more. According to Montefiore, in 1906-1912 the Bolshevik organization got most of its funding from these oil companies, thanks to their power among the workers.

The place was crazily violent. There were brawls between workers of different ethnicities. There was the violent workers' struggle led by Stalin. There were violent gangs of criminals who specialized in kidnappings or bank heists – some of whom were also allied to Stalin. This old print shows Russian troops firing on rioters in Baku, a common occurrence. Montefiore says that the revolutionaries actually had a fair amount of support among oil company managers and their wives; even to the people benefiting from it, the system stank of oil, cruelty, and corruption.

In 1900 Baku and its hinterland produced half the oil in the world. Which means, of course, that it was producing a staggering amount of wealth. I always thought the Nobels got rich from dynamite, but not so; most of their money came from Baku oil. The Rothschilds, already insanely rich, doubled or tripled their fortune. At least ten other men got crazily rich off Baku's oil, including some Armenians and Persians. They spent their money building lavish villas. (And staffing their villas with platoons of bodyguards.) Above is the Ismailiyya Palace, built in 1906-1913, in old and recent photographs.

Homes of two Armenian magnates. These buildings were all seized by the Soviet state in 1920 and they now house various organs of Azerbaijan's government.

The headquarters of the Rothschilds' oil company.

The Baku Club, then and now, said in 1902 to be the most expensive club in the world. It now houses the national symphony. 

Views of the main streets. People said the central city was like Paris, with beautifully dressed people promenading down the boulevards and through the parks. Except that the very rich were shadowed by teams of bodyguards, any shift in the wind might blow in rains of oil or oil smoke, and a violent fight between workers and Cossacks might erupt at any time. 

The Governor's Garden, open to anyone who could afford to dress appropriately. 

Even though it sits in Central Asia, at the far edge of Europe, Baku's history epitomizes the industrial revolution. Technological innovation ran at a dizzying pace, and the world's wealth was rising exponentially for the first time. The middle class grew enormously; for the first time in history, masses of people lived comfortable lives. Cities were built from nothing in a few years, or completely rebuilt. Iron train tracks and canals crisscrossed the landscape. Among the things they carried were people, who left their old homes and moved to new cities at an incredible pace. In many places, like Baku, this led to greatly increased human diversity and the breaking down of old ethnic and class barriers.

But the cost was staggering: the despoiling of the earth, the staining of vast areas with the black poison of coal or oil, the ruination of millions of workers by coal dust, oil fumes, chemical reagents, or asbestos. A surge in inequality as the rich got staggeringly rich. And the awful, violent politics of revolution and reaction, driven by the workers' sense that they were being treated as just another raw material for the mills. This was starkest in Russia, where the Tsars responded to any challenge by sending in the Cossacks. They thought they could ride the two-headed hydra of accelerating economic change and worker resentment by violently applying spurs and whips, but they could not, and it is easy to think that 1917 was no more than they deserved.