Sunday, October 31, 2021
Chinese artist Ai Weiwei has written a memoir in which, reviewers say, he connects his politics with his family life. His father Ai Qing was a rebel in his own way, a supporter of the communists who tried to write poetry that would resonate with the masses:
Ai’s story begins with his childhood, years of which were spent living with his father in the remote hinterlands of China, where Ai Qing was exiled in 1967 to do reform labor during Mao’s murderous purge of intellectuals. While his father was cleaning latrines, scraping feces that had frozen “into icy pillars,” 10-year-old Ai built the stove, fetched water from the well and endured a life that resembled “an open-ended course in wilderness survival training, if we were lucky enough to survive.” During countless “denunciation meetings” of which Ai Qing was a primary target, the author bore intimate witness to his father’s ritualized humiliation. “The estrangement and hostility that we encountered from the people around us instilled in me a clear awareness of who I was,” Ai writes, “and it shaped my judgment about how social positions are defined” — and the necessity of enemies in the rhetoric of revolution.
You can hardly read a single paragraph about Chinese politics without running into the horror of the Cultural Revolution. That catastrophe blighted the lives of many, many people, but especially intellectuals and artists. Eventually Ai Weiwei was jailed on charges eerily similar to those for which his father went to prison in the 1930s and was then exiled in the 1960s: essentially, making art that upsets the authorities. For Ai Weiwei, the struggle must go on:
In the final pages of the book, Ai writes that “advocacy of freedom is inseparable from an effort to attain it, for freedom is not a goal but a direction, and it comes into being through the very act of resistance.” Remembering, too, is a form of resistance. In documenting the past, he is also repudiating the country’s generations of imposed amnesia. “After all the convulsions that China had experienced, genuine emotions and personal memory were reduced to tiny scraps and easily replaced by the discourse of struggle and continuous revolution,” Ai writes. In “1000 Years of Joys and Sorrows,” Ai does not allow his own scraps to remain buried. To unearth them is an act of unburdening, an open letter to progeny, a suturing of past and present. It is the refusal to be a pawn — and the most potent assertion of a self.
From the NY Times.
Saturday, October 30, 2021
Bunny began to show a talent that she has developed ever since. She designed and had built a small playhouse in the woods near out house in Princeton. She stood over the workmen every minute, directing them. It was of concrete block with a thatched roof of straw. It had a Dutch door that opened in two sections and was painted blue. There was a square walled garden in front with tiny boxwood bushes forming intricate patterns, and rare shrubs and vines. Inside it was completely furnished, everything done to the scale of the house.
The Mellons were good friends of the Kennedys, and John F. Kennedy tapped Bunny to redesign the White House Rose Garden.
A few months later, while vacationing on Cape Cod, President Kennedy sailed with his family to the Mellons' beachfront home in Osterville on Nantucket Sound for an afternoon picnic. (The menu most likely included Mellon family favorites: corn on the cob, fried chicken, vegetable salad, blueberry pie, and vanilla ice cream.) . . . The President got right to the point, telling her that the White House had no garden equal in quality or attractiveness to the gardens he had seen and in which he been entertained in Europe.
As the president had requested, the steps leading from his office portico into the garden were redesigned to his specifications. He wanted the central step to be larger and wider than the others so that it could serve as a platform for presentations and speeches. And he wanted the three steps above it to be where honorees would stand, so that he would not be positioned above them.
Nerds like me worry about stuff like tax policy, but politicians obsess about how everything looks.
As the work began, Mrs. Mellon recalled, "Mr. Williams and I realized the garden needed to be wider than the plan called for; the proportion wasn't quite right. Se we asked the G men to move the measuring string on the south boundary over another eighteen inches. Without any discussion or even a moment of thought, they said 'No,' turned away and went back to work. Well, Mr. Williams and I decided we'd wait. As soon as they left for lunch, Mr. Williams quietly went over, measured the additional eighteen inches, and moved the string! When the crew returned from lunch, they didn't notice a thing, or if they did, they said not a word but went straight to work. We got our way."
As an adult Bunny had a maxim about her gardens which can stand as a rule for WASP life: "nothing should be noticed." After she and an architect had designed JFK's grave site at Arlington National Cemetery, Winston Churchill died.
This "descendant of Dukes and modern day hero who had rescued democracy," as Mrs. Mellon described him, was buried in his family's country churchyard in a simple grave, with only his name and birth and death dates etched in stone. According to Painter, "Jacqueline Kennedy began to wonder if our design was too formal and architectural after hearing of the simplicity of Winston Churchill's grave."
I mean, we don't want to be different from the other best people.
On a memorable day in 1968, Bunny Mellon's longtime couturier, Cristobal Balenciaga, announced to her that he was retiring, and walked her across Avenue George V to the atelier of his protégé Hubert de Givenchy. That introduction marked the beginning not only of a new designer-client relationship but also of a deep and abiding friendship. Sharing a profound admiration for the horticultural traditions of the past, in time they collaborated on the redesign and restoration of several historic French gardens. In the early days of her association with Givenchy, Bunny placed an order for one hundred dresses. "I called her office to ask if this was correct. It was," Givenchy recalled. And when he found out that she had ordered the same dress in multiple colors for different houses, it made perfect sense to him. He was impressed with her efficiency.
How can any woman get by without dresses to match each of her houses?
Friday, October 29, 2021
A reminder that while Thomas Jefferson is on the outs because of his hypocrisy about slavery, he remains a hero of religious liberty; the statue just removed from New York's City Hall was paid for Jewish naval officer Uriah P. Levy, because it was Jefferson who made it possible for Jews to serve in the Navy and to attend his creation, the University of Virginia. (NY Times)
Short history of Yanga, a community of self-liberated African slaves in eastern Mexico.
Mention here of a study that found 90% of people rated their own objectivity as above average. (NY Times) It is important to remember that while you feel your opinions are justified by the facts, because you are rational and objective, everybody else feels the same way.
A bit of Aztec cruelty: the Festival of the Flayed God. Just like the Aztecs to celebrate the new plant growth of spring with torture and human sacrifice.
Scott Siskind goes meta with QAnon: "My point is we're all engaged in this kind of desperate project of trying to feel like we're having new important insights, in a world full of people who are much smarter than we are." I think this is very broadly applicable, especially to academia but also to bloggers like me.
Long, somewhat strange article by David Graeber and David Wengrow about the remote human past, focusing on how flexible and diverse our political and social arrangements used to be, concluding by asking why they are so rigid now. I feel like population density and economic complexity are such obvious answers to that question that after displaying real learning and intelligence they end up making themselves look obtuse.
Archiving America's prison newspapers.
It's an old story in the US, low-grade wars between white settlers and Indians, with the Indian attacks remembered as crimes or "massacres" and the white attacks as law enforcement operations or justified revenge. But really it was just a slow-motion war of conquest. The post-Gold Rush California version is back in the news now because it turns out the man who founded the University of California law school hired a militia to kill Indians around his ranches. (NY Times)
Chaos in Haiti, where the country is running out of fuel because gangs are blockading the ports, the police lack the firepower or the will to take on the gangs, and gang leaders hold press conferences demanding the resignation of the Prime Minister, who probably colluded in the murder of the President, etc. Where should one start with such a place? (Reuters, NY Times)
Is this really a "take this job and shove it" moment"?
Gold mask from Peru, daring to around 1000 AD, was painted with human blood. But was it the artist's, or from a sacrifice? Both strike me as possible.
How Jacobite politics troubled the marriages and ghosts of 18th-century England.
Ethno-religious politics in Bulgaria, where Muslim citizens are still sometimes called "Ottomans."
The history of the Jackfruit, which has lately been touted as a meat substitute but was first grown outside south Asia by British planters as a cheap food for slaves.
Today in Republican drama, Marjorie Taylor Greene calls Liz Cheney a "Karen." Getting rough out there.
This week's music is Miles Davis and friends, Kind of Blue. As my eldest son put it, this is the jazz album that even people who hate jazz like.
At the Washington Post, a white woman discovers that her mother was "passing" and she is 7 to 9 percent African, then decides this is the most important thing about her:
For the majority of my life, I’d never been asked my race. Everyone, including me, assumed I was what I appeared to be — a White woman. I never considered that once my mother’s story went public, people would question my racial identity. . . .
Is that really who I am — a White woman with Black heritage?
The worst part is the article's title, "I thought I was White until I learned my mother’s secret."
Let's go over this: genetically, race does not exist. Does not. West African ancestry exists, but it is a completely different thing from East African ancestry, and it is only tangentially related to "race" as various laws and societies have defined it. Nor is there any genetic way to decide the race of people with mixed West African and European genes.
What exists, is culture. So if you grow up in white culture and think of yourself as white and everybody else thinks you are white, then you are white in the only sense that I think has any meaning. Your genes are irrelevant. You may find it interesting that your genetic profile includes a few percent of non-European genes, but there is no special reason anyone else should care. This writer ends up deciding that she is "mixed race," which I think is a farce. Not that it's any of my business. But I hate, with an abiding passion, the notion that anything about your ancestry defines who you are. How you grow up, sure, that's something you can't escape. But who your great-grandparents were? Who cares?
This why I hate royalty, and I mean really hate it. If other countries want kings and queens, fine, that's their business. But if somebody tried to introduce one here I would become a violent revolutionary and fight monarchy to the death.
"Passing for white" is an archaic bit of American lore we should toss in the same bin as all the other strange arcana about our past, like bear baiting and ducking witches.
And while I'm ranting, let me ask this: why is your race "who you are?" There is nothing – repeat, nothing – in this piece about a single other component of the author's identity other than race. Nothing about her being a woman. Nothing about her being a writer and a speaker. Nothing about being kind or cruel, generous or stingy, truthful or dishonest, shy or bold. Nothing about being her mother's daughter in any way other than the race angle. Nothing at all but the bald fact of her 7-9 vs. 93-91 percent.
I suppose she might say, in her defense, that this is what everybody else asks her about and wants to talk about. Which might be true. But because the rest of America is obsessed with race is no reason to feed the fire.
Wednesday, October 27, 2021
Russell Hoban's 1980 novel has never gone out of print and retains a far-flung readership of people who like really weird books. It is the sort of book that people have written whole books to explain, the explanations longer than the original text. I found Riddley Walker to be hard to read but somehow remarkable, and as I sit here thinking it over I can't make up my mind if the struggle through it was worth it or not.
Riddley Walker is a 12-year-old boy who lives about 2,000 years after the nuclear apocalypse that destroyed our civilization. His world is sort of an Iron Age, except that rather than making iron from ore people dig it out of destroyed cities. The book is a struggle because of the language, an invented notion of English as it has decayed among people who have lost most of their learning but somehow retained words for things that no longer exist. For example a plan is called a "program," "inputs" refers to things people learn, and "outputs" to what they make out of the inputs. People figure things out by "Spare the mending and tryl narrer." The book starts like this:
On my naming day when I come 12 I gone front spear and kilt a wyld boar he parbly ben the las wyld pig on the Bundel Downs any how there hadnt ben one for a long before him nor I aint looking to see none agen.
Most of the language is like this, not that much changed, but in other places it requires an effort to decipher.
The action in the book revolves around puppet shows. Without books, this is how people preserve whatever they remember from the past. The leaders of what passes for their government spend much of their time traveling around the land – which is Kent, in England – staging puppet shows in which they both teach the old lore and provide new interpretations in keeping with their current policy. The main puppet show concerns Eusa, their folk anti-hero. It was Eusa who, because he had too much cleverness, pulled the little shining man named Addom apart, unleashing the Bad Time. In punishment for this crime Eusa has to spend the rest of his life wandering from place to place, driven away with beatings from every town, until he ceases to be just a villain and assumes the part of a long-suffering everyman, passing on nuggets of hard-won wisdom.
The Eusa show describes the pre-apocalypse world like this:
Counting counting they wer all the time. They had iron then and big fire they had towns of parpety. They had machines et numbers up. They fed them numbers and they fraction out the Power of things. They had the Nos. of the rain bow and the Power of the air all workit out with counting which is how they got boats in the air and picters on the wind. Counting clevverness is what it wer.
There is a plot, but this is where the mystery comes in. On the surface the story seems to concern Riddley's discovery that a bunch of old rhymes about Eusa actually encode the formula for gunpowder. This formula is extracted by certain bad people, who start using it to kill each other. They call this the 1 Little 1, as opposed to the 1Big 1 that was the nuclear apocalypse. There is also a lot of petty village politics and various attempts to gain knowledge by shamanistic methods.
But I finished the book convinced that this was just a shell of some kind over a deeper meaning. Which, as I said, others have tried to elucidate in book-length treatises. On the other hand, maybe I am just overrating Russell Hoban, and the plot about gunpowder was deep enough for him. Looking back, I can't decide.
One thing I will say about the book is that the invented language sometimes gives rather conventional sentiments a striking force. Riddley is a young moralist who worries a lot about how he should act and how he should understand the world, and written in Riddley-speak these musings are very fine.
I cud feal it in the guts and barrils of me. You try to make your self 1 with some thing or some body but try as you wil the 2ness of ever thing is working agenst you all the way. You try to take holt of the 1ness and it comes in 2 in your hans.
I'm not sure if I recommend this book or not, but if you're in the mood for something different you might give it a try. It certainly has thousands of rabid fans.
Here's an interesting article abstract, Cooney, Boothby, & Lee, in the Journal of Experimental Psychology:
After conversations, people continue to think about their conversation partners. They remember their stories, revisit their advice, and replay their criticisms. But do people realize that their conversation partners are doing the same? In eight studies, we explored the possibility that people would systematically underestimate how much their conversation partners think about them following interactions. We found evidence for this thought gap in a variety of contexts, including field conversations in a dining hall (Study 1), “getting acquainted” conversations in the lab (Study 2), intimate conversations among friends (Study 3), and arguments between romantic partners (Study 4). Several additional studies investigated a possible explanation for the thought gap: the asymmetric availability of one’s own thoughts compared with others' thoughts. Accordingly, the thought gap increased when conversations became more salient (Study 4) and as people’s thoughts had more time to accumulate after a conversation (Study 6); conversely, the thought gap decreased when people were prompted to reflect on their conversation partners’ thoughts (Study 5). Consistent with our proposed mechanism, we also found that the thought gap was moderated by trait rumination, or the extent to which people’s thoughts come easily and repetitively to mind (Study 7). In a final study, we explored the consequences of the thought gap by comparing the effects of thought frequency to thought valence on the likelihood of reconciliation after an argument (Study 8). Collectively, these studies demonstrate that people remain on their conversation partners’ minds more than they know.
This is something I learned rather late in life. With some people (notably my wife and children, and certain of my colleagues) it is not necessary for me to repeat things that I feel haven't sunk in, because they will sink in later when people brood on them. For some of the people who have worked under me, the slightest criticism reverberates for days. Understanding this puts an obligation on us, as I see it, to choose our words carefully; they don't just pass through the air and disappear, but may linger for decades.
Tuesday, October 26, 2021
Friday, October 22, 2021
Excellent long story in the NY Times about Russia's crackdown on the internet:
Russia’s boldest moves to censor the internet began in the most mundane of ways — with a series of bureaucratic emails and forms.
The messages, sent by Russia’s powerful internet regulator, demanded technical details — like traffic numbers, equipment specifications and connection speeds — from companies that provide internet and telecommunications services across the country. Then the black boxes arrived.
The telecom companies had no choice but to step aside as government-approved technicians installed the equipment alongside their own computer systems and servers. Sometimes caged behind lock and key, the new gear linked back to a command center in Moscow, giving authorities startling new powers to block, filter and slow down websites that they did not want the Russian public to see.
The process, underway since 2019, represents the start of perhaps the world’s most ambitious digital censorship effort outside of China
Among other things the Russian state has pressured Facebook and YouTube into taking down "illegal" posts and they have threatened to ban those sites altogether. Twitter has not complied with a series of similar requests, so they have radically slowed down the site's traffic, and now everything takes ten times as long to load.
Worried about the power of tech companies and the trouble that can be made online –organizing the January 6 uprising in the US, for example – western countries are saying little:
Russia’s censorship efforts have faced little resistance. In the United States and Europe, once full-throated champions of an open internet, leaders have been largely silent amid deepening distrust of Silicon Valley and attempts to regulate the worst internet abuses themselves. Russian authorities have pointed to the West’s tech industry regulation to justify its own crackdown.
I wonder if in twenty years we will all look back at the free internet era with some combination of nostalgia and relief that it is over.
Freddie de Boer's very interesting review of Ross Douthat's new book on suffering from what he believes is chronic Lyme disease.
And one for our reader David: Freddie de Boer, a revolutionary socialist and probably the farthest left thinker I regularly read, explaining why he spends so much energy these days fighting woke excesses that he thinks are wrecking the left and the Democratic party.
Nine-minute Vox video on how systems of rainscreen cladding have completely changed the way buildings are built, and how they look.
Trump ally and QAnon supporter Michael Flynn has to rebut rumors among the QAnon faithful that he has become a Satanist. What did he really say about the sevenfold rays? What was the meaning of the girl in the red shoes?
The catholic diocese of Catania in Sicily bans godparents, because they serve as a way to reinforce mafia ties. (NY Times)
Interesting long review of a new biography of John Maynard Keynes that doubles as a reflection on the influence of Keynesian economics since his death in 1946.
All the people who got a tattoo of what they thought was a wolf skull, except it was really a raccoon skull. Turns out raccoon skulls look more badass.
When police send a skeleton to forensic anthropologists, they want to know its age, sex, height, and race. But the translation of skeletal characteristics into the racial categories of a nation that sometimes considers "Hispanic" to be a race, and where almost all black people have some European genes, is not simple, and this is starting to really bother practitioners who worry about imposing rigid racial categories on the dead. (NY Times)
Interesting White House Historical Association post on Elizabeth Keckly, author of the 1868 memoir Behind the Scenes or Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House.
Somebody on Reddit put together a little summary of the thought of economist/futurist Robin Hanson, clear, simple, interesting. The concept of inside vs outside perspectives is especially valuable, and it has a heading so you can go right to it if the rest bores you. "Scott" is of course Scott Siskind.
Succinct National Park Service article on protests against the Mexican-American War.
A long time ago, I think around 1980, I first learned of the studies that show loud sirens cause people to panic and act stupidly, embolden ambulance drivers and fire fighters to take foolish risks, and have minimal impact on how fast responders get anywhere. The studies still show this, but as you can probably guess this has had zero impact on the use of sirens. (NY Times)
Fighting loneliness through co-housing, a new word for intentional condominium communities. (NY Times)
The rise of fictional influencers.
Thursday, October 21, 2021
Thomas Edsall finds a group of important papers on politics and psychology that show, from opposite perspectives, that conservatives are happier than liberals. (He doesn't get into this, but far left radicals are the least happy of all.) As he shows, you can interpret this divide according to your own politics. If you are a liberal, you argue that conservatives are better at ignoring injustice:
We consistently found conservatives (or right-wingers) are happier than liberals (or left-wingers). This ideological gap in happiness is not accounted for by demographic differences or by differences in cognitive style. We did find, however, that the rationalization of inequality — a core component of conservative ideology — helps to explain why conservatives are, on average, happier than liberals. . . . [This is] consistent with system justification theory, which posits that viewing the status quo (with its attendant degree of inequality) as fair and legitimate serves a palliative function."Rationalization" is a great word for insulting people you disagree with; I reason, you rationalize. And you have to love that there is a whole body of "system justification theory." But anyway, conservative social scientists of course see this differently:
Conservatives score higher than liberals on personality and attitude measures that are traditionally associated with positive adjustment and mental health, including personal agency, positive outlook, transcendent moral beliefs, and generalized belief in fairness. These constructs, in turn, can account for why conservatives are happier than liberals and have declined less in happiness in recent decades. . . .
Conservatives are more satisfied with their lives, in general and in specific domains (e.g., marriage, job, residence), report better mental health and fewer mental and emotional problems, and view social justice in ways that are consistent with binding moral foundations, such as by emphasizing personal agency and equity.
I don't think it takes any fancy theorizing to understand this. Conservatives are, pretty much by definition, more comfortable with the world as it is, and less prone to thinking that it needs changing; liberals think it has glaring problems that require urgent action. Hence liberals worry more and feel more out of place. Also, some of the people who find the world as it is intolerable are going to be crazy, with the causality no doubt running in both directions; since these differences are not really that large, the existence of a small number of very unhappy radicals drives a good proportion of the difference. Not all of it, though; even moderate liberals with decent lives are a little less happy than conservatives. Edsall finds people who dispute this, but I think they are engaging in strange special pleading; the evidence we have points pretty clearly to conservatives being happier.
The deep importance of this finding is in pointing out once again that the political and psychological understandings of human life often diverge radically. I could not count the number of different ways I have seen liberals argue that people are unhappy because they world is unfair, and the only possible solution is to change the world. But according to some studies, the trait most strongly associated with happiness is acceptance. This only confirms a strain of old wisdom that exists all over the world: that the best route through life is to accept the world as it is and make the best of it, rather than railing against it.
Random related psychological finding: if you don't, in the end, accept your losses, you never finish grieving.
Another thing that contributes to happiness is a sense of belonging. Which is why I am so ambivalent about nationalism. As a historian I understand very well that modern nations were manufactured and modern patriotism got up by political acts (including wars) and relentless propaganda. On the other hand, there is a lot of evidence that this works. National pride makes many people happy, and it also makes it much easier for them to participate in a democracy with people they disagree with. Where people don't feel at a deep level that they are part of a nation – which, again, is something created by propaganda – then democracy fails.
Plus, people just find change disturbing, and this is just as true for the poor as for the rich. Consider the reactions of poor people in cities when their neighborhoods start improving economically. Many see this as a threat, and they have dreamed up a whole body of pseudo theory called "gentrification" to justify/rationalize/explain those feelings.
But against the commonsense notion that if we all talked ourselves into being conservatives we would all be happier I would make two arguments: one, that the past just sucked for many people, from women trapped in abusive marriages to Untouchables. Two, that modern technological and economic progress are changing the world at such a rapid pace that the kind of conservatism we had in the early 1800s is simply no longer possible. So instead we get different ways of trying to reconcile conservative feelings with rapid change. Sometimes this is center-right parties that simply try to moderate change, but we also keep seeing right-wing movements that mingle conservative sentiments with various kinds of angry radicalism, giving us among other things World War II, perhaps the greatest catastrophe we humans ever inflicted on ourselves. Trying to be a conservative in a world of rapid change seems to come with its own costs.
Whenever I ponder these issues I end up thinking that the most plausible approach is balance. We should try to make the world better, but we should not exaggerate its horrors or believe that this or that change will radically improve anyone's life. We should participate in politics, but we should never tie our own happiness too strongly to the success of our faction. That gives things beyond our control too much power over us. There has to be an element of ourselves that we insulate from the world, a place where we focus on our own thoughts, our own beliefs, and the people closest to our hearts.
OnlyFans has a surprising new member: the Vienna Tourist Board.
No, its account will not feature after-hours photos of employees. Instead, the board will use the adults-only site to show images of paintings and sculptures displayed in the Austrian capital that have been blocked by social media sites for nudity or sexual content.
The offending artworks include the Venus of Willendorf, a 25,000-year-old limestone figurine of a woman. Facebook removed a photo of it from the Vienna Museum of Natural History’s page several years ago for being “pornographic.”
There’s also “Liebespaar,” Koloman Moser’s early 20th-century painting, which the Leopold Museum included in a video post celebrating its anniversary in September. The video, which was blocked by the algorithms of Instagram and Facebook, “is a combination of details of the work and written feelings that are evoked by the painting,” said Christine Kociu, the museum’s social media manager. “It shows a nude couple embracing. It’s actually sweet.”
Which raises an interesting point about AI. I think it's impressive that the algorithm was even able to recognize a paleolithic figuring as a nude woman. But since we can't agree on what is pornographic, how will AI ever sort it out?
This also strikes me as another sign of the sexual divergence I have seen in our society, in which a public safe space of Victorian prudery coexists with a pornographic otherworld that is only a click away.