Monday, January 31, 2022

Thunder, Perfect Mind

Do not be ignorant of me.
For I am the first and the last.
I am the honored one and the scorned one.
I am the whore and the holy one.
I am the wife and the virgin.
I am the mother and the daughter.
I am the barren one
and many are her sons.
I celebrated a great wedding,
and I am unwed.
I am the midwife and she who does not bear.
I am the solace of my labor pains.
I am the bride and the bridegroom,
and it is my husband who begot me.
I am the mother of my father
and the sister of my husband
and he is my offspring. . . .

I am the silence that is incomprehensible
and the idea often remembered.
I am the voice whose sound is manifold
and the word that appears again and again.
I am the utterance of my name.

Why, you who hate me, do you love me,
and hate those who love me?
You who deny me, confess me,
and you who confess me, deny me.
You who speak truth about me, lie about me,
and you who have lied about me, speak truth.
You who know me, be ignorant of me,
and those who have not known me, let them know me.
For I am knowledge and ignorance.
I am shame and boldness.
I am shameless; I am ashamed.
I am strength and I am fear.
I am war and peace.
Give heed to me. . . .

Give heed then, you hearers
and you also, the angels and the messengers,
and you spirits who have arisen from the dead.
For I am the one who alone exists,
and I have no one who will judge me.
For many are the joys in sins,
and disgraceful passions,
and fleeting pleasures,
which men embrace until they become sober
and go up to their resting place.
And they will find me there,
and they will live,
and they will not die again.

Thunder, Perfect Mind is a Coptic poem found among the gnostic texts of the Nag Hammadi Library. Experts say it was translated from Greek and may have been written in Alexandria in the second or third century AD. This is about half of it; more here.

What Happened with that Tennessee Pre-K Study?

For my readers who enjoy discussing education questions, here's another, courtesy of Dylan Matthews at Vox:

The pre-K study was conducted by researchers at Vanderbilt University and looks at Tennessee Voluntary Pre-K, or TN-VPK, which has existed in some form since 1996 and offers many 3- and 4-year-olds free access to pre-K services. The actual pre-K sites were often oversubscribed, and had to resort to random lotteries to pick enrollees. The researchers exploited that feature to track students who were randomly able to enroll in pre-K in 2009 and 2010, and compare them to students who, by random chance, couldn’t enroll.

In prior work the same authors found that kids who got into pre-K outperformed ones who didn’t on intelligence tests — when they were 5. By the end of kindergarten, however, the benefits seemed to evaporate and by third grade, the pre-K kids were actually doing worse, with lower test scores in math and science.

This part is, I think, pretty well attested; most studies done over the past 30 years have found that Head Start and similar programs have positive effects, but those effects wear off quickly. 

The new study follows the same children through sixth grade, adding three more years of data. The upshot? the results just keep getting worse. Reading, writing, and science scores in sixth grade were all lower among pre-K kids than other kids, and the gap has grown since third grade. The researchers also found that pre-K kids were likelier to skip school or get into disciplinary trouble as they got older.

Why? They don’t really know. The answer might depend on what the students who weren’t in the pre-K program were doing. The authors report that 63 percent were at home with a parent, relative, or other caretakers, and 34 percent were in private day care or Head Start. So you can read the study as suggesting that being home with a parent, grandparent, or nanny is better than going to pre-K; or maybe what’s going on is that Head Start and private care are better for kids than the Tennessee program. It’s hard to say.

But this isn’t just one study. Research into Quebec’s day care program found long-run negative effects on kids’ behavior, including increased crime. The idea that certain forms of pre-K or child care can harm kids has significant empirical support.

I wouldn't call this "significant empirical support," but it certainly is interesting.

For one thing, we might consider that "Pre-K" can mean a wide range of different things. What children do at a nice Waldorf program in an expensive area, lots of outdoor activities and organic baking and so on, might be very different from what happens at an underfunded Head Start program in a tough urban neighborhood or an Appalachian town. This is my beef with "Universal Pre-K" as a nationwide program; who can say what those programs will be like? If I, as a parent, think the local program sucks and my child will be better off at home, will that be a problem? Or will I have to file some kind of lesson plan like a homeschooling family has to? Can my lesson plan just say, "My child is 4 years old and will do 4-year-old things"?

There is also the question of children as individuals. Some might love preschool, others might hate it, and who knows what sort of long-term effects could arise from forcing 4-year-olds to go every day to a place they hate?

I understand what drives the push for more schooling. American children from poor and minority backgrounds seem to be falling farther behind the upper middle class on a bunch of metrics: IQ, test scores, college attendance, future income. It seems like the worldwide economy is changing in ways that make education more and more essential. Plus, finding care for their children regularly shows up as the biggest stressor in the lives of poor families and single mothers.

But forcing children to spend ever more time at schools that don't seem to be teaching them very much strikes me as a very bad strategy.

Sunday, January 30, 2022

Skunder Boghossian

Alexander “Skunder” Boghossian (1937-2003) had an interesting, wandering life. He was born in Addis Ababa in 1937 to an Ethiopian mother and an Armenian father. (There is an ancient connection between Ethiopia and Armenia, solidified by trade and religious ties, which is why the medieval and early modern art from the two places looks similar.)

Above is The End of the Beginning, 1972. Most of these works were either untitled, or I couldn't find a title; it seems they all date to the 1960s or early 1970s.

Boghossian showed artistic talent from an early age; in 1954 he won a prize in a contest staged as part of a jubilee celebration for Emperor Haile Selassie. He learned to read in the Amharic script and his early work was very much within the old Ethiopian tradition. 

He attended an elite high school where he learned English and French and was exposed to contemporary western art. An African American neighbor introduced him to jazz, which he loved for the rest of his life. He thought jazz was a wonderful expression of the communal spirit of Africa, uniting Black people worldwide, and he often had jazz music playing when he painted.

In 1965 he received a scholarship from the Ethiopian government to study in London. He then moved to Paris, where he taught at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière. In 1966 he returned to Ethiopia, but then in 1970 he moved to the United States, where he became an "Extraordinary Professor" (not there's a title!) at Howard University in Washington, DC.

Boghossian was from the generation that came of age with African independence, and in his writing he often invoked the themes of African solidarity, anti-colonialism, and Black power. But he, like so many others of that same generation, ended up living in that west. Reading online biographies of these people I often wonder what motivated them to give up lives as African artistic celebrities for sometimes rather mundane lives in Paris, London, or the US, working as professors or bureaucrats. Did they fall afoul of the regimes that emerged from post-independence turmoil? Or did the reality of African life, even for the elite, fall so far short of what they dreamed during their independence struggles that it did not seem worth it to stay home for work for a better Africa?

What fascinates me about artists like Boghossian is the range of influences you can see in their painting. Consider Night Flight of Dread and Delight (1964), the painting that drew me to Boghossian in the first place. In this work I see traditional Ethiopian or Armenian sensibilities, especially in the way the canvas is divided into a heavenly realm and an earthly one, separated by a stark line. I see modernist technique. But the main thing I see is an evocation of Goya's The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters (1790s). 

This, to me is the best thing about the creative side of the modern world – the way cross-fertilization of cultures and traditions has birthed hybrids of every description. We have musical fusions like Jazz, Reggae, and African heavy metal. We have artistic explorations of African imagery by Europeans and European imagery by Africans. We have Korean boy bands and Japanese Anime. We have Balkan rap, Taiwanese rap, Mexican rap. We have thriving cinematic traditions in Japan, Brazil, India and Nigeria that grew out of western film but have gone off on their own paths. We also have many other artists who continue to work within old regional traditions, whether that means Japanese woodblock prints, Romantic symphonies, Balinese dance, or west African mask carving; in fact many of these traditions are now sustained by the interest of outsiders. No one in history has been able to see as much as we can see, or learn as much about the world as we can learn. 

We have certainly paid a high price for our modern world, so we might as well celebrate what is great about it.

Friday, January 28, 2022

Links 28 January 2022

The Maastritcht Hours, c. 1300-25

Two mothers in their late 30s set American records in the marathon and half marathon last week, part of a trend toward top athletes staying at their peaks for much longer. (NY Times) The LA Lakers have a decent basketball team with three players over 35, including MVP candidate LeBron James at 37.

In Ireland, a dead man was "propped up by two other men in attempt to collect his pension at a post office." Sadly for their scheme, the post office employees were "immediately suspicious."

Long exploration of skateboarding and the "Jackass" franchise makes it seem almost appealing. (NY Times)

More than a thousand lovely, precise drawings of plant root systems.

In the 1830s, Charles Poyen tried to sell American mill owners on using Mesmerism to make factory workers more punctual and controllable.

The world of TikTok "reality shifters," who claim to be able to enter other realities in their minds. I would call this "daydreaming," but I guess that doesn't sound as dramatic.

St. Hedwig and the Hedgehog in art and history.

Robot vacuum cleaner makes a "break for freedom."

Johannes Trithemius, the Renaissance historian and occultist who liked to invent authors and books and then cite them. This would be so much fun.

New genetic study says horses were domesticated in the west Eurasian steppe, that is, the homeland of the Indo-European peoples.

Review of the new David Graeber/David Wengrow book about human history over the very long term, doubling as an anarchist attack on state societies. In the way of these things they insist on going outside European civilization to find critics of "progress" and the hierarchical state – they call this the "Indigenous Critique" – ignoring that Europe had a great many of its own critics who hated hierarchy and state power as much as any Native American. In fact the only reason we know about most of the indigenous critiques they cite is that European authors who sympathized with them wrote them down. But Graeber's other big book, Debt, is eye opening, so I will probably read this one when I get a chance. Article here by Wengrow, based on the book.

Amazing Roman glass bowl found in the Netherlands.

The complex, hypocritical relationship between the US government and NSO, the Israeli firm that makes the Pegasus spy system that can crack the security of iPhones and Android devices. (New York Times)

And now Omicron BA-2, a new variant with minor changes from BA-1 that make it even more contagious.

Detailed post on the restoration of a Rubens painting at the Getty, very clear on what was done and how, with pictures.

Wednesday, January 26, 2022

Asians, Immigrants, Race Politics, Class Politics, and NYC's Elite High Schools

Here are two interesting sets of numbers for Brooklyn Tech, one of the New York City high schools where entrance has been determined by competitive examination. First, by race: the population is 61% Asian, 24% white, and 15% Black and Latino, when Black and Latino students comprise a majority of the system. But also, 63% of the student population is economically disadvantaged, and the most disadvantaged racial group is the Asians. (New York Times)

Brooklyn Tech is full of immigrants and immigrants' children, from all over the world. Many of those immigrant families are quite poor in dollar terms. A majority of Brooklyn Tech's Asian students speak a language other than English at home. They do not see themselves as "privileged"; they see entrance to an elite high school as their ticket out of poverty, and it has indeed worked that way for thousands.

Arguments about these schools have a way of devolving into fights about race and racism, but the debate also raises fundamental questions about education. For example, what is education for?

A certain sort of educational system sees its mission as winnowing: such a school separates out the few who will rise to the top from the rest, and sends the losers toward menial jobs. A different model is that the schools are supposed to lift up everybody. Obviously modern public school systems have tried to do both, but emphasizing one approach makes a big difference. In the US, schools make much use of gifted and talented programs, pulling the best students out for advanced instruction. But globally many systems do not do this; instead they get the advanced students to tutor their slower peers, with the goal of raising up everyone. In the US, studies have regularly shown that slow students do better in classrooms that also include much better students, poor students do better in classrooms that include richer students, and Black students do better in classrooms that are not all Black. On the other hand, studies also show that students in gifted and talented programs end up going to higher-tier colleges and making more money. Who should sacrifice for whom?

You can see this argument in its starkest form when the subject is math. Some elite mathematicians are already doing cutting edge work by the time they are 18, so making them sit in classes with non-mathematical kids might be a big waste of their time. At a somewhat lower level, it is very difficult to get into a college engineering or science program if you did not have Calculus in high school, but most high school students have no interest in that level of math, and despite what certain educational theorists like to say, I do not believe all students could do it even if they tried. And why should they try? I am a quasi scientist and sometimes use statistics in my job, but I haven't used calculus since I finished my high school class. Some people say we should cultivate mathematicians and scientists the same way we cultivate young athletes, using talent scouts to spot them young and then pulling them into special programs with other elite prospects. That would probably be the best way to create more Nobel Prize winners; but is that our goal?

I see the fight over elite public high schools as a fight over what all schools are for. Those who defend these schools see education as providing pathways for the ambitious to achieve excellence; "realize your dreams" might be their slogan. They also tend to think that the economic future of the nation depends heavily on the achievements of elite engineers and managers. Those who resist elite schools think that the main mission of education should be equality, or maybe justice. They resist the whole notion of separating or winnowing, and think we should all rise or fall together. 

Saturday, January 22, 2022

RIP Thich Nhat Hanh

Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese master of Zen Buddhism, died this week at 95. He spoke fluent English and French and became famous in both the US and Europe, partly because he was expelled from South Vietnam for opposing the war. He wrote, in an antiwar poem,

Beware! Turn around and face your real enemies — ambition, violence hatred and greed.

He corresponded with Martin Luther King on the subject of nonviolence; King later nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize. He founded a global chain of monasteries and is one of those responsible for making "mindfulness" such a big part of our culture. He was probably less worried about his own death than anyone else of whom I have written here:

Birth and death are only notions. They are not real. The Buddha taught that there is no birth; there is no death; there is no coming; there is no going; there is no same; there is no different; there is no permanent self; there is no annihilation. We only think there is. 

Magical Beasts Dagger, Vijayanagar, Sixteenth Century

Dagger made in one of the Hindu states in central India, probably Vijayanagar, around 1550. The gilded bronze hilt is set with rubies. The design includes a lion-like beast holding an elephant in its paws, a dragon, and two phoenixes. The length is 42 cm. In the David Museum. 

Debating E.O. Wilson's Legacy

Biologist E.O. Wilson died on December 26. Many of his obituaries had a somewhat guarded tone, because while he was an eminent scientist his career was controversial. On the one hand he was a noted environmentalist and helped introduce the concept of biodiversity into the environmental lexicon. On the other, his 1975 book Sociobiology waded into questions of how much about human societies, sex differences, and so on is genetic, applying the methods he honed studying ant societies to those of humans. Late in life he added a new focus for controversy when he publicly renounced kin selection as the source of altruism in animals in favor of group selection, a model that has become in some hands a justification for militarism. 

The question of how much human behavior is genetic is of course an old one, and it has always been political. Defenders of aristocracy long defended the superiority of noble blood lines; one of the founders of modern liberalism, John Locke, advanced the tabula rasa (blank slate) theory that we in fact inherit nothing. Locke had no evidence for his view, he was simply proposing on the philosophical plane arguments that helped his support his views on politics. Anyway it is not just recent "woke" people who get upset over the political implications of research on human genetics, and it has long been the case that the Left wanted to deny inheritance while the Right talked it up.

Wilson's story took a turn last week when Scientific American ran an essay about him by Monica McLemore, subtitled "We must reckon with his and other scientists’ racist ideas if we want an equitable future." 

His influential text Sociobiology: The New Synthesis contributed to the false dichotomy of nature versus nurture and spawned an entire field of behavioral psychology grounded in the notion that differences among humans could be explained by genetics, inheritance and other biological mechanisms.

E.O. Wilson never supported any "dichotomy," false or otherwise, but he certainly believed that some differences between humans are rooted in genetics. Others did use his work to make simplistic arguments about heredity, but I'm not sure that's his fault. Honestly I found this essay mostly just kind of lame, without any of the fire I expected from others' reaction to it. One passage that made some scientists howl was this one:

First, the so-called normal distribution of statistics assumes that there are default humans who serve as the standard that the rest of us can be accurately measured against. The fact that we don’t adequately take into account differences between experimental and reference group determinants of risk and resilience, particularly in the health sciences, has been a hallmark of inadequate scientific methods based on theoretical underpinnings of a superior subject and an inferior one.

A "normal distribution" is just a kind of curve in the dataset that in fact describes a huge number of natural and human phenomenon; it has nothing to do with the question of human diversity and whether different groups will respond differently to different drugs or whatever. But I get what McLemore was trying to say, and I think it is true that many Big Picture scientific studies sweep a lot of diversity under the rug. As my readers know, I regularly complain about this when it relates to anthropology. Anyway a bunch of scientists were incensed by McLemore's article, mainly because it calls Wilson "racist" without offering any evidence that he believed in meaningful differences between human races. In fact he explicitly denied believing any such thing on multiple occasions. A long list of biologists wrote a rebuttal letter to Scientific American, which refused to print it. So it has been posted online.

The argument over Wilson interests me because much of it hinges on the definition of "racist." To Wilson, and that whole side of science, asking questions about the genetic roots of human behavior is important and interesting, so we should do it. That's what sciences is for. That's what science is. Besides, they often throw in, so far science says nothing material about behavioral differences between races anyway. (It does, of course, have a lot to say about differences between the sexes.)

The scientists who signed the letter believe that science, done properly, cannot possibly be racist. Its goal is to discover the truth about the world, whatever its moral and political implications. It is up to us to adjust our morality and politics to fit reality, and it is emphatically not the job of scientists to alter their findings to fit our morals or our politics. 

To their opponents, all talk about human genetic traits is inherently dangerous. The very idea of approaching questions of genetic difference without ideological preconceptions disturbs them. To them, anyone without a strong ideological preconception against racism is suspect; anyone who thinks there could be a neutral approach to questions of the differences between races is a racist. For many of them, the notion that the truth should be our highest goal is just plain wrong. Our highest goal should be justice, and anyone who disagrees needs to be called out.

Under this definition, Wilson was a racist because he studied human genetic differences without a strong and loudly proclaimed commitment to racial justice. He thus, whatever his intentions, became a tool of racists, and anything that serves racism is itself racist. To a lot of scientists, and many other liberals, this is the most dangerous possible kind of thinking: to them, allowing our politics to dictate what we believe about reality is the definition of totalitarianism. 

Wherever science intersects with morality and politics, there will be conflict. Certain scientists will be shocked that anyone attacks their scientific work on political grounds, but of course they should know better. Topics like human genetic differences, human-induced climate change, welfare economics, and so on are inherently political, and it is foolish to think they could ever be discussed without political consequences. Complaining about wokeness, as many contemporary scientists like to do, hardly scratches the surface of this dynamic, especially when the topic has been controversial for centuries. The letter written on behalf of Wilson makes no attempt to address any of this, and its authors come across as baffled that anyone could see any problem with Wilson's work. Honestly their piece did not impress me any more than McLemore's did.

I believe in the truth, and I don't think it was racist of E.O. Wilson to pursue it. Maybe Wilson's defenders are right to pitch a fit when the word "racist" is applied to him; maybe such charges have to be answered. But if they don't understand where their opponents are coming from, they are unlikely to make much headway against them.

Friday, January 21, 2022

Islamic Metalwork from the David Museum

Brass Casket from Iran, 1300 to 1350. Height 12.8 cm.

Brazier and coal tongs, bronze with engraved decorations Eastern Iran or Afghanistan; 12th-13th century. Height of brazier, 38.5; Diameter at rim: 29 cm

Openwork lamp, Iraq or Iran, 10th century, diameter 40 cm.

Ewer, Andalusia, 10th-11th century. Height 22 cm.

This item is described as a Kashkul or "begging bowl". I suppose that means it was used by some charitable institution, like a school or a hospital, to solicit alms. From Iran, 1500-1550. Tinned copper and brass, 52 cm long.

Helmet, steel and brass, from India or Persia, 19th century. Much more at the David Museum's web site.

LInks 21 January 2022

The garden of the Egyptian scribe Nebamun, from the wall of his tomb, c. 1350 BC

The archaeological record of the Faroe Islands begins around 850 AD, with the arrival of the Vikings. But study of lake sediments reveals that sheep arrived around 500 AD, and presumably somebody must have brought them.

Lovely photographs of the Faroes by Lazar Gintchin.

Polar bears took over an abandoned settlement in the Russian arctic, and Dmitry Kokh has amazing pictures.

Investigation of red light cameras in Chicago finds that they give out many more tickets in black and Hispanic neighborhoods. Racism? Something to do with the geometry of poor neighborhoods? Or just a difference in behavior? One complaint I think is legitimate is that the fines ($100 or so) are trivial for well-off people but onerous for the poor. But I think the solution often suggested, making them a percentage of your income, turns what it supposed to be a simple, cheap safety measure into complicated bureaucratic problem.

In an interesting essay at Harper's, Meghan O’Gieblyn ponders the role of routine in her life, and ours.

The news from 9th-century Peru: during the Wari Empire, people at a settlement now called Quilcapampa held communal feasts at which they drink a lot of chicha, a beer-like liquid made from the molle tree, laced with the hallucinogen vilca seeds. The excavators say the ruling elite provided these feasts as a means of maintaining control, but I'm not sure getting everyone roaring drunk is always a good way to keep them under control.

Broomcorn millet (Panicum miliaceum), a grain crop from East Asia, was grown in Iraq by 1100 BC. The archaeologists who published this make it out to be a surprise, but it seems to me one thing we know about early farmers is that they were always on the lookout for new plants and shared them widely. Think how quickly potatoes were taken up in Europe, and hot peppers around the world. 

The underground town of Nushabad, Iran; to me the most impressive thing is that it was somehow completely forgotten for centuries.

New study argues that multiple sclerosis is triggered by viral infection, in particular by the Epstein-Barr virus.

DNA analysis reveals that the animals that pulled Ancient Mesopotamian war wagons, called kunga in our sources, were infertile crosses between domesticated donkeys and wild Syrian asses.

Looking around for something on the political fight over wolf and bear hunting in Montana and Idaho, I found this NY Times piece, which says "predators are part of the culture wars," and this ungated piece at Vox. Some people just hate wild predators and like to blame them for things, possibly because shooting them restores a sense of control. As a rancher you can't do much about Federal range rules or beef prices or the weather, but you can get your gun and defend your land. But there is no evidence that the 1,200 wolves in Montana are having any impact on either ranchers' profits or elk and deer populations.

More "specimen cabinets" by Steffen Dam.

The mysterious habit of concealing shoes in buildings – in foundations, behind walls, under floors, in attics – which goes back at least to the Middle Ages and continued well into the 20th century. Thousands of cases are known.

A list of contemporary "heresies."

Rasmussen poll finds large numbers of Democrats favor harsh penalties for people who refuse to get vaccinated or question the efficacy of Covid vaccines on social media. I suspect most respondents were venting their anger rather than really advocating prison for the unvaccinated, but they're not displaying much tolerance.

The Biden administration calls for an extra $650 million a year to be spent on controlled burns and forest thinning in the west to better control forest fires. (NY Times)

Lots of chatter these days about huge batteries to help out utility grids, but the best way to store a lot of energy is still pumping water uphill: one project being built in Australia will have more storage capacity (350,000 megawatt hours) than all the utility-scale batteries in existence.

Brown Windsor Soup, allegedly a famous lowlight of English cooking, never really existed until after it became a widespread joke.

Jonathan Rauch and Peter Wehner argue that while the Left in America is bad, the Right is worse and much more dangerous. (New York Times)

Defense vlogger Binkov has a 20-minute video up on how drones will change warfare. He thinks they will only further advantage the richer, better-armed side and will not help weaker forces (terrorists, insurgents) overcome stronger governments.

CIA report says they have no evidence linking "Havana Syndrome", the mysterious ailments suffered by some US diplomats, to "state actor involvement." Sick people used to blame demons or witches, but now they blame microwave attacks.

Politics as a health threat: "the findings from the survey suggest that somewhere between a fifth and a third of adults—roughly 50 to 85 million people—blame politics for causing fatigue, lost sleep, feelings of anger, loss of temper, as well as triggering compulsive behaviors."

The University of Michigan has fired its president for an entirely consensual affair with a subordinate. Ok, he was the president, and it was against the rules, so maybe we should expect him to abide by the rules he is in charge of enforcing. But this bugs me: "Schlissel’s conduct was 'particularly egregious' because he had taken a public position against sexual harassment, the board said." (New York Times) Why can't you be against sexual harassment and for consensual relationships between adults? Why is love, which this appears to be, an offense against the smooth running of institutions so offensive it must be stamped out, the perpetrators dismissed? 

Wednesday, January 19, 2022

In Praise of Uselessness

Zhuangzi in a much later painting

At Psyche, Helen de Cruz describes a Daoist text from around 300 BC that praises uselessness. In the Zhuangzi (attributed to a Daoist sage called Zhuangzi or Zhuang Zhou, c 369-286 BCE) a group of scholars beholds a parade of fantastic animals, including a fish a thousand miles long and a caterpillar that lives a thousand years. Then they come to an immense, ancient tree, so twisted and gnarly as to be useless for providing wood. One scholar dismisses the tree as "big, useless, and spurned by everyone." But Zhuangzi says the tree is wonderful, 

plant it in Not-Even-Anything Village, or the field of Broad-and-Boundless, relax and do nothing by its side, or lie down for a free and easy sleep under it.
Cruz continues:
Zhuangzi lived in an extraordinarily vibrant and fertile period in the development of Chinese thought. These few centuries, referred to as the Warring States period, witnessed the growth of thinkers and schools of thought. . . . These were ‘disputers of the Dao’, who passionately debated the question: what is the good life?

Zhuangzi argued that we can reclaim our lives, and be happier and more fulfilled, if we become more useless. In this, he went against many influential thinkers of his time, such as the Mohists. These followers of Master Mo (c470-391 BCE) prized efficiency and welfare above all. They insisted on cutting away all ‘useless’ parts of life – art, luxury, ritual, culture, leisure, even the expression of emotions – and instead focused on ensuring that people across the social classes receive essential material resources. The Mohists viewed many practices common at the time as immorally wasteful. Rather than a funeral rich with rituals following tradition, such as burial within three layers of coffins and a years-long mourning period, Mohists recommended simply digging a pit deep enough so the body doesn’t smell. You were permitted to cry on your way to and from the burial site, but then you needed to return to work and life.

Although the Mohists wrote more than 2,000 years ago, their ideas sound familiar to modern ears. We frequently hear how we should avoid supposedly useless things, such as pursuing the arts, or a humanities education. Or it’s often said that we should allow for these things only insofar as they benefit the economy or human welfare. You might have felt this discomfort in your own life: the pressure from the meritocracy to serve some purpose, have some benefit, maximize some utility – that everything you do should be, in some sense, useful.

However, as we will show here, Zhuangzi offers an essential antidote to this pernicious means-ends way of thinking. He demonstrates that you can improve your life if you let go of the anxiety of wanting to serve a purpose. To be sure, Zhuangzi doesn’t altogether spurn usefulness. Rather, he argues that usefulness itself should not be life’s bottom line. 

Daoism can be really annoying, but sometimes it helps to be reminded that the universe is very strange, our attempts to control it are bound to fail, and we should appreciate it for what it is.

Monday, January 17, 2022

Trees on Buildings and the Green Aesthetic

This is 1,000 Trees, a mixed use building in Shanghai by Heatherwick Studio. I think it is ok, aesthetically, certainly better than bare concrete and glass. Aesthetically, I like covering buildings with trees and vines.

But this sort of design is not really eco-friendly. Consider the planters in which those thousand trees reside, each at the top of a tall concrete column:

Measuring from drawings, I estimate a typical planter and column top contains around 14 tonnes of reinforced concrete. Each kilogram of reinforced concrete releases 0.111 kilograms of carbon dioxide in its production . . . . A single planter would have an embodied carbon of 1,554 kilogrammes carbon dioxide equivalent (CO₂e). The amount of carbon dioxide a tree absorbs is dynamic, and depends on a variety of factors, but can be estimated as 10 kilogrammes per year for the first 20 years of its life.

This means the carbon dioxide absorbed by a tree would take around 155 years to offset that emitted in the production of the concrete planter.

Of course trees do more than just absorb CO₂, so that isn't the whole equation, but then again just building the planter does not represent the whole cost of the design. In defense of Heatherwick Studio, they don't claim that this building is "green." Which is good, because this building is not green at all, just trendy and expensive.

But plenty of other architects have evoked saving the planet in their designs for tree-covered towers, for example Milan's Bosco Verticale. I haven't seen calculations for these towers, but I am sure keeping trees alive up there costs a lot, and since the actual ecological impact of a thousand small trees is modest, I very much doubt it will offset just the number of extra elevator trips involved in tending the trees. These buildings are expressions of a post-industrial, "green" aesthetic, but they will not help the environment of Milan one bit.

Environmentalism is a mix of science, aesthetics, emotional revulsion against industry, attachment to small-scale communities, and so on. That's ok, everything big, important thing is complex. But if you really care about improving the health of ecosystems, you should defer to science, because a lot of stuff that looks or feels "green" is not.

Sunday, January 16, 2022

Susanna Clarke, "Piranesi"

I read this book straight through from beginning to end, something I had not done with any other book in years.

I did not expect to like Piranesi. I knew I would read it, because Clarke's other book, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell (2004), is for me the most remarkable fantasy novel of the past two decades. Despite its great flaws it lingers in my mind like few other books. 

But descriptions of Piranesi put me off. I like fantasies set in worlds that are vast and rich, and this one is the opposite. In it we meet a man, or at any rate a being that thinks of itself as a man, that calls itself Piranesi even though it knows that is not its name. It resides in a vast labyrinth, a crumbling ruin of an enormous palace, the lower floors washed by the sea, the upper chambers obscured by clouds. All the rooms are full of stone statues, each one unique. So far as it knows, this palace is all there is, and the labyrinth goes on forever. It is full of birds and fish, so Piranesi finds plenty of food, but little else besides the endless stone. Piranesi writes:

I am determined to explore as much of the World as I can in my lifetime. To this end I have travelled as far as the Nine-Hundred-and-Sixtieth Hall to the West, the Eight-Hundred-and-Ninetieth Hall to the North and the Seven-Hundred-and-Sixty-Eighth Hall to the South. I have climbed up to the Upper Halls where Clouds move in slow procession and Statues appear suddenly out of the Mists. I have explored the Drowned Halls where the Dark Waters are carpeted with white water lilies. I have seen the Derelict Halls of the East where Ceilings, Floors — sometimes even Walls! — have collapsed and the dimness is split by shafts of grey Light. 

In all these places I have stood in Doorways and looked ahead. I have never seen any indication that the World was coming to an End, but only the regular progression of Halls and Passageways into the Far Distance.

From the beginning we sense there is something off with Piranesi's mind. First, it has no memories of its youth, yet it believes it is about 35 years old. It knows of many things that do not exist within the Labyrinth. It has clothes and other objects that could not have been made in its world. Its memory is obviously faulty, something of which it is intermittently aware.

The story concerns the unraveling of this mystery. Imagine, if you will, one of those Romantic stories about bold human spirits who push the boundaries of knowledge too far, and do something they should not: Frankenstein, or The Great God Pan. Now imagine it told in reverse. That is Piranesi.

But just as with Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, the plot is not the point of Piranesi. The point is the words, the vast labyrinth of language, and palace built of sentences, paragraphs, and images. For a short book like this one, that is enough for me.

One more example:

An image rises up in my mind. It is the memory of a statue that stands in the nineteenth north-western hall. It is the statue of a man kneeling on his plinth; a sword lies at his side, its blade broken in five pieces. Roundabout lie other broken pieces, the remains of a sphere. The man has used his sword to shatter the sphere because he wanted to understand it, but now he finds that he has destroyed both sphere and sword. This puzzles him, but at the same time part of him refuses to accept that the sphere is broken and worthless. He has picked up some of the fragments and stares at them intently in the hope they they will eventually bring him new knowledge.

More Snow

Snow falling hard at 3:30 PM, the leading edge of a storm that should last until tomorrow.

Today's Place to Daydream about: Blois, France

Blois is an ancient town on the Loire River in central France. 

Most people who visit are on tours of the famous chateaux of the Loire Valley, an amazing collection of Renaissance palaces. The building of these got started when Henry V of England conquered northern France in the early 1400s, forcing the French court south to the Loire. Even after they retook Paris French kings continued to spend a lot of time in Blois, Tours, and nearby country retreats. It was not until the time of Louis XIV that French royalty mostly abandoned this region. 

The old town of Blois, as you will see, is very much a monument to this time: the place may be much older, but almost all the old buildings you can see were built between 1450 and 1700. It therefore has very much the look of the early modern period.

There is one major remnant of medieval Blois: the Tour-Beauvoir. This was the keep of a 12th-century castle that was later incorporated into the walls of the growing town and then used as a prison in to the 19th century.

Blois has an impressive cathedral, but except for its foundations little of it is medieval; construction of the current facade and bell tower began in 1544. You can see how the lingering Gothic of the late middle ages got mixed up with Renaissance neoclassicism.

The structure suffered heavily in the 16th-century Wars of Religion, when Calvinists broke most of the windows. So most of the details you can see date to the 17th century and later.

But it is for palaces, not cathedrals, that the Loire Valley is known, and this is equally true in Blois. The royal palace here grew over the years, as you can see, a series of monarchs each adding his own touch. 

Here you can enter the world of The Three Musketeers, of kings like Francis I and Henry IV, of queens like Marie de Medici. 

The king's bedchamber, as established under Francis I, with Henry IV's bed.

And the queen's.

The palace has famous gardens, including a rose garden.

But what really drew me to Blois was these images of the streets in the old town. Many of the houses here date to the 1500s and 1600s. The gray stone buildings and gray stone pavements speak to me of a the past, especially when photographed under the gray skies so common along Europe's Atlantic fringe.

I imagine merchants and their wives in black cloth and starched white ruffs, gentlemen and ladies in blue and red. I hear horses' hooves, rattling wagons, the voices of market sellers, criers, stevedores, and beggars.

I wish I were there, hearing the footsteps of the Ancien Regime echoing off the stones around me.

Did Michael Avenatti Deserve This?

Michael Avenatti, the sleazeball lawyer who represented Stormy Daniels when she sued Donald Trump, then stole $300,000 from his client, ended up in prison for attempted extortion. He is now suing the government, saying that he was treated harshly in prison because of his public criticism of Donald Trump. Ok, you're thinking, this is Michael Avenatti, surely this is another one of his sleazeball stunts. But wait.

This is from the summary in the Times: 

Mr. Avenatti said in his claim that he had initially been held in solitary confinement in the Santa Ana Jail in Orange County and had then been taken to Manhattan and detained at the now-closed Metropolitan Correctional Center, much of that time in its most secure wing, 10 South.

Traditionally, 10 South was used to hold detainees charged with terrorism and other notorious crimes. Its most notable recent occupant was Joaquín Guzmán Loera, the Mexican drug lord known as El Chapo.

“To take a man who has lived for decades without any criminal convictions, no history of violence,” Mr. Avenatti said in a phone interview with one of his lawyers on the line, “and within 72 hours put him under these conditions where he is housed in the most restrictive, diabolical unit in the entire United States for pretrial detainees, is unheard-of.”
While in detention, Avenatti

spent about 94 days in solitary confinement or under locked-down status. “For the vast majority of that time period, I was in 10 South,” he said in the interview.

Last July, when he was sentenced to two and a half years in the Nike case, Judge Paul G. Gardephe of Federal District Court observed that Mr. Avenatti had been held “in horrific conditions at the M.C.C. for more than three months, in solitary confinement for much of the time and in lockdown for nearly all of it.”

Mr. Avenatti said in the papers that while he was at the M.C.C., he had been prohibited from speaking with relatives or friends, he had been provided no access to fresh air or recreation, temperatures at night had been frigid, and he had been permitted to see the sky only once.

Some of the lockdown was due to Covid, but this really is extremely weird for a white collar crook. And in the category of adding insult to injury,

When he asked for reading material, he said in his claim, he was initially refused and was then provided one book: “Trump: The Art of the Deal.”

I bet the guards are still laughing about that one.

But, really, what is this about? Was Avenatti just an obnoxious jerk? Were the guards really down on him for going after Trump? Or maybe does he have some kind of organized crime connection that hasn't been made public yet, and the bosses used their prison connections to remind him of how much power they have to ruin the rest of his life if he talks about it?

I find the whole business very odd.

Saturday, January 15, 2022

The Mästermyr Chest

The place known as Mästermyr, on the Swedish island of Gotland, used to be a lake. The lake was drained in the early twentieth century. In 1936 a farmer named Hugo Kraft was plowing up a new section of the resulting mucky fields when his plow struck something solid. It turned out to be this chest. The chest is 90 cm (35 in) long, 26 cm (10 in) wide and 24 cm (9.4 in) high. The chain that wrapped it was locked with a padlock.

For reasons I don't understand, it has proved difficult to date the chest; maybe something about the bog water messed up the radiocarbon profile? Anyway the best the Swedish Historical Museum can do is to say that this is "Viking period," 800-1100 AD.

The chest turned out to be full of tools. If the dating is right, this is the oldest major assemblage of European tools. There are more than 200 objects, including tools for both woodworking and metalworking as well as odds and ends like nails and lock parts.

One guess is that this belonged to a master shipwright, since they had to work with both wood and iron. Wikipedia has the complete list of the objects in the chest, which includes 3 padlocks, 7 hammers, forging tongs, axes, adzes, gouges, chisels, augers, wood files, metal files, and two draw knives. The Swedish Historical Museum has photographs of all of them.

One comment some experts have made is that this stuff looks an awful lot like a Roman tool chest would. The locks, in particular, are pretty much identical to Roman specimens. I don't find this surprising; everyday tools evolved very slowly until modern steel-making made super high-quality metal readily available, and still both a modern blacksmith's hammer and a modern carpenter's claw hammer look pretty much identical to Roman specimens.

One of the more unusual objects is the fire grid, for cooking over an outdoor fire.

So what is this stuff doing in an old lake? Opinions differ as to whether the chest was lost in a boat-wreck, or if it was intentionally hidden. If it was lost, it implies that the owner was itinerant, perhaps traveling from one noble house to another to build or repair ships and boats. However it got there, it is a remarkable look back at the craftsmen of the European past.