Monday, February 28, 2022

Matt Levine Explains the Sanctions Against Russia in Terms of What Money Is


One great theme of the post-2008 financial world is that money is a social construct, a way to keep track of what society thinks you deserve in terms of goods and services. That has always been true, but modern finance has made it more obvious. I think that 15 years ago it was easier to think that money was an objective fact. Money is a kind of stuff, you might have thought, stuff with some predictable value that you can exchange for goods and services, and you can acquire a quantity of it and then you own that money and can use it however you like to buy things.

But the response to the 2008 global financial crisis, and to its later European aftershocks, made it clear that something else was going on. Who has money and what they can do with it can be adjusted by the actions of central banks and national treasuries; banks can be bailed out; costs can be socialized. The fiscal response to Covid-19 reinforced this point: Money is a tool of social decision-making, not an objective thing that you get through abstract merit.

There has also been the enormous rise of cryptocurrency, which taught two somewhat opposite lessons about this theme. On the one hand, the value of cryptocurrency is so clearly socially constructed: A Bitcoin was worth roughly nothing a decade ago, and roughly $41,000 today, solely because people collectively decided to ascribe value to Bitcoin. Bitcoin provided a clear and salient example of the fact that money gets its value from people agreeing that it’s valuable.

On the other hand, though, crypto enthusiasts have always pitched it as a way around the traditional methods of social construction of money. Crypto is unregulated money, censorship-resistant money, money whose value is not subject to the whims of a central bank. These claims are not always true in practice — as crypto has become more valuable and more integrated with the mainstream financial system, it has become more subject to the same sorts of regulation — but they do highlight how the traditional system works. “Money is only useful if the government lets you use it” is now a thing that a lot of people believe, though often with the corollary “but Bitcoin fixes that.”

As of Friday Russia had about $630 billion of foreign currency reserves, a large cushion designed to allow it to withstand economic sanctions and prop up the value of the ruble. But “foreign currency reserves” are not an objective fact; they are mostly a series of entries on lists maintained by foreign-currency issuers and intermediaries (central banks, correspondent banks, sovereign bond issuers, brokerages). If those people cross you off the list, or put an asterisk next to your entry freezing your funds, then you can’t use those funds anymore.

And so over the weekend the U.S., the European Union, the U.K., Switzerland, Singapore and other countries announced harsh sanctions against Russia for its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. There are a lot of these sanctions — banning Russian flights through European airspace, limiting Russian banks’ access to the SWIFT interbank messaging system, etc. — but the most drastic might be U.S., U.K. and EU bans on any transactions with the Russian central bank. The bulk of Russia’s foreign reserves are held in the form of securities, deposits at other central banks and deposits at foreign commercial banks. A ban on transactions with Russia’s central bank means that it can’t sell those securities or access those deposits. Its foreign currency reserves turned out to be mostly useless. Adam Tooze writes:

The crucial thing is that reserves of euros and dollars can be put to work only by selling them in western financial markets. Those transactions require intermediary banks. And those banks can be blocked from engaging in transactions involving Russia’s central bank. To do this to a fellow central bank involves breaking the assumption of sovereign equality and the common interest in upholding the rights to property. It is a major step not easily taken against a central bank as important and as much part of the Western networks as the central bank of Russia.

Russia’s foreign reserves consist, in the first instance, of a set of accounting entries. But in a crisis the accounting entries don’t matter at all. All that matters are relationships, and if your relationships get bad enough then the money is as good as gone.

There is a lot to dislike, or at least to be uncomfortable with, in this situation. There are the Bitcoiners’ complaints: Financial transactions are a private matter, letting authorities interfere with them is bad for freedom, dictators (or democracies) can arbitrarily cut off money to people they dislike, etc. But there are also more specific complaints about “weaponizing the dollar”: The U.S.-dollar-based international financial system, and the international financial system broadly, is an extremely valuable engine for global prosperity because people basically trust it to be reliable and neutral and rules-based; they trust that a dollar in a bank is usable and fungible, that the dollar system protects property rights.[2] “Money is a social construct,” sure, in the back of everyone’s mind, but it is a well-constructed construct, one that works. Making the Russian central bank’s money disappear undermines that valuable trust. This is arguably bad for the dollar’s long-run dominance: Russia will develop its own ways around SWIFT, China will push other countries to adopt its digital yuan, everyone will use Bitcoin, etc. But it is also arguably bad for global prosperity: Trustworthy rules-based trade works better and produces more value than arbitrary uncertain trade.

But what I want to suggest is that this weekend’s actions are evidence that the basic structure is good. What I want to suggest is that society is good, that it is good for people (and countries) to exist in a web of relationships in which their counterparties can judge their actions and punish bad actions. If money is socially constructed and property is contingent then money is a continuing, dynamic, ever-at-risk reward for prosocial behavior.
There doesn't seem to be any way to link to Levine's individual posts; the site is here, and this came from his post for February 28.

Happiness Research and Happiness

For the past few years the most popular course at Yale has been "Psychology and the Good Life" taught by Laurie Santos, an expert on happiness research. David Marchese interviewed her for the NY Times. A couple of excerpts:

A lot of stuff that we know can have a positive effect on happiness — developing a sense of meaning, connection with other people, meditation and reflection — are commonplace religious practices. How helpful are they outside religion? 

There’s evidence that cultural structures, religious structures, even smaller groups like your CrossFit team can cause true behavior change. The question is what’s driving that? Take the religious case. You could mean two things by saying you need a cultural apparatus around the behavior change: One is you need a rich sense of beliefs; you need to buy into theological principles to get the benefits. Another is that it’s your commitment to these groups that does it, and it doesn’t have to come with a set of spiritual beliefs. There’s a lot of evidence that religious people, for example, are happier in a sense of life satisfaction and positive emotion in the moment. But is it the Christian who really believes in Jesus and reads the Bible? Or is it the Christian who goes to church, goes to the spaghetti suppers, donates to charity, participates in the volunteer stuff? Turns out, to the extent that you can disentangle those two, it seems to not be our beliefs but our actions that are driving the fact that religious people are happier. That’s critical because what it tells us is, if you can get yourself to do it — to meditate, to volunteer, to engage with social connection — you will be happier. It’s just much easier if you have a cultural apparatus around you. 

Is there anything surprising to you that people are just not getting about happiness? 

For my students, it’s often money. My fast read of the evidence is that money only makes you happier if you live below the poverty line and you can’t put food on your table. Whether getting superrich actually affects different aspects of your well-being? There’s a lot of evidence it doesn’t affect your positive emotion too much. There was a recent paper by Matt Killingsworth where he was trying to make the claim that happiness continues as you get to higher incomes. And yeah, he’s right, but if you plot it, it’s like if you change your income from $100,000 to $600,000 your happiness goes up from, like, a 64 out of 100 to a 65. For the amount of work you have to put in to sextuple your income, you could instead just write in a gratitude journal, you could sleep an extra hour. Yeah, the money thing is one that students fight me on. It hits at a lot of the worldview they’ve grown up with.

And here is Santos on one of my favorite topics, whether the political and psychological approaches to life are in opposition:

Is it possible that practices that lead to happiness like accepting anxiety, avoiding comparison with others and being satisfied with what we already have can also lead to complacency? Don’t you need some of the emotionally detrimental stuff in order to achieve? 

People have looked at this in the context of things that we worry about when it comes to complacency: huge problems from anti-Black violence to the climate falling apart. We need people to recognize these issues, get angry and take action. There’s a worry that maybe if you follow these practices, you’ll be so complacent that you’ll let California burn and let horrible social-justice violations continue. There’s been some lovely work on this by Kostadin Kushlev, who’s a positive psychologist who has been interested in, Do these practices make you complacent when it comes to the big issues? What he finds is that the people who self-report the highest positive emotions, they’re the ones who are taking action.

Which is also my impression. Getting angry or depressed about the world does not help anything. The people who make changes are usually the ones who believe in a better future.

Old Heroes Fallen

I was in Richmond, Virginia over the weekend, and happened to drive by the spot where the statue of Stonewall Jackson used to stand. And the former Monument Avenue, shorn of its monuments, has been renamed Arthur Ashe Boulevard.

The sight inspired conflicting emotions in me. I'm no fan of Confederate heroes, but they were nice statues, and part of a beautiful, distinctive streetscape. Now there is just rubble and traffic barrels. And no plan to put anything here instead; the statues were removed under an emergency order from the mayor, amidst the George Floyd protests, and if anyone is thinking about new monuments I haven't heard about it.

There is, these rubble-filled holes seem to say, nothing to celebrate any more, nothing anyone cares enough about to put up a monument to it.

Saturday, February 26, 2022

Happy 60th Birthday to Me

Posing with a wonderful present from my elder daughter, the first year of this blog as a hardbound book.

Friday, February 25, 2022

Black Washington Welcomes the Emancipation Proclamation

From a National Park Service Report on the Black refugees who came to Washington, DC during the Civil War:

Unquestionably, the Emancipation Proclamation was an enormous step which definitively marked the Union Army as a liberationary force (soldiers, in fact, began carrying small copies of the Proclamation on cards to distribute as they occupied Confederate territory), but it did not apply in all cases. . . .

Certainly, freedpeople throughout the capital region celebrated these milestones. In the school at Camp Barker on New Year’s Eve 1862, “the whole congregated multitude of contrabands, young and old, awaiting upon their knees at midnight the signal of the moment between December 31, 1862, and January 1, 1863” marked the arrival of the Emancipation Proclamation. When January 1 arrived, the African American minister Henry McNeal Turner was preaching to an open-air congregation at Israel Church when “such a multitude of people in and around my church” prompted him to suspend his sermon and run “up to the office of the first paper in which the proclamation of freedom could be printed, known as the Evening Star.” There, Turner jostled his way to the front of the crowd, and when the first printed copy shot off the press, he was one of three men to grab for it. He missed the first and the second but snatched the third and ran down Pennsylvania Avenue, waving his copy. As freedpeople caught sight of the sheet of paper “they raised a shouting cheer that was almost deafening.” Members of the crowd lifted Turner up onto a platform where he began to read the text, but was too overcome. A companion took over for him, and as he read, “men squealed, women fainted, dogs barked, white and colored people shook hands, songs were sung,” cannons fired and a roar rose from the area of the White House. “Great processions of colored and white men marched to and fro and passed in front of the White House,” where Lincoln waved out the window, concerned, Turner speculated, that if he ventured out, the animated crowd “would hug him to death.” Two years later, when Congress passed the Thirteenth Amendment on January 31, 1865, one hundred guns in a battery in Franklin Square fired a salute, and dignitaries all over the city made speeches. One such speech was delivered by the African American minister, Henry Highland Garnet, who spoke from the desk of the Speaker of the House to a large, racially mixed crowd in a Capitol from which African American spectators had been barred when the war began.

Links 25 February 2021

Edgar Degas Self Portrait 1857-1858

Institute for the Study of War assessment of the Ukraine war as of yesterday.

Tyler Cowen says the San Francisco school board recall means "wokeism has peaked."

The Canadian "trucker" protests as the latest conflict between two economic and social factions, Virtuals and Practicals.

Medieval gold brooch inscribed with Latin prayers and Hebrew letters may have been an amulet against disease.

Mitch Debrowner's remarkable black and white tornado photographs. And many more storms at his web site.

"A lot of athletes fall into a deep depression after the Olympics."

Lots of debate over whether there really was a "great resignation." Or maybe a "great retirement." I find it interesting that despite all the data we collect about employment it is still difficult to find out what the numbers really say about a turn away from work. Surveys say a lot of people are quitting, but those numbers don't align with the data on how many people have found new jobs, left the work force or retired. So where did they go? One important detail is that data sets being used now to talk about "record" resignations only go back to 2000, so other eras when there was a lot of work turmoil (1945, for example) aren't in the data.

The tidal swamps of Delmarva are remarkably diverse ecosystems, jewels of biodiversity just a few miles from Washington, Baltimore, and Ocean City. But their stability depends on ash trees that grow in the tidelands, and the ash trees are fast disappearing under the assaults of the invasive emerald ash borer. Nobody knows what will happen to these places when the trees are gone. (NY Times)

Linguistic analysis of word use patterns etc. may have identified the anonymous Q whose posts started the QAnon movement. (NY Times)

Long Vox piece on air pollution in Africa and South Asia, and the difficulty of reducing it.

In the US today, 21% of black people are immigrants or the children of immigrants. I find myself wondering what effect this influx of Caribbean and west African people will have on black culture in the US.

Desertion by black soldiers in the US Civil War. Besides all the reasons white soldiers deserted, some blacks found the Army all too much like slavery.

Lead seal from a papal letter of 1334 found in Sweden. And since the Pope didn't send many letters to Sweden, we know exactly which letter it came from.

Diatoms on skeleton confirm that a Neolithic Chilean fisherman died by drowning in salt water.

American Indian women go missing all the time, and nobody knows what happens to most of them. Some probably just move to the city. But this story makes it sound like complications of identity and questions of who really lives where – on the reservation or off? and which reservation? so which police are responsible? – lie behind some of the missing person posters. Reservation communities have all of America's social problems, including violence, family breakdown, and mental health crises. Tribal leaders of course see stronger Indian identities and stronger tribal institutions as the solution, but some people rebel against that kind of togetherness and are drawn to the anonymity and freedom of city life, especially after fights with their families or lovers. So they vanish. And given the troubled backgrounds of some of these women it is easy to imagine that some may come to bad ends. I know suburban white folks who wish they were part of a strong community with its on traditions and its own spiritual path, but in practice some American Indians end up divided between two worlds and not at home in either.

After fifty years of struggle, activists and loggers are still fighting over California's redwood forests.

The famous "marshmallow test" study, which found that toddlers' ability to resist temptation predicted their future educational and economic success, has failed a major replication.

The problem of succulent plant poaching.

Technical but fascinating article by Gregory Cochrane and colleagues about how doctors learned to distinguish between infectious diseases, genetic conditions, and environmental causes like poisoning or vitamin deficiencies. The authors predicted, twenty years before it was confirmed this year and without any evidence other than general patterns of occurrence, that multiple sclerosis was caused by defense against a viral infection.

Spanish treasure galleon call the San José, sunk by the British in 1708, has been found in Colombian waters with billions in gold and silver aboard. The Colombian and Spanish governments both claim to own it, and an indigenous group from Bolivia has also filed a claim on the basis that their ancestors were forced into slavery to mine the silver.

San Francisco is surely the most progressive large city in the US, but voters are frustrated over problems with the homeless population and a general sense of disorder, and the mayor is changing her message to talk about more police presence and tougher enforcement. If progressives can't keep the streets safe, voters will turn to "tough on crime" conservatives. I think this matters a lot because our problems with mental illness, drug addiction, and homelessness are not going to get better any time soon, and the urban future will belong to the forces that cope best. I am not saying conservatives necessarily have better ideas here, but people will not stay loyal to a party that isn't keeping order. (Washington Post)

Meanwhile in London: the 18th-century workhouse that probably inspired the one in Oliver Twist is now being renovated into luxury condos. Dickens used to live down the street, and one of the real details he put in his story was the house rule that second helpings were never allowed. Wits say the slogan of the condo sellers will be, "Yes, you can have more!" (NY Times; wikipedia)

Thursday, February 24, 2022

What are they Thinking?

I read once that as his armored vehicle crossed into Iraq, in March 2003, General David Petraeus turned to the reporter sitting next to him and said, "Tell me how this ends."

I imagine Russian officers doing the same thing today. 

Chuck Klosterman Reviews his Life

More from Klosterman's interview with Tyler Cowen:

COWEN: But final question: what is it you will do next?

KLOSTERMAN: Oh, like what writing project I have next?

COWEN: Doesn’t have to be writing. It could just be “I’m going to spend a year watching high school basketball.” Or “I’m going to listen to all my heavy metal records again.” Anything. Your true project, the one you haven’t told anyone about.

KLOSTERMAN: That I haven’t told anyone about. Well, I am just trying to appreciate the high likelihood that in some distant future, I will look back at this period of my life as the best period I had. I’m trying to stay conscious of that as it’s happening. My daughter is six, and she still likes me to lay in bed with her and hold her hand before she falls asleep. Sometimes that’s a drag. Last night, for example, I wanted to see what was going on in the football game, and I was, “Well, you know . . .”

But then, another part of me is like, when I am dying, and I’m thinking about the moments in my life that mattered, it’s probably going to be things like lying in bed with my daughter and holding her hand in this extraordinarily intimate situation. We’re so close to each other, both physically and intellectually, that if I could build a time machine on my deathbed, that’s probably where I’d go back to.

What I’m really trying to do now is try to be cognizant of the fact that all of the things that I wanted in life — I’ve got them, but it’s way beyond it. I don’t know what you’re supposed to do when your actual life has completely usurped any dreams you had, but that’s totally how it is.

Like I said, I used to read Spin magazine in college. When I worked there in the early 2000s, all my friends from college were like, “Ah, your dream, you’ve realized your dream.” I was like, “I never dreamt that when I was reading that magazine. I knew somebody wrote it, but I didn’t think I could get that job.” I never imagined. I was always thinking if I wrote one book in my life, that would be amazing, but now I’ve written 12.

Why doesn’t that make me completely happy? Why am I not completely satisfied by the fact that everything that I was hoping for has not only happened but happened many times over? Because it doesn’t. In some fundamental way, you stay the same. In some ways, I feel the same as I did 30 years ago, even though my life then — I would never want to really revisit except maybe on a vacation, but I wouldn’t want to re-experience it.

How Limits Create Subcultures

If you've read all the war news and still can't focus, here's an interesting distraction: Tyler Cowen interviews culture critic Chuck Klosterman, focusing on his new book The Nineties. I was fascinated by Klosterman's notion that music subcultures don't really exist any more because they were created by scarcity:

The idea of the physical mass subculture is probably gone. And of course, these are easy things to be wrong about, but part of that had to do with the fact of scarcity — not that the records didn’t exist, but that you had to pay for them, and people in teen culture had a limited amount of funds.

If you went and you bought it, you had enough money to buy one CD, so you bought The Cure, and you listened to that real intensely because it’s the only one you got that week. When you go back in two weeks, maybe you buy Sisters of Mercy or Nine Inch Nails or something that vaguely tied to it. Then you realize that the people who like The Cure seem to shop at this place called Hot Topic, so maybe you start shopping there.

The next thing you know, you’re part of this subculture because you had a real limitation. You were limited in your choice, and you were limited in the number of directions you could go.

I believe this is one example of a very broad and important fact: that powerful cultural connections are created largely by limits on what is available. The loosening of those limits is freeing but prevents the formation of strong cultural ties within groups, or at least makes them much more elusive. There is a real trade-off.

Wednesday, February 23, 2022

Craig Brown on Biography

Craig Brown has written a wonderful essay about the problems with biography, which appeared in the TLS for September 10, 2021. Brown delightfully mixes serious issues with amusing asides, and I just love it. He begins with a look at gigantic biographies like Robert Caro's 800,000 words (so far) on Lyndon Johnson, and John Richardson's work on Picasso, which would have been as big as Caro's if Richardson hadn't died before he finished it. Some of these works drown in what Brown calls "untelling detail." Consider the 1700-page book on the Beatles that only gets to 1962:

You may well want to know that George Harrison's first car was a Ford Anglia. But do you really need to know that it was a second-hand, two-door blue Ford Anglia IO5E Deluxe, bought by George from Brian Epstein's friend Terry Doran, who worked at a car dealership in Warrington?

The end point of these giant biographies, he muses, would be like Borges' perfect map of the world, which would have to be the same size as the original.

But this accumulation of detail, says Brown, does not really get us where we most want to go, into the mind of the subject:

While no life can be recaptured in its entirety, not even one single minute of any life could ever be recaptured as a whole, as there is not a minute in the life of the brain that can be isolated from the rest of its life. We live in the present, but we think in the past and in the present and in the future, and often all of them at the same time.

Biography as a form is necessarily artificial. In the end, all biography is a form of fiction. As Peter Ackroyd once said, "Fiction requires truth-telling, whereas in a biography one can make things up."

Brown has some wonderful cases of biographers just flat making up thoughts to put in their subjects' heads, often with absurd results. But is there a better way? 

Of course, more scrupulous biographers eschew such conjecture and rely on first-hand accounts: what do those who were there at the time remember? But are first-hand accounts reliable? In real life, people change their memories almost as often as they change their minds. In The Irish Story (2002), the historian Roy Foster examines the accounts of Irish emigrants at the time they embarked for America and compares them with accounts given by those same emigrants in retrospect. At the moment of departure, they explained that they were leaving Ireland because of unpleasant neighbors or debts or the weather or various runs of bad luck. But given time their memories altered: decades later, having learnt what Foster calls "the language of exile," they put their exodus down to the cruel English driving them from their homes. "One would expect people to remember the past and imagine the future," wrote the historian Lewis Namier, "but in fact, when discoursing or writing about history, they imagine it in terms of their own experience . . . they imagine the past and remember the future."

Brown describes the journals of writer John Fowles, which you might think would be a reliable source about his own life had not his wife often added snarky corrections. ("I did not. You see nothing.") And what if you had multiple independent sources? Brown relates a famous literary encounter, the only time Henry James and Marcel Proust ever met. This took place at a gala event organized by two noted art patrons with many other luminaries in attendance, at least seven of whom left us accounts of their conversation. These accounts disagree wildly about what happened and what was said. I felt that after laying them side by side I had some idea of the exchange, which must have been brief and included the word "no" from both men, but in some recollections fantasy reigned. 

Brown finds himself drawn to source collections, which just lay out all the contradictory evidence for the reader to ponder. He also admires some experimental biographies that approach the subject indirectly and try to build up a mood rather than a straightforward narrative. It isn't one of Brown's examples, but a great work in this vein is Dave Eggers' A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (2000), a memoir full of writerly asides about the difficulty of describing a life; the most important scene in the book (to me) is about frisbee.

I am not such a pessimist as Brown appears in this essay; I doubt he is, either, since he is a prizewinning author of nonfiction. I feel like I know some historical people fairly well, mostly the ones I have encountered in multiple books. But everything he says about biography is true. It is hard to find the right amount of detail, or the right amount of speculation, or the right amount to include about the frustrations of the research and the paradoxes of character. People are complicated; they lie, they get things wrong, they change, they elude our understanding. We'll let Sigmund Freud have the last word: "biographical truth is not to be had, and even if it were it couldn't be used."

Fighting about Ukraine in the Ohio Senate Race

The Ukraine crisis is bring out a serious divide within Republicans over how the US should respond, and it is being fought out day by day in the Ohio Senate race. The two leading candidates are Jane Timken, a more establishment figure supported by Mitch McConnell, and J.D. Vance, who is taking a Trumpist, "American First" line. (New York Times) On Monday Timken put out a statement 

supporting Ukraine’s sovereignty and calling for sanctions on Russia, while condemning Biden for what she called “weak and feckless leadership.”
Vance responded
I don’t really care what happens to Ukraine one way or another.
Then retired Army general and defense consultant Barry R. McCaffrey tweeted 

JD Vance is a shameful person unsuitable for public office. His comments are those of a stooge for Russian aggression..

To which Vance replied: 

Your entire time in military leadership we won zero wars. You drank fine wine at bullshit security conferences while thousands of working class kids died on the battlefield. Oh, by the way, how much do you stand to gain financially from a war with Russia, Barry?

One of Vance's advisers, Ryan James Girdusky, said,

The G.O.P. base were the ones who saw their kids from red states die and get wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan. How many Ukrainians would lay their life down to protect the U.S.?

On the one hand I want us to have a serious debate about any war before we throw ourselves into it, and I like the honesty of people who say, "I don't care enough about Ukraine to fight Russia over it." Some of these folks also worry a lot about China and would prefer to keep the peace with Russia and focus on what they see as our real enemy.

But the way Trump and his cronies talk up Putin and reflexively take his side bothers me. The man is a vicious, murderous liar who makes no secret of his desire to restore the Russian empire. What should we think about people who admire him so much? Can they be trusted about anything?

I find myself wondering a lot about how to balance the horrible cost of a US-Russia war against the cost to humanity and civilization of surrendering Ukraine to a vicious dictator, and hoping we don't have to choose.

Saturday, February 19, 2022

David James Duncan, "The Brothers K"

I picked up this book because it was recommended to someone I know by a friend of hers, a young intellectual man. Curious about what sort of novels young intellectual men read these days, I looked it up and thought it sounded interesting. I got the audiobook and just finished listening to it. It held my interest all the way to the end, and there are things about it I liked very much. The writing is fine, in places quite wonderful, and the plot is compelling despite some absurdities and a bit too much of the heartwarming.

The Brothers K (1992, 665 pages) is a novel about the Chance family, four brothers and their little twin sisters growing up in the paper mill town of Camas, Washington. Their father is a baseball player, their mother a devout Seventh Day Adventist. The brothers come of age in the 1960s and are tossed about on the decade's storms: student radicalism, eastern spirituality, Vietnam. The New York Times summarized the story like this:

The 19th-century Russian novel has been born again in The Brothers K, David James Duncan's wildly excessive, flamboyantly sentimental, tear-jerking, thigh-slapping homage to Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy -- and the game of baseball. 

Yeah, the baseball. This was for me the big problem with the book: at least a hundred pages of baseball, all presented with the dismal earnestness of a man who finds baseball to be the perfect metaphor for life. If you don't have a least a little interest in sports metaphors, you may not be able to handle this book.

Baseball aside, the book is about two things: religion and family. Religious conflict drives much of the plot, as the boys come of age and reject their mother's rigid, churchgoing piety. Duncan grew up Seventh Day Adventist himself, and he gives a convincing and complex picture of church life. Honestly it is the best picture of Christianity I have read in a novel in a very long time. But for Duncan, church is not the best place to look for religion. For him, so far as I can tell, religion is ultimately about throwing yourself into life (e.g., baseball), and devotion to your family. Family is the inescapable reality; good or bad, it is the center of your world.

This kind of novel always feels to me to show only half of life. Sure, family is important, relationships are important. But there is more to life. Duncan understands this, but unfortunately (for me, anyway) his chooses to represent the whole career/intellectual development/personal passion side of life with baseball. 

If you can tolerate a lot of baseball and want to read a long, well-written novel full of interesting people and interesting stories of religion and family, this might be for you, especially if you have a weakness for the bittersweet.

Friday, February 18, 2022

Links 18 February 2022

Gustav Klimt, Portrait of a Woman, 1896

Yet another fusion company backed by big money: TAE Technologies, which is supported by Google, the Rockefellers, Paul Allen, and Goldman Sachs. I would like to think that all those smart, rich people must know something I don't to be investing so much in fusion, but I still don't see this working any time soon.

The Dutch government buys a mediocre Rembrandt for 150 million Euros.

7-minute video from Boston Dynamics showing off the capabilities of their latest human-shaped robots.

IBM has been sued for age discrimination, and trial discovery has turned up corporate emails about hiring more millennials and making "dinobabies" (older workers) extinct. In their defense they say the average age of their employees is 48 and has not changed in decades, and they have hired 10,000 employees over 50 since 2010. Seems to me both could be true; certain corporate leaders could be trying hard to get rid of older employees and replace them with younger people, and this initiative might, like most corporate initiatives, be having no effect. (NY Times)

Back in 1890, three carved chalk cylinders were excavated from an old grave in England. They are known as the Folkton Drums, but nobody knew how old they were and they were filed away under "unexplained, undatable things.". Now a very similar object has been found in another burial, radiocarbon dated to around 3000 BC.

Croatian utility workers dig up a street, find intact Roman mosaic.

What did Ninjas actually do? According to our Japanese sources, one mission was to sneak out of castles under siege for stealthy raids on the besieging force. Now archaeologists excavating a castle that was taken by siege in 1590 have unearthed a cache of throwing weapons that look a lot like the Ninja weapons of modern movies.

Trying to unravel the mysteries of a blackboard doodled on by physicists at a 1980 conference, which Stephen Hawking insisted on leaving untouched until his death in 2018. It is now going on display in a museum exhibit. Is there any science in it, or just inside jokes?

William Saletan on 25 years at Slate: "In the old days, there was a lot of hope that the information age would make us smarter. It didn’t."

Some European scholars tried to estimate the death rate during the first Black Death (1348-1349) using pollen cores, on the theory that the amount of land taken out of cultivation would approximate the population decline. They found major variations across Europe. Populations fell dramatically in Scandinavia, France, SW Germany, central Italy, and Greece, but not in Iberia, Ireland, or eastern Europe. Interesting but understanding landscapes from pollen is an iffy business and some times ponds a few miles apart give quite different results.

Soil bio-acoustics. Fascinating.

The "Russian flu" of 1889-1890 caused a pandemic somewhat similar to he current one, then vanished after three years. Some virologists think it was a coronavirus, which would bode well for our fate. (NY Times, wikipedia)

Wildlife at Chernobyl: some studies say it is thriving in the absence of people, while other studies find increased mutation loads and declines in many species.

Frank Bruni on the hidden pains and struggles the people around us may be going through; one of the most cheerful-seeming and impressive men he ever met committed suicide. (NY Times)

San Francisco voters recalled three school board members who were seen as more focused on renaming schools and other "woke" issues than keeping schools open or educating anyone. One flash point was a shift to an admissions lottery at an elite high school. Asian voters seem to have turned out in unusually large numbers. If the Democrats don't moderate their message I foresee a mass shift of Asian Americans to the Republican party (NY Times, NPR)

Below the headline radar, a bunch of bipartisan bills are making their way through Congress.

Two big foundations have promised $41 million for research aimed at developing a new kind of economic thinking that would get us away from free markets and Neoliberalism. Their paradigm seems to be the way that Chicago School economists made free market thinking intellectually powerful and important in the 1960s, which helped lead to political change under Thatcher and Reagan. I wish them luck, but this is a 250-year-old debate and finding a new angle on political economics is not going to be easy. The money is also pretty small when you consider that another group of foundations just announced $328 million to reduce methane emissions. (NY Times. And here are the program and a longer manifesto of one of the foundations, and an announcement from the other.)

Spitalfields Life presents a collection of Victorian "Vinegar Valentines."

Landscape Photographer of the Year winners.

Educated French Muslims are leaving France for Britain and the US, saying they face less discrimination in those countries. One says, "It’s only abroad that I’m French. I’m French, I’m married to a Frenchwoman, I speak French, I live French, I love French food and culture. But in my own country, I’m not French." Some interviewees pointed to the terrorist attacks of 2015-2016 as the time when it became impossible to live as a Muslim in France, which I think is a good model of what terrorism usually accomplishes: anger, hate, and maimed lives. (NY Times)

There is bipartisan interest in Congress in fixing the Electoral Count Act to avoid another mess like we had in 2020. But Yuval Levin says it is proving hard to agree on an actual bill because somebody has to be responsible for the count. Reforms that limit the power of state officials to meddle tend to increase the power of Congress to meddle, and vice versa. Ultimately we have to trust somebody.

The last fluent speaker of another language passes away.

Kevin Drum calls on mainstream Democrats to stand up for what they believe in.

Book blurbs.

Tuesday, February 15, 2022

Ants Digging Deep

Cast of a Florida harvester ant nest. These can be up to 3 meters (10 feet) deep. When you're an archaeologist it's important to understand the forces that might have moved your artifacts around since people dropped them on the ground.

Pedestrian Deaths and Pandemic Madness

Even though Americans have driven a lot less during the pandemic, fatal traffic accidents have risen. The rate of pedestrian death is up 5%, which is 21% if you calculate it by miles driven. The NY Times has a grim story about this today, which started me wondering again about what the pandemic is doing to us. Of course it might be mainly a matter of lighter traffic leading to higher speeds, or to trends that go back decades, like more Americans driving trucks and SUVs. But some people see a shift in mood:

Dr. David Spiegel, director of Stanford Medical School’s Center on Stress and Health, said many drivers were grappling with what he calls “salience saturation.”

“We’re so saturated with fears about the virus and what it’s going to do,” Dr. Spiegel said. “People feel that they get a pass on other threats.”

Dr. Spiegel said another factor was “social disengagement,” which deprives people of social contact, a major source of pleasure, support and comfort. Combine that loss with overloading our capacity to gauge risks, Dr. Spiegel said, and people are not paying as much attention to driving safely.

“If they do, they don’t care about it that much,” Dr. Spiegel said. “There’s the feeling that the rules are suspended and all bets are off.” . . .

“There’s a portion of the population that is incredibly frustrated, enraged, and some of that behavior shows up in their driving,” said Mark Hallenbeck, director of the Washington State Transportation Center at the University of Washington. “We in our vehicles are given anonymity in this giant metal box around us, and we act out in ways that we wouldn’t face to face.”

Something like the “trucker” protests in Canada points in the same direction: people are fed up, cranky, and not prone to worry about the consequences of their actions. Being behind the wheel of a big vehicle may intensify this sort of mood, making people feel isolated from other humans and their own responsibility.

As I said, I am not sure there is much to this. But if there is, it provides a fascinating glimpse into human society and what ties us together. Does reducing human contact lead to caring less about other people? Or just to a foul mood?

Monday, February 14, 2022

Breeding a Smarter Ocotpus

Richard Ngo:

Octopuses are surprisingly intelligent, and reproduce at 1 year old. If we'd started a breeding program 50 years ago, we probably could've gotten them smarter than dolphins by now. A disappointing failure of the long-term mad science ecosystem.

More here.

One Thing Uniting Red and Blue America is Falling Birth Rates

Since the start of the Great Recession in 2008, the US birth rate has fallen from about 68 per 1,000 women to 54, a decline of 21%. As the graph above shows, the biggest decline was among Hispanic women, who are becoming more and more like black women, who in turn are becoming more and more like white women.

The decline has taken place in every state; in every religious, ethnic, and political group; in rural areas, suburbs, and cities. And while the overall birth has declined in all those groups, the birth rate for women over 30 has risen in all of them.

When it comes to what people believe; Americans seem to be radically divided against each other. But in terms of how we live, we are more and more the same.


In 1991, the Somali government collapsed. The result was a still unresolved civil war and repeated foreign intervention. Which is a great sort of thought experiment, since pretty much everybody in Somalia is from the same ethnic group and the same religion, but they still find reasons to fight. 

But one part of Somalia, the northern quarter or so of the country that was ruled by the British while the rest was Italian, decided to just take themselves out of Somalia and start their own country, called Somaliland. They have received no recognition by foreign governments and very little foreign aid. Somehow, though, they established a quasi-democratic government and have maintained domestic peace while Somalia keeps reappearing in the military news.

From a review of When there was no Aid by Sarah Phillips (2020) in the TLS:

International isolation and negligible aid were an inauspicious start for this fledging statelet, particularly as billions of pounds and swarms of international advisers poured into Somalia. Yet for all this assistance Somalia remains to this day racked by violence, piracy and terrorism. Somaliland, meanwhile, has emerged as a beacon of hope in the Horn of Africa – stable, relatively democratic and broadly functional.

For Phillips, an expert on international development, Somaliland therefore provides a curious example of development without intervention. "For all the doubts raised about the effectiveness of international assistance in advancing peace and development," she writes, "there are precious few examples of developing countries that are even relatively untouched by it." As a result, it is ordinarily very difficult to consider counterfactuals, which question whether aid is actually helpful. Somaliland's example offers partial clues. Its peace "painstakingly negotiated under the trees at dozens of clan-based conferences," while Somalia's was "negotiated in five-star hotels funded by the United Nations." Only one endured. . . .

Phillips makes a compelling case for the unexpected positives of non-recognition. As one minister tells her, the country's isolation has been a "blessing in disguise." Because the peace process was free from "institutional endpoints favored by international donors," Somalilanders, the author tells us, "had the freedom to cherry-pick from local and international models blending Western governance with local customs. A system of clan-based proportional representation (the beel) was adopted, while an unelected house of elders (the Guurti) was integrated alongside a democratic two-tier legislature, presidential executive and an independent judiciary. 

It has to be said that Somaliland is a very poor place – the biggest piece of its economy in dollar terms is money sent home by citizens working abroad – but it certainly is doing better than Somalia. I have read two books about Somalia, and they both gave the impression that the main impact of foreign aid was to give factions and warlords something to fight over.

Friday, February 11, 2022

Links 11 February 2022

Wilhelm Dreesen, In the Port, ca. 1900, heliogravure

The Spanish Catholic conquerors of Peru did not care for traditional Andean burial practices, especially the creation of mummies. So they destroyed thousands of graves and hacked up thousands of mummies. It looks like the people of one region might have gathered up the bones scattered in this way and strung them together along lengths of reed, leaving many bizarre collections of bones. (Smithsonian)

New study says Australia's aboriginal people were not cut off from the outside world, but made long trading voyages in seagoing canoes 5,000 years ago and continued doing so into the 1700s AD.

Whalers reported centuries ago that orcas sometimes killed and ate blue whales, but this was never confirmed by biologists until recently, when three cases were filmed off Australia. 

If everything is trauma, is anything really traumatic? "When we start to talk about ordinary adversities as ‘traumas’ there is a risk that we’ll see them as harder to overcome and see ourselves as more damaged by them." Amen to that. (NY Times)

David Brooks looks at the fragmentation within Evangelical churches, torn apart over politics, sexual abuse, and questions about power and obedience. (NY Times)

Bronze Age drinking straws, likely used for communal beer drinking from large pots. 

Article about and strange video of the synchronized swimming of the tiny nematodes known as vinegar eels.

MIT scientists create new polymer that forms 2-dimensional sheets rather than 1-D chains; they say these sheets can be stacked to create materials with the structural strength of steel but 1/6 the weight. They call it 2DPA-1. Another interesting feature is that these sheets are impermeable to water and to most gases.

The rise of Multicultural London English. (The New Yorker)

Worried about a tsunami that some geologists say is inevitable, one school district in coastal Washington wants to build "evacuation towers" tall and strong enough that its students could survive even a 20-foot wave. (NY Times; more on this topic here and here)

Michael Makowsky ponders why so many writers live in Brooklyn. His conclusion is that both fiction and journalism provide high status rewards but low pay, leading writers to live in areas where other people who value their status are concentrated.

And Makowsky on Pfumvudza, a kind of no-till, mulched farming ("conservation farming") spreading in Zimbabwe. 

The contemporary cooking scene is full of people who grew up watching cooking shows on the Food Network, dreaming about cooking but also about having their own cooking shows. (NY Times)

Good NPR article on that Tennessee pre-K study, including comments from one of the authors.

The family tree of Covid-19: the Omicron variant appeared pretty much out of nowhere, with no antecedents other than the original strain, and no relationship to other known variants. 

Words better known by men than women, and vice versa.

Long Covid: brief summary by Tyler Cowen of a long piece by Zvi, one of the core "rationalists."

Who are the Canadian "truckers" protesting vaccine mandates? NY Times summaryGuardian story on the leaders, long first-person narrative by someone who has been there. Makes me wonder why protests like this haven't happened more often.

Wednesday, February 9, 2022

The Moral Danger of the Mystical

Jordan Peterson:

There’s a miraculously infinite amount of richness everywhere, but you can’t wander around thinking that all the time because you just wouldn’t get anything done. It’s too complex to see everything at once. Take a psychedelic, and you’ll see everything at once, and that’s the beatific vision, but there’s a danger in that because you’ll also see, in some ways, your relationship to that, which is infinite in scope, along with your moral responsibility. And if you realize that simultaneously and contrast that with who you are currently, in your embittered and fragmented partial form, that can produce a moral burden that’s intolerable.

I find this a very interesting statement, not just about psychedelic drugs, but about any spiritual experience. Does it uplift you in a way you can use in your life, or merely make your life seem trivial and pathetic? Many years ago I read an essay by a mountain climber who said this happened to him; on top of his first Himalayan peak he had a vision so powerful he threw away the rest of life, including his marriage, to devote all his energies to getting back to that place over and over on one mountain after another. Nothing else mattered to him any more. 

Some religious mystics are inspired to teach, write, or become the leaders of communities, while others just want to retreat from the world. Many humans are so impressed by that sort of vision and renunciation that many cultures have supported such people, feeding and honoring them in their escape from the mundane world.

But if you want a normal life, you have to limit your exposure to the sublime. It is a dangerous thing for earthbound mortals to play around with.

Monday, February 7, 2022

Chaz Guest

Chaz Guest (born 1961) is an African American painter much admired by optimistic black celebrities like Oprah and the Obamas. Above, a recent self portrait, which is my favorite of the works I have found.

Guest was a competitive gymnast in his youth and his college career was mostly about getting good enough grades to stay on the team. After he graduated he had no clue what to do with himself. (Ghost, 2018, from Guest's web site)

Interested in fashion, he tried the Fashion Institute of Technology in NYC but couldn't cut it. On the advice of an acquaintance he tried fashion illustration and ended up working for a fashion magazine in Paris. Another acquaintance saw his work and said, "you should try painting." (American Boy, 2008)

So he took up painting, with no training beyond the fashion illustration class he took during his brief stint at FIT. Somewhere along the way Guest picked up a great love of Japanese culture; in most of the photographs you can find online he is wearing a kimono. He taught himself to draw with a brush and ink, Japanese style, which you can see in works like this one.

Even though he has been a success, I think Guest's lack of training shows; I think there are lots of painters around who can render faces better than Guest can. Where he excels is at telling a certain kind of story, one that is about race in America without being divisive, angry, or depressing. This is Running Past Himself, which obviously refers to old images of escape from bondage but according to the painter refers to the struggle all of us fight to escape from our inner demons.

The Planning, 2021, part of a series titled Buffalo Warrior.

Art critic Gary Brewer: interviewed Guest during his recent LA gallery show:

Talking with Chaz Guest was a rich and engaging conversation about storytelling and images. We spoke of how to create characters and narratives that address the history of race in America, but in a nuanced language that spoke to this specific history and transcends it to speak of people throughout history. We spoke of hardship and enslavement, resistance and freedom. When I mentioned that his character “Buffalo Warrior” was a black superhero, he said that he did not see him that way, “ He is a Universal Citizen of the Earth and a fighter for all. I do not see him as black, I think of him as tall, dark and handsome.”  

Some of the Buffalo Warrior paintings are superhero comic-ish, like this one, and apparently there is talk of a movie about this character.

Another reason Guest's latest show is getting a lot of attention is that actor Michael K. Williams, who played Omar on The Wire, sat for Guest just two weeks before he died of an overdose in October. Williams' face appears in some of the Buffalo Warrior paintings, including the one above, The Lonely Night. Guest recently summed up his career like this:
I decided not to use my time trying each day to be a part of the art establishment. I thought that the work would have to speak for itself. If I just painted from my heart, my roads would be easier.

The Electronic Baby

My youngest daughter is taking a child development class in high school, as part of which she had to spend a weekend with the electronic baby. Before this could happen we had to sign a stack of forms acknowledging that this baby cost $800 and we would be responsible for any damage. To head off, I suppose, family members dismembering it if it made too much trouble. The cost is for all the sensors, for example the ones that know if you try to transport the baby in a car without strapping it into a proper car seat. Which is why my wife picked up our daughter and the baby at school on Friday.

Barnabas, as my daughter named him, looked to be about three months old. He made noises but did not move, and his body was rigid plastic. He had to be fed, burped, changed, and dandled on the right schedule or he would start to wail. When treated well he made happy noises.

He was very cranky when he arrived at our house, and had not been here half an hour before my daughter came running downstairs yelling, "Mom, the baby won't stop crying!" My wife picked him up, patted his back, rocked him a little and he quieted right down. My assembled older children found this a hilarious glimpse at something they feel certain will happen for real in the future, since they know nothing about babies themselves but have complete trust in my wife's expertise. (Besides having raised five, she is a nurse in a maternity ward.)

I said, "Relax. Babies can sense fear."

My daughter eventually got the hang of Barnabas, and he made little more trouble. He did wake up in the middle of the night, but my daughter is an intermittent sleeper anyway, so that didn't bother her much. I drove them back to the high school this morning and that was that.

The harder I think about this strange exercise, the less sense it makes to me. If the point is to give young people some idea of what it is like to have a baby, it fails utterly. The electronic baby has demands, but they are predictable and limited to four basic needs: feeding, burping, changing, holding. Real babies are a lot more complicated than that. On the other hand, real babies are about a thousand times more rewarding than rigid plastic machines. It's true that newborns are strange alien life forms, but three-month-olds have already become interactive; you can tell when you are giving them pleasure, tell when they trust you, feel their relief when you give them what they need. They know who their parents are, recognize their voices. But what I missed most, doing my turn holding Barnabas, was the smell. Little babies produce a scent that I'm convinced clicks into some deep hormonal loop in their parents, rendering them wonderful.

My elder daughter said that this is obviously a plot to force the birth rate down even more, and I honestly can't think of a better explanation. Back when I was in high school the birth rate among teenagers was much, much higher than it is is now, so maybe it made sense to put kids off reproducing, but a quick search shows that the rate has fallen by about 80% since 1980. With total fertility falling below replacement across five continents, what are we doing? Seems like another solution to a problem that no longer really exists.

Sunday, February 6, 2022

Climate Doom

Grimly fascinating article by Ellen Barry in the NY Times about all the therapists who now mainly talk to people about their anxiety over climate change:

A 10-country survey of 10,000 people aged 16 to 25 published last month in The Lancet found startling rates of pessimism. Forty-five percent of respondents said worry about climate negatively affected their daily life. Three-quarters said they believed “the future is frightening,” and 56 percent said “humanity is doomed.”

The blow to young people’s confidence appears to be more profound than with previous threats, such as nuclear war, Dr. Clayton said. “We’ve definitely faced big problems before, but climate change is described as an existential threat,” she said. “It undermines people’s sense of security in a basic way.”

I suppose the problem is this: people worried about climate change feel like they are meeting enormous resistance to their efforts to reduce our impact on the planet. So, they keep getting ever louder and more shrill. But their rhetoric has no effect on many and maybe most people, so the resistance remains. Instead, their rhetoric has a catastrophic effect on sensitive people and especially sensitive, young people. The level of doom-mongering needed to achieve even modest reductions in greenhouse gas emissions is enough to send some of us crawling into therapy.

You all know what I think: we're not going to solve any of our problems if we're too depressed and anxious to work at solving them, so this is completely counter-productive.

I wonder why climate change is doing this? I think humanity is objectively in a much better place than we were during the Cuban Missile Crisis; the chance that climate change is going to kill a few billion of us strikes me as much lower than the danger that nuclear weapons posed during the Cold War. My own personal environmental nightmares were all bound up with population growth, and it looks like we are solving that problem so fast that rapidly falling populations might soon be one of our biggest problems.

I have a sense that climate change is not really the source of this anxiety, just a convenient target for our anxious world to focus on. And as to why we are so anxious, I have no idea.

Saturday, February 5, 2022

Vikings in the East: the River Route

During the Viking age, people from Scandinavia traveled across eastern Europe to the Black and Caspian Seas, where they traded, raided, and served as mercenaries in the armies of Byzantine Emperors, Khazar Khans, and various other rulers. 

How did they get there?

You've all probably heard an answer that goes something like, "They sailed down the rivers." But as I just learned from River Kings, a 2021 book about the Viking Age by Norwegian/British archaeologist Cat Jarman, this was actually very difficult. There were many portages, some of them miles long, a few of them dozens of miles long. Jarman reports that while many teams of Swedish, English, and Russian adventurers have tried to voyage from the Baltic to the Black Sea via the rivers, none have succeeded; all eventually gave up and loaded their boats on trucks for substantial segments of the route.

So most likely the journey from the Baltic to Kiev involved a lot of walking. Not that the Vikings were afraid of walking; one of the mercenary armies that fought on the Caspian Sea got there by sailing to the eastern end of the Black Sea and walking across the Caucasus. But it seems unlikely that very many ships were ever sailed and dragged from the Baltic to the Black Sea. Jarman says the consensus among archaeologists today is that the trade from the Baltic to the navigable parts of the Dnieper and Volga Rivers was carried out in shallow-bottomed rowboats. And rather than dragging their boats across the longer portages, they may simply have left one boat or fleet behind, carried their goods overland – or made them walk, since the most valuable part of what they sold south was slaves –and then loaded onto another set of boats when they reached the next lake or river.

And yet when the Byzantines and Arabs encountered Northmen on the Black Sea, they were sailing what sound exactly like the Viking ships of northern waters. There is even this famous graffiti from Hagia Sophia in Istanbul depicting a Viking ship with a dragon prow. The fleet of "Normans" that attacked Constantinople in 860 was said to contain more than 200 ships, and if that is an exaggeration, well, surely you would have wanted an awful lot of ships to attack the massive walls of the mighty imperial city. But since, again, it would have taken a staggering effort to somehow drag all those ships past swamps and rapids and over the hills to the source of the Dnieper, they were probably built along the navigable part of the river, in the vicinity of Kiev or even farther south. The shipwrights may have been Swedish, but then again they may have been Slavs who had been trained in Swedish ship-building techniques; the ethnic make-up of the people known to history as the Rus is a complicated question that will get a post of its own.

People did travel this whole route, from Sweden or England to Constantinople and even Baghdad. We know some of their names: Harald Hardrada,  Bolli Bollason, Ingvar FarTraveller. But the usual course of commerce did not involve one merchant taking a load of goods from Gotland to the Mediterranean. Furs from Finland may have changed hands half a dozen times before they reached the southern markets where they sold for princely sums. This was a trading system, not a waterway down which ships sailed, laden with goods.

Friday, February 4, 2022

The Ambiguity of Desegregation

 Following preservation debates as I do, I have long been impressed by the loyalty that many Black Americans feel toward their old segregated schools:

May Day is my mother’s favorite memory from her time attending the segregated school in the mismatched buildings at the corner of Stokes and Alliance streets. During my own childhood, she and my father, the late Joseph Williams Sr. — both members of Havre de Grace Colored High School in northeast Maryland, Class of ’51 — told stories to my sisters and me that bordered on legend. Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes once lectured my dad’s English class and gave him a book of poems. I envied their experience: I attended a suburban, predominantly White high school in the suburbs.

My parents rarely spoke of the hardships that went along with education in the Jim Crow era, like the secondhand desks and tattered textbooks, the basement science lab or the grassy vacant lot with homemade bleachers serving as the school gymnasium. “I loved being there,” my mother says. “I was proud to graduate from there. The cohesiveness and the closeness made you feel like you belonged.”  . . .

The school and its long, proud history have been resurrected and returned to the community as a museum and community event space, thanks to an alumnus’s determined daughter. Havre de Grace Colored High School has joined a growing national list of formerly segregated institutions finding new life. Ongoing or recently completed grass-roots projects have been pursued in Atlanta, St. Louis, Baltimore, Delaware, Alabama, Virginia, Western Maryland, North Carolina and Florida. (Washington Post)
I can't imagine anyone showing this kind of loyalty to the sort of big, diverse high school I went to.

Links 4 February 2022

Vitor Schietti, Impermanent Sculpture, 2021

Sri Lanka's Prime Minister tried to ban all chemical fertilizers and turn the country 100% organic. It didn't go well.

Amazing classical mosaic uncovered in Turkey depicts a lavish outdoor feast.

If you're curious about hypersonic cruise missiles and how much they will change warfare, Youtuber Millennium7* will explain their significance to you in 8 minutes.

Today's gimmick: making art by bruising bananas. Thanks to Instagram this banana artist is now a lot more famous than most painters and sculptors. (Washington Post)

Jamelle Bouie has a long, interesting piece in the NY Times about all the quantitative work historians have done on the trans-Atlantic slave trade, culminating in the Slave Voyages Database. All this data is fascinating but the level of abstraction makes some people worry that this approach only dehumanizes captive Africans all over again.

Short Tyler Cowen post on how the shifting media landscape has changed our culture.

Cheslie Kryst was Miss USA at 27, dead by suicide at 30. None of the articles I have read yet says anything meaningful about the suffering she must have endured behind her glittering celebrity facade, which bugs me; are we still in a world where depression is some kind of shame?

At the Washington Post, an amazing long feature on Africa's biggest cities. Since Africa is the only continent where the population is projected to keep rising, by 2100 it may have most of the world's biggest urban areas. Life in Lagos sounds like hell to me, but people keeping moving there by the thousands every week.

An African immigrant's pizza wins him a big following in Italy.

The old habit of deifying humans endured into the twentieth century. What was it about? (Washington Post)

Staging a show of Francis Bacon's paintings in Soviet Moscow.

Ishtar holds an orgy in ancient Babylon, c. 1600 BC. And more Babylonian sexual weirdness, surrounding characters called "assinnu" or "man-woman," who seem to be men that Ishtar turned feminine.

Musa al-Gharbi says that America is not a post-truth society or on the brink of civil war, but is undergoing an epidemic of contempt for pollsters.

Kevin Drum: "I was brought up to believe in evolution, quantum mechanics, and the median voter theorem."

Excellent piece by Ross Douthat in the NY Times about the anti-democratic tendencies on both the left and the right in America. (The liberal version is the Progressive tradition of decision-making by "experts.")

In the non-English-speaking world, English-language music is losing ground to other languages.

Virologists sampling New York City's sewage have identified several strange coronavirus variants that have never been found in a human patient. Are these variants that don't make people sick? Or are they evidence that the virus is spreading and mutating in some other species, perhaps rats? (NY Times)

NYC is building an abolitionist monument, but the design is very controversial. There is no sculpture, just a "text based art installation," and many Black New Yorkers really want more statues of Black people. Debates over public monuments show clearly that for many people, figural sculpture remains supremely powerful. (NY Times; project web site)

Use of Facebook stops rising, and its stock plunges (Washington Post; Reuters). TikTok has taken over the social media worlds of my children.

3D Model of the Roman Forum in the time of Augustus, 10-minute video tour.

Thursday, February 3, 2022

No War in Ukraine

Some Americans think Russia might actually invade Ukraine, but most Europeans disagree. Ivan Krastev in the NY Times:

For the United States and President Biden, who on Wednesday formally approved a deployment of American troops to Eastern Europe, a Russian invasion led by President Vladimir Putin is a “distinct possibility.” For Europe, not so much. A senior German diplomat summed up the divergence. “The U.S. thinks Putin will do a full-blown war,” he said. “Europeans think he’s bluffing.”

Perhaps that’s to be expected. After all, full-scale war is generally as unimaginable for a Western European public as an alien invasion. The many decades of peace in Western Europe, combined with the continent’s deep dependence on Russia’s oil and gas, incline officials to assume aggressive Russian moves must be a ruse.

But the European tendency to accommodate Russia doesn’t explain why Ukrainian officials, after initial alarm, now seem to share the same view. Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, last week played down the immediate threat of war, suggesting the situation was “dangerous, but ambiguous.” For a country menaced by 130,000 Russian troops at its border, it’s a striking assessment. What lies behind it?

The answer is surprising, even paradoxical. Europeans and Ukrainians are skeptical of a major Russian invasion in Ukraine not because they have a more benign view of Mr. Putin than their American counterparts. On the contrary, it’s because they see him as more malicious. War, they reason, is not the Kremlin’s game. Instead, it’s an extensive suite of tactics designed to destabilize the West. For Europe, the threat of war could turn out to be more destructive than war itself.

I agree with the Europeans here. I think war is too risky for Putin. There has never been a real trial of Russian planes and missiles against western planes and missiles, and there is a chance such a trial might be humiliating for Russia. It has taken 30 years of hard work to rebuild the sad post-Soviet military into a dangerous-seeming fighting force, and seeing that force damaged or thwarted would be a real blow to Russian power. Better to let the threat of war keep everyone on edge and watch the west continue to unravel.

Wednesday, February 2, 2022

America in the Quicksand

Let me start by saying that I don't really know anything about quicksand. I am not even sure that it exists, although I remember being assured by childhood friends that it did. But I have seen movies, and from them I learned a great deal about quicksand as Hollywood imagined it. So it is movie quicksand that I am going to write about here.

In the movies, quicksand is a dangerous morass that sucks down the unsuspecting people who step into it. And in the movies, the worst thing you can do if you fall into quicksand is struggle. The more you struggle, the faster it sucks you down. The best thing you can do is to stay calm and try to lie flat until someone can throw you a rope or extend a branch you can grasp hold of.

However much or little those old movies describe real world quicksand (if real world quicksand exists), I think they perfectly describe America today.

We are sunk to our necks in quicksand, and the harder we fight to get out, the deeper we sink. We are angry and frustrated, so we lash out, and with every blow we sink a little farther. We are confused, so we flounder violently, and sink a little deeper. 

Or maybe it is better to imagine two of us, side by side, united in hatred. Each wants to strike the other, to drive the other down. But every blow only causes the one who strikes it to sink just as much as the one struck. Enraged, we lash out again and again, and sink deeper and deeper. Seeing ourselves sinking, the only thing we can imagine is to fight harder. This is our chant now: fight, fight, fight. 

I hear, sink, sink, sink. 

People think they are fighting to save American, or to make it a better place. But the harder they fight, the deeper we sink. They are only floundering in the quicksand.

Did the people who rioted for justice, who burned police stations and smashed windows, win anything through their violence? They did not. Everywhere reining in the police was on the ballot, it lost, and it lost partly because people were frightened by the rioters. By turning to violence, they only sank their own cause.

Did the people who rioted to block Biden's inauguration succeed? They did not. They only shamed themselves. They said they were fighting for America, for democracy, but they only sank America deeper into the quicksand, and democracy with it.

Fighting will not help us; violence will avail us nothing. And I do not mean only the violence of smashing and burning. I mean violence of thought and violence of word. So long as we hate each other and try to destroy each other, we will save nothing and make nothing better. We may succeed in driving out enemies deeper into the quicksand, even drowning them. But if we do, we will also drown ourselves.

I hear someone objecting, but we have to do something! And to that I say, sometimes there is nothing useful that you can do. Human history is full of crimes and follies committed because somebody felt something had to be done. But if there is something to be done, hate will not help. Canceling each other, silencing each other, banning each other's books will in the end amount to nothing.

In a democracy, the thing that matters most is the opinion of the average voter. This makes radicals crazy, but it is simple arithmetic. Everything you do that alienates the average person is a loss for your cause. Purity of purpose is no help to you; fanatical devotion to your own truth will only hurt you. The way to fight better is to fight less. It is the side that seems most reasonable that wins, not the one that shouts the loudest.

Sometimes, what you have to do is stay silent about much of what you want and much of what you believe in order to get what is achievable. Lie flat, stay calm, take the rope that is extended to you. Stop thrashing. Stop trying to strike your enemy with violence when that only sinks both of you deeper. 

Living with people you hate is better than waging a battle that only sinks everyone into the quicksand.