Friday, April 29, 2022

Links 29 April 2022

Wall fragment with peacock, Roman, AD 1-79.

For 50 years there has been a strong negative relationship between fertility and income in richer countries, and between fertility and education. But in the many rich nations this is no longer true. The development of a childcare market may be driving some of this shift.

Some ivory artifacts in medieval Kyiv were made with walrus ivory from Greenland. There was also walrus hunting in the Russian arctic, so the presence of Greenland specimens is a little surprising.

Polyester now accounts for more than half of global fiber production. It's also cool again, thanks to its use in activewear like leggings.

Understanding the ice on Europa by analogy to Greenland. That part of the article is interesting, but the claim that "The chances of finding alien life on Jupiter’s moon Europa just shot way up" is false, because there is still no sign of complex organic molecules. Water by itself means nothing.

Potentially important improvement in T-cell therapy for cancer.

The Large Hadron Collider is back online after a three-year rebuild of its main detectors. Now they say the mission is to look for evidence of dark matter and dark energy. Which would of course be amazing, but I'm not holding my breath; I am not aware of any physics indicating that evidence of those things should findable at the energies the LHC can reach.

Twitter thread on using AI to recreate a childhood imaginary friend.

From Macron's victory speech, a typically useless line: "we will invent a new way of doing things together, for a better five years." Sadly that won't happen, and France will have five more years of the same frustrations and divisions. I don't think this is Macron's fault, since France's problems long predate him, but he certainly doesn't have any answers. 

The best performers do not give the best advice.

Flooding forests in Arkansas, duck hunting, and talking to rural Americans about science.

Drive-thru Vietnamese fast food, coming soon to a roadside near you. (NY Times)

Disney, Florida, and the First Amendment.

Bronze Age statue of the goddess Anat found by a farmer in the Gaza Strip.

Trove of wonderful artifacts at the home of an illegal antiquities dealer in Jerusalem.

Review, by Tony Judt, of Mark Mazower's Dark Continent: Europe's Twentieth Century (1999). Dark Continent is on my mind because I am reading Mazower's new history of the Greek Revolution of the 1820s, which so far is wonderful.

Protesters throwing eggs drive the "People's Convoy" of trucks away from Nancy Pelosi's house in Oakland, Ca.

Move over Graphene, the new wonder material is Borophene.

A lot of what Frank Peretti put in his Christian fantasy novels in the 1980s is now widely believed by conservative Christians.

Scott Siskind reviews a book about Lacanian analysis, in case you were ever curious about that French madman Lacan. Best bit:

Physics is stuck in an annoying equilibrium where the Standard Model works for almost everything, and then occasionally we come across some exotic domain where it totally falls apart and we know that reality must be something deeper and weirder. I feel like psychology is the same way: you can explain almost everything with your standard scientific toolkit. Then you look at sex, and you realize you’ll need something much more complicated and worse.

Ukraine Links

The railway saboteurs of Belarus. Interesting that they worked mainly by disabling signals, because they did not want to harm train drivers. With the Russians mostly withdrawn from Belarus, some have moved on to disabling signals in Russia. (Washington Post)

Detailed look at a textbook VDV (air assault) battalion tactical group, with some comparisons to actual BTGs observed in Ukraine.

Former US armored brigade commander on why the Russian's can't succeed. Basically, 1) waging a big war is just really hard, and 2) he knows how to tell good units from bad ones, and the Russian units he has seen are bad.

The role of Ukraine's "Territorial Defense" troops, hastily raised from volunteers after the invasion began.

Reports of a "blame game" within the Russian security forces. But note that most of the military leadership wants to expand the war, not end it.

The defense of Ukraine puts Clausewitz into action.

The political calculations behind the US Secretary of Defense's statement that the US wants "Russia weakened to the point where it can’t do things like invade Ukraine" (NY Times). The US wants to defeat Russia without starting a war with them.

Another count of Russian dead confirmed by funeral announcements finds 1744, of whom 317 are officers, including 2 major generals, 13 colonels, 30 lieutenant colonels, and 39 majors. Elite units are heavily overrepresented.

NBC News feature on how much intelligence the US if feeding to Ukraine (a lot). Among other things they say the US helped Ukraine shoot down a Russian transport plane full of paratroops early in the war; this was reported at the time but no wreckage has ever been spotted.

Operation Z: Death Throes of an Imperial Delusion, significant and interesting discussion of the war by two British intelligence analysts. The text is not nearly as triumphal as the title. Includes discussion of the situation in Moldova. 

How the sinking of the submarine Kursk in 2000 set the tone for Putin's rule.

The intersection of drones and cyberwarfare; making drones effective is all about protecting them from electronic disruption, and defeating them is all about overcoming those defenses. Iran claimed they captured one US drone by sending it false GPS signals, thus inducing it to land at an Iranian base.

Russian infantryman's account of fighting in Rubezhnoe in March and April, grim. "With pure mathematics, the chance of leaving the front line alive and unwounded was close to zero."

Biden asks for $33 billion in additional assistance for Ukraine. Ukraine's defense budget in 2020 was $5.9 billion. As somebody on Twitter said, "I guess the US is serious."

Britain is supplying Ukraine with "hundreds" of Brimstone missiles.

Jomini's most recent map of the battle zone.

Can Your Kids Handle Dangerous Ideas?

In the NY Times, Matt Gross writes a hymn to cool parenting and tough children. One the one hand, this is how I parented. On the other, is there a connection between this and soaring teenage anxiety? Let's start with this anecdote, which started when daughter asked if she could skip school:

You can’t skip school, my wife, Jean, and I told her. You just can’t. Not allowed. Nope!

But I offered Sasha a bit of unsolicited advice, too: Next time you want to skip school, don’t tell your parents. Just go. Browse vintage stores, eat your favorite snack (onigiri), lie on your back in Prospect Park and stare at the clouds. Isn’t that the point of skipping school, after all? To sneak around, to steal time and space back from the arbitrary system that enfolds you? To hell with permission! That’s being a teenager — carving out a private life for yourself under the noses of the authority figures who surround you.

Sasha said no, she would not be doing that. Not because she’s a Goody Two-shoes but because she’s too lazy to plan the subterfuge — it sounds as exhausting as algebra.

I get this; I think I may have written here before that after hearing my children discuss their sex lives in front of me I copied Xi Jinping and promulgated the "Seven Unmentionables," things that you were just not supposed to talk about with your parents. But is there something weird about forbidding your daughter to skip school and then telling her to do it in secret?

But the real meat of the essay is this:
But when I look at the broader cultural landscape, I feel isolated in my permissiveness. Parents — or at least the parents who seem to win media attention — are freaking out over everything their kids see, read and do.

Recently there were the parents who hated “Turning Red,” the Disney Pixar movie about a 13-year-old Chinese Canadian girl who transforms into a giant red panda at moments of intense emotion or embarrassment — and who rebels against her perfectionist mother, crushing on boys, lying about her extracurricular activities and (worst of all) listening to terrible pop music. Those parents complained that the film promoted bad values and that its portrayal of puberty and metaphorical menstruation was just too mature for an impressionable audience.

Then there are the parents across this country who continue to be up in arms about what’s taught in public schools. For some, the fact that this nation has historically failed to live up to some of its ideals is apparently so distressing that they are pushing for strict laws about what teachers can say about that in class. For others, any discussion of L.G.B.T.Q. issues is the boogeyman. . . .

Leaving aside the usual political battles between left and right, what’s at play here are two fundamentally different conceptions of parents’ responsibility to their children, with the same ultimate goal: Do you offer your kids broad exposure to the world, in all its beauty and foulness, and hope they make good decisions? Or do you try to protect them from ideas and activities that you see as dangerous or immoral — and also hope they make good decisions? Obviously, both approaches involve a leap of faith. And it’s impossible to adhere entirely to either philosophy. . . .

To me, the more hands-off approach is also the more realistic one. It acknowledges that our children are, in some basic sense, beyond our control: not precious innocents to be culturally cocooned, but thinking, feeling, increasingly independent human beings who are busy making up their own minds (and who are anyhow likely carrying around devices that give them unfettered access to billions of ideas and images, without any meaningful controls).

I want my kids to read, watch, and listen to what piques their interest, even if I don’t like it myself. Sasha loves “Attack on Titan,” a luridly violent anime series with fascist undertones, and I’m fine with that — but I worry about my kids watching “90-Day Fiancé” and becoming Kardashian-curious. They can tell fantasy from reality, but reality TV from reality? That’s trickier.

Still, I won’t dictate their preferences: I want them to navigate this huge, messy planet on their own, when they’re old enough to — and be ready for things not to go their way.
Could it be that maybe children do benefit from more parental guidance than that? That watching too much violent anime might feed anxiety? That being tossed out into the world with a quick "be careful" is anxiety inducing, and some children would benefit from more rules?

Beats me. But reading this essay just left me with a feeling that smugness about hipster parenting is the wrong response to a world full of kids paralyzed by amorphous fears.

Wednesday, April 27, 2022


Interesting essay by Ezra Klein on why Elon Musk loves Twitter so much that he bought it. The founders of Twitter said that they created it to promote better public conversation, but that of course is not what happened (NY Times).

So what is Twitter built to do? It’s built to gamify conversation. As C. Thi Nguyen, a philosopher at the University of Utah, has written, it does that “by offering immediate, vivid and quantified evaluations of one’s conversational success. Twitter offers us points for discourse; it scores our communication. And these gamelike features are responsible for much of Twitter’s psychological wallop. Twitter is addictive, in part, because it feels so good to watch those numbers go up and up.”

Nguyen’s core argument is that games are pleasurable in part because they simplify the complexity of life. They render the rules clear, the score visible. That’s fine when we want to play a game. But sometimes we end up in games, or gamelike systems, where we don’t want to trade our values for those of the designers, and don’t even realize we’re doing it. . . .

Twitter takes the rich, numerous and subtle values that we bring to communication and quantifies our success through follower counts, likes and retweets. Slowly, what Twitter rewards becomes what we do. If we don’t, then no matter — no one sees what we’re saying anyway. We become what the game wants us to be or we lose. And that’s what’s happening to some of the most important people and industries and conversations on the planet right now.

Many of Twitter’s power users are political, media, entertainment and technology elites. They — we! — are particularly susceptible to a gamified discourse on the topics we obsess over. It’s hard to make political change. It’s hard to create great journalism. It’s hard to fill the ever-yawning need for validation. It’s hard to dent the arc of technological progress. Twitter offers the instant, constant simulation of doing exactly that. The feedback is immediate. The opportunities are infinite. Forget Max Weber’s “strong and slow boring of hard boards.” Twitter is a power drill, or at least it feels like one.

I have no experience of this side of Twitter. I have an account there so I can follow news as it happens, recently the Ukraine war. On Twitter you can see half a dozen military experts dissect a reported explosion within minutes, and I find many links to longer articles and even to thick government reports. One example from this morning: the New York times said Russia has 12,000 troops in Transnistria, and this was immediately debunked on Twitter by several people with better knowledge; according to NATO, the number is more like 2,000.

But I have noticed that even the hardest core Osint (open source intelligence) nerds revel in getting more followers, likes, and retweets, and when the military guys I follow veer into politics I sometimes cringe. 

People are wondering now if Twitter can remain a good place to read news if it becomes more overtly political and even more toxic. Apparently a few hundred thousand liberals have already left. I don't know where I would go instead, since the other apps where comment on the war seems to be thriving are TikTok and YouTube, and I much prefer text to video.

The problem of how to have an open conversation when so many people are mean and nasty looms over our whole civilization, and I don't think Elon Musk has much chance of finding a solution.

Tuesday, April 26, 2022

Evelyn Ackerman

Evelyn Ackerman (1924-2012) and her husband Jerome were artists who helped form the aesthetic of California midcentury modernism and then cashed in on its popularity by designing all sorts of products that were sold across the country in upscale department stores. 

Evelyn's artistic range included several different materials, including mosaics,

woven tapestries,


and cloisonné; this is Tales from the Bible,  1984-1985, the image that first drew me to Ackerman.

The exact status of all these objects is unclear because, as I said, they Ackermans designed many of them with the idea that reproductions would then be sold, and in fact some of the designs are still being replicated and sold. It is also sometimes hard to disentangle the contributions of the two Ackermans. But they did design all this stuff, and the pieces here are all attributed to Evelyn in the online sources I can find, so it seems likely that she created all of these.

Henry Louis Gates Jr. against "Staying in Your Lane"

Gates spoke at the PEN awards on October 5 (NY Times):

I’m moved that this award is being presented by two people quite dear to me, one a former professor, Wole Soyinka, who introduced me to the highest reaches of the mythopoetic imagination, the other a former student, Jodie Foster, whose own early work on Toni Morrison was so brilliantly insightful. Together, they represent ideals of education I hold sacred. The idea that you have to look like the subject to master the subject was a prejudice that our forebears — women seeking to write about men, Black people seeking to write about white people — were forced to challenge. In the same year that Rosa Parks refused to move from the white section of that public bus, Toni Morrison completed a master’s thesis at Cornell on Virginia Woolf and William Faulkner, taking a seat in the white section of the modernist canon. Any teacher, any student, any reader, any writer, sufficiently attentive and motivated, must be able to engage freely with subjects of their choice. That is not only the essence of learning; it’s the essence of being human.

The great Soyinka helped me grasp this when I came to study with him at the University of Cambridge, almost five decades ago. Despite the fact that I wasn’t African, let alone Yoruba, Wole welcomed me into his mythical, metaphysical world, dense with the metaphor, potency and portent of an alien set of divinities. And what exhilaration I felt, exploring these new realms. From my churchgoing youth in West Virginia, I was put in mind of a passage from the Book of Jeremiah: “Call unto me, and I will answer thee, and show thee great and mighty things, which thou knowest not!”

But then Black Africa’s first Nobel laureate in literature had himself studied Shakespeare with the great English critic G. Wilson Knight, who later hailed him as among his most remarkable students. The literary imagination summons us all to dwell above what W. E. B. Du Bois called “the veil” of the color line. As he wrote, yearningly: “I summon Aristotle and Aurelius and what soul I will, and they come all graciously with no scorn or condescension. So, wed with Truth, I dwell above the veil.” Du Bois never let anyone tell him to stay in his lane. When he needed to, he paved his own. As a lifelong dissident, he also knew that liberation was not secured by filtering out dissident voices; courage, not comfort, was his ideal.

What I owe to my teachers — and to my students — is a shared sense of wonder and awe as we contemplate works of the human imagination across space and time, works created by people who don’t look like us and who, in so many cases, would be astonished that we know their work and their names. Social identities can connect us in multiple and overlapping ways; they are not protected but betrayed when we turn them into silos with sentries. The freedom to write can thrive only if we protect the freedom to read — and to learn. And perhaps the first thing to learn, in these storm-battered days, is that we could all do with more humility, and more humanity.

Monday, April 25, 2022

Amazon's Proposed HQ Building for Pen Place, Arlington, VA

Amazon just got approval from Arlington County to build the centerpiece of its second headquarters, this interesting spiral building by NBBJ Architects.

View from I-395. Thanks in part to height limits, related to the airport and not overshadowing the Mall, downtown Arlington is a kingdom of nearly identical glass boxes. This is certainly better than another one of those.

Thomas Piketty on How History Changed in the 20th Century

In his interview with Tyler Cowen, French economic historian Thomas Piketty said that his roots are in the Annales School of French historians, people like Fernand Braudel who focused on long-term economic and social forces rather than politics. Then this:

COWEN: When I read Braudel, it strikes me there’s something quite conservative about the argument. I don’t mean politically conservative, but I mean literally conservative — the sense of long structures stretching through decades or even centuries. Do you share that with him? Or do you think, in some way, you deviate that makes you more politically radical?

PIKETTY: You’re right. I don’t know if this makes me more politically radical. You’re perfectly right that one big difference between the work I’ve been doing and the work people like Braudel or Labrousse were doing is that I had to deal a lot with the 20th century, whereas these people were working a lot on previous centuries — 18th century, 19th century, or even before in the case of Braudel.

Working on 20th-century data and, in particular, the enormous reduction of income inequality during the 20th century led me to a different kind of perspective and a different kind of thinking and issue. To be very precise, the political dimension is so much more important and, in a way, unavoidable and impossible to escape when you study the 20th century. When you study the 18th century or 19th century, or maybe you can have this Marxist or economic perspective stressing the long-run evolution, these deterministic economic forces.

When you study the 20th century, politics is everywhere: World War I and World War II, the Great Depression, the creation of social security systems, the development of progressive taxation, decolonization, end of apartheid. Politics is everywhere if you want to understand the evolution of inequality. I would say it’s also, to some extent, the same for the 19th century and the end of the 18th century. I talk about the French Revolution and the slave revolt in Saint-Domingue.

I think the history of equality or inequality cannot just be an economic history. It has to be a political history because, if you want to account for what you see, if you want to explain what you see, it’s political processes — sometimes revolution, sometimes tax reform, sometimes political confrontation of all sorts — play a major role. I had to develop this perspective, and indeed, this is a big difference with the Annales school.

It's an interesting thought, that the history of, say, Mediterranean peasants in the ancient and medieval worlds could be done without paying much attention to politics, since political change never had much impact on the lives of ordinary people. Whereas beginning in the 18th century and especially in the twentieth century politics began to have huge impacts on ordinary human lives.

But one could also say that modern politics is ultimately driven by technological change, so that the real driver still remains social and economic factors, with politics as what Marx would call an "epiphenomenon." 

Sunday, April 24, 2022

Oh, the Eighteenth Century

From a review of a new biography of Alexander Pope in the 8 October 2021 TLS:

It still gets called the age of Enlightenment, but people could be defiantly unenlightened in early eighteenth-century England. Take Alexander Pope, the most celebrated poet of his day, not only in Britain but across Europe, admired for his witty heroic couplets and poised versification of fashionable intellectual and cultural matters. Pope was so furious when the publisher Edmund Curll insinuated he'd written a satirical "court eclogue" about a Tory duchess being overlooked for preferment that he met Curll for a drink at a tavern and slipped a noxious emetic into his glass of sack. The drug took predictable effect.

After Curll recovered, Pope published an invented account of Curll's gastric catastrophe, "A Full and True Account of a horrid and Barbarous Revenge by Poison, on the body of Mr. Edmund Curll, Bookseller" (1716). Along with obligatory scenes involving the chamber pot, Pope fabricated a deathbed confession of Curll's dodgy, scandal-mongering publishing practices. Curll retaliated by encouraging a widespread smear campaign against Pope's new translation of the Iliad (1715-1720), which he branded Jacobite and Catholic, and commissioned pamphlets and essays that cruelly mocked Pope's physical disabilities. Undaunted, Pope published a follow-up "Further Account", plus a third pamphlet alleging that Curll had converted to Judaism and been circumcized, "out of an Extraordinary Desire of Lucre". The last pamphlet concludes with Mrs. Curll lamenting that her husband's foreskin is on display in a local coffee house.

Cuenca, Spain

Today's place to daydream about is Cuenca in central Spain. It sits on a high, rocky peninsula between two rivers, an amazing site.

Archaeology has produced hints of ancient occupation, but the modern town seems to have originated as a fortress built in the eighth century by Muslim invaders, called a Kunka. 

It was besieged in 1076 by Sancho Ramirez of Aragon, who failed to take it. Then in 1080 the Muslim Taifa of Toledo fell apart into civil strife, and one faction ceded it to Castile in exchange for military aid. Then in 1108 the Almoravids took it back, and Muslims held it until 1177, when it fell to a siege by a Christian coalition and became part of Castile.

After the great Christian victory of Las Navas de Tolosa in 1212 the town lost its function as a fortress, but it prospered modestly for centuries as an administrative and cloth-manufacturing center. After the cloth business disappeared in the 19th century the town struggled and shrank until it was reborn as a tourist center in recent decades. 

The rock under the town is limestone, and it boasts both strange natural rock formations and caverns that have been heavily modified into a network of tunnels, cellars and cisterns beneath the streets.

At the highest point in the town is a Carmelite convent, mostly built in the 1600s.

The cathedral was heavily damaged by an earthquake in the early 20th century and the facade was rebuilt, but parts of it date to the 14th century.

This image shows one of the "hanging houses" that overlook the gorge and the footbridge from which millions of images of the town have been taken.

Seems like it would be a wonderful place to explore today.

More on Adolescent Mental Health

Long, depressing NY Times feature about adolescent mental health.  A few interesting/disturbing points:

First, the overall suicide rate for young American has only gone up a little lately, and it is still well below the peak years of the early 1980s.

But other numbers are much worse. In 2019, 13 percent of adolescents reported having a major depressive episode, a 60 percent increase from 2007.

And if you distrust that sort of self-reporting, how about this: among girls 10 to 19, emergency room visits for self harm nearly doubled between 1999 and 2019.

The suicide rate for black Americans used to be much lower than that for whites, but that is changing, at least among the young: "From 1991 to 2017, suicide attempts by Black adolescents rose 73 percent, compared with an 18 percent rise among white adolescents." White rate is still higher but the lines are converging.

All of this is happening as young people drink less, smoke less, use other drugs less, and have less sex. (And, although this article doesn't get into it, commit fewer serious crimes and are less likely to join gangs.) The problems that seemed like crises in my youth are all easing, replaced by depression and anxiety. 

The age of puberty continues to decline, to 11 for many; people wonder if this is a factor but there isn't any real data.

As we have discussed here, the data on cell phone and social media use is complex and doesn't clearly correlate with mental health problems. Other potential factors: "research shows that teenagers as a group are also getting less sleep and exercise and spending less in-person time with friends." But of course those things can all be symptoms of depression, so the causality is hard to figure out.

A couple of families gave the Times extraordinary access to themselves and their medical records. It struck me that when the Times visited the psychologist treating one self-harming teen whose mother is in complete panic, the therapist said, "she's a typical outpatient . . . an internalizer." What seems awful to you seems routine to mental health professionals.

The one theme that comes out most strongly is loneliness: teenagers are doing worse because they spend less time together. On the other hand, this may also be driving the declines in other pathologies; one of the experts consulted here said that drinking and drug use are things that teenagers do in groups, and since they spend more time alone and less in groups, of course they drink less. We used to worry a lot about peer pressure, but taking teenagers away from their peers obviously isn't a great solution.

Friday, April 22, 2022

Links 22 April 2022

Wyvern weathervane, US, late 1800s

The only question in the French presidential election is, "Do you hate Mr. Macron more than you fear Ms. Le Pen, or vice versa?" (NY Times) In their last debate, Macron shredded le Pen over her ties to Putin and Russia. Video with subtitles at the link. And here's a BBC look at the whole debate.

Average GRE Scores by major.

New Yayoi Kusama exhibit, with an infinity room and other stuff. 

Explication of a very early Sumerian cuneiform tablet from Uruk.

Modern manufacturing: 3-minute video flythrough of the Tesla "gigafactory" near Berlin.

Iron Age shoe from one of the melting ice patches in Norway.

The 15th-century study of the Duke of Urbino, remarkable woodwork.

A copy of the world's oldest guide to tennis, printed in 1555, is for sale.

Book sales are up in the US and the UK (at least) and some people say part of the reason is the popularity of "BookTok," TikTok videos about buying and reading books.

Biden administration using $5.5 billion to encourage school districts to get greener, everything from electric buses to better insulation in old buildings.

Archaeologists fire another salvo in the war over when the first people reached the Americans, using some new statistical techniques to argue that all the sites supposed to be more than 14,000 old are crap. Doesn't address the footprints, though.

Ukraine Links

Lessons from Ukraine on how to make Taiwan harder to conquer. A lot of it is about stockpiling weapons.

Some thoughts on whether tanks are still useful in the era of drones and missiles.

Transcript of a briefing by Pentagon spokesman John Kirby on April 19. This is where he revealed that other nations have supplied Ukraine with spare parts that have allowed them to get more aircraft flying. To me the interesting part was his response to a series of questions that all amount to "why aren't we giving them everything now?" Because, he says, you can only smuggle so much over the border at once, and we have to focus on using that capacity in the most efficient way to meet the most urgent needs. He seems to be saying that the US is shipping weapons as fast as Ukraine can absorb them and has no intention of stopping.

Inside the network of civilians secretly transporting drones and other military equipment to Ukraine.

Piece by Oz Katerzi in Rolling Stone about the battle of Kyiv, nothing new if you have been following events.

One reason the US is supplying Ukraine with the Switchblade and other loitering munitions – "suicide drones" – is to find out how well they work on a real battlefield; their boosters say they will allow light infantry forces to fight without artillery.

Pro-Kremlin media outlet says the Russian military has lost 13,000 KIA in Ukraine plus 7,000 missing, which is right on the Ukrainian MOD's 20,000 estimate. Also says 116 confirmed dead on the Moskva and over 100 missing, which is right on what western observers thought and therefore lends some credibility to the other figures. Whatever the numbers are, losses on both sides are staggering.

Phone call from Russian soldier who is pissed that the 63 iPhones he was taking home were confiscated by the FSB.

A senior Russian general explains their goals in Ukraine: control of the whole Donbas, land corridor to Crimea, land corridor to Transnistria. (That means Ukraine's whole coastline, including Odessa). They are nowhere near achieving those goals, so this is a formula for a long, bloody war. Some discussion here.

Biden's response: "As Russia continues to grind out brutalities against Ukraine, Putin is banking on us losing interest. He is betting that Western unity will crack. Once again, we will prove him wrong."

Monday, April 18, 2022

Daniel Kehlman, "Tyll"

I loved this book. Not because it is a great book – as I will explain, it has a lot of problems – but because Daniel Kehlman imagines the past the same way I like to. He finds the same things fascinating, notices the same sort of bizarre details, and likes to enliven his recreations with glimpses of the kinds of magic people at the time believed in.

Till Eulenspiegel is an old character from German literature, first appearing in a chapbook printed around 1515. He is a sort of jester, playing constant practical jokes on everyone he meets. Most of his tricks take advantage of people's weaknesses (greed, lust, gluttony) to set them up for humiliation. He is thus a sort of moralist, if a very scatological one. It is often supposed that Till had a history in folktales or other works going back well before 1515, but no good evidence of this has been found. Wherever he came from he has had a long career in both German and Dutch, with many editions of his stories printed in every century, and has been adopted as a sort of folk hero by many Flemings. 

In that original chapbook Till's life was set in the 1300s, but other writers have moved him around in time. One of the most famous versions is The Legend of Thyl Ulenspiegel and Lamme Goedzak by Charles De Coster (1867), which transfers the character to the years around 1580 and has him join in the Dutch Revolt.

Austrian novelist Daniel Kehlman continues this forward movement in his version of the story, which appeared in German in 2017. His Tyll is a jester who seems to have been born around 1600. All that really survives of the old Till in this book are his juggling, his wandering ways, and his cruel sense of humor. His cynicism makes him in some ways a good observer of the seventeenth-century world, since he is equally unimpressed by every type of Christianity and equally disgusted by all the warring parties of the Thirty Years' War. Yet he is the first of the book's many problems, because he does not have much of a personality and what he does have is not very likeable.

In structure the book is a series of disconnected episodes, presented in no particular chronological order. Some focus on Tyll, others on other people with whom he comes in contact. One of my favorites tells the story of Tyll's father, a village wise-man who badly wants to understand everything but has no access to any books or learning that might help him form a coherent model of the cosmos. (Kehlman has probably read Carlo Ginzburg's The Cheese and the Worms: the Cosmos of a Sixteenth-Century Miller.) In others we meet the Jesuit polymath Athanasius Kircher, who thought he had translated Egyptian hieroglyphs and wrote books about everything from magnetism to music to dragons, and the chronicler Martin von Wolkenstein, a fictional character who is supposed to be the descendant of the actual 14th-century chronicler Oswald von Wolkenstein. (This allows Kehlman to make some astute observations about where the descriptions of battles in old chronicles came from.)

To me Kehlman's real master stroke was making Tyll the court fool of the Winter King. The Winter King was the title people gave to the Palatine Elector Friedrich, who in 1618 accepted an invitation from a group of Protestant nobles in Bohemia to come and be their king. The other claimant to that throne was the Habsburg Emperor of Austria, so this was a very dangerous thing to do, and King Friedrich only lasted six months before the emperor's army came and tossed him out; hence, the Winter King. (This was what started the Thirty Years' War.) Friedrich spent the rest of his life in exile, mainly in Holland. Among the few servants at his shrunken court we find Tyll, who uses his fool's license to constantly remind Friedrich and his wife, the English Princess Elizabeth (daughter of James I), how stupid it was to challenge the emperor and how pathetic their lives have become since that mistake.

Elizabeth is probably the best character in the book. She struggles along in exile, always preserving whatever she can of her royal dignity, never giving up hope that her children will one day return to glory. (As her descendant George I eventually did.) But here, anyway, is the historical imagination that so grabs me: the heroic, almost mythic story of the Winter King; the pathetic spectacle of a desperately poor royal couple trying to keep up appearances with no money and a dozen servants; the strange license of a Fool to say what everyone knows but dares not speak out loud.

Add to this a witch trial, a terrible battle told from the perspective of someone just trying to escape from it, some traveling players, a squad of soldiers trapped in a tunnel under the wall of a besieged city,  a talking donkey, a diplomatic conference where none of the ambassadors can actually speak to each other, and a spell cast with a magic square, and you have a book that took over my mind for days.

Within five minutes of finishing Tyll I had downloaded another one of Daniel Kehlman's books and started listening to that.

Sunday, April 17, 2022

Spring in the Catonsville Woods

Redbud; for some reason photographs never capture the way these draw your eye when you are out there. 

Green leaves in the treetops.

Mock orange near one of the old house sites.

And this lone daffodil, one of half a dozen blooming at wide intervals along the regular dog-walking trail. There are daffodil clumps near the old house sites, but this isn't one of those spots. Also, I don't remember seeing daffodils in this area before. So I think somebody planted these last Fall. As a memorial?

More Ukraine Links

Osgüd Schläuter thinks poor Russian tank driving and combat performance means many Russian tanks have only two-person crews, rather than the standard three.

Dmitri, a Russian who has been Twitter's go-to translator of Russian and Ukrainian videos throughout the war, posts his thoughts on Russia; he says it is still a 19th-century imperial state, but he hopes this war will be the beginning of real change.

Russian military trains have been spotted headed west loaded with Soviet military equipment from the 1960s, like BTR-60 open topped armored personnel carriers and Grad-1 rocket launchers that can't hit a target the size of a football field. (When they were new; who knows what happens when you fire one after 20 years in storage.)

Russian diplomats deliver a note in Washington "warning that U.S. and NATO shipments of the 'most sensitive' weapons systems to Ukraine were 'adding fuel' to the conflict there and could bring 'unpredictable consequences.'" This led to more straight-up trolling from Washington: they handed a copy of the note to the Washington Post, in both Russian and English, then had their spokesman decline to comment on what this "sensitive diplomatic document" says.

And then an unnamed "senior diplomat" told the Post, "What the Russians are telling us privately is precisely what we’ve been telling the world publicly — that the massive amount of assistance that we’ve been providing our Ukrainian partners is proving extraordinarily effective." And then, separately, "nothing will keep us from aiding Ukraine."

Interesting thread on the response of Noam Chomsky and other leftists to Ukraine, by a Syrian: "They believe that Russia can't be imperialist. They think imperialism is what the US does—ergo, anti-imperialism is anti-Americanism."

Somebody called "Oaklandsocialist" lays it on "left denialists" who won't oppose the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Interesting essay by a Russian staff colonel, said to have been written on February 3: "It is clear that we will now have not an easy battle, but a hard battle."

As Russian forces try to advance south from Izyum, thus cutting off Ukrainian forces in the east, Ukrainian forces are attempting to advance east from Kharkiv, thus cutting off Russian forces in Izyum. More on the possible Ukrainian strategy here. And here.

Photographs of the Moskva on fire; definitely hit by two missiles.

Russian defense minister says that they have destroyed 2,213 tanks in Ukraine, about five times as many as Ukraine ever had.

Vasyl Cherepanyn on Putin's "World War Z."

Timothy Snyder on how Russian lies in 2014 helped set the stage for the current war.

A hardcore Russian nationalist catalogs all the ways Russia is losing the war.

Friday, April 15, 2022

Kanamori Yoshio

Japanese printmaker, born 1922 and apparently still alive. In 1945 he went to study with Shiko Munakata, whose work in no way resembles these, which is interesting. Kanamori seems to have led a quiet life of art and teaching. One source reports that in 1992 he received the Order of the Sacred Treasure, 5th Class. Which makes me wonder; ok, it's nice to receive the Order of the Sacred Treasure, but 5th Class? Doesn't that seem like a bit of a snub? Anyway I think these are wonderful. I have written here before that I love European art of around 1900, when representation began to yield to other modes but things were still recognizable, and to me this creates the same mix of reality and symbol. Above, Mountain Stream, 1966.

Koyama Bird

Moon and Landscape

Butterflies, Mountain, and Lake


Links 15 April 2022

Ball of the century: in Venice, 1951 (above), an extraordinary social event in a time of harsh austerity.

So little is happening in sub-atomic physics that when one experiment at Fermilab found that the mass of the W boson is 0.1% off the prediction from the Standard Model, the experimenters said "the world is going to look different. . . . There has to be a paradigm shift." Sigh. People have been looking for an alternative to the Standard Model for 40 years with no success, so maybe this result will help but likely not.

Four-minute video of spectacular dust storms, by stormchaser Mike Olbinski.

The mysteries of politics in Pakistan, where no elected Prime Minister has ever finished a 5-year term in office. The latest, former cricket star Imran Khan, came into office as a reformer, but his party never had a majority and his more ambitious schemes, for example in health care, were thwarted by his coalition partners. He responded by increasingly angry rhetoric against his opponents and then against the US, which he claimed was scheming against him, besides shutting down opposition media and jailing several prominent critics. Now a no-confidence vote has tossed him out of office, but legally and without violence, so he can still lead his party in new elections whenever they are held. Honestly I do not understand how Pakistan functions at all.

The mysterious world of pro-Putin Facebook groups.

In Japan, women with no groom in sight can dress up in a rented wedding dress for a "single wedding" photo shoot. Apparently some married women who just don't like their wedding photos have also paid for the service.

There is a story that starlings were introduced to North America by a man who wanted all the birds mentioned in Shakespeare to live here. Research shows that he did release 40 pairs of starlings in 1890-91, but could turn up no evidence that this had anything to do with Shakespeare, a "fact" first mentioned in 1948. (NY Times)

"No one knows how to build an AI system that accomplishes goals, that also is fine with you turning it off."

The case of the praying football coach is coming before the Supreme Court, and liberals are worried about what the new court will say about it.

So far, invasive pythons have been taking over the Everglades without much opposition. But footage from a camera set up to watch a python's nest showed a bobcat feasting on the eggs.

A guy on Twitter asks a profound question: "If the big task of the post cold war environment was the successful on-boarding of Russia and China into the global system... how did we screw it up so badly?" I am personally not sure the west "screwed up" China, but our advocacy of immediate privatization in Russia was an absolute disaster. "Shock therapy," we called it. The patient nearly died, then turned on his doctor.

Remarkable preservation in two Han Dynasty tombs in Yancheng.

Ten-minute video from the Getty about preserving an Egyptian mummy of the Roman period.

Interesting meditation on the Book of Job at Slate, Jewish and personal

Ukraine Links

Russia re-organizes its military structure in Ukraine, puts the Southern Military District in charge of the whole operation; this makes Army General Alexander Dvornikov commander of the invasion.

The Re-Taking of Nova Basan, fluffy but still interesting.

The Institute for the Study of War gives more detail on their pessimistic assessment of Russian combat power in Ukraine.

Timothy Snyder: "The only way for this to end is for Putin to feel subjectively that his position is threatened. And the only way for him to feel that subjectively is for Russia to be defeated on the battlefield."

And Snyder on Russia's justification for genocide in Ukraine. 

Phillips O'Brien on why Ukraine is winning (The Atlantic)

As of April 5, the BBC had been able to find the names of 1,083 Russian soldiers who had died in Ukraine, using funeral announcements; they note that funerals seem to take place two to three weeks after the deaths. Of the dead men, 217 are officers, including 10 colonels, 20 lieutenant colonels, 31 majors and 155 junior officers. Airborne troops and special forces are over-represented, and many officers are veterans with medals. In the short term these men are irreplaceable, and in the long term the cost to train their replacements will probably exceed the cost of all the material the Russians have left on the battlefield.

New Jomini map and analysis of possible Russian revised battle plan in Ukraine.

A report by the Times of London that Putin had purged more than 100 FSB officers has now been picked up by other western media. All of the agents worked in Section 5, which was set up to handle the territories of the former USSR. As of this morning (April 15) rumors of a similar purge of generals remain unconfirmed.

Narrative of the Battle at Hostomel Airport by Oryx, the guys who count destroyed vehicles. And speaking of those guys, their count of Russian tanks lost is now up to 506.

Ukrainian air defense officer tells the BBC about the challenges his men face, admits to taking heavy losses in the first few days of the war. I think the course of the air war can probably be best explained by assuming that both sides took heavy losses in the first few days. Seeing how fast they were losing aircraft, both sides radically cut back their flying hours and changed their tactics to reduce risk. The Russians decided that rather than try to destroy Ukrainian air defenses they would avoid them as much as possible. 

Incidentally that Ukrainian air defense commander says Ukraine is shooting down around 50-70% of Russia's long-range missiles. Israel claims their Iron Dome system is more than 90% effective. Seems like ballistic missiles are not the unstoppable danger they once were, which explains all the interest in hypersonic cruise missiles.

More Russian diplomatic clumsiness: a column of construction vehicles appeared at the Polish cemetery in Smolensk, where the victims of the 1940 Katyn massacre are buried, threatening to destroy it. Somehow I doubt this will make Poles like Russians more.

CNN on the sinking of the Moskva. I remember back during the Cold War a lot of debate over Soviet ship design. Compared to US ships, Russian vessels were smaller, lighter, and carried more missiles. Some westerners feared their firepower but the US Navy said they would be easy to sink. Seems like the Moskva really turned out to be a glass canon, destroyed by one missile attack.

Coffee kiosks are back open in Kyiv.

Thread on how corruption might have doomed the Moskva, no idea if this is real or not.

Thursday, April 14, 2022

Young People These Days

Francis Fukuyama: Liberalism Needs Nationalism

Interesting essay at Foreign Affairs, free for now:

Liberalism is in peril. . . . Liberalism’s decline is evident in the growing strength of autocracies such as China and Russia, the erosion of liberal—or nominally liberal—institutions in countries such as Hungary and Turkey, and the backsliding of liberal democracies such as India and the United States.

In each of these cases, nationalism has powered the rise of illiberalism. Illiberal leaders, their parties, and their allies have harnessed nationalist rhetoric in seeking greater control of their societies. They denounce their opponents as out-of-touch elites, effete cosmopolitans, and globalists. They claim to be the authentic representatives of their country and its true guardians. Sometimes, illiberal politicians merely caricature their liberal counterparts as ineffectual and removed from the lives of the people they presume to represent. Often, however, they describe their liberal rivals not simply as political adversaries but as something more sinister: enemies of the people. . . .

Liberalism’s most important selling point remains the pragmatic one that has existed for centuries: its ability to manage diversity in pluralistic societies. Yet there is a limit to the kinds of diversity that liberal societies can handle. If enough people reject liberal principles themselves and seek to restrict the fundamental rights of others, or if citizens resort to violence to get their way, then liberalism alone cannot maintain political order. And if diverse societies move away from liberal principles and try to base their national identities on race, ethnicity, religion, or some other, different substantive vision of the good life, they invite a return to potentially bloody conflict. . . .

That is why it is all the more important for liberals not to give up on the idea of the nation. They should recognize that in truth, nothing makes the universalism of liberalism incompatible with a world of nation-states. National identity is malleable, and it can be shaped to reflect liberal aspirations and to instill a sense of community and purpose among a broad public.

For proof of the abiding importance of national identity, look no further than the trouble Russia has run into in attacking Ukraine. Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed that Ukraine did not have an identity separate from that of Russia and that the country would collapse immediately once his invasion began. Instead, Ukraine has resisted Russia tenaciously precisely because its citizens are loyal to the idea of an independent, liberal democratic Ukraine and do not want to live in a corrupt dictatorship imposed from without. With their bravery, they have made clear that citizens are willing to die for liberal ideals, but only when those ideals are embedded in a country they can call their own.

As a practical matter, I think Fukuyama is right: attacks on the nation are just plain bad politics wherever you live. Most people want a national identity, and the response of Ukrainians to the attack on their nation shows the power of this idea. One thing many conservatives have in common is a belief that the world is a dangerous place, and that what is happening to Ukraine will happen to any nation that lets its guard down. Others are worried about civil war scenarios. The question, "Who will fight to defend me?" looms large for many people.

Fukuyama is looking at this problem as it concerns liberalism, but it can also exist on the conservative side; you see this in admirers of Vladimir Putin across Europe, and among white supremacists in the US. I believe the path forward for liberalism around the world is to emphasize that equal rights for all can make the nation stronger, that since we citizens are all in the same boat, we should work together to make it safer from enemies and better for citizens. There is no inherent reason why nationalism has to be authoritarian. There is also no reason why liberalism should be anti-nationalist in practical matters; after all, who is going to defend your individual rights if not the state? On whom do you rely for protection, if not your fellow citizens?