Friday, September 30, 2022

Links 30 September 2022

Palazzo Alltemps, Rome

Mass grave of at least 35 people, likely victims of violence, found at Neolithic site in Slovakia. 

A documentary about a terrorist rehabilitation center in Saudi Arabia gets initial praise but then makes Arab filmmakers mad; from this NY Times article it seems like they are mainly cranky that Americans still want to talk about terrorism all the time.

Kevin Drum asks an important question: everyone knows the "referendums" Russia is holding in occupied Ukraine are fake and the outcome predetermined, so why do they bother? Why do dictatorships do this sort of thing? Is it a sort of legal formalism? Or is essentially for the regime's own internal scorekeeping?

Roman era sundial found in Ephesus.

This Alabama state legislator voted for a law requiring a photo ID to vote in elections, but now most of his family won't vote because they think photo IDs are "the mark of the beast."

According to this study, which I can't read, rising death rates among white Americans over the past 20 years are heavily concentrated among the least educated.

Some interesting research on Crannogs, artificial islands built from the Neolithic to the 16th century in Scotland, Wales, and Ireland. More here.

Genetic analysis confirms that the 17 bodies dumped in a well in Medieval Norwich were Jews, likely victims of a massacre, possibly a known one related to Crusading.

The history of sunflowers: the large flower heads we are used to seeing now are the product of millennia of breeding for more of the oily seeds.

Anxiety over the push button, which at one time symbolized the replacement of humans by machines.

Ukraine Links

Thread on the ammunition orders the Pentagon reported in August, presumably to replace stuff that had been sent to Ukraine. Includes about 1080 GMLRS rockets for HIMARS. It also includes nearly half a billion to increase production of 155 mm artillery shells, including new factories. Another signal that the US is in this war for the duration.

Excellent feature at The Economist on Ukraine's September offensive, following the route to Kupyansk kilometer by kilometer.

Someone tried to hold a rally against Ukrainian immigration to Poland, but nobody showed up.

Global opinion is turning more and more against Russia, as leaders from nations that often support Russia denounce the war at the UN and other venues.

Pro-Ukraine folks love these HIMARS launch videos. And another.

Western intelligence agencies estimated that the Russian force arrayed to attack Ukraine in February contained 1200 tanks; Russia is now visually confirmed to have lost 1211 tanks, so the entire attacking tank force has been wiped out.

The captured Russian bridgelayer that played a role in Ukraine's early September offensive.

As of 7:00 AM EDT Friday, unconfirmed reports (here, here, here) say that Russian forces in Lyman are surrounded: since Russia lacks the forces for a major counter-attack to rescue them, the town will certainly fall soon, with many hundreds of prisoners. The only estimate I have seen says there are 2,000-3,500 Russian troops there. Another major victory for Ukraine – "worse for the Russians than Balakliya, Kupyansk and Izyum together" – but the real question will be whether this generates any momentum for further advance. Yesterday people said Russia was trying to form a new line along the Zherebets River, anchored at Zarichne, but now reports say Ukrainian forces have already crossed the river and flanked the town.

Thursday, September 29, 2022

Monday, September 26, 2022

Geghard Monastery, Armenia

Wonderful monastery founded in the fourth century by Gregory the Illuminator, the first leader of the Armenian church. 

It is partially dug into the cliffs, by expanding a natural cave; it was built at this site because there is a sacred spring inside the cave. The monastery was originally called Ayrivank, "the Monastery of the Cave". 

"Geghard" means spear; this became "the Monastery of the Spear", when what was said to be the spear which had wounded Jesus at the Crucifixion was brought here. 

The main church was completed in 1215.

Many wonderful bits of medieval sculpture.

Three-D model and "virtual pilgrimage" here.

Sunday, September 25, 2022

Strawberry Hill Flower Show

They have a flower show every year at Strawberry Hill in London, Horace Walpole's wonderful Gothic revival house. The combination of the flowers and the rooms in these pictures from this year's show just wow me.

Below a couple from 2019 that came up when I was searching for more.

Richard Overy, "Blood and Ruins: The Last Imperial War, 1931-1945"

The Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere

"Imperialism, as it was known in the nineteenth century, is no longer possible, and the only question is whether it will be buried peacefully or in blood and ruins."

– Leonard Woolf, 1928

Blood and Ruins (2021) takes an approach to World War II that I am surprised I haven't seen more of lately. Overy, a British professor, argues that the war was more about empire than it was about nationalism, and that the basic goal of the Germans, Japanese and Italians was to get empires of their own just like those of the British and French. He never actually says that nothing the Axis powers did in pursuit of empire was worse than what the British, French, and Russians had done to get theirs, and he has a long, detailed chapter on war crimes, but by constantly making small comparisons and emphasizing the imperial ambitions and rhetoric of the Axis he gradually grinds down any notion that World War II was a unique event. Here is one example out of hundreds, about Japanese policy in conquered Malaya:

Some resettlement schemes were operated to prevent remote villages from assisting the rebels, but on nothing like the scale in Manchukuo, or the later dislocation of millions during the British 1950s counter-insurgency. (191)

If I had to summarize the argument in a sentence, it might go like this: conquering and ruling empires and disposing of whole peoples who got in the way was what powerful states have done for as long as there have been powerful states, so nothing more is needed to explain World War II than to acknowledge that imperial thinking remained alive down to 1945.

In form this 878-page book has a long introductory chapter, followed by a 350-page narrative of political and military events from 1931-1945. (Which might be the best 350-page narrative of the war, or any event that big, that I have ever read.) Then come a series of chapters that take on particular themes: mobilizing nations for total war; the evolution of tactics in the era of air power, armored assault, radar, and other changes; war production; how the war was justified by the combattants; home fronts; wartime psychology; war crimes and war crimes trials. I found this material interesting but it wasn't much fun. It struck me that I wanted to know this material but didn't really want to read it, and since I am unlikely to remember details like the staggering numbers for US Lend-Lease to the Soviets (482,000 trucks, 1,900 railroad locomotives, etc., etc.), the best solution would be just to buy the book and keep it on my shelf. Overy's conclusion follows the dissolution of the British and French empires down into the 1960s, driving home the argument that the war was about empire and its main effect was to discredit that whole way of thinking and ruling.

The most interesting part of the book is Overy's narrative of the 1930s. I knew that many British leaders of that era habitually referred to their state as "The Empire," but I did not know that many conservative Frenchmen did the same. Just as many British and French leaders spoke of their empires as essential for their own nations, leaders of the future Axis states spoke of obtaining empires as essential for theirs. Historians have dubbed this "catastrophic nationalism." In speech after speech, leaders claimed that without conquest and expansion, their nations were doomed. One Japanese nationalist wrote that Manchuria was "a lifeline from which is impossible to retreat if the nation expects to endure." (35)

The Depression made these imperial ambitions more urgent, as free trade was curtailed and the world was divided into trading blocs. Both the British and the French lowered tarriffs on imports from the empires (and Britain's Commonwealth) while raising them on everyone else. The future Axis powers all bitterly resented being excluded from these blocs and concluded that for their economic safety they needed captive trading blocs of their own. 

And empire of course meant war. The pro-imperial leaders in the future Axis states did not shun this, but embraced it:

The generation that grew to political and military leadership in the 1930s grew up with the world of imperial fantasies, surrounded by a culture that played up the superiority of modernizing and 'advanced' states as leaders in the march of civilization . . . a generation that was profoundly affected by the experience of wars and the violent assertion of modern nationhood. Empire, claimed the Italian Fascist leader Giuseppe Bottai, beiefly governor in 1936 of Ethiopia, had 'worked this desire in me to live war in the depths of my consciousness.' (35)

War was protrayed, not as something to be shunned, but as the path of glory that would end in empire. Mussolini said, "We must become ever more a military nation."

The case of Germany is of course the hardest one for Overy's thesis. Even Winston Churchill saw Italy's imperial ambitions as not much different from Britain's, and Japan's desire to dominate the region from which it drew resources at least makes historical sense. Making sense of the Nazis is much more difficult. Sometimes they spoke in terms of a conventional empire; Hermann Goering told one British diplomat, "What we want is an empire." (35) When they were shut out of the British and French trading zones, they reacted by imagining a trading zone of their own stretching to the Urals. A German economic minister once said, "It is clearer than ever that for an industrial state the possession of colonial areas for raw materials to expand the home economy is indispensable." (57) According to Overy, Hitler was surprised that his invasion of Poland led Britain and France to declare war, when Mussolini's invasion of Ethiopia had not. It was, he thought, just another imperial conquest of barbarians, not worth a war among civilized nations.

But with this was mixed all manner of other strange ideas; why would a nation bent on building an empire in Eastern Europe insist that its main enemy was not the Russians but the Jews? Actual German policy in the east was a complete mess, with an array of incompatible goals. Poland and Ukraine were supposed to produce food and metal ores for Germany, as well as supplying labor to build roads, railroads, and so on – which required maintaining a large population in the region – but on the other hand the people were supposed to be expelled or exterminated to make room for the millions of Germans who were going to migrate there. Who did not actually exist; despite Nazi ideologizing and financial incentives, only a few thousand German civilians actually moved to the conquered eastern lands, very few of them farmers. The weird notion that Germans and Jews were locked in a great struggle and only one of them could survive seems, to me anyway, hard to explain in terms of imperial ambition. And while it is true that many empires have enacted genocidal wars against enemy peoples, the bureaucratic and technological mass murder of the Nazis seems to me like something rather different. Then there is the ideological struggle against communism, which was of course central to Nazi rhetoric.

Overy does show that Hitler's quest for "living space" had older imperial precedents; apparently lebensraum was how some Germans referred to their 19th-century empire in Africa. Some of you have probably heard that Hitler admired how the US had treated American Indians and sometimes seemed to hope that the people of eastern Europe would disappear in the same way so the East could be Germany's Wild West. He once remarked that he would pacify the people of Ukraine with "beads, and scarfs, and other things people of that sort desire."

But I still have trouble seeing the Nazi push to the east as just another colonial conquest like thousands of others in history. Come to think of it, the case of Japan also raises problems. In 1890 to 1920 they behaved much like a European colonial power, but then they somehow went crazy. The mass suicide of the civilian population of Guam as the Americans closed in symbolizes for me something very much awry in Japanese culture, a turn toward death for its own sake that is, again, hard to explain through a desire for empire and economic security.

To Overy's credit, he supplies you with all the facts you need to make this sort of argument for yourself, Blood and Ruins is a very impressive book, and I think the argument it makes is worth pondering.

Saturday, September 24, 2022

The Nakagin Capsule Tower is Finally Gone

One of the world's ugliest buildings is finally gone: the Nakagin Capsule Tower in Tokyo. Designed by Kisho Kurokawa and completed in 1972, the building attracted a lot of attention and is featured in thousands of architecture books.

This monstrosity was considered the epitome of two important movements: minimalism, which was of course worldwide, and metabolism. Metabolism was a Japanese movement whose adherents thought buildings should be built in a cellular way, so that they could grow or shrink organically and failing parts could be easily replaced. The idea was that the "capsules" would be replaced as they wore out, and that the electrical systems and so on would be upgraded each time. But, in practice it was nearly impossible to replace the pods, so that didn't happen and the whole building gradually decayed.

This is one of the galling things about 20th-century modernism; the ideology of these architects was all about functionality and technology, but in practice their buildings were often badly laid out, hard to maintain, and expensive to heat and cool. Plus, their roofs leaked. So this "futuristic" building was all but useless after only 40 years.

The tower consisted of 140 self-contained "pods" connected to a steel frame. Each pod measures  2.5 m (8.2 ft) by 4.0 m (13.1 ft) with a 1.3 m (4.3 ft) diameter window at one end. They were designed as living space, but many ended up being used as offices. 

These photographs by Noritaka Minami show that some people were able to do interesting things even with these awful spaces.

But if you ask me, the world is better off without this thing in it.

Putin Follows Stalin, Again

The NY Times is reporting, based on US military sources, that Vladimir Putin is interfering more and more in battlefield decisions in Ukraine, overruling his military commanders. In particular, this has included

rejecting requests from his commanders on the ground that they be allowed to retreat from the vital southern city of Kherson.

A withdrawal from Kherson would allow the Russian military to pull back across the Dnipro River in an orderly way, preserving its equipment and saving the lives of soldiers.

But such a retreat would be another humiliating public acknowledgment of Mr. Putin’s failure in the war, and would hand a second major victory to Ukraine in one month.

As you can see on the map above, Russia holds an area measuring about 250 by 80 km on the west bank of the Dnipro River, just north of Crimea. The Dnipro is a really big river. All the bridges over the river have been destroyed by Ukrainian missile attacks, so Russian supplies have to be carried across on barges. Opinions differ as to how bad the situation is for Russian troops on the west bank. Some observers think front line units regularly run out of ammunition and are ready to crack. On the other hand they have not cracked, and Ukraine's small gains in the region have come at a heavy price.

Some of the most insidery western sources are downright gleeful about the situation, so I guess US intelligence thinks things are bad for the Russians. I have seen a few bold predictions of a major impending victory for Ukraine. If Russian commanders have actually asked to withdraw, they must also be nervous.

Putin is not having it. In his defense you might note that his commanders have performed abysmally, so maybe he is wise not to trust them. But all the precedents here are bad for Russia; I'm sure every Russian officer knows what happened to Soviet troops frozen in place by Stalin's "not one step backward" orders in 1941-42. 

Friday, September 23, 2022

RIP Hilary Mantel

Now I need a new answer to the question, "Who is the greatest living writer?" Some of my favorite lines from the Cromwell saga:

But it is no use to justify yourself. It is no good to explain. It is weak to be anecdotal. It is wise to conceal the past even if there is nothing to conceal. A man’s power is in the half-light, in the half-seen movements of his hand and the unguessed-at expression of his face. It is the absence of facts that frightens people: the gap you open, into which they pour their fears, fantasies, desires.

Beneath every history, another history.

It is not easy to explain to a young man like Wriothesley why he values Wyatt. He wants to say, because, good fellows though you are, he is not like you or Richard Riche. He does not talk simply to hear his own voice, or pick arguments just to win them. He is not like George Boleyn: he does not write verses to six women in the hope of bundling one of them into a dark corner where he can slip his cock into her. He writes to warn and to chastise, and not to confess his need but to conceal it. He understands honour but does not boast of his own. He is perfectly equipped as a courtier, but he knows the small value of that. He has studied the world without despising it. He understands the world without rejecting it. He has no illusions but he has hopes. He does not sleepwalk through his life. His eyes are open, and ears for sounds others miss.

When you are writing laws you are testing words to find their utmost power. Like spells, they have to make things happen in the real world, and like spells, they only work if people believe in them. 

Here's one of many lines that make the ambitious Cromwell come alive:

It is all very well planning what you will do in six months, what you will do in a year, but it’s no good at all if you don’t have a plan for tomorrow.

For a longer and truly wonderful page on the arcane history of England, see here. 

And maybe I will close with this, the ending to "Bring Up the Bodies," my favorite ending to any book ever:

There are no endings. If you think so you are deceived as to their nature. They are all beginnings. Here is one.

Fascism and Hobbits

The NY Times:

Giorgia Meloni, the hard-right leader who is likely to be the next prime minister of Italy, used to dress up as a hobbit.

As a youth activist in the post-Fascist Italian Social Movement, she and her fellowship of militants, with nicknames like Frodo and Hobbit, revered “The Lord of the Rings” and other works by the British writer J.R.R. Tolkien. They visited schools in character. They gathered at the “sounding of the horn of Boromir” for cultural chats. She attended “Hobbit Camp” and sang along with the extremist folk band Compagnia dell’Anello, or Fellowship of the Ring.

All of that might seem some youthful infatuation with a work usually associated with fantasy-fiction and big-budget epics rather than political militancy. But in Italy, “The Lord of the Rings” has for a half-century been a central pillar upon which descendants of post-Fascism reconstructed a hard-right identity, looking to a traditionalist mythic age for symbols, heroes and creation myths free of Fascist taboos.

“I think that Tolkien could say better than us what conservatives believe in,” said Ms. Meloni, 45.

As I am sure I have observed here before, my politics and my artistic tastes don't go together very well.

Grand World Phu Quoc Welcome Center by Vo Trong Nghia Architects

All bamboo. More at the firm's web site.

Links 23 September 2022

Rhyton showing a lynx catching a bird, Persia, First Century BC

Citizens are having trouble getting the police to change their behavior, but some forces have been made to change when their insurance companies threatened to pull their coverage. (Washington Post)

This twitter thread purports to explain what is going on between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, but after reading it I know less than before. I guess the best explanation is the crazily shaped border, which looks designed to create misunderstanding.

In obscure but possibly portentous news, Joe Biden is asked if the US would defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese attack and answers, "Yes." So much for strategic ambiguity.

Pope Francis: "Self-defense is not only licit but also an expression of love for the homeland. Someone who does not defend oneself, who does not defend something, does not love it." Well within mainstream Catholic thought but not exactly Franciscan.

"Shortly after New Jersey enacted a strict plastic bag ban three months ago, employees at the Aberdeen ShopRite noticed something unusual — the store’s handheld plastic shopping baskets were vanishing." They're all gone now and the store is not replacing them.

I have the impression that really smart, well-educated people have a fatal attraction to extreme political and economic views. This study finds that I am right.

The UN estimates that China's population peaked in 2021 and will decline 8% by 2050.

Nature Human Behavior publishes new guidelines saying they won't publish any research that might harm any "human population group," which opponents portray as crazed wokeism that will stifle science.

One of the stupid dodges companies and governments are now using to meet "renewable energy" targets is burning pelletized wood. After all, trees are renewable, right? And if we grow trees and then burn them, isn't that carbon neutral? No, it isn't. This claim ignores many inconventient facts: that the trees are cut with gas-powered chain saws, shipped on diesel-powered trucks to electrically-powered factories where the wood is sliced up and compressed, then transported on more trucks, trains or even across the ocean on ships to power plants where they are burned. This is gigantically inefficient and the whole industry would not exist if bureaucrats did not count it as carbon neutral, and we should change that. Ditto for ethanol, which has all the same problems.

Ukraine Links

Russian ideologue Alexander Dugin calls for a holy war against the Antichrist of the West.

Threads on Russian mobilization: Rob Lee, ChrisO, summary of a talk by Ukrainian military writer Aleksey Arestovych, summary of a group podcast with three western experts, Pwn All the Things

Interesting description of the fighting around Kherson in the south. If the Kupyansk offensive was like World War II, the offensive in the south is World War I, a creeping advance by infantry on a battlefield dominated by artillery.

There are these American military guys on Twitter who post 20-30 statement threads that look like the PowerPoints from lame Pentagon briefings. Mostly what they say is blindingly obvious to anyone who has read any military history and follows the headlines from the war. (Here is a recent one.) But they get lots of praise from readers. I think the appeal is that they project an illusion of ordered understanding that many people find compelling, especially amidst the chaos of war.

Three reasons Russians think they can win. One of them is, "The west is weak and worthless." I know Russian nationalists say things like that all the time, but I notice they haven't tried to shoot down any NATO planes. 

Thursday, September 22, 2022

A Field Day in Washington, DC

Because of a series of strange events, including two of my colleagues having jury duty on the same day, I got to spend some time in the field this week. We are working in an active construction site in DC, near the new baseball stadium. When I first worked in this area, in the mid 1990s, it was a post-industrial wasteland. Now it is almost fully built out. I think every building you can see in the photo above was built within the past 20 years.

The site. The foundations you can see are from houses and a store built around 1890 and torn down in the 1930s. So, not very old or exciting, so we are doing a limited dig.

Better view of one of the houses. Two great new field techs in these photos that I enjoyed working with. 

And what that dark projection off the back looked like after excavation.

The day's most interesting find. Do you think I'm cursed?

Monday, September 19, 2022

On Studying Algebra and Geometry

As I have written here before, I used to be a math evangelist but gave it up. For me, learning math was an amazing, eye-opening experience; I remember my awe when I realized, in calculus class, how many different kinds of problems could all be reduced to the same simple equations. So for a long time I supported forcing more math on young people and scorned opposition to this as anti-intellectual weakness.

But I have now come to know many people I consider intelligent and thoughtful who never got anything out of math. They never saw any beauty or power in it, never experienced it as anything but suffering. So as part of my long-term struggle to resist imposing my personal views on others I have stopped evangelizing for more math and begun thinking about what we might teach instead of algebra.

But then there's this from Alec Wilkinson, who hated math as a kid but went back to restudy it at the age of 60 (NY Times):

Mathematics, I now see, is important because it expands the world. It is a point of entry into larger concerns. It teaches reverence. It insists one be receptive to wonder. It requires that a person play close attention. To be made to consider a problem carefully discourages scattershot and slovenly thinking and encourages systematic thought, an advantage, so far as I can tell, in all endeavors. Abraham Lincoln said he spent a year reading Euclid in order to learn to think logically.

Studying adolescent mathematics, a person is crossing territory on which footprints have been left since antiquity. Some of the trails have been made by distinguished figures, but the bulk of them have been left by ordinary people like me. As a boy, trying to follow a path in a failing light, I never saw the mysteries I was moving among, but on my second pass I began to. Nothing had changed about math, but I had changed. The person I had become was someone whom I couldn’t have imagined as an adolescent. Math was different, because I was different.

The beginner math mystery, available to anyone, concerns the origin of numbers. It’s a simple speculation: Where do numbers come from? No one knows. Were they invented by human beings? Hard to say. They appear to be embedded in the world in ways that we can’t completely comprehend. They began as measurements of quantities and grew into the means for the most precise expressions of the physical world — e = mc², for example.

The second mystery is that of prime numbers, those numbers such as 2, 3, 5, 7, 11 and 13 that can be divided cleanly only by one or by themselves. All numbers not prime are called composite numbers, and all composite numbers are the result of a unique arrangement of primes: 2 x 2 = 4. 2 x 3= 6. 2 x 2 x 2 = 8. 3 x 3= 9. 2 x 3 x 3 x 37 = 666. 29 x 31 = 899. 2 x 2 x 2 x 5 x 5 x 5 = 1,000. If human beings invented numbers and counting, then how is it that there are numbers such as primes that have attributes no one gave them? The grand and enfolding mystery is whether mathematics is created by human beings or exists independently of us in a territory adjacent to the actual world, the location of which no one can specify. Plato called it the non-spatiotemporal realm. It is the timeless nowhere that never has and never will exist anywhere but that nevertheless is.

Mathematics is one of the most efficient means of approaching the great secret, of considering what lies past all that we can see or presently imagine. Mathematics doesn’t describe the secret so much as it implies that there is one.

The young Lincoln's fascination with geometry is worth pausing over. Many European intellectuals shared it, because for 2200 years Euclid's geometry was how young pupils were introduced to logical proof. There are hundreds of anecdotes about young intellectuals who were captivated by this magic. I was one. So I was rather shocked to discover that the state of Maryland no longer teaches Euclid, and you can now complete geometry class without proving anything. Instead of learning how to derive the formulae from simple principles you just have to memorize them.

Anyway there is this to be said about math education: as it is it may mainly spread suffering, but if we did not force it on people then many thousands who are susceptible to this magic would never get the chance to experience it.