Friday, December 29, 2023

Links 29 December 2023

Pedro Requejo Novoa, Minotaur

After I chose this image it started to feel familiar, so I checked and found that this is the sixth time I have featured a modern image of a minotaur on this blog (1, 2, 3, 4, 5). It seems that the minotaur means something to the kind of modern artists I like.

Amazing story of two mad but brilliant plumbers, by Jeremiah Sullivan at Harpers, winner of one of David Brooks' Sidney Awards.

Gizmodo's Best Archaeological Discoveries of 2023.

Some Swedes thought to test whether poverty causes crime by studying lottery winners. They find that winning the lottery does not decrease the number of crimes people commit, so they reject the hypothesis that lack of money leads to crime in any simple way. (Marginal Revolution)

Stolen artifact from Pompeii found in the house of a Swedish tourist who bought it in the shadiest circumstances imaginable.

Northern College, a small college in central Ontario, once educated the children of loggers and miners, but now the student body is 80 percent from India, and they are transforming the town. (NY Times) A recent audit identified the dependence on students from India as a danger for the Canadian educational system, especially given the political tensions over alleged Indian assassination attempts within Canada.

Fascinating Roman-period grave from southern France with miniature objects.

Marvelous photographs of winter scenes by Mikko Lagerstedt.

Wooden strips bearing signs describing an ancient celestial calendar found in Han Dynasty Chinese tomb.

The year 2023 saw the startup of the first new American nuclear reactor since 2014, and the second since 1997; this a 1,000 MW unit in Georgia that uses a new, much safer design.

Kevin Drum explains the legal question behind the newly Democratic Wisconsin Supreme Court striking down their severely gerrymandered electoral map, which is about "municipal islands": "it's pretty obvious that the previous Republican court ruled in favor of Republicans and the new Democratic court has ruled in favor of Democrats. Neither side is especially imbued with either virtue or villainy here."

About the same number of people migrated to Canada last year (1,131,181) as the US (1,138,989). Canada's population grew 3.1% last year, entirely due to immigration.

Awesome map of world population density.

Map showing the movements of one eagle over 20 years.

Archaeologists in Sweden find the burial of a tall medieval man with a very long sword.

Figurines depicting the fertility goddess Cybele found in Pompeii.

NY Times story describing one part of California where farmers have to pay for groundwater, and the system works fine. But the story notes that this practice has driven low-value agriculture out of the area (e.g., alfalfa), so spreading the practice to other areas would put pressure on farmers growing those crops and maybe drive up food prices. I say, great; we just shouldn't grow low-value crops with irrigated water, period.

Thursday, December 28, 2023

Against Race

Via David Brooks' Sidney Awards, I discovered a powerful article arguing something I have long believed: that the only way to eliminate racism is to eliminate race. Subrena E. Smith and David Livingstone Smith are a mixed race couple, both professors, both committed to equality but high dubious of the way (“diversity, equity, and inclusion”) we are trying to fight it. In The Trouble With Race and Its Many Shades of Deceit they write:

We want to make it clear that we fully endorse the aims of DEI programs. But we object to how they are carried out, for, as noble as these aims are, there is a fatal contradiction at the heart of much of what goes on in them, a contradiction that threatens to undermine the entire enterprise. Although the purpose of anti-racist training is to vanquish racism, most of these initiatives are simultaneously committed to upholding and celebrating race. One can see this quite clearly in the work of Ibram X. Kendi and Robin DiAngelo, well-known voices in the anti-racist movement. Both of them presume that we can oppose racism while leaving the concept of race intact.

But in the real world, can we have race without racism coming along for the ride? Trying to extinguish racism while shoring up race is like trying to put out a fire by pouring gasoline on it. It can only make matters worse. To get rid of racism we have to get rid of race.

As I never get tired of pointing out, race has no biological reality; people from east and west Africa are more different from each other than Chinese are from Welsh. Race is a social construct, and it is not a neutral one:

Race was fashioned for nothing that was good. History has shown us how groups of people “racialize” other groups of people to justify their exploitation, oppression and annihilation. . . . Race is and has always been an ideological weapon. It was shaped and honed to give advantage to one group of people by oppressing others. It has birthed genocide and chattel slavery, underpinned lynching and mass incarceration, and has been used to excuse exploitation, degradation and poverty. This sordid history shows how racism has not been added to the fabric of race, but rather is woven into it.

Here the Smiths deal with what I regard as the only serious objection to eliminating race, at the theoretical level:

A further objection against abandoning racial identities is that they can be politically useful for galvanizing solidarity among oppressed people. For example, when Kwame Ture (then Stokely Carmichael) proclaimed “Black power!” he united African Americans under the banner of racial pride. Nevertheless, we have observed the ways that racial solidarity extracts a price. An appeal to race may unite people within a group, but it also segregates them from others. And however emotionally compelling and politically expedient, racial solidarity is built upon a lie, since there are no races.

At the practical level, of course, there is a more immediate objection, which is that most people believe in race and think in racial terms, and that is not going to change any time soon. So for the people tasked with promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion, maybe race is something they do have to consider. But any such short-term measures should always be weighed against the long-term harm of promoting racial thinking, because that is the real enemy of a just human future.

Fertility Decline

Preliminary data for 2023 shows that worldwide fertility continued its precipitous decline. The 2015 to 2023 period has probably seen the biggest change in human fertility in our history.

The UN is projecting that global fertility fell to 2.3 last year, which is one of the estimates for the replacement rate, so we may have achieved a stable human population.

But this is humanity we're talking about, and we don't do stability; instead we seem to be shooting past it toward very rapid population decline. I'm not as alarmed about this as some, because I remember the 1970s and the panic about rising population, and I can't take fifty-year projections of anything very seriously. But this is quite a remarkable thing to see.

Wednesday, December 27, 2023

Uruk, or, Was Civilization a Mistake?

Digital Reconstruction of the Uruk Temple District, c. 3500 BC

Some of the deepest roots of our civilization, things that have been around so long most people never even wonder about them – the twelve-hour day, the sixty-minute hour, the 360-degreee circle, the signs of the zodiac – come from ancient Sumer. The existence of Sumer was actually posited before any of its remains were discovered. In 1855, Assyriologist Jules Oppert noticed that the names for the characters in the Akkadian syllabary of 1800 BC did not mean anything in Akkadian; therefore, he surmised, the script was adopted from an older culture using a different, non-Semitic language.

Stone Vase from Uruk Showing a Procession in Honor of the Goddess Inana

That nation turned out to be Sumer. As one of the claimants to the title of "first civilization," Sumer has been intensely studied for 150 years now. But we keep learning more about it, thanks to ongoing archaeology and the steady stream of new clay tablets coming from Iraq and Syria; the Second Gulf War and the collapse of the Iraqi state lead to a surge of looting and a parade of new tablets coming onto the world antiquities market, half of them bought by the Hobby Lobby people. And the more we learn about ancient Sumer, the weirder it seems.

German excavations at Uruk, c. 1910

Which brings me to a question that has been much in the culture lately: was civilization all a big mistake? Various recent writers (Yuval Levin, David Wengrow and David Graeber, etc.) have argued that civilization was an utter disaster and we should have stuck to equality and freedom. Or, at least, we should have maintained the option of equality and freedom, allowing people to pass back and forth between the two ways of living as some seem to have done in the past. This way of seeing the course of our history, along with the new archaeological findings, leads me to revisit Sumer and ask what it was all about.

The place Sumerians identified as their first great city, Uruk, seems to have made the transition from big village to city between 4000 and 3500 BC. It was at Uruk that the Sumerians developed their writing system, transitioning from clay counters in different shapes to marks on clay tablets that represented the counters to pictographs for nouns to the recording of speech. The world we enter through the oldest tablets is both recognizable and bizarre.

The tablets describe the arrangements of large agricultural fields, most of them owned by the En – usually rendered King or Priest-King – and the rest by other senior figures. The people who worked in these fields were provided with housing and rations of bread, beer, and cloth that came from centralized warehouses where the produce of the whole economy was stored. Taken literally, they seem to describe a communist society with at best a weak notion of private property, in which everyone worked for the bosses in return for a government house and a salary paid in food and drink, the techno-communist's fantasy of the "resource-based economy." The most common artifact from the residential districts at Uruk is the infamous Uruk bowl (above), made from a ceramic archaeologists usually describe as "shit" and molded with zero aesthetic care into a vessel of a standardized size, probably equivalent to one ration of grain or beer. Now it should be said that this system did not encompass the whole economy. Archaeology reveals a lot of stuff not mentioned in the distribution tablets, so there was more going on; likely private garden plots, side jobs, and so on. But so far as we can tell the main staples of life were really distributed in this regimented way.

When they weren't laboring in the bosses' fields, ancient Sumerians seem to have spent a lot of time working on public building projects. Around 3500 BC the people of Uruk built the White Temple (digital reconstruction above), a fascinating building. After a foundation deposit had been laid down that contained the bodies of a lion and a leopard, work began. The excavators estimated that it would have taken 1500 workers, laboring 10 hours a day, about five years to build this one structure, at a time when the population of Uruk was likely around 30,000. When you add in the city walls, all the other temples, the palaces, the sewers, the major canals, etc., it seems like a very substantial portion of Uruk's available labor was spent on public works. I already mentioned here the calculations that show roughly 20 percent of all the available male labor in Old Kingdom Egypt went into building the great pyramids, and the figure for Uruk must have been similar.

Living in mud-brick houses – some examples are above, with an open courtyard in the center and rooms on either side – subsisting mainly on bread and beer, laboring long hours in the fields or on building projects; why did people do it? This was a world, remember, where this was the only such city-state, surrounded by places where traditional village life went on unmolested. Nobody had to stay in Uruk.


One thing we have learned in recent decades is that Uruk-style life was an exportable package. People from Uruk established colonies all around Mesopotamia, some of them independent towns and others neighborhoods within foreign cities. Life in those enclaves seems to have been as much like life in Uruk as it was possible to make it: the same centralized warehouses and rations of grain and beer, the same temples, the same officials, the same record-keeping, the same houses, the same miserable pottery. One of the Uruk colonies was at Habuba Kabira on the upper Euphrates in what is now Syria, 800 km (500 miles) from Uruk. The comparison above, from this lecture, shows stuff from Uruk on the right and Habuba Kabira on the left. This is as close as archaeologists ever get to identical assemblages.

I think the spread of Uruk's urban lifestyle into areas where most people lived quite differently shows that the people who lived this way liked it; otherwise they could have just walked away. So let me ask: what is there to like?

Uruk's Brick Walls

First, security; certainly when Uruk was the only large city in Mesopotamia its residents had little fear of being attacked by enemies, and this advantage endured for centuries. There was some degree of economic security as well, since rather than relying on their own fields people drew on the produce of the whole community; this probably explains the growth of the population, which we can infer from the colonies they planted all over the region. 

There was a rich community life, with lots of festivals and so on. 

Reconstructed Mosaic from Uruk's "Stone Cone Temple"

One thing I am curious about is the role of the massive public works projects in all of this. Think, for a moment, of all the space that famous ancient monuments take up in your mind: the pyramids, the Acropolis in Athens, Japanese castles, Stonehenge. I think about such things all the time, and I honestly wonder what I would think about instead if I didn't know them. How much did the people who built the pyramids or the ziggurats get out that? Or of just being part of communities that had awesome monuments?

After all our first signs of big communities of people working together come from sites like Göbekli Tepe (above), where there wasn't even a town but folks put a lot of effort into erecting stone monuments and ritual enclosures. Presumably, they found the results worth the effort, because in 10,000 BC there certainly wasn't any government with a lot of enforcement powers.

From our modern perspective, civilization looks pretty burdensome: we have to work hard all the time, deal with millions of rules, and look on while other people live much richer, more exciting lives than we do. Some of us ponder hunter-gatherers with their more relaxed, less rule-bound lives and wonder if all our stuff is really worth the work we put into getting it. But life in Uruk already had many of civilization's drawbacks, especially the standardization, the rules, and the grotesque inequality. And yet so far as we can tell, the ancient Sumerians embraced this way of living heart and soul. Surely not all of them or all of the time; life isn't like that. But so far as we can tell these were thriving communities with little internal strife where people created ways of life that endured for centuries.

Maybe they knew something about life without civilization that we don't.

Ethel Lindgren on Cultural Appropriation

The NY Times has produced one of their "overlooked no more" obituaries for Ethel Lindgren (1905-1988), an American/British anthropologists who did fieldwork with the reindeer-herding Evenki people of northern Manchuria.

Her experience there led her to this:

Peace, Lindgren wrote in a letter, could be achieved through a “blending of cultures.” The easy coexistence of Cossacks, a Slavic people, and Evenki was ready evidence that “the interchange of cultural traits is a very important background for intergroup friendships.”

Friday, December 22, 2023

Emilie Zola's "Paradise for Ladies"

Among the many, many novels Emile Zola wrote is one I never heard of, Au Bonheur Des Dames ("Paradise for Ladies"). As Agnes Callard explains in this interesting essay, the novel has a romantic plot but is really about the rise of the department store. Zola covers all the sides of this phenomenon: the demise of small shops that have been in the same family for generations, the miserable conditions of the workers, the frenzy of greed induced in the shoppers, which induces even wealthy woman to shoplift. Apparently Callard wrote this because "Paradise for Ladies" has become a television miniseries, but she says nothing about that except to complain that it doesn't capture the complexity of the original.

Anyway, I was struck by this:

For all the suffering it causes, the Ladies’ Paradise is a place of passion, filled with energy. The people inside of it may be a bit crazed with the desperation to buy, or the desperation to sell, but they are noticeably alive, when juxtaposed with the surrounding neighbourhood, which reeks of darkness and decay. And this, in the end, is the sharpest contrast in the novel: between the lively, colourful world of the department store, and the stagnant and despondent world outside of it. As much as you empathise with the umbrella store owner, there is no question as to which way the future lies. What Zola showcases about capitalism is that it is a powerful source of optimism, of momentum; and that people, once they become wealthy enough to attend to something other than survival, need some such engine. The difficulty that he implicitly raises for any alternative to capitalism is not the usual one, about efficiency: how will the system be organised in such a way as to avoid poverty for all? It is instead a motivational difficulty: assuming it does avoid poverty for all, what will move and inspire and incite those people?

And this is absolutely the problem with contemporary socialism: it's boring. 

Where is the real energy in America? The passion? The hope for the future? Certainly not on the left, where everything is doom and gloom: climate collapse, young people will never own homes, maybe we should throw it all over and go back to gathering nuts in the woods. Not in the arts, where the serious artists are as depressed as the left-wing activists and Hollywood can't do anything but recycle old superheroes.

The energy is in the business world. And not all of that; retailers are pretty glum. The energy is in the big tech firms like Nvidia and Google, in gaming companies, with the aerospace guys psyched up about new stealth weapons. In the top sports leagues and their stars. With SpaceX, with geothermal firms drilling for the hot depths, with people making electric buses and giant wind turbines. With extreme sports guys who can get ten million views of a death-defying mountainbike ride. 

This, to me, is the secret of right-wing icons like Donald Trump and Elon Musk: they radiate energy and a sense of action. Maybe Trump doesn't have any actual ideas, and maybe Musk's Mars colony is stardust, but they convey a sense that they are going somewhere. If half the country hates and opposes them, that just makes their journeys more heroic. If there ambitions have a brutal edge, that just makes them more appealing to many.

If you want to capture the human imagination, you need energy, vision, and an exciting plan for the future. Bemoaning the state of things is no good; it only depresses people in an age when, so far as we can tell, humans are more depressed than ever. 

This is what I think whenever I read some anarchist or communist writing in sorrow or anger about the woes of our time: show me your vision for a better future. Otherwise, stop dragging everyone down. Because if people can only get energy and excitement from brutal Randian tycoons or violent nationalists, that is where they will go.

Links 22 December 2023

Witold Pruszkowski, Falling Star, 1884

Congress asked the National Science Foundation to look into the effects of social media on teenage mental health, and they just issued a major report that finds little evidence of harm and some of benefit. (Kevin Drum, Report)

In this 30-minute video, an American geologist goes over the recent volcanic eruption in Iceland as of Tuesday morning. Short video of the eruption at its peak here. The eruption is over for now but apparently the magma chamber that fed it is already filling again.

The bizarre notes from this local architectural review board meeting have become an intenet classic. Skip down to 116 Tower Hill Road. We should make "Mr. Lynch" a famous meme character like Leroy Jenkins.

The case of the Avar belt buckles.

Very important major study showing that genetically engineered immune system cells, hitherto used to fight cancer, can also be effective against lupus and other immune system diseases.

Spitalfields Life's Winter Walks in London.

The guerilla arts collective that smuggled subversive messages into the 90s soap opera Melrose Place.

A nineteenth-century Christmas song: "May you get drunk at night, and eat goose and pudding all day."

The annual Microsoft Excel World Championship was won by Andrew "the Annihilator" Ngai of Sydney, Australia. This event, which features contestants competing to solve problems in data analysis and financial modeling, started out low-key but the latest version was held in Las Vegas, eSports style, with a live audience. Can you, I mean – never mind.

On October 31, a ransomware gang stole the entire digital footprint of the British Library. What did they take? And what does it mean for the library?

Remember the white and gold/blue and black dress? Cognitive scientists are only beginning to study the many very different ways people perceive and understand the world.

Mesopotamian bricks and the Levantine Iron Age Geomagnetic Anomaly. The authors tout their new technique as a possible dating method but I suspect local magnetic field variation is too great for that to work.

Negative take on generative AI, which this author finds mostly stupid.

Tyler Cowen calls our attention to a new translation of Pedro Páramo by Mexican novelist Juan Rulfo (1955), which many Latin American writers think is their greatest work but which has never had a good English translation until now. I think I will check it out.

Ukraine Links

Estonian defense ministry report on Ukraine here; good summary on X here. Lots of emphasis on the long-term industrial potential of both sides. Incidentally Putin and his close associates have lately made several very clear statements to the effect that they will not negotiate any end to the war that doesn't "achieve their aims," which include annexing half of Ukraine and disarming the other half.

Putin held his traditional annual press conference this year, after skipping last year's. His message was that Russia is winning the war.

Ukraine reports that it is producing 50,000 drones per month for its military.

Thursday, December 21, 2023

Happy Solstice

May the darkness enfold and comfort you, and as the light returns, may it bring you joy and love.

Wednesday, December 20, 2023

No, I have Not Done This. I Swear.

Today's interesting story from the world of publishing:

A fantasy debut author who had a two-book deal with Penguin Random House on Tuesday admitted to creating fake accounts on the website Goodreads to sabotage other novelists by leaving negative reviews.

The novelist, Cait Corrain, posted an admission and an apology on the social media platform X, citing a struggle with depression and substance abuse. In the note, Corrain said that this month, she had suffered a “psychological breakdown” and created around half a dozen fake accounts that left positive ratings on her upcoming novel and “bombed the ratings of several fellow debut authors.”

For this she was dropped by her agent, and her novel was withdrawn by the publisher.

Which led me to contemplate my own situation. I have, after all, posted several terrible reviews here, including some of recent fantasy fiction. But not to promote myself! I swear! I had no such intention!

Sometimes I just dislike books, and want to vent about them. Please, please don't ban me for it.

I am a good person!  I would never tear town others to raise up myself! I swear!

Sunday, December 17, 2023

Tranforming New College

One of the more dramatic elements of Ron DeSantis' program to eliminate wokeness from education in Florida is an attempt to transform New College. New College was founded in the 70s as a small, quirky liberal arts college and mostly remained one down to last year, with no sports teams, a strong gay community and a fair number of trans people. Some of the parents who were interviewed last year said that New College was the first place their "weird" children ever felt really comfortable.

DeSantis has said quite openly that his plan is to turn New College into a bastion of conservative, liberal arts studies modeled on Hillsdale, a private college in Michigan. He wants, he has said, to show conservative Floridians that at least one state college "reflects their values."

For the details of how this has transpired, you can read this report just issued by the American Association of University Professors and this older article in the NY Times. The basic story is that DeSantis packed the governing board with six new conservative appointees, one of whom is a dean at Hillsdale (and none of whom live in Florida). The board proceeded to deny tenure to all the liberal arts professors up for tenure last year (obviously, whatever they said, to free up those slots for conservative hires), dismiss several faculty who were on one-year contracts, and get rid of a slew of administrators.

Like everything Ron DeSantis does, it was ham-handed and sleazy, and probably broke Florida law by setting obvious ideological tests for state employees. But let's ignore that for a moment and take a broader look at the politics of university education.

The AAUP report blasts DeSantis and his board for repeatedly attacking academic freedom. Which they undoubtedly have, in a sleazy and ham-handed way. It is a violation of all the rules of the American academic world to fire professors because of the work they do or the way they teach is too liberal, and the New College board undoubtedly has done so.

Plus, all professors at Florida state universities are now subject to the bizarre dictates of the Stop WOKE Act, which forbids, among others things, "indoctrination." Nobody really knows what this means, since it has not been tested in court, but as written it might include any attempt to persuade students of any point of view. AAUP: "It is, of course, difficult to imagine how one could teach any subject without seeking somehow to persuade students of something." The AAUP also points out something I did not notice when I read the law, that it explicitly forbids teaching that any race is "morally superior" to any other but says nothing about any other way in which a race might be superior.

But the wackiest provision of the law is that students are explicitly allowed to surreptitiously record their professors' lectures to monitor their compliance with its dictates. Not to be cynical or anything, but I find it hard to believe that in Florida today any professor is going to be sanctioned for taking a conservative point of vew, so this just hangs out there as a way to harass leftists.

It's pretty awful. What I keep thinking, though, is that American academics have brought this on themselves. I think left wing activist professors are a minority, but they are a large and noisy one. I recently read the official faculty bio of an anthropology professor that listed her research interests as "destroying capitalism" and "practicing revolution." This sort of thing is common, and to the AAUP it is protected under the rubric of "academic freedom." But why should conservative voters, legislators, and governors support it? Why should taxpayers pay for it?

I am not arguing that right-wing extremists and left-wing extremists are equally bad and we should silence both and have some kind of neutral, non-ideological educational system. I consider myself a pragmatic centrist, but that does not mean I don't have an ideology; pragmatic centrism is an ideology, and it is no more inherently correct than Marxism or Objectivism. 

I do not think there is such a thing as non-ideological education; in fact I think valuing higher education is itself an ideology. "Academic freedom" is an ideological construct. (Shouldn't Marxists, at least, understand this?) It is a construct I approve of, but that doesn't make it some high truth that ought to be exempt from political debate.

Reading the AAUP report I keep thinking, yes, that is pretty disgusting. But what, in the modern academic world, does academic freedom really mean? If you tried to be a conservative anthropology professor, you would simply fail; nobody would take you on as a student, nobody would serve as your thesis advisor, and you would certainly never get a job, because about 98 percent of the anthropology professors in the US are leftists. If you asked anthropologists why they would not support a conservative colleague, many of them would be happy to tell you that American conservatism is too evil for them to tolerate it in any way. It would be nearly as hard to be a non-feminist professor of women's history, or a professor of black history who thinks there was some value in segregation. In many fields the system as it exists already imposes a great deal of control over what professors think, study and teach, much of it through simple peer pressure.

But none of that is what really matters here, at least not to me. Say what you will about Ron DeSantis, at least he thinks that university education is important enough to fight about. He thinks that how Florida's colleges teach history matters. He is also putting his money where his mouth is, showering New College with millions in new funding. This concern makes him, so far as I can see, part of a small minority of Americans. The real danger to university education is that it will fade away because not enough people care about it one way or the other.

I predict that the attempt to remake New College into a conservative liberal arts college will fail. It will fail because Ron DeSantis won't be governor forever and his replacement is unlikely to make it a priority; it takes decades to change a university, and the long-term commitment won't be there. But mainly it will fail because students aren't interested. Several reporters have prowled New College this Fall, interviewing students, but I have not read about a single student who is excited by the college's new focus. Richard Corcoran, the new President (at a salary of $1 million a year) wrote an op-ed saying that all new freshmen will have to take a course about The Odyssey, but so far that course hasn't even appeared in the catalog. And why would it? What, really, gained, by forcing every student to take a whole course on one poem? Sometimes I think that these conservative reformers have never met an actual freshman.

The thing that is most salient in the "conservative" takeover of New College is not the curriculum; it is the new emphasis on sports. AAUP:

At the same time, New College has moved to recruit a large number of student athletes, although until now the school had had no intercollegiate athletics program. Spending lavishly on new “presidential honors scholarships,” New College recruited its largest ever first-year class. As of July, New College had 328 incoming students, of whom 115 were athletes. Among that group were seventy freshman baseball players supported by scholarships. By comparison, the University of Florida, an NCAA Division I university with a student body ninety times larger than that of New College, has just thirty-seven baseball players on scholarships. New College also does not yet have a baseball field, or for that matter any other intercollegiate athletic facility, although the parking lot, this committee was told, now has batting cages. As faculty members were quick to point out, moreover, these student-athletes tend to have little interest in either New College’s existing liberal arts programs or any proposed “classical” curriculum.
I've seen this before; seeking to recruit conservative students, and especially conservative male students, the only thing administrators can think of is sports. Most of the reporters who have been to New College recently have commented on this, e.g., Michelle Goldberg in the NY Times:  At a College Targeted by DeSantis, Gender Studies Is Out, Jocks Are In. It also strikes me that all the names that I have ever seen come up as part of the effort to change New College are male, which is downright weird for academia; conservative educational reform seems to be a thoroughly male-dominated endeavor. I suspect the sports business is related to this.

Here, I believe, is where conservative educational reform efforts will go to die: the batting cages. If "liberal arts" colleges can only recruit students by offering them athletic scholarships, they have already failed.

I can't bring myself to get particularly angry about the takeover of New College because it is a petty thing compared to the overall collapse of liberal studies across America. If some of that collapse is happening because people perceive liberal arts professors as leftists peddling ideology, then maybe having some colleges with a conservative tone might help. I'm willing to try it. I mean, academic freedom will be cold comfort for all the professors who lose their jobs because their departments have no students. I can't take Ron DeSantis and his crew seriously, so I have no particular hopes for New College, but I would be curious to see somebody else with less hammy hands give it a try. I want to see liberal arts education survive, because I loved it and still feel every day like it changed me for the better. I am willing to work with almost anybody who has a plan to save it. But, as I said, I think what is happening at New College is doomed to go nowhere, so it will only screw up a lot of people's lives for no good end.

African French

Interesting article in the NY Times by Elian Peltier about how West Africans are changing French. Right now about 60 percent of the people who speak French daily are in Africa, along with 80 percent of the school children studying in French. African French is fascinating partly because most Africans don't grow up speaking it at home. They learn it in school, sometimes as the only language of instruction and sometimes alongside the local tongue. They use it as adults because most West Africans now live in cities where people from many different ethnic groups mingle. In a city like Kinshasa or Abidjan, the people in one company or government office might speak three different African languages, so they use French with each other.

What has happened over the past twenty years is that French has become the language of the booming urban youth culture. While the populations of Europe and Asia are graying, that of Africa is getting more youthful, and the cities are exploding. But people don't speak the "correct" French they learned in school. Instead they use a free-wheeling new tongue full of African words and made-up expressions. The leaders in creating and spreading the new dialects include rappers, comedians, and gangsters, the demimonde of the new cities.

To speak only French, “c’est zogo” — “it’s uncool,” said Marla, whose real name is Mariam Dosso, combining a French word with Ivorian slang. But playing with words and languages, she said, is “choco,” an abbreviation for chocolate meaning “sweet” or “stylish.” . . .

In Abidjan this year, people began to call a boyfriend “mon pain” — French for “my bread.” Improvisations soon proliferated: “pain choco” is a cute boyfriend. A sugary bread, a sweet one. A bread just out of the oven is a hot partner. At a church in Abidjan earlier this year, the congregation burst out laughing, several worshipers told me, when the priest preached that people should share their bread with their brethren.

French is thriving in African cities despite what is in many ways a turn against the old colonial power. Rebel military leaders in Mali and Burkina Faso and have stripped French of its official status and are trying to use only African languages in their communications. Several prominent intellectuals have sworn off writing and speaking French. Polls show that a majority of young Africans harbor a lot of resentment against France.

But the momentum of French is too strong for governments to do much about it. It spreads via social media, over the radio, on television, but especially it spreads from person to person in the markets and nightclubs of the cities. Some people Peltier spoke to said they had to use French beause it was the only to keep West Africa from being dominated by English-speaking Nigeria with its thriving film industry. 

Some of this has even spread back to France, as slang words that originated in African cities appear in Paris and even in French dictionaries.

The world moves on, whether the old grouches at L'Académie française like it or not.

Saturday, December 16, 2023

Protection from Animal Bites in medieval Turkey

This 800-year-old bowl was found at Hasankeyf in southeastern Turkey, in a drain pipe under a small fortress. 

The idea with these bowls, which were common in the medieval Middle East, was that you swirled water in the bowl and then used it to wash wounds or just splashed it on your body protectively. This one, according to excavator Zekai Erdal's reading of the text, was specifically for healing of or protection from animal bites.

Besides the dog in the center it features a tour of greatest hits in magical stuff: a magic knot, a star of David, three pentagrams, a scorpion, a two-headed dragon, two magic squares and some verses from the Koran. Covering all the bases.

Friday, December 15, 2023

Vajra Chandrasekera, "The Saint of Bright Doors"

This frst novel from Sri Lankan writer Vajra Chandrasekera is the most exciting fantasy I have read in a long time. It's set in a weird version of contemporary south Asia, much about the power of cult leaders and other Asian themes. Unlike anything I have ever read before, and not just because of the setting. It is wildly inventive and sometimes quite strange, but it always hangs together.

Camps of various kinds loom large: refugee camps, internment camps, quarantine camps, prison camps, some so large the residents of the remoter districts have forgotten that they are interned.  In big parts of the world such camps are a major feature part of life, and of how people imagine their reality.

On the other hand, it plays with the variant timeline theme that dominates contemporary science fiction and fantasy; there are some themes you can's escape from even in Sri Lanka.

Links 15 December 2023

Bonsai tree house by Takanori Aiba

The utility locating industry sponsors an annual Locate Rodeo in which contestants compete to see who can map buried utilites with the greatest speed and accuracy. (Via Tom Whitwell)

Video of a useless Lego machine that combines 20 different mechanical linkages. Amazing, the strange things people do.

Via Scott Siskind, a company that promises to replace your mouth bacteria with a mutant strain that doesn't cause tooth decay.

With Bitcoin soaring again, Tyler Cowen explains why he thinks crypto is not just a fraud.

Nicholas Kristoff offers turning multi-bedroom houses into rooming houses as a solution to America's affordable housing crisis; after all, we have millions of bedrooms in which nobody is sleeping. (NY Times) I foresee that parking could become a major flash point.

A paper arguing that the balance between offense and defense in war and security has remained roughly stable over time despite vast technological changes: "The main thing is that the clean distinction between attackers and defenders . . . does not exist in practice."

Kevin Drum says there is no sudden crisis of boys or men, we're just less willing to tolerate the way boys and men have always acted. Specifically, colleges used to admit boys with worse records than girls, but find it harder to do that these days.

Amazing hand-drawn world map by Anton Thomas, with no national borders but over a thousand animals.

If you're curious about Francis Bacon's New Atlantis (1627), a utopia in which scientists appear to be angels, this article seems like a good summary and analysis.

Fervo's new-style geothermal energy plant is up and running in Nevada.

Lead curse tablet in the classical form found in a German medieval site.

Update on the finds from the Saxon bed burial excavated last year near Harpole in Northamptonshire, England.

Brief account of Fruitlands, an anarchist commune found by Louisa May Alcott's parents.

Tuesday, December 12, 2023

Henry Vaughan on the Arrival of Inspiration

Welsh poet Henry Vaughan (1621-1695) told this story about the arrival of inspiration, Awen in Welsh. After describing the organized bardic schools that existed in Wales before the conquest of the 1280s, he related this:

As to the later Bards, who were no such men, but had a society and some rules and orders among themselves, and several sorts of measures and a kind of lyric poetry, which are all set down exactly in the learned John David Rhees, or Rhesus his Welsh or British grammar, you shall have there, in the later end of his book, a most curious account of them. This vein of poetry they call Awen, which in their language signifies as much as Raptus, or a poetic furor; and in truth as many of them as I have conversed with are, as I may say, gifted or inspired with it. I was told by a very sober and knowing person (now dead) that in his time there was a young lad fatherless and motherless, and so very poor that he was forced to beg; but at last was taken up by a rich man that kept a great stock of sheep upon the mountains not far off from the place where I now dwell, who clothed him and sent him into the mountains to keep his sheep. There in summer time, following the sheep and looking to their lambs, he fell into a deep sleep, in which he dreamed that he saw a beautiful young man with a garland of green leaves upon his head and a hawk upon his fist, with a quiver full of arrows at his back, coming towards him (whistling several measures or tunes all the way) and at last let the hawk fly at him, which he dreamed got into his mouth and inward parts, and suddenly awaked in a great fear and consternation, but possessed with such a vein, or gift of poetry, that he left the sheep and went about the Country, making songs upon all occasions, and came to be the most famous Bard in all the Country in his time. 

Franz Marc's Hand-Painted Postcards







Postcards sent by German painter Franz Marc to his friends, including Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky. Marc died in 1916 at the Battle of Verdun.

Via No Brash Festivity

Monday, December 11, 2023

Reading Taliesin

Page from The Book of Taliesin

Taliesin was probably a real person who died around 575 AD. He was, according to our accounts, a famous bard who served British kings, notably the very historical Urien of Rheged.

Beyond that, everything we know about him is obscure, disputed, and based on sources that almost flaunt their unreliability. The Irish and Welsh had this annoying quirk in the way they recorded their history, which is that the more famous someone became, the less they cared about the reality of his life and the more they assimiliated him to various ancient myths. (See Arthur, Merlin)

Among the "sources" for the life of Taliesin is a peculiar manuscript, written down in the 1500s, called the Hanes Taliesin. This "biography" gives our bard multiple lives under multiple names. It attributes his great wisdom to his having spent time as a child in the home of the witch/goddess/hag/wise woman Ceridwen, who was brewing a potion of knowledge in the Cauldron of Wisdom. Taliesin was supposed to be tending the cauldron and not touching the brew, but three drops of the liquid fell onto his thumb, which he then stuck in his mouth because of the pain, thus acquiring all knowledge. Which is one of the oldest stories we know. So, yeah, a great source for Celtic myth but a lousy one for the life of the historical Taliesin.

One of the most important sources for the Welsh poetic tradition is a 14th century text called The Book of Taliesin. This contains 56 poems, of which about a dozen are agreed by authorities to date to the 500s AD and therefore may be connected with the historical Taliesin.

People have been obsessively reading these poems since the 1600s, seeking in them the key to Taliesin's history, Welsh myth, the Celtic Soul, the Secrets of the Druids, and so on. But that does not mean they agree on what they poems say. 

The bards, according to our sources, composed their works in a state of ecstatic inspiration called in Welsh awen. Awen was sometimes experienced while wandering the mountains, or in the midst of battle, but generally it happened when the bard fell into a deep sleep, or trance, from which he could not be woken until the right moment. Waking, he would have a poem ready to recite. He might freely confess that he himself did not fully understand his words; they came to him, not from him.

The bards pronounced various kinds of poems: poems of praise, genealogies, histories – presumably reciting these to various noble audiences was the main way they earned their keep – but also prophecy. The prophecies might not have been the most important works for the bards while they lived, but it was above all the prophecies that fascinated later generations. So most of the old bardic poetry that comes down to us has at least a hint of prophecy about it.

And you all know how prophecy works: the farther the bard looks ahead, the vaguer and more mystical the pronouncements become. 

Plus, the bards practiced a deliberately obscure way of speaking, full of riddling references that only the most learned were supposed to get. We, sadly, are not among those initiates, so we are often left wondering what, exactly these phrases mean. One of my favorite old Welsh poems is The Colloquy of the Two Sages, in which a young bard challenges an older man for his place in court. They ask each other questions and then answer them in a way designed to show off their knowledge of the tradition, like this:

Old Sage: A question, lad; whence have you come?

Young Sage: Not a hard question!
From a confluence of wisdom,
From perfection of goodness,
From the brightness of the sunrise,
From the nine hazels of poetic art,
From splendid circuits, in a land
Where truth is measured by excellence,
Where there is no falsehood,
Where there are many colors,
Where poets are honored and well fed.

Which is supposed to convey that he was trained by a wise bard who served a great lord.

So, yeah, not a genre in which clarity of speech was much prized.

Anyway. This week I have been reading a book about Taliesin by the Welsh scholar/practicing druid John Matthews. I came across a passage from one of Taliesin's poems (i.e., one of the poems in the Book of Taliesin that the authorities agree date to the 6th century). As translated by D.W. Nash, this really caught my fancy:

Seven score muses
There are in the inspiration of song
Eight score in every score
In the great abyss of tranquility
In the depths below the earth
In the air above the earth
There is recognition of it
What sorrow there is,
That is better than joy.

Already having an inkling that translations of this stuff vary a lot, I went searching for other versions of this passage so as to better understand it and perhaps craft my own version.

In the first alternative translation I checked, I could not find this passage at all. I eventually decided that this must be an abridged version, although it didn't say so, and moved on. John Matthews has this:

Seven scores goddeses
have shares in inspiration,
but of these scores, only one truly.

Anger will cease in the depths,
in the depths anger will swell,
in the depths, under the earth,
in the sky over the earth,
only one truly knows
what is the sadness
that is better than joy.

Which is recognizably the same verse, although Nash has nothing about anger ceasing or swelling, or about only one of the however-many-score muses really mattering. 

The Celtic Literature Collective has this:

Seven score Ogyrven
Are in the Awen.
Eight score, of every score it will be one.
In the deep it will cease from ire;
In the deep it will be excessively angry;
In the deep, below the earth;
In the sky, above the earth.
There is one that knows
What sadness is,
Better than joy.

I suppose Ogyrven is the word Nash translated "muses." Notice that here the subject of the discouse is the Awen (inspiration): it is the Awen that gets angry and then loses its anger, etc. The second sentence (Eight score, of every score it will be one) must be completely obscure, since the various translations don't agree at all. Otherwise I think we can get a sense of what this might mean, although I do wonder who is it who knows the kind of sadness that is better than joy. The poet? Or is the subject just missing, the way Nash has it? (You could do that in Welsh, as in Latin.)

So I went looking for other passages to see what sort of variation there was. Consider these, from a very famous (because very druidical) poem called The Battle of the Trees:

I have been in a multitude of shapes,
Before I assumed a consistent form.
I have been a sword, narrow, variegated,
I will believe when it is apparent.
I have been a tear in the air,
I have been the dullest of stars.
I have been a word among letters,
I have been a book in the origin.
I have been the light of lanterns,
A year and a half.
I was in many a guise
before I was disenchanted.
I am a grey-cowled minstrel,
I believe in illusion.
I was for a time in the sky:
I was observing the stars.
I was a message in writing:
I was a book to my priest.
I was the light of the altar-horns
for a year and a half.

I imagine the minstrel/sword problem means there is an unreadable word in the manuscript. But does the next line mean the speaker believes in illusions or not? Was he a star, or observing them? Matthews, incidentally, mostly agrees with the first translation above but he has "brightest of stars." 

From The Spoils of Taliesin:

In manliness he will greet my trouble,
Should I be bled, I should evidently get better;
Truly I saw no one before, who saw not in me
Every indisposition, he will cultivate his business.
I saw a feeding about a lion for plants,
I saw leaves of luxuriant growth.
I saw a branch with equal blossoms.
Did I not see a prince?
My bravery emerges in time of stress:
If wounded, shall I recover strength altogether?
Verily I saw, before any, the oppression, which I did not escape.
Every feather-brain made my message of no account.
I saw a land, with pastures round the clearing and the court.
I saw a bird, which brings leaves from the deep.
I saw a branch, like thorns its blossoms.

This one puzzles me; were these two people reading the same poem?

Since nobody seems to agree on the details of these poems, I think I'll just render the passage I started from in my own way. How about this:

In the quiet of compassion
In the depths of anger
In the arc of the sky
The muses teach me
Of the sorrow that is 
Better than joy.

Sunday, December 10, 2023

Pompeii, Images of New Finds




Fragments of painted plaster from recent excavations, showing how bright the colors are when they emerge from the ground. Sad that the ones excavated in the 1700s have faded so much.


More paintings.The lower one has acquired the name, Still Life with Pizza

Overhead view of a recently uncovered commercial bakery.

The Lararium of House X in Regio IX.

And the remains of the last offering in the Lararium altar: dates and figs burned with olive pits and pine cones as the fuel, topped with a whole egg.

Mural from the Baths.

Some delightful painted "wallpaper."

The Crane Bag and the Domestication of Myth

The Irish myths are really weird.

They are full of grotesque details, like, when the hero Cuchulainn went into his battle frenzy he had a fountain of frozen blood six feet tall sprouting from his forehead. They loop around in time, so that a man potrayed in one story as another's father will appear later as an infant in the house of his son. People keep being transformed into animals, or dying and being reborn. Sometimes gods create people, but in other stories people create gods. There is no beginning to the unvierse, and no end, just events that echo other events in a pattern more like a four-dimensional weaving than a linear narrative.

Nineteenth-century rationalists argued that this confusion meant the stories had somehow become "corrupted." Some thought this had happened in the course of oral transmission, while others pointed to the moment when they were written down by Christian monks. I subscribe to the view that, no, they were always like this. I think these stories reflect a view of time and the universe developed by the Druids around 500 to 350 BC, when Greek philosophers were also devoting a lot of attention to time and change. The Druids ended up teaching, I think, that linear time is an illusion, and that in a universe with no beginning and no end events keeping moving in cycles that echo, but do not exactly repeat, those of other times.

This brings me to the Crane Bag. In myth there is only one Crane Bag, with a story something like this:

The celebrated bag of Irish tradition was made by Manannán mac Lir and contained many treasures. Aífe [a famous woman] is transformed into a crane by a jealous rival, Luchra; she subsequently spends 200 years in the household of Manannán mac Lir. When she dies, he uses her skin to hold things precious to him. These included his knife and shirt, the king of Scotland's shears, the king of Lochlainn's helmet, the bones of Assal's swine, and the girdle of the great whale's back. At high tide the treasures are visible in the sea, but at ebb tide they vanish. 

Ok, so, on the one hand, this sounds like a bag made of bird skin, but on the other it holds the bones of an enormous whale. Also, it fills with sea water at high tide, and the treasures in the bag are "visible in the sea;" in fact there are a couple of points on the Irish coast that are supposed to be the place from which the treasures are visible.

Many modern interpreters, going back to the eighteenth century, have argued that what the bag actually held was the letters of the Ogham alphabet. There are some obscure verses that may say the form of the letters was copied from the positions of a crane's legs, and some clever person figured out how to connect the objects in the bag (knife, shirt, shears, helmet, pig bones, girdle) to the first six Ogham letters. Well, maybe, but it sometimes seems to me that with a little work you can connect anything in the Irish stories to literally anything else, which, again, may be part of the point. Plus, these clever commentators have not been able to explain why a bag holding the alphabet has tides.

Which brings me to yesterday, when I did a quick search for Crane Bag. (Don't ask.) What I found was, not references to this arcane tradition, but ads from crane bag sellers (the one above could be yours for $75) and instructions on how to assemble the contents of your own. These are, the ads assure me, "traditionally carried by druids."

Here's one example:

My Crane Bag is the size of a small messenger bag and holds some personal spiritual talismans, a few stones and crystals that help me focus, a couple of acorns, a feather, some shells and a few odds and ends. Because I like to strike out into unpopulated spaces, I’m practical, so also carry a Swiss army knife, compass, always a notebook and a couple of pens and pencils and a pencil sharpener since words are my system of divination. The best part? There’s still enough room for my keys and wallet. I’m prepared wherever I go and don’t need to take anything else. This leaves my hands free, so I can touch trees and stones and whatever else draws me.

This is an entirely modern tradition; there is in Irish myth only one Crane Bag, and it was not carried by a druid. I am not sure when this habit of making and carrying these bags developed, but so far as I can tell it is post-World War II. The obvious source for this kind of thing is Native American spirit bundles.

Here's a modern Druid who at least understands that this is a distortion of the myth:

Symbolically speaking, the Crane Bag isn’t a bag to hold things. The concept is actually closer to the Irish version of the Grail. According to legend, it appears and disappears, shifts guardianship and even shifts worlds – from sea to land, from god to hero. The crane is associated with death and rebirth and the labyrinth path between the worlds. So when you think on that, basically, the concept encompasses all the realms and planes and really becomes a representation for the interconnectedness of everything and the unity and harmony between all things in one.

Now, I don't want to tell other people how to be spiritual, and really what they choose to carry in their $75 bags is none of my business.

But I wanted to comment on this because it represents a human tendency that I think constantly gets in the way of understanding myth: taking things literally. You know, Plato tries to tell a story about an imaginary perfect city,  and the next thing you know people are diving off the Azores and claiming to find pieces of it. The Voyage of Saint Brendan is a distorted narrative of an actual journey to America. Robin Hood was really [insert the historical Robert you prefer]. 

The basic structure of this discourse is: X is really Y. 

One of the most common forms in this genre is the search for the oldest form of a myth, the most authentic form, which is sometimes dubbed the "original" version. If there are five different stories about the great magician Math son of Mathonwy, in some of which he is clearly human, in others apparently immortal, well, there must be an original version in which he was one or the other. 

Caesar tells us that the Druids refused to write down their doctrines. I understand their thinking, because as soon as you write something down, even something as bizarre as the old Irish myths, somebody comes along as says, "Oh, you really meant this." Or, "Why is your teaching so garbled? It must have gotten corrupted. Here, let me help you reconstruct the original version."

(The druids throw up their hands and stomp away, muttering, We had better rebel against this Caesar fellow before he and all the other rationalists ruin Gaul. Call Vercingetorix.)

Sometimes X may actually be a distorted memory of Y; that happens a lot in myth. But that doesn't in any way imply that you can understand the meaning of X, to the person who told the story, by reference to Y. 

After forty years of thinking about Celtic myth, and myth in general, I believe more and more that the details of the stories matter very little. When you are presented with half a dozen similar stories about similar-sounding people, you should probably not obsess over the differences. Don't try to put them in order; don't try to figure out which is more authentic. Don't try to arrange the characters in a neat family tree. If a story makes no sense to you, maybe rather than trying to "figure it out" you should step back and ask what kind of feeling it evokes, just as it is. Let the words wash over you; let the story shock you and move you.

Don't, whatever else you do, try to put it in a bag.