Friday, March 31, 2023

Franklin Carmichael

Mirror Lake, 1929

Franklin Carmichael (1890-1945) was a Canadian painter who was very into being Canadian and painting things that seemed especially Canadian to him. This led him to paint a lot of mountains and lakes but also mines and logging operations.

Snow Clouds, 1938

Carmichael was born into a middle class family in Ontario. His father owned a carriage shop, and he honed his youthful artistic skill painting decorations onto carriages. His parents sent him to art school in Toronto and he then got a job as a illustrator. Frustrated with Canada's small artistic horizons he went to study in Belgium, but he hadn't even been there a year when the Great War chased him back home.

Autumn Hillside, 1920

Back in Toronto he joined a group of other young artists forever known in Canadian art history as The Group of Seven. (None of the rest are any more famous in the US than Carmichael.) They did a lot of sketching outdoors, and a lot of bemoaning that the European artistic tradition was unsuitable for dealing with Canadian landscapes. 

Light and Shadow, 1937

They eventually, took inspiration, Carmichael said, from Scandinavian art (I assume this means Harald Sohlberg and others of that sort), which seemed to embody a greater appreciation of wild mountains.

A Northern Silver Mine, 1930

As you might suspect from looking at these, the Group of Seven were also influenced by Theosophy and other spiritual movements of the time. 

Anyway I think these are very fine.

Pines, Lake Superior, 1925

Jackknife Village, 1926

A Silvery Tangle, 1921

Algorithms, Disinformation, and the Deep State

At Tablet, Jacob Siegel has launched a 12,000-word attack on what he calls the "hoax of the century," which is the government's war on disinformation. I did not read the whole thing but I think I read enough to get the general idea. Working together with search engines and social media sites, they – whoever "they" are – are censoring what we can read and trying to control our thoughts in the name of fighting a bogus threat:

The crime is the information war itself, which was launched under false pretenses and by its nature destroys the essential boundaries between the public and private and between the foreign and domestic, on which peace and democracy depend. By conflating the anti-establishment politics of domestic populists with acts of war by foreign enemies, it justified turning weapons of war against Americans citizens. It turned the public arenas where social and political life take place into surveillance traps and targets for mass psychological operations. The crime is the routine violation of Americans’ rights by unelected officials who secretly control what individuals can think and say.

While Siegel's essay is over-the-top bordering on madness – among other things he is obsessed with Hunter Biden's laptop – the issue he raises is real and worth talking about. Siegel is absolutely right that some people in the government are obsessed with disinformation:

Something in the looming specter of Donald Trump and the populist movements of 2016 reawakened sleeping monsters in the West. Disinformation, a half-forgotten relic of the Cold War, was newly spoken of as an urgent, existential threat. Russia was said to have exploited the vulnerabilities of the open internet to bypass U.S. strategic defenses by infiltrating private citizens’ phones and laptops. The Kremlin’s endgame was to colonize the minds of its targets, a tactic cyber warfare specialists call “cognitive hacking.”
If you followed the run-up to Russia's invasion of Ukraine and the early days of the war, statements from US and other western officials were full of this fear. Russia, it was said over and over, was spreading propaganda so effectively that this might undermine Ukraine's will to fight and the west's willingness to support them. This turned out to be complete nonsense. Most Ukrainians are fighting like hell, and the ones who do support Russia mostly do so while fully understanding what Putinism is all about. They aren't "fooled by Russian propanganda," they are authoritiarians who miss the Soviet Union, or else opportunists who thought they could make a fast buck and maybe get good jobs out of supporting the eventual winner.

If you're paying attention, you may have noticed that I just elided the crucial issue: is there a difference between believing something in some sort of genuine way, and believing it because you have been fooled by propaganda and disinformation? But we'll get back to that later.

Anyway the fear of Russian propaganda became a big thing in the west, among both security hawks afraid of Russian or Chinese aggression and liberals afraid of Donald Trump. Various Twitter accounts were identified as Russian bots, and Twitter kept mum about it even though they knew some of them were in fact real people living in the US. I still meet people who say that Russian trolling elected Trump, even though this has been refuted in every possible way. Claims that Trump was a Russian agent were all over liberal social media sites.

Now security hawks have shifted their attention to manufacturing artillery shells, but liberals are still obsessed with disinformation of two kinds. First, there is Trump's claim that he won the 2020 election. That false claim certainly did lead to a nasty riot and has spawned a multi-billion-dollar lawsuit over voting machines; it is one of the blind spots in Siegel's essay that he doesn't really deal with the whole election business. Second, Covid. 

It is on the subject of Covid that I think you can see the real damage being done by the fight over disinformation. Terrified of spreading pro-Invemectin or anti-vaxx propaganda, Google and the other search engines have tweaked their algorithms to direct all medical queries toward officially approved sites like the CDC, the Mayo Clinic, or WebMD. But those sites are, as Scott Siskind has shown several times, all but useless for many people. If you try to look up drug side effects on any of them, they simply repeat the warnings that come on the label. Siskind once put up, side by side, the warning labels for a drug that doctors consider very safe and one that causes 40,000 emergency room visits a year: to the untrained eye, they are identical. Sites that work to explain the differences to lay people used to get many more page views, but Google's shift shredded their readership. In the name of keeping us safe from disinformation, Google and Facebook and probably others have made it much harder to find useful medical knowledge.

This shifts our attention from the military industrial complex to the other arcane thing about our world: the operations of search engines and other internet algorithms. Online retailers are constantly complaining that some minor tweak in Google's code caused their business to plummet overnight. People who sell on Amazon say the same thing about their algorithm. I believe this is true, because over the years it has happened half a dozen times to this site. Since this is only a hobby for me, I merely note it and move on, but if I made my living this way I would also be screaming. Google, Facebook et al. really do have enormous power over what we see and read. How are they using it?

Mostly to make money. I think that if the algorithms do any real political damage it is mostly by directing our attention to outrage porn, which gets the most engagement. But we know that Google and Facebook work with the government in several ways. For example, against child porn; they have an elaborate arrangement with the FBI that allows them to store and transmit images that would otherwise land them in prison. Testimony in Congress has confirmed that they also do this for anything that smacks of Islamic terrorism, including discourse that I think ought to be protected under freedom of religion. Surely there is also collaboration around the surveillance of neo-Nazis and other violent right-wing types.

Where does this end? I doubt anybody really knows, even in the highest reaches of the FBI or the NSA. Their supercomputers have compiled so much data, and so many different people might have access to it, that we simply don't know how it is being used.

I think, though, that we can say with confidence that it is not being used to censor conservative thought. Conservative ideas are all over the internet and the airways in every conceivable form. If Google's algorithm has a preference for liberal ideas, as has been claimed, that certainly doesn't keep conservative firebrands from becoming internet stars. So I think the basic premise of Siegel's argument is false; he is obviously not being censored, since his essay is spreading like crazy.

But I wonder two things: first, how are our interests being manipulated by search engines? Are there things I would really like to read that have been hidden from me? And does this, sometimes, relate to government pressure to hide certain sites or promote others?

And second, what is disinformation anyway, and how do we really form our beliefs? Is there a hard line to be drawn between things that are so firmly refuted that defending them in public is lying, and things that are probably not true but still worth thinking about? 

I think this is a hard problem. I am concerned about what CO2 emissions might do to the planet, but I regularly see statements about climate change that I think are not at all supported by the evidence; for example, that the western drought of the last 20 years was caused by global warming, or that hurricanes have gotten more powerful and numerous. When you are dealing with a vast, chaotic system like the weather, it is simply impossible to know, even in theory, what "caused" a particular drought or storm. I suppose some people would call that "disinformation." I prefer to call it a difference in interpretation that should be hashed out in public debate.

Many people think that their own beliefs are so obviously true that opposition to them is just lying or wrong. The algorithms used by search engines and social media sites are opaque, biased, and probably influenced in some ways by government pressure.

Put these things together and you get, on the one hand, demands that Twitter silence the Russian bots that were electing Trump, and on the other Jacob Siegel ranting about a conspiracy to silence conservative thought. Both fears are overblown. Millions of people on both political sides believe that other people get their politics from disinformation and Russian lies, to which those other people are uniquely susceptible. But maybe we just disagree, like we always have.

Links 31 March 2023

Bruno Liljefors, Winter Landscape with Bullfinches, c. 1930

This study says the lifespans of the northern European elite began rising in the late 1300s and had actually risen quite a bit before everyone else's lifespans began increasing in the 1700s.  "In England and Wales, for example, the average age at death of noble adults increased from 48 for those born 800–1400, to 54 for 1400–1650, and then 56 for 1650–1800." Decline in deaths in battle was one cause; in 800-1550, around 30% of documented noble men died in battle, but after 1550 it was 5% or less. Many infant deaths are probably missing from the sample, because they weren't recorded, but that problem should be less bad in more recent cases.

More on the Japanese people who "disappear", becoming "jouhatsu-sha" or "evaporated people."

The "Ides of March" gold coin that Brutus had struck to celebrate the assassination of Julius Caesar, sold last year for $3.5 million, turns out to have been looted from Greece; it has been seized and repatriated and the dealer who sold it is under arrest.

Nice photo set from a virtual tour of Pompeii; Part 1, Part 2.

The weirdness of the world's largest model airport, with planes that "fly." Four-minute video.

Sabine Hosenfelder reviews about a dozen fusion start-up companies and their approaches in this 30-minute video. Interesting that a poll of scientists involved in the industry found that most expect working fusion power in the 2030s. Hosenfelder is a curmudgeon, but she says that after looking into all these companies she is more optimistic that at least one of their approaches will work.

Israeli scientists claim to have developed a very effective vaccine against bubonic plague using mRNA technology.

Kevin Drum on how GPT-4 will be used in medicine.

Amazing short video, shot in ultra slow motion, shows lightning reaching upward from a lightning rod to meet lightning coming down from the sky. (NY Times, Explorersweb)

Minor mysteries: who bulldozed a 2-mile long image of an Aboriginal man into the Australian desert?

Manhattan's streets include markers noting all the people who have received ticker-tape parades from the city. That includes two Frenchmen –Marshall Philippe Pétain and Premier Pierre Laval – who were honored for their leadership in World War I but later became Nazi collaborators. Should their markers be removed? Or would that be a whitewashing of America's own political history, given that the markers just record that the parades happened? (NY Times)

Charming illuminated landscapes by Rune Guneriussen.

Interesting portraits by Rosso Emerald Crimson.

Ukraine Links

Russian troops make a video protesting being sent to the slaughter in Vodyane. They say that out of 161 men in their unit, only "a few dozens" are left.

This analyst calculates that despite their massive effort to refit older tanks and make them combat ready, plus manufacturing around 250 new tanks a year, Russia has 1,000 fewer usable tanks now than at the start of the war.

UK MOD says Russia's 3rd Army Corps has suffered heavy losses in clumsy attacks near Avdiivka, including many armored vehicles. (Twitter, web article)

The Ukrainian Parliament tries once again to restructure UkrOboronProm, the state-owned defense conglomerate that includes all their Soviet-era defense plants. The firm has been a stew of corruption since Ukraine became a country (or maybe before), and a series of reform plans have failed to resolve the problem.

The Ukrainian MOD claims that Russia has launched a multi-pronged propaganda campaign aimed at making Ukrainians mistrust their own government's decisions and statements about the fighting in Bakhmut.

Ukraine claims it now has a surplus of electricity and can resume electricity exports to the EU. So much for fantasies of knocking out a power grid with a few bombs or bullets.

These guys argue that instead of providing billions in aid the EU should just pay Russian soldiers to defect, offering them citizenship in the EU nation of their choice.

 New report on the lessons of the war from the Royal United Services Institute. Says Russia saw their invasion as the culmination of an 8-year clandestine campaign to undermine the Ukrainian state. They thought their spies had thoroughly prepared the way for their army; this, the RUSI says, explains much of the weirdness of Russia's initial invasion. "Lessons" drawn from the failure of that attack, like, that tanks are obsolete, may not apply to an army that doesn't think it's rolling down a red carpet already laid by unconventional means.

Besides being a monster, Wagner Group boss Prigozhin is quite a clever troll.

Thursday, March 30, 2023

Swahili Origins

The Swahili people of coastal east Africa practiced a blend of cultural practices from around the Indian Ocean. They were Muslims and had been for a long time, perhaps the first in sub-Saharan Africa. Their trading companies were organized along lines known from pre-modern Persia, and their sailing ships were modeled on those used in the Persian Gulf and Arabian Sea. But their architecture and food were distinctly African. Their language was rooted in Bantu but had a simplified grammar and numerous words from Persian, Arabic, and Hindi. They looked African. (Above, portrait of the 19th-century Zanzibar trader known to the British as Tippu Tib.)

Old Zanzibar

Their own origin story, related to Protuguese historians in the 1500s, was that they were descended from Persian princes who sailed across the sea and married local princesses. One version comes from the Kilwa Chronicle, which purports to relate the history of the island city of Kilwa. The Chronicle tells us that a Persian king, after a disturbing dream, decided to emigrate, so he took his six sons in seven ships and sailed for Africa, buying the island from its African sovereign by laying down enough colored cloth to surround the whole island.

This basic story has, to a remarkable degree, been confirmed by a new DNA study.

Here we report ancient DNA data for 80 individuals from 6 medieval and early modern (AD 1250–1800) coastal towns and an inland town after AD 1650. More than half of the DNA of many of the individuals from coastal towns originates from primarily female ancestors from Africa, with a large proportion—and occasionally more than half—of the DNA coming from Asian ancestors. The Asian ancestry includes components associated with Persia and India, with 80–90% of the Asian DNA originating from Persian men. Peoples of African and Asian origins began to mix by about AD 1000, coinciding with the large-scale adoption of Islam.

Modern techniques allow us to speculate on how long ago various genes entered a population, and this data again matches the known history very well. The Persian DNA is the oldest foreign component, while the later mixing involves genes from India and the Arabian peninsula. This matches what the Portuguese found in the 1500s: old stories about Persians, but strong trading ties to modern Yemen and many merchants who spoke fluent Arabic.

One of the famous doors of Stone Town on Zanzibar

For nearly half the DNA of any population to come from outsiders is unusual. Current estimates are that 30 to 40% of English genes come from Anglo-Saxon invaders, while no more than 15% of Turkish genes come from Turks. Which makes it quite fascinating that this culture uses an African language and has so many other African traditions. There are a few likely reasons for this. First, the 80 people we know about are all probably from the elite, and the story of the common people may be different. (The authors of this study say they are looking for non-elite burials now.) Also, the migrants from Persia seem to have been overwhelmingly male, so perhaps the migrant traders left all affairs on the women's side of the house to their wives, including the raising of children.

Ruins in old Gede, a medieval Swahili town

David Reich, one of the authors of the study, has a somewhat different take. He told the NY Times that Persian culture did not dominate outside the mercantile realm because this was not a violent conquest. As the story of Kilwa suggests, the foreign traders reached accommodations with local peoples and leaders. Without supreme political power, they were absorbed by the local world rather than dominating it. 

(Which is nice, but on the other hand the main business of Swahili merchants was always trading African slaves, which went on until the British navy stamped it out in the 1840s.)

And here is another way that paleogenetics has confirmed legends that allegedly scientific archaeologists dismissed in the 1950-2000 period. For whatever reason –something to do with Nazis and the Vietnam War, so far as I can tell – local evolution came to be the gospel. Recent histories of the Swahili coast have downplayed stories of foreign arrivals and tried to derive the whole culture (except Islam) from local traditions. But the local storytellers were right, and men who sailed across the sea from Persia were a big part of their society's origin. Likewise with the Anglo-Saxons, who really did invade Britain and conquer it, and the Lombard invasion of Italy, and many other cases. The old Irish story that their island has seen at least four waves of invasion looks better and better in the light of modern genetics.

I love living in a time when so many of these old, intractable debates have actually been resolved by science.

Wednesday, March 29, 2023

Spring in Washington

I was actually at my office in downtown Washington, DC today, in time to catch the end of cherry blossom season. All of these pictures were taken on the quarter mile walk from my office to my car.

Like walking in the clouds.

But there was much more than cherry blossoms. These are the poisonous, invasive lesser celedine or pilewort growing in Rock Creek Park; I think pilewort a wonderful name for a poisonous plant.

Magnolias. These opened too early again this year and most were browned by frost, but this one by my office still put on a good show.

And tulips in a Georgetown front yard.

America is Changing

New polling from the Wall Street Journal:

According to the survey, the share of Americans saying that patriotism is very important to them fell from 70 percent in 1998 to 38 percent today. The percentage calling religion very important fell from 62 percent to 39 percent over the same period. The percentage saying that having kids was very important dropped from 59 percent to 30 percent. Only money saw its professed importance rise.

The problem with the trends represented here, as Ross Douthat explains in the essay I took this from, is not that American patriotism, religion, or child-bearing are such all-out wonderful things that we should mourn their decline. The problem is that no alternative sources of meaning have come along the take their places. By and large, the less patriotic, religious, and family-oriented people are, the less happy they are, and the more they suffer from mental illness. Young secular childless leftists are the most miserable of all.

Why are leftists so unhappy? The huge progress in gay rights, the reconstruction of marriage on a more equal basis, the decline in racism, the vast improvement in the quality of our water and air, the easing of runaway population growth, and all the other changes that liberals might be expected to cheer have not made us happier about the world. I have to say that I personally find this puzzling. I can think of explanations: the bureaucratization of work, our complete inability to change the direction of the economy away from globalized inequality, rising rents, fear of climate change. But the lack of pride in our obvious progress – we had a black president! – and the insistence in some quarters that things like racism and ecological destructions have gotten worse simply mystifies me. Life in America just isn't that awful.

I wonder if the insistence that everything (nations, institutions, art) is tainted by racism, colonialism, and other ills doesn't contribute. It seems to help people get by when they feel that they belong to something great and important, or are heirs to some great legacy. So if you think that nothing is great, that on the contrary everything your parents thought was great is actually evil, does that make it harder for you to feel good about your own life?

Meanwhile on the right, people are sad partly because they also feel like they are losing the great things they thought they belonged to. Down to the 1990s, conservative Christians believed that they were the real majority in America, and that if you could just get rid of liberal judges and rotten politicians things would be great again. It is getting harder and harder to believe this; thus the increasing fear that America is sliding off a cliff, or is about to.

I find it fascinating that in this world of ours we all feel like we are losing, even when the evidence seems to refute it. Why is that? Are we unsettled by too much change, too much uncertainty about the future? Is something about the Internet messing with our minds?

Tuesday, March 28, 2023

Islamic Art in the Cleveland Museum

The Wade Cup, Iran, Seljuk Period, 1200-1221 AD

Ink drawing of a dragon with a phoenix head by the Turkish artist Sahkulu, mid 1500s

Iznik dish with artichokes, c 1535-1540

Rustam kills the White Div, from Firdausi's Book of Kings, mid 1500s

Dragon-headed stand, Syria, 1200-1260

Mihrab (prayer niche) from Isfahan, Persia, mid 1500s, unless it is a 20th-century fake. If it is a fake it's pretty damn amazing anyway.

Dish from Nishapur, Iran, 819-1015

Illustration from a manuscript of the Book of Kings known as The Great Mongol, Iran, c. 1370-1500. Notice the Chinese porcelain prominently displayed outside the king's tent.

Detail of a brass ewer made at Khurusan in Iran, 1256-1352. Lots more here.

Monday, March 27, 2023

History of the Destruction of Troy

The Historia destructionis Troiae ("History of the destruction of Troy") is a Latin prose narrative written by a Sicilian named Guido delle Colonne in the early 13th century. It was mainly based on earlier medieval romances rather than ancient sources, so it is several removes from the Iliad. Several impressive illustrated manuscripts were made in the later Middle Ages and Renaissance. This one was illustrated by François Colombe in the late 1500s and early 1600s, now in the Bibliotheque Nationale. Part of the fun of this is trying to figure out what scenes each image might represent. I think that's part of the Judgement of Paris above.

Mircea Cărtărescu, "Solenoid"

Nobody needs literature, says the narrator of this bizarre, fascinating, sometimes wonderful book. Trapped in this earthly hell, leading lonely, miserable lives, what we need instead is an escape plan.

In his youth the narrator wanted to be a writer. He thought literature was itself an escape plan, that by becoming a writer he could break free. But he failed as a writer and ended up as a middle school Romanian teacher in a run-down suburb of Bucharest, dealing with head lice, annoying colleagues, indifferent students, and bizarre diktaks from the Party. It doesn't matter anyway, he says, because literature is not and cannot be a real escape. In the walls of our prison there are dozens of doors with literary names, but they are all painted-on illusions; no matter how much we read or write, we remain prisoners.

This book is, I think, a 672-page meditation on whether that is true: whether literature, or imagination more broadly, can offer us any escape from the misery of human existence. In form it is the memoir of a lonely, unhappy man obsessed with his dreams. But in this narrative the boundaries of the material world are weak, and surreal magic might erupt an any moment. At one point the narrator is sent to investigate the abandoned factory near his school, because the principal thinks students are sneaking off there to smoke and make out. Instead he finds fantastic machinery from an alien or future civilization, waiting in stasis to be activited by some unknown visitor or cataclysm. 

The most striking thing about the book is its boldness. Cărtărescu, it seems, will write about anything. Solenoid begins with a disquisition on head lice and moves on from there to belly button fuzz, the torture of dentistry, recycling drives, oedipal dreams, magnetism, the mathematics of the fourth dimension, faculty infighting, getting lost, a protest movement against death, and whether the seemingly random events of our lives might add up to some kind of pattern. In particular it indulges a kind of self-obsession that borders on solepsism. This world is the narrator's, and it bends around him in like space around a massive black hole, creating bizarre effects. There are plenty of other people, but they exist only so far as they impact the narrator, and it is hinted that when they are out of his sight, some don't exist at all. 

Not all of it works. Some passages bored me, others seemed pointlessly gross. But on the whole it is amazing. If you like weird books and can handle body horror, check it out. I have never read anything more inventive.

Here's another thought. 

In the modern world we have a fascination with what you might call anti-art. In Baltimore there is a whole museum devoted to works by non-artists, where they especially like art by lunatics and prisoners. Many modern painters have tried to deny that they ever went to art school. We like the idea of somehow transmuting raw experience onto the canvas or the page without the vast, mediating mechanism of art, with its crushing weight of tradition and convention. The narrator of Solenoid says over and over that this book is not literature. He failed as a writer, tried to put only one work before the public in his youth and then gave that up. No, this is the raw material of his life, just the way he wrote it in a series of journals. These are his own experiences and his own dreams, written down just as he experienced them. This is what the world needs; reality, not literature.

But the pretense of reality is the actual fantasy. Cărtărescu did spent eight years as a middle school teacher early in his career, and I suspect some of the details are in fact drawn from his own life in Stalinist Romania. But Cărtărescu never gave up on writing. As a teacher he continued to publish poems and essays and he eventually left the school to become editor of a literary journal. According to wikpedia he has published 15 books and won several literary prizes.

Nobody can write a book like Solenoid without years of immersion in literature. Books are not raw experience. They are built of words, sentences, paragraphs, and chapters, each of them carefully constructed, each image weighed according to which other books it evokes, which experiences, which emotions. To make something feel real requires enormous artifice. Only a consummate professional can create, successfully, the feel of raw imagination poured onto the page by a half-mad amateur. Solenoid does this wonderfully, because it is a work of literary art by a real master, no matter how many times its narrator tries to convince us otherwise.

Friday, March 24, 2023

Links 24 March 2023

Sleeping Antelope, Tin Taghirt, Tassili n'Ajjer in Algeria, c. 8000 BC

Wonderful Scott Siskind meditation on San Francisco as the city at the end of time.

More on South Korea's angry feminists. Interesting that cutting their hair very short has become a symbol of women who reject dating, marriage, and childbearing.

Moche mural of two-faced men unearthed in Peru. Moche iconography is wonderful, but we have very little surviving myth or folklore to use in interpreting it, and it is very hard to reconstruct myths from images. So nobody has any idea what these represent.

A first edition of Copernicus' De revolutionibus is going to be auctioned later this spring, one of only 277 known. Could be yours for around $2.5 million.

Delightful narrative by Michael Benanav, chronicling his journey through the Himalayan foothills on the track of an old Indian folktake (NY Times)

Preserved botanical compositions from Flower Press Studio.

The House of the Vetti at Pompeii has reopened after a 20-year restoration, and now women will be admitted to the rooms with pornographic paintings. Progress!

Winners of the British Wildlife Photography Contest.

Corsican wild cats, long known to natives as the "cat-fox", are confirmed as a separate species. Amazing that they could have survived independently of domestic cats, which have bred with and swamped most wildcat species in Europe. Maybe they have some quirk of mating behavior that excludes other cats?

In the Netherlands, the government has gone full bore on fighting climate change and nitrogen emissions, which has included plans to restrict livestock and close thousands of farms; this is what led to last year's protests. Now a newly formed farmers' party has just become the largest in the upper house of Parliament, with the sole purpose of fighting those changes. People support environmentalism when it dovetails with other things they care about, but not when it seems to go against rural tradition.

X-ray analysis shows that most of the obsidian used by ancient Native North Americans came from a single source, Obsidian Cliff at Yellowstone. This includes the amazing bifaces found at Hopewell sites in Ohio. (NY Times, JSTOR) Interesting that, so far as I know, no modern Indian nation has any folklore about Obsidian Cliff; obsidian objects are widely considered to be spiritually potent and are part of many medicine bundles, but nobody's lore references the source.

One of my odd little interests is people who fake their age and go back to high school. The NY Times reports on a 29-year-old Koren American woman whose lawyer said "Recently divorced and far away from her family in South Korea, she was trying to recreate the sense of safety she had felt as a student."

The radical career of Quaker agitator Benjamin Lay, a pioneering abolitionist whose constant protests helped persuade the Pennsylvania Quakers to begin censuring slave owners in 1758.

While others are remembering the 20th anniversary of George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq and all that followed, Nicholas Kristoff chooses to remember something else Bush did: PEPFAR, the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, which somebody once calculated has saved 25 million lives. I remember trying to tell my liberals friends in those days that Bush had a great program for AIDS in Africa and being met with disbelief, but nobody is all good or all bad. (NY Times video; wikipedia)

Fan fiction is huge, however you measure it. So far as I am concerned, that's great; telling your own version of the story is a wonderful thing. But why are fan faction writers constantly demanding respect from outsiders? Stop caring what other people think, and just do your thing.

At the New Yorker, the story of "Afro-Cuban writer" Hache Carrillo, who, after his death, turned out to be Detroit-born Herman Glenn Carroll. Carroll seems to have been a serial inventor of lives and personas, who lied about everything, but his novel Losing My Espanglish sounds to me like an amusing take on identity and its permutations rather than a serious attempt to fool people. Maybe one day we'll stop caring who people are and just read their books.

Ukraine Links

Artilleryman Thomas Theiner has two Twitter threads about shoulder-launched anti-tank weapons that will tell you everything you wanted to know about them, with cool pictures and short videos. (First on warheads, second on attack paths and armor.)

And here Theiner lays out NATO doctrine for attacking fortified lines like the ones Russia has constructed in southern Ukraine. He makes it sound like this would be no problem for NATO or anyone else with a few thousand attack planes, but I doubt that Ukraine can do anything like what he describes.

NATO countries are finally transferring their old MIG-29 jets to Ukraine.

Igor Girkin says Putin should stop talking about the war because everything he says sounds lame and weak. "Tell the president to stay quiet and talk less about his ill-fated nose."

Ukraine claims that a drone attack on a rail yard at Dzhankoy in Russion-occupied Crimea destroyed kalibr missiles on their way to the fleet at Sevastapol. If so, that points to major Russian failures of both air defense and operational security.

Twitter thread on the fate of the Alga battalion of volunteers from Tatarstan, which was shot up as Russia withdrew from Kherson and then thrown into the meat grinder at Vuhledar; source says in that battle "the battalion was put down almost completely." 

Tuesday, March 21, 2023

Roberto Calasso, "The Ruin of Kasch"

When I was going through the material I published on my old web site I found my review of one of my favorite books, Roberto Calasso's, The Ruin of Kasch. I wrote it a long time ago, and since then I have read several more of Calasso's books, and my old review no longer satisfied. So I wrote a new one. 

The Revolution

A character in one of Saul Bellow's novels comments that he hates facile "explanations" of the Holocaust; such an event, he says, could be explained "only by explaining everything at once." In The Ruin of Kasch Robert Calasso had a go at doing exactly that: explaining the horrors of the twentieth century by explaining the whole course of human civilization. 

The Ruin of Kasch (1983, English translation 1994) is a maddening, intentionally difficult book about what the human world is like, what it used to be like, and how it changed. Calasso is not interested in a statistical, factual understanding of history, nor in any kind of linear story. Instead he gives us a strange mixture of quotation, gnomic utterance, striking juxtapositions, narratives of obscure incidents, brief biographies of the moderately famous, and cutting analysis of various theories that purport to explain something. His attention jumps around in time and space, with no transitions or explanations. His examples are sometimes so obscure that even experts in whatever period he is writing about may not recognize them. Some of the book makes no sense. Yet by the end I at least was left feeling that I been led through a dark wood to a well of  deep and profound understanding.

Calasso begins with the era of the French Revolution. But this, perhaps the only conventional choice in the whole book, is immediately twisted by his decision to focus his narrative on the character of Talleyrand. Talleyrand, a son of one of France's oldest families, was a survivor, a relic of the old regime who prospered through all the transitions and upheavals of the epoch and emerged at the end as a kingmaker and one of the most powerful and hated men in Europe. Why Talleyrand? Because, I think, of his cold distance from the events he helped to shape. He helped create the new rituals of the Democratic age – tricolor flags, national anthems, independence days – but they made him queasy. Contemplating the future from the first celebration of Bastille Day, he wrote, "I see streams of blood." 

In the short term the Revolution was cut short by reaction, dictatorship, empire, and wars that dwarfed any the continent had seen in centuries. Instead of  the Brotherhood of Man, Europe got the great divide between Left and Right that is still with us. After Waterloo the forces of reaction managed to bottle up the genies of revolution and nationalism for a time, but it could not last.

The Tale Told in the Desert

From the Age of Revolutions Calasso jumps with no transition to the legendary past, retelling an old story called "The Ruin of Kasch". The tale was recorded by the German anthropologist Leo Froebenius in the early 1900s, told at the edge of the Sudanese desert by an old camel driver who waited to tell his own tales until all the other, lesser speakers had exhausted themselves. You know nothing of stories, he said to them, before embarking on the tale of Naphta, a grand ancient kingdom ruled by the guidance of priests who studied the stars. They decided, among many other things, when the king would be sacrificed and a new king crowned. Each king therefore ruled only on their sufferance, awaiting the day when the stars would decree his death. One privilege the kings had was that of choosing their companions, who would accompany them in life and in death. 

A certain king named Akaf grows sad and cannot stop brooding on his upcoming death. He hears about a great storyteller known as Far-li-mas who came from Kasch in the far east, perhaps Arabia or India. Akaf summons Far-li-mas, who tells such wonderful stories that the dawn comes before anyone realizes that the night is passing, and the king forgets his sorrow. The king's sister Sali also hears the stories, and she and Far-li-mas fall in love. Unwilling to leave their fate up to the stargazing priests, Sali and Far-li-mas challenge the old way. Sali says,
Great are the works of God, but the greatest is not his writing in the sky. It is life on earth. 
Sali lures the priests to the court to hear Far-li-mas, and he tells his stories like hashish, so that all the listeners fall asleep, and the priests cannot watch the stars. After some nights the priests realize that they are losing track of the stars and tell the king that Far-li-mas has destroyed order and must be killed. The king summons all the people to the great square of the city so that God may decide the matter. Again Far-li-mas tells his stories, and in the morning the priests are all dead. The old way of sacrifice is abandoned. King Akaf lives until he dies a natural death, and Far-li-mas reigns after him with Sali as his queen.

But upon the death of Far-li-mas, the neighboring kingdoms abandon the oaths of friendship they had sworn to the great Akaf and make war on Naphta. The kingdom is destroyed, the cities abandoned, and the desert covered its once broad fields of grain.

Calasso tells us,
This is a story about the passage from one world to another, from one order to another—and about the ruin of both. It is the story of the precariousness of order: of the old order and the new. The story of their perpetual ruin. (139)
Although Calasso is not impressed by modernity, he is equally unenthralled by the ancient world. No society has really found a solution to the problems of being alive. What he seems to hate about modernity is that we keep proclaiming that we have, in fact, done so, while the ancients at least realized that this was beyond our powers.


Blood sacrifice is one of Calasso's constant themes, and he often makes it a sign of the difference between us and our ancestors: they carried out sacrificial rites, and we do not. This might seem odd, since blood sacrifice disappeared from Europe more than a millennium before the modern age. When I first read The Ruin of Kasch I did not understand where he was going, but after reading his other books and coming back to this one I have some theories. For one, Calasso makes the rite of sacrifice stand in for all the ways we destroy in order to live. He sometimes describers slaughterhouses as sites of industrial sacrifice, and he writes that with World War I human sacrifice returned to Europe on a grand scale.

More subtly, Calasso seems to regard sacrifice as a way of defining human consciousness, not neurologically, but it terms of experience. The sacrificer beholds the other, the animal to be killed, and recognizes it as something separate from himself; and yet they are also connected, since the victim is actually standing in for the sacrificer, one life for another; he is thus aware than one thing can stand for another, as a word for a thought; he feels guilt over the death he must cause, and yet feels also that it must be done; he thinks of other sacrifices, those he remembers and those he knows of from stories, including stories of how the gods first established sacrifice at the dawn of history; he feels himself part of this long chain of killings; yet he is alone with the knife in his hand, confronting a deed he must do. When the animal is killed there is at first a katharsis, a release of tension, but after that comes more guilt that must be atoned for with yet more sacrifices, creating an unending chain of killing and guilt. Sacrifice, Calasso writes, does not expiate guilt; it is guilt. 

Consciousness is built up out of these constant recursions, the thoughts and feelings that loop back on themselves over and over, from the self to the other and then back to the self, bringing in memory and myth and connection and separation. Sacrifice is an act of separation, a killing, but it is also a connection that ties the sacrificer to the divine. In terms of history, we might say that the ancient attitude made consciousness a holy thing, consecrated to the gods through sacrifice, through all the loops of thought that run through divine law and divine story. We used, like Homeric heroes or Old Testament patriarchs, to see the Gods and even walk beside them, but we left them behind. Calasso, it is important to note, did not believe that this change happened at any particular point in time; to Calasso it is still taking place, in all of us. 

The wise man, he suggests, can accept neither the religious postulates of the ancients nor life without them. On the one hand there are the fantastic rituals of the Indian Vedas, too complex to ever be enacted in every detail, yet all said to be essential for existence to continue. On the other there is only Bentham's utilitarianism, represented to Calasso by his dried-up mummy, still kept in London. One cannot be believed, the other is inadequate to our needs. "We are in the middle, wavering."

Goethe Beholds the Paintings

Here is one of the stories Calasso tells us, without much in the way of preamble or explanation, as if saying, "make of this what you will." It concerns the wedding of the Austrian princess Marie Antoinette to the future king of France, but not as a political or diplomatic event. Calasso instead describes the pavilion built in the middle of the Rhine at the exact boundary of French and Austrian territory, where Marie would be handed over from one nation to the other. There she was stripped completely naked and then dressed anew in clothes made entirely in France before she passed into her new home. As it happens the poet Goethe visited the pavilion before the princess passed through, and he observed the elaborate paintings that covered every wall. To his horror, he realized that they depicted the story of Jason and Medea. This is monstrous, he exclaimed to his companions; how can this wedding pavilion be painted with scenes of history's most disastrous marriage? There is no need to worry, said his companions, nobody pays any attention to the subject matter of paintings. Only the style matters.

The Young Hegelians

Already in the heady days of the French Revolution we meet one of the key figures of modern history, the metaphysicians of Terror, the men who believed that utopia was within reach if we could only remove the enemies blocking the way. Calasso cites several of these men, most of them utterly obscure, but perhaps more frightening because they were otherwise such ordinary people. Like a certain Monsieur Baudot, who wrote, 
The egoists, the thoughtless, the enemies of liberty, the enemies of all nature, must not be counted among her children. . . . Let us destroy them completely.
One of these writers called for the extermination of a third of the population. People at the time saw this as an old enemy, religious fanaticism, with the people in place of God, and the nation standing in for the church. But the language was new, and the belief that utopia could be built by human hands, without divine aid. 

Two generations later a new wave of utopian thinkers emerged from among the students and followers of Hegel. Marx is the most famous, but there were many others, young men who thought that Hegel had taken philosophy as far as it could go as thought: the only way to move forward was through action. Philosophy must shift, one wrote, "to the absolutely practical terrain of the will." Through the will, philosophy will achieve, as Bakunin put it, "a complete reconciliation with reality in every area of life." Calasso calls this the "fatal shard of the Hegelian legacy." (256) The world – that is, society – must be made to conform to philosophy in every particular.

If Calasso were in favor of cancelling things, which he is not, he might have inserted here: if we are going to silence anyone, it should not be the trolls or the cruel jokesters but the suave philosophers who want to twist the world until it fits their visions of perfection.

The Nihilists

At around the same time that the young Hegelians were turning philosophy from thought into "praxis," the other great strain of modern thought received new impetus: nihilism. Nihilism was given its most perfect form early on by Stirner, a contemporary of Marx, who wrote that all metaphysics was "mad raving," and that nothing really existed but the brute facts of animal life. Everything else was a mere "ghost" – "spook," his most recent English translator renders this – a story told to frighten us and keep us from knowing the truth. The stage is thus set for two great divisions of modernity, the grand ideologues and the believers in nothing. The rest of us have to make our way between them.

The Fall

Once, Calasso says, there were rules about how things had to be done. There were rules about sacrifice, about worship, about planting and harvesting, about marriage, about kingship, even about war. Through repetition these rules become part of the very fabric of our consciousness, the way we imagined ourselves and the world. Then we threw them away. Our science taught us that they were false, not divinely ordained but invented by other men, perhaps for their own enrichment. Our political revolutions taught us that we could cast them all aside and be free. 

And yet somehow it has not worked out as we hoped. Instead of a free and happy time Europe entered an era of tyranny and war, and the sentiment hung everywhere that were it not for the shreds of the unfree past we still maintained, things would have been even worse. How did it happen? In simple terms, the old regimes imposed limits on the rulers as well as the ruled, and when we swept them away we freed tyrants to dominate us far more cruelly than kings ever could. Yet the loss penetrated much deeper, into the structure of our minds. "Every obligation was a root," Calasso writes, and having cut away the chains that held us down we find ourselves cut off from what sustained us and too easily blown this way and that, from the extremes of devotion to Party and State to extreme indulgence and narcissism. 

It is a remarkable picture, and one to which Calass added in many other books before his death in 2021. But is it true? I find myself of two minds. One way to think about the twentieth century is to say that the cruelty is not new at all, just the technology; if medieval kings had had tanks and secret police forces they would have been just as awful. But if that is not true, if there is something about Hitler, Stalin and the Holocaust that is genuinely different from the woes of the past, then Calasso's analysis is the only one that makes sense to me.

You might think that since Calasso hated totalitarians of every stripe, he might have thought better of the pleasant contemporary era. Not really. At least the ideologues dreamed of something grand; we dream of the trivial (finding ourselves naked in high school, say). When we look at the past, we feel inadequate; when we look to the future, we are afraid. We are free but do not know what to do with our freedom. In the future, his mouthpiece Talleyrand suggests, "everything will be regarded with indifference, except pleasure and business."

Yet Calasso never despaired. We may no longer believe in myths, but we can still lose ourselves in them. We can escape our Benthamite age by reading. Calasso was one of history's great readers, causing reviewer after reviewer to marvel that he had ransacked whole libraries for his material. In books he found insight, understanding, and uplift for the spirit. Above all he found myth. In ancient myths he saw a changeability, a refusal to stand still and be named, that is the opposite of the modern drive toward predictability and sameness, of the dead hand of dictatorship, of Stirner's cynicism and the revolutionaries' bloody certainties. To mass death, he opposed old stories of gods and goddesses, and also modern novels in which we make our own myths. 

Perhaps we cannot believe in the old myths, but then we are not so certain that anyone ever did believe in all of them. The disenchantment of the world, Calasso wrote, has been proclaimed for two centuries, but it has not happened. Despite everything that has been done and said, "the world remained enchanted." 

Dazzling Images from the Webb Telescope

WR-124, a Wolf-Rayet star

Galaxy NGC 7496

NGC 1433

That's a lot of galaxies

Monday, March 20, 2023

The Hereford Mappa Mundi, 1300 AD

Behold the largest surviving medieval map (158x133 cm), which has been kept for centuries at Hereford Cathedral in England. It has the common form for mappa mundi, with East at the top and Jerusalem in the center. Around the edge are some scenes of heaven and hell.


The British Isles.

Italy, Sicily, and Crete with an enormous labyrinth.

Scandinavia, with a giant named Gansir and a bear.



Constantinople and the Golden Fleece. In the imaginations of these western Christians, Constantinople was not such a great place, shown smaller than Paris or Rome.

Paradise, surrounded by a wall of fire, with angels looking on.

Beasts in the exotic east. Wikipedia has a large image if you feel like exploring on your own. Some people who think the author of The Travels of Sir John Mandeville (a fantasy travelog written around 1360) used this map have put a cleaned-up version online, with all the places mentioned in the travels highlighted.

I love these maps because they show that some medieval people were not, in their minds, confined to the local or the recent. Their thoughts roved across the world, imagining golden kings in Africa and strange beast men in far Asia; they told stories of King Midas, the Argonauts, Troy, and Alexander the Great. Their world was large and growing larger.