Friday, June 30, 2023

Links 30 June 2023

Gustave Moreau, The Angels of Sodom, 1890

In 2010 California's prisons were overcrowded and the state was struggling to comply with a court order to somehow relieve the problem. But now the number of inmates has fallen by more than 70,000, because of the decline in violent crime and some changes in sentencing, and the state is looking to save money by closing unneeded prisons.

Maryland's Supreme Court orders a new trial for a man who was convicted after a ballistics expert testified that bullets found at a crime scene were "definitely" from his gun, which the science does not support; the court will allow only testimony that the bullets are "consistent" with any particular gun.

Two Bronze Age victims of the Bubonic plague identified in Austria, c. 2000 BC.

If you're in Rome, you can now visit the site of the Curia of Pompey, where Julius Caesar was stabbed. (Not in the forum, that's Shakespeare.) Augustus himself called it a locus sceleratus, a cursed place.

A plague of Mormon crickets descends on northern Utah.

Interesting feature on the Natufian site of Nahal Ein Gev II, on the Sea of Galilee, with good photographs. Sadly it has too much verbiage about firsts and beginnings, but such is journalism. (For one thing it is not at all unusual for some members of hunter-gatherer bands to remains in one place all year, and in fact has happened often wherever resources are rich enough.)

Twenty-five years ago a neuroscientist bet a philosopher that within 25 years science would understand how the brain creates consciousness. He lost.

Kevin Drum asks whether it is really harder to live on one income now than in 1960. (No.)

Tyler Cowen wants to understand more explicitly what is really going on in scientific fields, and finds that practitioners are very bad at explaining this.

Beautiful glass by Lino Tagliapietra.

In a review of Patrick Deneen's Regime Change, Ross Douthat asks: if what we need is a different elite, how could we get one? How have elites changed in the past? (NY Times) My answer to that question would be, elites only change in response to profound social and economic change in the whole society. Which means that plans to fix America by replacing our elite are not likely to go anywhere.

A claim that there are 5 billion dormant cell phones in the world, which, if true, says something interesting about capitalism, technological progress, planned obsolescence, waste, and change.

National Geographic lays off all its staff writers; a tweet from the editor says all articles will be freelance.

A house that Henry VIII gave to Anne of Cleves after their annulment is for sale. It has its own wikipedia page, which makes a lot of claims about interesting history.

And now we are told to stop calling it an "attack" when an orca rams a boat, because they might just be trying to play. Still haven't seen anyone call for killing them.

At the Robert F. Kennedy rally, "The people I encountered believe that they are living under a deeply sinister regime that lies to them about almost everything that matters." (NY Times) I think one of our fundamental problems is that the world feels opaque to many, many people, everything happening in ways they don't understand.

538 delves into the polling on affirmative action, which is complicated because small changes in wording can generate shifts in the result, and a question like "Do you support increasing ethnic diversity on college campuses?" can get a different response than "Should colleges be allowed to use race as a factor in admissions?"

Ukraine Links

Russia has doubled the number of pens for the trained dolphins it is using to defend Sevastopol. According to naval experts dolphins are most useful for defending against human frogmen, so it seems Russia is worried about Ukraine's special forces.

Prigozhin's first post-coup statement.

Gary Kasparov on what Prigozhin's coup means about Russia.

And Dmytro Natalukha: "Prigozhin will be liquidated, and Putin will be replaced."

And Tatiana Stanovaya has her own explanation of what happened, clera and concise.

A portrait of Prigozhin as am amoral thug.

After diplomatic meetings, the parties often provide the press with a short summary of what went down; this is called a diplomatic readout. Here is the best diplomatic readout ever:

The conversation between Mr. Lukashenko and Mr. Prigozhin was “very difficult,” said Mr. Gigin. . . . “They immediately blurted out such vulgar things it would make any mother cry. The conversation was hard, and as I was told, masculine.”
More mutinous talk from Russian soldiers who say they are being wantonly sacrificed and won't take it any more.

ISW update for June 29, with the fallout from the Wagner mutiny and talk about Ukraine having the "strategic initiative."

Thursday, June 29, 2023


The word actually refers to something much broader, but for most of us scrimshaw means these, carving by nineteenth-century whalers mainly done on whale bones and teeth. That's a sperm whale tooth above, with a clipper ship carved in 1867.

Set of dice and dice holder.

More sperm whale teeth.

Pie crimper "Made for Sweet Sally"

Set of walrus tusks.

Meanwhile, in Korea

In South Korea, there is a nationwide debate over no-child zones, which have proliferated over the past decade. Some people are now pointing out that this might be a problem for the nation with the world's lowest birth rate.

But as CNN reports, it isn't just bans on children that are proliferating:

Meanwhile, it would be wrong to suggest that it is only the youngest in society who are subject to such “zoning” requirements.

On Jeju, it’s not unusual to see signs at camping grounds or guest houses stipulating both lower and upper age limits for would-be guests. There are “no-teenager zones” and “no-senior zones”, for example, and even plenty of zones targeting those somewhere in between.

So numerous have the “no-middle-aged zones” become that they have collectively been dubbed “no-ajae zones,” in reference to a slang term for “uncle.”

One restaurant in Seoul rose to notoriety after “politely declining” people over 49 (on the basis men of that age might harass female staff), while in 2021, a camping ground in Jeju sparked heated debate with a notice saying it did not accept reservations from people aged 40 or above. Citing a desire to keep noise and alcohol use to a minimum, it stated a preference for women in their 20s and 30s.

Other zones are even more niche.

Among those to have caused a stir on social media are a cafe in Seoul that in 2018 declared itself a “no-rapper zone,” a “no-YouTuber zone” and even a “no-professor zone”.

But most such zones follow a similar logic – that of preventing disturbance to other customers. For instance, no-YouTuber zones became popular in response to a trend known as “mukbang” (based on words for “eating” and “broadcast”) in which some livestreamers would show up at restaurants without prior consent to film themselves eating.
CNN found one Korean studies professor with a theory:
Koreans in their 20s and 30s, in particular, tend to have a strong concept of personal space, and are increasingly less tolerant of both noisy children in their midst and noisy older people.

Which is something I have noted about Japan, a preference for a controlled, orderly life that pretty much rules out childbearing and much else besides.

San Casciano dei Bagni

San Casciano dei Bagni is a small Tuscan town about halfway between Rome and Florence. It grew up around 52 hot springs that produce, the Italian tourism authorities insist, "5.5×106 L (1,500,000 US gal) of 42 °C (108 °F) water" per day. That's a lot of hot water.

Various ancient sources tell us that the baths were first developed by Porsenna, an Etruscan king of Chiusi who lived in the sixth century BC, and that later visitors included Augustus and the historian Livy.

You can still bathe in water from these hot springs, either in this modern facility

or in the remains of a spa constructed in the 17th century by a Grand Duke of Tuscany.

Otherwise San Casciano seems like a pleasant Tuscan town, plenty of old stone buildings 

and charming little squares.

San Casciano is in the news because of recent archaeological discoveries. Archaeologists had been poking around the place for centuries, but had never really delved into the heart of the ancient bath complex until 2019. (Notice the telescoping poles put in place to keep the walls from falling on the excavators. Very proper.)

Aerial view of the excavated area.

What they found was a series of at least two ancient temples: an earlier Etruscan one and then a later Roman construction dating to around 150 BC. I believe this is the earlier sanctuary.

Not surprisingly, they found many coins; the habit of throwing coins into sacred pools is very ancient.

But, most wonderfully, they found that when the old Etruscan temple was replaced, the builders carried out a complex rededication ritual that involved burying every part of the old temple beneath the new. The buried material included an amazing array of bronze statues, which were remarkably well preserved.


Now the better specimens are on display in Rome; some will eventually return to an archaeological park being developed at the site.


In life, the challenge is not so much to figure out how best to play the game; the challenge is to figure out what game you're playing.

– Kwame Anthony Appiah

Tuesday, June 27, 2023

Did Philip Schuyler ever Deserve a Statue?

So they just took down the statue of Philip Schuyler that stood in front of Albany's city hall, because he was a slaveholder. Nothing new there. But I have to ask, why did Philip Schuyler have a statue in such a prominent place? 

It amuses me that the statue was probably taken down because of the musical "Hamilton." Until that smash hit, hardly anybody in Albany either knew who Schuyler was or cared. But since Hamilton flirted with two of Schuyler's daughters and married one – at Schuyler senior's house overlooking the Hudson just south of Albany – millions of people got to know the name and a few began to wonder about him.

Schuyler (1733-1804) became famous because he was really rich and well-connected, and because with his wife (nee Catherine Van Rensselaer) he ran a wonderfully hospitable home where they welcomed every caller of genteel station from anywhere in the British world. Every great name of that period visited the Schuyler mansion, including many young men interested mainly in the daughters (and their fortunes). Schuyler parlayed these connections into a Major General's Commission in the Continental Army. Which was fine until the British actually invaded New York from the north, placing Schuyler and the troops under his command squarely in their path. 

When he heard that Schuyler was expected to defend Albany from the British, George Washington – who knew Schuyler pretty well – was so alarmed that he immediately sent two of his most able subordinates (Daniel Morgan and Benedict Arnold) to serve under Schuyler and try to keep him from disaster. They arrived too late to keep Schuyler from blundering away Fort Ticonderoga, which led to his being relieved of battlefield command and replaced with Horatio Gates, but anyway you get the idea about Schuyler's military acumen.

After the war he helped the Federalist cause as a New York legislator and then served in the first US Senate, before losing to Aaron Burr in his reelection bid.

So, ok, Schuyler was a prominent person of sorts, but an utter failure as a military commander and hardly a leader in any other walk of life. The statue was erected in 1925. Why? Was there some sort of Revolutionary mania around the 150th anniversary of 1776 that put everyone the mood for statues of leaders from that period? Was the mayor a descendant? Puzzling.

So I put this in the category of "statues not worth arguing about because they never should have been there in the first place."

Monday, June 26, 2023

The Woman Born with Rome

In 1971 Italian archaeologists began excavating a necropolis along the Via Laurentina, the ancient road connecting Rome to Lavinium. Many graves have been found dating to the early centuries of Rome's history, between 800 and 600 BC. (The traditional date of the city's founding is 753 BC.) The Museo Nazionale Romano has recently opened a new exhibit of this material at the Baths of Diocletian.

The History Blog has a post on the most interesting burial, known as Tomb 359. This was such a mass of metal and corrosion that it was removed from the ground as a block and excavated in the lab. The occupant was identified as a woman of 20 to 24, buried around 730 BC, so, she was born right around the old date of Rome's founding.

She was very rich for the time:

She was buried in a garment festooned with jewels: a necklace of bronze pendants shaped like animals and humans, large rings attached to the gown with bronze and amber brooches, silver hair ornaments and more. A full banquet service with sacrificial knives, skewers for cooking meat, bronze and ceramic drinking vessels was also interred with her. There are objects of Etruscan and southern Italian origin in the grave goods. The amber in her brooch was imported from the Baltic Sea.

Walking around Cambridge, Massachusetts

I was in Massachusetts from Wednesday to Sunday, and I took two wonderful walks through Cambridge.

The light was uneven and rapidly shifting as the clouds blew past, so the quality of the images is far from perfect, but this neighborhood is amazing in any light.

Below, the amazing house at the corner of Lee and Harvard

Saturday, June 24, 2023

What was that about?

The person on Twitter who seems to have the best command of the situation has been Dmitri Alperovitch. He has been noting all along the low level of violence, which suggested to him that neither Prigozhin nor Putin meant what he said. Yesterday he tweeted:

We might very well see Moscow make a deal with Prigozhin - perhaps give him more power and say in how the war is being conducted.

They clearly don’t want to fight him and he has now made his point and also lowering the aggressiveness of his tone.

A deal, he thought, might be in the offing:

And there is precedent in modern Russia for such deals. Kadyrov (and his dad) were originally on the side of the rebels in the Second Chechen War (and had killed a lot of Russian soldiers) but then were convinced to switch sides and all was forgiven.

He says the "march on Moscow"

should be viewed through the lense of what in Russia is called ‘razborki’ - gangland warfare. . . .

Sometimes it ends in death and leadership changes and sometimes in sitdowns where both sides shake hands and agree to move on (at least for a bit).

Alperovitch retweeted this from James Palmer:

One of the things familiar from criminal confrontations is also that you can have very big violent talk followed by promises of brotherhood and unity very close to each other. the problem is usually that's for a closed circle, not the whole public.

Palmer offered the below as a past example of someone ramping up the threat of violence to make a point (you'll probably have to click on it to read):

What a bizarre country.

One thing to note is that this seems to have had little impact on the war.

Prigozhin (Apparently) Calls Off the Coup

More and more bizarre:

They were going to dismantle PMC Wagner. We came out on 23 June to the March of Justice. In a day, we walked to nearly 200km away from Moscow. In this time, we did not spill a single drop of blood of our fighters. Now, the moment has come when blood may spill. That’s why, understanding the responsibility for spilling Russian blood on one of the sides, we are turning back our convoys and going back to field camps according to the plan.

I suppose this means Prigozhin and Putin made some kind of deal? Wow.

Wagner associated telegram channels are really mad about it, they really wanted to overthrow somebody corrupt and incompetent. They believed Prigozhin's rhetoric but apparently he did not.

The Road to Moscow

I can't believe I am following a coup attempt in Russia in close to real time. What a world we live in: amazing technological progress, but moral and political progress, eh. I am going to be updating this post for the rest of the day.

Ukrainian officers have addressed the Belarusian army and called on them to overthrow Lukashenko

Videos are emerging of what are said to be columns of rebellious troops, Wagner and others, on their way to Moscow. They have surface-to-air missiles and tanks on flatbeds.

Here's a report that Wagner forces on the way to Moscow are paying for food, not looting. Seems like a sign of a serious intention to take over Russia, not just make trouble.

Videos are being posted of Russian forces on a highway, said to be moving toward Rostov to attack Wagner.

Yesterday Ukrainians were wondering if Prigozhin would receive support from Russian prisons, and sure enough today there are reports of riots in prisons near Moscow.

Statement from Gubarev, Girkin's ally:

Putin's Russia will cease to exist in the coming days. We did not particularly love this state, it was always hostile to the Russians. Nobody will protect it. Those who are ready to defend it have neither weapons nor resources. We will act according to the circumstances, nothing unusual. National duty, military honor and a clear conscience will give us the right guide.

The Russian people are great, and Russia is eternal. God bless us!

And Girkin himself:

The rebels successfully bypassed Voronezh and are moving through the territory of the Lipetsk region. They boast that they shot down the forward outposts of the "Rosgvardia" and took trophies.

On the other hand, Chechen strongman Kadyrov has come out strongly for Putin, says his forces will fight Wagner on Putin's behalf.

Now (10 AM) video of a roadblock on the road to Moscow shoved aside by Wagner.

More reports of regime-loyal troops moving to attack Wagner in Rostov.

Street fights in Rostov between supporters of the two sides.