Monday, July 31, 2023

"Weak" Speech and Gender Stereotypes

A few years ago I read an article by a female reporter who heard somewhere that journalists quote men much more often than women. So she checked found that this was true of her own work. She resolved to stop doing this and tried hard to achieve equality, but failed; even when she was able to quote equal numbers of men and women in her pieces, the editors always cut out many of the statements by women. Because, she said, men are just more quotable according to the standards of modern journalism. Which brings me to this NY Times piece by Adam Grant about women and "weak speech."

“Stop using weak language.” If you’re a woman, you’ve probably gotten this advice from a mentor, a coach or a teacher. If you want to be heard, use more forceful language. If you want a raise or a promotion, demand it. As the saying goes, nice girls don’t get the corner office.

Weak speech means peppering your discourse 

with disclaimers (I’m no expert, but …), hedges (sort of, kind of), and tag questions (right? wouldn’t you say?).

Or always saying, "in my opinion," "I think", etc. Which is way the reporter whose name I have forgotten quoted men more often even when she tried not to; all those disclaimers make a statement weaker and less interesting for a short segment on the news. On the news, you want people to take bold, simple stands, not qualify themselves or explain. Explanation and nuance are boring.

Incidentally I have noticed that this is true of the subjects Tyler Cowen interviews for Marginal Revolutions. All of these are really elite people, CEOs and authors of prize-winning books, but the women still qualify their speech a lot more than the men do. I have also noticed that the trans women of my acquaintance are still completely masculine in this regard.

Anyway, Grant's piece is an argument, backed up by a bunch of studies, that women speak this way because this is what actually works for women:

It turns out that women who use weak language when they ask for raises are more likely to get them. In one experiment, experienced managers watched videos of people negotiating for higher pay and weighed in on whether the request should be granted. The participants were more willing to support a salary bump for women — and said they would be more eager to work with them — if the request sounded tentative: “I don’t know how typical it is for people at my level to negotiate,” they said, following a script, “but I’m hopeful you’ll see my skill at negotiating as something important that I bring to the job.” By using a disclaimer (“I don’t know …”) and a hedge “(I hope …”), the women reinforced the supervisor’s authority and avoided the impression of arrogance. For the men who asked for a raise, however, weak language neither helped nor hurt. No one was fazed if they just came out and demanded more money.

In the United States and in many cultures, gender stereotypes still hold that men should be dominant and assertive, while women should be kind and caring. When women violate these stereotypes, they often get punished. In a meta-analysis of dozens of studies, when women asserted their ideas, made direct requests and advocated for themselves, they were judged as less hirable. Although they were seen as equally competent, they were liked less than men who engaged in the exact same behaviors.

New evidence reveals that it’s not ambition per se that women are being penalized for. . . . The problem arises if people perceive them to be forceful, controlling, commanding and outspoken. These are qualities for which men are regularly given a pass, but they put women at risk of being disliked and denied for leadership roles. (Not surprisingly, the backlash is even stronger when a woman is Black). Instead of being judged just on their performance, they are dinged for their personality. Overbearing. Too abrasive. Sharp elbows.

Grant does the performative thing in blaming this on men – "It’s outrageous that women have to tame their tongues to protect fragile male egos" – but the studies he cites don't support that; they find that the bad reaction to pushy women is just as prevalent among women as among men.

It seems that as women achieve dominance in certain fields of business, like publishing, it hasn't happened because women have become more masculine; it has happened because the habits of aggressive men have become less associated with leadership.

Sunday, July 30, 2023

Social Media Algorithms and Political Divisions

There is a belief in certain quarters that the algorithms used by Facebook and other social media companies to feed users content are disastrous, because they create "media bubbles," reinforce people's beliefs, increase polarization, and spread misinformation. So Meta agreed to cooperate with outsider researchers to investigate the issue, providing them with data outsiders could not usually obtain, and allowing them to randomly change how some people were offered content.

The first results are now out, and they do not show that the algorithms are very important (NY Times).

First of all, many users don't even look at the content fed them by the algorithm but visit certain pages and groups for their news, so they only see the content shared by the creators of those pages or the members of those groups. Politically active people are not passive consumers of whatever social media companies offer them, but actively seek out the content they like. 

In one experiment, the algorithm was turned off and people simply saw posts from their friends in chronological order, and this had no measurable effect on what they read, posted, or did.

This makes sense to me; I have always found the notion that somebody might, for example, be converted into Islamic terrorism by a few articles in their news feed to be ridiculous, and I have never been convinced that social media are to blame for what is wrong with American politics. I have always traced our current bout of polarization problems to the 90s, before social media even existed. All of this feels to me like another way of refusing to believe that other people might actually disagree with you in a serious and heartfelt way. People who think that their own beliefs are obviously true imagine that others only disagree with them because they are fed misinformation; liberals blame Fox news and social media, while conservatives blame the mainstream media. But maybe, just maybe, other people are simply different than you are.

Don Delillo

Don Delillo (born 1936) is a novelist people think has something important to say about America in the second half of the twentieth century. Critics are divided about his books but some love them, and last year one European publication proclaimed him the greatest living American novelist.

I recently listened to two Delillo novels, White Noise (1985) and Underworld (1997). I didn't love either book but I found something about them intriguing, and I kept going partly to get a sense of why Delillo is such a famous interpreter of my own time.

White Noise won the National Book Award for fiction, but I have to say that I didn't really get it. The story concerns a university professor of Hitler Studies who has been married five times to four women and lives with a family chock full of half- and step-siblings. He makes a friend on campus, a new professor of pop culture who teaches a whole class on product labels. It's all rather pointless and meandering until the Airborn Toxic Event. This is a railyard spill of a chemical called Nyodene Derivative that eventually leads to the evacuation of the whole county and may have fatally poisoned our Hitler Studies professor. It's hard for him or us to know, though, because nobody in authority ever gives a straight answer to an important question. The evacuation prompted by the ATE is managed by SIMULVAC, an entity devoted to simulating disasters as training exercises; why they are in charge of what seems to be an actual emergency is, well, a good question. The last section of the book concerns an experimental drug that is supposed to ease the fear of death. 

I finished White Noise without having any idea what it was about, but it did leave me with one clear message: Trust No One. Another message, it seems to me, was that it is hard to know what is important or real and what is not. Do the details of product labels really say something important about America? Does television? Do the movies? What would it mean to "say something important" anyway? Is the Airborn Toxic Event a sham, a disaster, or something meaningful mainly because of how people feel about it and react to it?

Underworld begins with a very long chapter describing a baseball game in 1951, a playoff between the New York Giants and the Brooklyn Dodgers. The Giants won the game in the ninth inning when Bobby Thompson hit a home run that some sportswriter dubbed The Shot Heard Round the World. Among the fans at this game was J. Edgar Hoover, who was hanging out with Frank Sinatra, Jackie Gleason, and restauranteur/mob front man Toots Shor. (So far as I can find out, this is true.) Delillo gives us pages of dialogue among the four men, and I was stunned by how real it felt; it seemed to me exactly what those men would have said at a baseball game, each given a perfect voice. Somewhere in the middle of this I asked myself, why? Why is Delillo using his obvious talents to recreate inane chatter among a bunch of Rat Pack celebrities?

And this is one of my reactions to Delillo: ok, this guy can write, but what is he writing about? 

One of the themes in Underground is the Bobby Thompson homerun ball, which a baseball fanatic devoted decades of his life to tracking down. And just when I was thinking, gee, this is probably a metaphor for people who obessively research events like the Kennedy assassination, some character says, "this guy reminded me of people who obsessively research the Kenneday assassination." Thanks, Don, guess you didn't want us to miss that one.

After the excessive prologue we meet our main character, a kid from the Bronx named Nick Shay. We pick him up in the 1990s, then gradually work backwards through his life toward 1951. Delillo was trying to do a thing that is very hard to do, to mix up a novel about family relationships with some kind of essay or thought exercise about America. It only sort of works, and it goes on for a long time, leaving you (or me, anyway) wondering if it was worth it.

In the 90s Nick is an executive at a waste disposal company in Phoenix. Through him we are introduced to another of Underworld's themes: waste. We hear about enormous landfills, deep salt domes where nuclear waste is buried, rumors of "ghost ships" that sail the world for years, changing their names and registrations, searching for some nation that will accept their cargoes of toxic waste. We meet a "garbage guru" who says civilization arose to manage waste, and a sculptor who is recycling 230 surplus B-52s into a gigantic work of art. And waste, it seems, stands in for all the other enormous systems that govern our world, all the things that happen out of our sight so we can have our nice little lives.

At one point Nick attends a convention of solid waste executives that turns out to be sharing the hotel with a convention of swingers. This struck me as typical Delillo: a keen eye for the absurdities of our world, but not much of a story and only frustrating hints at what he is trying to tell us.

We meet a character who designs nuclear weapons at a secret facility in the desert – Delillo loves secret facilities in the desert – who is troubled by guilt but can't get anyone else to take him seriously. He tries to talk to his family, and they tell him to man up. He tries to talk to an anti-nuclear protester but she won't even look at him. He goes out into the desert to think but resolves nothing. He seems to be a good guy, and the other people at the secret facility seem like good guys, and they do illegal drugs and mock the system in other ways. Somehow, though, they are building ultimate evil.

We meet an enthusiastic early 60s housewife who "can do things with gelatin that amaze." We hang out in 1970s New York where art world types try to survive the sanitation workers' strike, stop by a Civil Rights sit-in that becomes a police riot, visit a Madison Avenue advertising executive playing with atomic bomb themes, check out Lenny Bruce's comedy routine during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Then back to a 1950s Italian neighborhood in the Bronx, where we get one of those loving evocations of an immigrant community that American novelists enjoy so much.

We eventually get to to a sort of culmination that didn't suprise me and doesn't seem to have surprised anyone else, either. But then in Delillo's world everything is controlled by systems and "information flows" that somehow connect secret facilities in the desert to suburban kitchens to comedy clubs to the Grassy Knoll to memorabilia collectors to Bobby Thompson to J. Edgar Hoover to the atomic bomb and back to a secret facility in the desert, so maybe surprises are pretty much impossible. 

There is a lot of impressive writing in Underworld, several remarkable scenes, some interesting people. But it doesn't cohere very well and as a description of America I found it opaque. Something is happening out there, but its exact nature is hidden from us. People may be good, or trying to be good, but some shadowy something diverts their efforts away from real truth or real happiness toward an anxious existence under the threat of annihilation. It occurred to me as I wrote that sentence that there isn't anyone particularly bad in either White Noise or Underworld. Sometimes they do bad things, but not from any deep maliciousness.

What is it all about?

Writers, Delillo once said, "must oppose systems. It's important to write against power, corporations, the state, and the whole system of consumption and of debilitating entertainments... I think writers, by nature, must oppose things, oppose whatever power tries to impose on us."

Sure, fine, whatever. But I could not tell you what Delillo really thinks about America beyond a vague paranoia and a sense that they, whoever they are, aren't telling us the truth. We aren't bad people, but somehow we are making a world full of evil. It's the system that is the problem.

But then, what would happen to us without the waste disposal system and the sewers and the electrical grid? 

Is the baseball thing supposed to suggest that we can figure things out if we strike out on our own quests for the truth? Or is the point is the murkiness, the shadowy vastness of history in motion that we simply can't grasp from within it? But history is already murky to me, and I didn't need an novelist to tell me that.

Beats me. I feel teased, really, like somebody who just listened to 40 hours of novels that he never managed to understand. 

I wonder if there is such a thing as a spirit or essence of an age that exists beyond the mass of details, and whether a novel could evoke it. Did the US really had some kind of central theme during the Cold War? I see a thousand different themes, some related to technological change, some to demography, some to feminism and Civil Rights, some to industrial decline, some to the media landscape. Did American minds, or at least a great many American minds, have something in common across the 1950 to 1990 period? If so, what was it? If that question has an answer, I don't think Don Delillo has a clue what it might be.

Friday, July 28, 2023

Links 28 July 2023

Loki Stone, Cumbria, 10th Century

Very encouraging New Yorker story on the treatment of muscular dystrophy.

According to Tim Weiner's history of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover fell out with Nixon over the Pentagon Papers case. Hoover refused to investigate Daniel Ellsberg because Ellsberg's father-in-law was a "friend of the FBI" who gave every year to Hoover's Christmas charity.

Fifteen translations of a famous passage from Euripides.

Restoring the mosaics in Hagia Sophia.

The medal that Isaac Van Wart received for helping to capture British spy John Andre and thus exposing Benedict Arnold's plot to surrender West Point, one of the first three ever given to an American soldier, has been given to the New York Historical Society. (NY Times)

Interesting interview with a scholar of Yunnan on China's southern frontier, much about cultural contacts and diversity. I am somewhat ashamed to admit that I knew absolutely nothing about any of this.

Kevin Drum looks at Florida's controversial new standards for teaching about slavery in the public schools.

Fascinating letter that Richard Nixon sent to Bill Clinton after a trip to Eastern Europe in 1994. Including this: "You will be urged to scatter the available aid money all over the former Soviet Union. This would be a mistake. You have very limited funds. All the other nations in the near abroad are important. But Ukraine is in a different class -- it is indispensable."

French archaeologists have found a shipwreck dating to around 100 AD that was mostly full of glass vessels and raw glass blocks, which they are recovering.

The political crisis in Sri Lanka – which started when the country ran out of money to pay for imports like oil and fertilizer and tried to cover up for this by announcing a transition to entirely organic farming – is still rumbling on.

Excellent article by Colin Dickey about the Underground Railroad as a conspiracy theory.

Spring in a Small Town, the 1948 film sometimes acclaimed as the greatest Chinese movie, is on YouTube with English subtitles. Discussion of the film and its history here.

Wonderful email from a Marginal Revolutions reader explaining the role of Singapore's scholarship system for college students in creating their elite; as the author notes, the parallel to the ancient Chinese exam system is quite strong.

Michael Pollack essay on what sidewalks are for and how to manage these important public spaces.

Crazy overhead drone footage of sharks and schools of fish off Long Island.

Study of admissions to elite colleges and their impact on students who get in. Interesting that one factor skewing admissions toward the rich is athletics, since athletes at elite schools tend to come from rich families.

Scary numbers for the temperature of the ocean this year.

Over opening weekend, 200,000 people watched the Barbenheimer double feature.

London's 800-year-old Smithfield meat market is closing and moving to a new facility in the suburbs.

"Israel's Crisis is Just Beginning"

Robert F. Kennedy makes a bunch of statements about Ukraine that are even more deluded than his position on vaccines. Off Twitter here, but if you're curious you really need to watch the video of Kennedy grasping in the air for bizarre ways to blame the US and Ukraine for Russian aggression.

And in other campaign news, Ron DeSantis says he would consider putting Robert F. Kennedy in charge of the FDA or the CDC.

The people who think wind farms are harming their health.

Since 2012 Japan's population has shrunk by 2.6 million, or 2%.

Investment in US manufacturing construction (new and expanded factories) has soared, from $80 billion in 2020 to $153 billion in 2022. Some of this is probably due to Biden administration initiatives like the Chips and Science Act and Inflation Reduction Act, some to businesspeople getting nervous about overseas supply chains.

Biden has all but eliminated US drone warfare.

Iron age grave in the Scilly Islands off southwest England contained a sword and a mirror, and the bones were not well preserved, so nobody knew the gender of the occupant. The DNA obtained from the bones was of poor quality but it does suggest this was a woman. As most people suspected, a woman with a sword was more likely than a man with a mirror.

Ukraine Links

Very amusing 10-second video.

Eight-minute video showing a Ukraining squad assaulting a Russian trench defended by six men.

Kyiv Post reports bad morale in some Ukrainian units because "for every 100 meters we advance, 4 to 5 men are lost."

Russian milbloggers are getting worried about losses of Russian artillery.

LPR volunteer Murz with a gloomy assessment, says Ukraine is pressing relentlessly forward. And even worse here.

Official Russian news reports that of the 49,000 prisoners recruited for the Bakhmut campaign, 31% were killed (15,000) and 51% wounded (25,000). Well, Prigozhin warned them before they signed up that they would probably die. People are very curious what the casualties were among the 100,000 mobilized men who were thrown into the fighting with minimal training last year, but of course no statements on that.

Map of Russian gains in the north, as of July 26. Lots of bloggers have reported this but the Ukrainian MOD has denied it.

One Russian officer explains that Ukrainian advances south of Bakhmut are the result of disorganization and low morale.

NY Times, July 26: "The main thrust of Ukraine’s nearly two-month-old counteroffensive is now underway in the country’s southeast, two Pentagon officials said on Wednesday, with thousands of reinforcements pouring into the grinding battle." But Thomas Theiner says, "Ukraine rotating the 118th Mechanized Brigade into the Robotyne front isn't Phase 2 of the Offensive. The @nytimes should fact check." And more doubt here. And on July 28 the Times pretty much retracted. This is what happens when a major newspaper tries to compete with OSINT guys on Twitter.

Phillips O'Brien, "The War that Defied Expectations," on why analysts were wrong about how the war would unfold.

Another case of DPR reserve forces formed back in 2014 being the last hold-outs defending a town, this time Staromaiorske. It amazes me that these guys have fought for so long.

On July 27, video confirmation that Ukraine has finally reached the main Russian defensive line in Zaporizhia.

Visually confirmed losses in the Zaporizhia counter offensive, July 21:

Ukraine: 210 total, including 31 tanks, 152 other armored vehicles, 6 self-propelled artillery, 5 towed artillery
Russia: 225 total, including 55 tanks, 65 other armored vehicles, 7 surface-to-air missile systems, 15 multiple rocket launch systems, 24 self-propelled artillery, 10 towed artillery

Thursday, July 27, 2023


From an amazing, funny, and sad review of Prince Harry's memoir, Spare. By Nicola Shulman in the January 27 TLS:

The King of England's younger son is, by his own account – rendered by his ghostwriter, M.R. Moehringer –a lifelong bibliophobe. "At all costs", he recalls of his youth, "I avoided sitting quietly with a book." As far as we know he has read one novel: John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men, which he enjoyed, finding it "about friendship, about brotherhood, about loyalty": "it was filled with themes I found relatable". Encouraged, he had a look at Hamlet. An ambitious choice for only your second book, but this one seems to have come furnished with a plot summary: "Lonely prince," he read, "obsessed with dead parent, watches remaining parent fall in love with dead parent's usurper". Relatable much? "I slammed it shut. No, thank you."

If this is true, it seems a shame that he didn't persist with this second book. If he had, he might have felt less lonely. Sussex sees all experience as a reflection of his own anguish, and he would in his later years have recognized much of himself here. A man who keeps mourning long after, he says, "everyone has moved on" from the parental death. The prince who tells his friends his native land is "a prison"; who hates himself for his helplessness, finds the palace ranged against him and gets his truth out by commissioning an entertainment in questionable taste. To judge from Sussex's opinion of senior courtiers, he'd enjoy the scene where Hamlet discovers one of these evesdropping behind an arras and, with a great cry of "A rat!", kills him on the spot. Few of us have walked behind the coffin of a royal parent, but Sussex has. . . .

At some point he would come upon a passage with particular resonance for himself:

Rightly to be great
Is, not to stir without great argument;
But greatly to find quarrel in a straw
When honour's at the stake.

You could say that finding quarrel in a straw is Sussex's principal gift, and there are enough of them in Spare to fill a manger. His father laughed in the wrong place at his school play. He was once given a small bedroom on holiday at Sandringham. His neighbour parked his car outside his window, blocking his light. His brother didn't ask him to supper as often as he'd hoped. His great aunt, Princess Margaret, gave him a Biro for Christmas. It's wonderful to see this slender talent being turned into a lucrative career. Yet, by taking these annoyances so hard, he diminishes the gravity of the serious harms he has suffered, such as the almost inhuman onslaught from the red-top press and their mobs of paparazzi, not cursed, like their prey, with a keen sense of recent history.

For Sussex, though, grievances small and large weigh equally on his mind because they spring from the same place. Honour's at the stake. What he wants, and feels he is not getting, is respect, especially in comparison with his older brother, the heir to the throne. If he had been respected, his drama teacher wouldn't have assigned him a role in the school play "without my consultation". He'd have had a bigger bedroom. If he were respected, his father and brother would do something stop the paps, to stop the press and the tweeters (he studies both obsessively) from pursuing and tormenting him. As it is, he is dissed from all directions and, what is worse, he believes that his father, stepmother and brother have actively exploited his lack of consequence, feeding stories about him and later his wife to the press to distract it from their own shortcomings. Towards the end of the book, when Sussex seems to have become much madder than he was at the start, he has a conversation with his father, begging him to do something about all this press intrusion. His father – featuring here, ironically, as a weak man in thrall to an overbearing and effective wife – tries to explain that this is not in his power. Heaven knows he has the proof of it. "You must understand, darling boy," says his father, "the Institution can't just tell the media what to do!" "I yelped with laughter", writes Sussex, "It was like Pa saying he couldn't just tell his valet what to do."

Of the many sad examples of Sussex's sense of his own expendability, none is more bitter than this one: "I was brought into the world in case something happened to Willy. I was summoned to provide back-up, distraction, diversion and, if necessary, a spare part. Kidney, perhaps, Blood transfusion. Speck of bone marrow". A distressing avowal, not least for what it implies, but doesn't say: that, thanks to the wretchedness of his parents' marriage, his birth marked the fulfillment of a minimum order: an heir and a spare. There were no more children after this. "My work is done", his father is alleged to have said. "I'm not a baby-making machine", said his mother (I'm remembering this; it is not quoted here) when asked if she was planning to increase her family. Had there been enough love left to make even one more child, Sussex would have had a sibling who knew what it felt like to be him, and maybe wouldn't have to keep – Lord, make it stop – telling us about it. . . .

[We go on from there to view the prince's unallayable grief over his mother's death, which still haunts him "despite years of therapy," and some strong insinuations that Meghan Markle is a mother-substitute who seems to him as perfect as Diana was. Perfect, says Shulman, is "a wretched thing to call your wife." The whole sad story might be a meditation on what "privilege" actually means, and what really makes for a good life.]

Wednesday, July 26, 2023

My Bibliography, Part 1: Journal Articles

I assembled this bibliography for my LinkedIn page and thought I might as well put it here, too.

The Bruin Slave Jail, Alexandria, Virginia. John Bedell, Lisa Kraus, and Charles LeeDecker. October 2011, Revised January 2023. 

On ResearchGate as a preprint. Study of the fascinating history and remarkable archaeology of the jail owned by slave trader Joseph Bruin, a notorous scoundrel who inspired one of the characters in Uncle Tom's Cabin.

Implications of Precise Radiocarbon Dates (5800-5500 Cal Bp) for the Halifax Complex in Eastern Virginia. John Bedell and Stuart J. Fiedel. Archeology of Eastern North America, 50:79-98, 2023. 

Not online so far as I know. In 2014 I led the excavation of a remarkable Native America site in Virginia dating mainly to between 4000 and 1500 BC and ended up as the custodian as the best available set of dates for the Halifax culture. So I enlisted a colleague and friend to help me produce this article. Incidentally there is nothing strange about an archaeologist taking a decade to turn an excavation into a publication; we are bad that way.

The Sensation of This Week: Archeology and the Battle of Fort Stevens. John Bedell and Stephen Potter. In Archaeology and the Civil War, edited by Clarence Geier. University of Florida Press. 2014. 

Not online so far as I know, but I also wrote the brochure you can read online here. The National Park Service used to say that the whole battlefield from the Battle of Fort Stevens, during Jubal Early's Raid on Washington in 1864, had been lost to development, but we found that part of it survived in Rock Creek Park. One small piece of the wonderful Civil War studies I have done for the NPS, most of which can't be published because of concerns about looting.

The Prince William County Poor House, 1795 to 1928. Middle Atlantic Archaeology 28:17-30. 2012.

Not online so far as I know, but the NPS has a summary of the findings. This was a great learning experience for me, because when I started I knew nothing about the provision of poor relief in colonial or nineteenth-century America. They had debates about welfare in 1830 that you could reprint today completely unchanged.

Delaware Archaeology and the Revolutionary Eighteenth Century. John Bedell. Historical Archaeology 35(4):83-104. 2001. Available on JSTOR.  

Lewis Binford, one of the Great Men of North American Archaeology, praised this in his plenary address at the 2003 SHA conference as the sort of work historical archaeologists ought to be doing more of. Which was probably the high point of my career as a scholar. The article uses a great data set to explore how much everyday life in the colonies really changed across the 1680 to 1830 period, which some people had claimed saw a "revolution" in how people lived and thought. And you all know how I feel about revolutions.

Ordinary and Poor People in 18th-Century Delaware. John Bedell and Gerald P. Scharfenberger. Northeast Historical Archaeology Vol. 29 (2000), Article 3. 

Available at the NHA web site. Using the results of excavations done for the Delaware DOT to investigate ordinary life in the colonies.

Archaeology and Probate Inventories in the Study of Eighteenth-Century Life. John Bedell. Journal of Interdisciplinary History XXXI:223-245. 2000. 

Available on JSTOR. I argue that using archaeology and probate (estate) inventories together gives a much better idea of past material culture than either does alone, with examples drawn from my Delaware work. You might think that this is obvious but when I researched this I found exactly one article doing the same thing, and that was in French, about a small town in Brittany.

Memory and Proof of Age in England, 1272-1327. John Bedell. Past and Present 162:3-27. 1999. 

Not online so far as I know. This is still my favorite publication, in which I used a quirk of English law to investigate how medieval men kept track of time and what they remembered from 21 years before.

Status, Technology, and Rural Tradition in Western Pennsylvania: Excavations at the Shaeffer Farm Site. John Bedell, Michael Petraglia, and Thomas Plummer. Northeast Historical Archaeology Vol. 23 (1994), Article 3. 

Available at the the NHA web site. For me this project was an experiment in whether archaeology can tell us anything about nineteenth-century farm life that we couldn't learn more easily in some other way. Conclusion: maybe a little.

The Arch of Portugal

Relief depicting the Apotheosis of Sabina, wife of Hadrian

The Arch of Portugal was a triumphal arch in Rome built in the imperial period. But that is pretty much where agreement about it ends, because it was torn down in 1662, keeping modern scholars from getting a good look at it. All that survives are three lovely reliefs.

It stood on the Via Corso, and in fact Pope Alexander VII had it demolished because it impeded traffic along that important road. At the time it was thought that this had once been part of the aqueduct that carried water to the Baths of Nero, but modern archaeologists have found the foundations of that aqueduct 200 meters away, so that interpretation is out. Incidentally the arch has nothing to do with Portugal; it acquired that name in the late 1500s because a Portuguese cardinal lived nearby.

Now scholars think it was built as a triumphal arch.

But when? The three surviving reliefs all depict Hadrianic scenes, of which the most famous shows Hadrian's wife Sabina being escorted to heaven by a female genius. These reliefs survived because they were installed in a church after the arch was demolished and now reside in the Capitoline Museum.

Here Hadrian oversees food aid to the poor.

The Adventus of Hadrian, showing him welcomed by personification of Rome, the Roman Senate, and the people of Rome.

But for reasons that nobody has yet explained to me, and I have checked a dozen web sites, scholars generally think the arch was not built in Hadrian's time. Instead opinion places it either a few decades after Hadrian's death in the reign of Marcus Aurelius (161-180), or in the third century, perhaps the reign of Aurelian (270–275). The theory is that the Hadrianic reliefs were spolia taken from some other building or structure that was demolished; Aurelian is supposed to have torn down several buildings to construct a grand Temple of the Sun, which would fit. So how and when these reliefs ended up on the arch remains a mystery; but what wonderful reliefs they are.

Tuesday, July 25, 2023

Meloni Defends Aid to Ukraine

In the Italian parliament last week a spolesman for the Five Star Movement, a populist party, introduced a motion to end military aid to Ukraine. PM Georgia Meloni answered like this.

At one point, in reference to the position of the Five Star Movement, on the topic of Ukraine, he says, "Look, it's better to live under a dictatorship than to die."

And so the mask comes off.

We have in these words a massacre of centuries of history in which freedom, democracy and all the values of our civilization were built with the sacrifice of those who were ready die for them. We have a massacre of the choices made by Paolo Borsellino, Giovanni Falcone and all those who fought against the Mafia.

I don't think it is better to live under a dictatorship than to die. I think we must work so that people can live free. That is the difference between what we are doing and what you propose.


What Strategies Actually Promote Happiness?

Combing the popular literature, two psychologists (Dunigan Folk & Elizabeth Dunn) identified five strategies often recommended for increasing your happiness:

  1. Expressing gratitude
  2. Enhancing sociability
  3. Exercising
  4. Practicing mindfulness/meditation
  5. Increasing nature exposure

The gated article is here; summary thread on Twitter here. 

Folk and Dunn reviewed all the studies they could find evaluating the effectiveness of these methods, 57 in all. Their main finding was that there isn't much evidence that any of these works, because there aren't very many good studies. However, based on the evidence they did find,

  1. Expressing gratitude, for example by making lists, has a positive impact;
  2. Talking to strangers and generally being more extraverted has a positive impact;
  3. Meditation has some impact when done in a group, but that might just be from getting together with other people to do something together;
  4. There is pretty much no evidence that exercise promotes happiness, except that exercising is better than doing something totally boring like sitting still;
  5. There is evidence that nature exposure can improve your mood, but these authors think all those studies are bad and they are not convinced.

Very interesting, but I wonder if all these studies might all be confounded by differences between people, and also by the difficulty distinguishing short-term vs. long-term effects. 

After 50 years of fighting my melancholy nature, I have found that these things work for me:

  1. Seeing my friends;
  2. Talking to my friends on the phone;
  3. Emailing with my friends;
  4. Learning something new and interesting (see the previous post);
  5. Counting my blessings ("Expressing gratitude")
  6. Taking on new challenges, but only if I finish them;
  7. Doing work I find interesting and doing it well;
  8. Going to beautfiul places or places with interesting history;
  9. Getting out of the house and doing something every day;
  10. Talking to other people, even casually;
  11. Sex;
  12. Seeing my friends.

Monday, July 24, 2023

Siberian Shamanism and the Perm Animal Style

Reconstructions made from detailed drawings
of a now lost archaeological collection from Perm

I wrote back in 2011 about the strange Elk Men of Perm, based on the artifact descriptions at the Hermitage Museum web site.

Today, trying to trace this amazing belt buckle back to its source, I discovered a weird and wonderful Russian web site with a lot more material on what its creators call the Perm Animal Style. With the help of Google translate, which seems to have gotten a little better at Russian lately (because of the war?), we can delve more deeply into what these objects mean.

Perm Animal Style (PZS) is the name of a style of cast bronze artifacts from the 6th-12th centuries AD created by the medieval civilization of the Urals. In the center of Eurasia, three roads to Siberia from Europe and Central Asia intersected: the Byzantine, Iranian and Scandinavian routes. At the gates of Siberia, at the intersection of roads in the Upper Kama region, a civilization with a special culture arose, leaving us its pantheon of gods and spirits, embodied in metal. Scientists call this civilization the Lomatov and Nevolin culture. The pre-literate culture of hunters was combined in the Kama region with a developed religious and magical system, born of the Ural civilization in dialogue with the great cultures of the world. 

The location of the modern Perm district, from which many of these finds come.

Medieval Norse sources mention a place they call Bjarmaland. From the narrative of Ohthere (c. 890) to the sixteenth century, various sources placed Bjarmaland either near the White Sea or much farther south, somewhere beyond Novgorod. A few words of Bjarmic that appear in the sagas appear to come from Finnish; Vikings traded there for furs. Most western authorities are skeptical about this wandering Finnish kingdom and think the stories about it are either garbled or just made up. 

But Russian archaeologists have taken over the name and applied it to the Perm culture, which they sometimes call Bjarmic. (The name has also been taken over by Russian artisans who make reconstructions of Perm artifacts, and by the makers of at least one Alternate European History game, which you can play as Bjarmaland.) It seems weird to this western archaeologist to use a name from Norse literature to describe an archaeological culture in central Russia. I suppose they wanted a name for their imagined cultural construct that would be distinct from terms describing the well known archaeological finds. What they have been doing, which I find so fascinating, is using the myths of Siberian cultures documented in the 1800s and early 1900s to analyze the iconography of Perm, calling the results Bjarmic myth. 

Hundreds of artifacts in this style are known, found either in burials or ritual deposits like this one:

This artifact was found in 1957 together with three other amulets depicting the goddess and fragments of a bronze cauldron. [That seems to be the factual part. But the text goes on.]  Perhaps this treasure was the result of the Sacrifice of the Seven Cauldrons. Seven cauldrons with amulets and other gifts were buried in the ground in a circle as an offering to the Goddess of the Earth. This circle blocked the opening to the Lower World, from which illnesses and other misfortunes came. The ritual was preserved by the Khanty.

Here is an example of this interpretation, a continuation of the paragraph above, describing this object:

The goddess stands on spiders, weaving a web, along which the souls of the dead must pass over a boiling resin river. We see the waves of this river at the bottom of the composition. People pray to the goddess, they are in trouble. The goddess with wings is the first ancestor of the family (the mask on the chest) and the intercessor for people before the supreme deity. An amulet of special power, this would have been invoked only when misfortune (epidemic, invasion) threatened the whole people. 

I love this. Shamanistic lore often emphasized the peril of the bridge to the other lands, which might be described as a giant sword blade or a thin rope, but I have never seen it described as a spider web.

The motif of standing on animals represents being carried by them. Which is wonderfully shamanistic; Siberian shamans often described themselves riding on magical animals in their otherwordly journeys.

Notice the circles drawn on the foreheads of these triple goddesses. Our authors interpret this as a sun sign, because the Khanty had a sun ritual in which they drew such circles on the foreheads of the participants, using the blood of the sacrificial animal.

Then there is the figure known as "the deity surrounded by elk." (Or moose, same word in Russian.)

These are interpreted as depictions of a boy hero found in the myths of several Siberian peoples:

This god had many names. The Mansi called this deity the Bright Boy, the Khantyn Alvi, the Tarpyg, As-tyi-iki. As-tyi-iki was revered in the form of seven babies; the Khanty of the 19th century believed that his native land was somewhere beyond the Urals.

Alvi from childhood was distinguished by his extraordinary intelligence and strength, first he broke a wooden, then a copper and iron cradle. He gave smart advice to his father, the heavenly god. As soon as he got out of the cradle, he performed feats, caught up and killed a six-legged elk, cutting off a pair of its legs. He nailed the skin to the sky, creating the constellation Elk (our Big Dipper).

These family scenes are thought to depict Alvi with his parents. 

Birds are common in this art, either in natural forms or in human-bird hybrids. Many stories describe the gods transforming into birds. Which is another shamanistic thing to do.

And this is (no, seriously) the Lame Owl God.

This one they could not connect to any surviving myth, but both lameness and bird suits have been associated with shamans for thousands of years, so it must represent a god or hero on some kind of shamanistic adventure.

Discovering all of this made my weekend.

Sunday, July 23, 2023

Duff Cooper, "Talleyrand"

Talleyrand as the Man with Six Heads, 1815

Back when I was in my Napoleon phase I looked up lists of the best books about Napoleon and his era, and this 1932 biography was on most of them. So I ordered a copy. It is elegantly written, judicious, and compresses an extremely eventful life into 300 pages, so if you have any interest in this era I recommend it highly.

But what is one to make of Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-PĂ©rigord?

He was born (in 1754) into one of France's oldest noble families, but a childhood injury left him with a maimed foot and a pronounced limp. Since he was not fit for the army, his parents naturally assigned him to the church. Over his vociferous objections he was sent to France's top seminary and his family then arranged for him to become the Bishop of Autun. Cooper has some excellent paragraphs about the (to us) shocking lack of emotion in Ancien Regime family life, and he finds several other nobles besides Talleyrand who recorded being treated by their parents as nothing more than future agents of their families' aggrandizement. If they received any tenderness as children it was from someone other than their parents, perhaps a grandmother or a nurse.

Already in his 20s Talleyrand was causing scandal. He had no interest in the church and did not bother trying to hide it. He spent all his time in Paris, attending salons where he honed his famous conversational skills, seducing women, and gambling at the card tables and on the stock exchange.

Then came the Revolution. When the Estates General were summoned Talleyrand went back to his bishopric to campaign for a seat in the assembly of the clergy, which he did by publishing a manifesto laying out a reform plan for the French church. The manifesto was well received and between that and his family name he was elected easily. Here we see one of the themes of Talleyrand's life: his desire to always be where the action was. In 1789 the Estates General was the place to be, so he arranged to be there.

In the Estates Talleyrand quickly understood that this was a revolutionary moment. He was not by nature a revolutionary, but although he would have preferred gradual reform he sensed the direction of the wind and joined the revolutionaries by renouncing his clerical privileges in a dramatic speech. He became a leader of the liberal faction in two successive assemblies, and he presided over some of the newfangled rituals the revoutionaries dreamed up to celebrate their new "natural" calendar. But he could never take their enthusiasm seriously; the story goes that while processing across the Champ de Mars for one Revolutionary festival, dressed in red, white, and blue, he turned to the Marquis de Lafayette and said, "Please don't make me laugh."

In those early years of the Revolution Talleyrand formed a philosophy of government that guided him for the rest of his life. He wanted popular participation, but not democracy; he wanted a king to stabilize the system and provide a focus of loyalty; he thought the elite should be recognized. He often argued for a system like the British in having a monarch and two houses of Parliament, the upper house including the "natural leaders" of the realm, but like the American in having a written constituion that would enshrine key liberties such as freedom of speech and assembly. As a man who was most famous for the power of his conversation, which was often radical and scandalous, he always put freedom of speech at the center of his concerns. He was also a proponent of education, authoring a 216 page report laying out a national system which influenced the one put into place by Napoleon.

When the Terror came, Talleyrand fled into exile with many others. In London he found himself in a position he would occupy for the rest of his life: mistrusted by the royalists becaue of his part in the revolution but hated by the revolutionaries because they knew he despised their radicalism, and suspected by everyone of being a spy. He spent some time in America where his gambler's instincts led him to try his hand at land speculation.

After the Terror burned itself out France stumbled into a government called the Directory, which Cooper dismisses by saying "it had only one aim, to insure that those who had gotten rich off the Revolution could keep their profits." Talleyrand joined a group of men conspiring to overthrow it. They considered themselves capable of handling the political side, but they needed a military hero to serve as their front man. And wouldn't you know it, at just the right moment Napoleon Bonaparte returned to Paris from a string of stunning victories in Italy and a glorious defeat in Egypt, desperately eager for more power. With the help of one of his regiments, they arrested the leaders of all the other factions and proclaimed a government called the consulship, with Napoleon as First Consul. In those early days Napoleon still thought he might need advice from others, and he made Talleyrand his foreign minister.

Talleyrand held that post from 1799 to 1808. He respected Napoleon – really, it is hard not to respect Napoleon – but never liked or trusted him. Talleyrand always worked for peace, which to him meant discovering and respecting the essential interests of all the European powers. He took the lead in negotiating the Peace of Amiens in 1802, and tried his best to keep it from breaking down. But Napoleon would not accept Talleyrand's pacific advice and went on the warpath again, destroying the armies of Austria and Russia at Auschwitz (1805) and then those of Prussia at Jena and Auerstadt (1806). After each victory Talleyrand tried to persuade Napoleon to make a generous peace, but Napoleon would not listen and instead imposed punitive terms. After the "peace" imposed on Prussia Talleyrand no longer even tried to work with Napoleon but actively began conpiring against him, while still holding the post of France's foreign minister.

Thus, when the allies finally defeated Napoleon's armies and marched into Paris, Talleyrand was the one man in France they trusted to help them reach a settlement. They had no policy beyond overthrowing Napoleon, no agreement over what kind of government would replace him. Talleyrand, of course, had a plan ready, and he persuaded the allies to accept it: restore the Bourbon dynasty to the throne, but with a written constitution and a powerful assembly elected by universal male sufferage. At first the allied leaders were puzzled; would France really consent to be ruled by a fat, useless old king after the dynamic Napoleon? Yes, Talleyrand answered. And he turned out to be correct; when the first elections were held they returned a solid majority of royalists, who won almost every jurisdiction outside Paris, Marseilles, and Lyon.

Talleyrand's constitution of course included an upper house as well, but France no longer had a nobility. The king would therefore have to create one. He turned to Talleyrand, who drew up a list of sixty names, including both his leading friends and those of his enemies he thought were worth dealing with. (Now there's a great thought experiment: you, like Talleyrand, have somehow ended up having to draw up a list for a new American nobility that would replace the Senate. Who would you choose? And who would you choose from the opposition, as being the people you want to deal with?)

Meanwhile the powers were meeting in the Congress of Vienna to redraw the map of Europe. Talleyrand of course represented France. When he arrived he discovered that the four major allies (Russia, Prussia, Austria, and Britain) had set things up so they alone would negotiate the terms of the treaty, which would be presented to all the other nations for their approval. Talleyrand roused up all the smaller nations to fury over this and got the allies to admit himself and the Spanish ambassador to their inner circle. From there Talleyrand persuaded the British and Austrian ambassadors that rising Russian and Prussian power threatened their interests, so they needed a strong France to support them; those three nations actually signed a secret defense pact, and as a result France emerged with remarkably lenient terms.

Unfortunately Napoleon undid much of the goodwill Talleyrand had achieved with his return from exile and 100 Days' campaign, and after his defeat France lost Belgium and also much of the art Napoleon had looted across Europe. But Talleyrand had insured that the alliance of all the powers against France would not endure.

Talleyrand was a private citizen for the next 14 years. Toward the end of the 1820s he sensed that the French were getting tired of the increasingly reactionary Bourbon government, and he saw an opening to move France away from monarchical reaction and back toward mixed government. He funded a newspaper that took an anti-Bourbon line and was one of the leading planners of the July Revolution of 1830, which put Louis-Phillipe on the throne with a more liberal constitution.

Just from that career summary you can probably understand why Talleyrand had been so controversial. When he turned against Napoleon, wasn't it his duty to resign his office, rather than remaining in it for two years while he conspired against the government he was part of? It's just one example of the duplicity that his critics hate: he remained bishop while carrying on love affairs and helping to seize all the property of the French church for the government; he presided over Revolutionary ceremonies he thought were ridiculous; he joined governments he despised, so as to undermine them from within; he enriched himself with bribes and insider trading; he was always for peace, but that sometimes meant telling the Poles or the Italians that they would have to wait for their freedom. He put the Bourbons back on the throne and then helped overthrow them.

But from another point of view he was remarkably consistent: always for peace, always for moderation and a mixed constitution, always for free speech and a free press, and also always for his own enrichment and his own amusement.

How does one judge such a person, and such a life?


I only grow cherry tomatoes now because when I grew big tomatoes the squirrels used to come and take a bite out of every one. This way they take about the same percentage but what remains is still edible.

Bulla Regia

Bulla Regia is the name by which we know an ancient town in northern Tunisia. 

Finds of Greek pottery show that it existed in the 300s BC; inscriptions record that in the 200s it became part of the empire of Carthage.


Bulla Regia was part of the territory won for Rome by Scipio Africanus in 203 BC during the Second Punic War. The Romans seem to have put the Numidian king Masinissa in charge, since an inscription records that he "recovered the lands of his ancestors." In 156 BC he made Bulla his capital.


In 46 BC it became part of the new Roman province of Africa, and pretty much everything you can see there today dates to the Roman period.

Site plan, a big file if you want to click and read

The town declined in the Byzantine period and was destroyed by an earthquake in the late 400s.

The glory of the site today is a group of villas built with their main floors underground. Here and at the top of the post we look down into one of the two famous villas, the House of Amphitrite

Each of these villas was built around an atrium in the normal Mediterranean way, except that the atrium was 20 or so feet below the surface. This is the other famous villa, the House of the Hunt. Presumably this was done to escape from the desert heat.

Staircase entrance

Statue of Aesculapius

These villas were lavishly decorated with mosaics, which are quite well preserved. Some of them are still on the site, while others have been moved to Tunis.

Priestess of the Imperial Cult

More views of the House of Amphitrite

I was stunned by these images because we love to imagine that archaeologists might dig down into the ground and find whole buildings with their walls still standing, somehow buried nearly intact. Usually archaeology is nothing like that, but here it is. The lower floors of these houses were filled with rubble or sand and left alone until archaeologists came along to disturb them.


And I just couldn't resist one more image, this monument from a later Byzantine fortress on the site.