Thursday, August 31, 2023

Dungeons and Dragons on Death Row

NY Times story by Keri Blakinger about playing the game on death row in Texas. After a breakout attempt at his old lockup, Tony Ford was transferred to a much more restrictive prison:

For Ford, there was one silver lining. At Polunsky, he could finally play D&D with a death-row legend: Billy Wardlow. . . .

D&D turned associates into a crew. After they started playing together at Polunsky, Ford noticed that when Wardlow was in charge of the game, the other guys didn’t bicker as much. As Dungeon Master, Wardlow created vast and intricate worlds. He could play without books or hand-drawn maps and could run the game on the fly, improvising the narrative as he went along.

Some D&D crews on death row liked to play at random times, diving into a fantasy world whenever the mood struck. But when Wardlow ran the games, he liked to set a schedule, usually starting around 9 a.m. Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, sometimes playing until they fell asleep. It was the rare activity Ford and his friends could look forward to, a time when no one would talk about legal cases or lost appeals.

Sometimes, through their characters, they opened up about problems they would never otherwise discuss — abusive parents, fractured childhoods, drug addictions — unpacking their personal traumas through a thin veil of fantasy. “With Billy, D&D has become our therapy,” Ford wrote in 2019. . . .

And whenever Ford and Wardlow were housed near each other, they played D.&D. Some games were small, with only three or four players. Others looped in more than a dozen men. Most often, Wardlow was the Dungeon Master, but sometimes Ford took on that role instead. . . .

And so it went until Wardlow received an execution date, in April 2020, and was transfered to the section known as Death Watch.  But Wardlow still found a way to play in one more game:
On a sunny morning in a lush area of Eberron, Arthaxx was hard at work on a new invention when a green fog swept in, rolling down from the palaces. Arthaxx saw it coming and fired a spell, but the magic clashed with the mist and his spell came to life, attacking its creator. Arthaxx fell unconscious.

When he woke up, he saw the face of a stranger covered with magical runes. Seven years had passed, and the world he knew was in ruins. By that point, an evil moon called Atropus had begun orbiting the planet, bringing down a foul rain that made the dead rise from their graves.

Even the animals that men killed for food came back to life before they could be eaten, their flesh writhing and pulsing with a dark energy. The gods had disappeared, locked away in an hourglass prison. Without them, good magic no longer worked.

Arthaxx came up with a plan to defeat the moon and save the world — but victory came at a heavy price. Half the adventurers died, and the survivors soon realized they still needed to free the gods. To do that, Arthaxx cast a spell to turn himself into a more powerful being. It was potentially a winning move, but it was risky, too: The being had a tendency to explode, especially if he suffered a serious blow.

No matter how powerful Arthaxx was — or how much his Dungeon Master wanted him to prevail when the crew faced off against a horde of villains — the outcome came down to chance. “One of the things of D.&D. is that it’s the roll of the dice,” Ford told me, leaning toward the glass between us during one of my visits. “And if you make a roll of the dice and your dice roll is too low to be able to save you,” he said, “then, you know, you bite the bullet.”

With a flick of the spinner, Arthaxx was gone. The rest of the raiding party continued on, but without his help, they all died. Afterward, some of the men decided to start over. But not Wardlow: He knew he didn’t have enough time. The state canceled his April execution because of the pandemic but set a new one for July 8, 2020.

As the weeks crept along and the execution date remained firm, Wardlow and Ford realized they were trapped in a story line they were powerless to imagine their way out of. “You have this certain reality,” Ford told me. “Not only are they telling you that one of your best friends that you consider your brother is going to die on this particular day, but that you pretty much have nothing that you can do about it.”

In the spring of 2020, Wardlow decided to start one last game, a smaller, simpler campaign that he created for a few of his friends, involving a mythical city and a quest to save a magic sword. “I’m sure you’ve seen those Final Episodes of your favorite shows,” Wardlow wrote to me in his last letter on June 24, 2020, which he composed on his prison typewriter. “That’s what this is like. Although I hope this isn’t the Final Episode.” Two weeks later, the state executed him.

Wednesday, August 30, 2023

Have the Right and the Left Switched Places?

I just stumbled on this Ross Douthat piece from last year:

One of the master keys to understanding our era is seeing all the ways in which conservatives and progressives have traded attitudes and impulses. The populist right’s attitude toward American institutions has the flavor of the 1970s — skeptical, pessimistic, paranoid — while the mainstream, MSNBC-watching left has a strange new respect for the F.B.I. and C.I.A. The online right likes transgression for its own sake, while cultural progressivism dabbles in censorship and worries that the First Amendment goes too far. Trumpian conservatism flirts with postmodernism and channels Michel Foucault; its progressive rivals are institutionalist, moralistic, confident in official narratives and establishment credentials.

These reversals are especially evident in a pair of prominent headlines from the last week. If you had been told at any point from, say, 1970 to 2005 that a disturbed-seeming man living in the Bay Area with a history of involvement with nudist activists and the hemp jewelry trade had allegedly followed his paranoid political delusions into a plan to assault an important national politician, the reasonable assumption would have been that his delusions belonged to the farthest reaches of the left and therefore his target was probably some notable Republican.

Actually he is writing about the man who attacked Paul Pelosi while on a mission to assassinate his wife. That man, it seems, was once a cranky leftist, but somewhere along his crazy path he switched over to the cranky right. And it was on the right that the police account of the event was questioned and an alternative narrative about a "gay assassination" somehow took root and spread.

By the same token, if you had been told in George W. Bush’s presidency that a trove of government documents would reveal the Department of Homeland Security essentially trying to collude with major corporations to regulate speech it considers dangerous or subversive, an effort extending from foreign threats to domestic ones, you would have assumed that this was all Republican overreach, a new McCarthyism — and that progressives would be up in arms against it.
In fact those documents, published by The Intercept, revealed that the DHS was trying to censor content related to “the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic and the efficacy of Covid-19 vaccines, racial justice, U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and the nature of U.S. support to Ukraine.”

Some of this has to do with what were once leftist positions becoming official government policy, for example environmental causes. Fifty years ago solar power and electric cars were a fringe left-wing concerns, but now they are big business backed by big government. Attitudes toward the FBI have much to do with whom the FBI is targeting; leftists were angry when they spied on civil rights protesters but are very happy to see them chase neo-Nazis. 

The populist right – the people who support Trump, guns, coal mining, gas-guzzling trucks, exploding gender reveal parties, and rural life – feel that they are losing the long-term battle, and that turns them into a cranky opposition movement. Conservative Christians have lived through the era of gay rights.

But if would of course be wrong to take this too far. Leftists have no trouble opposing authority when they think it is being used to defend racism; it was leftists who burned down a police station in Portland a few years ago. We are still seeing a struggle for control of the government and its vast powers, and both sides regularly find themselves opposing the government on particular issues. Nor is it new for conservative populists to oppose the goverment, as they did during the busing blow-up of the 70s.

But I do have a sense that in America a basic instinct to trust authority – corporations, Wall Street, the Defense Department, the police – might have shifted from being a generally conservative thing to something much more situational and complex.

I appreciated Douthat's closing comment, that the Right
might benefit from recalling the thing that conservatives — or this conservative, at least — used to find most insufferable about the anti-establishment left, which was not its skepticism but its credulity, not the eagerness to question official narratives but the speed with which implausible alternatives took root. (If parts of Oliver Stone’s “J.F.K.” make you understand where conspiracy theories come from, the part where the conspiracy gets “explained” should make you a Nixon Republican.)

This is the key problem with the right today, whether the issue is the 2020 election or the Covid-vaccine debate or the attack on Paul Pelosi. Not the baseline of skepticism, not being attuned to weaknesses and inconsistencies in official narratives, not being open to scenarios of elite self-dealing and conspiracy and cover-up, all of which emphatically exist. It’s the swift replacement of skepticism with certainty, the shopping around for any narrative to vindicate your initial theory, the refusal to accept that even institutions you reasonably mistrust sometimes get things right.

Indian Boarding Schools and the Modern Tragedy

What is the purpose of elementary and high school education as we practice it in the US? I would say, to make children full members of our society, able to navigate its systems and support themselves within its economy. And this, I would say, has been the purpose of our educational system since at least the Civil War.

Many, many children have hated this, and many parents have hated seeing their children trained in a different way of speaking, acting and thinking than their own. That way, the Tao of the modern west, is the path of middle class discipline we have discussed here many times before: regulate your days by the clock, do your assigned tasks in a timely fasion, keep yourself and your home neat, brush your teeth, never act crazy in public. The central purpose of schooling, beyond reading and writing, is to shape children into this mold.

There is a vague notion on the left that we could have education that is not coercive in this way, that would somehow empower children and give them agency within our world without forcing them into a particular model of being and acting. I don't believe it. I think learning this way of life as self-discipline and self-esteem is the only way most people will ever thrive in our age.

Which brings me to Indian boarding schools. The first of these schools was opened in 1801, and some still exist, although most are now under the control of Indian nations. They have always been controversial, attacked as abusive and coercive from at least the 1840s, well before the great wave of schools opened after 1880. They always saw their goal as "civilizing" Indians, that is, inculcating the habits of middle class western life. These schools loved before and after pictures like the ones included in the poster at the top, and they don't show their students learning to read; they show them changed from wild Indian children into properly behaved scions of the middle class. There is of course a racial angle to this; most of the Indians sent to these schools saw these as White ways, and some of their teachers seem to have hated Indians. But the people who ran these schools would have been just as happy to print photographs showing the transformation of poor white kids from Appalachia or formerly enslaved blacks into well-dressed young gentlemen and ladies. They were aiming at a certain sort of person, of whatever race.

How were children treated in these schools? I'm sure it varied enormously. A small, isolated boarding school seems like a good way to empower sadists to work their way on vulnerable victims. But then education was abusive and regimented for everybody in those days; it was a rare student who got a high school degree without a litany of beatings and other punishments. Right now there is a lot of attention focused on the graveyards of those schools, but they weren't killing students on purpose; students died because lots of children died everywhere in those days, and because children who grew up in low-density rural environments still had a lot of infectious diseases to be exposed to. Quite likely the problem was made worse at some schools by poor diets, frequent beatings or other harsh punishments, etc. But the cause of death was almost always disease.

Some Indians who were sent to these schools complained about the hard work, that is, raising their own food, sewing their own clothes, cleaning the buildings, and so on. But the "industrial school" model was common all over the world back then, and millions of students of every ethnicity found themselves learning new skills by having to make their own clothes, raise and cook their own food, and so on. Again, I am sure that at some schools sadistic schoolmasters made this a lot worse than it had to be, but there was nothing racist about the model.

There is also a lot of complaint about the ways children were forced into these schools; in a few cases parents were jailed until they signed papers handing over all parental responsibility to the schools. It is easy to forget, though, that education is mandatory for every American child; this is a massive coercion of ourselves, not something we just do to Indians. Plus, not all Indians opposed it; as I mentioned a while back, when some of the Osage got rich off oil money they sent their kids to expensive boarding schools in the East. It seemed to many Indians at the time that however much their children hated these schools they were the only way forward for their people.

The more serious charge against the schools, to my mind, is cultural genocide. Because this was, quite explicitly, their mission: "kill the Indian and free the man," as one advocate put it. Most of the schools insisted that their students speak English all the time, and some of them beat anyone who lapsed into Lakota. They forced all the students to practice Christianity and forbade native rites as "devil worship." Their goal, quite explicitly, was to replace Native culture with the culture of middle class Christian Americans.

How should we feel about that?

Consider, for a moment, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, a full member of the Laguna Pueblo and the first Native American to hold her job. She has made it part of her mission to focus attention on the Indian boarding schools. NY Times:

In an effort to lift the veil on abuses within the system, Secretary Haaland has been traveling around the country for more than a year, conducting listening sessions with Indigenous communities still dealing with the fallout from the boarding school system. In the Senate, a bill has been introduced to establish a truth and healing commission to address the legacy of Native boarding schools, similar to one undertaken by the Canadian government in 2007.

“Federal Indian boarding school policies have impacted every Indigenous person I know,” Ms. Haaland said in a statement. “Some are survivors, some are descendants, but we all carry this painful legacy in our hearts and the trauma that these policies and these places have inflicted.” 

But I have a feeling that all those Methodist and Catholic school teachers who went out to Indian Country would be very proud of Deb Haaland. This was exactly their goal: to raise Indians who would thrive so well within American society that they would one day be cabinet secretaries. And Senators, generals, Congressmen, CEOs, engineers, tenured professors, and all the other nice job slots nobody can get without a full commitment to the middle class Tao.

The Indian boarding school system did what it was intended to do: radically accelerate the assimilation of Native Americans into the Amercan mainstream, so that they could compete and succeed within this system. 

Of course, this was a horrific blow to Native cultures. Many were destroyed, and those that survived were weakened. Much has been lost: languages, faiths, stories, ways of standing and walking and feeling.

Even more important, to my mind, is the psychological harm this did to generations of Native children, who ended up feeling neither one thing nor the other, no longer fully Indian but also never feeling really at home in the broader American world. I follow several Indian writers, and this is a huge point of emphasis for all of them. Paul Chaat Smith:

I felt persecuted by history, tortured by fate. I wanted it all to be one thing or the other. I hated being half-white and half-Indian. . . . The truth is that I longed to be a stereotype. Mainly I wanted to be the full-blooded Comanche, secure in his own Comancheness, raised on the stories of his people. (Somehow the full-blooded Comanches whom I had known my whole life, who had never moved away from southwest Oklahoma, who almost always married other Comanches, would not suffice. They were Christians and not traditional enough. I think over the next rise I imagined more suitable Comanches.)

But, confused as he is, Paul Chaat Smith has a nice job as a curator of Native art at the Museum of the American Indian. Would it really have better for him to have been born fully Comanche and raised on the plains? Who knows?

The Indian boarding schools certainly represent a tragedy. They represent the tragedy that unfolded when Native American cultures encountered the vastly richer and more powerful cultures of Europe and experienced a massive die-off, ten or fifteen Holocausts, from diseases to which they had no resistance. Once that encounter had taken place, I do not think there was a good path into modernity for Indians. They could either have remained outside western civilization, living in a violent, Neolithic world, or they could join and endure double consciousness and outsider, minority status. Taking on this transformation voluntarily did not necessarily make it easy; consider what happened to Japan.

I see modernity as a gigantic machine that has ground up the whole world and spit it out in a different form, like one of those road-building machines that chews up the old, bumpy road surface and simultaneously lays down new, smooth blacktop behind. There is a sense in which the new road is better: smoother, safer, faster. And there are powerful ways in which modernity has made our lives better: we live longer, healthier lives, have greater material comfort, have great freedom to choose where we work and live and whom to have as our friends. We can learn far more about the world than anyone ever could before. We can watch spaceships and astronauts soar into the heavens and imagine living on other worlds. But there are also great costs. The symbols of those costs are all the traditional cultures that have been ground up and spit out by the modern machine, from Scottish Highlanders to Korean rice farmers, Norwegian fisherman to Kazakh herders, Algonquin farmers to Comanche buffalo hunters. Many people raised entirely within this world feel great anguish about the losses: of community, continuity, certainty, religious faith. Many born outside it, or with one foot in this culture and one in another, are bewildered and torn, wanting some kind of truth and healing commission to find out what happened to them and their world.

What happened to them is what has not happened to almost everyone in the world. We have all been caught up in the machine of modernity and ground into nicely rounded pieces that fit smoothly into the racing engine of an ever-accelerating history. School is at the heart of how this happens, for everyone. Whether the process is worth it is a very deep and hard question.

Monday, August 28, 2023

Arkaim, the Sintashta Culture, and the Time of the Vedas

The oldest Indian Vedas and the Persian Avesta describe a past society of violent, horse-taming, chariot-riding cattle herders. These people were ruled by chiefs and councils; they were divided into four castes; they worshipped gods recognizably like those of other ancient Indo-European peoples and shared a creation myth and many other stories with their kinsmen. Outside of India, archaeologists, linguists, and mythographers all agree that this society arose on the Eurasian steppe. From there, branches of these people later migrated into India and Iran, bringing with them Indo-European languages. The details of this process are very much disputed, and in the Indian case the Vedas seem to describe the society gradually becoming more settled and agricultural, which presumably happened somewhere south of the steppes and possibly within India.

Where, then, is the archaeological evidence for this imagined Indo-Iranian steppes culture? Scattered all across the steppes, actually, but possibly concentrated in one particular place: at the south end of the Ural Mountains, around the border of Russia and Kazakhstan. Here there is a cluster of a dozen or more Bronze Age settlements dubbed the Land of Towns, the seat of what is called the Sintashta Culture. This culture dates to around 2200 to 1900 BC.

The Sintashta culture is a nearly perfect match for what the Vedas and the Avesta describe. In particular, its leaders were buried with chariots, the oldest two-horse chariots in the world.

Genetically, the people of the Sintashta culture are identical to those of the Corded Ware culture of central and eastern Europe, so a mix of Yamnaya (the likely origin point of Indo Europeans) with European farmers. Which is a little weird; you have to imagine people from the Ukrainian steppes migrating west into Europe, mixing with local farmers, then sending an offshoot east back out onto the steppes where they formed the Sintashta culture. But the genetic evidence is very clear here; Sintashta men are completely identical to the men of Corded Ware Europe. 

The most important sites of the Sintashta culture are Sintashta (no surprise) and Arkaim. It is Arkaim that fascinates me, because of its remarkable structure. Most, at least, of the Sintashta towns were round, but only at Arkaim have the details of the structure been exposed by archaeologists.

Most internet sites say the site was discovered in 1987, but the web site of the Russian institute that actually found it says 1968. Whenever it was found, it seems that not much was done at the site until 1987 when the Soviet Ministry of Water Resources decided to build a dam and flood it. The archaeologists were given a year to extract what they could from the site. They quickly discovered that the time and budget they were alloted were nowhere near enough to properly investigate the site and launched a campaign to either delay the dam or cancel it outright. Fortunately for the archaeologists, late Soviet chaos meant that the Ministry of Water Resources never got their act together to begin construction until the Soviet Union collapsed and the Ministry disappeared. 

Reconstructions of the site. Description, from wikipedia:

The settlement covered approximately 20,000 square metres (220,000 square feet). The diameter of the enclosing wall was about 160 metres (520 feet), and its thickness was of 4 to 5 metres (13 to 16 feet). The height was 5.5 metres (18.04 feet). The settlement was surrounded with a 2-metre (6-foot-7-inch)-deep moat. There were four gates, the main was the western one. 

Reconstruction of one of the houses, in the Arkaim Museum; every house had a hearth for smelting metals. One of the many (to my knowledge) unique things about the site. These houses were pretty big:

The dwellings were between 110 and 180 square metres (1,200 and 1,900 square feet) in area. The dwellings of the outer ring were thirty-nine or forty, with doors opening towards the circular street. The dwellings of the inner ring numbered twenty-seven, arranged along the inner wall, with doors opening towards the central square, which was about 25 by 27 metres (82 by 89 feet) in area.

The excavators thought about 2500 people lived at the site, which would mean 35 to 40 in each dwelling.

Everything about this site is weird: the shape of the settlement and the houses, the size of the dwellings, the ubiquitous smelters, the absence of any particularly large residence for a chief or king. One way the site fits the world of the Vedas is that there is no temple, since the Vedas say much about priests but nothing about temples. Sacrifices were very important in Vedic religion, but most were performed outdoors or in temporary shelters built for the occasion. 

Unfortunately there aren't many pictures of artifacts from the site online. I did find these pots, which look very European

What an amazing place, and how wonderful that this land may have been the place Indians and Persians remembered for thousands of years as their home.

Iris Murdoch on Simone Weil

Simone Weil, the French mystic and anarchist who starved herself to death in 1943, retains a powerful hold on the imaginations of many intellectuals. It was Albert Camus who arranged the publication of her posthumous works, just after the war, and according to wikipedia she has been the subject of more than 2,500 scholarly publications since 1995.

Part of the fascination stems from her purity of purpose: indifferent to money, power, fame, comfort, and, in the end, even survival, she gives us a glimpse of what a life without ego might mean. She called this "decreation," and meant exactly the opposite of what God did when he made the universe. Susan Sontag wrote of her,

No one who loves life would wish to imitate her dedication to martyrdom nor would wish it for his children nor for anyone else whom he loves. But insofar as we love seriousness, as well as life, we are moved by it, nourished by it.

That, I think, is at the root of the fascination with Weil: she went where spiritually-minded intellectuals feel their thought trending, but dare not go themselves. 

Another intellectual obsessed with Weil was Iris Murdoch, who wrote a series of essays about Weil in the 1950s. Robert Zaretsky:

Any ethics worth its salt, Murdoch contended, must be founded on seeing the world as it really is. This is no easy task for a simple reason: what Murdoch called our “fat, lazy ego”—the Weilian “I”—is always in the way. The great obstacle to knowing, and thus acting on the Good, Murdoch declared, is “personal fantasy: the tissue of self-aggrandizing and consoling wishes and dreams which prevents one from seeing what there is outside one.” When I see the world as it is, not as I wish it to be, I lose sight of my own self and win insight into others.

Citing Weil, Murdoch insisted that morality is nothing more, and nothing less, “than a matter of attention.” This ideal required what Murdoch called “unselfing,” a prerequisite to turning fully to others while leaving oneself behind. To wait, patiently and fully, for the world and others to reveal themselves. The consequences, for both Weil and Murdoch, are so obvious yet so startling; when we transform how we see the world, we also transform how we relate to the world and those who inhabit it. To paraphrase John Kennedy’s famous phrase, it is not what the world can do for us, but instead what we can do for the world. The first step is to make my own self smaller. It is a relationship in which the other is always the focus. “The more the separateness and differentness of other people is realized, and the fact seen that another man has needs and wishes as demanding as one’s own, the harder it becomes to treat a person as a thing.”

Like Sontag, Murdoch was incapable of devoting her life to the martyrdom embraced by Weil. But also like Sontag, Murdoch grasped the reasons why that life holds our attention. As she wrote in an early review of the English translation of Weil’s notebooks, Murdoch affirmed that “to read her is to be reminded of a standard.” On the anniversary of Weil’s death, it is a reminder well worth recalling.

Sunday, August 27, 2023

Aging Dictators

In the NY Times, Michael Backley argues that aging dictators are dangerous, so we should worry what Putin and Xi will do now that both are over 70:

Aging dictators have less time to reshape the world — and more memories of being obeyed at home and dissed abroad for their conduct. They become increasingly repressive and aggressive as power goes to their heads. Surrounded by sycophants, they make disastrous decisions again and again. They start pondering their legacies and wondering why they haven’t received the global respect they think they deserve or achieved the glory that would etch their names among history’s greats. They may decide that they don’t want to go down as a merely transitional figure. It’s a combustible combination: an autocrat who is overconfident and aggrieved and in a hurry. 

He offers Stalin's late purges, Mao's Cultural Revolution, and Kim Il-sung's sabre rattling as examples. That seems like too small a sample to me. Any others? I guess Ceaușescu was also pretty weird, but only to other Romanians. And I know there are stories about the bizarre surroundings of aging meglomaniacs, but that's not the same as threatening the world.

Saturday, August 26, 2023


Fascinating New Yorker story by David Owen about product returns:

Steady growth in Internet shopping has been accompanied by steady growth in returns of all kinds. A forest’s worth of artificial Christmas trees goes back every January. Bags of green plastic Easter grass go back every spring. Returns of large-screen TVs surge immediately following the Super Bowl. People who buy portable generators during weather emergencies use them until the emergencies have ended, and then those go back, too. A friend of mine returned so many digital books to Audible that the company now makes her call or e-mail if she wants to return another. People who’ve been invited to fancy parties sometimes buy expensive outfits or accessories, then return them the next day, caviar stains and all—a practice known as “wardrobing.” Brick-and-mortar shoppers also return purchases. “Petco takes back dead fish,” Demer said. “Home Depot and Lowe’s let you return dead plants, for a year. You just have to be shameless enough to stand in line with the thing you killed.” It almost goes without saying that Americans are the world’s leading refund seekers; consumers in Japan seldom return anything.

Earlier this year, I attended a three-day conference, in Las Vegas, conducted by the Reverse Logistics Association, a trade group whose members deal in various ways with product returns, unsold inventories, and other capitalist jetsam. The field is large and growing. Dale Rogers, a business professor at Arizona State, gave a joint presentation with his son Zachary, a business professor at Colorado State, during which they said that winter-holiday returns in the United States are now worth more than three hundred billion dollars a year. Zachary said, “So one and a half per cent of U.S. G.D.P.—which would be bigger than the G.D.P. of many countries around the world—is just the stuff that people got for Christmas and said, ‘Nah, do they have blue?’ ” The annual retail value of returned goods in the U.S. is said to be approaching a trillion dollars.
What happens to returned stuff? Well, hardly any of it ends up resold as new. Much of it simply gets shredded and recycled or landfilled. But quite a lot gets bought for 15 cents on the dollar or less by companies that specialize in extracting value from it. Some ends up at discount retailers or outlet stores. Owen spent some time with a company that repairs items returned because of minor damage, or because the customer didn't understand how to use it – this includes vacuum cleaners returned because the customer apparently didn't know they had to be emptied. Lots of robotic vacuum cleaners are returned because people can't get the wi-fi connection to work. Some pressure washers are returned because the purchasers turned them on without hooking up a hose, which quickly burns out the motor. Owen asks why the manufacturer doesn't install a shut-off, but is told it probably wouldn't be worth it financially.

And so it goes.

But at least companies like the one Owen visited to repair and resell some items. Some they even improve; for example, many printers are sold with only wi-fi connections that the purchasers can't make work, so this company installs an ethernet plug before they resell. 

And this:

The rise of online shopping has been very good for people who build immense, low, flat-roofed metal structures.

Friday, August 25, 2023

Art of the Dian Kingdom

Dian was a region in Yunnan, southwestern China, inhabited by a non-Han people. The Dian Kingdom, however, was founded in 279 BC by a Chin general who was sent to conquer the place, but, having conquered it, decided to keep it for himself. This state lasted until 109 BC, when it was absorbed by the Han Empire. The royal and noble tombs of that dynasty have yielded a wonderful array of bronze artifacts. Most of these are in the Yunnan Provincial Museum, which, to judge from the quality of most of the photographs online, is one of the world's most dismally lit museums. But we make do. I especially love the animals that adorn many of these objects.

These containers were full of cowrie shells, which served as money in that part of the world.

Some of these cowrie containers had lids with amazing scenes of human figures. Above, a battle.

Cloth workers under the eye of an official.

The museum signage says this is a scene of human sacrifice, but I don't really see it.

Jade suit of one of the Dian rulers, and his sword.

More animals. The thing at the top of this group is a head rest for a corpse, which wikipedia translates as "pillow."

Who says replacing human servants with robots is a new idea?

A ceremonial spear with two dangling captives.

Some of the small bronze figures in these compositions are delightful.

Jewelry. You can see what I mean about the light.

Sorry, no idea.

And more amazing bulls. I knew nothing about any of this until yesterday. Between this discovery and taking my youngest daughter off to start college, this has been a good week.

Pushing Back Against Trauma Culture

I'm seeing a more concerted effort lately to push back against the culture of "trauma," that 1) sees all our problems as the result of terrible things that happened to us in the past and 2) sets an extremely high value on protecting traumatized people from anything that might trigger bad memories. We've all read stories in this vein, like the "safe space" set up at Brown in 2015 where students upset over an on-campus debate about "rape culture" could color and watch puppy videos.

The pushback is coming from some psychologists, who think talking about trauma and safety is terrible psychological practice and also not supported by much in the way of data; from critics who are sick of "trauma plots" in books and film; from university administrators like the ones at Cornell who recently shot down student resolution calling for trigger warnings, and from social and political commentors who think this is ridiculous and want everyone to grow up. 

Which is not to say that there is no such thing as trauma, or that some people haven't been traumatized. The complaint is, basically, ENOUGH ALREADY. We have more discourse about trauma than ever before, with no evidence that we have more trauma and some evidence that we have less. If the point of talking about trauma is to improve mental health, it seems to be failing specatularly.

It's hard to talk about, though, because if you say "we're just inventing trauma so we have a way to excuse our own failings" to someone you don't know very well, the comeback may be, "Well, I was raped repeatedly by my stepfather and when I told my priest he raped me, too." (An actual story from the Boston Catholic abuse blow-up.) Maybe you think, "well, the issue is that a lot of people who weren't really traumatized are claiming the label for their own self-aggrandizement and we need to distinguish them from the truly traumatized." But who decides who has "really" suffered trauma? One thing I have learned in life is that experiences some people can just wave off feel horrific to others. What is trauma to one person is a crappy day to another.

I often think that maybe telling people "Oh my god something terrible happened to you and you're going to be scarred for life!!!" is not the best way to help them get past it. I read a few years ago about a Danish study that found people visited after a disaster by "crisis counselors" did worse than those who were ignored. On they other hand I know at least two people who had bad experiences and did get past them by taking them very seriously and confronting them head on; neither uses the language of "trauma" but then both are from an older generation.

But I will say this: the goal should always be, not to indulge weakness, but to cultivate strength; not to think the world should be made perfect, but to gain the resiliency you need to survive in an imperfect world.

One of the standard anti-trauma arguments goes like this Vox piece:

“Trauma” in its current usage has created a tidy framework within which to understand our lives and roles. The word evokes a narrative in which one is stripped of agency: An event happens to us, an aggressor attacks us, we are born into generations of suffering. In this telling, we are powerless. Our minds protect us, or our memories get stuck, or our behavior changes — and it’s beyond our control.

“The trauma narrative became a very easy one to adopt, even for the people who didn’t have what we would call a lot of trauma,” Whitlock says. “It has currency, so people broker in it.”

Whitlock began hearing trauma used to describe more universal, upsetting experiences about 15 years ago, as she was conducting interviews for a self-injury study among youth. It was the heyday of Myspace and LiveJournal, when “for one of the first times, we went all in online,” she recalls. “People were sharing their lives, candidly.” That included posting about mental health and personal struggles. “One of my participants talked specifically about how she perceived a hierarchy of trauma,” Whitlock says. “There was a sense of, the worse your trauma is, the more justified your mental health challenges.”

Which I rush to say is nothing new; consider this, from John Steinbeck's East of Eden:

Do you take pride in your hurt? Does it make you seem large and tragic? Well, think about it. Maybe you’re playing a part on a stage with only yourself as audience.

Here is Jill Filipovic at The Atlantic:

My own doubts about all of this came, ironically, from reporting on trauma. I’ve interviewed women around the world about the worst things human beings do to one another. I started to notice a concerning dissonance between what researchers understand about trauma and resilience, and the ways in which the concepts were being wielded in progressive institutions. And I began to question my own role in all of it.

Feminist writers were trying to make our little corner of the internet a gentler place, while also giving appropriate recognition to appallingly common female experiences that had been pushed into the shadows. To some extent, those efforts worked. But as the mental health of adolescent girls and college students crumbles, and as activist organizations, including feminist ones, find themselves repeatedly embroiled in internecine debates over power and language, a question nags: In giving greater weight to claims of individual hurt and victimization, have we inadvertently raised a generation that has fewer tools to manage hardship and transform adversity into agency? . . .

“I think it’s easier for them to artificially curate environments that are comfortable,” Shaili Jain, a physician and PTSD specialist, told me. “And I think that is backfiring. Because then when they’re in a situation where they’re not comfortable, it feels really alarming to them.”
We know a lot about how to treat phobia; in fact that may be the only psychological condition we are really good at treating. And the treatment involves, not avoiding the thing that scares you, but encountering it over and over (in a safe setting) until you get used to it. So if, say, you have been raped and even the word "raped" upsets you, it may be that instead of trying to get your law school professors to never talk about rape (a real thing that has happened more than once) you should use safe spaces like the criminal law classroom to help you get past being upset at the very word.

Anyway this brings me to David Brooks, whose recent NY Times piece is instructive, as Brooks often is, by expressing a thoroughly conventional sentiment among moderately conservative people like him. He begins by saying that whatever we are doing seems to be the wrong thing, since our mental health is worse – "an epidemic of hopelessness and despair among the young" – and our politics seems to be more and more about people on both sides getting upset with each other. And why might that be?

If I were asked to trace the decline of the American psyche, I suppose I would go to a set of cultural changes that started directly after World War II and built over the next few decades, when writers as diverse as Philip Rieff, Christopher Lasch and Tom Wolfe noticed the emergence of what came to be known as the therapeutic culture.

In earlier cultural epochs, many people derived their self-worth from their relationship with God, or from their ability to be a winner in the commercial marketplace. But in a therapeutic culture people’s sense of self-worth depends on their subjective feelings about themselves. Do I feel good about myself? Do I like me?

From the start, many writers noticed that this ethos often turned people into fragile narcissists. It cut them off from moral traditions and the normal sources of meaning and identity. It pushed them in on themselves, made them self-absorbed, craving public affirmation so they could feel good about themselves. As Lasch wrote in his 1979 book, The Culture of Narcissism, such people are plagued by an insecurity that can be “overcome only by seeing his ‘grandiose self’ reflected in the attentions of others.”

Citing The Culture of Narcissism is always a bad sign, since that book deals mainly with how the 1970s were the worst decade in human history because everybody pissed off Christopher Lasch so much. But I only discovered this when I went and read Christopher Lasch after seeing him cited all over the place by people wondering why everyone around them seems to have gone insane. Brooks then moves on to trauma:

This was accompanied by what you might call the elephantiasis of trauma. Once, the word “trauma” referred to brutal physical wounding one might endure in war or through abuse. But usage of the word spread so that it was applied across a range of upsetting experiences. . . .

For many people, trauma became their source of identity. People began defining themselves by the way they had been hurt.

Brooks thinks a lot of our problems can be traced to thee errors that psychologists into cognitive behavioral therapy often cite:

The first was the notion that “what doesn’t kill you makes you weaker,” inducing people to look at the wounds in their past and feel debilitated, not stronger.

The second false idea was, “I am a thing to whom things happen.” The traumatized person is cast as a passive victim unable to control his own life. He is defined by suffering and lack of agency.

The third bad idea is, “If I keep you safe, you will be strong.” But overprotective parenting and overprotective school administration don’t produce more resilient children; they produce less resilient ones.
Here is Parul Seghal:
Never mind pesky findings that the vast majority of people recover well from traumatic events and that post-traumatic growth is far more common than post-traumatic stress. 
Which gets us to the theory that, often unexpressed, underlies a lot of the trauma pushback: taking risks is good for you, even when you get hurt. A life lived to avoid harm leads only to weakness. In the long run what we need is not to avoid danger, but to become strong enough to overcome it, and hiding from it will never get you there.

As a general theory, this has much to recommend it. A child who didn't play rough enough to get skinned knees missed out on a lot, and if you've never been hurt by other people that can only be because you've never gotten close to them. The oldest idea in education is probably that young people have to struggle, suffer and fail in order to really learn and grow.

Against it one could look at the evidence from soldiers in war, who have been studied intensively since WW I. We know that combat veterans can acquire a lot of toughness, and some serve through long wars without being much troubled; the very toughest can endure the unimaginable for extended periods. I used to know a former combat medic who loved taking care of men with horrible wounds – "you just have to shut out the screaming" was one thing I heard him say more than once – and he didn't seem particular ruined by it. On the other hand, many people are haunted by combat for the rest of their lives. Long-term studies of American WW II vets, who had about the best experience one can have of a terrible war, show that the more combat men saw, the more likely they were to become alcoholics or have other mental problems. Most were fine so far as anyone could tell, but the impact of combat is pretty much a straight linear effect: any amount, even a skirmish, even entering the war zone, raised their chance of mental illness by a small amount. Which was all by way of saying that there is no general level of trouble that will make everyone tougher without ruining some.

Like all of these critics, I am skeptical of people who post TikToks about their trauma, which I can't believe is helping us, or them. I am sick of a politics that seems to be as about who is being mean or scornful to whom more than any problem the government might actually be able to fix. If the old joke was, "Stop oppressing me!" now we have "Stop causing me harm!"

But I also believe trauma is a real thing.

If I had to sketch a model right now, it would be that both trauma and excessive concern about trauma are harmful, in differing degrees to different people. The goal should be to find a balance, neither over-indulging whiners nor ignoring preventable brutality; treading softly around victims without encouraging them to define themselves by their suffering. 

That is a hard enough thing to do within one's own mind, and, I suspect, all but impossible for a contentious public culture like ours. But we should still try.

Links 25 August 2023

Fujita Fumio

Via Tyler Cowen, what a strip mall developer does when he visits a community where his company wants to invest; he calls this a "US suburban vacation." Sounds interesting, actually, if you don't mind talking to strangers.

Many US states have horribly boring flags, but changing them is hard. Utah recently went to a much more distinctive design, only to be met with a loud and angry "restore our historic flag" movement, complete with accusations that the new design (approved by the Utah legislature) is "woke." (NY Times). We in Maryland love our flag, which may be ugly but is immediately distinctive at any scale and can be used for everything from gym shorts to stained glass.

Thousands of female octopi brooding their eggs by hydrothermal vents off the California coast: 4-minute video, NY Times story.

NY Times piece arguing that while many organizations have modified their written job requirements to say that a college degree is not necessary, people with degrees still have a huge advantage in actually getting a job.

Early plantation slavery on Sao Tome.

At the NY Times, more on not being able to understand the dialogue on TV, says a majority of young Americans watch with the subtitles on. This author suggests separate speakers as a partial fix, because those in flat-screen TVs are lousy.

Three-faced statue of Hecate found in Turkey. The tripling of goddesses (three Fates, nine Muses) is one of those weird, very ancient things that nobody understands, although Dumézil tried to relate it to Indo-European grammar. Plato did write that "Klotho sings of the past, Lachesis of the present, and Atropos of the future." But that could equally be a rationalization imposed on an idea whose origin had long been forgotten, and anyway the Fates are far from the only triple goddesses.

Tweet about the "ice city" Austrian soliders carved out insde the Marmolada glacier during WW I. And a web page about it.

What happens to scientists who fail their Ph.D. exams or thesis defense?

A debate in Japan over a book arguing that the nation's shrinking population provides an opportunity to rethink the economic system and focus on something other than growth. (NY Times) The author thinks that since more growth is unnecessary we should focus on health and leisure. He calls this "Marxist" but when you leave out, you know, class struggle, I'm not sure what you have left is Marxism.

The slave bedroom at Civita Giuliana in Pompeii has been reconstructed.

Four of five Emperor penguin colonies in Antarctica failed to breed this year, probably because the nests were drowned in melting sea ice. If the southern oceans stay this warm for a few more years these penguins will be in big trouble.

Long, weird Scott Siskind essay comparing the troubles AI programmers have controlling their AIs to the trouble evolution has keeping human sexuality focused on reproduction.

The history of smallpox and its complete elimination by vaccines, which were angrily opposed at many points along the way. Includes what may be the first modern trial of a medical technique, in 1725, which found that innoculated patients were about one tenth as likely to die as those who caught smallpox naturally.

The crass nepotism and shady characters responsible for the US military's "official" investigation of UFO phenomena. On Harry Reid: why do successful politicians often turn out to be such weirdos?

Ukraine Links

Some Ukrainian soldiers say the biggest threat they face is kamikaze drones, especially the Lancet, and Thomas Theiner says no NATO army has a solution to this problem, either.

Casualty estimates from unnamed "US officials" on August 17. Russia: 120,000 dead, 170,000 to 180,000 wounded. (Meaning seriously wounded.) Ukraine: 70,000 dead, 100,000 to 120,000 wounded. NY Times.

The most popular video game among Ukrainian soldiers at the front is World of Tanks (NY Times).

The Oryx count now has 503 Russian self-propelled artillery pieces visually confirmed as lost. Along with 2260 tanks, 4200 other armored vehicles, 280 towed artillery, 256 multiple rocket launchers, 150 SAM systems, 43 radars, 51 electronice warfare stations, 86 jet aircraft, 103 helicopters, and 2780 trucks. These staggering losses explain why Russia is now on the defensive, slowly losing ground.

When Yevgeny Prigozhin was assassinated, Zelensky's chief of staff tweeted out AC/DC's "Highway to Hell." And a Wagner euology: "Even in hell, he will be the best."

About Prigozhin: I thought that he was a monstrous person who deserved his fate if anyone did, but his career as a weapon used by Putin and then thrown away is another sign that Russia is in a very, very bad place, with no obvious path toward betterment.

On the night of August 24-25, Ukraine seems to have attacked Crimea and Russia with many more drones and missiles than Russia used to attack Ukraine. A shift in the winds?

Russian security forces desecrate graves in Wagner's cemetery. I don't expect any kind of effective Wagner revolt but I suspect this will be another blow to overall Russian morale, since many Russian soldiers and officers admired Prigozhin more than the army leadership.

There's a new wave of mobilization in Russia, including recent immigrants.

The Dutch attitudes I mentioned before: 

July 2014: Russian forces shoot down MH17 above eastern Ukraine. All 298 onboard, including 196 Dutch citizens, are killed.
August 2023: the Netherlands officially announces that we will deliver 42 F-16s to Ukraine.
We did not forget about MH17.

Wednesday, August 23, 2023

Left-Wing Organizations Confront Anarchy

Several years ago I read an interesting article about Transition House, one of America's first shelters for abused women. One thing that  drew my attention was its organizational history:

From the beginning they had allowed everyone to participate in decision making, and they tried to erase any distinction between women being helped and women helping. Everything had to be done by consensus, which meant that some things were never done. Now they have a formal board and an executive director with a corner office, and the transition happened after intellectuals within the movement began to criticize consensus meetings on a theoretical plane, pointing out that some voices were always louder and more powerful than others, and that bullies could use the very lack of structure to wear others down and get their way.

Just today I stumbled on an essay from 1971 that must have come out of experiences just like the ones at Transition House, "The Tyranny of Structurelessness" by Jo Freeman. 

During the years in which the women's liberation movement has been taking shape, a great emphasis has been placed on what are called leaderless, structureless groups as the main -- if not sole -- organizational form of the movement. The source of this idea was a natural reaction against the over-structured society in which most of us found ourselves, and the inevitable control this gave others over our lives, and the continual elitism of the Left and similar groups among those who were supposedly fighting this overstructuredness. The idea of "structurelessness," however, has moved from a healthy counter to those tendencies to becoming a goddess in its own right.

Structureless groups worked fine, Freeman says, so long as their main purpose was consciousness raising, but they failed when they began to work for more concrete social and political change:

At this point they usually foundered because most groups were unwilling to change their structure when they changed their tasks. Women had thoroughly accepted the idea of "structurelessness" without realizing the limitations of its uses. People would try to use the "structureless" group and the informal conference for purposes for which they were unsuitable out of a blind belief that no other means could possibly be anything but oppressive. If the movement is to grow beyond these elementary stages of development, it will have to disabuse itself of some of its prejudices about organization and structure. There is nothing inherently bad about either of these. They can be and often are misused, but to reject them out of hand because they are misused is to deny ourselves the necessary tools to further development. We need to understand why "structurelessness" does not work.

Contrary to what we would like to believe, there is no such thing as a structureless group. Any group of people of whatever nature that comes together for any length of time for any purpose will inevitably structure itself in some fashion. The structure may be flexible; it may vary over time; it may evenly or unevenly distribute tasks, power and resources over the members of the group. But it will be formed regardless of the abilities, personalities, or intentions of the people involved. The very fact that we are individuals, with different talents, predispositions, and backgrounds makes this inevitable. Only if we refused to relate or interact on any basis whatsoever could we approximate structurelessness -- and that is not the nature of a human group. A "laissez faire" group is about as realistic as a "laissez faire" society; the idea becomes a smokescreen for the strong or the lucky to establish unquestioned hegemony over others. This hegemony can be so easily established because the idea of "structurelessness" does not prevent the formation of informal structures, only formal ones. Similarly "laissez faire" philosophy did not prevent the economically powerful from establishing control over wages, prices, and distribution of goods; it only prevented the government from doing so. Thus structurelessness becomes a way of masking power, and within the women's movement is usually most strongly advocated by those who are the most powerful (whether they are conscious of their power or not). As long as the structure of the group is informal, the rules of how decisions are made are known only to a few and awareness of power is limited to those who know the rules. Those who do not know the rules and are not chosen for initiation must remain in confusion, or suffer from paranoid delusions that something is happening of which they are not quite aware.

For everyone to have the opportunity to be involved in a given group and to participate in its activities the structure must be explicit, not implicit. 

One result of the lack of real organization, says Freeman, is an absence of leaders who can speak for the movement. This leads, not to the democratization of speech, but the media's raising certain celebrities (actresses, rock stars, publicity hounds) to the status of de facto spokespeople.

You may recall that over the past few years many left-wing groups have experienced angry staff revolts and other kinds of internal turmoil, laid out in a famous article by Ryan Grim. One of the most important responses to this uproar is a long, thoughtful article by Maurice Mitchell of the Working Families Party, which was published on a web site mainly used by professionals in left-wing organizations and given the dry title "Building Resilient Organizations." But in form it is a savage take-down of all the fallacies and errors committed by angry young leftists, such as identity as argument (as a queer black person, I say. . .), maximalism, and, the one that interests me the most, anti-leadership and anti-organization attitudes:

Pretending formal leadership doesn’t exist can obscure hierarchies and create centers of informal power. Formal leadership, when healthy, provides clarity and transparency, which leads to greater accountability. This in turn fosters more avenues for support to develop new leadership.

Mitchell places part of the blame for recent institutional turmoil on social media:

The profligate and unexamined use of social media has amplified this particular trend. These platforms—owned and controlled by megacorporations—reward us for our ability to articulate or reshare the sharpest, pithiest, pettiest, most polemic, or most engaging “content.” There is no premium on nuance, accuracy, and context. There is little room for low-ego information sharing or curious and grounded political education. These platforms are ideal for, and give immediate reward to, uninformed cherry-picking, self-aggrandizement, competition, and conflict.

We are learning the damaging lesson that the performance of profundity can supercharge our arguments and points of view while obscuring scrutiny or accountability.

Interviewed by Michelle Goldberg of the NY Times, Mitchell said: "On balance, I think social media has been bad for democracy." 

I am reminded me of the Marxist attacks on "bourgeois individualism." If people want to change the world, they have to work together, and nothing impedes that like everybody posting angry rants about their personal troubles and whining that their bosses are oppressing them.

The experience of very left-wing people points away from anarchism, radical equality, and ideologies forged in social media battlegrounds and back to formal institutions, hierarchies, bosses, Robert's Rules of Order. As John Locke said a long time ago, real freedom requires order, and order requires institutions strong enough to maintain it. Freedom isn't free.

Tuesday, August 22, 2023

Women and Cows

I believe I have already noted here somewhere that the most basic Celtic word for “beloved,” in the romantic sense, literally translates to “cattle.” Oh, my darling, my cattle. But I had no idea how deep this equation goes into the mythic past.

I was, for no particular reason, perusing a 1975 article by Bruce Lincoln on the ancient Indo-European myth of the original cattle theft. This concerns a hero whose most ancient name seems to be “Third” – Trita, Thraetaona – who battles a monster that is usually some kind of serpent and often has three heads. Lincoln:

One element is completely lacking in the Armenian version, and in my opinion it is a crucial one: the booty won in the encounter. Moreover, our Indian and Iranian sources leave some ambiguity on this point, for while the Indian story of Trita’s victory states that cattle were the plunder, the Iranian version tells how two women previously taken from Yima by Azi Dahaka were won back by Thraetaona. Given this set of facts, some scholars have been led to see both “cattle” and “women” as symbolic forms referring back to natural phenomena, specifically the storm or the seasonal freeing of the waters. The myth is taken as allegory, *Vrtaghna and *Trita being identified with the storm, *Aghi with the clouds, and the cows or women with the rain. While the myth may have taken on this allegorical coloring in some variants under the impact of later Indian speculative thought, it is doubtful that this is the original meaning. Rather, the alternation between cows and women can be explained in quite another fashion.

In order to appreciate this, it is instructive to look at the specific term used to describe the women won by Thraetaona, Avestan vanta. Bartholomae, following Darmesteter’s line of investigation, glosses this word as “die Geliebte, Frau.” [the beloved, the woman] But when one analyzes the word, it is clear that it is nothing more than the feminine form of a past passive participle of the verb *van-, “to wish for, desire,” as Bartholomae himself noted. Thus, in reality it means no more than “the female who is desired.” Such a term could surely apply to bovines as well as to humans under certain circumstances.

A similar term is Indo-Iranian *dhainu, one of the most frequent terms for “cow.” Yet, as Benveniste has show, the word means nothing more than “one who lactates, gives milk,” being derived from the verb “to give milk, nourish” (Skt. *dhai). As such, it may be used for the female of any species, Homo sapiens included, and in a very important verse from the Rg Veda (5.30.9) the parallel term dhena, usually rendered “cows,” is used to describe two women who have been captured by Dasa enemies.

As I commented recently, among grain farmers the beloved might be compared to a shock of barley, but among herders cows and women were equally plausible meanings for a word that might be best translated as “heart's desire.” The hero slew the dragon and attained his heart's desire, and we leave it up to you to imagine whether that was in the human or bovine form.