Tuesday, October 31, 2023

Predicting Anti-Semitism

Via Marginal Revolution, an interesting piece of social science on which factors predict anti-semitism in a sample of British voters. The authors found anti-Semitism to be most associated with: "ethnicity, support for totalitarian government, belief in malevolent global conspiracies, and anti-hierarchical aggression." 

By "ethnicity" they mean a belief that to be British you should be born in Britain, white, and Christian, which I would call "ethno-nationalism"; they say their sample doesn't include enough non-white people to draw any conclusions about them.

Interesting about how they measured support for totalitarian government:

Totalitarianism scale was designed in order to measure sympathy for a totalitarian style of government among activists of the extreme left and right, with regard to such matters as the treatment of political opponents; it does not ask respondents for their view of actual totalitarian regimes, but instead elicits respondents’ agreement or disagreement with statements which reflect the kinds of arguments used to justify totalitarian political systems without reference to any specific ideology, such as ‘To bring about great changes for the benefit of mankind often requires cruelty and even ruthlessness’.

More or less, their conclusion is that anti-Semitism is associated with a lack of trust in others, an angry attitude toward authority, and a belief that those in power mainly represent others and are out to get "us."

This finding adds nuance to ongoing debates about whether antisemitism is more prevalent on the political right or left, by suggesting that (at least in the UK) it is instead associated with a conspiracist view of the world, a desire to overturn the social order, and a preference for authoritarian forms of government—all of which may exist on the right, the left, and elsewhere.

Happy Halloween

Pendant with Death and a Monk, France, 17th c

Franz Sedlacek, Ghosts on a Tree, 1933

Elna Borch, Death and the Maiden, 1905

Magnapinna Squid, c. 6,000 feet below the surface

Dance Macabre, 16th-century manuscript

Memento Mori from Borneo

Franz van Stuck, Lucifer, 1890

Harmen Steenwijck, Vanitas Still-Life, 17th c.

Max Pirner, The End of All Things, 1887

Cadaver Tomb of Rene de Chalon, c. 1550

Costume idea: the most dangerous man in modern warfare, the drone controller

Tibetan Mask

Maya Funerary Urn, MFA Boston

And the scariest thing of all, S. Maria Novella, Florence.

Saturday, October 28, 2023

The Apocalypse

Seems topical. Above, an illustration to Beatus of Liebana's Commentary on the Apocalypse of St. Sever, from the "Morgan Beatus," ca. 960.

Dürer, the Four Horsemen, 1498

The Apocalypse Tapestry of Angers, c. 1375

Benjamin West, Death on a Pale Horse, 1796, detail

Laurent d'Orléans, Beast of the Apocalypse La Somme le Roi, Paris ca. 1295

Catya Shok, the Four Horsemen, contemporary

Dürer, The Opening of the Fifth and Sixth Seals

The Dragon and the Beast, from a copy of the Commentary on the Apocalypse of St. Sever made for the royal family of Castile in the 11th century.

Friday, October 27, 2023

Catherine Anne Devereux Edmondston Bewails the Confederacy's Collapse

Historians have often wondered why the Confederacy abandoned its bid for independence so readily after Robert E. Lee surrendered his army at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865. Catherine Anne Devereux Edmondston was a wealthy planter in Halifax County, North Carolina who wrote a detailed diary between 1860 and 1870. This is her entry for May 7, 1865:

What use is there in my writing this record? What profit, what pleasure, do I find in it? None! none! yet altho it is an actual pain to me I continue it from mere force of habit. We are crushed! subjugated! and I fear, O how I fear, conquered, & what is to me the saddest part, our people do not feel it as they ought — like men who have lost their Liberty. The cup has not to them the full bitterness which a once free people ought to find in the draught held to them by a Victor’s hand. They accept the situation tacitly, fold their hands, & say “resistance is vain,” “we have done all that men could do,” we are out numbered, over-run, & have not the where withal to set an army in the field. Their once high spirit, their stern resolve, seems dead within them! “The War is over” & that fact seems to console them. O My God, can the very spirit of Freedom die out thus & leave not a trace behind it? Are the lives laid down in its defence to be but as water spilled on the ground? Is the very memory of one dead to vanish from our minds? One would think so from the conduct of those around us. On Thursday, on our way out to Hascosea, we met crowds of people, almost the whole neighborhood it seemed to me, on their way to a Pic Nic at Hills Mill. The usual preparations for dancing had been made & there they spent the day feasting, dancing, fishing, & merry making in their old familiar way. It seems almost like dancing over their husband’s, brothers, & sons graves. Do they realize what they do, or are they stupefied by the calamity which has befallen them & say “let us eat & drink for tomorrow we die.” O my Country, my Country, I look forward to the future with bitter forebodings when I see your children thus forgetful of your and their own honour, of their own blood! 

So, yeah, many people at the time also found the complete collapse of southern resistance a little weird. 

My own thoughts on this topic are already recorded here somewhere: that the rebellion was undertaken in hot blood for reasons of honor as much as anything else, and once they had fought hard enough for honor to be served – as shown by the surrender of Lee, the most honorable man in the South – most of the Confederates abandoned the dream of independence and moved on to more important goals, such as maintaining white supremacy and limiting outside interference in how they ran their states.

Links 27 October 2023

Sea Monster Head, Roman Period, in the Getty

New paper published arguing that the collapse of the Alaskan crab fishery was caused by warming in the Bering Sea.

Australia's 26 million people declare war on its 24 million feral pigs.

The winner and some other nice photos from Nikon's photomicrography competition. See all the past winners here.

Polish authorities confiscate a long-rumored hoard of medieval jewelry dug up by looters, put it on display.

Drought along the Amazon reveals faces carved in stone.

Ben Pentreath explores the neoclassical wonders of Petworth House, with extra stops at the Weald & Downland Open Air Museum and the Queen's House at Greenwich.

Where did the thousands of human remains in the American Museum of Natural History come from, and how did they get to the museum?

Kevin Drum wonders why the authors of a major study showing that family income has a major effect on student test scores didn't at least consider the possibility that heredity is one of the causes.

Nobody cares about inequality during the summer.

Space junk burning up in the atmosphere "could change our planet's atmosphere in ways we still don't fully understand."

The mysterious orcas supposed to have hunted alongside humans in a mutually beneficial relationship.

Neolithic passage grave with 14 skeletons found in Orkney.

Forty-one states sue Meta because Facebook and Instagram are too popular with teens. Or at least that seems like the complaint to me. The attroney generals claim proof that social media is causing the decline in youth mental health but there is no such proof. That somebody else (parents?) ought to be involved seems to have been tossed aside. (Kevin Drum, Reuters, NPR)

UAW gets tentative agreement with Ford that includes 25% pay rise, 11% immediately. Still has to be put to the members for a vote. (Vox, Reuters) Notice that all the wild stuff the union mooted early on, like a 32-hour workweek, got dropped in the negotiations.

The surfboard-stealing otter of Santa Cruz has a baby pup. Maybe that will limit her delinquency.

This week's bizarre headline: Ancient Voyager Probes Plead for Death, NASA Says "No".

The German Left Party, the descendant of East Germany's Communist Party, has split in two between one group that is more like a standard European left-wing party and a dissident faction that accuses the others of going "woke" and no longer really advocating for workers; the rebels want to end immigration and stop supporting Ukraine. (NY Times) As elsewhere in the world a divide between populist nativism and elite cosmopolitanism is messing up old left/right thinking.

The Age of War: Russian Duma approves 68% increase in military spending.

Ukraine Links

First-hand account of the first days of Russia's assault on Avdiivka, beginning on September 30.

Ukrainian journalist reviews the Russian attack on Avdiivka as of October 22, includes list of the units involved.

Claim from a Russian source that 73 Russian soldiers were killed in a single missile attack on a Russian barracks in Donetsk.

Ukrainian reserve officer Tatarigami and his team analyze satellite imagery from the Avdiivka front, identify 109 Russian armored vehicles lost between October 10 and 20. Most are IFVs but there are also quite a few tanks. They say estimates that 200 Russian vehicles have been destroyed in this offensive are believable but 109 is all they can document with certainty.

Dara Massicot on Russia's Avdiivka offensive, which he says implies that 1) Gerasimov is in complete control of the Russian campaign, with nobody around who has the status to push back against his bad offensive ideas; 2) Russia has a lot more men than some give them credit for, along with a rising supply of artillery ammunition.

On October 26, Ukrainian journalist Butasov says Russian attacks toward Avdiivka from the south have been stopped but from the north they have advanced a kilometer and the situation is worsening for Ukraine. Russian losses are high but the Russian command seems determined to ignore that and keep feeding in men.

And now a "mine-clearing drone," metal detector attached to a drone that can be flown over the battlefield to detect mines.

Repurposing missiles: just a note that in this war both sides are rejiggering missiles to use them for different purposes than they were built for. Both sides have turned SAMs into surface-to-surface missilies, the Russians having a lot of success with old S-300s and Ukraine some with even older S-200s. Meanwhile NATO and Ukraine, running low on SAMs, are turning NATO's vast supply of air to air missiles into SAMs. This is something I did not anticipate and changes the calculations of missile supply; Russian may be low on Iskandrs and Kinzhals but they have a ton of S-300s, and NATO has a ton of old Sidewinders.

Thursday, October 26, 2023

Marc Andreessen for the Tough-Guy Techno-Right

I got interested in Marc Andreessen, big time tech guy and then tech investor, because I was sent a link to a piece he wrote back in July about  the mooted plan for an Elon Musk/Mark Zuckerberg mixed martial arts cage match. He says that his first reaction on hearing about it was, “I think that’s all great.” 

In explaining why he starts with how great MMA is in general, because it recreates the ancient Greek fighting contests of Pankration. This, people say, was both an athletic competition and part of the training for Spartan and Theban warriors. Ok, fine, I used to do karate, I have nothing against training in martial arts. But it would take a long time to unpack the historical blinders behind this sentence:
If it was good enough for Heracles and Theseus, it’s good enough for us.
Andreessen is particularly big on teaching MMA to children "as young as eight", because

The message to kids is not, this is how you beat people up. The message is, this is how you protect yourself – and as important, this is how you protect your family, your friends, your community. You use these combat skills in the service of others – you never start a fight, but when someone is threatening someone you love, or even an innocent bystander, this is how you end a fight.
And already you are getting a feel for why this article is wrong-headed. Because, on the whole, people trained in violence are not less violent than others; that is a fantasy promoted by various tough guys and would-be tough guys that is not born out by reality. To take only the first example that comes to mind, the Japanese military of the 1930s was obsessed with martial arts training as a path toward self-control, clear-headedness, and protection of loved ones, but that didn't stop the Rape of Nanking. Or for a second and more immediate example, Andrew Tate.

Swords have, as they say, two edges.

Andreessen goes on to argue that martial arts training will help protect us against two of our scourges, rising street crime and obesity, and that the ultimate result will be

self-respect – not the self-respect of armchair therapy and wishful thinking, but real self-respect, the earned realization that one is strong and useful and of merit, and of value. Skilled fighters carry themselves differently, and this is why. In our present time, where many young people are suffering from anxiety, depression, and what can only be described as anomie – again, from the Greek, ἀνομία, “lawlessness”, a collapse in the code of expected adult behavior – what could be better than a return to earned self-respect?
So the cure for the mental health woes of our children is more football and karate. Which is not an entirely absurd position, but perhaps a limited one.

Anyway I got curious about Andreessen's thinking, so I did a bit of googling. This took me to an essay about Andreessen by Ezra Klein (NY Times), which might be why I was sent that first link, and from there to a fascinating document called the Techno-Optimist Manifesto. Hey, great, I love manifestos. More people should write manifestos so we can tell what they think instead of having to work it out from random stuff they say. This one is a long series of bullet points and short paragraphs making the argument that (to adopt its style):
  • Technology got us from hunting and gathering to space travel;
  • So technology is great, and we should throw ourselves into pursuing it to the limit;
  • The people who make all the new technology are awesome and deserve to be really rich;
  • And the biggest threat to us is the wimpy cowards who fear the future and want to put limits on both technology and the people who make it.

He writes,

We believe technology is liberatory. Liberatory of human potential. Liberatory of the human soul, the human spirit. Expanding what it can mean to be free, to be fulfilled, to be alive.

And the way to get there is toughness: 

We believe in ambition, aggression, persistence, relentlessness — strength. We believe in merit and achievement. We believe in bravery, in courage.

But there are enemies! Not bad people, he write, but bad ideas:

Our enemy is the Precautionary Principle, which would have prevented virtually all progress since man first harnessed fire. The Precautionary Principle was invented to prevent the large-scale deployment of civilian nuclear power, perhaps the most catastrophic mistake in Western society in my lifetime. The Precautionary Principle continues to inflict enormous unnecessary suffering on our world today. It is deeply immoral, and we must jettison it with extreme prejudice.

Our enemy is deceleration, de-growth, depopulation – the nihilistic wish, so trendy among our elites, for fewer people, less energy, and more suffering and death.

Aha! I knew I would find it somewhere, the half-hidden wish to live forever. Sorry, Marc, you were born too early for that one.

This is a remarkable document because it is forceful, clear, and concise, so all credit to Andreessen for producing it. But let me put in a few words for the Precautionary Principle. Does Andreessen object to putting limits on lead in the air, or arsenic in drinking water? To the detente that helped wind down the Cold War? To preserving special places like Yosemite or Yellowstone from development? To testing new drugs before they are marketed to the masses?

The actual answer to those questions is going to be – because Andreeseen is, so far as I can tell, sane – that, yes, we have governments to set some limits but our current regime is too precautionary and we should be bolder and take more risks. And that might be true, in areas like our refusal to license drugs that have been sold in Europe for a generation. But it gets us away from clear principles about courage and progress and back into the messy ordinariness of everyday politics.

People with Andreessen's mindset raised hell about the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act for exactly these reasons, because they set restraint and caring about cute little animals above human progress. But, as I have written here many times, those laws did more than anything else to bring back America's older cities; they benefitted us much more than any other animal. They also helped us live longer, which seems to be one of Andreessen's main goals.

Andreessen is really unhappy that we did not build out nuclear power to the limit, but he has nothing to say about solar and wind power. Are those too wimpy for him? Not enough risk? To much involved with anti-growth pessimist weirdos? I wonder.

I am glad that there are people like Andreessen in the world, pushing technology forward and trying to get rich by making life more interesting. But when I write a manifesto it will be for the Middle Way, because too much bravery and ambition are just as bad for us as too little. In the manifesto Andreessen supplies a famous line from Richard Feynman, 

I would rather have questions that can't be answered than answers that can't be questioned.

Me, too, which is why I find the Techno-Optimist Manifesto to a starting point for discussion and not a reliable guide for what we ought to do most of the time.

The Maya Conjurors of Waka'

Waka´ is a mid-sized Classic Maya city in Guatemala that for the most part looks like all the other mid-sized Classic Maya cities. It reached its peak between 400 and 800 AD. It seems to have been destroyed by the armies of Tikal around 800, or at least its royal line was ended, which means no more dated monuments.

The most remarkable thing about Waka' is a small group of elite burials that date to the 600s AD. I had seen some pictures of these before but I did not understand the full wonder of them until I stumbled on a marvelous new article by David Freidel and colleagues called Classic Maya Mirror Conjurors of Waka'. These folks think that Waka' was a famous place for divination using pyrite mirrors and divining trays, and that the royal family in particular was heavily involved in divination. It has long been known that Mesoamerican shamans used mirrors in their divinatory practice, what was called in England "scrying"; in fact Elizabethan magus John Dee had an Aztec obsidian mirror. Diviners too poor to afford obsidian or pyrite used shallow bowls of water. Above is the back of an "iron ore mosaic mirror" from Waka; notice that it depicts, among other things, the stinger of the divine centipede. (Just wait, it gets a lot weirder than that.)

The most famous burial is probably that of queen regnant Lady K'abel, dating to around 692. That's her above, flaunting her power.

The tomb includes the mosaic mask at the top of the post and a full suite of divining gear including a mirror and a divining plate.

And here is burial 37, a man also fully equipped with divining gear laid out in a ritual pattern that matches the gear of the Maize God shown on a famous stela. 

He also had a mosaic mask beside him.

But I am most fascinated by burial number 39, apparently a king, although the skeleton was too poorly preserved to be sure. Here we have yet another set of divining gear; but notice the circle on the plan marked "Figurine Scene."

That would be these figurines.

Everyone interprets these as a depiction of a ritual, most likely a divination. The characters include the king,

the queen – when this was part of a travelling exhibit of Maya figurines a few years ago it was described as a "proud warrior queen bearing a shield," but that isn't a shield, its a divination dish, as you can tell from the presence of the stylus that was rolled around to generate meanings –

a praying child watched over by a big-eared deer that all the authorities assure me is a representation of a guardian spirit,

and two dwarf boxers with removable helmets.

I mean, really, for what kind of ritual do you need the king, the queen with her divining dish, twelve ball players, two balls, a praying child, the child's bizarre guardian spirit, two boxing dwarves, a blind dwarf, a fourth dwarf with an elongated head, a young girl, and a monster? Besides, this being the Maya we're talking about, bloodletting, human sacrifice, and hallucinogens?

No, don't answer that.

Divinatory tokens from burial 39

Wednesday, October 25, 2023

Devin Kelly, "The Old Catcher Considers the Failing of His Knees"

All I did was hide. I made myself so small
I could not be touched. I knew each player
by what they thought was invisible — the twice-tapped
cleat on the batter’s box back line, the little prayer
one whispered: deliver me this, & I will deliver this
for you. I watched their anxiety — how lonely it felt,
how lonely it always is to witness someone
turn their worry into the twitching of a finger,
something muttered, a glance to the sky as if the sky
might forgive each of us our wrongs.
The sky brought the light that hid the ball.
The sky threw shadows I called a curveball through.
When the pain came, I wondered why.
They pulled the chips from my joint & I kept them
in a glass. Look, I know. What isn’t broken
just isn’t broken yet. Jesus, I know. & someone
can spend their whole life hiding away their grief
& then find themselves crying in the dairy aisle of a store
while they hold the mint chip & vanilla,
because the mystery is gone, & with it, hope,
because someone said you don’t have a choice, said
you have to stop, & they were right, & you thought
they were wrong, & you spent your paycheck on tiger balm
& beer, rubbing each into your body until you felt
like liquid poured from a kaleidoscope.
I don’t get it. How what you love can kill you,
even if you spend your whole life loving it.
Even if you love it small. Even if you curl up in its palm.
Somewhere now, someone is whispering a list
of everything they’re scared of but no one
seems to hear them. Somewhere now, the wind
cuts through a promise being made, & breaks it.
There’s that story of the man who walked into the light
&, because of the light, could not see a thing.
Who played that trick on us, that long & lonely trick? 

*    *    *

Devin Kelly is a high school teacher living in New York City.

Greek Philosophy and the Perils of One-Case Reasoning

Cruising the Greek islands, British writer Adam Nicolson (NY Times) got to wondering about the relationship between the landscape in front of him and the origins of western philosophy:

What we think of now as the mainland of Greece, then filled with communities of farmer-warriors, played essentially no part. Recorded philosophy was almost entirely a harbor phenomenon, a byproduct of trading hubs on the margins of Asia, on the islands, and eventually in the rich lands of Sicily and southern Italy. Its creators were from the mobile edges, merchants in ideas, people from communities in which exchange was the medium of significance and for whom inherited belief was not enough.

Those mercantile qualities of fluidity and connectedness were precisely the governing aspects of the new thought. The philosophers’ emphasis was on interchange and, in Heraclitus in particular, the virtues of tension. Just as in a bow, he wrote, the string pulls against the frame, and would collapse if either string or frame failed; a just society needs to be founded on a tension between its constituent parts. Everything flowed through everything else, multiplicity was goodness and singularity the grounds of either sterility or tyranny.

There is nothing stiff about this way of thinking. These early Greek forms of thought cross all the boundaries between poet and thinker, mystic and scientist, in a rolling, cyclical, wave-based vision of the nature of reality. The thinkers did not provide a set of rationalist solutions nor of religious doctrines, but again and again explored the borderland between those ways of seeing. Possibility and inquiry, the effects of suggestion and implication, rather than unconsidered belief or blank assertion, were the seedbed for the new ideas. 

Which is fine so far as it goes. I have repeatedly emphasized here that creativity in art and thought often springs from interchange, such as Europe's encounters with Asia and the Americas in the early modern period. In Europe, anyway, new ways of thinking have tended to emerge from mercantile regions in touch with other parts of the world. 

And Nicolson is far from the first western writer to  muse over how the Greek landscape encouraged creativity: sea, clear sky, bright light, and so on.

But, you know, there were other centers of philosophical creativity in the classical world. I don't know much about India in that period, but I have never read that Indian philosophy emerged from mercantile cities. I do know something about China, and the origins of Chinese philosophy are almost exactly opposite to everything Nicolson says about the Greeks. It arose in powerful, agricultural, military states with large bureaucracies, and most of its leaders were either court bureaucrats themselves or made their livings training future bureaucrats. They all despised everything non-Chinese and had no interest in trade or the sea.

Nicolson might counter (other people have) that the character of European philosophy is different from the Chinese because of its origins in mercantile city states. Well, maybe, but it seems to me that really creative periods produce all different sorts of philosophy. Nineteenth-century Europe gave us Marx, Lenin, John Stuart Mill, Tolstoy, Stirner, Lord Acton, etc., etc., exponenents of every political theory under the sun. Writing about the 1600s, English and Dutch historians like to emphasize the ties between their thinkers and the mercantile, maritime world, but there were also cutting-edge thinkers in France, Austria, and Prussia.

Simple theories about human progress are almost all wrong.

Saturday, October 21, 2023

Blenheim's Civil War Graffiti

This is Blenheim, an 1859 house in Fairfax City, Virginia. A pretty standard plantation house for that time and place.

I visited on a lovely Fall day.

The remarkable thing about Blenheim is that in 1862 to 1864 it served as a hospital for Union soldiers from the Army of the Potomac. And those soldiers, bored and lonely, covered the inside of the house with graffiti. 

More than 150 different signatures have been identified. Several are from soldiers of the 83rd Pennsylvania, which lost more than 400 men fighting in every battle from the Peninsula to Appomattox Court House, including prominent parts at Gettysburg and Saylor's Creek.

Two of the more interesting drawings.

This one was actually preserved by the owners after the war rather than painted over because they took it to be a drawing of Confederate raider John Mosby, a local hero. Which is funny, because Mosby had a swashbuckling reputation but looked nothing like this, and this drawing was almost certainly done by Union soldiers like all the rest.

Some of the drawings are quite visible, while some are not and had to be revealed with multispectral imaging. Most remarkable is a barely visible series written vertically next to a door jamb on the second floor. The first line has a tiny sketch of a man in civilian clothes and says, 

Enlisting, patriotic

Then comes a sketch of a man in uniform:

First month, patriotic

Then a soldier pondering something in his hand:

Second month, hard to be patriotic on hard bread


Third month, payday! can't walk but patriotic again


Fourth month
No money
No whiskey
No friends
No rations
No peas
No beans
No pants
No patriotism