Tuesday, July 23, 2024

Republican Disunity

The Republican Party has unified around Donald Trump. But do they agree about anything else? As Julius Krein explains in the NY Times, the policies being floated are all over the place:

We saw plenty of evidence of this throughout the Republican convention and in the party platform. Speakers on the first day alone ranged from anti-union, pro-free-trade, low-taxes Senator Ron Johnson to Teamsters union President Sean O’Brien, who excoriated Amazon, Uber and other giant corporations for exploiting workers and selling out national interests.

The party’s official platform offers divergent planks without any attempt to reconcile them. Commentators have already highlighted a number of apparent contradictions: Tighter labor markets resulting from a crackdown on illegal immigration and “the largest deportation operation in American history,” coupled with more tariffs, would, at least in the immediate term, seem to conflict with the goal of lowering inflation. According to some analysts, including at times Senator Vance, the call to “keep the U.S. dollar as the world’s reserve currency” might inhibit the goal of turning the United States into a “manufacturing superpower.”

Since 2016, pundits and politicians have divided the Republican Party into pro-Trump and anti-Trump, or populist and establishment, factions. These factions are said to have fundamentally different constituencies (the party’s working-class base versus major donors, corporate lobbies and establishment institutions) that pursue fundamentally different ends (MAGA nationalism versus global neoliberalism). 

I keep saying this: I would agree that over the past 25 years (at least) US policy has favored the wealthy and well-educated over factory workers and the like, but I don't see that anybody has a clear policy to turn this around, and I know Trump doesn't have a clue. Biden has been trying, with very limited success. Trump will try to clamp down on immigration, but his economic policy is otherwise likely to be either completely chaotic or boilerplate Republicanism.

Not, mind you, that the Democrats are particularly unified, either.

UPDATE: Here's a great example of what I'm talking about, an editorial in the WSJ from last Friday: 

Do Republicans want to rein in the regulatory state or unleash it? It's hard to tell these days, and the contradiction comes into sharp focus in J.D. Vance's embrace of Lina Kahn, Elizabeth Warren's favorite regulator who runs the Federal Trade Commission. . . .

The WSJ's complaints are that Kahn has been too aggressive in opposing corporate mergers and tried to ban non-compete clauses for workers, two things Vance has supported.

Monday, July 22, 2024

What I Think

Zack Beauchamp:

By dropping out of the 2024 race, President Joe Biden did what we all want our politicians to do: He put his country over his career. . . . In a country where many think politicians won’t do the right thing, Biden did (even if he exhausted all other options first).

I think Biden can now look forward with pride to his (likely short) retirement, and that pleases me. So I'm going to celebrate this moment of people doing the right thing and democracy working as it is supposed to before girding myself for a depressing election.

Sunday, July 21, 2024

NY Times Readers Poll on the Best Books of the Century

Among those not cited by the professional reviewers are:

2. Anthony Doerr, All the Light We Cannot See
3. Amor Towles, A Gentleman in Moscow
31. Madeleine Miller, Circe
56. Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games
67. Susanna Clarke, Piranesi
86. Yann Martel, The Life of Pi

Let's start with All the Light We Cannot See. I enjoyed this book but I understand why the professionals didn't rate it highly: it's just very sentimental, and these days "sentimental" is about the worst thing a critic can say about a work of art. Art is supposed to be tough and insightful, to call out evil and oppression, not gloss over the world's pains. (My sister wrote a whole book about this phenomenon.)

Same goes for A Gentleman in Moscow., which I liked but from one perspective very much glosses over the horrors of 20th-century history.

I didn't like Circe as much, but I thought it was ok (much better than e.g. Lincoln in the Bardo) and many women loved it. But it struck a lot of people as weak and sappy, and, again, our artistic world despises the weak and sappy.

Some of you may laugh at The Hunger Games, but I would put it in the same category as Dune, a book that resonates very deeply with a certain sort of teenager. It's basically an anti-utopia in which the evil government forces young people to fight it out with each other in a savage competition for resources, with zero regard for what the young people actually need or want. Many, many teenagers have found it to be a perfect metaphor for our educational system, and it was long the favorite book of my most rebellious son.

I loved Piranesi, and absolutely think it belongs on this list. But then the list was almost devoid of fantasy (unless you count N.K. Jemisin), so this isn't surprising. 

Interesting that nothing by Haruki Murakami made either list.

Friday, July 19, 2024

Links 19 July 2024

Franz Marc, Deer in the Forest, 1913

I'm leaving for a week in Masachusetts and Maine tomorrow, so any posting will likely be imited to scenery. See you when I get back!

Using AI to find deposits of valuable metal ores. (NY Times, CNBC, company web site) Computer programs that model subsurface features and try to locate valuable stuff (especially oil) are ancient, going back to the 1960s, but the claim is that these new AI systems are a major improvement.

Amazingly detailed drawings of buildings and cities by Benjamin Sack.

"The Nuclear Company, a new startup, has ambitious aims of spurring the construction of fleets of new nuclear power plants in the U.S."

The rattlesnake livestream, a camera pointed at a rock outcrop in Colorado where dozens of rattlesnakes have been hanging out. In the interest of science, of course.

Kevin Drum confirms that color is indeed disappearing from the world of automobiles; gray, black, and white are the top choices. And I hate it. If my next car has to be gray I'm going to have it repainted orange.

"Inside your skull, your brain hums along with its own unique pattern of activity, a neural fingerprint that’s yours and yours alone. A heavy dose of psilocybin temporarily wipes the prints clean."

If you want an introduction to Foucault's thought, I recommend this 46-minute lecture from Michael Sugrue. Concludes by asking if Foucault's radical skepticism undermined his own ideas as much as it undermined everything else, says that Foucault's followers "delegitmize the discourses of others without inquiring in a satisfactory way into the foundations, or lack of foundations, of their own discourse."

In New York, a move is under way to make air conditioning a right of all tenants, just like heat. (NY Times) Tell me again about how we were richer in the 1960s.

Another array of prize-winning buildings that swamp me with indifference.

Do "museums of other people" have a future? 

And from the same article: Did you know that the return of Benin bronzes from the US to Africa has been opposed by the descendants of slaves, who claim that it was the sale of their ancestors that provided the wealth displayed in the bronzes and therefore they should belong to African Americans, not Nigerians?

China's "Psychoboom".

Interesting: "Constellation Energy is in talks with the Pennsylvania governor's office and state lawmakers to help fund a possible restart of part of its Three Mile Island power facility."

Thefts of valuable metals, especially copper, are becoming a major problem in America. (NY Times, FBI, LA Times)

An economist reviews Emile Zola's The Ladies' Paradise, a novel about a department store that I mentioned before.

The Stegosaurus skeleton known as Apex sold at auction for $44.6 million, a new record for a fossil.

Quick post about a Chinese historical drama that seems to focus on the budgetary problems of the Ming Empire.

The problem with running the national park at Pompeii is that you can't dig even a little hole for an air shaft without hitting something like the tomb of a military official under Augustus.

How well immigrants do in the US depends a lot on how they got here: willing migrants who pay their own way do great, but refugees have traditionally lagged, especially when they came from war-torn countries. But now even Cambodian and Hmong migrants who came to the US after the disaster of the Vietnam war earn more than native whites. Just because refugees have a tough time for the first few decades doesn't mean they won't be a benefit in the long run.

Restoring the marble floor of a Roman villa, under water.

Scott Siskind, who lives in the Bay Area, put up a mildly interesting post about homelessness last week. He argued that it is useless to say “we should do something about mentally ill homeless people” without specifying what it is you want to do, "something most of these people never get to." This inspired an explosion in his comment section from people who, it seems, want to send the Cossacks to saber the homeless into the ocean. Lots of people in SF are mad as hell about the homeless; I have an old acquaintance who lives out there and when I talked to him a few years ago I came away thinking that he would vote for Lenin if the Bolsheviks promised to clear the homeless out of his neighborhood. And now Siskind has responded, arguing that "I WOULD BE REALLY TOUGH!!!" is still not an actionable policy, just a way of saying "do something" with all caps.

This week's music is the St. Markus Passion by Nikolaus Matthes, often hailed as the greatest Baroque work of the 21st century. Hard to believe it is only five years old.

Royal United Services Institute report on tactical lessons from the Israeli offensive in Gaza, full of fascinating observations like this one: "The evidence from Gaza suggests that high-rise buildings are of limited military value. . . . Above a certain height, the streets become dead ground." Summary on Twitter/X.

And another RUSI report, this one on Ukraine's failed offensive in 2023. Short summary on Twitter/X. And here is an excerpt on the defense of Bakhmut.

Tuesday, July 16, 2024

Human Figures from Venezuelan Cave Paintings

No reason, these just came up. All from this article. The triangular people above may be female. None of these figures have scales, and I cannot find any statement in the article of how big these things are.

These are glossed as "decorated dancers from Period 4." Fascinating outfits. The periods are strictly stylistic; this article makes to attempt to put dates on them.

These are arranged by period, with the most recent on top. What delightfully weird little things.

Sunday, July 14, 2024

House of Neptune and Amphitrite

The House of Neptune and Amphitrite in Herculaneum is remarkably well preserved, with a second floor and even some surviving woodwork.

Like this balcony.

Front entrance.

The house is not particularly large, only 227 square meters (2440 square feet), and the atrium (front courtyard) is nothing special.

The real wonder of the place is the rear courtyard, which had a fountain, a pool, and a remarkable array of art.

The house takes its name from this mosaic. 

This is a nymphaeum.

Details of the nymphaeum.


Even the stone walls employed decorative patterns.

Plus there is this object a sketch on marble, now in the museum in Naples, which is said to have come from the house.

Truly an amazing place.

Saturday, July 13, 2024

Remarkable Pehistoric Children's Cemetery Found in Norway

Truly amazing announcement from the Norwegian Historical Museum:

In the autumn of 2023, our archaeologists investigated traces of the past outside Fredrikstad. They were surprised to discover more than 40 circular stone graves.

The archaeologists discovered circle after circle made of meticulously placed stones. The circles were approximately one to two meters wide. The stones were laid closely together, just like cobblestones in a street. Several of the graves had a large stone in the center. Beneath these, the archaeologists found remains of pottery and burned bones. After examining the bones, experts could announce the biggest surprise: almost all the graves belonged to children, except for two graves for adults on the outskirts of the burial site.  

Most of the children were 3 to 6 years old, a few even younger. The graves date to between 800 and 200 BC, the transition between the Bronze Age and Iron Age. The area has other signs of having been spiritually significant, including a lot of rock art, with several of the boat carvings that archaeologists think represent the ship that carries the sun across the sky.

Archaeologists have not found many graves of young children from prehistoric Europe. Some of those that have been found are in domestic settings, like, under the house floor. This is the only children's cemetery I know of from this period. What does it mean? It looks to me like these children were special in some way. How?

The dark side would be that these children were sacrifices. Ancient Europeans were not in the habit of giving their sacrificial victims such elaborate burials, but one can't rule out a cult in which the children were treated in some very special way before their deaths, like those offered by the Inca on top of Andean mountains.

But they could have been special in some other way that we don't understand, because this site is nothing like anything we have seen before, and it would be rash to claim we understand.

Friday, July 12, 2024

Pro-War Russia, Succinctly

From the website of the Tsargrad TV network, on the latest Russian attack on a Ukrainian hospital:

Such enemies [Ukrainians] cannot be considered human. We must recognize this — simply and terrifyingly: there are no humans on the other side. Not a single person. Our missiles do not kill people. Not a single person. There are no humans out there.

If we do not accept this as a given, if we do not forbid ourselves from considering them as humans, from pitying them, and from saving them — we will weaken ourselves. We will limit our ability to save our children. We will hinder our path to Victory.

Links 12 July 2024

Earrings from southern Italy, gold and carnelian, 2nd century BC

Kevin Drum reviews the new Republican Party platform.

Tyler Cowen provides an excellent summary of why Trump is winning. And note that by marital status, the most pro-Trump group is divorced men.

Narco-pentacostalism in Brazil.

Alice Munro and the sad fact that many writers are lousy people.

The NY Times lists the 100 best books of the century. Top ten: 1) Elena Ferrante, My Brilliant Friend; 2) Isabel Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Suns (a history of black migration to the north); 3) Hillary Mantel, Wolf Hall (my personal number one by far), 4) Edward Jones, The Known World; 5) Jonathan Franzen, The Corrections; 6) Roberto Bolaño, 2666; 7) Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad; 8) W.G. Sebald, Austerlitz; 9) Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go; 10) Marilynne Robinson, Gilead. I'm already listening to one I got off this list and have plans to get to two more, which makes the exercise valuable to me at least.

No, really, stop with the "discovery" of "the labyrinth" on Crete. Just stop. The number of people who have embarassed themselves over this one makes me sad. Shut up about Atlantis, too.

The discovery and development of laughing gas.

Sabine Hossenfelder, Why I am Embarassed to be German, 11-minute video. (Because Germany is falling behind technologically, due to bad political choices.)

Three short posts from The Smell of Water, aka Teeside Psychogeography: Howl Moor on a rainy day, a little discourse inspired by finding a fossil of the type once called a "fairy loaf," and a black and white photoset from a trip to London.

Longish essay on attempts to create a logic machine, from Ramon Lull to LLMs.

Sports-based language imperialism: besides all the other reasons English has spread around the world, there is the fact that so many popular sports were invented in Britain or the US: soccer, rugby, cricket, basketball, volleyball, baseball. On my mind because I watched some of the highlights from the France vs. Germany basketball game, and among the English words used by the German commentators were: turnover, steal, and one, no look, staredown (mit dem staredown), NBA, rebound, high-low (das high-low spiel), possession, fast break, and line-up. Even when the words were German, the phrasing was American basketball: Gute hilfe ("good help"), Ballbewegung ("ball movement"), and so on. 

Peter Gray trashes Joathan Haidt's book arguing that screen time and the internet are damaging teen mental health, says there is "very little evidence for such effects." Gray blames school.

Tyler Cowen's conversation with Brian Winter, mainly about South America.

Impessive baskets by Native American weaver Jeremy Frey.

DNA and other analysis of human bones found in an underground cistern at the Maya city of Chichén Itzá says the victims were mostly young boys aged 3 to 6. They came from the surrounding community, and the 64 identified individuals included two sets of identical twins. The twin sacrifices may represent the Hero Twins of Maya myth. (WSJ, Arizona Free Press)

On Christopher Marlowe: "The legend of the Devil’s contract is the most alluring, the most provocative, the most insightful, the most important story ever told."

Ten years ago, the population of starfish on the west coast of the US collapsed due to a still mysterious condition known as sea star wasting disease. This led to an explosion of sea urchins, which eat kelp, and so to a decline in kelp. Vox describes the efforts biologists are making to bring the starfish back.

Depressing piece in the NY Times about elevators in the US, which due largely to regulation are much more expensive than in Europe, and therefore we have fewer of them. Kevin Drum has a summary

Southeast England is one of the world's richest regions; why is the north so much poorer? Can anything be done about it?

Smithsonian covers Pablo Escobar's hippos from the "menace to the environment" angle.

This week's music is Cassandra Jenkins, a semi-ethereal folk-ish pop-ish singer, somewhere in between Emylou Harris and Enya. PetcoDelphinium BlueHard Drive.

Claim on Twitter/X that Russian organized crimed has metatastized since the war began, up 76% by official government figures and possibly much worse. The need to ramp up smuggling obviously helps them, as does the focus of the police on other issues.

Mediazona and the BBC, who publish the most widely respected estimates of Russian casualities, now say that 120,000 Russian military personnel haved died in the Ukraine war. That's more than twice as many deaths as the US suffered in Vietnam and eight times as many as the Soviet Union lost in Afghanistan. At least 20,000 of the Russian dead were criminals, but that still leaves a lot of others, including many officers. Russian Officers Killed in Ukraine has verified 6 major generals, 94 colonels, 244 lieutenant colonels, 473 majors, 716 captains, and more than 2,000 lieutenants.

And the 400,000 (so far) wounded Russian soldiers will be a major drain on the state and society for decades.

Thursday, July 11, 2024

Notes for Speakers

  1.  Show up ten minutes early and learn how to operate the projector before the session starts. That way you won't spend two minutes fiddling with the thing before summoning the AV tech from the back of the hall to come down and do it for you, thus throwing away your first three minutes and guaranteeing that you will run late. This fumbling also makes your audience feel embarassed on your behalf, which I assume is not your goal.

  2. Know what your first sentence will be. That way the first thing out of your mouth won't be "UMMMM," which is was for two of the four speakers in the session I just sat through.

  3. Don't repeat yourself. If you find yourself saying, "Again. . . ." just stop. You only have 20 minutes and you, at least, seem to think you have a lot to tell us. After all, this session of four 20-minute papers went 33 minutes over. 

Ian McEwan, "Atonement"

I just finished listening to Ian McEwan's Atonement, which, by coincidence, just landed at number 26 on the NY Times list of the best 100 books of the 21st century. I didn't get it. It has lots of lovely sentences and impressive paragraphs but I found the story to be a big nothing.

(I wonder, why didn't the Times wait until 2025? Did they want to get ahead of all the other people who might bring out their own lists at the quarter century?)

The novel consists of four long scenes. In the first, set in 1935 at the country house of a wealthy English family, there is an event, with repercussions, during which one person does something very bad. The middle two sections cover the World War II years, and end with a scene that makes it seem like the damage has been undone. Then we skip to 1997 when the author of the very bad deed reveals that she has written the whole thing and "actually" things transpired in a different and more depressing way. 

This did not move me, it irritated me. What do you mean, "actually" happened? This is all made up. You want some kind of credit for facing the reality of your own creation? For fixing crimes in the meta-story that you invented in the story? For attempting to fool your readers, and then confessing to your lies? It's all a lie!

Wouldn't make any list of good books I was drawing up, and I find it baffling that so many people like it so much. Certainly doesn't belong ahead of A Brief History of Seven Killings, The Goldfinch, Savage Detectives, or a bunch of other books the Times ranked below it.

Wednesday, July 10, 2024

Amazing Roman Dagger from Germany

Haltern am See is a German town nowhere near the sea. It sits instead on the Lippe River, a tributary of the Rhine navigable by boat some distance to the east. Just outside the modern town are the remains of a Roman fort that dates to around the year zero. The fort was placed so that it could easily be supplied from the river.

Yes, I know there was no year zero. Why are you such a pedant?

The site has been subject to excavation for decades, and archaeologists think it was built during the Roman attempt to conquer Germania between 12 BC and 16 AD. As you can see, the gate has been reconstructed.

There are reenactors, and others.

This was a large complex of buildings, as shown on a model in the local Roman museum.

Most of the archaeological finds at the site have come from a large cemetery.

Nearby is this strange statue, which seems to be titled Der gescheiterte Varus. Not sure how one would render the failed Varus in idiomatic English. Perhaps The Defeated Varus, or Varus Haunted by Failure? Or maybe the intent is, Varus' Zombie Stalking the Dreams of Augustus?

The find I want to write about was made in 2019. It came, not from a formal grave, but from a ditch. As you can see, it included not just the Pugio itself but a nearly complete belt. Nobody knows what it was doing in the ditch. It emerged from the ground as a lump of rust and metal that took 18 months to dissect and conserve.

But what an amazing object it is.

Tuesday, July 9, 2024

The Murals of a Remarkable Tang Dynasty Tomb

A noble tomb with remarkable murals has been uncovered in Shanxi Province of northwestern China. The tomb dates to the Tang dynasty (618-907), but there seems to be some dispute about the exact date, with online sources mentioning both the exact year 736 and the period around 900. Above is one of the four walls of the main chamber. (Via The History Blog, the proprietor of which regularly posts amazing big images that I cannot find anywhere)

The entrance.

More of the main chamber. You can see that the ceiling panels depict the magical beasts of the four cardinal directions, with multiple panels of more down-to-earth scenes lower down.

In the lower left on this wall is a depiction of two people with camels and horses in the background. According to the conventions of the time, the woman appears to be Han Chinese, the man some other ethnicity. The excavators say these two people appear in other paintings, and they suspect they are the ones buried in the tomb. So perhaps this was a marriage between a Han Chinese noblewoman and a barbarian general. Shanxi was on the borders of the steppes and always had a mixed population, with both Han and nomadic elements, and we know the Tang dynasty employed horsemen from the steppes in their armies. The builders of the tomb seem to have thought the woman was more important. Does that reflect some underlying appraisal, or was it just that the man was dead and she was paying the bills?

My favorite of the paintings is this one, depicting people at everyday tasks. The only description I have found of the image says:

The east wall mural features a mural with multiple scenes of daily life: a man rolling a stone grinder to peel grain shells, a woman working a stone mill, a man making dough balls with an iron pan on a fire, a man stepping on a pestle (a rice pounding tool) with a bamboo basket and a bamboo dustpan next to it, a woman drawing water from a well using a counterweight heavy-lifting device, and lastly, a woman doing the washing elbow-deep in a basin full of water while a large pot steams on the wood-burning stove.

So lets try to match the images with the jobs. This is clearly the woman at the well.

And this is the woman doing laundry.

I suppose this must be the man stepping on a rice pestle, although I don't think I would have guessed that from the image.

Which makes this the man rolling the stone grinder.

And this a woman working a stone mill, although I'm thinking that those are stones there is no way she is rotating them by hand. A millstone that big weighs about 250 pounds.

And this mystrerious image must be "a man making dough balls with an iron pan on a fire," leaving open the question of why there is a bear cub on his fire.

Anyway, what an extraordinary find.