Saturday, June 29, 2024

Summer Garden

Hollyhocks! Self seeded. And dahlias that survived the mild winter. It's a joy to have this explosion of flowers by the front door.

This has been a rough year for deer attacks, but for some reason I have the best bloom of hydrangeas ever; normally the deer eat all the buds early in the spring.

Gladiolas, last week before the deer ate them all.

Raspberries. One day last week, at 12:20 in the afternoon, bright, sunny, temperature over 90 degrees, a lone doe came wandering into the yard, nibbling on the berries right in front of us. I mean, have some respect.

More flowers.

And Kidu around his first birthday, which we decided to celebrate on the summer solstice.

The Perils of Desire

Wes Cecil is a philosophy professor with a big following on YouTube. His lectures are at an undergraduate level but they are clear and often amusing, so if there is some philosopher or topic you want an introduction to, he is a good option. Two of my sons are big fans.

I was moved to write about Cecil by this lecture, The Accursed Share. The topic here is desire. As Cecil notes, all traditional societies are intensely suspicious of desire. The Buddhists have taken this the farthest, arguing that the supreme goal of human life is to completely extinguish desire. But skepticism about desire runs in different ways through Stoicism, Confucianism, Christianity, and so on. When nineteenth-century romantic rebels tried to come up with the most radical slogan they could imagine, they hit on "Do what thou wilt."

Cecil says that most cultures practiced arranged marriage because they absolutely did not trust young people to choose mates rationally, since the young are blinded by desire. We've all seen this happen, he says, people hooking up because of intense sexual attraction even though everyone around them can see disaster looming: "pain coming in 5, 4, 3, 2 . . ."

But we celebrate desire. Cecil says he is fascinated by the lies cultures tell their children. In our society, the big lie is, "You can be anything you want." That is, our big lie foregrounds desire. The most important thing you can do is figure out what you want, so you can get it.

Cecil spends much of this lecture asking where our desires come from, especially our desires for material things. These cannot, he says, really come from inside us, because we evolved in societies where none of the thing we covet even existed. You can't have a natural desire for a flashy car. These desires must come from outside us, from our society.

All of which is basically true. It is true that all the old philosophical traditions are suspicious of desire, and that many of the things we covet are recent inventions of dubious value. But note the anti-freedom agenda here; traditional cultures are especially dubious of any desire to be other than what you are. If you are born a peasant, you should strive to be a good peasant, by imitating the ways of your forebears. If you are born an aristocrat, you should strive to be a good aristocrat, by imitating your aristocratic ancestors. And if you happen to be an outsider or newcomer, well, then you had better hide that as best you can by imitating the old families around you.

Which raises questions for me about the extent to which frowning on desire is at base a mechanism of control. I have long wondered if the evolutionary point of our sometimes outrageous sexuality is to shake things up, to break up these mechanisms of control and spread genes around in a more random way.

I certainly acknowledge that from a historical perspective it is bizarre that we use up so much breath telling young people to pursue their dreams.  But what is the alternative? We don't have ancestral plots of land that we can tend, or ancestral houses we can preserve. We can't work in the same factories our fathers worked in. Not only can we choose our own careers, we must; there is nobody else to do it for us. I work in a field that did not even exist when my father was young. 

I am not sure there is much value in thinking too much about the strangeness of our obsession with desire, because I think we are stuck with it.

Nor do I see much point in wondering which desires are somehow our own and which come from outside us. We all live in societies and take our notions of the good life from what we see around us. On the other hand I don't think there is anything more deeply rooted in our evolutionary selves than the desire for respect. So if you want a vacation house because all your colleagues have vacation houses, is that internal or external? An absurd concoction of consumer capitalism, or a deep-seated desire to be thought worthy by your peers? I think this is a meaningless question.

I would sum up the situation in wealthy western countries like this: we are wealthier than anyone in the past, and have more freedom than anyone in the past, but instead of filling us with joy this makes us anxious. No matter how much we have, we always want more; no matter how safe and secure our homes, we lie awake worrying. So far as we can tell we are not any happier than our ancestors. For every person who is thriving in our rapidly changing world, seizing opportunities that never before existed, another is floundering in indecision at the array of choices and outcomes before us.

Philosophy lectures will not solve any of this. What good would it do us to be suspicious of our desires? What could we rely on instead? Part of me cringes at song lyrics like, "How will I know? Trust your feelings. . . ." But what else could we trust? Many of the people who complain about our consumerism and general cult of desire also mock our advice industry, the explosion of self-help books and happiness gurus and so on. Of course the problem with advice gurus is that they disagree about everything, so you still have to pick the advice that best suits your own desires.

I think we have proved by now that neither freedom nor material abundance will make us happy. But neither will hewing to tradition. We need to find new paths, because history's storm surge has washed away the old ones. By all means, interrogate your desires; try to figure out which ones are reasonable, and which ones point toward shipwreck. But don't give up on them, because in the end they are all we have to guide us.

The Disinformation Manifesto

From Scott Alexander/Siskind's fantasy presidential debate:

Alexander: Mr. Trump, you’ve been accused of being one of the chief spreaders of misinformation, both personally and through your website Truth Social. What do you have to say for yourself?

Trump: GK Chesterton said that fairy tales were more than true, not because they tell us that dragons are real, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten. In the same way, I think misinformation is more than true - not because it tells us there are pedophiles in pizza parlors, but because it tells us that pizza parlor pedophiles can be discovered and dragged into the light.

The COVID vaccine might not literally contain a microchip that lets Bill Gates control your mind. But we really do grant unaccountable tech billionaires root access to our culture. And seemingly pro-social requests really can be a vector for establishing control. I, Donald Trump, might not literally lead a euconspiracy of patriotic Americans who are about to blow the lid off the corrupt Biden administration and liberal establishment. But it really is true that even in the darkest night, when all seems lost, there are seeds of hope visible to those who search for them, and that even the most invincible-seeming tyranny can fall in an instant if enough people push at it.

So who cares about the literal truths? The average American lives in a dull apartment building in a decaying city, his subsistence dependent on the whims of macroeconomic forces he cannot comprehend, let alone control. You want to tell him to spend his tiny sliver of time on Earth thinking about interest rates and carbon credits? We need to re-mythologize the world! We need to re-weave the rainbow, re-haunt the air, re-gnome the mine! If the scientists have robbed us of trolls under bridges, we will replace them with Satanic cults in state capitols. If they take our soma, we will invent adrenochrome.

If I’m elected president, I plan to double down on this. I will spread rumors of griffons in the Rocky Mountains, allude to unspeakable things beneath the deserts of Nevada, and question whether the Gateway Arch in St. Louis is a mystical portal to dream-realms beyond the setting sun. Not because any of these things are true. But because they are more than true. They’re what makes this country great. 

Friday, June 28, 2024

Links 28 June 2024

Street scene by Tokyo-based photographer RK

Fascinating review of The Autobiography of Yukichi Fukuzawa, a Japanese man who was one of the early leaders of the opening to the West in the nineteenth century, one of the finalists in Scott Siskind's annual book review contest.

The Smithsonian acquires the largest known collection of slave badges from Charleston, South Carolina, which slaves working away from their homes had to carry. 

Right now LLM AIs can write political messages about as persuasive as those written by humans. This paper argues that it will be very hard for them to become much more persuasive, since order of magnitude increases in computing power seem to yield at most a tiny increase in persuasiveness. Right now there isn't any evidence that superhuman intelligence will be good for much. E.g., AI analysis of things like protein shapes is much faster than having humans do it, but the AI has not made any major discoveries or found any new approaches. Still waiting for the first radical new idea to come from AI.

Kiosks: photographs by David Navarro and Martyna Sobecka of Eastern Europe's disappearing tiny shops.

Auroville, a failed attempt to create a utopian community in southern India based on western political ideas and Indian spirituality; founded by anti-colonial activists, it nonetheless ended up recreating some of colonialism's sins.

Kevin Drum reviews the texts about Israel/Palentine issues that got three Columbia deans suspended, finds them unobjectionable. In a situation of complete mistrust, the banal can seem insulting or threatening. Speaking of which, really sad story in the NY Times about tensions at the UCSF medical school, doctors accusing each other of "harm" and "oppression," statements that minority patients feel "unsafe" with Jewish doctors, etc. 

Major paper arguing that dingoes were domesticated animals before they went wild in Australia. I always thought this was so obvious that I never paid much attention to the debate, but apparently there are biologists who insist that dingoes are wild animals with none of the usual genetic markers of domestication. (NY Times, paper)

Dona Tartt (author of The Goldfinch) explains that there never was a golden age of art; artists have always been beset by the demands of money, politics, ideology, and so on. Art somehow endures because we value this "uncanny force bursting into the world, " with its glimpses of "the outlying lands beyond opinion and ideology."

The poetry of ambivalence.

Sabine Hossenfelder reviews some new evidence that creates big problems for most Dark Matter theories, 6-minute video.

In our world there is a constant rhetorical trope of distinguishing between "traditional" and "modern" parenting, usually with the idea that traditional is good. But, in fact, people have raised children in many different ways going back as far as we can see. Except for some really basic points – breastfeeding, lots of mother-baby contact – there is no consistency among traditional peoples. (I have some thoughts on human social diversity here.)

The University of Austin tries a new method for hiring faculty.

Kraut's 32-minute video at YouTube seems to be a decent introduction to the rise of Japanese militarism in the 1930s. But since I still haven't found a good book on this topic I won't claim to be able to judge. Sadly the rest of the series he projected on this topic seems not to exist.

Harriet Jacobs' Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861) is one of the most widely assigned literary works in the US these days. But I never knew that her brother John S. Jacobs was also an escapee and an abolitionist. John Jacobs was a sailor who went, among other places, to Australia, and it was there, in 1855, that he published his own personal narrative. It rings with anger – the subtitle is, "The United States Governed by 600,000 Despots" – and it makes people wonder how much the other slave narratives were toned down by white editors so as not to alarm voters. It was rediscovered by an Australian researcher and has now been published. (U of Chicago Press, NY Times, wikipedia)

Mildly interesting essay on how Michael Foucault's analysis of power is being used in the contemporary discourse: "Foucault’s ingenious methods for analyzing power have now emerged as but one more strategy for the maintenance and expansion of existing institutional power." Also good on how bleak Foucault's vision of society was; to him, everything anybody says in any context is likely to be a play for power.

NY Times feature on the clothes worn by the top prospects in the NBA draft. Some pretty nice duds, when you consider that a lot of these guys are 19. Props to the guy who admitted his mother picked out his Yves Saint Laurent suit. Incidentally picks 1, 2, and 6 were all Afro-French; the first American taken was a white guy, which hasn't happened since 1977. After starting out white and then going mostly African American the NBA has become a world leader in multi-culturalism.

Germany's latest census revises the population down from 84.1 million to 82.7 million. The govenrment says the higher figure was just an error. The next time you are tempted to believe official figures with decimal points in them, consider that the German government can be 1.6% off in its count of people, who are much easier to count than most other things. How accurate are economic statistics in Myanmar or Nigeria?

Status of fusion report from Construction Physics. Conclusion: "there’s a good chance a working fusion reactor is near," but it won't be cheap, and with the price of solar and geothermal power falling so fast, by the time fusion power works we may not want it. On earth, anyway.

The men spend who spend long airplane flights doing absolutely nothing.

The pirate king of 10th-century Japan.

Nice photo sets from two recent contests: one for drone photography, and one in color photography.

Summary thread on Russia's recent offensive around Kharkiv (Twitter/X, Threadreader)

The rambling thoughts of a miserable, completely checked-out Russian soldier, who finds everything pointless. (Twitter/X)

Wednesday, June 26, 2024

Scarred by Fires I Never Even Saw

Random Image from Our Report on the Fire Cleanup

Back in 2020 there were catastrophic fires in the hills all around San Francisco Bay. My company had a role in the cleanup from these fires, because many historic structures were destroyed – old ranch houses, a perfectly preserved logging camp from the 1910s, cabins built by the CCC in the 1930s, one of America's first Boy Scout camps, etc. We sent people to these sites to photograph the remains before heavy machinery was brought in to scrape the debris away, and on some sites to monitor the work to try to limit the impact to any historical stuff left behind. I never went to California on this, but I had a support role and reviewed all the documents we produced. This is on my mind because some questions about missing documentation just came back to me two weeks ago.

Ditto, Damage from the CZU Lightning Fire

Back in the 1970s, when I was a young teenager, I went through a phase of wanting to be an architect. I read all the books on architecture I could get from the public library, perused glossy magaines, and so on. At that time there was a lot of excitement about west coast pseudo-ecological design, from million-dollar redwood houses built in redwood groves (with hot tubs and conversation pits) to hippie shacks. Some of these builders made a point of not cutting down any trees but finding ways to nestle their houses among them.

Reading through the material coming back from the fire clean-up I saw dozens of reports of what happened to those houses: burned to nothing. One story that made me particularly sad was about a sort-of hippie town called Last Chance where about twenty like-minded people built cabins or A-frames in the redwoods and lived out their off-the-grid dreams. The place was incinerated, nothing left but the concrete pad on which their community center had sat. Three people were killed because they were too slow to flee.

So, anyway, the NY Times has a feature today about a beautiful little house built on the coast of Washington, where “the steep, six-acre lot is shaded by Douglas fir trees.” The owners say stuff like:

I think it’s amazing. It produces this sense of belonging and quietude by engaging with the site’s circumstances and ambient conditions. It’s a divine place.

And all I can think is, it's going to burn to ashes. If you're thinking that being on the coast of rainy Washington will protect it, sorry, no; western forests burn. All of them. It's just a matter of time.

Monday, June 24, 2024

Denis Villeneuve's "Dune"

Last night I watched Part II of Denis Villeneuve's Dune with my youngest son. Dune was one of the key books of my adolescence, and I read it at least three times; he has never read it. We both thought the movie was excellent. 

It is visually magnificent, the acting is good enough, and even the action sequences are ok. I have developed a strong allergy to dumb things in movie action scenes, so much that I can hardly stand to watch the average sci-fi thriller, but this movie was better and the dumb things mostly flashed by quickly. Enough of the plot was included across the two films (5 hours 21 minutes in total) for my son to follow the story and for me to reimmerse myself in it. I recommend it. 

I thought the business of the Benne Gesserit and their prophecies was particularly well-handled. These witchy women have spread prophecies across the galaxy that they then use to reinforce their power, but the question of whether those prophecies are true seems to hang open; certainly characters in the book disagree about it, and when they seem to be fulfilled it is in a way no one expected.

Dune is just an awesome book for a certain sort of teenage boy. Whether it is for anyone else I couldn't say; there is some heavy gender weirdness that I imagine might bother some girls, and neither the story nor the mythos is robust enough to survive educated adult skepticism. But it completely drew in my 15-year-old self and resonated powerfully in my imagination for at least a decade. I was especially taken with the idea of a hero who is trained in both the feminine mysticism of the Bene Gesserit and the masculine ways of war and calculation, thus combining masculine and feminine powers. I think for me it ranked behind only the Lord of the Rings in captivating me and launching my reveries.

It pleases me that it has finally been put on screen in a version good enough that I can happily share it with my sons.

Saturday, June 22, 2024

Porcelain Wrecks

Chinese archaeologists have reported two Ming dynasty shipwrecks off Hainan Island in southern China. It always amazes me to see such a huge mass of valuable procelain.

Love the way the outline of this ship is preserved in the scatter of pots and tea bowls across the sea floor.

Recovering a bowl.

Friday, June 21, 2024

Renovating the Bailey Mansion

Great feature at the NY Times about the renovation of the Bailey Mansion in Harlem. 

Built by P.T. Barnum's less flamboyant partner in the circus business in 1886-1888, it was featured on the cover of Scientific American in 1890. The architect was Samuel Burrage Reed; the style is one of my favorites, Romanesque Revival.

From 1951 into the 1990s the house was a funeral home run by Marguerite Blake. After she retired from the funeral business she turned into a stereotypical crazy cat lady, and the place started to fall apart.

In 2008, Blake tried to sell the house for $10 million, but inspectors found that the roof had 35 separate leaks and nobody would buy. Toward the end of 2009 the house finally sold for $1.4 million. The eventual buyers said the basement was full of cats and just walking through it they got completely covered with fleas.

The buyers were Martin Spollen and Chen Jie, he from New Jersey and she born in Shanghai. They were not particularly rich and told the Times that they had to borrow money from friends and relatives to raise the purchase price. (Since the house was not safe for occupancy, they couldn't get a mortgage.) They have been restoring it ever since, doing much of the work themsleves.

The Times says, "It has been a monumental effort driven by love and obsession."

They earn some money by renting the house out as a set for movines and television, but the project has still (of course) been a very expensive hobby. Spollen told the Times, "Our main talent is that we are not in a hurry."

One of the prizes of the house is a large collection of stained glass windows by Henry Belcher.

The former embalming room in the basement, now a woodshop.

What an amazing place.

Links 21 June 2024

Father's Day Card from my younger daughter; text says,
"I drew you a sunflower where the deer can't eat it."

Asking AI to adjudicate Supreme Court cases: Adam Unikowsky thinks Claude 3 Opus is better than the actual court. I mean, who do you trust to respect precedent, Claude 3 or Clarence Thomas?

But here's an argument that AI won't take our jobs. You might think that AI translation would be leading to a decline in jobs for translators, but so far the number of human translators still seems to be rising.  "When creative destruction happens, it’s always easier to see the destruction than the creation." I suspect this is an intermediate stage and before very long AI will be as good as the average human translator, but I won't guess how long that will take.

Intelligent Scott Siskind essay, "Fake Tradition is Traditional."

New Zealand has a Tree of the Year contest, and this year's winner looks a lot like an ent.

Fascinating little Celtic fertility idol.

How much of life on earth is dormant? "We live on a dormant planet. Life is mainly about being asleep."

In January, the discovery of a major deposit of rare earth minerals was announced in Sweden; now a Norwegian company claims to have found an eve bigger deposit in Norway. We won't be crippled by running out of metals.

Audobon photography awards: top 100 here; nice selection here.

With no actual history to speak of, North Macedonia leans on its very tenuous ties to Alexander the Great, to the immense irritation of the Greeks. (NY Times) It's hard to have a nation without national heroes.

Japanse battery maker TDK claims that a new material can increase the energy storage density 100-fold over their current batteries.

Loose Thread Stitchery, the Tumblr of someone who does amazing embroidery.

The amazingly diverse salamanders of the southern Appalachians.

Hoard of medieval silver found in Hungary.

Today's reason to hate the rich: the folks who poisoned the trees blocking their view of Camden Harbor in Maine.

A claim that the camp of the Assyrian army during the siege of Jerusalem has been identified.

Update on the search for Planet 9.

An argument that fossils excavated from Native lands should be repatriated. This piece appeared in Nature with the statement, "According to Lakotan people, they have always lived in Paha Sapa, as they call the Black Hills." This is false both as to the actual history of the Lakotas, whose tradition records that they first saw the Black Hills in the 1750s and did not live there until the 1800s, and to the opinion of better informed Lakota, who know this. And, no, monster stories are not evidence that pre-modern peoples knew about dinosaurs.

Worm charmers.

Some cool Roman armor.

At The Chronicle, Colin Dickey writes that for the past 75 years, many Americans seem to have held that if students emerge from college agreeing with them, they have been educated; if they emerge with different views, they have been "indoctrinated." Many conservatives used to think that professors indoctrinated students into communism, but now the fear is that they indoctrinate them into wokeism. (How and why this changed remain obscure.) Meanwhile, many professors wonder how they are having such a profound impact on students who won't do the reading or show up for class. 

Reason: "Numerous federal appeals courts have ruled that filming the police is protected under the First Amendment, but police around the country continue to illegally arrest people for it."

Photographs of Iceland over the past century, to celebrate the 80th anniversary of its independence. 

This week's music is Orff's Carmina Burana: the whole hour-long thing, the amazing 3:38 of O Fortuna in a live performance with fireworks.

Thread on Twitter/X about the ineffectiveness of KGB intelligence gathering: "Who can any longer doubt that Soviet leaders...would have been far better off throughout the cold war reading and believing Western newspapers, than believing what the KGB told them?"

The German army has placed an order for $9 billion worth of 155mm artillery shells, to supply Ukraine and restock their own arsenals. That's $9 billion for just one category of munitions out of dozens, dwarfing Germany's recent $2 billion order for 100 new tanks. This new era of war and international tension is already very expensive, and it's only going to get worse.

US defense figure Joseph S. Nye, Jr. on Eight Lessons from the War in Ukraine.

Excellent, informative thread on Twitter/X covering the impact of Russian electronic warfare on various NATO-supplied weapons. Longer article version here. From Colby Badhwar, one of the internet's top experts on anything to do with weapons procurement.

CSIS report on Ukrainian resistance to Russian occupation. Involves many women and is especially strong in Crimea.

Autonomous mine-scanning drones have arrived.

Thursday, June 20, 2024

Happy Solstice

May the sun of the longest day drive shadow from your life.

Tuesday, June 18, 2024

The Surreal House of Barnaba Fornasetti

The most interesting house in Milan, to judge from the number of times it has featured in glossy magazines, belongs to Barnaba Fornasetti.

The house was built by Barnaba's grandfather, Pietro Fornasetti, around 1900. The NY Times glosses him as a "typewriter importer," but that's either a grotesque simplification of his career or an outright joke, since I doubt anybody made this kind of money just importing typewriters. I lean toward joke, for reasons that will become clear to you.

The house owes its character to Pietro's son, Piero Fornasetti. Piero was a designer, one of those vaguely artistic characters who would decorate (and sell) aboslutely anything: wallpaper, ceramics, furniture, matchboxes, magazine covers, fabrics, mustard jars. Above is one in one his wallpaper designs that you can still buy.

And here are two of his ceramic plates. He was interested in surrealism, but his work doesn't fit into any particular category; to me it looks like he was aiming for the intersection of "sellable" and "weird."

There are many works by Piero in the house today. This assemblage of butterfly stuff focuses on one of his paintings, The Butterfly Seller (1938).

The bathroom is lined with Fornasetti tiles.

The music room, Barnaba's personal sanctum. Tour guides love taking people into this room because you enter through the back of a giant wardrobe, extra tall because it once held the capes of mounted police.

There are many other such touches in the house: trapdoors, hidden rooms, 

a very tall stack of old auction catalogs,

and lots and lots of stuff. You have to love the oriental slippers left by the bed in the guest bedroom.

Quite over the top, so much so that you wonder how anyone lives here.

On the other hand, the breakfast nook is amazing.

And I think it's good that there's stuff in the world too crazy for me.