Thursday, July 20, 2017

What Died in the War

Before the Civil War, Oliver Wendell Holmes had been a passionate abolitionist, an idealist, a follower of Emerson, a believer in the pursuit of earthly perfection. After serving for nearly three years in the war, being wounded three times, and seeing the two best friends of his youth killed, he went on to be one of the founders of Pragmatism. Pragmatism is a complicated phenomenon but at its root is a deep suspicion of passionate belief, and a conviction that the wise should devote their efforts to smoothing over conflicts between different factions.
Holmes believed that it was no longer possible to think the way he had as a young man before the war, that the world was more resistant than he imagined. But he did not forget what it felt like to be a young man before the war. "Through our great good fortune," he said in the speech in which he memorialized Abbott's advance into Fredericksburg, "in our youth our hearts were touched with fire." — a sentence that both ennobles the antislavery cause and removes it to an irretrievable past. . . .

In 1932, after he had retired from the Court and was nearing the end, Holmes tried to read aloud to Marion Frankfurter, Felix Frankfurter's wife, a poem he liked about the Civil War, but he broke down in tears before he could finish it. They were not tears for the war. They were tears for what the war had destroyed. Holmes had grown up in a highly cultured, homogeneous world, a world of which he was, in many ways, the consummate product: idealistic, artistic, and socially committed. And then he had watched that world bleed to death at Fredericksburg and Antietam, in a war that learning and brilliance had been powerless to prevent. When he returned, Boston had changed, and so had American life. Holmes had changed too, but he never forgot what he had lost. "He told me," Einstein reported, "that after the Civil War the world never seemed quite right again."
–Louis Menand, The Metaphysical Club

The Wind Bloweth where it Listeth

The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit.

–Jesus to Nicodemus, John 3:8

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Partisan Bitterness and Higher Education Funding

Polls show that American conservatives have an increasingly negative view of universities, and Freddie de Boer is worried that academic leftists are goading Republican lawmakers into slashing their funding:
I am increasingly convinced that a mass defunding of public higher education is coming to an unprecedented degree and at an unprecedented scale. People enjoy telling me that this has already occurred, as if I am not sufficiently informed about higher education to know that state support of our public universities has declined precipitously. But things can always get worse, much worse. And given the endless controversies on college campuses of conservative speakers getting shut out and conservative students feeling silenced, and given how little the average academic seems to care about appealing to the conservative half of this country, the PR work is being done for the enemies of public education by those within the institutions themselves. And the GOP has already shown a great knack for using claims of bias against academia, particularly given the American yen for austerity.

Meanwhile, in my very large network of professional academics, almost no one recognizes any threat at all. Many, I can say with great confidence, would tell you that they don’t want the support of Republicans. There’s little attempt to grapple with the simple, pragmatic realities of political power and how it threatens vulnerable institutions whose funding is in doubt. . . .

In 2010 I wrote of Michael Berube’s What’s Liberal About the Liberal Arts?, “the philosophy of non-coercion and intellectual pluralism that Berube describes and defends so well isn’t just an intellectual curiosity, but an actual ethos that he and other professors live by, and which defends conservative students.” I grew up believing that most professors lived by that ethos. I don’t, anymore. It really has changed. For years we fought tooth and nail to oppose the David Horowitz’s of the world, insisting that their narratives of anti-conservative bias on campus were without proof. Now, when I try to sound the alarm bells to others within the academy that mainstream conservatism is being pushed out of our institutions, I get astonished reactions – you actually think conservatives should feel welcomed on campus? From arguments of denial to arguments of justification, overnight, with no one seeming to grapple with just how profound the consequences must be. We are handing ammunition to some very dangerous people.
Honestly given how the average liberal arts professor feels about Republican legislators, it's a marvel that many states provide any funding for higher education at all.

People Behind the Coexist Logo Can't Get Along, Sue Each Other

Legal battles are raging among the creator of the original Coexist logo, Polish artist Piotr Mlodozeniec (above); the folks who trademarked that logo and began selling it on t-shirts etc. without Mlodozeniec's permission; and the folks who created the famous bumper sticker (below). Mlodozeniec says he isn't bothered by competition from the bumper sticker version but he is aesthetically annoyed because he considers it terribly ugly. I like it. But knowing that the people behind it can't coexist is troubling.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Ansel Adams, White Branches at Mono Lake

Ronald Reagan Supported National Health Care

From a review of Henry Olsen’s new Reagan biography, The Working Class Republican: Ronald Reagan and the Return of Blue Collar Conservatism:
Most readers of Olsen’s book will be surprised to learn that Reagan embraced universal coverage. In “A Time for Choosing” — Reagan’s celebrated conservative manifesto delivered at Goldwater’s 1964 Republican National Convention — Reagan declared, “No one in this country should be denied medical care for lack of funds.” In a speech to the Phoenix Chamber of Commerce — in Goldwater’s backyard — Reagan said, “Any person in the United States who requires medical attention and cannot provide for himself should have it provided for him.”

While Reagan opposed “compulsory health insurance through a government bureau for people who don’t need it or who have . . . even a few million dollars tucked away,” he championed the Kerr-Mills Act of 1960, a law introduced by two Democrats that gave federal money to states with which to provide medical care for the elderly in need. Reagan said that he was “in favor of this bill — and if the money isn’t enough, I think we should put up more.”
Avik Roy explains:
In the 1960s, Reagan opposed Medicare for two principal reasons: participation was mandatory, and because Medicare spent scarce taxpayer funds to subsidize coverage for wealthy people—even millionaires—who didn’t need the help. But Reagan explicitly supported the role of government in subsidizing care for every American who could not otherwise afford it.
One of the root factors in our health care drama is the requirement that hospitals treat everyone who comes in regardless of whether they can pay. Many states had these laws for decades, but the Federal requirement goes back to 1986, signed into law by Ronald Reagan.

At the time that provision was hugely popular, and it remained so until fairly recently. Within the past decade many Republicans have turned against it. That is partly due to reflexive opposition to Obamacare but also due to a growing understanding that this one law pretty much requires massive Federal intervention in health care; you can't get to a really libertarian system unless hospitals can turn people away.

Maybe with the failure of the current Republican Obamacare repeal effort we can get back to trying to make the system work better, drafting a bill that can get votes from both parties. Wouldn't that be a refreshing change?

Maids vs. Madams in India

Class warfare in Noida, India:
The madams in the luxury gated community went to yoga classes and toddler playgroups; the maids soundlessly whisked away dirty dishes and soiled laundry before retreating, at night, to a nearby shantytown of tin sheds and plastic tents.

This kind of arrangement has persisted across India for decades, in apparent harmony.

But early on Wednesday, at the Mahagun Moderne in Noida, on the outskirts of New Delhi, India’s capital, the madams and the maids went to war.

A dispute between a maid and her employer erupted into a full-blown riot, as hundreds of the maid’s neighbors, armed with rocks and iron rods, forced their way into the complex and stormed her employer’s apartment. In response, thousands of families have locked their maids out, saying they can no longer trust them in their homes.
Every once in a while, the hostility that simmers beneath the smooth surface of human relations breaks out.

Saturday, July 15, 2017


I'm off to Massachusetts and Maine for a week, so don't expect much blogging until I return.

Rivers of Paradise Carpet

17th century; in the National Museum in Istanbul.

From Lack of Love I Will not Ever Die

From lack of love, I will not ever die,
so says the stingy, cold, and lordly rage
imprisoned with pride inside his gilded cage,
conversing with a pretty, blonde, white lie.

And let them lift their glasses, raise a toast
to wish the whole world ill in ancient Greek,
forever finding fault. And let them boast
like Belshazzar who feasted, while the meek,
thin, ragged Daniel fed on yeast-free bread,
while understanding what the king could not,
interpreting what royals had forgot,
seeing the privileged ones were good as dead –
that Love which made this vast, black Universe
his cure for any demagogue’s blank curse.

–Jennifer Reeser

Friday, July 14, 2017

Salisbury Plain Long Barrow

Wonderful aerial image of a Neolithic long barrow being excavated on the Salisbury Plain near Stonehenge. This structure was spotted in aerial images of the wheat field where it lies, which led to the investigation. It dates to around 3600 BCE. No word yet on whether any skeletons or other remains survived the thousand years plowing that came close to completely erasing it.

The 47 Names Disney Considered for the Seven Dwarfs

Via Lists of Note:

  1. Awful
  2. Baldy
  3. Bashful
  4. Biggo-Ego
  5. Burpy
  6. Daffy
  7. Deafy
  8. Dippy
  9. Dirty
  10. Dizzy
  11. Doleful
  12. Dopey
  13. Dumpy
  14. Flabby
  15. Gabby
  16. Grumpy
  17. Hickey
  18. Hoppy
  19. Hotsy
  20. Hungry
  21. Jaunty
  22. Jumpy
  23. Lazy
  24. Neurtsy
  25. Nifty
  26. Puffy
  27. Sappy
  28. Scrappy
  29. Shifty
  30. Shorty
  31. Silly
  32. Sleepy
  33. Snappy
  34. Sneezy
  35. Sneezy-Wheezy
  36. Sniffy
  37. Snoopy
  38. Soulful
  39. Strutty
  40. Stuffy
  41. Swift
  42. Tearful
  43. Thrifty
  44. Weepy
  45. Wheezy
  46. Wistful
  47. Woeful

Thursday, July 13, 2017

The Visconti Book of Hours

Pages and images from the Visconti Book of Hours, otherwise the Offiziolo Visconti. The Viscontis were a noble clan who ruled Milan in northern Italy from 1277 to 1447. In 1395 Gian Galeazzo Visconti made himself Duke, the title thereafter born by Milan's rulers for centuries; it was the first Duke who commissioned the Book of Hours.

An old authority says:
This extraordinary manuscript, perhaps one of the gayest, most spontaneous and fanciful of Western illuminations, is an exceptionally rich Book of Hours painted by two quite different artists. In the late 1300s, Giovannino dei Grassi and his workshop painted the first folios for Gian Galeazzo Visconti, despot of Milan, but the Duke's death in 1402 interrupted the work. Belbello da Pavia completed this dazzling manuscript for Giangaleazzo's son, Filippo Maria, after he became Duke in 1412.

The manuscript currently resides in the Biblioteca Nazionale in Florence, which is seriously letting the world down by not putting a fascimile online. I have only managed to find large images of two pages, including this one.

This style is the painted equivalent of what is known in architecture as the Decorated Gothic, Gothic with as much Goth as possible.


Wednesday, July 12, 2017

A Sentence

J.M.W. Turner, well-known to all his contemporaries, the ring master of magic, sensual, grumpy and human, who rode his imagination through the deserts and forests of early nineteenth-century understanding, and left it drenched in color, sparkling with unexplained consequences.

–James Hamilton, A Strange Business (2015)

America Goes Rogue

Reading a bit in the swirl of speculation surrounding recent White House leaks, I discovered the existence of a Twitter account with the handle "Rogue POTUS Staff." Serious reporters clearly read this account, although they cite it only with many caveats. And this isn't the only such account; we also have the Rogue Ranger claiming to offer the inside scoop on the National Park Service, the Rogue Diplomat who tweets as "State of Resistance," and probably more I haven't heard of.

It struck me that these accounts perfectly sum up our current political situation. They all assert that the main locus of resistance to Trump is within his own government, even within his own White House. Yet nobody knows who writes them; for all we know the authors could be clever news buffs in Schenectady. Nobody dares to believe them, but people who care feel like they have to follow them anyway. It's all masks over masks, conflicting claims about truth or even reality, and confusion.

The Sad Tale of Janesville

In 2008 General Motors, rocked by the recession and facing record losses,  announced that it was closing its 78-year-old plant in Janesville, Wisconsin. Sociologist Amy Goldstein has written a book on what happened next, and it sounds grim. About 300 workers took jobs at other GM plants in Kansas City and Texas, but since they were unable to sell their Janesville homes they mostly left their families behind, becoming "GM Gypsies."

The rest tried to find other work, but in the midst of the recession there mostly wasn't any:
Some decided to retrain at the local Blackhawk Technical College, hoping to gain new skills and find new careers. Yet even then, the jobs weren’t there. One former GM worker, Matt, was one of many that enrolled at Blackhawk to train to become a lineman at the local utility company, Alliant Energy. But, as a rather candid conversation with his lecturers made clear, his chances of being hired were really rather low. Indeed, between 2008 and 2011, Goldstein found that those who had re-trained after the plant’s closure were, in actual fact, less likely to find work than those who did not re-train. And even those who did find work after completing their re-training picked up much lower wages than they received at GM. As Goldstein concludes, ‘job retraining, it turned out, was not a path to more work or better pay in and around Janesville, at least not during the time when jobs were so scarce’.

Yet, even after the economy had recovered, things were little better. In 2015, average incomes were still way below what they were when the GM plant was still open. Indeed this is one of the bleakest parts of Janesville: for years now, it’s been federal policy to re-train workers whose old jobs have gone so that they can ease into new jobs and avoid the dreaded ‘worker dislocation’. But, as Janesville shows, re-training doesn’t necessarily lead to new jobs let alone better ones. Unemployment levels may have now dropped to their pre-factory-closure levels, but incomes are way down, with little prospect of a revival anytime soon. While some workers have maintained pre-closure incomes – by travelling to other GM factories hundreds of miles away – the workers left behind are earning far less than they did at GM. Even when new employers come to town, the jobs on offer are nowhere near as well paid as they had been in the past. Dollar General, for instance, opened a distribution centre in Janesville, offering, on average, $16 an hour – GM once offered an average of $28 an hour.
To me this pretty much sums up the bad mood in America; tens of thousand of people have lost good jobs and will never again earn as much as they did in the factory days. Also notice the way ownership of our expensive homes can quickly become an albatross when the economy turns sour, preventing people from moving to places where the job prospects might be better.

If there is a silver lining to this story it's that while assembly work paid well, everybody hated it:
Not all residents initially saw the plant’s closure as a disaster. Some even viewed the impending end of GM in Janesville as an opportunity. One Goldstein spoke to, Bob, the executive director of the Southwest Wisconsin Workforce Board, felt ‘the shackle of big GM pay cheques bred complacency and tethered people to the assembly line for 30 years or 40 – for an entire working life, even if they hated the work’.

Indeed, as Goldstein’s cast of Janesville residents make clear, no one much liked working in the plant. But they did like getting paid. Some such as Jared, a GM worker for 13 years, downright hated the work, as did his father and father-in-law. But for $28 an hour, overtime and a raft of other union benefits, plenty like Jared were prepared to do something they hated. So, as Bob quietly hoped at the time, the ‘catastrophe might prove to be an unbidden opportunity to help people find the work paths that would have suited them all along’. Unfortunately, this didn’t happen.
If the end of factory work meant the rise of some other kind of work at comparable pay, we should probably celebrate that. But it hasn't, and that has embittered a generation.

Plants Can Turn Caterpillars into Cannibals

Nature News:
Herbivorous pests often turn on each other when their food is of poor quality or it runs out. And some plants are known to affect the behaviour of their pests by making them more predatory towards other species. But until now it was unclear whether plants could directly cause caterpillar cannibalism.

Integrative biologist John Orrock and his colleagues at the University of Wisconsin in Madison triggered a defensive reaction in tomato plants (Solanum lycopersicum) by exposing them to various amounts of methyl jasmonate (MeJA). This is an airborne chemical that plants release to alert each other to danger from pests. When cued with MeJA, tomato plants respond by producing toxins that make them less nutritious to insects.

The researchers then allowed caterpillars of a common pest, the small mottled willow moth (Spodoptera exigua), to attack the crop. Eight days later, they observed that plants more strongly cued with MeJA had lost less biomass compared with control plants or with ones that had received a weaker induction. This showed that the reaction was somehow effective at protecting the plants.

Next, the team wanted to test whether the plants’ response was triggering cannibalistic behaviour in the caterpillars. So they cued tomato plants with MeJA and then fed leaves from cued plants and non-cued control plants to single caterpillars in containers that also contained a set number of dead caterpillars. Two days later, the team observed that caterpillars fed with leaves from the treated plants had turned onto the dead larvae earlier, and had eaten more of them, than those fed with leaves from control plants. The results are published in Nature Ecology & Evolution1.

The caterpillars will always eat each other eventually, but the difference in timing is critical, says Orrock, “if plants can induce pests to eat each other earlier, there will be more of the plant left untouched”. However, he also cautions that the cost to the plant of activating its defences is very high. “It is very possible that the plants will strike a balance and decide if the attack is serious enough to activate the defences.”

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Is Turning Out the Base or Appealing to Moderates more Important?

The latest political science on how to win American elections:
Political observers, campaign experts, and academics alike argue bitterly over whether it is more important for a party to capture ideologically moderate swing voters or to encourage turnout among hardcore partisans. We speak to this debate by examining the link between the ideology of congressional candidates and the turnout of their parties’ bases in U.S. House races, 2006–2012. Combining a regression discontinuity design in close primary races with survey and administrative data on individual voter turnout, we find that extremist nominees suffer electorally, largely because they decrease their party’s share of turnout in the general election, skewing the electorate towards their opponent’s party. Along with shedding light on questions concerning the interplay of parties, voters, and candidates, the results help address the debate over swing voters and turning out the base. For our sample of elections, turnout appears to be the dominant force in determining election outcomes, but it advantages ideologically moderate candidates because extremists activate the opposing party’s base more than their own.
Right now the Democratic Party is full of rhetoric about needing more progressive candidates to fire up the base, but the evidence remains strong that the winning candidate is usually the one closest to the median ideology of the district. Yes there are lots of people who say they don't vote because the candidates are all the same and nobody is offering them real help, but in real elections nobody can turn out enough of those disaffected voters to make appealing to them a winning strategy.

FBI Headquarters Not Moving

Here's one for all those people who think we should help troubled cities by moving government agencies to places like Cleveland or Birmingham:

Federal government cancels decade-long plan to replace crumbling FBI headquarters

The federal government is canceling the search for a new FBI headquarters, according to officials familiar with the decision, putting a more than decade-long effort by the bureau to move out of the crumbling J. Edgar Hoover Building back at square one.

The decision follows years of failed attempts by federal officials to persuade Congress to fully back a plan for a campus in the Washington suburbs paid for by trading away the Hoover Building to a real estate developer and putting up nearly $2 billion in taxpayer funds to cover the remaining cost. . . .

For years, bureau officials have raised alarms that decrepit conditions at the J. Edgar Hoover building constitute serious security concerns. But the plan to move to a new site in the Washington suburbs grew mired in a pit of government dysfunction and escalating costs with no end in sight.
And that was just to move it to the suburbs.

But I don't think that line about "a pit of government dysfunction" is fair; as the second paragraph says, the plan is being canceled because Congress refused to appropriate the money, which is actually the main reason government construction projects get canceled or delayed.

David Brooks Wigs Out over Inequality

David Brooks is so depressed these days that it has stopped being fun to pick on him. Today's column, titled "How We Are Ruining America," dwells on what some people say are our increasingly rigid class distinctions. He has three arguments. The first is about education:
It’s the pediacracy, stupid. Over the past few decades, upper-middle-class Americans have embraced behavior codes that put cultivating successful children at the center of life. As soon as they get money, they turn it into investments in their kids.

Upper-middle-class moms have the means and the maternity leaves to breast-feed their babies at much higher rates than high school-educated moms, and for much longer periods.

Upper-middle-class parents have the means to spend two to three times more time with their preschool children than less affluent parents. Since 1996, education expenditures among the affluent have increased by almost 300 percent, while education spending among every other group is basically flat. . . . As life has gotten worse for the rest in the middle class, upper-middle-class parents have become fanatical about making sure their children never sink back to those levels.
To some extent this is true, but I am not sure how wide that extent is. Some of the educational stratification is just heredity, and there's not much we can do about that. As for the rest, what does Brooks propose? Closing down the elite schools? That seems absurd to me. As long as we have a meritocracy, only some people can make it to the top, and yes those are going to be the people with the most advantages of birth and circumstance. Solution?

The second argument is about real estate, specifically the zoning restrictions that prevent the construction of new housing in places like San Francisco and Brooklyn. Brooks seems to think that by keeping people from moving to these places we keep them from joining the upper middle class. Brooks cites an academic paper by economists Chang-Tai Hsieh and Enrico Moretti that suggests these restrictions have reduced overall American economic growth by 50 percent over the past 45 years. I find this preposterous. It is based on the main fallacy that I want to attack here, the notion that the upper middle class could be infinitely expanded: that is, if we had let ten million more people move into those exclusive areas they would have ended up with the same incomes as the people living there now.

I think that is just wrong. This was the same idea that led us to massively expand our university system, and that didn't work very well, either. So far as I can tell there are just a limited number of slots in the elite, and nothing you can do in the way of expanded education or better housing policy is going to change that very much.

I can't think of any way out of this. We have a meritocratic society in which the best careers are open to anyone, which means that the good jobs go to the people with the most talent, the best preparation, and the most brutal work ethic. Would you prefer that places in medical school be assigned randomly?

I think we are stuck with the prestige pyramid we have. What we could do, if we wanted to, is to flatten the economic pyramid. By means of very high taxes on the rich (80%, say) and more spending on the poor and middle class (income subsidies, national health insurance, free community college) we could arrange things so that economically it would not make as much difference what class you end up in. This is the approach I prefer. Rather than try to restructure society, let's just make life better at the bottom and less awesome at the top.

You thought I forgot the third point, but no; it's just so strange to me that I had to set it aside.
Recently I took a friend with only a high school degree to lunch. Insensitively, I led her into a gourmet sandwich shop. Suddenly I saw her face freeze up as she was confronted with sandwiches named “Padrino” and “Pomodoro” and ingredients like soppressata, capicollo and a striata baguette. I quickly asked her if she wanted to go somewhere else and she anxiously nodded yes and we ate Mexican.

American upper-middle-class culture (where the opportunities are) is now laced with cultural signifiers that are completely illegible unless you happen to have grown up in this class. They play on the normal human fear of humiliation and exclusion. Their chief message is, “You are not welcome here.”

In her thorough book “The Sum of Small Things,” Elizabeth Currid-Halkett argues that the educated class establishes class barriers not through material consumption and wealth display but by establishing practices that can be accessed only by those who possess rarefied information.
First, there is nothing new about this; it is as old as civilization, and people who write about the 18th and 19th centuries think it was greatly expanded then as a way to distinguish the upper class in a world of rapid economic change. What did you think the six forks were for?

And second, I think the importance of this kind of crap is horribly exaggerated. I brazened my way through Yale with with very limited knowledge of things like how to eat artichokes, ignoring attempts to snob me off by quotations in Greek or yachting references. (What happened to that guy, the Andover poet? Watching the waves off Piraeus, we idly hoped that none of the Naiads was pregnant as the surf rolled over the Aegean strand. . . ? Did he end up on Wall Street?) Yes, I got left out of many conversations about things like skiing and trips to Europe, but who cares? None of that matters unless you let it. Sure, every group has its own code and shared body of knowledge; if you want to be, say,  a hip hop producer, you're going to have to learn a vocabulary and a lot of stuff about musicians and bands. So? If you need to learn it, learn it. When I worked summers on the maintenance crew I used to follow baseball so I would have something to talk to the other guys about. Nobody knows all of it; only a handful of the most arrogant are certain that they fit in anywhere. One good thing about the upper middle class is that it is a much bigger and more diverse group than the producers of hip hop, so there are lots of ways to fit in. If you think you are being kept out of the upper middle class by the names of sandwiches, learn the names of the sandwiches. I don't have any idea what Padrino and Pomodoro mean, and this bothers me not one slight tiny bit. If it ever matters, I will ask.

I simply do not believe that these cultural "barriers" to entering the upper middle class are creating our class distinctions. We have growing inequality because we let executives pay themselves a hundred times as much as they pay their workers. And no matter how we arrange things, we just can't all be executives. The only real answer is wealth redistribution.

Atanas Matsoureff

Bulgarian painter born 1975. The Coat and Bag painting is part of a whole series of similar works that fascinate me; they are visually striking and they make it great fun to imagine the owner.

Monday, July 10, 2017

A Debate about God

If you're interested in a brief but serious argument over the existence of God and how we should feel about this question, take a look at this "debate" that Ross Douthat constructed between himself and Tyler Cowen.

Conceptions of Time, Ancient and Modern

Canadian writer Rupert Ross on his struggles to understand the thinking of traditional peoples:
We see ourselves on a road, moving forward, progressing down some linear track that promises constant improvement and discovery, from cancer cures to life on Mars. Our eyes are forward, the past is of largely academic interest, the present only an instant we race through to arrive at a different tomorrow. In our belief system we dedicate ourselves to a single task: creating change.

But what if we did not have that conviction underlying our every thought, the conviction that tomorrow, for each of us, if we all work hard, there will be more and better everything? What if our conviction was not that we were born to continue travelling down an infinitely changing road, but instead, that our destiny was to repeat what had been done before, to walk in the footsteps of all who had gone before, to think the same thoughts they had already thought; to take, in effect, their place on the slowly revolving wheel of eternally repeating existence? What if we defined our lives not as occupying the new ground of our own discoveries but as revisiting ground already occupied by all our ancestors? … Each generation’s turn at the wheel might include performances better or worse than those of the last, but they would be essentially the same performances, with the same set and script and plotting.
And this:
Man, we think, is by definition a restless soul always in search of new frontiers, new challenges. We suspect we would go mad doing only what our fathers and mothers did, repeating their lives. How, we ask ourselves, can Native people lament the passing of a time when they lived under those limits?

I suspect, however, that they had no such sense of limits. In fact, they may have perceived their lives as holding a virtually limitless scope for challenge and accomplishment. We don’t see this, if only because we don’t share the same definition of accomplishment. As I suggested in the last chapter, their lives did not centre on building things but upon discerning things. Life’s challenge lay in observing and understanding the workings of the dynamic equilibrium of which they were a part, then acting so as to sustain a harmony within it rather than a mastery over it. One aspired to wisdom in accommodating oneself to that equilibrium, and that pursuit quite clearly promised unlimited scope for exploration and self-development.

Further, I suspect that they sought that wisdom not only to better ensure survival but also as an end in itself, as something in itself exhilarating. I recall how I felt after accurately predicting that violent hail-storm, and it was exactly that: exhilarated. It was not just that I was thankful to have side-stepped its full, destructive force. More significant by far was the excitement I felt at being able to say to myself “I was right! I am learning! I am becoming more open and discerning, more in tune with the workings of this universe around me!” Even that one, small accomplishment was thrilling. I’m not certain why, but I do know that the feeling far surpassed what I have felt in other endeavours, such as getting good grades or delivering a well-received speech. The sense of achievement seemed to come not because I had done something, but because I had become something. In some way, I felt that I had become more a part of our vibrant universe in that I had grown more attuned to it.
Indeed one of the things that strikes me most about our age is that even conservative politicians run on a platform of “change.” Nobody ever says that what we need to be is exactly what we are and what we have been, and that our task is not to change things but to experience them more fully.

Forest Kindergarten

"Forest Kindergarten" is a sort of pre-school (3- to 5-year-olds) common in Germany and Scandinavia. Instead of receiving lessons, the kids mostly run around doing whatever they want, outside as much as possible. In some such programs there is a farm theme, with goats and bit of gardening or apple picking, while others go for a wilderness vibe. In none of them is there any sort of book learning. From a description of a German "Waldkita":
Within a few minutes, the children were spread out over an expanse of at least 10 acres. Some were jumping from boulders; others were dragging logs through marshland. Most were sucking on filthy icicles that had fallen from the eave of a greenhouse. At Robin Hood, the children are allowed to be out of eyesight of their minders, but not out of earshot. “Being secretive is good for child development,” Peters said. But whenever an adult called out “cuckoo,” the children all dutifully returned from whatever dangerous thing they were doing, which on the day I spent with them included climbing at least 10 feet up a tree and sliding unsupervised across a frozen pond.
This sort of program is connected to the old Germanic belief that children should be outside as much as possible, in every sort of weather, and also to Romantic notions of free play and exploration. The first organized programs were created in Germany and Sweden in the early 1900s.

The kids do at least as well in school as kids who spend preschool being forced to sit quietly and do lessons. I just don't understand why we want to make babies act that way.

Fear of Resurgent Racism

Today's headline:

KKK Charlottesville Rally of Around 50 People Met by More Than 1,000 Protesters

Yes, racism is still a problem, but people who deny that things have gotten better are delusional.

The Aztec Wolf Sacrifice

Archaeologists in Mexico City have uncovered the burial of a young wolf laden with gold and other goods.

Held in a stone box, the cache was discovered in April near the capital city's bustling main square, the Zocalo, behind the colonial-era Roman Catholic cathedral and off the steps of what was once the most important Aztec ceremonial temple, now known as the Templo Mayor. . . .

Not long after the roughly eight-month-old wolf was killed, it was likely dressed with golden ornaments as well as a belt of shells from the Atlantic Ocean, then carefully placed in a stone box by Aztec priests above a layer of flint knives, according to Lopez.

The west-facing wolf represented Huitzilopochtli, the Aztec war god and solar deity. Wolves were believed to help guide fallen warriors across a dangerous river in the netherworld.
The peak of Aztec power was blood-soaked to an alarming and probably unsustainable degree, and this wolf seems to be related to that violence:
The golden wolf was buried during the 1486-1502 reign of King Ahuitzotl, the most feared and powerful ruler of the Mexica, who extended the empire as far south as present-day Guatemala. The reign of Ahuitzotl was particularly brutal, which may also explain the fate of the young wolf.

Lopez said tests on its ribs will be needed to confirm his theory that the animal's heart was torn out as part of the sacrifice, just as captured warriors were ritually killed on blood-soaked platforms of Aztec temples.
This location is in the middle of the city and the stone box survived by a lucky chance: a sewer line installed in the 19th century clipped the box and came within inches of breaking it open.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Victory in Mosul

Today's best news is from Iraq, where the government has announced victory over the Islamic State in Mosul.
Dressed in a military uniform, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi arrived here in Mosul on Sunday to congratulate Iraq’s armed forces on its victory over the Islamic State and mark the formal end of a bloody campaign that lasted nearly nine months, left much of Iraq’s second-largest city in ruins, killed thousands of people and displaced nearly a million more.

While Iraqi troops were still mopping up the last pockets of resistance and Iraqi forces could be facing suicide bombers and guerrilla attacks for weeks, the military began to savor its win in the shattered alleyways of the old city, where the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, put up a fierce last stand.

Hanging over the declaration of victory is the reality of the hard road ahead. The security forces in Mosul still face dangers, including ISIS sleeper cells and suicide bombers. And they must clear houses rigged with explosive booby-traps so civilians can return and services can be restored. Nor is the broader fight over: Other cities and towns in Iraq remain under the militants’ control.
I am personally very impressed by this victory because I was worried that it might not happen. I found it easy to imagine government forces bogged down indefinitely in the suburbs, unwilling to take the casualties necessary to reach the Old City, blaming each other for the impasse. That this did not happen says something important about the Iraqi army and, by extension, the Iraqi nation. A country whose army can fight and win such a long, difficult campaign is not about to be swept away by a small fanatical movement.

Moderate, mainstream sort of people often fear fanatics too much. Every once in a while a movement appears with the strength and cleverness to take advantage of a chaotic situation and seize power. More often, fanatics marginalize themselves and fall to infighting and are easily beaten by the forces of any competent state. If post-Saddam Iraq is now a competent state, that will be a huge boon for the stability of the region.

Masterpieces of World Building

Ever since I posted Junot Diaz's syllabus for a course on World Building I have been thinking about what I would assign in such a course and, more broadly, what I think are the best worlds in fantasy and science fiction. Diaz's list:
J.R.R. Tolkien, “The Lord of the Rings”
Star Wars
“A Princess of Mars” by ER Burroughs
“Dracula” by Bram Stoker
“Batman: The Dark Knight Returns” by Frank Miller
“Sunshine” by Robin McKinley
“V for Vendetta” by Alan Moore
“The Hunger Games” by Suzanne Collins
“The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms” by NK Jemisin
“Lilith’s Brood” by Octavia Butler
“Perdido Street Station” by China MiĆ©ville
“Snow Crash” by Neal Stephenson
It's hard to argue with the first two, and they would also head my list.  Otherwise I think only “Perdido Street Station” would be on both his list and mine. Other worlds I love:
Frank Herbert, “Dune”
Ursula LeGuin, “The Left Hand of Darkness”
J.K. Rowling, “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone”
Star Trek
George R.R. Martin, “The Game of Thrones”
Neal Stephenson, “Anathem”
Susanna Clarke, “Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell”
Alastair Reynolds, “Revelation Space”
Neil Gaiman, “Neverwhere”
Too many of those are long books for this to work as a course, but they are the worlds I remember most powerfully right now.

Knotted Dragon Pendant

Jade 2 by 3 inches (8x5 cm)
From China, Eastern Zhou dynasty, Warring States period, 3rd century B.C.
In the Met.

In Person and Online, In and Out of Politics

Joshua Rothman describes his Long Island town in the run-up to a bitterly contested local election:
As election day approached, life in the village seemed to have divided into two streams—a neighborly stream, which ran pure and clear, and a political stream, which was muddied and turbulent. When you met a neighbor in line at the pharmacy, it was easy to get along. But at home, contemplating his political position—or, worse, reading about it online—you were filled with contempt and disbelief. People were friendly on the street but angry in their heads; they chatted amiably in person but waged war online. They liked and loathed one another simultaneously, becoming polarized not just politically but emotionally. As the weeks passed, we were doubly in suspense. We wanted to know which party would win, but also whether our town could return to normal. Feelings had been aroused that seemed incompatible with neighborly life. Where would they go?
As Rothman says, following political scientist Nancy Rosenblum, these two worlds can co-exist peacefully most of the time. I'm personally quite comfortable with this sort of thing; I have several friends whose politics are pretty much opposite to mine, and really it has never occurred to me to think that most people agree with me or ought to. But is that really sustainable, socially or morally?
Pluralism feels good in practice. It’s in theory that it’s hard to accept. In Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, published in 1989, the philosopher Richard Rorty placed the yearning for ethical consistency at the root of Western thought. From Plato onward, Rorty wrote, moral philosophers have attempted “to bring together the public and the private, the parts of the state and the parts of the soul, the search for social justice and the search for individual perfection.” The goal was, in effect, to create a universal list of virtues, which applied equally to children, parents, spouses, citizens, and generals. No such list exists. The qualities that make you a good boss won’t necessarily make you a good parent; the qualities we value in a romantic partner may not be the ones we value in a friend. The word “good” means different things in different spheres. Our values aren’t conveniently unified. They’re discontinuous.

And yet a variety of forces push us toward holism. Transparency is one of them: when your e-mails are leaked, or your hot-mike blunders are unearthed, your “protean” personality becomes a vulnerability. Social media, too, tend to make us more holistic, because they construe the airing of political views as an act of friendship. And the moral arguments in favor of holism are powerful. Activists seek to live holistic lives, and we often admire them for it.
These are, I submit, fundamental questions. Can someone really be a good person while having awful political opinions? When are your neighbor's political views so dangerous that it becomes wrong to say "hi" on the sidewalk? I lean pretty far toward the tolerant side, because I think anything else is just unrealistic. We don't live in a village, but in a nation of 300 million, and that of necessity means we have fellow citizens with every shade of opinion. Beyond that I am just very uncomfortable judging people for the content of their beliefs. To me prosecution for heresy was one of the most awful things about medieval and early modern society, and I have no interest in bringing back such persecution. It is only what people do that we have any right to judge.

To me the point of politics is to help us fashion a good society to live in. A society in which we are always at our neighbors' throats is not a good one to live in. Since we are not all going to agree, we have to tolerate disagreement. How much disagreement we can tolerate while still remaining a viable democracy is a very important question to which we have no clear answer, but my guess is, quite a lot. How much anger directed against their own identities and beliefs we can ask other people to tolerate is another hard question, but my basic feeling is that to get along in the world we have to grow a thick skin against hurtful opinions.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Today's Place to Daydream about: the Brecon Beacons

Since two of my favorite things are visiting castles and hiking in the mountains, I love Wales.

I have visited the north but never the south, so today I imagine South Wales and especially the South's highest hills, the Brecon Beacons.

The Brecon Beacons are not very tall – the tallest is Pen Y Far at 2907 feet (884 m) – but they are rugged in parts and include spectacular scenery.

There are bunch of lovely waterfalls, which have marvelous Welsh names like Sgwd Gwladys and Sgwd Isaf Clun-Gwyn.

And an amazing array of castles. Here and at the top is Carreg Cennen. What you see was mostly built in the late 1200s by the Giffard family, but there was an earlier wooded fort on the site built by Rhys Ap Gryffydd around 1200. The castle was attacked by Welsh rebels during Owain Glyndwr's rebellion.

This is Castle Dinefwr, which is just four miles from Carreg Cennen. It was also an old wooden fort turned into a stone fortress in the 13th century, in this case Llywelyn the Great of Gwynedd. Llywelyn's castle was then enlarged and remodeled by Edward I.

There are about a dozen medieval stone castles in the Brecon Beacons.

There are also several Iron Age hillforts and the only crannog in Wales, in Llangorse Lake. A crannog was a small, human-made island built in a lake or marsh to provide security in violent times; they were common in Ireland from the Bronze Age until the 17th century and not rare in Scotland. This one dates to around 800 CE.

Not far from the actual crannog, they have built a round house like what they think once stood on it.

This area was a major center of industrialization in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries and you can still see old limestone mines, iron mines, hauling roads, railroad grades, and the Brecon Canal.

There are many great hikes, including some along the ridge tops and others through the valleys with the waterfalls. It would be a marvelous place to be on this fine summer evening.