Sunday, September 24, 2017

Pretty Much What I Expected

I think one thing we were all expecting from a Trump administration is exactly what we are getting now: despite nuclear war fears and hurricanes and earthquakes and health care and the budget, the number one item on all the news sites is the Twitter fight between Trump and LeBron James.

James: Going to White House was a great honor until you showed up!

This particular fight is touchy because of the racial structure of the NBA and NFL, in which mostly white owners and fans depend on the heroics of mostly black athletes.  This is why the NFL ownership has been so careful not to say anything substantive about Star Spangled Banner protests and the like, and why the NBA bounced a white owner for making racist comments to a hot mic a few years ago: the last thing they want is a racial blow-up. And here comes Trump with his bull in a China shop routine.

Look for NBA owners to spend the next few weeks on vacation, or hiding under their desks.

The Golden Altar of Sahl Church, Denmark

This medieval golden altar has recently been removed from Sahl Church in northwestern Denmark for study and restoration.

Sahl Church was built around 1150, a very solid Romanesque construction much like those of contemporary Germany.

The age of the altar is not precisely known; likely late medieval. It is made of gold leaf pressed over wood. These were once common in Denmark but most were destroyed during the Reformation.

The altar has been restored multiple times, most recently in the 1930s; by then most of the crystals had fallen off, and they were replaced.

Details. The History Blog has a 19 mb photograph if you really want a close look.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

The Guernsey Medieval Porpoise Burial

Archaeologists working at a 14th-century hermitage on the island of Guernsey were startled to find a porpoise skeleton in a feature that looked at first like a human grave.

They told reporters that they had never seen anything like it, but that's just because they're sufficiently up on the weird side notes of British archaeology.

Porpoise bones have been found buried in several British sites dating to between the Neolithic and the late Middle Ages. The most famous example is on St. Ninian's Isle in the Shetlands, where a porpoise jaw was found in the so-called St. Ninian's Treasure unearthed in 1958; some of the silver pieces from this treasure are above.

Dolphins and porpoises are surrounded by folklore all around Europe and were especially associated with luck. A common superstition held that to harm a porpoise who followed a ship would bring luck of the worst kind; but the belief has also been recorded that a porpoises head hung from the mast would bring good luck. Porpoise blood and bones were used in medicinal and magical concoctions across Europe and especially among the Vikings, who held that porpoise blood might give great wisdom. Coastal people sometimes treated beached whales, including porpoises, as a sort of manna from heaven, sent directly by the sea gods to hungry people.

On several Pictish Symbol stones is carved a beast whose interpretation is much disputed. But some think it represents a beaked whale.

The people of Guernsey and the Shetlands were seafaring folk, so porpoises were part of their lives, including their spiritual lives. I for one don't find a buried porpoise surprising in the least.

Morning Glories

IKEA Humans

Samuel Biagetti in Jacobin, pondering the rootless modern liberal:
Jennifer and Jason are members of the upper middle class, living off their smarts and social connections rather than manual work. They live in the Sun Belt, in some newly gentrifying neighborhood of Queens, or in its equivalent in Montreal or Melbourne. They have college degrees and, even more importantly, college friends, which help to pull them up the slippery slope of middle-class employment. They are part of a scrambled white-collar workforce, drawn from all parts of the country and abroad, a lumpenbourgeoisie squeezing itself into selected wards of a few expensive cities. They follow trends in food, and music, and long-form television. Their politics are probably (but not definitely) liberal.
In the tradition of 19th-century social commentary, Biagetti considers Jennifer and Jason through the lens of their furniture, which is of course from IKEA:
Still, there is a good chance that Jennifer and Jason actually like their IKEA dressers, and prefer them to the old oak chest that their grandparents tried to foist on them. Indeed, the extraordinary popularity of IKEA testifies not only to its convenience but to its ability to appeal to the middle-class self-image. Jennifer and Jason are drawn to IKEA because it reflects who they are: they too are modern, movable, and interchangeable, their wants satisfiable in any neighborhood with a food co-op and a coffee shop. More fundamentally, Jennifer and Jason are untraceable, a “composite material” made from numberless scraps and pieces. They have a long catalog of home towns, and their accents are NPR neutral. They can probably rattle off the various nationalities in their family trees — Dutch, Norwegian, Greek, and Jewish, maybe some Venezuelan or Honduran for a little color. From these backgrounds they retain no more than a humorous word or phrase, a recipe, or an Ellis Island anecdote, if that. They grew up amidst a scramble of white-collar professionals and went to college with a scramble of white-collar professionals’ kids. Their values are defined mainly by mass media, their tastes adorably quirky but never straying too far from their peers’, and like the IKEA furniture that they buy in boxes, they too cut themselves into manageable, packaged pieces and market themselves online. They are probably “spiritual but not religious.” They have no pattern or model of life that bears any relation to the past before the internet. For all intents and purposes, they sprang up de novo in the modern city.
Some people would be tempted to call J and J “cosmopolitan,” but, says Biagetti, that doesn't really fit, because they actually live in a closed world and avoid interacting with people different from themselves:
Therefore, to be precise, the class of people of whom I am speaking are “cosmopolitan” neither in the idealized nor in the demonized sense of the word. They neither bridge deep social differences in search of the best in human experience, nor debase themselves with exotic foreign pleasures. Rather, they have no concept of foreignness at all, because they have no native traditions against which to compare. Indeed, the very idea of a life shaped by inherited custom is alien to our young couple. When Jennifer and Jason try to choose a restaurant for dinner, one of them invariably complains, “I don’t want Italian, because I had Italian last night.” It does not occur to them that in Italy, most people have Italian every night. For Jennifer and Jason, cuisines, musical styles, meditative practices, and other long-developed customs are not threads in a comprehensive or enduring way of life, but accessories like cheap sunglasses, to be casually picked up and discarded from day to day. Unmoored, undefined, and unaware of any other way of being, Jennifer and Jason are no one. They are the living equivalents of the particle board that makes up the IKEA dressers and IKEA nightstands next to their IKEA beds. In short, they are IKEA humans.

Of course, many readers might object that I am being too hard on Jennifer and Jason: what is wrong with casting off the burdens of hidebound traditions and living in the present? Some will point out the tolerant attitudes of young college-educated Westerners, who are less racist and homophobic than their forebears. This is commendable, but an incomplete foundation on which to build an ethical life. If one is not attached to a way of life structured by inherited values and customs, then one is unlikely to be attached to anything at all. Jennifer and Jason illustrate this: life choices follow arbitrary taste, friends come and go, ties with family are thin, and superficial interactions (largely online) with peers fill the gap.
Biagetti's point seems to be partly political, that is, he thinks people like J and J voted for Clinton because their liberalism is something shallow and verbal, not anchored to any knowledge of lives unlike their own. Not promising material for Revolution.

But I think he genuinely worries that without an inherited culture in which to sink our roots, we are doomed to wither.

I suspect that is at base a self-portrait; from what I have learned Biagetti seems to be a product of the Maryland suburbs and various elite universities who keenly feels the lack of a tradition and an inherited identity. Some people are like that. Others would find even the 21st-century version of rootedness (meatloaf every Saturday, say) both horrifyingly dull and completely pointless. I was pointed to Biagett's article from a long discussion in which various posters said a lot of stuff about what "people" need and what makes "people" feel fulfilled, without any acknowledgment of how greatly people vary along this axis and just about every other.

Personally I find the assertion that without inherited identity we are "no one" to be false and rather irritating. I've never had any trouble feeling quite certain who I am, despite my weakly rooted existence and taste for exotic food. It has never been established that people in traditional communities are happier than rootless moderns; their lives avoid certain issues that we wrestle with, but only by replacing them with an equally hard set of problems. They have ready-made identities and get rewarded with respect and status for doing the expected, traditional thing, but on the other hand they can't escape from ancient feuds or neighbors they hate, they may end up stuck doing work for which they are completely unsuited, and things are awfully dull. Quite a few of my contemporaries seem to believe this, or something like it:
The nice thing about traditional communities with well-defined norms is that they allow this strategy to work, mostly. There’s actually a script for you to follow, and if you follow it, you get rewarded and you fit in. You won’t blaze like a star or anything, and maybe there’ll be some strange inchoate yearnings deep in your soul that never get answered, but…if you can keep on the straight and narrow (whatever the local version of that may be), you’ll be more or less fine.
I disagree. In fact many people in traditional societies drink themselves into early graves, kill each other in brawls, or take any possible route of escape, whether that is joining the army or heading for the big city with nothing but the shirts on their backs. You may nearly paralyzed with anxiety with who you are or what you ought to be doing, but at least the Hatfields aren't stealing your cattle and threatening to shoot up your wedding.

No sort of life is easy; every path is hard in its own way.

Markets of Old London

Billingsgate Market, c. 1910.

Book sale in the Caledonian Road Market, c. 1910.

Covent Garden Market, 1910-1925.

Covent Garden Flower Market, c. 1910.

Leather Lane Market, 1936.

Leadenhall Market, Christmas 1935. More at Spitalfields Life.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Michael Reddick

These three images of the same charcoal drawing (the lower two are details) appeared on the Tumblr of the Cavin-Morris Gallery. I was so struck by them that I immediately searched for Michael Reddick, artist. This, from the Times in 1998, was pretty much the only thing I found:
To the Editor:

The art program of the Connecticut Prison Association is proud to have helped Raymond Materson and other talented prisoners get their starts as respected artists [ "From Scraps of Prison Cloth a Miniature World Grows," Dec. 11 ] . Other Connecticut prison artists, among them Michael Iovieno, Dominic Vincenzo and Michael Reddick, are also receiving national recognition.

The program provides art instruction, materials and exhibition opportunities to inmates throughout the state. Last year we worked with more than 300 prison artists, exhibited the work of 97 inmates in our annual show and published a journal.

SAMUEL MCKEEN CONNOR Art Program Coordinator, Connecticut Prison Association Hartford
The Cavin-Morris Gallery specializes in "Outsider Art," so I bet this is the same guy; art by a mysterious prisoner would be just their kind of thing. But what to you suppose has happened to Michael Reddick since then? Was he shanked in a dark hallway? Did confinement, in the end, sap his creative energy? Or could it be that he was released and found that he couldn't work on the outside?

150 Years of Hurricanes

Cool map by John Nelson; click to enlarge. A remarkably high percentage hit the Caribbean or the Philippines.

Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa by Thomas Heatherwick

London-based architect Thomas Heatherwick, took this old grain silo and carved it into a new museum. As you can see below, some of the geometry is quite striking. It was all done by subtraction; no new concrete was poured. Via This is Colossal.

Kim Jong-un on Trump

One great world leader to another:
A frightened dog barks louder. . . .

I am now thinking hard about what response he could have expected when he allowed such eccentric words to trip off his tongue.

Whatever Trump might have expected, he will face results beyond his expectation.

I will surely and definitely tame the mentally deranged U.S. dotard with fire.
This would be fun if there weren't a chance, in my mind small but real, that this could end in war.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Maria Crocifissa della Concezione's Devilish Letter

The news from Italy:
For more than three centuries, scholars, codebreakers and occultists have been stumped by a cryptic letter written by a Benedictine nun who claimed it was dictated by the Devil himself.

According to legend, Sister Maria Crocifissa della Concezione of the Palma di Montechiaro convent in southern Italy woke after a fainting spell on August 11, 1676 to find her face covered in ink. In one hand were several letters she had penned consisting of an indecipherable mix of symbols and languages.

Sister Maria and her sisters at the convent believed they had been delivered by a demon, but were unable to make any sense of the text.
But now Italian researchers claim to have deciphered 15 lines of the sole surviving letter using decryption software they found on the "dark web."
“Everything’s on there: drugs, prostitution, pedophilia and also programs used by intelligence services to decipher secret messages, like the one we used,” Ludum director Daniele Abate told Italian radio 105 Network.
The researchers did not let their dark software go in blind. They thought the text looked like a mix of characters from other languages that Sister Maria might have seen, so they programmed in Greek, Arabic, Latin, and the Runic alphabet. It seems that they were right, since their program was able to read much of the letter. Since the code was based on languages that Sister Maria was familiar with, they conclude that she wrote the letter herself.
The letter describes the relationship between humans, God and Satan in a rambling and inconsistent manner. In it, Sister Maria — or whoever had possessed her — encouraged God to abandon man and leave him in the clutches of the devil.

“God thinks he can free mortals, this system works for no one,” one of the translated lines reads. The text also describes God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit as “dead weights.”

Abate said the contents of the letters made her suspect Sister Maria may have been suffering from schizophrenia.

“I personally believe that the nun had a good command of languages, which allowed her to invent the code, and may have suffered from a condition like schizophrenia, which made her imagine dialogues with the Devil,” she told The Times of Israel. “That has not stopped numerous interested Satanic sects contacting me since I published our findings.”
How long will it be before there is a book claiming that the letter is a true prophecy of the End Times? Maybe I should write it myself.

Motivation and Education

From an essay by Amanda Ripley on education in the Middle East, but with worldwide applicability:
Motivation is the dark matter of education. It’s everywhere but impossible to see. Motivation helps explain why some countries get impressive education results despite child poverty and lackluster teaching, while others get mediocre results despite universal health care and free iPads. When kids believe in school, as any teacher will tell you, everything gets easier. So it’s crucial to understand the motivation to learn and how it works in the lives of real boys and girls. Because the slow slipping away of boys’ interest in education represents a profound failure of schools and society. And the implications are universally terrible. All over the world, poorly educated men are more likely to be unemployed, to have physical- and mental-health problems, to commit acts of violence against their families, and to go to prison. They are less likely to marry but quite likely to father children.
This grabbed me hard, because I view my inability to get my sons to care about school as the biggest failure of my adult life.

Google Building its own City

Here's a project I would love to be part of:
Alphabet’s far-reaching ambitions are forcing it to grapple with an unusual challenge for a private company: how to run its own city.

Google’s parent company was working on a sweeping plan to build a city from the ground up, the executive in charge of its urban innovation business said on Tuesday, in an attempt to prove that a technologically-enabled urban environment can improve quality of life and reduce cities’ impact on the environment.

That would raise profound questions about the rules that govern such tech-centric places, particularly regarding how citizens’ data are collected, protected and used, conceded the head of Sidewalk Labs, the Alphabet subsidiary running the project.

“We actually want to build a new city, it is a district of the city, but one that is of sufficient size and scale that it can be a laboratory for innovation on an integrated basis,” said Dan Doctoroff, head of Sidewalk Labs, at a talk to the San Francisco Bay Area Planning and Urban Research Association.

Sidewalk was “quite far along” in its search for a city with which to partner to build a testing ground for new approaches to transport, infrastructure and possibly even governance and social policy, he said.

Mr Doctoroff said he hoped the city could pioneer new approaches to data policies and even “set an example” for other places. “I think the real issues, which we have to confront as a society anyway, involve the use of data.”

“Having a place in which we actually aggressively wrestle with those issues, and we aggressively develop policies — that are the result of a really thoughtful conversation amongst privacy advocates, and members of the community, and the government as well as us, as sort of a sponsor of the place — I think that could set an example,” he said, in his most explicit comments to date on the planned project. 
What would be more fun than designing a city from the ground up? And this is refreshing:
Mr Doctoroff criticised Amazon’s request for tax incentives, saying that such incentives could hurt cities in the long term by undermining their tax base. He said that unlike Amazon, Sidewalk Labs was “not looking for huge handouts”.
On the other hand, it sounds like the price of living there will be that your whole life will be data mined as thoroughly as your online life is now.

Extended Childhood

Teenagers aren't so eager to grow up as they used to be:
…teenagers are increasingly delaying activities that had long been seen as rites of passage into adulthood. The study, published Tuesday in the journal Child Development, found that the percentage of adolescents in the U.S. who have a driver’s license, who have tried alcohol, who date, and who work for pay has plummeted since 1976, with the most precipitous decreases in the past decade.

The declines appeared across race, geographic, and socioeconomic lines, and in rural, urban, and suburban areas.

…Between 1976 and 1979, 86 percent of high school seniors had gone on a date; between 2010 and 2015 only 63 percent had, the study found. During the same period, the portion who had ever earned money from working plunged from 76 to 55 percent. And the portion who had tried alcohol plummeted from 93 percent between 1976 and 1979 to 67 percent between 2010 and 2016.

Teens have also reported a steady decline in sexual activity in recent decades, as the portion of high school students who have had sex fell from 54 percent in 1991 to 41 percent in 2015, according to Centers for Disease Control statistics.
Thoughts about the underlying cause?

We joke at my house that our kids want to hang around and do nothing because we have made home too pleasant for them; we say, "If only we'd beaten them more, they'd want to get jobs and leave." But seriously, have video games, movies on demand, the internet and friendly parenting made it more fun to just be 16 without worrying about rushing into adulthood? Is watching Bojack Horseman while you post on Facebook more fun than driving to a vacant lot to drink beer?

How big a part does anxiety play? The percentage of teenagers who report serious anxiety has (depending on who you ask) doubled or tripled or quintupled. Is anxiety keeping them from going on dates or getting jobs? If so, is that related to gentle parenting and the joys of cocooning at home, or is it caused by something else?

Why don't teenagers want jobs? Could it be because they already feel rich enough? I mean, if you have a smart phone and a computer with a broadband hookup, what else do you need? And if this is true, does it mean there is something wrong with the economic statistics that say the median household is no better off than a generation ago?

Nikolaos Gyzis, Behold the Celestial Bridegroom

Greek artist Nikolaos Gyzis (1842-1901) spent the last the last 6 years of his life painting variations on a swirling orbit of angels and clouds, under the title Behold the Celestial Bridegroom. Via The Curve in the Line.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Inequality and the Constitution

Teddy Roosevelt once wrote,
There can be no real political democracy unless there is something approaching an economic democracy.
This is an old idea, a problem that has been discussed and debated since the 5th century BC. Some ancient states dealt with great inequality by writing measures to protect the poor into their constitutions, most famously the Tribune of the Plebs in Rome. Ganesh Sitaraman writes of these arrangements,
We can think of these as class-warfare constitutions: Each class has a share in governing, and a check on the other. Those checks prevent oligarchy on the one hand and a tyranny founded on populist demagogy on the other.
These questions were debated at the American constitutional convention, where there were proposals to limit the Senate to the wealthy and the House of Representatives to those of lesser means. But in the end they were not adopted. Sitaraman:
What is surprising about the design of our Constitution is that it isn’t a class warfare constitution. Our Constitution doesn’t mandate that only the wealthy can become senators, and we don’t have a tribune of the plebs. Our founding charter doesn’t have structural checks and balances between economic classes: not between rich and poor, and certainly not between corporate interests and ordinary workers. . . .

And it wasn’t an oversight. The founding generation knew how to write class-warfare constitutions — they even debated such proposals during the summer of 1787. But they ultimately chose a framework for government that didn’t pit class against class. Part of the reason was practical. James Madison’s notes from the secret debates at the Philadelphia Convention show that the delegates had a hard time agreeing on how they would design such a class-based system. But part of the reason was political: They knew the American people wouldn’t agree to that kind of government.
Americans were not interested in such measures because they believed that they lived in a uniquely equal society:
Unlike Europe, America wasn’t bogged down by the legacy of feudalism, nor did it have a hereditary aristocracy. Noah Webster, best known for his dictionary, commented that there were “small inequalities of property,” a fact that distinguished America from Europe and the rest of the world. Equality of property, he believed, was crucial for sustaining a republic. During the Constitutional Convention, South Carolinan Charles Pinckney said America had “a greater equality than is to be found among the people of any other country.” As long as the new nation could expand west, he thought, it would be possible to have a citizenry of independent yeoman farmers. In a community with economic equality, there was simply no need for constitutional structures to manage the clash between the wealthy and everyone else.
All of this raises the question: is the level of inequality we have now incompatible with our constitutional arrangements? Is Donald Trump the plebeian-rousing demagogue our Founders feared? Or could some leftist with Bernie Sanders' platform but much better hair fill the role?

Is anger over inequality undermining our nation?

I worry that it is. The political effect of this anger was concealed for a long time by its division between left and right populisms. Since the angry populists have never held a dominant majority, and since they are split between two parties, they have not been able to take power. Until Trump, who took advantage of the Republican elite's weakness to seize control of the party, and then took advantage of the extreme dislike between the two parties to keep establishment Republicans loyal to him and thus win the election. I am not sure how much of a long-term threat this sort of politics poses. So far Trump's term in office has not seen much radicalism; the most radical idea he has advocated, dismantling Obamacare, is the position of mainstream Republicans. Is it inevitable that in power, any American radical will be moderated by the system? I don't know.

One of my sons asked me recently if I thought America had moved beyond the danger of Fascism. I said no. I followed that up by saying that I did not fear a simple Fascism of ethnic grievance, which can rally many Americans but not enough to take power. I said that to succeed in America a would-be dictator would have to combine ethno-nationalism with technocratic government; he would have to accomplish things that our Democracy has struggled with. This would work best if it included somethings dear to the left, like national health care and a massive infrastructure/jobs program, and others appealing to the right, such as maybe a re-invigorated elitist educational system, programs to promote marriage and childbearing, and strong support for the police.

I would never say that Democracy is completely safe. It helps us that we have deep habits in this direction born from long experience with it, but if Democracy fails to deal with our problems we will eventual discard it in favor of something that seems more promising.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

But Are They Real?

Let's play "real or fake?" with these two items from the online auction houses. The above is up for sale as a "Viking double-headed raven pendant necklace, 11th-12th century." But 1) it's amazingly well preserved – look at that plaited chain! Is that silver that has been in the ground for a thousand years? 2) the only provenance is "old European collection" and 3) I've never seen anything like it. The raven heads in particular don't look like any Viking examples I know of. I'm thinking fake.

This is supposed to be a bronze Roman statue hand with an iron dagger. I really know nothing about this sort of thing, but I'm suspicious because 1) I've never seen another one quite like this 2) copper and iron react very badly together so there ought to be a mass of corrosion where the bronze and iron meet, or damage from its removal and 3) this is just so much exactly the kind of thing 21st-century people want. I won't offer a firm opinion, not being any kind of expert on classical statuary, but my alarm bells are ringing.

Opiates in New Hampshire, or, Things are Complicated

The number one state for opiate overdose deaths is West Virginia, which is relatively poor and troubled in other ways. The number two state is New Hampshire:
Which U.S. state had the highest median income in 2016? . . .

New Hampshire.

The Granite State’s median household income last year was a whopping $76,260, nearly 30 percent higher than the national median of $59,039, according to the Census. . . .

One of the chief drivers of New Hampshire’s high median income is its poverty rate, which is the lowest in the nation. Only 6.9 percent of the state’s residents live below the poverty line, compared with a national average of 13.7 percent (in Mississippi nearly 21 percent of people live in poverty).

New Hampshire’s workforce is also among the best-educated in the country, according to previously released census data. Better-educated workers tend to make more money.
New Hampshire also has low inequality.

Economic distress is not the only driver of the opiate crisis.

It might be relevant that low-tax New Hampshire has very little in the way of state-funded addiction help. But I think the fundamental point is that America's current crisis is not economic; economically we are doing ok. It is a crisis of spirit.

Monday, September 18, 2017

No More Worrying about Immoral Politicians

I should be over being surprised or impressed by any more data showing how little most people care about the things they say they care about, but here's a doozy:

In the wake of Trump, the number of white evangelical Protestants saying they don't care about a politician's private morality has gone from 30 percent to 72 percent, which you have to admit is an impressive accomplishment for an orange-haired television personality.

Personally I've never cared much about this sort of thing, but in the 1990s I listened to conservative Christians going on about this forever. Maybe the good news is that I won't have to listen to it as much for a while.

In a Cool September

We had only one hot week in August, and since then four straight weeks of cool, cloudy weather when the temperature has rarely gone above 82 (28 C). This has been hard on the butterflies but the late summer flowers are thriving like I have never seen before.