Saturday, December 3, 2016

Louis Comfort Tiffany, Stained Glass Windows

Louis Comfort Tiffany (1848-1933) grew up wanting to be a painter. From a wealthy family, he spent his twenties traveling the world, painting among other things some decent orientalist views of Tangier, Morocco. (View of Oyster Bay, 1908)

In the 1870s he got interested in interior design, which in that era often included stained glass windows. His first surviving window is this one, done around 1880 for his own studio apartment in New York City. You can already see the way he was experimenting with different types of glass.

Window from the ballroom of the Tiffany family home in New York, 1885-1992.

In 1892 Tiffany opened a glass house in the Corona neighborhood of Queens, working with English glass-blower Arthur Nash. They developed a form of blended, opalescent glass they called Favrile, and they used this in conjunction with traditional clear pieces to create a great variety of colors and looks. You can clearly see the opalescent, semi-transparent glass in this famous work, Magnolias and Irises, 1908.

Within a decade their studio was world famous and a huge financial success. Most of the money came from the mass production of vases and lamps, but Tiffany himself continued to put much of his own effort into windows. (Parakeets, 1889, and detail)

A religious man but not much of a sectarian, Tiffany created many windows for churches, synagogues, Universalist meeting halls, and other places of worship. This array of windows is at St. Michael's Episcopal Church on Amsterdam Avenue in Manhattan.

The Angel of the Resurrection, from the First Presbyterian Church, Indianapolis, 1905

Dogwood, 1915.

Hudson River Landscape from Rochroane, 1905

Panels from the Presbyterian Church, Norfolk, Connecticut.

Snowball panel, 1904.

Field of Lillies from the Tiffany Chapel, Laurelton Hall, New York c. 1892-1900.

Greek Earrings from Colchis, 4th Century BCE

Truth, Lies, and Power, Part 2

Jacob Levy ponders the meaning of Donald Trump's outrageous lies, such as this tweet from November 27:
In addition to winning the Electoral College in a landslide, I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally.
Why lie? Why call into question the legitimacy of the election that he won? Riling up nativist and racist populist anger isn’t especially tactically useful at this moment.

To understand this kind of political untruth, I think we have to look to theorists of truth and language in politics. The great analysts of truth and speech under totalitarianism—George Orwell, Hannah Arendt, Vaclav Havel—can help us recognize this kind of lie for what it is. Sometimes—often—a leader with authoritarian tendencies will lie in order to make others repeat his lie both as a way to demonstrate and strengthen his power over them.

Saying something obviously untrue, and making your subordinates repeat it with a straight face in their own voice, is a particularly startling display of power over them. It’s something that was endemic to totalitarianism. Arendt analyzed the huge lies and blatant reversals of language associated with the Holocaust. Havel documented the pervasive little lies, lies that everyone knew to be lies, of late Communism. And Orwell gave us the vivid “2+2=5.”

Being made to repeat an obvious lie makes it clear that you’re powerless; it also makes you complicit. You’re morally compromised. Your ability to stand on your own moral two feet and resist or denounce is lost. Part of this is a general tool for making people part of immoral groups. . . . In a gang or the Mafia, your first kill makes you trustworthy, because you’re now dependent on the group to keep your secrets, and can’t credibly claim to be superior to them.

But in totalitarian and authoritarian politics, there seems to be something special about the lie, partly because so much of politics is about speech (and especially public speech) in the first place. Based on the evidence of his presidential campaign, I think Donald Trump understands this instinctively, and he relished the power to make his subordinates repeat his clearly outlandish lies in public.

Truth, Lies, and Power, Part 1

The result of a consistent and total substitution of lies for factual truth is not that the lie will now be accepted as truth, and truth be defamed as lie, but that the sense by which we take our bearings in the real world – and the category of truth vs. falsehood is one of the mental means to this end – is being destroyed.

– Hannah Arendt

The Media and the Economy

In the two hours that President-elect Donald J. Trump spent flying to Indiana on Thursday to boast that he saved 1,000 jobs, about 6,000 private-sector jobs in the United States were probably destroyed.

It’s a surprising statistic — one that speaks to the constant state of change in the labor market. My calculation is based on government data that shows that every three months roughly 6.7 million private-sector jobs are destroyed, which in an expanding labor market is offset by the creation of nearly 7.2 million jobs.

Over a full presidential term, more than 100 million jobs will be destroyed. Mr. Trump can’t expect to stanch much of that flow.
Since 2010, 302,000 new jobs have been added in Indiana.

I think that understanding an economy of 150 million jobs is a task for which both our minds and our media are totally unprepared. This drove me crazy during the 1992 election. TV news had decided that the recession was selling, and night after night the first item would be, "Today in Indiana another factory closed, eliminating 250 jobs. . . ." I had to stop watching the news altogether because it made me so mad. I think the drumbeat of bad news about what was really a moderate recession did a lot to elect Bill Clinton and create Ross Perot. It also scared people needlessly; I remember chatting with a 20-year-old clerk in a grocery store who said she was surprised to see so much business at Christmas because "everybody's getting laid off and nobody's got any money" – this when unemployment in Maryland was about 6 percent. It would have been ludicrous if she hadn't seemed so distressed.

Seeing the whole picture of a huge economy requires a real mental effort, and it requires looking beyond your own surroundings to other parts of the country and other kinds of people. This can only be done statistically, using weak parts of our brains that are easily overwhelmed by compelling stories and images. We typically understand big, complex phenomena mainly through symbols. So that is what the media gives us, usually in a very misleading way.

Wrangling firms like Carrier may work out very well for the President politically, since most of us think in symbols and 1000 jobs saved may turn out to be a potent one. But economically, it is a waste of time. Or worse; several economists have written essays recently arguing that putting pressure on individual firms over their business decisions is a terrible way to run an economy. If Trump wants to make a long-term difference he will have to change the calculus in a deeper way, for example by big tariffs. But the economists also think that would be a long-term disaster, more likely to spark a trade war that hurts everyone than to help American workers.

My hope is that the president-elect will stick with his roots in showmanship and continue to emphasize the symbolic, rather than really trying to overhaul the economy. Because I don't think anyone understands the world economy well enough to know what changes would really help ordinary people enmeshed in a global system, and I am certain that Trump does not.

Friday, December 2, 2016

Today's Advice

From General James Mattis, Trump's nominee to be Secretary of Defense, to his soldiers in Iraq:
Be polite, be professional, but have a plan to kill everybody you meet.

A Little More Fall

Washington, yesterday.

Prices for Solar Power Still Plunging

In September, Abu Dhabi Water and Electricity signed a contract to purchase solar power from a new plant at 2.42 cents/kwh. That's less than half the going price for natural gas power, and is in fact the the cheapest contract for electricity ever signed, anywhere on planet earth, using any technology. The previous record, also for solar power, lasted only five weeks.

Fewer Serial Killers Killing Fewer Americans

Here's another piece of good news about contemporary America: murders by serial killers are way down. The data comes from the FBI and Dr. Mike Aamodt, a forensic psychologist who has been intensely studying serial killers for decades. Note that the FBI's definition of a serial killer just means killing people in at least two separate incidents, so it includes lots of gang enforcers and the like. But there are certainly many fewer maniacs of the John Wayne Gacy type. And not only is the number of serial killers going down, they are claiming fewer victims; killers with five or more victims have declined from 42% of the (decreasing) total to 13%.

The steep rise in the graph from 1950 to 1980 has something to do with better record keeping and more awareness. But the steep decline is probably real. Asked why, Dr. Aamodt offers this:
“One of the keys here is a change in parole laws — longer sentences, things like the three strikes rule,” he says. “If you take a look at serial killers in our database prior to 1980, 22 percent had killed someone, gone to prison, been released, then killed again when they got out. You get a big reduction in that after 1980.”

Aamodt also cites improved forensic science (“We’re getting better at catching criminals after one murder instead of three or four,” he says”), as well as a culture that generally engages in less risk-taking. It used to be acceptable to hitchhike or let a child ride her bicycle alone in a park; today, it is more difficult for serial killers to find vulnerable victims like this.

Paul Ryan's Priorities

The latest from the leader of the normal Republicans:
Regulatory relief....Obamacare relief....reforming the tax code....foreign policy, rebuilding the military....securing the border....And then while we work on that, we want to work on poverty and restoring our constitutional separation of powers....So those are effectively the six pieces that we’ve been talking about.
As Kevin Drum points out, just "regulatory relief" and "reforming the tax code" are huge jobs that could occupy the House for all of the next two years, and if you add in trying to find some sort of replacement for Obamacare they will be very busy. And notice that there is nothing on this list about Ryan's pet project, reforming Medicare. He seems to have decided that since Trump promised not to touch the entitlements of his elderly voters, he is better off staying away from that for now.

Good luck "restoring our constitutional separation of powers" with Trump in charge.

John Singer Sargent, Statue of Perseus by Night

c. 1902

Fraud and False Identity in Afghanistan, and Colonial North America

Amusing story in the Times about a man who posed as an Afghan government official so successfully that he got himself flown around the country in a government helicopter, protected by elite troops. Afghanistan, a place where most of whatever records there were have been blown up or burned in 30 years of war, has a huge problem with fraud and false identity. Sometimes this is tragic, as when men who claim to be Taliban peace emissaries turn out to be suicide bombers. Other times it is farce:
One shopkeeper made it as far as the presidential palace posing as the Taliban’s deputy leader and was rewarded with cash for a willingness to talk peace.
This reminds me of many stories I have read about colonial America. A whole string of Europeans showed up in the New World claiming to be everything from princes to doctors of philosophy, and how was anyone to check? If they could act the part, these men might find a willing reception in many corners of the colonies. A Swiss land speculator who called himself the Baron von Graffenried left a trail through the middle colonies, eventually earning a place in history as co-founder of New Bern, North Carolina. Some of the first German churches in America, from South Carolina to New Jersey, were taken in by a preacher who called himself Carl Rudolf and claimed to be the rightful Prince of Wuerttemberg, getting entertained by each German community along the road before stealing cash or jewelry and disappearing into the night, one step ahead of news about his crimes.

In a slow-moving traditional world identities are established by tight-knit communities where everybody knows everybody else's business. In the 20th century identities came to be established by governments, with records and passports and ID cards. But where there are neither stable communities nor rigorous bureaucracies, chaos and fraud often reign.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

When Cows Can Milk Themselves

For generations, dairies have been hooking cows to milking machines twice a day. But now there are robot milking machines that allow cows to enter whenever they want, and it turns out that some cows want to be milked a lot more than twice a day. The average is three times a day, and for the highest producers it is four to five times a day. It seems that we have bred cows to make so much milk that being milked twice a day is not enough to relieve the pressure. This also leads to more milk production, an increase of 8 to 12 percent. So the cows are happier and the farmers get more milk.

Of all the strange things.

Shamanism and Sanity

One thing primitive tribes around the world have in common is the pursuit of ecstasy, the complete escape from the external world into a dreamscape universe. For some reason most advanced agricultural societies turned against the hallucinogenic drugs and savage rituals that generate these states; since the Bronze Age humans have mostly limited themselves to mild stimulants and the numbing effects of alcohol.

Recently scientists and doctors, frustrated by their inability to cure the widespread anxiety and depression that are among the worst banes of modern life, have taken renewed interest in mind-altering drugs. Study after study has shown that in certain circumstances they make certain people feel much, much better. I have written here about using ketamine to treat depression, and just yesterday MDMA to use post-traumatic stress disorder. Today there is news of a new study that found success using psilocybin to treat depression in cancer patients.

I feel certain that there is something to these studies. After all the desire for mind-altering drugs is so widespread among humankind (and also other species) that it must be a response to a biological need. Evolution, it seems, does not care how you feel, and in fact it sometimes achieves its ends by making you feel really awful. And sometimes there is nothing we can do to resolve those stresses through action. Hence, drugs.

But I would make two big caveats about all this good news. One is that while these drugs may help some people, they don't help everyone, and sometimes they hurt a lot. The "bad trip" is a big part of LSD lore because it really happens. Sometimes the bad effects persist for a long time. Richard Feynman, a bad-boy physicist who reveled in defying the man, recounted in his memoirs that although he was always fascinated by ecstatic experiences he decided in the end not to try LSD. He had read and heard too many believable accounts of people who suffered long-term mental damage to take the risk. Of course if you are so crippled by depression or anxiety that you can't function, or if you are slowly dying of cancer, your calculus might be different.

The other caveat is that making these drugs available medically will inevitably make them more available on the street, and it will also inevitably invite more people to self-medicate with them rather than seeking professional help. Any drug that helps you feel better can lead to dependence. We are living with the profound bad effects of making pain medication more available for people who are really suffering, and making psilocybin a common crutch for the troubled would probably be another disaster.

There are few unalloyed goods in the world; everything else comes with a downside. Given how many people suffer now from mysterious mental woes, and how many of them have already screwed themselves up with alcohol or opiates, I think making hallucinogens and hypnotics more available is worth the risk.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Johannes Fried, Charlemagne

Charlemagne (748-814) was one of the greatest European rulers, but he has few biographers. This is because, as German historian Johannes Fried explains in the preface to his very long and amazingly learned account, we really know very little about him:
The following book is not a novel, but it is a work of fiction all the same. . . . It is impossible nowadays to fathom the depths of a life lived more than twelve hundred years ago, so the only thing remaining for a writer to fall back on is his own imagination. (vii)
What, exactly, do we know? We have narratives of Charlemagne's long reign, but, says Fried, these are paltry, biased, and tell us little about the king's motives or aims. We have a large body of laws and administrative orders enacted by his council, and an even better record of church councils over which he presided. Scattered among the documents saved by Europe's oldest monasteries are copies of some of these decrees marked with corrections, as if this were the very parchment brought into the royal council for final debate and approval. We have a handful of official letters from Charlemagne to the Pope and other worthies, and a fair sample of letters by churchmen who knew the emperor well. We have poems written to praise him. We have two dialogues written by Alcuin, a priest who was one of Charlemagne's closest advisers, that take the form of conversations between Alcuin and emperor himself; some historians think these might vaguely approximate actual discussions between the two men, or at least cover topics they actually discussed. Most famously we have a brief biography written by a man who knew Charlemagne well, the courtier Einhard. But Einhard is oddly silent about most of the things modern readers would like to know, which makes his text as much a frustration for biographers as a help.

These sources show us two very different sides of the man. On the one hand there is the secular warlord of a semi-civilized tribe, who loved fighting and listening to "stories and deeds of olden times," whose favorite food was roast game fresh from the hunt, who married and divorced a series of women as his impulses and political needs dictated, besides taking numerous concubines. It is Charlemagne the warrior who appears most clearly in Einhard's Life, defeating one enemy after another, bedding the women who pleased him. Fried reviews this material but really he does not add very much beyond what one can read in Einhard and the Frankish Royal Annals. That is because two centuries of obsessive research into Charlemagne has turned up very little else about the military side of his reign, and nothing at all that can add to Einhard's two paragraphs on his private life. Fried has dug up some excellent material on matters like who served in the army, how they were summoned, and so on. For example he tells us that gear for an armored warrior – helmet, coat of mail, sword, leg armor, spear, shield, stallion – cost 40 pence, equal to 18 to 20 cows. To put it another way, it took 12 small farmsteads to support one armored, mounted warrior. (38)

The other Charlemagne was a pious son of the church who worked all his reign to spread the Christian faith, reform and purify the church, uphold the authority of the pope, and educate his people in the basics of Christian doctrine. This is the Charlemagne who interests Johannes Fried. Fried is an expert in the intellectual history of this era, and he knows the ins and outs of every text. Fried is out to show that the church reforms and educational programs launched by Charlemagne were crucial to intellectual life in Europe over the next several centuries, that Charlemagne was personally involved in all of this, and that his immersion in Christian thought and church administration completely change the emperor's approach to ruling.

Early in his reign, when he was marching to war almost every year, Charlemagne may have been something like the warrior king portrayed by Einhard. But Charlemagne actually withdrew from active campaigning after 778. For most of his reign he left the fighting to other men, including his sons. Instead, Charlemagne focused on diplomacy (for example with the Byzantine Emperor and Caliph Harun al-Rashid), justice, education, and reform of the church. Fried's Charlemagne imagined a new sort of kingdom, sustained not by force of arms but by Christianity. Charlemagne and his advisers wanted to bring a religious order to the realm, beginning with the church itself but eventually spreading beyond it. To begin with, all priests must be able to read the Bible, and they must have accurate Bibles to read (or at least the parts that appear in the liturgy); they must be trained in the basics of Aristotelian logic, so they can understand and expound theology. Schools to train them must be established in all the major monasteries, besides which the monasteries must be brought to order, all following the same rule. Everyone must use the same calendar, so all the feasts are celebrated on the same day. Orthodoxy must be enforced and heresy wiped out. Only then can secular society be brought to some kind of order; only religion can really bring justice to the violent, savage world. Fried is not very good at summing up his arguments, preferring to expound them gradually over dozens of pages with hundreds of citations, but this gives the flavor of his approach:
This renaissance in knowledge and aptitude was not sought for its own sake, nor was competence in Latin revived just for the purposes of logic. The purpose of both, as the Church Father St. Augustine had stressed in his writings, was to promote the soul’s redemption, the true faith, the correct observance of sacred rites, and the understanding of the Holy Scriptures and of the world order ordained by God, and thereby to support a form of rule that was pleasing to God and included welfare provision for the poor and disadvantaged, another key requirement of religion. Religious motives really did drive Charlemagne’s concern for education, and along with this his desire to establish the first step in the rationalization of European intellectual culture. . . .

This culture of learning was meant to shape every aspect of life, including divine worship, the Church in general, and even the decisions taken by the royal council. The defense of the faith, resistance to heresy, and order within the realm all cried out for it; grammar was needed for prayer, rhetoric for ruling, and dialectics for faith, while the sum total of knowledge was required to maintain the divine order of the world. These arts provided a theoretical grounding for real life, for the philosophy and exercise of power, and for Charlemagne’s Frankish Empire as a whole. (284)
These are radical ideas, but Fried has some strong arguments. For example, Charlemagne's council enacted several laws over the years trying to keep the free men who made up his army from being turned into serfs by powerful lords, each law prefaced with a statement saying that the old laws had been ignored. The counts, the chief secular officials of the empire, were criticized on this point again and again. In his last set of laws Charlemagne enacted that henceforth no count could strip a man of his freedom unless a bishop were also present and concurred in the ruling. This seems like a clear attempt to rectify the shortcomings of secular justice with the church's help.

Later in the Middle Ages there would be centuries-long conflicts over the boundaries of secular and church power, marked by several wars between popes and emperors. During the course of those disputes the popes used a number of documents that were supposed to date to the reign of Constantine or not long afterword, which established the superiority of the pope over the emperor. Fried shows that some of the most violently pro-church, anti-secular documents did not come from the papacy; they were forged in monasteries under the control of Charlemagne and his close friends, either at the end of his reign or during that of his son Louis the Pious. (E.g., the Decretals of Pseudo Isidore, and the first version of the document that evolved into the Donation of Constantine.) It was the men around Charlemagne who gave the popes the strongest arguments for their superiority.

Fried's Charlemagne despaired of secular power. He gave up thinking that he could bring his great empire to order by more laws and more wars. He came to believe that only divine order, flowing through a perfectly ordered church, administered by learned priests and bishops, backed by the great learning of the Church Fathers, could bring peace and justice to this fallen world. Captured by the logic of theology and canon law, he saw in the rationality of Catholic learning and the holiness of the church the only hope for his fractious age.

I can't decide what to make of Fried's Charlemagne. If Charlemagne really turned against the whole basis of his ancestors' rule, it seems odd that his friend Einhard would have failed to mention it. It has happened many times in history that the court of an aging king was taken over by a faction of ideologues, and I can imagine that this might have happened to Charlemagne; perhaps the imperial acts that fascinate Fried were more the product of a cabal of churchmen than of the emperor himself. But on the other hand the subsequent history of Europe to some extent bears out the views that Fried attributes to Charlemagne: secular authority did fail to maintain order, the empire collapsed into civil war, and whatever order, justice and learning survived in the crumbling Frankish empire was maintained by the church.

This is a thick book dense with learning, not for the faint-hearted. But the writing is good and there are lots of interesting little stories and small triumphs of research to keep things moving, so anyone with interest and plenty of time can learn a lot about the Carolingian age from Fried. Even more, you can see in this book the mind of a great scholar at work. Fried displays here the kinds of arguments and insights that are possible for someone who has mastered the vast apparatus of historical scholarship on an intensely studied period. Fried has also delved deeply into the available sources, squeezing them to the limit for the stories they can tell. It is an amazing performance. If it fails to completely convince, that is partly because Fried is honest about the limits of our understanding. He has, as he warned in his preface, gone beyond what can be proved to what can only be imagined; and he has done this in a very impressive way.

Johannes Fried, Charlemagne. Translated by Peter Lewis, from the Harvard University Press, 2016; German original 2013. 554 pages of text, 75 pages of notes.

Meet the New Boss. . . .

Matt Levine pointed out two weeks ago that the two men reportedly being considered for Treasury Secretary in the Trump administration were not exactly populist outsiders:
Donald Trump's closing argument in this presidential campaign was a two-minute advertisement blaming America's problems on a conspiracy of global financiers like George Soros and Goldman's Lloyd Blankfein, so it seems fitting that the two leading candidates to be his Treasury Secretary are Steven Mnuchin and Wilbur Ross. Mnuchin is a former Goldman Sachs Group Inc. partner, used to work with Soros, and is in Skull and Bones. Ross was literally the president of a secret Wall Street fraternity that holds black-tie dinners where they perform in drag and make fun of the less fortunate. If you voted for Trump to kick the Illuminati out of Washington, this must be a disappointment.
Now it looks like Mnuchin is getting the nod for Treasury, which is in a way hilarious; you campaign against the power of international bankers like Goldman Sachs, and then bring a Goldman Sachs partner into your cabinet.

The Loneliness of the Adult Male Sperm Whale

The caption to this National  Geographic photo, by Mike Korostelev, is
In the Azores, an archipelago approximately 900 miles off the coast of Portugal, a group of sperm whales huddles beneath the surface. While adult males are solitary creatures when not breeding, females and juveniles assemble in pods of 10 to 20 members, often vocalizing and touching each other when socializing, as seen here.
And this set me wondering. What is it like for an adolescent male sperm whale to leave the pod and set off on his own? Is he lonely? Does the longing for companionship drive him to fight other males for access to the females during mating season? Or is he happy to be free? Does maturation among male sperm whales cause them to lose the need for companionship they had in their youths? I am convinced that all mammals have feelings, so I'm sure that sperm whales feel something. But I cannot imagine what a male sperm whale feels during his decades of lonely life in the deep ocean.

A Real Trial of Using MDMA to Treat PTSD

MDMA, better known as Ecstasy, was actually used by therapists before it ever become a street drug. But once it spread to the dance clubs and began to kill people the authorities clamped down, and it became a Schedule 1 drug with no legal uses.

Some therapists never lost their interest in the drug, though, hoping to use its mind-opening properties to speed the therapeutic process:
Research has shown that the drug causes the brain to release a flood of hormones and neurotransmitters that evoke feelings of trust, love and well-being, while also muting fear and negative emotional memories that can be overpowering in patients with post-traumatic stress disorder. Patients say the drug gave them heightened clarity and ability to address their problems.
In particular there has been interest in using it to treat Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The idea is that reviewing the horrible memories under the influence of the drug's flood of good feeling can loosen their hold on the mind and render them less terrifying. Enough anecdotal accounts of people self-medicating themselves with the street version have emerged to make some psychiatrists long for a real trial.

Now, finally, this is getting under way. The Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies has completed six small, Phase 2 studies of the drug involving 130 patients, and the results have been good; in one of these studies 2/3 of the patients ended up no longer meeting the diagnostic criteria for PTSD. Some of the patients have raved about their results. "If it weren't for MDMA, I'd be dead," one said. So now there will be a larger, more formal, Phase 3 trial, opening the way for eventual approval of MDMA as a prescription drug.

That might be great for many sufferers, but other people look at our experience with expanding the prescription of opiates for pain and see another drug crisis looming. After all, MDMA is both fun and dangerous, and vulnerable people can get addicted. In the recent studies MDMA is given in a doctor's office, under supervision, so the idea is not to give people a bottle of pills they can take home or sell. Even so, legalizing the drug will increase the supply, and perhaps also convince many people that self-medicating with it might be a good idea.

But then just about everything is dangerous if misused, and I say if it helps any of the wounded, we owe them a chance to try this cure.

Thracian Silver Torc

With swan's heads. No archaeological context, dated by style to c. 200 BCE to 100 CE. From Timeline Auctions.

The Fugue of Ansel Bourne

The first psychologist to provide a reliable account of a man who had misplaced his identity was William James. In his Principles of Psychology, James narrates the case of Ansel Bourne, a 60-year-old carpenter from Greene, Rhode Island. On January 17, 1887, Bourne boarded a horse-drawn streetcar bound for his sister’s house. He never arrived. Two months later, a man named A.J. Brown awoke in a panic. Brown had arrived in Norristown, Pennsylvania, six weeks before, rented a small shop, and hung out his shingle. He sold candy and toys, made weekly trips to Philadelphia to replenish his stock, and attended a Methodist church on Sundays. Yet now his bed looked unfamiliar. Waking his landlord, Brown demanded to know where he was and how he got there. Brown declared that his name was not A.J. Brown—of whom he knew nothing—but Ansel Bourne. The baffled landlord telegraphed a man in Providence who Brown said was his nephew. The nephew hurried to the scene and confirmed, to general perplexity, that Brown was Bourne. A despondent Bourne claimed to lack any memory of the previous eight weeks. The last thing he recalled was the streetcar.

James labeled the case a “spontaneous hypnotic trance.” Today, it would be called a fugue. The word fugue comes from the Latin fugere, meaning “to flee.” A person in a fugue state suffers a kind of involuntary erasure of individuality. Often, people in fugues use pseudonyms and construct fictitious personal histories. They act mostly normally, though for inexplicable reasons, they generally abstain from sex. Some fugues are peripatetic, causing people to travel long distances. In one study, fugue sufferers migrated a mean distance of 1,200 miles. They are oblivious to their condition until someone tells them, at which point a cognitive crisis usually ensues. Fugues depart as mysteriously as they arrive. Some resolve after a few hours or days; others endure for months or years. Afterward, patients find themselves restored, gradually. Their old identities return, intact, though they remember nothing of their mesmeric episode.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

The (Non) Future of Coal

More elite experts, explaining why Donald Trump cannot possibly keep his promises to the working class people who voted for him:
All year, Donald Trump has been promising to rescue the US coal industry by repealing various Obama-era pollution rules and ending the “war on coal.” And all year, analysts have pointed out that he probably can’t stop the collapse of the coal industry — since coal’s woes go far beyond the Environmental Protection Agency.

But if you want a perfect example of why Trump will struggle to bring back coal, just look at Michigan.

Last weekend, the CEO of Michigan’s largest electric utility reiterated that his company is still planning to retire eight of its nine remaining coal plants by 2030 — whether or not Trump tries to repeal President Obama’s climate policies. “All of those retirements are going to happen regardless of what Trump may or may not do with the Clean Power Plan,” DTE Energy’s Gerry Anderson told’s Emily Lawler.

Anderson’s reasoning was simple. Coal is no longer the economic choice for generating electricity, due to relentless competition from cheaper (and cleaner) natural gas and wind power. In Michigan, a new coal plant costs $133 per megawatt hour. A natural gas plant costs half that. Even wind contracts now cost about $74.52 per megawatt hour, after federal tax credits. “I don't know anybody in the country who would build another coal plant,” Anderson said.
This fits with what the TVA announced last year, that they would finish closing 26 of their 59 coal-fired plants by the end of 2016, far ahead of any Federal requirement. They offered the same reason: natural gas is cheaper and cleaner.

Not only are natural gas plants cheaper, they can be much smaller, and therefore nimbler, leaner, more dancing in the chaos, whatever trendy business buzzword you prefer. It simply makes no sense for any company to sink a billion dollars of capital into a huge coal-fired plant when the future market looks both unprofitable and highly uncertain.

So coal production will continue to fall, and coal mining employment will fall even faster, since companies are responding to falling demand by closing the most labor-intensive mines first.

And all of this is happening before a single provision of  Obama's Clean Power Plan comes into effect. In fact we may fulfill the overall goal of that plan – a 30% cut in emissions from generating power by 2030 – next year. It certainly might be true that having Obama's plan hanging out there is part of the calculus that makes new coal-fired plants look dubious to utility executives, but since there is bound to be another Democratic president eventually, just repealing Obama initiatives won't remove that uncertainty.

These are the headwinds that Trump and his voters are running into: both the environmentalism of the left and the free capitalism of the Paul Ryan Republicans are pushing America away from coal, and it would take a massive government commitment to push back effectively.

The Uncertain Future

From a review of Yuval Noah Harari's Homo Deus, a book about how genetic manipulation and artificial intelligence will change the future of humanity:
We are just at the start of this process of data-driven transformation and Harari says there is little we can do to stop it. Homo Deus is an “end of history” book, but not in the crude sense that he believes things have come to a stop. Rather the opposite: things are moving so fast that it’s impossible to imagine what the future might hold. In 1800 it was possible to think meaningfully about what the world of 1900 would be like and how we might fit in. That’s history: a sequence of events in which human beings play the leading part. But the world of 2100 is at present almost unimaginable. We have no idea where we’ll fit in, if at all. We may have built a world that has no place for us.

Given what an alarming thought this is, and since we aren’t there yet, why can’t we do more to stop it from happening? Harari thinks the modern belief that individuals are in charge of their fate was never much more than a leap of faith. Real power always resided with networks. Individual human beings are relatively powerless creatures, no match for lions or bears. It’s what they can do as groups that has enabled them to take over the planet. These groupings – corporations, religions, states – are now part of a vast network of interconnected information flows. Finding points of resistance, where smaller units can stand up to the waves of information washing around the globe, is becoming harder all the time.
I share the view that the world of 2100 is simply unimaginable. Part of my mind says that change is always less sweeping than we think, continuity greater;  but the other part says no, it just has always been that way before, and this time it could really be very different.

Jim Mneymneh, the Ballet Statue

Submitted to the Smithsonian's photo contest in the "altered photograph" category.

What Happens if Assad Wins?

The Times finally discusses Syria in terms that make sense to me, admitting that Assad is likely to win the civil war:
With the Syrian government making large territorial gains in Aleppo on Monday, routing rebel fighters and sending thousands of people fleeing for their lives, President Bashar al-Assad is starting to look as if he may survive the uprising, even in the estimation of some of his staunchest opponents.
But should he win, it is not likely to be a very glorious victory:
Yet, Mr. Assad’s victory, if he should achieve it, may well be Pyrrhic: He would rule over an economic wasteland hampered by a low-level insurgency with no end in sight, diplomats and experts in the Middle East and elsewhere say.
Post-civil war Syria was described by former U.S. Ambassador Robert Ford as "a half-dead corpse. . . a gaping wound that stretches as far as the eye can see." Assad has offended the U.S. and the E.U. too deeply to be able to get any rebuilding aid from them or the World Bank, and his friends in Iran and Russia don't have much money to give him. So the Syrian government will be broke, its industry ruined, its largest city rubble, with ISIS and al Qaeda still on the loose.

Syria's suffering is likely to go on for at least another decade.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Today's Amazing Science News

Flamingos with the most dance moves get the most partners:
Flamingos are very good dancers. They twist and preen, they scratch their heads, they march in unison. They poke a wing in one direction and a leg in another.

They bend forward, sticking their tails up; they vigorously flap their wings in a flashy red and black display.

Flamingos are serially monogamous. They mate for one year, get divorced, and find a new mate the next year. New mates are mutually agreed upon — males and females both dance in search of a compatible partner.

Now researchers have discovered that birds with the largest repertoire of dance moves, and the ability to switch quickly and often from one move to another, are the ones who most often succeed in finding mates.
This ought to excite my youngest daughter, a fan of Dancing with the Stars who occasionally greets me with, "Hey, Dad, show me your new moves!"

. . . . . . . . um, yeah. Sure.

Videos of dancing flamingos here and here.

Cleopatra through the Ages

A quick tour of some of the ways Cleopatra VII Philopator (69-30 BCE) has been portrayed in western art, beginning with a possible contemporary portrait, now in Berlin.

Cleopatra as an Egyptian goddess, contemporary.

Cleopatra's Suicide, from the catacombs on the Via Latina.

Manuscript illustration from France, 1300 to 1310 CE. Here the image of Cleopatra holding the fatal asp to her breast has been confused or deliberately merged with the ancient image of the mother of monsters nursing her brood.

The Suicides of Anthony and Cleopatra, Italian, c. 1480, from a manuscript of Boccaccio's Decameron. This one also has a little of the mother of monsters theme.

Antoine Dufour, 1505.

Famous drawing by Michelangelo.

Elisabetta Sirani, c. 1650. Cleopatra dropping the pearl in her wine.

Cleopatra's Feast by Jacob Jordaens, 1653; Cleopatra as a plump Flemish matron.

In the 18th Century: Cleopatra and the Dying Mark Anthony by Pompeo Batoni, 1763.

Cleopatra as an exotic (and cruel) Oriental: Cleopatra Testing Poisons on Condemned Prisoners, by Alexandre Cabanel, 1823.

Femme fatale: Cleopatra by Mosè Bianchi, 1865.

Lawrence Alma-Tadema, The First Meeting of Cleopatra and Antony, 1885, and detail. Note the spider web pattern in the cloth shielding her from the sun.

Brooding and dangerous: John William Waterhouse, 1888.

Liz Taylor, 1963.

And in an Afrocentric 20th-century version you can buy from hundreds of web sites, none of which credit an artist.

How Long Have People been Dissing Each Other?

Using searchable databases of old newspapers, researchers associated with the Green’s Dictionary of Slang have shown that many slang terms are older than we thought:
An extraordinary case involves the word “dis” in the sense of an insult: “He dissed me!” Green had assumed the term originated among African-Americans in the 1980s. However, that theory was disproved by an example from 1905 in Australia of all places. Green located this surprising use in the Perth Sun Times: “When a journalistic rival tries to ‘dis’ you / And to prejudice you in the public’s eyes.” Rather than suggesting a hidden Australian influence on African-American vernacular, this finding is more of a testament to the latent potential of “dis” to detach from words such as “disparage” and “disrespect.”

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Trump as an Old-Fashioned Conservative

Subtract the reality TV hucksterism and Trump is a perfectly ordinary Republican of the 1920s, or so says Stephen Mihm:
Consider Trump’s core campaign message, from which he rarely wavered. Free trade is bad, and is responsible for the nation’s economic decline. Immigration is an existential threat to the American way of life. Global institutions, treaties, and alliances should be viewed with suspicion. Nationalism is a bulwark against globalization.

All of this seems heretical to today’s free-market, foreign affairs conservatives, but it’s actually just the revival of what once passed for party orthodoxy. In the 1920s, Republicans hated free trade, preferring protective tariffs. . . .

Republican suspicion of free trade found a corollary in suspicion of the open borders. Earlier in the 20th century, Republicans had fallen under the spell of writers like Madison Grant, whose polemical 1916 book, "The Passing of the Great Race," argued that the white Anglo-Saxon population would be inundated by the waves of “inferior” groups – Jews, Asians and other non “Nordic” peoples – unless immigration could be curtailed.

Eventually, Republicans in Congress put a stop to immigration, imposing a draconian quota system.
Of course, Republicans refused to join the League of Nations, and they opposed any involvement in European or Asian wars down to 1941. Anti-globalism remained at the core of Republican beliefs until 1952, when the internationalist Eisenhower became the candidate; the first strong free-trader to get the Republican nomination was Goldwater in 1964.

This fits with what I have been trying to say: that until Trump there was no real conservative party in America, and hadn't been since before Reagan or even Goldwater. Many Americans still long to wall off the world and keep things here just as they are, and the whole elite keeps telling them that what they want is impossible. Until Trump.

The Restored Murals of the Stratford Guild Chapel

The Guild Chapel in Stratford-upon-Avon, England, is one of the town's most important medieval buildings and a regular stop on all historical tours of Shakespeare's birthplace.

The guild constructed its first chapel in 1269, and parts of that structure are still present. But the current tower and nave were built over the course of the 1400s.

It has long been known that the chapel contained medieval wall paintings that had been covered with whitewash in the reign of Elizabeth I. Elizabeth was a Protestant, but according to the bizarrely rigid inheritance law in place at the time she became ruler on the death of her Catholic half-sister Mary. Elizabeth ordered
The removal of all signs of idolatry and superstition, from places of worship, so that there remain no memory of the same in walls, glasses, windows, or elsewhere within their churches and houses.
The good people of Stratford decided that this included the painting of Christ at the Last Judgement in their chapel. An interesting historical footnote is that it was Will Shakespeare's father, John Shakespeare, who as royal bailiff of Stratford would have received the order and been responsible for carrying it out. Some have read the careful whitewashing of the painting (many Catholic images were smashed or otherwise badly damaged) as a sign that he was either a Catholic sympathizer or a closet art lover.

Now, thanks to a £100,000 grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund, the murals have been uncovered and restored.

One of the most interesting paintings is this Allegory of Death, with extensive text in English.


Details from the main panel of Christ in Judgement.

I have always found the way the English Reformation played out fascinating. Some people cared a great deal whether they were Protestant or Catholic, enough to risk death for attending secret ceremonies or even rebel against the crown. But most people seem not to have bothered much about it. When Henry VIII took control of the English church he required all the priests to swear an oath acknowledging him as head of the church, and almost all of them did. When his daughter Mary took the church back to Rome, most of the priests stayed in place again, and when Elizabeth went back to Protestantism more than 90 percent of the priests took the oath to her.

To me this says that the average early modern Christian was not particularly concerned about theology. On the other hand many English people informed on their neighbors who attended secret Catholic or Dissenting ceremonies, and prejudice against Catholics and Dissenters was quite strong into the late nineteenth century. What bothered people most was sins against community, and they did not much like it when their neighbors thought themselves too holy to attend the same church as everyone else. Whatever denomination it happened to be.