Friday, February 24, 2017

Seventeen Unknown Confederate Dead

First, a story. I drove down to Washington yesterday because I spent the morning in the field. So yesterday afternoon I was driving home, headed out Georgia Avenue toward the Beltway. When my car started feeling weird, as if the brakes weren't releasing all the way. And then they locked up completely. With a maximum speed of about 2 mph, I fought my way from the center lane (6-lane road) to the outer lane and then into a gas station. This was about 4:30. The mechanic on duty looked at my brakes and said, "Your calipers are locked up. Probably need new ones. Can't get it done today." So I left my car to the kindness of strangers and headed home, hiking a mile to the Metro, riding that down to Union Station, catching a commuter train to my regular stop and getting one of my eldest son's friends to drive me home from there.

Today I trained in and then in the afternoon retraced my steps back to the garage. I decided to walk from the other direction, so I got off the Metro in Silver Spring and marched up Georgia Avenue. Walking by a nice but really very old looking church, I was startled to come across this monument.

It says,
To the Memory of
Who Fell in Front of
Washington, D.C.
July 12, 1864
By their Comrades.
That was the fight we now know as the Battle of Fort Stevens, part of Jubal Early's Raid on Washington. The monument surprised me because I consider myself something of an expert on the Battle of Fort Stevens. I studied the surviving part of the battlefield for the Park Service and even wrote a brochure about it, which you can read here. But I never knew about this monument. It is not at the Battleground Cemetery, a Federal creation, but in an ordinary churchyard.

I consider this discovery recompense for all the trouble with my car.

Cycles of History

Peter Turchin:
Different groups have different degrees of cooperation .. cohesiveness and solidarity. .. Groups with high [cohesion] arise on .. frontier .. area where an imperial boundary coincides with a fault line between two [ethnic] communities .. places where between group competition is very intense. .. Only groups possessing high levels of [cohesion] can construct large empires. ..

Stability and internal peace bring prosperity, and prosperity causes population increase .. leads to overpopulation, .. causes lower wages, higher land rents, and falling per capital incomes. At first, low wages and high rents bring unparalleled wealth to the upper class, but as their numbers and appetites grow, they also begin to suffer from falling incomes. Declining standards of life breed discontent and strife. The elites turn to the state for employment and additional income and drive up its expenditures at the same time that the tax revenue declines. .. When the state’s finances collapse, it loses the control of the army and police. Freed from all restraints, strife among the elites escalates into civili war, while the discontent among the poor explodes into popular rebellions.

The collapse of order brings .. famine, war, pestilence, and death. .. Population declines and wages increase, while rents decline. .. Fortunes of the upper classes hit bottom. .. Civil wars thin the ranks of the elites. .. Intra-elite competition subsides, allowing the restoration of order. Stability and internal peace bring prosperity, and another cycle begins. 
This sort of thinking is so unpopular among historians that only a non-historian like Turchin (a biologist) will write books like this today. I don't really know what to make of stuff like this. It is certainly true that empires rise and fall. It seems to me that there are, or were, things that happen to aging empires that made them vulnerable. But to think that the history of China since 200 BCE has been more or less than same as the history of Europe strikes me as silly. Charlemagne's empire was nothing like the Roman empire, and after that Europe saw no others. The Roman Empire held onto Greece and Asia Minor for more than a thousand years – we call them Byzantine, but they called themselves Romans – which makes mockery of all those inevitable fall theories.

So maybe there are patterns. But there is also variation. And to compare, as Turchin likes to, ancient and medieval empires with modern hegemonic states strikes me as silly.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

The Seven Daughters of Trappist-1

Trappist-1 is a red dwarf star, much smaller and cooler than the sun. It is about 39 light years from earth, very close as interstellar distances go, although unimaginably far in any other terms. Studies by earth-based telescopes have revealed that it probably has seven planets. All of them are rocky, with masses between 0.41 and 1.38 times that of the earth. They are very close to the sun, with orbital periods between 1.5 and 20 earth days, but because their star is so small and cool some of them probably have temperatures in the same range as the earth. NASA is planning to turn their new Webb Space Telescope on the system as soon as they can get the thing into orbit (2018, they say), and they hope they will be able to figure out if these worlds have atmospheres, and if any of those atmospheres contains free oxygen or other bizarre chemistries that might point to life.

The discovery of rocky planets around red dwarf star is also pretty cool, since they are the most common stars in the galaxy, especially our part; within 30 light years of the earth there are 250 red dwarf stars but only 20 in the same class as our sun. That's a lot of potential planets close enough for us to observe them directly.

It is amazing to me how quickly the discovery of planets around other stars has become routine. The first serious claim was not made until 1988, and that was very controversial; the first widely accepted claim was made in 1992. In the 25 years since the list has grown to more than 3,500 planets, and it gets longer every day.

Ancient California was a Violent Place

A new study of skeletons dating to between 1,000 and 500 years ago shows a high level of violence among California's ancient Indians:
About 7 percent of the population at that time had evidence of forced traumas, whether they were shot by an arrow, stabbed or bludgeoned. For females it was 5 percent and for males it was 11 percent, a percentage of violent trauma not even reached during World War II.
Two years ago another study that looked at more than 16,000 skeletons from across 5,000 years came up with similar numbers:
The data reveal that the most common type of violence over the millennia was so-called sharp-force trauma, caused by projectiles like arrows or atlatl darts, which appeared in 7.2% of the burials studied.

Another 4.3% of the hunter-gatherers suffered apparent blunt-force trauma to the head, while just under 1% showed evidence of dismemberment, with limbs, scalps, or heads having been removed after death.
Native California was an interesting place. It was about as densely populated as the east coast, but while Indians in the east were farmers, those in California relied entirely on hunting and gathering. There was no intensive agriculture, although there was management of the landscape to increase the yields of valuable plants, for example by controlled burning. The people lived mostly small groups that spoke at least 64 different languages from several different families. The obvious interpretation of the level of violence would be that population pressed against the limits that the land could support without farming, leading to constant clashes over valuable resources like fishing spots or productive nut groves. But of course it might have been religion or tribal hatreds or all sorts of other things.

Donald Trump is Famous

If what Donald Trump really craves is attention, he is getting it:
Coverage of Mr. Trump may eclipse that of any single human being ever. . . . The new president doesn’t simply dominate national and political news. During my week of attempted Trump abstinence, I noticed something deeper: He has taken up semipermanent residence on every outlet of any kind, political or not. He is no longer just the message. In many cases, he has become the medium, the ether through which all other stories flow. . . .

All presidents are omnipresent. But it is likely that no living person in history has ever been as famous as Mr. Trump is right now. It’s possible that not even the most famous or infamous people of the recent or distant past — say, Barack Obama, Osama bin Laden, Bill Clinton, Richard Nixon, Michael Jackson, Muhammad Ali or Adolf Hitler — dominated media as thoroughly at their peak as Mr. Trump does now.

I’m hedging because there isn’t data to directly verify this declaration. (Of course, there are no media analytics to measure how many outlets were covering Hitler the day he invaded Poland.) But there is some pretty good circumstantial evidence.
The firm mediaQuant measures how much attention celebrities get in the news and on social media and then attaches a dollar figure to it, based on how much you would have to pay to get that much advertising.
In January, Mr. Trump broke mediaQuant’s records. In a single month, he received $817 million in coverage, higher than any single person has ever received in the four years that mediaQuant has been analyzing the media, according to Paul Senatori, the company’s chief analytics officer. For much of the past four years, Mr. Obama’s monthly earned media value hovered around $200 million to $500 million. The highest that Hillary Clinton got during the presidential campaign was $430 million, in July.

It’s not just that Mr. Trump’s coverage beats anyone else’s. He is now beating pretty much everyone else put together. Mr. Senatori recently added up the coverage value of 1,000 of the world’s best known figures, excluding Mr. Obama and Mr. Trump. The list includes Mrs. Clinton, who in January got $200 million in coverage, Tom Brady ($38 million), Kim Kardashian ($36 million), and Vladimir V. Putin ($30 million), all the way down to the 1,000th most-mentioned celebrity in mediaQuant’s database, the actress Madeleine Stowe ($1,001).

The coverage those 1,000 people garnered last month totaled $721 million. In other words, Mr. Trump gets about $100 million more in coverage than the next 1,000 famous people put together.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Rembrandt: Drawings

For most Dutch artists of the Golden Age we have no drawings at all, for the rest very few. There is only one exception: Rembrandt van Rijn. For mysterious reasons about 1,400 of his drawings survive, everything from tiny crude sketches to finished masterworks. Some are preliminary studies for etchings or paintings, but most are just little things he made because he saw something that interested him. The titles are all assigned by modern curators. Rembrandt dated a very few himself; the rest of the dates are just guesses based on style and subject. Man Pulling a Rope, c. 1628.

Woman with a Child Descending a Staircase, c. 1636.

Jacob is Shown the Bloodstained Coat, 1658. I love the way he arranged figures.

House Near the Entrance to a Wood, c. 1644. A place where fairy tales were told.

View of the Amstel, c. 1648.

Farmhouse in light and shadow. I envy Dutch archaeologists this fabulous record of ordinary houses and even sheds.

St. Jerome Reading.

Woman Sleeping, c. 1655.

Farm house.

View of Houtewaal, c. 1650.

Lion resting.


Subconscious Counting

I do crossword puzzles; I've been doing them for 30 years. These days the only ones I like are the Saturday puzzles from the Times, which are 1) hard and 2) not full of puns, a way of thinking I cannot comprehend, which makes it impossible for me to do British puzzles. I only read newspapers online these days, but I like to do crosswords on paper. So I do them out of books.

I got a new such book this Christmas and have been working my way through. I was just marveling at the strange way my brain knows instantly if a word or phrase I think of will fit the space I see. I can make this calculation without being able to tell you how many letters are in the word or how many spaces are in the row. I just know right away if a word or phrase will fit, and these instincts are never wrong. I recently did this with NAVALENGAGEMENT, so I can do it for 15 letters.

I have no idea how. Since I don't know the number, I can only guess that some automatic module in my mind takes my visual memory of how the word looks written out and lines it up with the blocks I see on the page.

I don't really feel that it is me doing this at all; it just happens, without my having anything to say about it.

Too Self-Conscious

Here's a thought:
The Heimlich maneuver, in the nearly 50 years since Dr. Henry Heimlich established its protocol, has been credited with saving many lives. But not, perhaps, as many as it might have. The maneuver, otherwise so wonderfully simple to execute, has a marked flaw: It requires that choking victims, before anything can be done to help them, first alert other people to the fact that they are choking. And some people, it turns out, are extremely reluctant to do so. “Sometimes,” Dr. Heimlich noted, bemoaning how easily human nature can become a threat to human life, “a victim of choking becomes embarrassed by his predicament and succeeds in getting up and leaving the area unnoticed.” If no one happens upon him, “he will die or suffer permanent brain damage within seconds.”

Something bad is happening; don’t let other people see it; you will embarrass yourself, and them: It’s an impulse that is thoroughly counterproductive and also incredibly easy to understand. Self-consciousness is a powerful thing. And there are, after all, even in the most frantic and fearful of moments, so many things that will seem preferable to making a scene.

Household Production and Economic Growth

One problem with trying to estimate long-term economic growth is that our statistics measure only part of what people do:
In the past (say before 1950), labor force participation was quite low (relative to today) by virtue of large family sizes and most married women not working. However, when they were at-home, these married women produced something. That something was simply not included in our national accounts. When they entered the labor force, they produced less of that something. However, since it had never been measured, we never subtracted that something from the actual output generated from their increased participation.
I think this is an important point. The homemakers of my youth were considered unemployed by the government, but they made all kinds of stuff. Besides cooking and cleaning they sewed clothes, raised vegetables, tended sick children, and more. Consider: if you clean your own house, that doesn't show up in economic statistics, but hiring a maid does. Nothing is being produced that wasn't there before, but the GDP has grown. Plus recent economic growth has been accompanied by millions of people leaving the countryside for the cities, and city people have fewer opportunities for off-the-books production like gardening and home canning.

Economist Vincent Geloso finds that accounting for the loss of household production reduces 19th- and 20th-century economic growth by a substantial amount. But his numbers are just guesses, no matter how much effort people put into them; we just don't have any rigorous way to value things for which people don't get paid. Geloso thinks this is important because if you make that correction the "glorious decades" of postwar economic growth are less glorious, and the slow growth of our own period less strange.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Terracotta Cult Scene

Model group composed of fifty stylized figures of different sizes, arms raised in worship, around an officiant standing on a platform, facing an altar (?). They are arranged in concentric rows inside a circular basin, provided with two wells and a reservoir, decorated on the perimeter. It rests on three feet. The diameter is 40 cm or about 16 inches.

Said to be from Persia. Said to date to the 1st millennium BCE based on thermoluminescence, which is a little more accurate than throwing darts at a timeline but not much.

What an amazingly weird thing. From PBA Auctions.

H.R. McMaster

Of all things I expected from the Trump administration, naming the most interesting living American general as his National Security Adviser had to be at the bottom of the list. H.R. McMaster is both an important military historian and a successful field commander, plus he has repeatedly gotten in trouble for his forceful criticism of the Army brass and indeed the whole culture of the U.S. military. It's certainly a bold choice. If what Trump wanted was to grab some attention in a positive or at least potentially positive way, well, he certainly got mine.

Will McMaster be a good National Security Adviser? I have no idea. It may be that he lacks the political skills necessary to survive in such a job. It may be that circumstances in the White House right now are such that nobody could shine in that role. But I have confidence that McMaster will give serious, thoughtful, well-informed advice, and that he will not try to drag us into crazy wars, which is frankly the main thing I am looking for right now. Because Trump's own views seem to be all over the map on war and foreign intervention, I worry that he could be steered into a stupid war by bad advice. I don't think McMaster will give that kind of advice. So far as I can tell the difference between McMaster and his predecessor Flynn is night and day on every important question. What sort of president appoints both of them?

McMaster's reputation outside the military rests largely on Dereliction of Duty, a book that grew out of his dissertation and severely criticizes the military leadership for not resisting Lyndon Johnson's approach to the Vietnam War. If presented with the same sort of choice, will McMaster take a stand against a government he serves in? I wonder.
First, to study war as the best means of preventing it.

–H.R. McMaster, Veterans' Day speech at Georgetown University, 2014

Coal Miners in America

Chart from Kevin Drum. You can see that employment for coal miners fell by 100,000 between 1950 and 1955, before there were any environmental regulations to speak of. Trump supporters are claiming that his waving off a single proposed environmental rule will save 70,000 jobs, but there are only 65,000 coal miners in America. Incidentally those 65,000 miners produce 80% more coal than the 400,000 did in 1950.

This chart is just for miners, and there are plenty of other people who work in the coal industry, but miners are the largest category and the overall numbers have followed a similar trend.

It seems strange to me that we are so focused on coal these days, given that even by a broad definition that includes power plant workers there are only 175,000 jobs in the whole American coal industry, 0.12% of total employment. Why not give a little attention to waiters or nurses?

Taxes, Economic Growth, and the Vast Sweep of History

A bit of Paul Krugman:
Kansas, dominated by conservative true believers, implemented sharp tax cuts with the promise that these cuts would jump-start rapid growth; they didn’t, and caused a budget crisis instead. Last week Kansas legislators threw in the towel and passed a big tax hike.

At the same time Kansas was turning hard right, California’s newly dominant Democratic majority raised taxes. Conservatives declared it “economic suicide” — but the state is in fact doing fine.
All the evidence seems to be that within the Overton window of American politics, nothing the government does has much of an effect on economic growth. Raising taxes, cutting taxes, passing regulations, repealing them –so far as I can see none of it has much impact on the big economic numbers. Maybe the details matter in particular industries and particular cities, but the economy as a whole just seems to rumble on, hearing its own drummer.

This has been much on my mind lately. Maybe, I have been thinking, the middle-class economy of the 20th century was mainly a product of vast techno-socio-environmental forces, and all the sound and fury of politics was window dressing. Not entirely; a glance at North Korea will show you that. But the economy is evolving in similar ways across the whole planet, and I have a sense that we are in the grip of gigantic forces we cannot control and barely understand.

Personally I dislike some of the changes taking place, especially ever-increasing inequality and the disappearance of middle class jobs you can get without years of post-secondary education. I would like to think that some combination of actions by our government would reverse those trends. But I am not at all sure. I worry that in economic terms the 20th century was a dream time born of technological and organizational changes, when we had just the right amount of automation to make workers productive but so much as to displace them completely, and just the right amount of bureaucracy to create lots of jobs but not enough to halt all progress.

I do think politics matters; even if everything is constrained by these vast, impersonal forces, we can still  make things more or less pleasant. But I suspect that the transformation so many long for, from Sanders leftists to Trump nationalists, is simply beyond our power.

Politics and Identity

Just noting this teaser from the Post front page:
Many of President Trump’s backers said his victory changed their lives — that they felt their views were respected and in the majority.
The new president hasn't actually done much – which is not really a crack at him, I don't think it's a good idea for presidents to run up a list of accomplishments in the first 100 days – and anyway that doesn't matter to his biggest backers. Just by winning, he made them feel better about themselves and their place in the country.

And that is something we ought to think about long and hard. We are using politics, and especially the presidential election, to get validation for ourselves and our views of the world, regardless of what kind of effect that has on the government and how it is run.

Sunday, February 19, 2017


Signs of spring in Maryland.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Minol Araki

Minol Araki (1928-2010) was a Japanese painter steeped in the oriental tradition who also made some experiments with blending eastern and western styles. Lotus, 1977.

Araki was born in China, to Japanese parents, in 1928. It was in China that he began to study traditional brush and ink painting. Bamboo and Rock, 1977.

At the end of World War II Araki and his family returned to Japan where he enrolled in design school, going on to a hugely successful career as an industrial designer. During this time he continued to paint on his own. Bamboo, 1977.

In the 1970s he began to exhibit his work professionally; several of the works I have found online are all dated 1977, and I wonder if they had been painted over the previous decade but got that date because it was the year of his first exhibits. Distant Road, 1978. I love this painting, and it is in the Met, where you can't see it because it is "Not on Display." Grrr. We should nationalize all their extra stuff and redistribute it around the world.

In the 1980s Araki's work began to appear in museums in Japan, Taiwan and Hong Kong. Taiwainese museum culture in the 1980s was still dominated by a very conservative Chinese aesthetic, so it interested me that this Japanese painter was given prominent shows. I assume it was his mastery of traditional technique and time in China that made this possible. Bamboo, 1977.

Lotus Pond, 1991.

Landscape, 1996. Starting to stray from tradition here; some people see Impressionist influence.

And a thoroughly untraditional work, Waterfalls, 2003.

Bureaucrats and Eggs

Why do Americans refrigerate their eggs, while Europeans leave them out on the counter?
Mostly, it’s about washing. In the U.S., egg producers with 3,000 or more laying hens must wash their eggs. Methods include using soap, enzymes or chlorine.

The idea is to control salmonella, a potentially fatal bacteria that can cling to eggs. The Centers for Disease control estimates that salmonella causes about 1.2 million illnesses a year, resulting in 450 deaths — though not all of those cases are traced to eggs.

The bacteria can be passed through the porous shell to the inside of the egg from material on the outside, though in rarer cases it can infect the ovaries of a chicken and infect the eggs from the inside. . . .

But — and here is the big piece of the puzzle — washing the eggs also cleans off a thin, protective cuticle devised by nature to protect bacteria from getting inside the egg in the first place. (The cuticle also helps keep moisture in the egg.)

With the cuticle gone, it is essential — and, in the United States, the law — that eggs stay chilled from the moment they are washed until you are ready to cook them. Japan also standardized a system of egg washing and refrigeration after a serious salmonella outbreak in the 1990s.

In Europe and Britain, the opposite is true. European Union regulations prohibit the washing of eggs. The idea is that preserving the protective cuticle is more important than washing the gunk off.
Sometimes you have to wonder.

Friday, February 17, 2017


Fascinating story from southwestern France:
One day in 1721 a carpenter called Miguel Legaret sat down with his son in the church of Biarritz. Jean de Lartigue, Guilhaume Veillet, and Pierre Dalbarade, all municipal councillors, took exception to their choice of seats. They called the Legarets ‘capots’, and as they forcibly tried to move them a fight broke out. Both parties complained to the bailliage, and all except Dalbarade, who was syndic of the parish, were arrested. On the 6th March 1722, the councillors were sentenced to kneel at the door of the church after mass and make public apology. They appealed on the grounds that the younger Legaret had used excessive violence, and that they had been righteously enforcing a 1596 arrêt forbidding ‘gots’ , ‘capots’ and ‘gahets’ from mixing with others or moving from their designated seats in church.

After an investigation, on the 9th July 1723 the Parlement of Bordeaux acquitted the younger Legaret and fined the councillors. The court also specified heavy fines or corporal punishment for anyone under its jurisdiction who used the insults ‘descendants of the race of Giezy’, or ‘Agots, Cagots, gahets or ladres’. Alleged cagots were to be allowed in all public assemblies, municipal offices, educational institutions and the same galleries as others in church. They were to be treated as other inhabitants without any distinction. To ensure the ruling was obeyed, the deputy of the procureur général in Ustaritz was ordered to travel to Biarritz one Sunday every month. A copy of the arrêt was sent to all the parishes under the court’s jurisdiction with orders that it should be affixed to the church doors and read aloud.

The ruling in favour of the cagots was met with general protest, as told by the procureur général in a statement to Montesquieu, the presiding judge of the Parlement, on January 19th, 1724. Saint-Martin, the royal sergeant, had gone to Biarritz accompanied by two ‘archers’ to fix the arrêt to the church door. They were met by a ‘mutinous’ and ‘tumultuous’ crowd. Men waited in the square and the cemetery, urging a large number of women to block their way. The women prevented them from reading or posting the arrêt and threatened to overwhelm them with ‘quicklime, salt, ashes and whale oil’. Saint-Martin thought that some might have been men dressed as women. Nobody would help him despite his pleas to the crowd. Feeling afraid and in danger, he and his ‘archers’ retreated without completing their task.
Who were these cagots? Its an amazing story. They were a persecuted group found in southwestern France and northwestern Spain, forced to live at the edge of towns and villages, forbidden from touching food in markets, excluded from most professions, denied all political rights. They could not marry non-cagots. People said they stank, that they lacked earlobes, that they were all lepers (they were not). They are first attested in records from around 1000 and well documented from the 13th century; from 1288 to the 1600s laws against them were enacted in hundreds of towns and villages. But they were not an ethnic group; they looked exactly like everyone else. They did not have their own dialect, but spoke that of whatever region they lived in. They were all perfectly orthodox Catholics. Nobody knew where they came from, who their ancestors were, or how they ended up despised. We still don't know. So far as we can tell, they were despised because they were cagots, and cagots were basically just people who were despised. As Daniel Hawkins puts it in this paper,
They did not differ from their neighbours in language, ethnicity or religion, but throughout their history they were associated with carpentry and leprosy. In the sixteenth century they accounted for perhaps two per cent of the local population.
It's a remarkably pure example of our baneful habit of singling out groups to hate. When there are no ethnic or religious divisions, we invent some other distinction. And there were such groups throughout western Europe: the Caqueaux of Brittany, the Colliberts of Poitou, the Maquefas of Valencia, Vaqueiros of Asturias and the Cascarots of the Basque country.

We seem determined to hate and despise somebody.

The other point I would make about the cagots is that their oppression was ended by that bogeyman of so many leftists, the Enlightenment state. It was the same people who built the insane asylums and prisons and closed down the rowdy popular festivals who put an end to the persecution of cagots and all those other groups, so that we now read about them with bewildered fascination.

Lots more material on the cagots in the Hawkins article and at wikipedia.

Carson, Pirie, Scott and Company Building, Chicago, by Louis Sullivan

Louis Sullivan designed this retail building in fits and starts over the course of the 1890s, as various combinations of clients kept changing their minds about what they wanted. In 1898, two retailers called Schlesinger and Mayer finally agreed on a plan with Sullivan, and the building was constructed by 1902. But then the clients changed their minds and insisted the building be enlarged. And then in 1903, as soon as it was finished to their satisfaction, they sold it to Carson, Pirie, Scott and Company, so it is by their name that the building is generally known. These days it is office space known as the Sullivan Center.

The building has a steel frame with an outer skin of terra cotta, glass, and wrought iron. Above, the building in 1909 during the 100th anniversary of Lincoln's birth.

One of the distinctive features is the wrought iron entrance, designed to be visible down both streets and to draw shoppers inside.


View of the terra cotta window treatments.

Corniche. This was actually removed at one point but has been reconstructed.

Interior staircase. Photo from the Historic American Building Survey.

Scandola Marine Reserve

Underwater cave off the coast of Corsica. More at National Geographic.

Not Experiencing the Same Reality

David Brooks can't see how Trump can survive a whole term in office. On the other hand,
I have trouble seeing exactly how this administration ends. Many of the institutions that would normally ease out or remove a failing president no longer exist.

There are no longer moral arbiters in Congress like Howard Baker and Sam Ervin to lead a resignation or impeachment process. There is no longer a single media establishment that shapes how the country sees the president. This is no longer a country in which everybody experiences the same reality.

Everything about Trump that appalls 65 percent of America strengthens him with the other 35 percent, and he can ride that group for a while. Even after these horrible four weeks, Republicans on Capitol Hill are not close to abandoning their man.

The likelihood is this: We’re going to have an administration that has morally and politically collapsed, without actually going away.
I also think this is the most likely scenario. The most dangerous scenario is that this chaos leads us to a terrible war, either because we just drift into it or because Bannon engineers it to save his job, and his crusade for western civilization. But I think a flailing drift into irrelevance remains most likely.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Woman with a Raven at the Abyss

By Caspar David Friedrich, 1803. There has never been a title better calculated to appeal to me.

What Rabbis, and Maybe Others, Should Learn

Tyler Cowen interviews Rabbi David Wolpe:
COWEN: How would you alter or improve rabbinical training?

WOLPE: I’ve given this a lot of thought. Let me just mention one area. When I speak to rabbinical students, I tell them all the time that the single most valuable commodity you have as a rabbi . . . you can answer that yourself, and then I’ll tell you what I think: your voice. Most people are going to come in contact with you when you speak to them. Not all of them, but most. There’ll be more people who come to your services than the number of people at whose bedside you will sit as they die.

And yet, most rabbis — most people — don’t know how to speak.
This remains my single piece of career advice, should there actually be any young people reading this blog. Learn to speak.

North Korea's Game of Thrones

While you were celebrating Valentine's Day you might not have noticed a strange story out of Malaysia. In the Kuala Lumpur airport, a man whose passport identified him as Kim Chol was killed by two women, who (reports vary) either stabbed him with poisoned needles or sprayed poison in his face. He made it to a ticket counter to ask for help but died en route to the hospital.

South Korean media then revealed that Kim Chol is actually Kim Jong-nam, the older half brother of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un. Kim Jong-un has killed scores of enemies or imagined enemies since taking power in 2011, so everyone is assuming he was behind his half brother's death.

I love the detail that Kim Jong-nam was purged from his post as heir-apparent in 2001 after trying to visit Tokyo Disneyland with a fake visa. I mean, some people want ultimate power, and some just want to visit Disneyland with their kids. It sucks when the ruthless ones end up murdering the slackers, but it is an old theme in human history.

War I can understand: open violence, open hatred. But the murkiness that surrounds murderous dictators and kings is a complete mystery to me. How can anyone live like that? And why would anyone want to?

I guess that puts me in the Disneyland faction.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

A Quilt with a Burden

Ann Sloan Lowrie Knox, quilt, 1861 to 1865. Now in the North Carolina Museum of History, where I saw it yesterday. Mrs. Knox made this quilt with scraps of fabric from clothes she sewed for her seven sons, five of whom died in the Civil War.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

A Whirlwind Trip to Raleigh

I seem to have reached a stage of my career in which I am expected to zoom around the country for meetings with clients and the like. So Monday evening I zoomed down to Raleigh, North Carolina for a meeting with folks in the Department of Transportation. The trigger for this trip was that I just took over our contract with them from a colleague who died of a sudden heart attack; American business etiquette requires a face-to-face meeting in such situations to smooth the transition. My children all said, "Why don't you just Skype?" But people of my generation, at least, still think that meeting in person is important. I wonder if theirs will act differently when they rule the world?

My meeting was in the morning and I didn't have to return until the late afternoon, so I spent some time exploring Raleigh. The DOT is actually housed in two giant suburban office office warehouses, vast spaces divided into hundreds of cubicles by muted gray barriers. You are given directions by pillar number, as in, "my office is near Pillar G-2." But it was just a short drive from there to the old downtown. It was a lovely warm day, so I had a splendid walk. Above and top, the State Capitol, built around 1840.

Here's an interesting 19th-century motto for you, from a monument on the grounds.

Striking nearby building for the Education Department.

Neogothic Baptist church, 1850s.

I went through the state historical museum, which was fine as such things go. I was impressed by this exhibit on the textile industry. There is actually only one of each machine, turned into a whole hall by mirrors.

Who could resist pushing this button?

Governor's Mansion.

Since this is North Carolina, it has a basketball hoop in the driveway.

Some views of a lovely neighborhood just east of downtown.

It's spring in Raleigh.

Two views of the craziest house in town.

And now I'm already back home, getting ready to face my office tomorrow.