Saturday, May 31, 2014

The Maryland Governor's Race, or, Politics as Usual

Maryland's governor can't run again, opening up the field for this year's election. So here I am, perusing the candidates' web sites and wondering why I am always presented with the same set of choices. First, the Democrats.

The front-runner and likely next governor is Lieutenant Governor Anthony Brown, who would be Maryland's first "black" governor -- actually his skin looks like mine when I have a tan -- but is otherwise running the most boring possible mainstream campaign. Click on the Vision tab of his web site and you get this:
Anthony believes that creating a brighter future for all Marylanders is built on the foundation of stronger schools, safer neighborhoods, a cleaner environment, more opportunities for families and a growing economy. Anthony understands that we’ll only succeed by working together to take on the tough issues facing our state – that’s why he’s laid out a detailed vision to build a better Maryland for more Marylanders in the years to come.
There is also a tab for Real Results. If you like the status quo, he is your guy. Since most Marylanders do -- and why not, since we just passed Connecticut to become the state with the highest median income -- he will probably win.

For challengers, we have a moderately interesting progressive lesbian, Heather Mizeur, who has managed to be pretty successful in Annapolis despite looking like a suburbanite's nightmare vision of the lesbian progressive future. She speaks better than the other candidates because she is always absolutely clear where she stands on every issue: the left side. She is strongly for marijuana legalization, an issue that Brown seems to have dodged, and has a "comprehensive plan" that involves using marijuana tax revenue to fund universal preschool. Mizeur comes from Takoma Park, which used to be a nuclear free zone, and in keeping with local tradition she has lots of positions about things like the Keystone Pipeline that have nothing to do with Maryland.

Also Doug Gansler, the Attorney General, who likes to portray himself as a fighter for regular people like you. There are big banners all over his web site saying FIGHTING FOR YOU. But he seems to have trouble making up his mind about what that means, and his web site is full of statements like:
Protecting the Bay should not come at the expense of our farmers and our agriculture industry.
He also has a detailed economic plan, called THE SOLUTION, which doesn't impress me very much but does show that he cares a lot about the unemployed. Gansler has the endorsement of some black groups because, frankly, Anthony Brown seems too busy grooming his career to keep in touch with poor black folks and Gansler at least acts like he cares. So far as I can tell, though, his actual platform is nearly identical to Brown's, and since he went to Yale his populism is a bit forced. He seems to me to be a driven, high-energy crusader in search of a mission. The Baltimore Sun summarized his campaign like this:
The attorney general, 51, says he's running for governor as a candidate who will change the status quo. 
Those are the real candidates, but one of the fringe offerings caught my interest. If the lesbian organic farmer from Takoma Park as not far enough left for you, there is also Cindy "Heather Mizeur is NOT a progressive" Walsh, whose web site proclaims,
She is best known as a labor activist and progressive blogger, and she promises that as governor she will keep blogging to draw attention to issues like police brutality and international trade deals. She compares Mizeur to Obama in 2007, running as a progressive but really a corporate shill.

Among Republicans, the front-runner is probably Harford County Executive David Craig, who has tried to neutralize his being the oldest, whitest guy in the race by taking on the youngest, most attractive woman in the House of Delegates as his running mate. The first item under his Issues tab is Second Amendment. Not until the third do you get to Fiscal Responsibility, and here Craig does have a good record, cutting taxes in his county while maintaining a decent level of service. Otherwise his program is pretty generic Republican: lower taxes, less regulation, lots of this sort of blaph:
David Craig would emphasize consumer choice over bureaucracy when it comes to providing health care coverage and insurance.

Two of my neighbors have signs out for businessman and former cabinet secretary Larry Hogan, running as the angry conservative. He is also focused almost exclusively on taxes, spending and regulation, and makes this promise:
Every decision Larry Hogan makes as governor will be put to a simple test – Will this law or action make it easier for families and small businesses to stay in Maryland and will it make more families and businesses want to come to Maryland?
In some ways Hogan seems refreshing to me, and he has certainly put his finger on what I regard as the state's biggest challenge -- even though salaries here are high and unemployment is low, people are moving out, mainly because housing in safe white neighborhoods is very expensive. (Massachusetts and greater New York City have the same problem.) However, his plan is full of the same no hard choices pablum; he claims to have identified $1.75 billion in "waste, fraud and abuse" in the state budget.

Then there is Ron George, jewelry store owner and member of the House of Delegates, who has a Ten Point Plan for Maryland that actually has 48 points in it. (Under ten headings, but still.) This makes me wonder about his arithmetic skills, especially since he plans to fund his 10% cut in the state income tax by:
Requiring independent audits of all departments and agencies, including our Medicaid, Welfare, and state health insurance, and cutting any waste found by these audits; and Improve needed efficiency and effectiveness. Guiding money more directly to its intended target, cutting out government middlemen.
That ought to save about, oh, 0.01% of his tax cut. In a nod toward cranky conservatism, his 48th and final point is:
Protect your God Given Rights Guaranteed by our Constitution
There is also a black Republican in the race, Marine veteran and business executive Charles Lollar, who has a plan to eliminate Maryland's income tax; his idea is that eliminating this tax and cutting corporate taxes will generate so much economic growth that the plan will pay for itself. I can't find a proposal to cut spending on anything anywhere on his web site. On the other hand he says upfront that he opposes Marijuana legalization, which I much prefer to the way the other Republicans try to avoid the issue.

Look, I am willing to discuss the merits of taxation and government spending at any level; maybe Maryland's taxes are too high and could be cut. But if that is your plan, I want to see a detailed list of what spending you plan to cut to pay for it, and an explanation of why you think that would not hurt the state. Of the Republicans, only Craig has a realistic plan to reduce spending by anything like the amount that would be required to finance a big tax cut. I suspect Hogan also has some ideas, but he has avoided mentioning them; George and Lollar seem clueless about budgetary realities.

So there you have it. You can go with experienced party types spouting generic political tripe (Brown for the Democrats, Craig for the Republicans); visionaries from the political extremes (Mizeur for progressives, Lollar for conservatives); people with boring ideas trying to distinguish themselves through a distinctive style (Gansler for the Democrats, Hogan for the Republicans); or fools and cranks (Walsh for the Democrats, George for the Republicans).

Todd Eberly of the Sun wrote a month ago that any of the top seven candidates might have a chance in the race, because none of them had really impressed the voters. Polls in April found "No preference" running at around 65% for both Republicans and Democrats. The only candidate with any passionate support is Mizeur, and her supporters may be too far outside the mainstream to put her in the governor's house. One of the commenters added,
Imho, Mizeur is a loon, Gansler is a jerk, and Tony Brown is an empty suit.
The primary is June 24.

The Take Down

George Scialabba summarizes Charles Krauthammer's style:
He floats like a vulture, stings like a jellyfish.

William H. Bartlett in Ireland

English artist William H. Bartlett visited Ireland in the 1830s and made these drawings of historic sites. Above, the Rock of Cashel, Co. Tipperary.

King John's Castle, Limerick.

Clocmacnoise, Co. Offaly.

Glendalough, Co. Wicklow.

Friday, May 30, 2014

A Walk in Kalorama

Today at lunch I headed north from my office into the DC neighborhood known as Kalorama. Past the Turkish Embassy's amazing entrance, and then across Massachusetts Avenue.

I wondered why this building has been derelict for at least two years, in the middle of Embassy Row. Last time I was there I saw I sign advertising an upcoming zoning hearing, which I thought impended condominiums, but nothing so far.

Up the steps by the 22nd Street Fountain.

Past the yellow panda -- I think he is standing up for human rights in China. Or sitting down.

Flowers by the Irish embassy.

Nothing says old money like a row of dancing putti on the roof.

My beloved Romanesque houses on Bancroft Place.

Bust of Andrew Sakharov outside Russia House on Connecticut Avenue. Interesting that the Moldovan Embassy is attached to the side of the building.

I discovered another block of Romanesque houses around the corner that I had somehow never noticed before.

Past the absurdly grand Embassy of Luxembourg, and thence back to my office.


As I sit at my desk, the building around me throbs with rumbling, grinding sound, coming from somewhere off on another floor. This is called "drilling." Every so often we get a memo from the building manager saying that "drilling" will take place on a particular day at such and such a time, usually 7 to 9 AM. Nothing is ever said about who is doing the drilling, or why, or what is being drilled into, or why it has been going on for over a year.

It is simply "drilling."

Ben Pentreath in Tangier

British designer Ben Pentreath is an amazing photographer, and I love his documentations of his travels. Many great pictures of Tangier, Morocco.

Nicholas Wade's Tough Guy Darwinism

Nicholas Wade is the stupidest interpreter of science in the world. I am simply baffled that he keeps getting articles in the New York Times and book deals from major publishers, since he has been totally wrong about every important question he has ever written about. (See here, here, and here.)

So I am hardly surprised that Wade's new book on race and human evolution has been panned by all the serious scientists. A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History purports to tell us what the new science of genomics says about the old problem of race. In pursuing this goal Wade engages in two authorial tactics that I despise. First, he insists that this new science is overturning an established consensus that race is a social construct with no connection to genetics. When he presents data showing that the genes of Africans are different from the genes of Europeans, he cries "Eureka!" as if he were now due the Nobel Prize. Allen Orr:
When Henry Louis Gates Jr. sends a sample of his DNA off to find out how much is of African versus European origin—and then acts as host of a PBS miniseries in which he broadcasts the results—it seems hard to maintain that educated people deny that DNA sequences differ among continents.
Right. Everybody knows that there are genetic differences between races, and if certain liberals like Stephen J. Gould go around insisting that those genes influence nothing but skin color and hair type, that hardly makes their beliefs a universal consensus.

Second, Wade poses as a bold truth-teller who will expose the science that everyone else is afraid to mention for fear of being called a racist. Here is Allen Orr again, showing how Wade uses selective quotation and ignorant bluster to establish his tough-guy credentials:
In his 2011 book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker considers the idea that different groups may behave differently—say, more or less violently—for genetic reasons. He notes that, if true, the idea “could have the incendiary implication that aboriginal and immigrant populations are less biologically adapted to the demands of modern life than populations that have lived in literate state societies for millennia.” This sends Wade into paroxysms of righteous indignation and he declares that “whether or not a thesis might be politically incendiary should have no bearing on the estimate of its scientific validity.” What Wade doesn’t tell you is that this is what Pinker himself says in his very next sentence: “The fact that a hypothesis is politically uncomfortable does not mean that it is false, but it does mean that we should consider the evidence very carefully before concluding that it is true.”
Is is easy to make other people look like fools when you report what they said falsely.

Wade's argument, in case you haven't guessed by now, is that genetic differences between races account for much of the observed cultural difference between people who live in different places. For all I know this might even be true -- my readers know that I am interested in the theory of "self domestication" and other speculations about how living in densely populated agricultural societies has changed us. The thing is, I don't know if this is so, and you don't, and Nicholas Wade certainly doesn't, because there is no data whatsoever showing that important cultural differences have a genetic basis. Wade even concedes this himself:
Readers should be fully aware that in chapters 6 through 10 they are leaving the world of hard science and entering into a much more speculative arena at the interface of history, economics and human evolution.
But, being Nicholas Wade, he then engages in yet a third irritating authorial strategy, veering back and forth between bold conclusions and careful qualifiers. He admits that he has no data on his subject -- since there isn't any, it is hard for anyone with scientific pretensions to avoid admitting this -- but then he goes on to act as if there were, spinning lots of just-so stories about all the things about our cultures that might have a genetic basis. He points out, for example, that it is often difficult to transfer cultural practices from one group of people to another, like, say, democratic elections from America to Afghanistan. Surely, he insinuates, this must be because of genetic differences. Any cultural anthropologists who read this far must have hurled their copies at the wall on encountering this argument, since they could easily have supplied Wade with about a thousand reasons why this sort of thing seldom works, none of them having anything to do with genetics. For his bold claims about the importance of race, writes evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne, "Wade offers virtually no evidence, because there is none." He continues:
We know virtually nothing about the genetic differences (if there are any) in cognition and behavior between human populations. And to explain how natural selection can effect such rapid changes, Wade posits some kind of “multiplier effect,” whereby small differences in gene frequencies can ramify up to huge societal differences. There is virtually no evidence for that, either. It is a mountain of speculation teetering on a few pebbles. . . . . It is an irresponsible book that makes insupportable claims.
In other words, typical Nicholas Wade.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

The Dragon Hedge

John Booker of Norfolk, England, has spent years crafting this fabulous hedge. Photos by Damien McFadden. More here.

No Kidding

President Obama, yesterday:
Since World War II, some of our most costly mistakes came not from our restraint but from our willingness to rush into military adventures without thinking through the consequences.

Great News from Vancouver

From the Vancouver Sun:
The dedicated HIV/AIDS ward at St. Paul’s Hospital has closed due to a lack of patients.
Via Andrew Sullivan

Democracy and Apartheid in Burma

Nicholas Kristoff finds that in Burma as elsewhere democracy for the majority often means persecution for minorities:
Welcome to Myanmar, where tremendous democratic progress is being swamped by crimes against humanity toward the Rohingya, a much-resented Muslim minority in this Buddhist country. Budding democracy seems to aggravate the persecution, for ethnic cleansing of an unpopular minority appears to be a popular vote-getting strategy.
These conflicts are old, going back at least to the early nineteenth century. So the new, quasi-democratic government did not create them. But it is discouraging to see how little concern Burma's democratic activists have shown for the Rohingya, and how readily ethnic hatred can be mobilized in a democratic society.

Elamite Helmet, c. 1300 BCE

Another item from the highlights of the Met's collection, a helmet from Elam (an ancient kingdom in southwest Iran). It is carved from bitumen, a natural form of petroleum like heavy tar, which means it was probably for ceremonial occasions rather than battle:
This example of military headgear is elaborately decorated with three figures on the front. The central one is a male water deity who holds a flowing vase at his chest. He has a multiple horned crown, a beard, curled hair, and a mountainlike or scale pattern on the lower body like the one on the background. The top of the garment crisscrosses his chest. He is flanked by two female deities with horned crowns who hold their hands up in supplication. Their robes are flounced and they wear necklaces and bracelets. Hovering over the figures is a raptor like bird with carefully delineated feathers. At the back is a decorated tube that may have held an actual feather plume. All of these elements were carved from bitumen and overlaid with silver and then gold foil with incised decoration, a technique that, along with the style and types of the figures, point to Elam as the source. The water god might be either the Elamite Inshushinak or Napirisha, similar to Ea, the Mesopotamian god of the sweet waters.

Belief in Conspiracy Theories

Interesting article by Kurt Eichenwald on conspiracy theories in America:
The number of people who believe in these often very tall tales is enormous. According to a poll last year by Public Policy Polling, a national firm, 28 percent of Americans believe a secret power elite is conspiring to rule the world through a global authoritarian government, 15 percent believe the government adds mind-control technology to television broadcasts, and 14 percent think the Central Intelligence Agency was instrumental in introducing crack cocaine to America’s inner cities during the 1980s.

Similar—and sometimes more extreme—results appear in polls about medical conspiracy theories. Research conducted by professors Oliver and Wood and published in March by The Journal of the American Medical Association shows that 49 percent of respondents believed in at least one medical conspiracy theory, while 18 percent believed in three or more. The theories best known to the respondents involved cancer treatments, vaccines and cell phones; these were also the ones that saw the greatest numbers of people subscribing to them. Thirty-seven percent believed the Food and Drug Administration was conspiring with pharmaceutical companies to suppress natural cures for cancer, while 20 percent thought that corporations were preventing the government from releasing data showing that cell phones cause cancer or that doctors secretly believe vaccines are dangerous but still want to use them on children.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Ending Chronic Homelessness

Chronic homelessness is declining so rapidly in America that people are talking seriously about ending it completely:
Nationally, from 2010 to 2013, chronic homelessness declined by 16 percent, and homelessness among veterans declined by 24 percent. . . . More than 50 cities have been housing at least 2.5 percent of their chronically homeless population for three consecutive months, a pace that correlates with ending chronic homelessness in four or five years.
The latest success is the 100,000 Homes Campaign, which expects this summer to meet its goal of putting 100,000 homeless people into permanent housing. The key is the "housing first" strategy that became our national policy under Bush II: first, put people in apartments, then get them medical care, then try to get them jobs and lives.

This is the hardcore, long-term homeless we are talking about, the people who wear rags and sleep on benches. Not so long ago this seemed like an unsolvable problem, but in the past ten years great progress has been made.

Terracotta Daughters

French artist Prune Nourry and some of her 116 "Terracotta Daughters."

Gluten, Resveratrol, and Dietary "Science"

In case you haven't figured it out by now, scientific studies on diet often contradict each other.

First case in point: the same scientists who documented the reality of non-celiac gluten sensitivity in a study a few years ago have gone back and done a more rigorous study. The result:
In contrast to our first study… we could find absolutely no specific response to gluten.
And for our second case, let's consider the ongoing bruhaha over whether resveratrol (the stuff in red wine) is good for you. After so many positive indications, a new study in JAMA Internal Medicine found no effect at all, adding to the confusing literature on this embattled molecule.

Here's one piece of simple wisdom you can use: when the studies are all over the place, you can conclude that the effect being studied is not very large. When the effect of something on health is big -- like the effect of smoking, moderate regular exercise, or very high salt intake -- there is no disagreement among scientists about the effect. It is simple to measure from an actuarial table.

The health effects of things like chocolate, red wine, the Atkins diet, yoga, and so on may or may not exist, and they may be positive or negative, but we know for certain that for most people they are not very big.

Rakhigarhi and the Origins of Harappan Civilization

Rakhigarhi is a Harappan (Indus Valley civilization) archaeological site in northwestern India. The site is located along the now dry Drishadvati River. By area it is now said to be the largest Harappan site yet discovered, about 350 hectares (860 acres), although it does not seem to have a monumental core and it may not all have been occupied at once. The recently unearthed granaries, above, are the biggest buildings yet discovered. They date to around 2500 BCE. Their construction is much like that of the public buildings at Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro: carefully cut stones, precisely laid, carefully plastered, well-provided with drains.

Plan of the site. You can see that it is made up of several separate mounds.

These small animal figurines are among the more interesting common artifacts at Harappan Sites.

Rakhigarhi has been in the news lately because of its possible connection to the origin of Harappan civilization. The site has a neolithic component, dating back to before 5500 BCE. It has not yet been established, but the excavators think that the site was continuously occupied across that whole period. That would make it a crucial place to study the origin of Harappan civilization, which is still rather mysterious.

I have to say, though, that this account of a conference about Harappan studies held in India in 2012 gives me pause. The question of where Harappan civilization arose seems to be all mixed up with India-Pakistan rivalries, and there is some nonsense from people who want to reclassify neolithic cultures as "Early Harappan" and then say that Harappan "civilization" is 9,000 years old. And then there is a lot of this sort of thing from Hindu nationalists determined to show that their civilization arose in India 7,000 years ago and there has been perfect continuity from the neolithic to the present. They insist that there never was any "Aryan invasion" and that the similarities between Sanskrit and European languages were either invented by European linguists to justify colonialism or else the result of Indians leaving the subcontinent and making their way to Europe. Among other things they have tried to rename the dried up river formerly known as the Ghaggar-Hakra as the Sarasvati, after the river that flows through the kingdom of the ancient Rig Veda; this would put the events of the ancient epics, which some western scholars think took place in central Asia, safely on Indian soil. So while I am fascinated by Rakhigari and other Harappan sites in India I am not sure that I will believe much of what I read about what is found there. It reminds me of the archaeology of Jerusalem: wonderful, if you could just believe what everybody says about it.

What We Accomplished in Iraq and Afghanistan

Retired Army lieutenant general Daniel Bolger, discussing his new book, Why We Lost:
“We’ve basically installed authoritarian dictators.” The U.S. wanted to keep about 10,000 troops in Iraq post-2011...and a similar sized force is being debated for Afghanistan once the U.S. combat role formally ends at the end of 2014. “You could have gone to that plan in 2002 in Afghanistan, and 2003 or ’04 in Iraq, and you wouldn’t have had an outcome much worse than what we’ve had,” Bolger says.
So, twelve years of fighting, a trillion dollars spent, 5,000 men lost, pretty much for nothing. I hate to mention it, but the most prominent person saying in 2003 that we should just install dictators and get out was Donald Rumsfeld. He was overruled by people who wanted to revolutionize Iraq and energize Arab democracy, but would his Ahmad Challabi plan have been any worse than what we ended up with?

Get Ready for Home Wind Turbines

The home solar panels that are becoming more and more common may soon be joined by home wind turbines. Dutch company The Archimedes claims that their Liam F-1 turbine is more efficient and much quieter than competing models -- noise is a big barrier to home windmills -- and can produce about half the energy a household needs. Cost is around $5500.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Michael St. Maur Sheil: World War I Battlefields

Amazing contemporary photographs of World War I battlefields by Irish photographer Michael St. Maur Sheil. More here. One of the odd facts I have picked up in my reading is that hundreds of square kilometers of France are still off limits because there are so many unexploded shells.


These "stones" are actually industrial pollution:
One of the by-products of car production was Fordite, also known as Detroit agate. The colorful layered objects take their name from agate stones for their visual resemblance. But instead of forming from microscopically crystallized silica over millions of years, Fordite was formed from layers of paint over several tens of years. Back in the day, old automobile paint would drip onto the metal racks that transported cars through the paint shop and into the oven. The paint was hardened to a rock-like state thanks to high heats from the baking process. As the urban legend goes, plant workers would take pieces home in their lunch pails as a souvenir for their wife or kids. Since then, car production has modernized and Fordite has been rendered a relic of the past. 

More at This is Colossal.

Populists Surge in EU Elections

Elections for the European Parliament are something of a fraud. The Parliament actually doesn't do very much, since the big decisions are still mainly made by the heads of state, or by the European Commission in Brussels. Thus these elections have lower turnout than others and often serve as a way for the angry to vent their frustration. Still, the big gains made by right-wing populist parties in this latest election ought to convince Europe's leaders to do something for their struggling populace. Unemployment across the continent is 10.5%, nearly 20% among young people, and the EU leadership has done nothing to help. Lots of politicians have been quoted saying that these results are "a shock" or something to that effect, especially the outright victories of anti-EU parties in France, Denmark, and Britain. I doubt they are really shocked, since only a fool would be. The two related issues of immigration and unemployment are driving more and more Europeans out of the political mainstream, as is the sense that nothing the voters do seems to have any actual impact on EU policy.

The European Union is a project of the elite, and it has been put into place without a lot of input from the voters. This is not especially noteworthy in itself; US foreign policy during the Cold War comes to mind as another example of a policy fixed by elites about which voter input was pretty much irrelevant. But I worry about the cumbersome EU set-up, which seems to focus more on giving politicians opportunities for grand conferences and back room deals than on either democracy or making good policy. The result has been policy that sacrifices the interests of ordinary people, especially in southern Europe, in pursuit of grand-sounding but nebulous projects for "ever greater unity." Putting together this elite-run political system with the world's increasingly elite-dominated economy strikes me as the perfect setup for a Fascist resurgence.

Monday, May 26, 2014

If You Missed the Weekend's Big Event

The New York Post has all the coverage you need:

Another Trip to Mount Holyoke

Just back from Massachusetts, where I picked up my elder daughter Mary and brought her home for the summer. (Best license plate: 1XY 3XX.) 

At Mount Holyoke they know how to put a great roof on a building.

I was delighted by this little sculpture of a scholar, over an obscure door.

And this bush.

Mary and I toured the art gallery, where I was much pleased by an roomful of hangings by El Anatsui.

And enjoyed this lovely piece by Afruz Amighi. It was great to spend eight hours catching up with my daughter, and now it is great to have her home.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Humanism in Florence, or Academic Life in the Fifteenth Century

In 1397 Florence lured Manuel Chrysolaras from Constantinople to establish a chair of Greek literature at their university, signing him to a five year contract. Chrysolaras fled after three years, "driven out by the jealousy of Niccolo Niccoli, one of the city's most prominent humanists." He was followed a few years later by Guarino da Vernona, a student of Chrysoloras. Da Vernona also fled after three years, writing to a friend,
There was no day in Florence when I wasn't tormented by insults, arguments, and petty quarrels. There exists in this circle such wicked madness, such avarice for glory. . .  that in order to get it people have no regard for the reputations of others. No one gives praise except with blunted and slighting phrases. . . they resent those who receive praise, and carp at those who give praise. There is animosity among themselves and hatred for outsiders. There are no friendships, only political alliances.
Then the post was taken up by Giovanni Aurispa, who left the gloomy, faction-ridden imperial court at Constantinople, thinking that a university would provide a quieter atmosphere for scholarship:
I thought that when I'd left the vicious jockeying status among the Greeks and their royalty I'd be safe from attack, so long as I kept to myself. But the opposite is true. I used to find peace and quiet sometimes even at the royal palaces there, but here feuding and intriguing go on everywhere; I can find no peace of mind at all. The whole place is full of hostility and petty jealousies; here all the literati, all the elite engage in backbiting, and there is paranoia thick in the air.
You might think that Florence would have had trouble hiring a new Greek scholar after that run, but they managed to bring in Francesco Filelfo, a prodigy who had given public lectures in Venice at the age of 19 and became secretary to the Venetian ambassador in Constantinople at 21. In Constantinople he studied Greek intensely with John Chrysoloras, a relation of Manuel. Then he married his teacher's 14-year-old daughter, a great coup since she was a blood relation of the emperor. In Florence, though, this only made him the subject of ugly gossip. One humanist wrote to a friend,
Recently I received a letter from Guarino in which he inveighs against fortune with vehemence because that upstart Filelfo has got the daughter of the famous John Chrysoloras; although he is a man of considerable talent, he was certainly unequal to that match. Guarino complains in disgust that the wife of Chrysoloras has venal virtue, and had possessed a lover before she acquired a son-in-law.
Filelfo started out well, drawing crowds of up to 400 for his lectures. But he soon fell into a feud with Niccoli, and Niccoli's friends began to attack him:
Bracciolini, meanwhile, composed venomous invectives accusing Filelfo of stealing from his benefactors, living like a filthy beggar, and engaging in every manner of sexual vice, from rape to sodomy.
Filelfo eventually fled the city after a Medici servant attacked him on the street and slashed his face with a dagger.

This is all from Marina Belozerskaya, To Wake the Dead: a Renaissance Merchant and the Birth of Archaeology, a pretty good and very short book about Cyriacus of Ancona. Google provides the perfect comment on this sordid scene through the following picture, which came up as about the 50th image under "Florence Humanism":


Once only when the summer
was nearly over and my own
hair had been white as the day's clouds
for more years than I was counting
I looked across the garden at evening
Paula was still weeding around
flowers that open after dark
and I looked up to the clear sky
and saw the new moon and at that
moment from behind me a band
of dark birds and then another
after it flying in silence
long curving wings hardly moving
the plovers just in from the sea
and the flight clear from Alaska
half their weight gone to get them home
but home now arriving without
a sound as it rose to meet them.

W.S. Merwin

Roman Theatrical Mask, 2nd Century CE

Friday, May 23, 2014

The Archaeologist's Profession

Cyriacus of Ancona was a fifteenth-century Italian merchant and archaeological pioneer, one of the first humanists to undertake the systematic study of remains from the Greek and Roman worlds. Among other things he was the first person in nearly a thousand years to study the site of Delphi. Once as he was poking around some ruins in the Italian town a priest approached him and asked him what he was doing. Cyriacus replied,
It is my profession to wake the dead.

Archangel with Arquebus

I mean, why should divine warriors be limited to swords? From the Cuzco School, c. 1740, attributed to Salamiel Dei.