Sunday, December 31, 2017

Art for a Frozen Day

Fleury Chenu, Snowy Landscape, c.1850-75

Monet, The Magpie, 1868

Pieter Brueghel the Elder, Hunters in the Snow, 1565

Willem Maris, Winter Landscape, 1875. I did some research on Maris because I liked this painting so much, but it seems that most of his paintings show cows or geese in marshy Dutch landscapes. Mostly cows. Lots and lots of cows.

Fred Stein, Soir d'Hiver à Paris, 1934

Hendrick Avercamp, Winter Landscape with Iceskaters, 1608

Caspar David Friedrich, Winter, 1807

Alexei Savrasov, Winter, 1870

Thought for the New Year

After changes upon changes we are more or less the same.

– Paul Simon

More Amazing Finds from the Siberian Bronze Age

Excavations continued last summer at the Iktul cemetery in southern Siberia, which I wrote about last year. The cemetery belongs to the Okunev culture, the beginning of Siberia's Bronze Age. This week archaeologists published two new finds from burials dating to around 2500 BCE. The head above is described by the excavators as a "mythical beast", and it does look a bit like a dragon, but it seems to me that it might also be a horse. It is made of meteoric iron.

This small figuring is made of soapstone. The excavators call it a "doll." Opinion among archaeologists as to whether objects like this should be considered toys or religious icons swings back and forth, and right now the toy faction seems to be ascendant.

The new publication also includes more pictures of the amazing infant burial I wrote about back in 2016. The baby was half-covered by what seemed to be a rattle of the type used by shamans to chase away evil spirits, made of elk antler figurines.

The figurines have been cleaned up and preserved, and these photographs are the result. Amazing.

Friday, December 29, 2017

A Window

Granada, Alhambra, sala de las dos hermanas. Photograph by Juan Larent, 1875

Men Polled about Sexual Harassment

Morning Consult and the Times asked 615 men, chosen to represent a cross-section of the workforce, the following questions; the percent who said yes is in parentheses.
In the last year at work, have you …

Told sexual stories or jokes that some might consider offensive? (19%)

Made remarks that some might consider sexist or offensive? (16%)

Displayed, used or distributed materials (like videos or cartoons) that some might consider sexist or suggestive? (7%)

Made attempts to draw someone into a discussion of sexual matters even though the person did not want to join in? (1%)

Made gestures or used body language of a sexual nature, which embarrassed or offended someone? (4%)

Continued to ask someone for dates, drinks or dinner even though he or she said no? (4%)

Made attempts to establish a romantic sexual relationship with someone despite that person’s efforts to discourage it? (3%)

Touched someone in a way that made him or her feel uncomfortable? (2%)

Made uninvited attempts to stroke, fondle or kiss someone? (1%)

Offered or implied rewards if someone engaged in sexual behavior? Or treated someone badly if he or she didn’t? (2%)
About 25% of men said yes to one of the first two categories, which I would say qualifies them as common behaviors. But context would matter a lot; you might easily tell a joke knowing that "some" might find it offensive if you know the person you're telling it to would not. These differences in style underlie many of the conflicts we have seen erupt on college campuses and the like. Some people want a polite world in which nobody does or says anything offensive; some want a world in which everybody is free to offend everyone else on an equal opportunity basis. One of my sons told me that his idea of equality is that when you meet a guy you tell a joke about his ethnicity and he fires back with an equally offensive joke about yours, and you become friends. Throw people like him into a workplace with shy, sensitive people, and there is sure to be pain.

The item on these lists that always draws my attention is "Continued to ask someone for dates, drinks or dinner even though he or she said no?" On the one hand, that can certainly feel like harassment. On the other, I have lost count of the number of stories I have heard from long-married couples that go something like, "I asked her out fifty times and on the fiftieth time she finally said yes." Plus, think about all the advice we give out about getting what you want in life: don't take no for an answer, don't give up too easily, keep trying, try a different approach. If you knew a teenager who was really discouraged after trying something once and failing, what would you say? Quit? Not me. So the advice we are supposed to give to a guy who has asked a woman out once and been told "no" is to give up? Even though that is contrary to the advice we would give in every other situation I can think of except suicide? I suspect that men who would only try once are a lot less likely to get dates, get married, or get anything else in life than those who keep trying.

I dwell on this example because it sums up for me how complicated this stuff is. But it is hard to have an honest conversation about, because it is a minefield of painful memories, awkward experiences, differences of style and opinion, political positions, and the partisan rancor that poisons everything in America these days. One thing I really value about my relationship with my wife is that we talk very freely and frankly about relationships between men and women, the differences between them, the cant that ideologues throw around about this stuff, and the complexity of the whole situation. There are whole areas of human life that we simply can't talk honestly about, except with a few close friends. Some people think that is only natural and are ok with it, but for others having to be dishonest causes real pain.

Bullies are everywhere, and people shouldn't have to put up with bullying to earn a living. But human interaction is too manifold to be contained within a list of rules, especially when romance and sex are parts of the equation. We can try to reduce the amount of grief we cause each other at work, but neither we nor any other social mammal can make interacting with each other smooth and free of pain.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Things that Matter

From the interview Barack Obama gave to Prince Harry:
Prince Harry: Can I take you back to the 20th of January 2017? You sat in Marine One, the presidential helicopter, flying over Washington. You sat through the inauguration with your game face on. You weren't giving much emotion away, as we saw. What's going through your mind?

President Obama: The first thing that went through my mind was, sitting across from Michelle, how thankful I was that she had been my partner through that whole process ... She is not someone who was naturally inclined to politics, so despite the fact that she was as good of a First Lady as there has ever been, she did this largely in support of my decision to run. And for us to be able to come out of that intact—our marriage is strong, we're still each other's best friends, our daughters turning into amazing young women—the sense that there was a completion and that we had done the work in a way that preserved our integrity and left us whole and that we hadn't fundamentally changed was a satisfying feeling. Now, that was mixed with all of the work that was still undone and the concerns about how the country moves forward. But overall there was a serenity there more than I would have expected.

The Emperor's Quest for Immortality

Back in 2002, more than 36,000 wooden slips with more than 200,000 Chinese characters written on them were discovered in an abandoned well in a village in western Hunan. They date to the Qin dynasty, 222 to 210 BC. Studying them has taken a long time, but bits of news are now trickling out. One set of the slips
contain the emperor's executive order for a nationwide search for the elixir of life and official replies from local governments.

Zhang Chunlong, a researcher at the provincial institute of archaeology, said the emperor's decree reached frontier regions and remote villages.

According to the calligraphic script on the narrow wooden slips, a village called "Duxiang" reported that no miraculous potion had been found yet and implied that the search would continue. Another place, "Langya," in today's eastern Shandong Province near the sea, presented a herb collected from an auspicious local mountain.
I love this; it confirms the impression of Qin Shihuang Ti as a half mad tyrant, desperate to live forever even if thousands of peasants had to die building his mausoleum.

Me on Powers Hill, Gettysburg

Yeah, I need a bigger safety vest; this one no longer stays closed across my belly when I have three layers on.

Crime Falling in New York

The headlines over the past two years have been about the surge in homicide in Chicago, Baltimore, and a few other cities. But across most of the country the decline in crime has continued:
It would have seemed unbelievable in 1990, when there were 2,245 killings in New York City, but as of Wednesday there have been just 286 in the city this year — the lowest since reliable records have been kept.

In fact, crime has fallen in New York City in each of the major felony categories — murder and manslaughter, rape, assault, robbery, burglary, grand larceny, and car thefts — to a total of 94,806 as of Sunday, well below the previous record low of 101,716 set last year.

If the trend holds just a few more days, this year’s homicide total will be under the city’s previous low of 333 in 2014, and crime will have declined for 27 straight years, to levels that police officials have said are the lowest since the 1950s. The numbers, when taken together, portray a city of 8.5 million people growing safer even as the police, under Mayor Bill de Blasio, use less deadly force, make fewer arrests and scale back controversial practices like stopping and frisking thousands of people on the streets.
Reining in aggressive policing did not lead to more crime; neither did continued high immigration. So not much fodder for Trumpian conservatives. On the other hand surging inequality also did not have any impact, which is a problem for the far left. If you ask me, there are two factors at work, the reduction of lead in the environment and our becoming a gentler society with less violence of every sort, at least within our borders.

Jochen Bittner Explains the Decline of Social Democracy

Across Europe, the center-left is in precipitous decline. German's Social Democrats have gone from 40% of the vote in 1998 to 20% in the most recent election. To Jochen Bittner, the explanation is the Social Democrats' embrace of the EU and other international bodies:
The first contradiction is that democracy’s apparent victory in 1989 also marked the beginning of the degradation of democracy. The convenient self-delusion of the “neoliberal” decades was that you could strengthen both national democracy (including welfare-state capitalism) and transnational policymaking. Capital could be harnessed to the nation-state at the same time it was being freed to move beyond it. Regional integration, meanwhile, came to mean more than just markets; transnational governance was the watchword.

Davos and Brussels were the capitals of this elitist complacency. In the headquarters of worldwide economic liberalization and European integration, respectively, dissenters of the cosmopolitian consensus were branded as narrow-minded or as “Europhobes.” Yet the truth is that you cannot have transnational governance without limiting the powers of national parliaments, thereby limiting the power of the people. And you cannot attempt to control capital at home while loosening the reins that prevent it from moving abroad.

The result has been long in coming, and predictable. Democracy has pushed back, through bottom-up agitation from ordinary people who had taken to the streets from Leipzig to Bucharest. And when the elites pushed back, whether it was over the Greek debt crisis or the refugee influx, who was standing alongside them? The erstwhile voice of the people, the Social Democrats.
Since the French Revolution, the European left has had two great dreams: democracy and internationalism. If Bittner is right, they are incompatible.

In the short term, I think he is right. The people are not ready for world government, so embracing democracy means rejecting rule from Brussels or the WTO and insisting on national sovereignty. Many of my friends on the left were shocked by the Brexit vote, which they saw as simple racism. But it is not so simple. The EU is not a democratic polity, so embracing its authority means abrogating democracy. Real democracy means defying it. Until the center-left parties work out coherent positions on this key question, they will continue to falter.

Is the Liberal Order in Terminal Decline?

Today Rod Dreher contemplates a 1932 novel by Joseph Roth, The Radetzky March. This book chronicles the decline and fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire through the lens of one noble family. Roth was a great lover of that empire, and in 1932, amidst the Depression and the rise of Hitler and Stalin, he missed it very badly. But he also understood why it was doomed:
Radetzky is set mostly in the period in which the young chafed under the pointlessness of traditions. In the most painful episode of the book, two young men are bound by the military’s code of honor to fight a duel to the death over an insulting remark one made to the other. Honor is everything in that hierarchical, monarchical world. Baron von Trotta, a hidebound state bureaucrat, lives his life in the strictest observation of protocol and social etiquette — to the point where he only sees others, including his son, according to their assigned roles in the system.
In the 20th century, ideas and institutions that had held human imaginations for centuries – royalty, nobility, honor, noblesse oblige, – ceased to mean anything. As a result, people stopped following the rituals of the old world, stopped taking its strictures seriously. That world fell, giving us mass democracy, fascism, communism, anti-colonial revolts, and much more. So here is Dreher's question:
What makes Radetzky resonate so deeply is that the story it tells is a universal one, though it happens to be set in a particular time and place. It is a story about the effect of time on all human institutions and ways of seeing the world. It’s impossible to read Radetzky without wondering if our own liberal democratic institutions and ways of ordering our experiences are declining as surely as the Austro-Hungarian monarchy — and we can’t see it clearly because we are caught up inside it, and we have powerful internal confirmation biases telling us that something this fine should be eternal.
It's an interesting question. I see data like the declining percentage of young people who think democracy is "essential" as a bit of froth thrown up by our current political impasse. But what if these polls, and the rise of Trump, are signs that our order is losing its legitimacy and may soon be swept away? What if our contempt for leaders and institutions, our declining level of trust in just about everything around us, is a sign that we will soon cast them all off in pursuit of some radical future?

To this I say that we could only cast off the liberal democratic order if we had something to replace it, and there is no other theory that might fill that role. So until superhuman AI dreams up a new system for us, we are stuck with what we have: democracy, human rights, partisan politics, mixed economies, and so on. Dreher notes that my view is shared by, among many others, conservative writer Patrick Deneen. Deneen recommends this program:
  1. Acknowledge liberalism’s achievements and reject the idea that we can return to a pre-liberal age.
  2. “Outgrow the age of ideology.” That is, put aside beliefs in grand ideological narratives (communism, fascism, liberalism), and instead “focus on developing practices that foster new forms of culture, household economics, and polis life.”
  3. Be patient as we wait for a “better theory of politics and society” to emerge out of practical experience of post-liberal life. Deneen predicts that the future of our politics will emerge out of countercultural “options” — his word — that, as the liberal order further declines, will be seen increasingly as “necessities”.
I suppose the example of Nazism shows that it wouldn't take a good alternative to overthrow democratic capitalism, just one that excites a sizable minority. So it falls to we sane people to defend the existing order until something genuinely better comes along.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Oskar Bergman

Oskar Bergman (1879-1963) was a Swedish painter and printmaker who was little known in his lifetime but has lately become an auction house favorite. Above is the earliest work of his I have found, Forest in Winter, 1904. His style remained pretty consistent from then on.

Private Bureaucracy

Interesting NY Times story today on the regulations faced by farmers. It notes that some of the most burdensome come, not from the government, but from private retailers like Whole Foods and Costco. These companies have their own long lists of rules that farmers who sell to them must follow, and their own teams of inspectors to enforce them:
Farmers to some extent have gotten used to the requirements and see the benefit for their businesses of creating a culture of food safety. But they complain that the rules are onerous, particularly the tediousness of documenting virtually anything that happens on the farm. Much of that documentation at Indian Ladder goes in the 13 logs kept in the packinghouse.

If something is not logged, the saying on the farm goes, it did not happen.

Mr. Ten Eyck says some of the requirements are impractical. The safety plan at Indian Ladder, for example, calls for someone to check the orchard each morning for mouse and deer droppings and address the problem before picking begins. The worry is that the droppings could get attached to a worker’s shoe, get tracked onto a rung of a ladder, end up on a worker’s hands and then on the apples.

Mr. Ten Eyck says the requirement was “ridiculous” in practice — the equivalent of finding an earring in the orchard — so Indian Farms came up with an alternative to scouring the orchard every morning. “We have trained the guys only to grab the rails of the ladder,” he said.

The safety planning comes with accountability: The farms are audited, usually twice a year — once planned and again as a surprise. The audits are in-depth, as the inspector examines the entire farm operation, including employee hygiene, labor laws and fertilizer application. The auditor also checks if everyone on the farm has received proper training. And they check the logs, too.

The rules can be pretty specific, banning fake eyelashes (they can drop into food) and specifying certain types of wedding bands that can be worn (they can get caught in equipment). The distance between vehicles and crops is closely monitored (exhaust fumes are harmful). And chewing gum is prohibited because it could contaminate the produce.
This is also my experience. My job is essentially to help my clients deal with one set of government regulations, and those regulations specify a lot of things that I have to do. Sometimes they specify the table of contents of my reports, for example. But I find those rules less burdensome than the ones imposed by my own employers. And while the historic preservation rules I work with have been essentially the same for twenty years, the corporate rules get more invasive and oppressive every year.

Bureaucracy is not a problem of the government – or, if you prefer, a solution adopted by the government – but a tendency of our whole society, to which businessmen are no more immune than public officials. If something goes wrong, write a set of rules that, if followed, will keep it from happening again. To insure the rules are followed, make up some forms to be filled out, log books to be written in, quarterly reports summarizing the contents of the forms. Hire inspectors to check up. And presto, the problem is solved or reduced, at a cost that, cummulatively, is crushing the joy out of work in our world.


My 15-year-old son Ben by the Patapsco River. We were supposed to be Christmas shopping for his mother but he wandered off and we found him like this, staring soulfully at the water. It was such a Ben pose that I had to take a picture. Note the lounge pants and the hoodie, the uniform of all my teenage boys.

Is Bamboo Blight?

Meanwhile in New London, Connecticut:
The jungle rises at the end of the block, past a few narrow clapboard houses, where an old station wagon is parked on the road. What neighbors said was once a small patch of bamboo has swelled over the years into a thicket, reaching above the utility lines, pushing to the edge of the property and nearly swallowing a white house on Borodell Place, with only a sliver left poking out. . . .

The City of New London has declared the overgrowth of bamboo a blight. But officials said the resident, Carlos Carrion, has failed to pay fines and has ignored orders to cut back the plant. Now, he has become one of the first to be criminally charged under the city’s expanded blight ordinance.
Certain types of bamboo have been declared an invasive menace in some states and cities, because they spread so aggressively, but apparently not this kind:
“The bamboo I grow is not invasive,” Mr. Carrion said at a hearing this year, according to The Day, New London’s newspaper, which has covered the case closely. “I maintain the plants. It stays within the perimeter of my property and yet it’s considered to be a blight?”
The city says it is responding to complaints from neighbors, but the Times found some neighbors supportive.

Seems to me like another case of excessive busy-body-ness, born from our inability to stop telling each other what to do. Some people have a vision of what they want their neighborhoods to look like and they can't stand it when their neighbors have other visions.

Monday, December 25, 2017

A Bestiary in Stone

Now in the Met, this stone arch is said to have come from a 12th-century church in Narbonne, France.

From left to right, in the Met's words: a manticore with a man's face, a lion's body, and a scorpion's tail; a pelican, who pierces her own breast so that her blood feeds her young, symbolizing Christ's death and resurrection;

a basilisk, a cross between a cock and a scorpion that can kill with its looks;

a harpy luring men to their doom with her beautiful voice; a griffin, which has the head and wings of an eagle and the body of a lion;

an amphisbaena or dragon, which can form its body into a circle; a centaur with drawn bow;

and a lion, who erases his tracks with his tail to elude hunters, symbolizing Christ's incarnation.

The Goal of Life

The goal of life, for Pascal, is not happiness, peace, or fulfillment, but aliveness.

Sean Kelly, an unattributed quotation in his lecture notes

The Nativity

Leonardo, Madonna of the Rocks, London version

Georges la Tour, 1644


Domenico Ghirlandaio, 1484




Edward Burne-Jones

Adolf Hölzel, 1912

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Klyuchevskaya sopka, Kamchatka

Photo by Vladimir Voychuk, via National Geographic.

Christmas Eve Sunrise, Catonsville, Maryland

View from my front porch at 7:20 AM.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Château de la Mothe-Chandeniers

The Château de la Mothe-Chandeniers, a picturesque ruin 200 miles southwest of Paris, is in the news because more than 11,000 people have banded together to buy the site and protect it from demolition.

The castle began as a medieval fortress, built in the 13th century by the Bauçay family, lords of Loudun. It was originally called Motte Bauçay (or Baussay). The Motte Baussay changed hands several times during the Hundred Years War and was trashed by a mob during the French Revolution.

In the 19th century it belonged to a series of wealthy aristocrats and businessmen, most famously Baron Edgard Lejeune. In 1870 he embarked on a major "restoration." If you know anything about how medieval castles were restored in the 19th century, you will suspect, as I do, that most of the Renaissance detailing you see today was the Baron's work.

In 1932 the castle was destroyed in a terrible fire.

It then passed through various hands, including a high school math teacher, Marc Deyemer, who tried to restore it but found the task beyond him. He ended up frustrated and angry with various historic preservation groups and bureaucrats he thought were blocking his efforts and threatened to destroy it.

This led to the crowdfunding effort, launched by locals with the assistance of and organization called Adopte un Château. They successfully raised €500,000 from 6,500 people who paid at least €51 each,  enough to purchase the castle. It will take much more to restore it, of course, but when I last checked donations had been received from 17,000 people, so they have at least a start on that sum.

I don't know; I think I would try to stabilize the structure but otherwise leave it alone. Any restoration will get into issues of what should be restored; the pre-Revolution castle, or the castle as remade by the Baron? And with 11,000 owners it might be difficult to agree on a strategy. Besides, I like it as a ruin.