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 give 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.

Damping Down Fear about Back Pain

By some ways of looking at the problem, back pain is a crisis in America. There are millions of sufferers, and some of them have had to stop working because of debilitating pain. Back pain is one of the most common reasons doctors prescribe opiate painkillers, which have become a crisis of their own.

But all of this is really rather puzzling. Many people with back pain have no obvious injuries that show up on an MRI, while MRIs of some pain-free people show what look like serious problems. Problems like extruded disks that used to get you whisked into surgery are now known to be common in healthy people. Big studies of surgery for spinal disk issues show that on average it is no better than a week in bed and some physical therapy. On the other hand I know two people who swear up and down that back surgery transformed their lives, and there are many thousands of such people in America.

So I never know what to make of all this. But I feel sure that one of the biggest problems with back pain is that it is scary. Partly this is physical, because it hurts and feels fundamental in a way that an injured hand or foot does not. It can make your legs go so stiff or wobbly that it is like a pseudo paralysis. Plus there is the background noise, all the people around us crippled by it.

New guidelines from the American College of Physicians recognize the importance of fear in back pain patients:
The new guidelines said that doctors should avoid prescribing opioid painkillers for relief of back pain and suggested that before patients try anti-inflammatories or muscle relaxants, they should try alternative therapies like exercise, acupuncture, massage therapy or yoga. Doctors should reassure their patients that they will get better no matter what treatment they try, the group said. The guidelines also said that steroid injections were not helpful, and neither was acetaminophen, like Tylenol, although other over-the-counter pain relievers like aspirin, naproxen or ibuprofen could provide some relief.

Dr. Weinstein, who was not an author of the guidelines, said patients have to stay active and wait it out. “Back pain has a natural course that does not require intervention,” he said.

In fact, for most of the people with acute back pain — defined as present for four weeks or less that does not radiate down the leg — there is no need to see a doctor at all, said Dr. Rick Deyo, a spine researcher and professor at the Oregon Health and Science University in Portland, Ore., and an author of the new guidelines.

“For acute back pain, the analogy is to the common cold,” Dr. Deyo said. “It is very common and very annoying when it happens. But most of the time it will not result in anything major or serious. ”
We are witnessing a major move away from heroic medicine. Many kinds of surgery are falling out of favor – cardiac bypass, arthroscopic surgery for knee cartilage tears, back surgery for extruded disks – because studies have shown that on average they do little good. Drugs introduced with great fanfare now seem to be only a little better than placebos. Maybe, just maybe, we are acquiring a little medical wisdom, and we will start to cut back on expensive medicine that does little good to focus on what we can achieve.

Some Good News from Washington

First, Michael Flynn is out as National Security Adviser. I always thought he was the most dangerous member of Trump's administration, combining a combative militarism with a weak relationship to the facts. His two hand-picked deputies are also said to be on the way out. Of course his replacement may turn out to be bad, too, but it will be hard to find anyone as dangerous as Flynn.

That Flynn fell because he lied about unauthorized back-channel talks with the Putin regime is also gratifying; it's nice to know that there are limits to how much schmoozing with dictators Trump will tolerate.

Second, Republicans in Congress are backpedaling hard from Obamacare repeal. Some are openly talking about "repair" instead of "repeal," and many others are insisting that a new plan be in place before the Affordable Care Act is undone. Let's hope they step up here and do some serious work on a new plan. The ACA is far from a perfect law and there are other ways to do what it does, some of which might work better. People who know Paul Ryan say he is a serious policy guy, and now is his chance to prove it. Honestly right now it looks like nothing will happen at all this year.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Pranu Mutteddu

Pranu Mutteddu is a complex of  Neolithic monuments in Sardinia, including tombs and numerous standing stones. They were built between 3200 and 2800 BCE; use may have continued down to about 2500 BCE.

Overhead views of the two main tombs. These were once covered with earthen mounds, but between the tomb robbers and the archaeologists all the dirt has been removed.

Tomb 2, the largest. Love the carved boulder entrance.

The roughly 60 standing stones include groups of two and three and this one long alignment. Many others have been removed over the centuries to build the island's ubiquitous stone walls.

More views of the tombs. I've been reading some recent scholarship about these Neolithic monuments, and the new thinking is that many were built in areas of low population density. It's as if people living in a scattered fashion felt a strong need for some sort of community focus, so they invested a huge amount of effort in building tombs and cult centers. Another discovery is that some of these centers began with a single burial, apparently of an important person; perhaps he was the founder of the clan or lineage that came together at the complex.