Saturday, November 18, 2017

Saul Leiter

Saul Leiter (1923-2013) was an American photographer who did many kinds of work, including fashion, but is now most famous for the pictures he took on the street in New York and Paris.

In the 1940s through the 1960s he was considered a leader of the "New York school" of photography. Back then he mostly published black and white work. But he also shot thousands of color slides, and in the 90s he began to pull out his old slide boxes and see what was there that might suit contemporary tastes.

He selected several dozen and made prints from them, and at least on the internet these are now his most famous works.

I find them stunning.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Priming Liberalism

I am not a big fan of "priming" experiments, the sort of thing where you prime your experimental subjects to feel something – nervous, happy, smart – and then give them a test or ask them questions. Some of the results seem ludicrous to me, and many have not replicated. But for what it's worth, several experiments have shown that if you make people afraid they become more conservative:
It has long been known in political psychology circles that people become more conservative and resistant to change when under threat of some kind.
In the November 10 TLS John Bargh of Yale reports on experiments that show what simple stimulus makes people more liberal. In his experiment, the student subjects imagined themselves with a superpower, either being completely safe from physical harm or being able to fly. Imagining they they could fly had no effect on political attitudes. But imagining that they were immune from harm made everyone more liberal:
Satisfying the basic need for physical security through the genie imagination exercise therefore had the effect of turning off, or at least reducing in strength, the need to hold conservative social and political attitudes.
This explains, he says, why liberal rhetoricians from FDR to Obama spent so much energy denouncing fear.

Does this Tintype Show Pat Garret and Billy the Kid?

Six years ago North Carolina lawyer Frank Abrams bought this tintype for $10 at a flea market. He was intrigued, he says, because it seemed to be from the old west, not the sort of thing one normally finds at North Carolina flea markets. He hung it in his house and gave it little thought until he heard about an alleged photo of Billy the Kid that had been valued at $5 million. Looking carefully at this and comparing it to photos of famous western characters, he decided that the man on the far right must be Pat Garret.

You know, "Poor Billy Bonney, you're only twenty-one, and Garret's got your name on every bullet in his gun. . . ." Here is another photograph of Garret, and below are two others. I see the resemblance, but would you say that is definitely the same man? No doubt somebody will go at this with high-tech software, and maybe the image of the man on the far right is clear enough for us to get a pretty good idea. Certainly there are plenty of images of Garret to work with.

Garret was one of those men who was a gambler and a brawler in his youth but then went straight and became a real terror to men just like he had been when he was a little younger, including his old friends. He was elected sheriff of Lincoln County, New Mexico in 1880. One of his friends from his disreputable days was William Bonney, alias Billy the Kid and several other alias. Garret told Bonney that if he cleared out of New Mexico, Garret would forget about him, but if he stayed in the territory he would have to hunt him down. Bonney didn't take the warning seriously, and Garret became so eager to get his man that he had himself made a deputy sheriff and a US Marshall before his term as sheriff even started. He found Bonney at the home of a mutual friend, Pete Maxwell; the room was dark but Garret recognized Bonney's voice and shot him dead.

Or anyway that was Garret's story. Others told different stories. Some of those stories made Bonney out to be an ok guy, or at least no worse than Garret, and hinted or said outright that Garret used the cover of the law to murder his old friend because of a grudge. Some of these pro-Bonney stories made it into big city newspapers. Garret, incensed, cooperated with newspaper reporter Marshall Upson to write The Authentic Life of Bill the Kid, which was published in 1882 and made Garret's story the official one. The tintype that started the latest fracas is said to have come from New York, and Frank Abrams speculates that it went there with New York native Upson, who got it from Garret in the course of working on the book.

And then, when Abrams decided he had a photo of Pat Garret and started showing it to experts in western memorabilia, somebody told him that not only was that really Pat Garret, the man second from the left, in the back, is Billy the Kid. The tintype has been dated to between 1880 and 1885. So it might actually be a record of one of the last cordial days Bonney and Garret spent together. (Splendid bunch of fellows they hung out with.) Above is the most famous portrait of Billy the Kid. I dunno, maybe, but the image in the tintype is so blurred I don't know how you can be sure. On the other hand, how many friends did Pat Garret have? So we're not really trying to identify this face from the whole ocean of humanity, but from the circle of a few dozen people that Pat Garret knew well enough to pose for a photo with. Assuming, that is, that the man on the far right is really Pat Garret.

Garret, incidentally, was eventually murdered himself, a mysterious crime for which nobody was ever convicted; wikipedia lists five different suspects. It had something to do with those famous range wars between cattlemen and sheep herders; unless it was, as some have said, a long-delayed revenge for his unjust murder of Billy the Kid.

Which brings me to another interesting thing. The western frontier as Hollywood remembers it lasted about fifty years, and even if you expand the definition pretty broadly it involved only a few hundred thousand people. The wars between the US government and the western Indians were tiny skirmishes compared to Gettysburg or Shiloh and would not even have merited a mention during World War II. There were western desperadoes but in 1870 there were probably as many criminals in Manhattan as there were white people in New Mexico. There were cowboys, yes, but again just a few thousand in a nation of fifty million. It's another example of how a brief period of history involving comparatively few people can seize our imaginations and our attention. There are thousand-year stretches of history, across whole continents, that have bee treated in fewer books and movies than the Gunfight at the OK Corral. (Which incidentally arose from an attempt to enforce a local gun-control ordinance.)

The Wild West, Athenian Democracy, the Italian Renaissance; our historical imagination is half filled by just a few places and a few million people.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Some People

Kansas City Gazette, 12 September 1907

Aerial Archaeology in the Saudi Desert

The deserts of the Middle East are dotted with archaeological sites. Because the spaces are so vast and the sites so widely dispersed, little was known about the history of these areas until quite recently. In the 1920s pilots flying over the desert began to report vast stone shapes, and archaeologists even poked into a few in Syria and Jordan.

The shapes includes these "kites," which are thought to be corrals for hunting antelope.

But real progress in surveying the desert was only made after satellite imagery became available starting in 1995. It is now estimated that there are hundreds of thousands of these structures in the deserts of Syria, Jordan, Iraq, and Saudia Arabia.

One common form is the "gate." These are often found in lava fields and other totally inhospitable environments, so it is hard to believe they were ever much use. These range in length from 150 to 1600 feet (40 to 500 meters).

In western Saudi several are draped across this old lava dome. Lava on some indicated that they are at least 6,000 years old. This area (Harrat Khaybar) also contains hundreds of rock-cut tombs.

Awareness of these structures spread widely after Livescience ran a story on the work of David Kennedy, an archaeologist from the University of Western Australia who has documented thousands of structures using Google Earth. He wrote,‘Gates are found almost exclusively in bleak, inhospitable lava fields with scant water or vegetation, places seemingly amongst the most unwelcoming to our species.’

Hundreds of these "keyhole pendants" have been documented. These look like they might be houses attached to animal pens, but there is no evidence that they were ever lived in.

These are called "wheelhouses" but again there is no evidence that they were lived in. The bedouin call all of these structures "the works of the old men." And right now archaeological science can't do much better than that.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Raising the Bayonne Bridge

The Bayonne Bridge crosses the Kill van Kull, one of the entrances to New York's extremely busy harbor and my nominee for the world's coolest river name. The bridge used to look like this. It was built in 1931, its steel arch a modernist monument with many admirers. The roadway was 151 feet (46 m) above the water.

That was plenty high for big ships of the twentieth century, but in the twenty-first they have gotten even bigger. So more than a decade ago the Port Authority realized that something would have to be done about the Bayonne Bridge. After considering proposals to completely replace the bridge they decided to keep the old structure but raise the roadway. The roadway, after all, is not a structural element of the bridge; the steel arch provides all the strength and support. Here you can see the upper roadway being built 65 feet (20 m) above the old one. The cost of the construction was $748 million.

On September 7, one of the world's biggest ships, the "neo-Panamax containership" Theodore Roosevelt, sailed under the bridge, showing off its new height.

The high-level bridge illuminated for its opening. There's a cool article about this by Ian Frazier in the New Yorker.

Marc Chagall, The Lovers

Painting by Marc Chagall of himself and his wife, 1928, just sold by Sotheby's for $28.4 million.

Why Do We All Feel Like We're Losing?

As David Brooks says in this essay, the reason some Evangelicals are rallying around Roy Moore is that they feel besieged by the rest of society, and when you are in a war for your very existence you can't worry about little things like decades-old allegations of molesting teenagers:
The siege mentality starts with a sense of collective victimhood. It’s not just that our group has opponents. The whole “culture” or the whole world is irredeemably hostile.

From this flows a deep sense of pessimism. Things are bad now. Our enemies are growing stronger. And things are about to get worse. The world our children inherit will be horrific. The siege mentality floats on apocalyptic fear.

The odd thing is that the siege mentality feels kind of good to the people who grab on to it. It gives its proponents a straightforward way to interpret the world — the noble us versus the powerful them. It gives them a clear sense of group membership and a clear social identity. It offers a ready explanation for the bad things that happen in life.

Most of all, it gives people a narrative to express their own superiority: We may be losing, but at least we are the holy remnant. We have the innocence of victimhood. We are martyrs in a spiteful world.
Nothing new about this, of course. To me the weird thing about America today is that activists of every sort seem to feel the same way: all the sides feel like they are in the same dangerous position, threatened by powerful enemies that are both nefarious and nebulous. As Brooks points out, a Pew Poll taken after the election found that 64 percent of Americans think their side has been losing most of the time.

To me the most important divide in America is the one between the people who feel besieged by dark forces and worry about the continued existence of what they believe in, and those who think that despite our problems things are basically ok. The reason both political parties are having so much trouble is that both are divided between complacent and revolutionary wings, with most of the energy at the extremes. This is especially true for Republicans, since a bigger part of their base seems to be up in arms. It's a bad situation for everyone because the large radical wings never really get their way, since even if they can dominate their own party they are still a minority in the nation, and that leaves them ever more embittered and ever more threatened.

I think the biggest political question for America now is, what is driving this widespread fear, and can we do anything about it? Part of it may be just because the country is close to evenly divided on a lot of issues, which leaves everybody feeling uncertain; it can't be true that every side is losing, but it does seem to be true that no side is getting most of what it wants. Hey, that's democracy. But does that have to mean we all feel threatened?

I worry about the ever-escalating cycle of anger and hate, the constant wars between liberal comedians and conservative talk-show hosts, the vitriolic rhetoric that pours from everywhere. We need someone to stand up for moderation and peace. Who will that be?

Tuesday, November 14, 2017


Two cards left by visitors to an exhibition at the Getty featuring the work of Barbara Kruger.

Crystal Liu

Crystal Liu describes herself as a "Chinese painter born in Canada." She got her BFA in 2003, so I guess she was born around 1982. Above, a triptych titled, "the possibilities...." and one of the panels, 2016

These days she lives in San Francisco but she also exhibits in Hong Kong. At Night, 2015.

Her paintings are grouped into series that each have a similar color scheme, and various images repeat across the whole series. Here are three from a series called "I always meant to love you," 2017. That's also the title of the one in the middle; at top is Felt Like Home and at the bottom is My Heart Dropped II.

Under the Ground, 2016, from the series "underground."

The Moon, 2014.

Making Waves, 2015.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

The London Mithraeum, Back in Place

In 1954, archaeologists investigating the site of a new office building in London uncovered a temple of Mithras dating to around 240 CE. Public outcry forced the developers to delay their work long enough for the temple to be completely excavated and disassembled. The key artifact was this head of Mithras.

The temple was eventually re-assembled on a vacant lot on Victoria Street, but the restoration was somewhat bungled and it was a long way from the artifacts found with it, kept in the London Museum. Above, the plan of the temple.

A few years ago that 1954 office building was torn down to make way for the new headquarters of Bloomberg Europe. Bloomberg paid for a major archaeological campaign in another part of the site, and amazing finds were made in the mud of the former Walbrook. Like this set of Roman pewter and leather shoe.

Bloomberg also provided space in the basement of the new building to reassemble the temple in its approximate original location, and the temple has just re-opened to the public. Above, some of the stones on their way to the new site. Video here.

The temple as it looks in its new home.

And this time the temple is accompanied by an impressive collection of artifacts from the site.

Like this section of a Roman wooden door; did you know the paneled door was such a traditional design? So kudos to Bloomberg, the archaeologists who did this work, and the preservationists who set up the London Mithraeum in its original home.

Narva/Ivangorod and the Limits of Nationalism

Narva and Ivangorod are two Russian-speaking towns on opposite banks of the Narva River. But as it happens the river is the border between Russia and Estonia, so Narva is in Estonia and Ivangorod is in Russia. Times reporter Andrew Higgins found that while the people of Narva are drawn emotionally to Putin's Russian nationalism, few of them actually want to be part of Russia:
“It is a different world over there,” said Sergei Stepanov, the former longtime editor of Narvskaya Gazeta, a Russian-language newspaper in Narva. “You see and feel the difference as soon as you cross the bridge across the river — the roads, the bureaucracy, the mentality.”

Another Narva resident says, “We are all Russians, but we have a different mentality here. We are used to European ways.”
Incomes are higher in Narva, pensions are much higher, and it is much easier to do just about anything. Streets are in better shape, trash is picked up on schedule, construction projects are finished on time and on budget, and people are optimistic about their future. In Ivangorod, not so much.

Part of Ivangorod's problem is that as a border city it is wrapped up in the state's security mania, a Russian problem that goes back to Stalin:
The church, along with the fortress and various museums, make Ivangorod an attractive destination for tourists. But getting them to come is not easy: Russian law and its security apparatus have put Ivangorod out of bounds for all but the most determined visitors.

All Russians who live outside the border area and any foreigner who wants to visit must submit a written application in Russian and obtain permission from the Leningrad Region branch of the F.S.B., the successor to the Soviet-era K.G.B. It took a reporter for The New York Times two applications and four months to get the permits needed to spend time in Ivangorod.
The mayor of Narva summed it up: “Russians here do not want to go back to the motherland.”

The best defense against the raging emotions that can wreck democratic politics is government that works for the people. The threat of extremism is always with us, but it is much worse when the economy collapses or the government is corrupt and incompetent.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, The Leopard

The Leopard is a very famous book in some circles. A few years ago The Oberserver ranked it as one of the top ten historical novels, the Times once ran a story on how to tour Sicily "Through the Eyes of the Leopard," and I regularly see it mentioned in discussions about how the modern world differs from more traditional societies. So, searching for something to listen to on a recent trek down to Virginia Beach for a meeting, I stumbled across it and decided to give it a try. I liked it and am pleased to have listened to it, but I didn't love it and I am suspicious of people who use it as a template for how things used to be.

Il Gattopardo was published in 1958 and was immediate success, winning Italy's top literary prize and also becoming the best-selling Italian novel ever. The author, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, was prince of Lampedusa in Sicily, and the novel focuses on a fictionalized version of his own great-grandfather. Although the novel is always called The Leopard in English, a gattopardo is actually a serval, a smaller cat that still lives wild in Sicily serves as the Lampedusa coat of arms.

The novel begins in 1860, during the civil war that led to the unification of Italy. It focuses on Don Fabrizio Corbera, Prince of Salina, who has just turned fifty years old. He is a great character, aristocratic to his core but also highly intelligent and thoroughly self-aware. He is the sort of Catholic who takes confession seriously because he has many sins to confess, especially his cavorting with a string of mistresses. (At some point his Jesuit confessor remarks that the prince just might squeak into heaven.) But he would never consider giving up either the mistresses or the church; both are fundamental to how things must be. The prince is a masculine character who loves hunting and his dogs, but also an intellectual whose hobby is searching the skies for new comets and calculating their orbits. He has always avoided politics. He remembers an occasion when the then King of the Two Sicilies received him in his private office, but quickly dismissed him when the prince refused to report on political goings-on in his neighborhood; I will not be anyone's spy, the prince thinks.

The prince is acutely aware of how rapidly things are changing around him, and how much of his own world must soon pass away. His own favorite nephew, Tancredi, is an officer with the soldiers of Garibaldi, fighting to overthrow the Bourbon monarchy of Naples. It is Tancredi, rather than one of the prince's own children, who will be a great star of the next generation, because is the one who understands that "If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change."

The prince divides his time between a villa outside Palermo, a town house inside it, and a country estate in a small town called Donnafugata. Each year when his family arrives at Donnafugata, the whole community turns out to receive them with a speeches and a brass band, after which they all go into the cathedral for a te deum. The next day the prince always visits the convent that the Salina family founded, where the head of the family is the only man allowed to enter. This year the prince learns the rather surprising news that the mayor of Donnafugata, Don Calogero, has both won the favor of the new government by his early support of the revolution and gotten rich through sharp-edged business dealings. He is, in fact, as rich as the prince, and at least as well connected in this new order of things. He and the prince are brought together when Tancredi falls in love with Calogero's beautiful daughter. Over the course of these years the prince and Calogero become more alike; the prince sends Calogero a suitable tailor and impresses on him the importance of shaving, and while Calogero acquires better manners the prince becomes a bit more ruthless in business. But the prince knows this will not be enough to save his family, which is doomed by their traditional ways to fall ever further behind the Tancredis and Calogeros of the world.

Contemplating all these changes, the prince falls into melancholy musing. "We were the Leopards, the Lions, those who'll take our place will be little jackals, hyenas." His interests are all things that take him away from the world and its changes: the church, astronomy, hunting in scrubby Sicilian hills that the narrator describes as unchanged since the dawn of civilization. To succeed in the modern world one must catch the wave of change and ride it, but the prince cannot and will not. He prefers to sink into obsolescence, true to his own ways. At one point he muses that he will be the last of his line, because those to come after him will have no unique experiences like his own, only those that any rich Italian might share.

The tone of these musings has been described as "bitter, resigned romantic nostalgia." It is beautiful, in its way, and it rings true to the character of the prince as Tomasi de Lampedusa has described him. In some ways it strikes me as accurate, at least to the way an aristocratic intellectual would have seen the nineteenth-century world.

But it is a very one-sided picture of that world. The prince is very astute on the follies of the new regime, which would lead eventually to fascism. He is much less astute about the flaws of his own age. For one thing this is an entirely masculine picture of that world, in which women serve mainly to ornament or annoy. The prince is a great character, Tancredi a very fine one, and some of the minor male figures are interesting, but none of the women really come to life. Nor do any of the common people. We see them as they interact with the prince, and as soldiers in doomed campaigns, but we see none of the poverty, squalor, and death that defined their world. The prince is indifferent to such things.

So I do not recommend this book as a glimpse into the world of the past. But it is a very fine portrayal of what some people loved about that world, and why they so distrusted the modernization being thrust upon them. If you want to know what conservative aristocrats of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries thought they were defending, this is not a bad place to start, and since it is a wonderfully written novel focused on a truly great character it provides many other pleasures along the way.

Lifetime Earnings for Different Majors

Via the Times. You may have to click on it to read it, but it's a pretty big file.

Some of this has to do, not with how useful what you learn is, but what kind of person chooses that major; for example, political science majors earn more than philosophy majors, but not in politics.

I suspect that most of the the high-earning physics majors ended up in computers or studied engineering in graduate school.

I wonder what will happen to the salaries of accounting majors, now that so many firms are outsourcing their accounting to firms in India?

Biology has slid down the ladder from being like a hard science to being more like a social science, because of a flood of undergraduates choosing it and a big growth in jobs with biotech companies that amount to assembly-line labor.

But really the most striking thing about this chart is how small the differences are. This is the sort of income distribution I would like to see for our whole society, with a difference between $1.5 million at the low end and $6 million at the high end. All of the really high incomes come from people above the 90% percentile. In my fantasy world, we would find a way to squeeze their incomes back down toward what a top chemical engineer earns, and raise the incomes of those at the bottom up above that $1.5 million figure.