Monday, January 22, 2018

The Yakima Crack

Above the Yakima River near the town of Union Gap, Washington, a crack has appeared in a mountain:
The fissure was first spotted in October on Rattlesnake Ridge in south central Washington State, overlooking Interstate 82 and the Yakima River. Since then, a 20-acre chunk of mountainside — roughly four million cubic yards of rock, enough to fill 25 football stadiums to the top of the bleachers, eight stories up — has been sliding downhill. Geologists can measure its current speed — about two and a half inches a day — but they cannot say for certain when, or if, it might accelerate into a catastrophe. And they are powerless to stop it.

“The mountain is moving, and at some point this slide will happen — it’s just a matter of when,” said Arlene Fisher-Maurer, the city manager in Union Gap, population about 7,000, just north of the ridge.
Geologists think the mass will break free and collapse between late February and early April. Must be pretty creepy to live anywhere nearby.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Slipwares from Revolutionary Philadelphia

I wrote before about the amazing eighteenth-century artifacts recovered from the site of the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia. Here are a few more, slipware dishes found in a privy. These were everyday dishes, used both in the kitchen and at the table.


The Strangeness of the New Testament

David Bentley Hart, Eastern Orthodox scholar, has published a new translation of the New Testament that he calls "subversively literal." As he explains in this passage on the teachings of Paul, the New Testament does not literally say what we interpret it to say:
Questions of law and righteousness, however, are secondary concerns. The essence of Paul’s theology is something far stranger, and unfolds on a far vaster scale. For Paul, the present world-age is rapidly passing, while another world-age differing from the former in every dimension – heavenly or terrestrial, spiritual or physical – is already dawning. The story of salvation concerns the entire cosmos; and it is a story of invasion, conquest, spoliation and triumph. For Paul, the cosmos has been enslaved to death, both by our sin and by the malign governance of those ‘angelic’ or ‘daemonian’ agencies who reign over the earth from the heavens, and who hold spirits in thrall below the earth. These angelic beings, whom Paul calls Thrones and Powers and Dominations and Spiritual Forces of Evil in the High Places, are the gods of the nations. In the Letter to the Galatians, he even hints that the angel of the Lord who rules over Israel might be one of their number. Whether fallen, or mutinous, or merely incompetent, these beings stand intractably between us and God. But Christ has conquered them all.

In descending to Hades and ascending again through the heavens, Christ has vanquished all the Powers below and above that separate us from the love of God, taking them captive in a kind of triumphal procession. All that now remains is the final consummation of the present age, when Christ will appear in his full glory as cosmic conqueror, having ‘subordinated’ (hypetaxen) all the cosmic powers to himself – literally, having properly ‘ordered’ them ‘under’ himself – and will then return this whole reclaimed empire to his Father. God himself, rather than wicked or inept spiritual intermediaries, will rule the cosmos directly. Sometimes, Paul speaks as if some human beings will perish along with the present age, and sometimes as if all human beings will finally be saved. He never speaks of some hell for the torment of unregenerate souls.

The new age, moreover – when creation will be glorified and transformed into God’s kingdom – will be an age of ‘spirit’ rather than ‘flesh’. For Paul, these are two antithetical principles of creaturely existence, though most translations misrepresent the antithesis as a mere contrast between God’s ‘spirit’ and human perversity. But Paul is quite explicit: ‘Flesh and blood cannot inherit the Kingdom.’ Neither can psychē, ‘soul’, the life-principle or anima that gives life to perishable flesh. In the age to come, the ‘psychical body’, the ‘ensouled’ or ‘animal’ way of life, will be replaced by a ‘spiritual body’, beyond the reach of death.
The contrast between the early Christian cultists and their sane, proper, moderate descendants is quite stark.

A Mormon Archaeologist Loses his Faith

Fascinating little essay by Lizzie Wade on Thomas Ferguson, a Mormon who explored southern Mexico's archaeological sites in the 1940s and 1950s, searching for proof of Mormon teaching about ancient civilizations in the Americas:
After years of studying maps, Mormon scripture, and Spanish chronicles, Ferguson had concluded that the Book of Mormon took place around the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, the narrowest part of Mexico. He had come to the jungles of Campeche, northeast of the isthmus, to find proof.

As the group's local guide hacked a path through the undergrowth with his machete, that proof seemed to materialize before Ferguson's eyes. "We have explored four days and have found eight pyramids and many lesser structures and there are more at every turn," he wrote of the ruins he and his companions found on the western shore of Laguna de Términos. "Hundreds and possibly several thousand people must have lived here anciently. This site has never been explored before."

Ferguson, a lawyer by training, did go on to open an important new window on Mesoamerica's past. His quest eventually spurred expeditions that transformed Mesoamerican archaeology by unearthing traces of the region's earliest complex societies and exploring an unstudied area that turned out to be a crucial cultural crossroads. Even today, the institute he founded hums with research. But proof of Mormon beliefs eluded him. His mission led him further and further from his faith, eventually sapping him of religious conviction entirely. Ferguson placed his faith in the hands of science, not realizing they were the lion's jaws.
Ferguson and his New World Archaeological Foundation did turn up plenty of ancient cities, but no evidence that they were settled by Hebrews or Egyptians as the Book of Mormon says. He eventually realized that he could not find this evidence because it did not exist – because the Book of Mormon is fiction. As he wrote to a friend,
Right now I am inclined to think that all of those who claim to be ‘prophets’, including Moses, were without a means of communication with deity.
That's the thing about science. Sometimes it may tell you what you want to hear, but more often, in spiritual terms, it produces only howls from the void.

Friday, January 19, 2018

William Jabez Muckley, The Orange Tree, 1880


To Beat Trump, Focus on the Issues

Matt Yglesias:
Trump’s opponents should note that the past couple of weeks of intense debate over the president’s “fitness” for office, concluding in a new round of “Trump is a bigot” takes, have corresponded with his approval ratings getting steadily better.

He bottomed out in mid-December at the height of the debate over the Republican tax bill, and has edged up by 4 or 5 points since then.

And it actually makes perfect sense. Being a racist (or totally uninformed about policy issues) may be in some sense a graver sin than favoring tax policy tilted in favor of the very rich. But in political terms, most Americans are white but few Americans are very rich, so a focus on the idea that Trump is excessively cruel to nonwhites moves fewer votes than the idea that Trump is excessively focused on the whims of plutocrats. . . .

To students of nativist demagogues abroad, like Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi, this is no surprise. In the wake of Trump’s win, the Italian-born economist Luigi Zingales reflected on the lessons of the two Italian politicians who’d managed to beat Berlusconi, observing, “Both of them treated Mr. Berlusconi as an ordinary opponent. They focused on the issues, not on his character.”

Trump’s opponents would be wise to do the same — Trump’s brand of white identity politics has real consequences, but the overall Trump Show is basically a con that masks an agenda that’s bad for almost everyone.
This is what I think. In 2016 Trump's opponents spent too much time sputtering about how impossible he is and not enough pounding him on the issues. Hillary tried, but too many voters tuned her out. The Democrats need a candidate who is woke enough on race and immigration issues to get the nomination but will focus much more on the economy and health care.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Religion and Decadence

From the interview Tyler Cowen (an agnostic) did with Ross Douthat (a conservative Catholic):
COWEN: When you see how much behavior Islam or some forms of Islam motivate, do you envy it? Do you think, “Well, gee, what is it that they have that we don’t? What do we need to learn from them?” What’s your gut emotional reaction?

DOUTHAT: I think that Western civilization is decadent, and that decadence has virtues — among them, the absence of the kind of massive bloody civil wars currently roiling the Middle East. But, at the same time, there is a sense in which, yeah, there are parts of Islam that are closer to asking the most important questions about existence than a lot of people are in the West. And asking important questions carries major risks and incites levels of extremism that we’ve tamped down and put away, but that desire for the extreme and the absolute and the truth about things that animates some of the best and some of the worst parts of Islam, I think it’s better for human beings to have that desire than not.
I like Cowen's question, but Douthat's answer get me to one of the things I dislike most about religion: the assumption that secular people are shallow, that they never think about the "important questions." I first encountered this in C.S. Lewis' The Screwtape Letters, in which secular people are too obsessed with getting ahead or having fun to take things seriously, and the lower-ranking demon is instructed to make sure they stay too busy with one or the other to pause and reflect. Reflection is dangerous, the senior demon says, because it might lead people to God.

I find this dismissive and irritating. I am not particularly interested in either getting ahead or having fun, and I reflect continuously. I simply don't find that the teaching of half-mad Iron Age prophets provide a very complete understanding of the universe or my own place in it.

An Amazon

Roman copy of a Greek original from the 5th century BCE.

Today's World Economic Number

Bloomberg:
Between 2000 and 2015, global clothing production doubled, while the average number of times that a garment was worn before disposal declined by 36 percent. In China, it declined by 70 percent.
These numbers, along with new technologies that make it cheaper to make new cloth than to recycle old, has people worried that more and more clothes are going to end up in landfills.

Who's Turning Against Trump? Women

From the Atlantic's account of a big new poll from SurveyMonkey:
Layering in gender and age underscores voters’ retreat. Trump in 2016 narrowly won younger whites. But he now faces crushing disapproval ratings ranging from 62 percent to 76 percent among three big groups of white Millennials: women with and without a college degree, and men with a degree. Even among white Millennial men without a degree, his most natural supporters, Trump only scores a 49-49 split.

Trump’s support rapidly rises among blue-collar white men older than 35 and spikes past two-thirds for those above 50. But his position has deteriorated among white women without a college degree. Last year he carried 61 percent of them. But in the new SurveyMonkey average, they split evenly, with 49 percent approval and 49 percent disapproval. His approval rating among non-college-educated white women never rises above 54 percent in any age group, even those older than 50. From February through December, Trump’s approval rating fell more with middle-aged blue-collar white women than any other group.
Among minority men, Trump's position is essentially unchanged or has even improved slightly; I guess nothing he has said has surprised them. But minority women hate him:
Among African Americans and Hispanics, reactions to Trump depend more on gender than age or education. In every age group, and at every level of education, about twice as many African American men as women gave Trump positive marks. In all, 23 percent of black men approved of Trump’s performance versus 11 percent of black women. “The outlier here isn’t [black] men … it’s [black] women, where you have near-universal disapproval of Trump,” said Cornell Belcher, a Democratic pollster who studies African American voters. Still, black men are one of the few groups for which Trump’s 2017 average approval rating significantly exceeds his 2016 vote share.
When it comes to race, I think Trump represents a defensive spasm from the past, which is slowly disappearing. That anti-racist protesters always hugely outnumber the racists in any recent confrontation shows me that things will continue to move in the same direction. The nation's dramatic shift over the Civil War and its commemoration seems to me an important sign; heck, as Youtube recently reminded me, in my lifetime radical leftist Joan Baez recorded "The Night they Drove Old Dixie Down."

I think developments in the war of the sexes are potentially more explosive. I will bet now that the 2020 election produces the biggest gender gap in US voting history; that is certainly what the polls predict. Trump's election seems to have crystallized feminist discontent with men of a certain sort, and you see that discontent bursting out all over.

I regard these conflicts as fundamental and very difficult to solve, so I wonder where all this is leading. The anger that pours forth from men's rights activists and some of their feminist opposites troubles me; after all, it's going to be hard to continue the species if men and women can't get along, and young men without women in their lives (a rapidly growing group) are just plain dangerous. I guess the root of my rambling here is that I regard racism as a problem that could be solved, or at least for which I can imagine a solution. I am not at all sure that the problems of men and women, of marriage, of raising children in a world where everyone is supposed to have a career, ever can be solved, and I certainly cannot imagine a realistic solution. So to see these conflicts brought to the center of the national discourse makes me wonder what is in store for us. I am certain that this will make many men and some women even more loyal to Trump, who stands strongly for the old, patriarchal model of the family. I hope it makes more women turn against him. But I am not really sure that is how things will play out.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Real Cost of Solar and Wind Power Still Falling

Last year XCel Energy put out a request for bids on new electric power generation in Colorado, and their summary of the bids was recently released. This is actual bids from power generation firms, not some analyst's projections, all to be online by 2023. In total XCel received 350 bids, so there is a lot of interest in building these plants.

The cost of electricity from existing coal plants in the US is around $40 per MWH. The average bids received by XCel for renewable power were as follows:

  Wind:                                          $18.10/MWH
  Wind plus Battery Storage:    $21.00/MWH
  Solar:                                          $29.50/MWH
  Solar plus Battery Storage:     $36.00/MWH
  Wind/Solar/Battery Storage:  $30.60/MWH

These numbers are significantly lower than bids from just two years ago. It's the added battery storage numbers that are key, because to use a lot of renewable power you need either fossil fuel back-up or lots of storage. The bid sheet doesn't say how much storage these bids include, but at any rate you can now build some substantial amount of battery back-up into a new solar/wind system and still end up with a lower price than you get from an already up-and-running coal plant. This makes it seem that the price of battery storage is falling fast, and that power generation companies are betting that this will continue.

One reason that power generation firms are interested in the solar/wind + battery storage formula is that they can charge a higher price for the more reliable power than they could for straight solar or wind, so there's a case of market incentives aligning with what the people clearly need.

Incidentally the amount of coal burned in the US fell by 2% last year, despite Trump and rising demand for electricity; these analysts calculated that if Kentucky replaced all their coal-fired plants with a combination of natural gas and wind, the average electricity bill would fall by 10%, even including the cost of building all the new plants.

How Much of the Opioid Epidemic is Caused by Economic Hard Times?

Not very much, according to these academics:
The United States is in the midst of a fatal drug epidemic. This study uses data from the Multiple Cause of Death Files to examine the extent to which increases in county-level drug mortality rates from 1999-2015 are due to “deaths of despair”, measured here by deterioration in medium-run economic conditions, or if they instead are more likely to reflect changes in the “drug environment” in ways that present differential risks to population subgroups. A primary finding is that counties experiencing relative economic decline did experience higher growth in drug mortality than those with more robust growth, but the relationship is weak and mostly explained by confounding factors. In the preferred estimates, changes in economic conditions account for less than one-tenth of the rise in drug and opioid-involved mortality rates.
What they find instead is that the biggest factor influencing drug use in any community is the availability and cost of drugs.

This is just one study, but I would not be surprised if it is right. But not because I think the epidemic has nothing to do with “despair.” As we know, in our wealthy world economic troubles manifest largely in psychological terms, that is, a rise in the unemployment rate from 5% to 9% can make a lot more than 4% of the people miserable. So a whole community's sense that times are bad and the future is bleak might not show up very clearly in the raw economic numbers.

Take the paradigmatic case of the coal country in southern West Virginia and eastern Kentucky. These are poor areas, but they have always been poor. It's just that the industries they did have -- coal mining, manufacturing -- are rapidly declining. This makes their “medium-run economic conditions” only a little worse than they were, but it has a huge impact on the overall mood of those places. They are depressed and distressed, even if their median income is much higher than what we would consider a boom town in Nigeria or even Mexico.

Of course opiates are a big problem even in wealthy areas, which gets me to what “deaths of despair” would actually mean. I agree that the main cause of the epidemic is not economic hard times but the huge increase in the supply of the drugs. But why did people want them? Why was there, in economic terms, a huge unmet demand for opiates that changes in how doctors treat pain went a long way toward filling?

I don't think people take these drugs for fun. They take them because they are unhappy, stressed, and in pain. They are self-medicating conditions we could call anxious depression, chronic pain, chronic fatigue, or other such medical-sounding terms, but which I would be equally happy to call despair. I don't mean to say that many drug users don't have physical problems, from bad backs to chemical imbalances in their brains; I just think that when drug use runs rampant through whole communities, a broader understanding of the cause is called for.

If it is true that the main cause of the current opioid epidemic is increased supply, that makes the essential question very clear: why do people need drugs in the first place? And, is there anything we could do to make their lives better – less stressful, less painful, less depressing?

The Attention we Give to Mass Killers

Study shows that the average mass killer gets $75 million worth of media attention.

The obvious lesson would be that people do it to get famous and we could reduce the problem by ignoring them, but I'm not sure that's true; has anybody read enough about these monsters to find out what part a desire to be famous played in their schemes? And even that result would be ambivalent, like, Timothy McVeigh wanted to make a huge media splash, but that was because he was hoping to touch off a revolution.

Plus, given Americans obsession with such events, I doubt even the most determined, anti-Constitutional censorship would have much effect.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

The Bird-Catcher's Cup

A figure who may be Dionysus dances against a background of vines, along with birds, a grasshopper, and a snake. Ionian black-figure cup that goes by the name of the Coupe à l'oiseleur (”Birdcatcher’s Cup”). Ca. 550 BCE. Now in the Louvre.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Tunnels under the Berlin Wall

Wonderful article in the Times by Christopher Schuetze and Palko Karasz about the old tunnels under the Berlin Wall:
About 75 tunnels were built under the wall during its three-decade existence, many of them around Bernauer Strasse. Residential buildings nearby provided handy shelter for digging and for entering the passages.

One escape that received widespread attention was filmed by NBC in 1962. The network provided money for an effort by students in West Berlin to connect two cellars on either side of the wall. The resulting documentary, called “The Tunnel,” related the escape of 29 men, women and children, and it raised questions about the journalistic ethics involved.

In the autumn of 1964, 57 people from the East escaped through a tunnel that started in a disused courtyard bathroom [shown above]. But this escape marked a turning point. An East German border guard was killed in a gunfight between the security forces and those helping the escape on the Western side. The 21-year-old guard, Egon Schultz, became a hero in the East after his death, leading many in the West to question the wisdom of promoting such crossings.
The story focuses on the archaeological discovery of a tunnel dug for a failed crossing attempt in 1962. After the Wall fell Germans seemed determined to erase every trace of its existence, but these days there is some interest in commemorating the Wall and preserving bits of it, perhaps including this tunnel.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Moving the Vatican Obelisk, 1585

In 1585, the "Vatican obelisk" was moved 275 feet (83 m) to the square in front of Saint Peter's Basilica. Architect Domenico Fontana designed a wooden tower that would be constructed around the obelisk, connected to a system of ropes and pulleys. The move, including construction of the tower, took 13 months. Seventy-two horses and more than 900 men worked on the project.


This obelisk was brought to Rome from Egypt in AD 37 by emperor Caligula. It is 85 feet tall (25.5 m) and weighs 330 tons. The Romans stole so many Egyptian obelisks that there are more in Rome (13) than in Egypt. Nobody knows how the ancient Romans or Egyptians moved and erected these huge monuments, but Fontana's drawings show one way it could be done with pre-modern technology. This illustration is from the Getty.


Searching around I found more images from this same document.


Including these that show how forty capstans placed around the square were used to control the ropes.

Albert Saverys, The River Lys in Winter



Three paintings with the same title by Belgain painter Albert Saverys (1886-1964). The one at top is from 1950.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Tonight's Fortune

You may attend a party where strange customs prevail.

The Berthouville Treasure

The Berthouville Treasure was plowed up in a French field in 1830 and now resides in the Bibliothèque nationale. Three years ago it travelled to the Getty in Los Angeles to be conserved, and this resulted in a bunch of articles and posts from which I have gleaned these images.

Unlike the other Roman silver treasures I have featured here, the trésor de Berthouville was not hidden from invading barbarians as the late empire collapsed; it dates to around 200 CE.

There was plenty of trouble in the empire that could have led to its being hidden; but since order was eventually restored in Gaul, why wasn't the treasure dug up again? Several of the pieces have text scratched on them indicating that they were gifts to the god Mercury, and not all from the same person. Thus the idea that this collection was a temple treasury. Again, though, why would it have been left in the ground? There are actually three such hoards known from Gaul and Britain, although this is the largest and most valuable.

Archaeology showed that the find was near a complex of small temples and shrines. So maybe this was buried as a community's gift to the gods.

The images are the usual classical stuff: scenes from the Trojan War and the life of Hercules, bits of myth, Bacchic rituals.

Here is Omphale, reclining on Hercules' lion skin.

Interesting statue of Mercury.

Nine of the vessels are a set from a single workshop, all with Bacchic images, and all seem to be part on one donation from a certain Q. Domitius Tutus.

There are 93 pieces in the hoard, including some small appliques; the total weight is about 25 kg, or 60 pounds. Buried silver can easily decay to dust in just a century, so I find it amazing that so much survives from the ancient world.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

The 21-Story Icicle Tower

Last week in Chicago the sprinkler on the top floor of this building failed, sending a cascade of water down the fire escape. Where it froze into this.

Photographer Andrew Hickey stopped by and took these pictures. More at This is Colossal.

Rock Crystal Dish in the Form of a Temple


From Carthage, 3rd to 5th century CE. Now in the Met.

Sue Yourself

The latest from New York:
Seeking to position himself as a national leader against climate change, Mayor Bill de Blasio on Wednesday announced a two-pronged attack against the fossil-fuel industry, including a vow that city pension funds would divest about $5 billion from companies involved in the fossil fuel business.

The mayor also announced a lawsuit against five major oil companies, seeking to collect billions of dollars in damages to pay for city efforts to cope with the effects of climate change.

“This city is standing up and saying, ‘We’re going to take our own actions to protect our own people,’” the mayor said, wearing a green necktie and sitting in front of large green sign that said “NYC: Leading the Fight Against Climate Change.” He added, “We’re not waiting.”
I hate, have always hated, continue to hate this habit of blaming oil companies for our environmental problems. If you don't like what oil companies do, stop using their product. Get an electric car and an electric lawnmower and a solar panel array. Do something. But sitting back and fulminating against companies who just sell what people want to buy is nothing at all.

The reason we have massive CO2 emissions is not that the oil companies are evil. It is because all of us love driving cars and flying in planes and turning on the air conditioning. What, exactly, could the leaders of the oils companies do about our emissions even if they decided they wanted to? Invest in solar power? They're already doing that. Stop us from driving our cars? If they tried that, we would put them in jail.

If there were a massive verdict against the oil companies, what would the effect be? They would pass the cost onto their consumers, so the net effect (if any) would be to increase fuel costs. If that is your aim, why not just raise the tax? It's a much simpler, more elegant, and more efficient. But I suppose it doesn't serve the purpose of finding Bad People to blame, and punishing them.

Much of the wrath directed against the oil companies these days is about the climate change debate. Some of the oil companies have indeed funded studies by climate change skeptics. I don't care. First, it is an interesting fact that there are scientific climate change skeptics, despite the efforts of the alarmist faction to get them banned from publishing and so on. Second, I think question of belief is not very important here. By and large, European governments are on board with the threat of CO2 emissions and committed to reductions. But their emissions are not falling meaningfully faster than they are in the U.S. This is just a very hard problem, and the solutions have to be technological. Those solutions – other than nuclear power and hydroelectric dams, which most environmentalists oppose – are only now becoming available. As they do, our emissions will fall.

Suing the oil companies is a dumb sideshow.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Giovanni Gasparro

Contemporary Italian artist and devout Catholic, born 1983. His degree is in art history rather than studio, for a thesis on Van Dyck in Rome. It shows. Above, Amoris Laetitia (the joy of love), John the Baptist warning of the adultery of Herod Antipas.




Details.

St. Nicolas of Bari, 2016, detail.

Gasparro has executed a couple of large religious commissions, in particular for the rededication of Aquila Cathedral, damaged in the terrible earthquake of 2009. This work, The Vision of St. John of Patmos, was part of that commission. I find these paintings 1) a little clumsy, and 2) redolent of that sort of highly emotional Catholicism that makes me think, I'm too Nordic for this.

Detail of something. Certainly is interesting to see a prominent contemporary artist working in this vein. Alas, I have read that the habit of painting extra hands and heads, which Gasparro does a lot of, is a sign of mental illness. I haven't been able to find out much about him, but I worry.

Halitrephes maasi





Spectacular jellyfish filmed by the E/V Nautilus at a depth of 4,000 feet off Baja California. Video here.