Saturday, February 28, 2015

RIP Leonard Nimoy

Grief for one who lived so long and well would be illogical, yet my human emotions demand it.

--Matt Zoller Seitz

I always thought of Spock as a hero for Aspergers boys like I was, using logic to figure out how to get along in human society. As an adult I was surprised to learn that he also meant a great deal to other sorts of people, including immigrants who felt like perpetual outsiders, people of mixed race, and many blacks, especially those trying to make it in science or computing. Nimoy was Jewish, the child of Yiddish-speaking immigrants -- he said he invented the Vulcan greeting in imitation of a gesture he saw a rabbi make during a ceremony-- and Spock as a Jew resonated with a great many people. The new series of movies, in which the Vulcans have lost their home planet, seems to be playing up this angle. All of these fans look to Spock as a sign of what people with their own handicaps and troubles could achieve.

The power of a television presence to inspire people is very great. This may be especially true for lonely children and teenagers, desperately seeking for friendship and guidance in the big harsh world. Spock was a great gift to millions, a gift from Gene Roddenberry, the Star Trek writers, and from Leonard Nimoy. Nimoy sensed early on the power of his character, and he always took Star Trek more seriously than the other actors. After the show ended he tried hard to escape from being type cast and took all sorts of crazy roles to change his public persona. But later in life he came to fully embrace his identification with Spock -- I suppose looking back over his career he saw that he had been part of one truly great thing, and that is more than more people can say of their work.

Leonard Nimoy is gone, but Spock, his masterpiece, will live on for as long as our civilization endures.

Icy Waves off Nantucket

Photographer Jonathan Nimerfroh walked the shore of Nantucket last week on a day with temperatures well below freezing:
the waves weren’t completely frozen, they were thick with pieces of ice, much like the consistency of a Slurpee, or an slushy.

An Energy Positive House in Australia

Archibox, an Australian firm that specializes in eco-friendly modular homes, just installed this model in downtown Melbourne. The one-bedroom house costs about $220,000 (plus land) and is designed to produce more electricity than it uses. This has two components: energy production, via solar panels, and energy efficiency, using a whole range of tricks. Inhabit:
Fronted by a floor-to-ceiling double-glazed facade, the self-sufficient Carbon Positive House was designed to maximize solar gain and passive design strategies. Instead of relying on mechanical heating and cooling, the naturally ventilated home uses in-ground tubes to pull in cool air from the south side. The building is topped by a green roof for added insulation as well as a set of sliding vertical garden walls that shade and cool the building in the summer.
Energy use and carbon production are technical problems. We are actually very good these days at solving technical problems, so there is no reason why we could not drastically reduce our use of fossil fuels within a few decades.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Stuck in the Ice

The Norwegian research vessel Lance, which marooned itself in the Arctic Ice to study climate change.

Klaus Wäscher, Der Socialismus Siegt

Finalist in the Sony World Photography Awards. Note the faded lettering across the top of the building that reads, Der Socialismus Siegt, Socialism is Victorious. I think this perfectly captures how people of my generation feel about socialism, which for us is all bound up with concrete apartment blocks and other aesthetic horrors.

ISIS and Republican Voters

Paul Waldman:
Republican voters are hearing the war drums, and are beginning to nod their heads in time to the rhythm. That’s the conclusion one can come to reading the new poll from the Pew Research Center, which notes, among other things, an increasing eagerness among Republican voters to use ground troops in Iraq and Syria.

We are now likely to enter a cycle in which more hawkish voters lead the GOP candidates to become more hawkish in order to appeal to them, which will in turn encourage the voters to become even more hawkish because they’ll be taking their cues from the things they hear from their party leaders, and around the cycle will go.

Four months ago, 57 percent of Republicans thought we should use ground troops to fight ISIS in Iraq and Syria; that number has now gone up to 67 percent. Among the conservative Republicans who will dominate the primary contests, it’s even higher, at 71 percent. When Pew asked respondents to choose between “using overwhelming military force is the best way to defeat terrorism around the world” and “relying too much on military force to defeat terrorism creates hatred that leads to more terrorism,” last October 57 percent of Republicans chose the overwhelming military force option; that number is now 74 percent.
This may work to Hillary's advantage. She probably supports Obama's current strategy of air stirkes plus arming our allies, which seems to me more her kind of thing than sending in armored divisions. (She may be belligerent, but she is also cautious.) So she can be her real, interventionist self on this issue and still seem more moderate than her Republican opponents. Unless her opponent is Rand Paul, in which they are likely on this issue to sound exactly alike.

Incidentally I really love the question Pew came up with; I think being forced to make that choice is very clarifying. I absolutely believe that relying on military force to defeat terrorism creates more problems than it solves.

An Uplifting Story from Syria

Via Nick Kristof:
Side by side with the worst of humanity, you often see the best. In Syria, that’s a group of volunteers called the White Helmets. Its members rush to each bombing and claw survivors from the rubble.

There are more than 2,200 volunteers in the White Helmets, mostly men but a growing number of women as well. The White Helmets are unpaid and unarmed, and they risk their lives to save others. More than 80 have been killed in the line of duty, the group says, largely because Syrian military aircraft often return for a “double-tap” — dropping bombs on the rescuers. Wearing simple white construction helmets as feeble protection from those “double-tap” bombings, the White Helmets are strictly humanitarian. They even have rescued some of the officers of the regime of President Bashar al-Assad who are bombing them.

Thursday, February 26, 2015


 Fang mask, Gabon, late 19th-c.

Guatemala, 19th century

Tin Can Mask, Nepal

 India, 19th century.

 Japan, 19th century.

 Java, 20th century

Mexico, c. 1940.

White skin mask, New Guinea. For me, on my birthday, from Cavin-Morris Gallery.

Jacob Collins

American artist, born 1964. He describes himself as "a leading figure in the contemporary revival of classical painting." Which begs a whole lot of questions (leading? classical?) but at least it makes his ambition clear. All of these are from his web site. Above, Glasses, 2011.

For some reason none of the landscapes on his web site seem to have titles or dates. But it's not my fault!

Leah, 2012.

Another landscape.

Male figure, 2012.

Peeking Inside a Viking Treasure

Back in September, metal detectorist Derek McLennan found a Viking treasure trove with more than 100 objects near Dumfries in Scotland. One of them was this 9th-century Carolingian pot, which the archaeologists were unable to open and didn't want to break.

So they send it to the hospital for a CT scan. According to the Daily Mail,
The circular shape in the upper right corner is said to be an ornate bead. The dome object to its left is a bone or ivory bead, and the coil curling from the bottom left to the centre is five brooches. But the rectangular shape at the centre remains a mystery.
This matters, I suppose, because the authorities want to buy the artifacts from the finder under the treasure trove law, but can't do that unless they can estimate the value of the objects sealed in the pot. I can just imagine a gaggle of solicitors gathered around this scan, arguing about the potential market value of this or that shadow.

A bronze cross from the hoard.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015


Wisdom is memory.

--Snorri Sturluson

The Well of St. Mary Spital

Back in the 1980s archaeologists excavated a medieval well in Norton Folgate, east London. It was full of delightful 13th-century artifacts, believed to have come from the old hospital known as St. Mary Spital that gave its name to Spitalfields. Most famous are 18 wooden plates; these are important because they so rarely survive on archaeological sites, but they are what most medieval people ate off of.

Thirteenth-century pottery. This is made from pale clay and not very high fired; British archaeologists call it "whiteware," but it is nothing like the "whiteware" made in the nineteenth century. The green glaze is copper.

A pair of thirteenth-century shoes.

View of St. Mary Spital in Elizabethan times. More at Spitalfields Life.

Net Neutrality Wins a Round

The plan to regulate the internet as a public utility, hatched by the Democratic commissioners on the FCC and supported by President Obama, has survived a challenge from Republican Congressmen and appears set to be passed:
The Federal Communications Commission is expected on Thursday to approve regulating Internet service like a public utility, prohibiting companies from paying for faster lanes on the Internet. While the two Democratic commissioners are negotiating over technical details, they are widely expected to side with the Democratic chairman, Tom Wheeler, against the two Republican commissioners.

And Republicans on Capitol Hill, who once criticized the plan as “Obamacare for the Internet,” now say they are unlikely to pass a legislative response that would undo perhaps the biggest policy shift since the Internet became a reality.
The Republicans caved largely because of the flood of interest generated by web communities like Etsy and Tumblr, including more than 4 million public comments on the proposed regulations and 55,000 phone calls to the FCC.

This is not a long-term solution; Senator John Thune, who is leading Republican efforts in this direction, is exactly right that eventually legislation will be needed:
“Tech companies would be better served to work with Congress on clear rules for the road. The thing that they’re buying into right now is a lot of legal uncertainty,” said Mr. Thune. “I’m not sure exactly what their thinking is.”
It seems to me that the thinking of small internet providers is pretty obvious: we may not like government regulation of the internet, but we vastly prefer that to letting private companies treat it as something they own and operating it to extract the maximum profit. To whatever extent is possible, we want the internet treated like a public square where anyone can speak, not a tv station where the management chooses what you see and what you don't.

Never Trust an Economist

Researcher Robert Frank and his colleagues have discovered several remarkable things about people trained in neoclassical economics. In a number of tests, including a game theory test called the prisoner's dilemma (which measures a person's propensity to trust others), they found that neoclassical economists are more like than other people to betray their partners. . . .

Economists show, as it were, an unhealthy interest in the subject of self-interest.

--Tim Flannery, Here on Earth

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Montacute House, 1601

Elizabethan masterpiece in Somerset County, England, built 1588-1601. British designer Ben Pentreath was there  a few weeks ago and posted an amazing set of photographs.

Montacute was built for Sir Edward Phelips, a lawyer and Parliamentarian who was heavily involved in the design. The builder was William Arnold, master mason.

Phelips was a great partisan of James I and in 1604 he was Speaker of Parliament. These days he is mostly remembered for his ferocious persecution of religious dissenters, and his house.

The Phelips family held onto the house down to 1911, when time and chance finally caught up to them. They sold the family silver in 1895 to pay for the appearance of the last daughter on the social circuit. Alas, she failed to land a sufficiently wealthy suitor, and the family slid out of the gentry. The house was leased to a series of tenants until it was taken over by the National Trust. The house has lately starred in the BBC's production of Wolf Hall.

Among the masters of Montacute House was Sir William Phelips (1823-89), who was known as the Gambling Squire because he would bet on anything. He once lost a tidy pile betting on which one of a pair of flies crawling on a windowpane would reach the bottom first.

The library, formerly the great hall.

The gardens.

Art, Protest, and War in Syria

In the New York  Review, Robin Creswell takes a look at the Syrian protests of 2011 as they got going, before the situation decayed into a sectarian civil war. A collection of narratives, manifestos, and art works from that time has recently been published as Syria Speaks, and Creswell finds in it just the revolution westerners wanted to support: secular, democratic, opposed to all arbitrary authority. The strife between Sunnis and Shiites that now dominates the fighting in nowhere to be seen. Yet there is also a bleakness quite different from the defiant humor of Cairo's Tahrir Square: the humor is dark, more like jokes from Stalinist Poland, and from the beginning the protesters seemed to sense that they would have no easy success. These two works by Sulafa Hijazi seem to me to sum up the hopelessness of peaceful protest in that time and place.

An awful government like Syria Baathist regime is a tragedy. They are devilishly hard to get rid of, and when they do fall, it often turns out that tyranny has poisoned the society and even the souls of the victims. In the case of Syria the regime has managed to create so much suspicion between different groups of it people that it is hard to imagine them coming together to create a new state.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Thanksgiving Chapel, Dallas, by Philip Johnson

Modeled, the architect said, on the chambered nautilus. Completed 1976.

The Rise (?) of Twee

Marc Spitz wrote about book about the rise of "twee" culture, and Anna Katharina Schaffner reviewed it for the TLS. Twee is one of those things that is hard to define, but you know it when you see it: gourmet cupcakes, Wes Anderson movies, grownups with Hello Kitty handbags, college women wearing panda hats or koala backpacks, retro bicycles with baskets between the handlebars, ukeleles, and "young men who sport excessively neat haircuts, horn-rimmed glasses and waistcoats." Bronies. A love of what is gentle, cute, asexual, and evocative of the gentle, cute, asexual side of childhood.

We all recognize the contemporary prominence of this sort of thing, but is it really “the most powerful youth movement since Punk and Hip-Hop”?

Since I was just writing about the sort of journalism I love, let me note that this is the sort I do not like - insisting on the newness of the latest trend, and also of its world-historical importance. Spitz seems to think that twee originated in the 1950s, and that it is some kind of quasi-political response to a brutal, hyper-competitive world. But what about the barbershop quartets, boaters, bow ties and ice cream socials of 1900? Or Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tales, which were written for adults? Or the John Keats generation of hyper-sensitive romantics?

It seems to me that twee is not a social movement but a widespread human character type, whose existence has been made more apparent by the vast culture industry of modern times. And as for its political importance, let me quote Schaffner:
it is difficult to view wearing Hello Kitty socks and collecting narwhal figurines as serious modes of political engagement.
Twee culture may be important to the people who love it, but I fail to see what difference it makes to the rest of the world.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Wind-Carved Sand

Joshua Nowicki found these forms, some a foot tall, carved out of frozen sand along the shore of Lake Michigan. When he went back a week later they were gone. More here.

Fatehpur Beri, India's Village of Bouncers

By Ellen Behri in the Times, my idea of brilliant journalism. Hanging around a club where residents of modernizing Dehli dance and carry on --“Only horrible people come here!” yelled one man, trying to make himself heard over the music. “We are horrible people!” --  she notices the bouncers:
Look closely and it becomes clear that the bouncers are all of a single physical type, their chests and biceps built like the front bumper of a sport utility vehicle. If they look like cousins, it is because they are. A startling number of them share a family name, Tanwar, and when the nightclubs close many will return to the same nearby village, a place where women walk down dusty lanes with their faces obscured by a cloth, balancing stacks of dried cow dung on their heads, much as their ancestors did three centuries ago.
As she says, the outskirts of great third world cities like Delhi are where modernity and tradition come together in the most dramatic way:
Lately, he added, it seems “there is a gap of many generations between father and son.”
This is why I read journalism; not so much to keep up on the “news,” most of which loses whatever relevance it ever had in a day or two. I read to learn things I didn't know before.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Today's Question: Should We Fight for Mosul?

It seems the Pentagon is goading Iraqi and Kurdish forces into a battle for Mosul, hoping to drive the Islamic State out of Iraq's second largest city. There are actually not many Islamic state soldiers in the city, no more than 2,000, and some analysts think they will slip away rather than fight to the death. But they might fight, in which case a city of a million people is about to become a battleground.

The Americans will supply air cover. According to the Times, the Obama administration is trying to decide whether to send in American forward air controllers to call in air strikes, along with American special forces troops to guard them. If they are sent int battle, I don't think most Americans would object.

On the contrary, many Americans are eager for US ground troops to take the field against ISIS. I was just reading about the political situation in South Carolina, and Republican politicians touring the state (either presidential candidates or Congressmen home in their districts) are being barraged with questions about ISIS and why we aren't doing more to oppose them. Yesterday I talked to my older sons about this, and they both think we should send troops; their view is that it is our fault ISIS came to power in the first place, so it is our responsibility to do something about them.

I tend to think that all talk of reconquering Iraq from the Islamic State is premature, since there still isn't an Iraqi government worthy of the name, and certainly nobody in Mosul wants to be ruled by the buffoons in Baghdad. I also think it is really weird that the Pentagon is talking so much about this upcoming offensive. Their spokesmen have been telling journalists both the proposed timing of the offensive (April) and the number of men to be involved. (20,000, half from the Baghdad government and half from the Kurds.) There must be some sort of political agenda involved, perhaps undermining ISIS in Mosul, or reassuring anti-ISIS elements, by talking publicly about how soon they will be gone. Unless the whole thing is a show, we should this spring see a real test of the various powers jockeying for control of northern Iraq.

More snow

Catonsville, 1:40 PM three inches on the ground and falling fast.