Thursday, November 23, 2017

Chameleon catching a dragonfly, Salalah, Oman. Photograph by Abrar Sekhi, who spent five hours sitting and waiting to take a picture using a shutter speed of 1/4000 of a second. From National Geographic.

The Final Form of Love

Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore, we must be saved by hope. ... Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore, we are saved by love. No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our standpoint. Therefore, we must be saved by the final form of love, which is forgiveness.

--Reinhold Niebuhr

The Interstellar Visitor

Artist's representation of Oumuamua – oh-mu-ah-mu-ah, Hawaiian for "messenger" – an asteroid that is visiting our solar system from somewhere else in the galaxy. We know this because of its orbit and 40,000 mph speed, which will carry it right back into interstellar space again. It is the same dark red color as many objects from the Oort Cloud at the edge of the solar system, and since it is spinning around its long axis it must be made of solid rock; ice would fly apart under the strain. Sadly for fans of Rendezvous with Rama and Pushing Ice, it seems to be a natural object. But then aliens advanced enough to send interstellar probes would have no difficulty fooling our primitive sensors, would they?

What Things Can Teach Us

This is what the things can teach us:
to fall,
patiently to trust our heaviness.
Even a bird has to do that
before he can fly.

— Rainer Maria Rilke, Book of Hours, II, 16

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Late Fall Color

All taken on a 15-minute walk in Washington, today. One of many things I feel thankful for.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

The Future of 1939

Gallery of photos from the 1939 New York World's Fair.

Statue of a Pony Express rider being ambushed by Indians, from the AT&T Pavilion.

GM Building. One of the interesting things to me is that despite World War II, architecture took up in the 1950s right where it left off in 1939, along the path of abstract modernism. This was how the future looked in 1939 and it remained how the future looked right into the 1960s, just as much in the Soviet Union and Japan as in western Europe and North America. Whatever modernism was about, it was a powerful, worldwide movement that couldn't even be derailed by the greatest slaughter humanity has ever contrived.

The Electric Utilities Building at night. Electric power was big at the fair, celebrating one of the real triumphs of the 1930s, rural electrification.

The Maritime Commerce Building. More at the Atlantic.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Fantasies about Socialism

Meanwhile in the awful assemblage of obnoxious opinions called The Stone, Benjamin Yong argues for this:
The real culprit of the climate crisis is not any particular form of consumption, production or regulation but rather the very way in which we globally produce, which is for profit rather than for sustainability. So long as this order is in place, the crisis will continue and, given its progressive nature, worsen. This is a hard fact to confront. But averting our eyes from a seemingly intractable problem does not make it any less a problem. It should be stated plainly: It’s capitalism that is at fault.

As an increasing number of environmental groups are emphasizing, it’s systemic change or bust. From a political standpoint, something interesting has occurred here: Climate change has made anticapitalist struggle, for the first time in history, a non-class-based issue.
I would find this silly if so many people didn't take it seriously. So let me give it a serious response.

First, certain parts of the world have already tried a communist economy, and the environmental results were awful. There is simply no reason to assume that a socialist system would do any better at protecting the environment than the regulatory regimes we have now. It's just the old fantasy of Revolution: after we overthrow the oppressors, everything will be better. Trust us!

Second: is the government producing electric cars? No. Elon Musk is. And General Motors and Nissan. Capitalist firms produce what people want to buy. Ok, you have to factor in advertising and occasionally the refusal of big firms to produce certain things, but by and large capitalism is better at making the things people want than any other system. Nowadays many people want solar panels and electric cars, so capitalist firms produce them. The reason they don't make more is that most people still prefer gasoline and getting their power from the grid. In this case as in many others, what activists like Yong call "capitalism" is really just economic democracy. Firms make lots of stuff because people want it. Try to take it away from them and they are going to howl.

Third: many, many people hate it when bossy leftists tell them they have to change their whole lives and conform to the dictates of the greens: Change now! Give up your favorite things! Or the planet is doomed! Really! You must obey us or else!

People like Yong are somehow (like so many other progressive activists) incapable of hearing how they sound to other people. This whole "we must have systematic change" approach only guarantees that nothing will be done, because let me tell you we are not going to have socialist environmentalism in America. If you didn't like the backlash that gave us Trump, wait until you see the backlash to green socialism.

The only way to meaningfully reduce carbon emissions before a shattering crisis is better technology, some mixture of things that reduce emissions and things that cool the planet. The good news is that these things are possible. Some of them seem far-fetched, but if you ask me, even the craziest planet-cooling schemes are more likely than environmentally-friendly socialism.

A Small Reaction against the Digital World

David Sax:
Thankfully, the analog world is still here, and not only is it surviving but, in many cases, it is thriving. Sales of old-fashioned print books are up for the third year in a row, according to the Association of American Publishers, while ebook sales have been declining. Independent bookstores have been steadily expanding for several years. Vinyl records have witnessed a decade-long boom in popularity (more than 200,000 newly pressed records are sold each week in the United States), while sales of instant-film cameras, paper notebooks, board games and Broadway tickets are all growing again.
I expect this dynamic to continue. The omnipresence of the internet and the tawdriness of so much online junk mean that the digital world is no longer cool just for being digital. These days hot fads are just as likely to be old-fashioned stuff like vinyl records and Polaroid-style cameras as new web sites. Among some, weariness with the internet has spurred a taste for more "authentic" experiences; live music is booming like never before, and live theater is hanging in there. Not that I expect internet use to decline, at least not by much; it is thoroughly woven into how we live. But its one-sided march to dominance will yield to a dynamic of push and pull, the number of people getting into online life about balanced by the people cutting back.

Scanning in the farther future, I wonder if we will see whole movements of people who cut themselves off from digital technology altogether. Sci-fi authors have been all over this, imagining futures in which some people become wired-in cyborgs (like Alastair Reynolds' Conjoiners) and others try to avoid computers in any shape or form. Could that divided world be our future?

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.