Monday, May 22, 2017

Toshi Yoshida

Toshi Yoshida (1911-1995) was a Japanese painter and maker of woodblock prints. He learned print-making from his father, Hiroshi Yoshida, doing what was by the early twentieth century the most normal and traditional sort of Japanese prints. This was an old-fashioned Japanese family business in which the son was still a junior apprentice at 25, filling in details on compositions chosen by his father. The oldest works I can find in his name are from 1938, like this one: Tokyo at Night, Shinjuku.

Hie Shrine, Tokyo. Note the signature in Latin letters, which means this print was sold to a foreign buyer after World War II.

Yoshida managed to become independent during World War II, when he traveled as a journalist. But as you would expect the woodcuts from the war years are also strongly traditional. Idabashi, 1939.

Sacred Grove, 1941.

Shirasagi Castle, 1942.

In the poverty-stricken years after the war Yoshida seems to have kept on with the traditional Japanese material, I assume for sale to Americans and other foreigners; or perhaps his works were sold as cheap prints to decorate newly rebuilt homes. White Plum in a Farmyard, 1951.

According to online biographies, Toshi always wanted to experiment with abstract art, but never dared until after his father died. Once out from under the paternal shadow he began to experiment in many directions. The Beginning of Day, 1957. He actually produced quite a few abstract works, many of which were collected in the US and Europe.

Lost World, 1964. I sense in Yoshida a lifelong ambivalence about the traditional Japanese art in which his father trained him. He never abandoned it, but he kept trying to branch out.

Yoshida had always liked drawing and painting animals, and beginning in the 1950s he began to produce animal prints and picture books for children.

But he never stopped working with traditional Japanese subjects. Irozari Evening, 1961.

Morinji in Spring.

Autumn in Hakone.

Stone Garden, 1963.

Yoshida traveled to America and made prints of American scenes. Monument Valley, 1970.

In 1980 Yoshida opened a print-making school in Nagano Prefecture. He trained many future professionals there, including numerous Americans. Dance of Eternal Love, 1970.

Tokyo Bird Park, 1980s.

The Zimmerman Boulevard Submarine Sandwich Standoff

The perfect small town news story:
Veteran observers of town life and government said they're not surprised a man eating a sandwich caused such a stir.

This Week in Diplomacy

That's the esteemed leaders of the US, Saudi Arabia and Egypt showing solidarity. No, it isn't photoshopped, just weird.

Today's Sentence

Greece's anarchists are organizing like never before.

It seems that some of them divide their time between setting up squats for refugees and blowing up banks, or at least fantasizing about blowing up banks.

This reminds me of how amused I was to discover that in the 1930s there were anarchist ministers in the Spanish government.

Sunday, May 21, 2017


Pictures from the height of rose season at my house season this week.

Edoardo Tresoldi: Wire and Light

For a royal event in Abu Dhabi, Edoardo Tresoldi created this architecture made of wire and light. Photographs by Roberto Conte.

Reminds me of all those Renaissance artists who spent most of their time doing royal masks and the like. Via This is Colossal. More at the artist's web site.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

The Energy History of the Earth

Wonderful essay in Nature by Olivia Judson, laying out the broad outlines of Earth's history:
The history of the life–Earth system can be divided into five ‘energetic’ epochs, each featuring the evolution of life forms that can exploit a new source of energy. These sources are: geochemical energy, sunlight, oxygen, flesh and fire. The first two were present at the start, but oxygen, flesh and fire are all consequences of evolutionary events. Since no category of energy source has disappeared, this has, over time, resulted in an expanding realm of the sources of energy available to living organisms and a concomitant increase in the diversity and complexity of ecosystems. These energy expansions have also mediated the transformation of key aspects of the planetary environment, which have in turn mediated the future course of evolutionary change. Using energy as a lens thus illuminates patterns in the entwined histories of life and Earth, and may also provide a framework for considering the potential trajectories of life–planet systems elsewhere.
It's a very clear and readable essay and I love the model it develops. Plus it has lots of fascinating details about each of the five epochs:
On the geological side, the flourishing of animals had at least four major impacts. First, the evolution of predation rapidly led to the evolution of armour—shells, scales, spikes and carapaces built from materials such as calcite and silica. Although, as noted above, the first protective coverings (on algae) date back to around 770 Ma, it's not until the evolution of flesh-eating animals that shells and other forms of protection became widespread. This development would eventually result in vast deposits of materials such as radiolarite, limestone, coquina and chalk and would also produce changes in ocean chemistry, as organisms removed dissolved materials such as silica and calcium and used it for themselves.

Second, animals produce faeces, which have important effects on the way that nutrients are distributed around the globe. For example, in the ocean, zooplankton faecal pellets sink more rapidly than individual algal or bacterial cells, and thus transport organic matter from the surface to the seabed. Today, the faeces of sperm whales bring iron from the deep sea to the ocean surface; the faeces of birds like cormorants transport nutrients from the ocean onto land, sometimes in fantastic quantities.
Highly recommended for anyone interested in science.


I thought once everybody could speak freely and exchange information and ideas, the world is automatically going to be a better place. I was wrong about that.

–Evan Williams, co-found of Twitter

The Dangers of Reading in Bed

Fun article by Nika Mavrody at the Atlantic on our ancestors' obsession with the literal and metaphorical dangers of reading in bed. The literal danger was falling asleep with a candle on and burning the house down:
Lord Walsingham’s servants found him in bed one morning in 1831, burnt to a crisp. . . . His wife also suffered a tragic end: Jumping out of the window to escape the fire, she tumbled to her death.

The Family Monitor assigned Lord Walsingham a trendy death. He must have fallen asleep reading in bed, its editors concluded, a notorious practice that was practically synonymous with death-by-fire because it required candles. The incident became a cautionary tale. Readers were urged not to tempt God by sporting with “the most awful danger and calamity”—the flagrant vice of bringing a book to bed. Instead, they were instructed to close the day “in prayer, to be preserved from bodily danger and evil.” The editorial takes reading in bed for a moral failing, a common view of the period.
The metaphorical danger was less gruesome but perhaps more interesting. Moralists distrusted reading in bed and regularly preached against it:
People feared that solitary reading and sleeping fostered a private, fantasy life that would threaten the collective—especially among women. The solitary sleeper falls asleep at night absorbed in fantasies of another world, a place she only knows from books. During the day, the lure of imaginative fiction might draw a woman under the covers to read, compromising her social obligations.
Who knew what a woman alone in bed with a book might be thinking or doing?

As Mavrody explains, this connects to a whole range of social and cultural changes: the spread of literacy and cheaply printed books, the rise of the novel, architectural changes that made the bedchamber a more private place, and the Romantic fascination with the imagination, especially the imagination of one person alone.

All Gone

New Orleans has finished removing the four Confederate statues targeted by the city government. Protests and publicity did not deter them. That's Robert E. Lee above, the last to go. They did this one in daylight, having decided that the protesters were no real threat. Nighttime removals of Beauregard and Davis below.

The anti-removal forces weren't the only ones out on the streets; below is an image of the march organized by the pro-removal folks:

Friday, May 19, 2017

Casting a Fire Ant Colony

Amazing Youtube video of a guy making a cast of an ant colony with molten aluminum. The soil seems disturbed and loose, but lots of soil is like that, and this looks pretty legitimate to me. Besides which it seems like the best way to make that cast. So, very cool. And important for archaeologists to see how much disturbance ants cause 18 inches (45 cm) under ground. (And another one here.)


Portrait bust of the depraved (or so they said) emperor Gaius, better known to us as Caligula. This was fished out of the Tiber river, which is interesting because our sources tell us that after Caligula was assassinated in 41 CE, portraits of him were thrown into the river. On the other hand the museum dates it to around 100 CE. That could explain why the emperor looks just the way you would imagine him from Suetonius' account, written in the early second century. This is identified as Caligula partly by the depressed temples, the most salient feature of his physiognomy. This bust is in the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen.

The $110 Million Basquiat

An untitled Jean-Michel Basquiat painting from 1982, just sold at auction for $110.5 million. That makes it one of only 11 paintings to have sold for more than $100 million and the most expensive work ever by an American artist. The buyer was Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa.

I think Basquiat is kind of interesting, and his success doesn't enrage me like that of, say, Jeff Koons. But it seems obvious to me that the paintings are secondary, and what really matters is the story. Basquiat was the Brooklyn-born son of Haitian and Puerto Rican immigrants, a precocious child who dazzled his elementary school teachers with ten-second drawings, a graffiti artist discovered sleeping on the street and made into an overnight art world star before his death from an overdose at 27. He came out of the 70s ferment that also birthed hip-hop culture, a world that fused elite critiques of Eurocentric capitalism with street rage, outside-the-lines creativity, an intense obsession with cool, and a willingness to steal ("sampling" in music, collages in art) anything the artist found useful. He was a graffiti artist partly because it was illegal, and to get attention in that milieu you had to break rules and take risks. The risks he took killed him, but not before they made him famous. It feels more like a parable than a real biography. Big money art buyers, I think, are really after a piece of that parable, a memory of the cool rage era from which Basquiat sprang.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Now That's a Hat

Coin of Demetrios I, a Hellenistic ruler, found in Afghanistan. Dated to 200-190 BCE. Via Dido of Carthage.

Foundations Laid in Human Sacrifice

Korean archaeologists have reported finding two skeletons dating from the 5th century CE under the walls of the Wolseong, or Moon Castle, in Gyeongju in South Korea, the capital of the former Silla kingdom. They appear to be victims of human sacrifice. According to the press release, such foundation sacrifices are widely attested in Korean folklore, but this is the first archaeological evidence.

It fascinates me that stories about this practice are so widespread. It is said to have been done for the walls of Copenhagen and the temples of the Maya, for Stonehenge and Great Zimbabwe, for the Kremlin in Moscow and the dikes of Holland. Strasbourg Cathedral is supposed to have required the sacrifice of two brothers, Cologne Cathedral seven sisters. For the Aztec such numbers would have been pathetically inadequate; their great temple was supported by the sacrifice of at least 10,000 victims. In Japan it was called Hitobashira (人柱 ), the human pillar.

A sacrificial victim was found under the walls of Gezer in Palestine, one of the most ancient stone cities, and another at Megiddo where the great battle of Armageddon was prophesied to be fought. The archaeologists who found these burials were not surprised, because several such sacrifices are described in the Bible. After he destroyed the city, Joshua said, "Cursed be the man that riseth up before the Lord and buildeth the city of Jericho; he shall lay the foundation thereof in his firstborn, and set up the gates in his youngest son." A little further on the story tells us that the man who rebuilt the city did did exactly that, sacrificing his eldest and youngest sons to make the city safe from God's wrath. When the walls of Megiddo were rebuilt in Byzantine times the builders included several small silver statues of men within the masonry, a distant echo of the original practice.

Nor was this limited to people who built in stone; Northwest Coast Indians were said to have buried a slave beneath the center post of every great house, and the Maori of New Zealand had a saying that every building of importance stands on a sacrifice.

In both Europe and Japan (at least) many buildings are said to be haunted by the ghosts of these victims. The brothers Grimm collected such a story about the castle of Höxter. Maruoka Castle in Japan is haunted by the ghost of the one-eyed woman who was sacrificed to made the castle endure.

Why? The most common explanation given by old-school anthropologists was that every place belongs to some spirit that dwells there, and which must be appeased by a gift to allow any building to take place. Thus traditional Bedouin used to pour a little sheep's blood on the ground before erecting a tent, saying, "Permission, O possessor of this place."

I wonder if it might have something to do with the ancient habit of building temples or sanctuaries around the graves of leaders, which might have made foundation on a grave seem natural.

At any rate these stories are amazingly widespread and common, and archaeology provides evidence that they rest on a real and grim history.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

What's Happening?

I wonder what the future holds for America.

My gut tells me just more of the same: scandal, furor, hand-wringing, triangulation. I read more stories every day noting the cracks in Trump's support among Republican leaders and beating the drums for impeachment. But I can't see it. Trump's core supporters only feel confirmed in their faith, as their hero weathers assaults from liberals, the mainstream media, and the permanent security state. Polls show that 84% of Republicans think he is doing a good job. Republican politicians long ago made the calculation that they can't win without Trump's voters, so their best course is to pretend loyalty to him and keep using those votes. I don't think the math has changed. Some liberals fantasize about a revelation so awful that even hardcore Republicans will have to turn against Trump, but I find that implausible. People forget that only a minority of Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee voted to impeach Nixon, and that a majority of Republican voters never abandoned him. Since then partisanship has only gotten more intense; Trump was not far from wrong when he said that he could commit murder in broad daylight and still keep his core followers.

Plus many Democrats have made the calculation that a scandal-plagued Trump is likely to get a lot less legislation passed than a newly promoted Mike Pence, so they see no reason to stick their necks out on getting rid of him.

So I think impeachment is highly unlikely, a 25th Amendment removal even more so. My best guess is that the Washington of the past three months is the new normal.

The Labour Manifesto

Under Jeremy Corbin, Britain's Labour Party is running under what the press is calling the most left-wing platform in thirty years. You can read their whole manifesto here.


  • Infrastructure investments, including new rail lines, electrification of existing lines, better insulation for 4 million government-owned  homes, broadband internet, and better mobile phone coverage
  • Higher taxes on the top 5% of earners: the burden would start to rise on earnings of more than £80,000 pounds (about $103,000), which would be taxed at 45%; earnings of more than  £123,000 would pay 50%. 
  • Higher corporate taxes: the basic corporate tax rate would rise from 19 percent to 26 percent, plus there  would be a “fat cat” tax that companies would pay on high salaries, 2.5% for £330,000 to £500,000, 5% on those above £500,000.
  • Re-nationalization of privatized industries, including rail lines, water services, and the Royal Mail.
  • An extra £30 billion for the National Health Service
  • Labor market reforms, including raising the minimum  wage to £10/hour ($12.88), a ban on unpaid internships and a requirement that all part-time employees be guaranteed a certain number of hours per week.

I thought is was really interesting that even the most left-wing major party manifesto in a generation says this:
Labour understands that the creation of wealth is a collective endeavour between workers, entrepreneurs, investors, and government.
As in America, rhetoric about socialism vs. raw capitalism masks arguments over raising or cutting taxes by 5% or 10% We truly live in a neoliberal age.

The Galloway Hoard Valued at £1.98 Million

I have written twice before about what is now being called the Galloway Hoard, a Viking treasure found by a metal detectorist back in 2014. Part of it was in this Carolingian pot. At first the pot couldn't be opened, so it was CAT scanned to find out what was in it, but then eventually the thing was opened; I've never been able to find out how.

The whole treasure has now been cleaned and conserved, yielding these amazing pictures.

The hoard is in the news today because a Scottish court valued it at £1.98 Million (about $2.5 million) and allowed the National Museums of Scotland six months to raise the money. (Gold pin)

This irritated some locals in Dumfries and Galloway who wanted the hoard in a local museum, but the court held that the find is of "international significance," which means giving preference to a museum of international standing. (Two brooches. Note the faces on the one above)

Stamp-decorated bracelets from Ireland.

Glass beads from Scandinavia. More at The History Blog.