Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Morning on the Potomac

Dawn on the river.

Chimney from an old cabin, likely built in the 1910s.

The dark tower.

Actually that was an old concrete flood gauge, seen more clearly from this angle.

Das Rheingold in Beijing

I spent a good part of Saturday afternoon listening to this production of Wagner's Das Rheingold at the China National Opera House in September 2016. The singing is quite good, but it was really the staging that grabbed me. No stripped down modernism here; this is a folkloric production that mingles European myth with Chinese elements. Sadly there are no subtitles, and I suppose if there were they would be in Chinese anyway. Here are the Rhine Maidens, looking very Chinese.

The dwarf Alberich, who starts the plot by stealing the Rhine Maidens' golden treasure. To do this he has to renounce love, which he does because the Rhine Maidens keep teasing and then rejecting him.

Fricka, Wotan's wife.


The giants. They have built Valhalla for Wotan according to the terms of their contract, and now they have come to collect their payment: the goddess Freya.

Freya clings to her brother Froh, who is dressed as the perfect Chinese prince.

Donner, the god known to the Norse as Thor. He wants to drive off the giants with force, but Wotan stops him, saying that he gave his divine word and breaking it will lead to BAD THINGS.

Loge (Loki), god of fire, who has a clever plan to solve the dilemma: steal the Rhine Maiden's treasure from Alberich and give that to the giants instead.

Mime, Alberich's brother, whom Alberich has enslaved using the power of a mighty ring found in the treasure.

Loge and Wotan get Mime to explain the situation in Nibelheim.

Mime has forged for Alberich a helm called Tarnhelm that allows him to become invisible or assume any shape. Loge and Wotan feign disbelief and get Alberich to demonstrate Tarnhelm's power. First he becomes a dragon. The gods says, that's cool, can you also make yourself smaller?

Alberich assumes the form of a today, and Loge and Wotan capture him.

First the gods demand the gold, which Alberich's slaves, the Niebelungs, deliver. Then they demand the Tarnhelm, and finally the ring of power. After much woeful singing Alberich finally gives up the ring, but he curses it, saying it will bring its bearer only ruin.

The climactic scene: the gods pay the gold to the giants to obtain Freya's release.

But Wotan does not want to give up the ring. The struggle over giving up the ring does not, so far as I know, appear in any traditional source, so this must be where Tolkien got the idea for his ring scenes.

Then the goddess Erda appears and prophesies that if Wotan keeps the ring, it will doom him. She then hints that she has seen many other bad things, but she refuses to give details. Wotan relents and surrenders the ring. The giants immediately fall to fighting over it, and one kills the other. The survivor departs with the treasure.

The conclusion: the gods sing in front of their new home.

Is Mayim Bialik Blaming Victims or Empowering Women?

I am curious how my readers feel about Mayim Bialik's op-ed on the Harvey Weinstein matter:
I always made conservative choices as a young actress, largely informed by my first-generation American parents who were highly skeptical of this industry in general — “This business will use you up and throw you away like a snotty tissue!”— and of its men in particular: “They only want one thing.” My mom didn’t let me wear makeup or get manicures. She encouraged me to be myself in audition rooms, and I followed my mother’s strong example to not put up with anyone calling me “baby” or demanding hugs on set. I was always aware that I was out of step with the expected norm for girls and women in Hollywood. . . .

I still make choices every day as a 41-year-old actress that I think of as self-protecting and wise. I have decided that my sexual self is best reserved for private situations with those I am most intimate with. I dress modestly. I don’t act flirtatiously with men as a policy.

I am entirely aware that these types of choices might feel oppressive to many young feminists. Women should be able to wear whatever they want. They should be able to flirt however they want with whomever they want. Why are we the ones who have to police our behavior?

In a perfect world, women should be free to act however they want. But our world isn’t perfect. Nothing — absolutely nothing — excuses men for assaulting or abusing women. But we can’t be naïve about the culture we live in.
Bialik's general idea seems to be that while sexual harassment is bad and sexual assault unforgivable, actresses who trade on their beauty are in some sense participating in this culture by objectifying themselves. If you expect to get ahead by displaying your body to filmgoers and flirting with producers, why are you surprised that some of them want to go farther than you do?

It's an old argument, of course, which is why I bring it up. I have long had trouble over how to feel about it. If you say to a girl leaving for college, "don't drink around men, don't have them in your room, don't dress too sexy and don't flirt with strangers," is that sound advice or (proactive) victim blaming? Where is the line between pointing out what the world is like and using the threat of that reality to control women? Can you be really disgusted by the men involved and still think that some of the women are foolish? Or does even a glance at the way women dress or act put you on the side of those jurors who think promiscuous women can't be raped, because they are just asking for it? Or on the side of the rapists?

Or is blaming everything on the man, and implying that the woman has no part, a radical sort of disempowerment for women?

So, anyway, what do y'all think?

Monday, October 16, 2017

Dina Brodsky's Sketchbook

 Wouldn't it be nice to be able to travel around the world and record what you saw like this?


And here is one finished drawing from her series The Secret Life of Trees.


The news has me thinking about Napoleon again.

Harvey Weinstein is just the latest Great Man to be exposed as a complete and utter toad: a rapist, a bully, an appalling hypocrite. As with many others, the thing that baffles me most about the story is the way his underlings stayed loyal to him through all of it, helping him hatch his sexual schemes, putting up with his abusive bullying.

To me the most disturbing thing about my species is the way so many long to become the followers of Great Leaders. A typical Great Leader, so far as I can tell, is a complete narcissist who has no regard for anyone else whatsoever. And yet millions are perfectly happy to serve such men, giving them loyalty in return for disdain. Their very selfishness is inspirational to some followers.

Why are Trump rallies full of small businessmen who must know that Trump has made a habit of stiffing people just like them? Women who know how he talks about women? People smart enough to know that he is a dangerously unstable liar?

The answers are surely complex, but I suggest that one part is the thrill of submitting to the Great Man's dominance, of being swept along in the wake of a great ship going somewhere exciting and grand. The supreme confidence of the narcissist who cannot even recognize when he has been wrong is irresistible to far too many humans.

Judged by either our norms or those of their own societies, a great many of the most famous people in history have been insane. Their ability to transcend the limits that bind ordinary people is part of their appeal: unlike the rest of us, they can ignore the truth in front of their noses, deny with straight faces that they have any flaws or have ever made mistakes, lie without compunction, believe that their grand and crazy schemes will come to pass. And the sick thing is, sometimes it works.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Noble Women of Iron Age Siberia

Recent excavations in the Republic of Tuva, a part of Siberia adjacent to Mongolia, uncovered the graves of several noble women dating to the 1st to 2nd centuries BCE.

The setting.

The most elaborate items were belt buckles; this one is made of coal, carved with designs that resemble Scythian art.

Bronze buckles in situ.


One of the women's costumes was decorated with these flames on the shoulders.

These people were heavily influenced by Chinese civilization; the dating comes from Han Dynasty bronze mirrors. More at the Siberian Times.

Today's Observation

Victimhood culture is “contagious.” Studies have shown that when one group is accused of causing harm to others, members of the accused group become more inclined to feel that their group is being discriminated against.

– Clay Routledge

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Jacques-Émile Blanche and the Paris Avant Garde

Jacques-Émile Blanche (1861-1942) was a French painter whose father was a successful psychiatrist in Paris, therapist to many of the artistic and financial elite. Raised around money and talent, Blanche became the friend of many famous people: John Singer Sargent sketched his portrait, Manet encouraged his early artistic efforts, Gertrude Stein put him in a book. Once he became a painter, he did some of their portraits. This one is just titled, Portrait of a Woman of the World. I put this first so you can see how talented he was before we move onto some other works that are pretty strange.

Marcel Proust at 21, in 1892. Proust loved this painting and it hung in his home until his death.

Aubrey Beardsley, 1894.

James Joyce.

Princesse Jean de Broglie, 1912-1914.

Jean Cocteau, who looks absolutely nothing like the way I imagined him.

Désirée Manfred, 1903

Percy Grainger, 1906.

Gilda Darthy, 1905-1910

Henry James, 1908

Aldous Huxley, 1935.

Detroit's Can-Do Mayor

George Will is out with another columns about a successful, non-ideological local politician, in this case Mayor Mike Duggan of Detroit:
With biblical succinctness, and foreshadowing a resurrection, Mike Duggan said, "Let there be light!" and 65,000 LED streetlights replaced the 40 percent of the city's streetlights that were broken when he took office in 2014. They are among the many reasons that on Nov. 7 he, the first white mayor here in 40 years, will win a landslide re-election in a city that is 83 percent black. Identity politics is frivolous; Detroit, after a bruising rendezvous with reality, is serious about recovering from its near-death experience.

In Duggan, Detroit has found its Fiorello La Guardia -- a short, stocky, cheerful, plainspoken incarnation of his city. In 1983, when Duggan returned, fresh from the University of Michigan Law School, "there was nobody my age on the streets." The Houston Chronicle was being sold at a busy intersection to unemployed autoworkers scanning the classifieds for Texas jobs. In 1950, Detroit was comparable to, and perhaps richer (by per capita income) than, Chicago. Soon, however, it was bleeding population, heading for bankruptcy as Greece on the Great Lakes, a dystopia plagued by de-industrialization, soaring crime, packs of feral dogs and a political class featuring incompetents leavened by felons.

Duggan, a Democrat in a city with nonpartisan elections, won in 2013 as a write-in candidate, telling voters, "You invite me to your home, I show up." Hundreds of house parties later, he was custodian of a prostrate city that had shed 260,000 residents in 13 years. Its 143 square miles could hold San Francisco, Boston and Manhattan with room to spare. By 2000, cattle could have been grazed in vast post-urban swaths. In 1950, the city had been home to 1.8 million; by 2013, it held two-thirds fewer. In the stampede away, many people abandoned their houses to the Midwestern elements. Most mayors brag about building; Duggan does, too, but also about demolishing -- 12,000 abandoned structures since 2014. His "board-up brigades" -- this is distinctively Detroit -- will seal off 11,000 and demolish 9,000 within two years. Says Duggan: "Tear down the burned-out houses, people will buy the others."

Police and EMS response times have been drastically reduced; 275 parks are fully maintained, up from 25 four years ago, when the grass was sometimes taller than the 8-year-olds. Such granular attention to the small stuff is having a huge payoff: Residential utility hookups are increasing. For the first time in his 59 years, the city is expected to grow. 
Other national news outlets have run positive stories about Duggan, including Politico, which wrote:
The low expectations of a beaten-down city and massive room to improve have unquestionably helped. “The great majority of Detroiters understand that we’re not going to be able to have a full recovery in every neighborhood at once, but most seem to feel that the pace of change is going in the right direction,” Duggan said. “And of course, nobody’s offered a solution to, OK, I’ve got 20,000 more Detroiters working than four years ago. What was your plan that would have done more than that? And I think the lack of an alternative is a big part of the support.”
Politico notes that Duggan's first initiative, replacing all of the city's broken street lights, was something of a stunt, but it was a stunt that the city's residents appreciated. Poltico goes on to explain that while Duggan is popular with some residents, he is far from loved, and Coleman Young II (son of the long-time former mayor) got nearly a third of the vote in the first round of balloting this year with no campaign to speak of. And while Duggan has made progress on many fronts, he has not dented the city's two biggest problems: violent crime and the dismal schools.

Bridge Magazine has a round-up of how Duggan is doing at keeping his promises here.

As I have noted before, what Will praises in Duggan is what one big faction of Americans wants from their government: not ideological wrangling, just a no-nonsense approach to fixing problems. I suspect the Republicans who have turned against Trump belong the this faction. Some people are impressed by rhetoric and gestures and focusing attention on issues they care about, but others want results they can see.

The Working Class

From a long, sad Times account of a female steelworker's life in Indiana, I extract the following tidbits:
Being a female steelworker hadn’t been easy. But she’d learned to hold her own. If a man spread a false rumor that he’d slept with her, she spread a false rumor right back that he’d been terrible in bed. If a woman wanted to fight, she learned to say “this is a place of business” instead of brawling then and there.

Shannon worked second shift — 2 p.m. to 10 p.m. — which made it difficult for her to get custody of her daughter or keep her son in check during his teenage years.

*   *   *

Besides, Shannon hadn’t been raised to pay much attention to rules about what a woman should or shouldn’t do. Her own mother drank Wild Turkey and brawled with neighbors. Shannon’s parents married when they were teenagers. Her father got a union job at Wonder Bread. He expected his uniform ironed and his eggs cooked over easy every morning. Shannon’s mother, who kept breaking the yolks, once turned a plate over on his head.

Eventually, her parents divorced and her mother got a job cleaning hotel rooms. She made ends meet with food stamps, and drove a blue Ford Zephyr with no muffler or driver’s side window. She thought she got lucky when she married a truck driver who lived in a trailer near theirs. He moved them to a real house in a quiet town where Shannon became a cheerleader and got interested in school.

But then the truck driver started sneaking into Shannon’s bedroom at night. He went to prison. Without his paycheck, they lost the house.
Of her first husband:
But Dan was domineering and had a violent temper. Once, he grabbed her by the throat and banged her head against the floor, according to court records in a trial where he was found guilty of battery. Another time, he threw her car keys into a freezing ravine. After their daughter was born, Dan didn’t want Shannon working, especially at a factory full of men.

The first night Shannon came home from work, Dan threw her belongings into the yard. For years, they had a tumultuous relationship, accusing each other of battery, according to court records.

Her job became her liberator. She worked her way up from a janitor to a heat treat operator, earning $25 an hour. With money like that, she wasn’t going to let anybody drive her away from it.
Since we've been having good conversations about big, hard questions this week, how about this one: why is the modern working class like this? Why so little family stability, so much violence, so little religion, so much alcohol and drugs?

The working class hasn't always been like that. Working class communities in Britain once (1890 to 1960 or so) had rates of violent crime that bordered on zero. In the US, factory communities once had higher marriage rates than either the middle class or farmers.

There is only one explanation I am aware of that gets attention from people of different political stripes: the intersection of 1960s personal liberation with the economic insecurity of working class life. That is, casting off all our inherited limits on behavior might work out ok for people with the money, brains and education to find their own paths, but many people always depended on rigid social rules to keep their lives going right. Without those rules, they flounder, or (like Shannon) find that their factory jobs become the only real source of stability in their lives; given the high instability of working class employment in most epochs, this is a recipe for repeated disasters.

One argument is favor of this view is that in the US, conversion to Mormonism is the most effective anti-poverty program sociologists have ever identified. What helps many struggling poor people most is a community that enforces rigid behavioral rules and sets high standards for decency. I have not seen comparable numbers, but I believe that Baptist church and the Black Muslims have played the same role in black communities. This probably explains the social success of factory communities in Edwardian Britain, where the Methodist Church and the Trade Union movement both provided lots of structure.

There is also a liberal solution, which amounts to moving everyone into the middle class through education. And it does work for people who can do it; it is your own level of education, not your parents', that has such a big influence on whether you marry or divorce or go to prison. But we are hitting limits on this approach; these days pushing more 18-year-olds into college mainly seems to increase the number who drop out, burdened with debts. I am personally not convinced that any amount of money spent on either high schools or colleges will do much to increase the level of real education in our society.

Since recommending that other people join churches I don't believe in seems hypocritical to me, I am left with no solution at all. It is very hard to help people whose lives and attitudes are fundamentally at odds with our highly regimented, tightly controlled work places – indeed our highly regimented, tightly controlled middle class world. And it is very hard to change people's basic attitudes and general approach to life.

Friday, October 13, 2017

The Inner Ring

David Brooks recommends Alan Jacobs’s forthcoming book How to Think:
Jacobs makes good use of C. S. Lewis’s concept of the Inner Ring. In every setting — a school, a company or a society — there is an official hierarchy. But there may also be a separate prestige hierarchy, where the cool kids are. They are the Inner Ring.

There are always going to be people who desperately want to get into the Inner Ring and will cut all sorts of intellectual corners to be accepted. As Lewis put it, “The passion for the Inner Ring is most skillful in making a man who is not yet a very bad man do very bad things.”

People will, for example, identify and attack what Jacobs calls the Repugnant Cultural Other — the group that is opposed to the Inner Ring, which must be assaulted to establish membership in it.

Other people will resent the Inner Ring, and they will cut all sorts of intellectual corners in order to show their resentment. These people are quick to use combat metaphors when they talk about thinking (he shot down my argument, your claims are indefensible). These people will adopt shared vague slurs like “cuckservative” or “whitesplaining” that signal to the others in the outsider groups that they are attacking the ring, even though these slurs are usually impediments to thought.

Jacobs notices that when somebody uses “in other words” to summarize another’s argument, what follows is almost invariably a ridiculous caricature of that argument, in order to win favor with the team. David Foster Wallace once called such people Snoots. Their motto is, “We Are the Few, the Proud, the More or Less Constantly Appalled at Everyone Else.”
We are not especially well programmed by our genes for thinking clearly. We are programmed to make friends and form coalitions that will do battle with opposing coalitions; by nature we are more like chimpanzees or meerkats than ideal philosophers.

Thought for the Day

The monetization and manipulation of information is swiftly tearing us apart.

– Pierre Omidyar

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Albert Bierstadt

Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902) was for a time the most famous and highly paid artist of the American west. His romantically-tinged paintings of the Rockies, the Sierras, and the Indians gave many easterners their first views of the west's wonders. (In the Sierra Nevada, 1868)

Bierstadt was born in Solingen, Prussia but his parents came to America before his second birthday, and he grew up in New Bedford, Massachusetts. As a child he loved to draw and delighted grown-ups with clever sketches and caricatures. When he was about twenty he began to paint in oils. (California Sunset, undated)

In 1853 he returned to Germany and sought out his first training in art. He spent four years in Düsseldorf, hanging out with a circle of other artists, with side trips to Switzerland to paint the mountain scenery. Staubbach Falls near Lauterbrunnen, Switzerland, 1865.

In 1857 he was back in America, but not to stay on the east coast. He itched to reach America's mountains. In 1859 he joined a government surveying expedition headed by Frederick Lander and was soon slogging across the Nebraska Territory toward the Wind River Range. Bierstadt did not execute finished paintings on his travels; instead he filled sketchbooks with drawings like this one and made a few small, quick oil studies.

Here is one of the most famous examples of Bierstadt's technique. He sketched this mountain in 1859 during his first western expedition and named it Lander's Peak after his boss. The finished painting was executed back home in 1863 — Bierstadt was drafted into the army but hired a substitute — and exhibited in Boston to great acclaim. This is a huge painting, more than ten feet across (73 1/2 x 120 3/4 in., 186.7 x 306.7 cm), still very striking to see. (It's in the Met.) In 1865 it was sold for the then astronomical sum of $25,000.

On later trips Bierstadt explored Yellowstone,


and the Sierras.

In 1876 his wife was diagnosed with tuberculosis, and for the next decade Bierstadt spent a lot of time in the Caribbean.

I'm also quite impressed with Bierstadt's painting and drawings of Indians. The degree of sentimentality was a lot less in 1859 than it would be a few decades later, so Bierstadt's paintings of this era show Indians as people rather than tragic avatars of a dying way of life.

But by 1888 Bierstadt was painting scenes like this, titled The Last Buffalo. That was just how things went across that fateful thirty years.

I could look at these for hours.