Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Un-Gerrymandering Pennsylvania

The Pennsylvania state supreme court ruled a month ago that the Congressional district map dreamed up by Republican state legislators was unfair and illegal. Since the legislature has not gotten around to making a map that would satisfy the court's demands, they court made its own map, above. Below is the previous map. CNN calculates that this will have a small effect on the election, perhaps helping the Democrats win one or two additional seats.

The Wage Gap is about Motherhood

In Denmark, at least. The data from a big new Danish survey:

Women who don't have children  continue on the same trajectory as men, and in fact earn a little more, I suppose because many women who don't have children are highly educated and/or strong careerists. But women who have children fall off that trajectory and never climb back. More detailed data shows that mothers work fewer hours than men or women without children, more of them leave the work force, and they get lower pay, and the sum of all these is the decline you see in the chart.

Via Kevin Drum.

Legal Pot Sellers Hate the Black Market

LA Times:
Six weeks after the state began licensing marijuana farming and sales, officials have received a flood of complaints about illegal pot operations and demands for a start to tough enforcement.

Many of the 304 complaints received in recent weeks are from newly licensed businesses that say they are being harmed financially by the continuing illegal market. . . .

"We really need enforcement in California given that the local licensees are really having to fight against the black market," Stephanie Hopper, a representative of the firm Canndescent, which grows and sells marijuana in California, told the panel.
So much for saving a lot of money in policing.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Gore Vidal, "Burr"

I wasn't sure how I would react to this book. Gore Vidal is a notorious cynic about America, and I was afraid his portrayal of the Founding Fathers would be too hostile for me to enjoy the story. But I loved it. It is cynical, yes, but there is always plenty in politics to be cynical about, and I didn't think Gore's Burr said anything for which a case couldn't be made. At times he is even generous, especially to George Washington as president.

Burr is set in the 1830s, in the years just before Burr's death. There are two narrators. One is a young clerk in Burr's law firm who wants to be a writer and sets out to write Burr's biography. The other is Burr himself, who decides to cooperate with his clerk and ends up narrating much of his life story. The elderly Burr is a terrific character. He is cynical and worldly wise and has many scores to settle, but he also has a sweetness that shows in things like his love of children, his enduring love for his long dead daughter, and the paternal way he helps and advises his clerk. The two biggest problems with the book are, first, the clerk, who bored me, and second a disconnect between Burr the elderly memoirist and Burr the young, ambitious politician. The older Burr is so sane, so wise, that it is hard to imagine him engaging in the savage political battles that marked the younger Burr's life. I could not imagine that he ever tried to conquer Mexico, or shot Alexander Hamilton.

That aside, the book is a delight. I will probably never again be able to imagine any of the Revolutionary leaders without hearing Vidal's descriptions of them. Here Burr meets Thomas Jefferson in 1791:
A rather large limp hand touched mine. I am not usually conscious of height but with Jefferson I always felt in danger of a crick in the neck as he obliged me — obliged everyone except those few who were at his eye level — to look up into that freckled fox face with the bright hazel eyes, and delicate thin-lipped smile.

"Colonel Burr, what an honour!" The voice was low but beguiling, particularly when he slipped into one of his reveries and words would flow beautifully, inexhaustibly, sometimes interminable, yet never entirely without interest for one always found good things even has he found them in that fine speculative torrent. He was the most charming man I have ever known, as well as the most deceitful.
Besides the writing, the most impressive thing to me was the way this 1973 book anticipated the whole direction of American history since then. Race and slavery loom in the background, and there is a whole section on Sally Hemmings and her descendants. The yellow fever epidemics of the 1790s are described in several scenes; these were completely omitted from my own education but my children all read a whole book about them in the 6th grade. Vidal does not portray eighteenth-century men as contemporaries in outlandish clothes, but makes an effort at what one might call historical ethnography, putting them in their own culture with its own assumptions.

If you like novels and American history, read it.

Can the Enlightenment Stand Alone?

Interesting comment from Tyler Cowen, in reference to Stephen Pinker's new book about the Enlightenment:
I believe there is a certain amount of irreducible “irrationality” (not my preferred term, but borrowing Pinker's schema for a moment) in people, and it has to be “put somewhere,” into some doctrine or belief system. That is what makes the whole bundle sustainable. It also means that a move toward greater “Enlightenment” is never without its problematic side, and that a “Counterenlightenment” can be more progressive than it might at first appear. In contrast, I read Pinker as believing that Enlightenment simply can beat ignorance more and more over time.
This is a common idea: that the decline of religion does not mean the decline of irrationality, but a shift of our irrational attachments from the church to the nation, the party, or even the local football team. Cowen's take seems to be that the success of science and democracy in the modern world was possible only because anti-Enlightenment ideas and institutions continued alongside it.

I suspect this is true. I get excited about science, democracy, and human rights and don't need anything else to keep my loyalty, but this does not seem to be true for most humans. The great danger of the post-Enlightenment world has been that with tradition banished our irrational attachments will become truly monstrous – Nazism, communism – leading to worlds worse that what the Enlightenment was supposed to free us from. In practice resistance to totalitarianism is always rooted as much in anti-Enlightenment ideas such as nationalism, love of tradition, religion, or plain cussedness as in devotion to freedom and human rights. We are creatures of emotion, and our politics must always be based there.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

The Good News about America

Barack Obama:
What’s remarkable is the way ‘nerd’ is such a badge of honor now. Growing up, I’m sure, I wasn’t the only kid who read Spider-Man comics and learned how to do the Vulcan salute, but it wasn’t like it is today. I think America’s a nerdier country than it was when I was a kid — and that’s a good thing!

Portsmouth in Gray

Spent some time Friday afternoon exploring Portsmouth, New Hampshire on an iron gray winter afternoon. St. John's Episcopal Church, 1807, viewed from my parking spot.

Crypts in the cemetery wall.

Street views.

One of the greatest bourgeois-bohemian firm names, Whole Wealth Management.

The old town has an amazing number of colonial houses, so many that some are decaying from want of attention. Here is one of the best-maintained, the Tobias Langdon House, 1710.

Lych gate to a little cemetery by the water.

Cemetery views.

Wentworth-Gardner House, 1760, said by some aesthete or another to be the most perfect Georgian house in America.

Tobias Lear House, c. 1750.

View across the Piscataqua River to the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard.

The old Naval prison, built to house prisoners in the Spanish-American War, abandoned since 1974.

Sherburne House, 1695.

It was a splendid walk despite the clouds and the chill.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Existential Iliad

I have an idiosyncratic take on Book 9 of the Iliad. The Iliad is the story of Achilles is the great warrior on the Greek side in the Trojan War. He gets mad at some slight, and he goes back to his tent to sulk, and the Greeks start losing.

So then they send emissaries to his tent to say, “Please come back.” And he says, “No.” Then, the Greeks start losing some more.

Eventually, he comes back, and he gets killed. That’s basically the story of the Iliad. Book 9 is where they send the emissaries to say, “Please come back,” and he says, “No.”

He gives this speech, this response that is weird, where he says, effectively, “The prophecy is that if I go back to fight here, I will die here. My name will be immortal. If I don’t go back to fight, I’ll go home and live a long life and will be forgotten.” He chooses to go back and be forgotten. Then, later, he changes his mind because his friend gets killed.

I think the existential examination of this Greek warrior and this heroic culture that clearly valorizes heroism and deathless fame and everything, and who is, canonically, the most famous heroic warrior and the one with the most deathless fame, he’s the one who says, “Nah, I’d rather go back and live a long life on my farm.”

The forcing of that choice is the central point of the highest work of Greek art, sort of prefigures a lot of existentialist thought in the future, I think.

Merikins and Southern Rice

New World rice has long been a puzzle. Somehow eighteenth-century planters in the Carolina and Georgia Low Country raised huge crops of it, employing sophisticated systems of canals and dykes to control water flow. It became a staple of Low Country cooking, which most Americans know in the New Orleans version. But who knew how to raise it? Where did the seeds come from? Africans and Africa are the obvious answers, since many American slaves came from rice-growing regions. But this only changes the question to one of plantation sociology; who had the idea to grow wet-paddy rice in Carolina, and how did he convince someone with the necessary resources to make the investment? How was seed brought over? Who was in charge of the early operations? It certainly casts an interesting side light on low country plantation life. The variety of rice grown in the colonial south has lately made a comeback as Gold Rice, now often served by restaurants specializing in Southern food.

It seems that dry-land varieties of rice were also grown in the American, although information on this is very patchy. The one fact everyone agrees on is that Thomas Jefferson obtained a barrel of seed for African upland rice in 1790, grew some himself and sent packages to his horticultural friends; there are histories that make this the origin of all the upland rice raised in the South, although it might just be the only barrel of seed we happen to have a record of. Anyway that variety of rice was lost some time in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century, driven out of African American gardens by cheap commercial rice and changing tastes.

Now, though, botanists think they have found the North American strain of upland rice in an interesting place, growing on hillsides in Trinidad. As to how it got there:
But how did the rice travel to that field in Trinidad? Dr. Shields has a theory.

It begins during the War of 1812, when British soldiers promised land and freedom to a small group of West African slaves along the Eastern Seaboard if they would take up arms against their masters. They did, and each was given 16 acres of undeveloped land in southern Trinidad. They came to be called the Merikins, a Creole rendering of the word American.

One group was the Fourth British Marine Company, from the Georgia Sea Islands. The rice, which Dr. Shields believes can be traced to Jefferson’s barrel of seed, was among the crops the group brought with them to Trinidad.
Not only that, but genetic studies show that this rice did not originate in Africa, but in East Asia; the best guess is that it was transported to West Africa by Spanish or Portuguese sailors in the 16th or 17th century, long enough before 1790 that by then it was thought of as indigenously African.

The many ways the world was tied together by wooden sailing ships never cease to amaze me.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Marriage and Fertility

Total fertility continues to decline in the US. And the reason is pretty clear:
Total fertility rates controlling for marital status have not changed very much over the last 15 years. But with marriage coming later, the share of women at peak childbearing ages (20 to 40) who are married has steadily fallen.
One of the biggest fertility declines across the US is taking place in Utah, because age at first marriage is rising for Mormons just like for other women.

The number of children women say they want is not declining; according to the government's "Social Survey", it has hovered around 2.5 since the 1970s, and right now it is 2.7. But the average women in her 20s today is likely to have only 1.8 children, leaving a gap of 0.9 children per women, the largest ever measured.

I wonder, what does that gap measure? The hard reality of raising children in a two-career world? The physical hardships of older mothers? Or the myriad distractions of life in our 20s that keep people from focusing on marriage until they are too old for a third or even a second child?

Monday, February 12, 2018

Michael Lewis and Steve Bannon

I think Michael Lewis is the greatest writer working in journalism today. In his latest piece for Bloomberg he goes to Washington and ends up watching the State of the Union speech with Steve Bannon. A sample:
Steve Bannon lives in a brick town house on Capitol Hill, a stone’s throw from the Supreme Court. To discourage people from approaching his front door he’s strung a thin rope across the steps. A second door, hidden behind the steps, opens before I even get to it. A trim young man in a neat suit steps out. “I’m Bigz,” he says.

Bigz leads me into a waiting room. It’s sunny outside, but the blinds are drawn tight and the place is gloomy. One wall is decorated with a painting of Hillary Clinton taking cash from some African warlord, another with a poster of a snarling honey badger, the Breitbart News mascot. The tables are stacked, almost like a bookstore, with multiple copies of polemical works mostly aimed at the Clintons. Michael Wolff’s “Fire and Fury,” in which Bannon is quoted as saying that it was treasonous for Trump’s children to have met with the Russians, is nowhere to be seen. Bigz asks me to wait here, beside a pile of anti-Clinton books, while Bannon wraps up a meeting. “You can read a book if you want,” he suggests, gently.

I talk to Bigz instead. Bigz hails from Uganda. A few years ago he ran for Ugandan political office, and was beaten and jailed. When he learned that the Ugandan regime planned to kill him, he sought, and was granted, political asylum in the U.S. In Washington he set out to make a living tending people’s gardens. He’d knocked on Bannon’s door, and Bannon had hired him to clean up the small patches of green in front of his house. Apparently Bannon liked him so much that he brought him inside to -- well, what Bigz does remains unclear to me. The garden’s dead.

Unbuilt Designs for the Lincoln Memorial

Architect John Russell Pope really wanted to design the Lincoln Memorial in Washington. He came up with a bunch of designs, including a pyramid.

A giant altar with perpetual flame.

And more.

But none of these grabbed the design committee, which went for Henry Bacon's Doric temple.

And I find it fascinating to think how things we take for granted might have been different.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Andrew Wyeth: Bleak

In a gray winter, these speak to me. Above, November First.

Over the Hill, 1953

Fence Line, 1967

Winter Corn Fields, 1962

Olson House, 1969

Watch Spark Notes Destroy Shakespeare

Doing a quick online search for the text to the Witches' scene in Macbeth, so I could read it out loud to two of my children, I was taken to the Sparknotes "No Fear Shakespeare" version. This offers both the original and a "Modern Text," which, well, let me show you:
Shakespeare:Thrice the brinded cat hath mewed.

No Fear Shakespeare: The tawny cat has meowed three times.
Something is, um, lacking. More:
Shakespeare: Round about the cauldron go,
In the poisoned entrails throw.

No Fear Shakespeare:Dance around the cauldron and throw in the poisoned entrails.

Shakespeare: Oh well done! I commend your pains,
And every one shall share i' th' gains.

No Fear Shakespeare: Well done! I admire your efforts, and all of you will share the rewards.
Truly we live in  prosaic age.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

James Brunt

James Brunt is a British follower of Andy Goldsworthy, given to making elaborate ephemeral art works out of things he finds in the woods or on the beach. More at This is Colossal.

Wait for It

"Wait for It" by Lin Manuel Miranda, from Hamilton.


Theodosia writes me a letter every day
I'm keeping the bed warm while her husband is away
He's on the British side in Georgia
He's trying to keep the colonies in line
But he can keep all of Georgia
Theodosia, she's mine

Love doesn't discriminate
Between the sinners
And the saints
It takes and it takes and it takes
And we keep loving anyway
We laugh and we cry
And we break
And we make our mistakes
And if there's a reason I'm by her side
When so many have tried
Then I'm willing to wait for it
I'm willing to wait for it

My grandfather was a fire and brimstone preacher
But there are things that the
Homilies and hymns won't teach ya
My mother was a genius
My father commanded respect
When they died they left no instructions
Just a legacy to protect

Death doesn’t discriminate
Between the sinners
And the saints
It takes and it takes and it takes
And we keep living anyway
We rise and we fall
And we break
And we make our mistakes
And if there’s a reason I’m still alive
When everyone who loves me has died
I’m willing to wait for it
I’m willing to wait for it

Friday, February 9, 2018

Marcio Cabral, Cerrado Sunrise.

Brazilian photographer Marcio Cabral won first prize in the International Garden Photographer of the Year contest with this image of a field of Paepalanthus chiquitensis in the Cerrado region. Astonishing.

And I just have to add this, because it so nicely captures the fruitful, homey garden of my imagination: Aberglasney Gardens, Carmarthenshire, Wales, by Nigel McCall.

Mount Kumgang in a Divided Korea

Timed to coincide with the Winter Olympics, the Met is staging a show of paintings and drawings of Mt. Kumgang, a sacred place in traditional Korea. Jason Farago:
The skiing events take place in the Taebaek Mountains, and for centuries before Alpine sports came to this country, pilgrims, artists and tourists trekked to these thickly forested peaks that span the eastern crest of the Korean Peninsula. No mountain in the Taebaek range is more august than Mount Kumgang, also called the “Diamond Mountains”: a stunning expanse of jagged granite peaks and coursing waterfalls, praised by poets and painters, Koreans and foreigners, Buddhists and neo-Confucianists, for more than a millennium.

“I wish that I had been born in Korea,” the 11th-century Chinese poet Su Shi is said to have wept, “so that I could see the Diamond Mountains in person!”

This month’s visitors to Pyeongchang will not be able to see them either. Mount Kumgang, just 90 miles as the crow flies from the Olympic Stadium, lies in North Korea — and, except during the years of Kim Dae-jung’s Sunshine Policy, it has been impossible to travel there from the South (or, indeed, from almost anywhere). The mountains, central to the cultural history of both countries, have become a misty mirage in the South Korean imagination.
This reminds me of what I posted the other day about the Berlin Wall. As a teenager I believed that the division between East and West Germany was permanent, or at least would outlive me, and that those Germans working for unification were foolish dreamers. But already my children had to learn about all that in history class.

So while unification of Korea does not seem close, who knows?

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Rep. Duncan Hunter and the "Bros Caucus"

Politico reports on the troubles of California Republican Congressman Duncan Hunter:
Hunter is also under intense scrutiny by the FBI and federal prosecutors. Federal agents have questioned his former staffers about whether thousands of dollars spent at Washington restaurants were legitimate campaign expenditures. They’ve also inquired about his relationships with several women in Washington, including one who worked in his office.

“He’s enjoyed his time in Washington — probably a little too much,” said one House Republican lawmaker who has known Hunter for years but wants him to retire in order to protect the seat. . . .

Former staffers to Hunter said he and his lawmaker friends — dubbed the "bros caucus” by his aides — would regularly go to the Capitol Hill Club, a Republican hangout, to drink beer, sometimes during the day. Congressional aides have recounted to POLITICO at least two stories of recent official meetings where lawmakers questioned whether Hunter was intoxicated.
Yes, the bros caucus! You knew there had to be one. I mean, there are a lot of bros in the country and they deserve representation, too.

But really the Hunter family is a depressing train wreck: while he was partying in Washington and having affairs with multiple women, including at least one lobbyist, his wife was at home in San Diego with three children, running up more than $100,000 in charges on his campaign credit cards. They had to sell their house to pay that back, and that's just the start of their legal woes. It's a lesson in not being envious of people who seem "successful" from the outside.


Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?

– T.S. Eliot

Orientalism and other Exotica

A collection of paintings I have chanced upon while wandering Tumblr. Many of these are big images worth clicking on. Above, John Singer Sargent, Cashmere, 1908, and detail.

Benjamin Constant, The Favorite of the Emir, 1879.

Theodore Rallis, Veiled Woman, 1880, detail.

Alfred Choubrac, Scheherazade and the Sultan.

José Benlliure Gil, Carnival in Rome, 1881

Arthur Hacker, By the Waters of Babylon, 1888